Heroes without history
Superheroes. Their fluttering capes, unstoppable sense of heroism, and tendency to harbour God-like powers are more often than not plucked from comic book history. Huge franchises featuring the likes of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and The X-Men all took their cues from the pages of classic comics.
Marvel and DC have staked considerable claim in the movie market, but their properties aren't the only superhero source. There are plenty of characters whose adventures have only ever been immortalised in live-action big screen experiences. Here's a rundown of the best.
The Specials (2000)
The movie: AKA Superheroes Day Off. Scripted by James Gunn and directed by Craig Mazin, this little-known flick handles its low budget by forgoing action sequences in favour of a dialogue-driven plot. Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden Church, Jamie Kennedy, Paget Brewster and Judy Greer are part of The Specials, one of the lowest-ranked superhero teams in the world. Unable to secure corporate funding or merchandising deals leaves them stuck without purpose and so, the movie follows them on one of their many days off.
Superhero skills: The whole gamut of typical powers are present here. Shapeshifting, dimension hopping, sensory sensitivity, indestructibility, manipulation of matter...
Paper Man (2009)
The movie: Ryan Reynolds' illustrious superhero career features this little indie flick about a struggling novelist who deals with his shortcomings by talking it out with his imaginary friend. Who's really Reynolds in a Superman-inspired outfit sporting a blinding crop of bleached blonde hair. Jeff Daniels plays the aforementioned scribe, who picks up for the summer and heads to the beach to hash out his book. Along comes his old invisi-buddy, Captain Excellent, always on hand to bring him down a peg or two.
Superhero skills: Not so much skills as hindrances, this Cap is deft at making Richard feel pretty awful about his circumstances. So... mood hoovering seems like an accurate description.
The movie: Approaching superhero lore from an entirely different angle, Special explores the story of a comic book fan Les (Michael Rapaport) whose increased medication intake leads him to believe he's in ownership of genuine superhuman abilities. Throw in a bunch of shady pharmaceutical operatives, a couple of Les' stoner buddies and a neat ending twist and this makes for a creative addition to the genre.
Superhero skills: Floating, telepathy, ability to walk through walls, increased agility... but are they all in his mind, a heady hallucination, or does he harness the power?
The movie: If Batman had taken to the bottle, and abandoned his responsibilities to Gotham we might be left with a character akin to Hancock. Played by Will Smith, this drunk and bumbling superhero wreaks just as much havoc on the city as he prevents, causing officials to write him off. Aside from boozing and kipping on park benches, Hancock does take time to occasionally save lives.
Superhero skills: Hancock's arsenal of talent includes superhuman strength, the ability to fly and a general immunity to damage.
Sky High (2005)
The movie: When mutants come of age they flock to Charles Xavier's academy. In Sky High, youngsters gifted with superhuman powers attend the titular school to hone their abilities under the tutelage of veteran superheroes. Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston star as the parents of Will (Michael Angarano), a freshman student, in an enjoyable twist on the embarrassment of having a parent as a teacher. His scholastic experiences are somewhat different than the norm, as he battles against his equally-impressive peers.
Superhero skills: As expected from an institute chock full of superheroes, there's superhuman strength and invincibility, the ability to take flight, replicate, shapeshift and run at the speed of light. Points to the screenwriting trio, who made one of their students able to change form - into a guinea pig.
The movie: Michael Crawford plays a comic book writer and illustrator so enamoured with his own creation that he crafts a full-size replica of his outfit. Condorman, as his name implies, takes to the skies to battle crime and so his creator Woody Wilkins does the same. Off the Eiffel Tower. Naturally his stunt attracts attention and he becomes entangled in a curious web of espionage. Plus: he convinces a feisty femme to become his sidekick in the process, modeled after another of his characters: Laser Lady.
Superhero skills: Creative engineering skills, which comes in handy when escaping the KGB. And for building his own getaway vehicle - the Condorboat.
The Toxic Avenger (1984)
The movie: From the Troma team comes a gross-out splatter superhero flick unlike any that's come before. Applying a suitably vile twist to the origin metamorphosis, the Toxic Avenger starts life as lowly janitor Melvin Ferd.. who falls into a vat of radioactive waste following a bullying incident. As toxic materials have a habit of doing, they transform him into a mutated version of his former self. Reborn with buckets of ambition to 'clean up' his town, he gets to work... in the most violent, gory way as is (in)humanly possible. Well, this is a Lloyd Kaufman film.
Superhero skills: Ability to cause immediate bowel evacuations on account of his grim physical appearance, along with a superhuman strength and size.
The Incredibles (2004)
The movie: Pixar's brilliant send-up of superhero movies stands tall among its live-action contemporaries. In a world where superheroes have been forced underground, one retired cape-wearer vows to return after a new villain arrives on the scene. Putting a spin of the typical origin tale, Brad Bird's animated homage to comic book archetypes finds Mr. Incredible in a dead-end job while moonlighting on the side as a vigilante crime-fighter. As soon as his wife - formerly Elastigirl - gets involved, the whole family step into their new costumes to take out Syndrome.
Superhero skills: Mr. Incredible boasts superhuman strength and agility, Elastigirl can bend and stretch herself, their son The Dash is a speedster and Violet is gifted with the power of invisibility.
The movie: Written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank. Chronicle is one of a handful of movies to warrant its found footage format, as three teenagers document their experiences after discovering a mysterious artefact underground. If they'd read at least one comic between them, they'd know that bizarre objects that have no place buried in the woods rarely come without side effects. Especially when you climb all over it and make as much physical contact as possible. The teen trio (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan) are affected in life-changing ways, and as expected things spiral out of control as they abuse their newly-found abilities...
Superhero skills: Think Carrie without the blood-soaked prom. The boys possess the power to move objects with their minds - that includes being able to fly.
The movie: Before he stepped out with Spider-Man, Sam Raimi wanted to tackle a comic book hero. Failed attempts to secure gigs on Batman or The Shadow led him to a burst of creativity - and he unleashed his own brand of superhero upon the world. Darkman stars Liam Neeson as scientist Peyton Westlake, who is facially disfigured and left for dead after a tussle with a bunch of thugs. Luckily, his research into synthetic skin for acid-burn victims proves key to his survival, and he's able to track down those who tried to kill him... as Darkman.
Superhero skills: Darkman's revitalised research into facial skin masks allows for him to mimic the physical and aural traits of another person. He also undergoes surgery post-accident which gifts him with enhanced strength, allowing easier recovery times after fights, and no longer able to sense pain.
The movie: James Gunn's second superhero caper is a brutal, black comedy that captures the everyday trials and tribulations of what it means to be an everyday savior of humanity. Rainn Wilson is Frank Darbo, who christens himself the Crimson Bolt after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) falls under the spell of local strip club sleazebag Jacques (Kevin Bacon.) With his dapper costume and raring sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page), it's up to Crimson to take down the baddies in his neighborhood once and for all.
Superhero skills: Frank's enthusiasm for justice is his sharpest skill. His others are beating criminals with a pipe wrench and dishing out badass one-liners like "Shut up, crime!"
The movie: From the same creative domain as The Sixth Sense and Signs comes an imaginative take on the superhero origin story. M. Night Shyamalan constructed a standard comic book narrative structure and flipped the typical tropes of the genre on their head. Anchored in the real world. Bruce Willis stars as security guard David Dunn, a regular joe blessed with superhuman abilities. He meets the mysterious comic book dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) whose zealous addiction to comic lore aids Dunn in his quest to fight crime - but there's a sting to this tale.
Superhero skills: Dunn is indestructible - hence the title - and also hones his psychic abilities allowing him to witness the crimes of those he comes into physical contact with.