The superhero genre is a saturated one. With the Avengers going to war this Friday in the Russo Brother’s momentous Avengers: Infinity War, a culmination of 10-years’ worth of MCU films, the battlefield is littered with a myriad of fan-favorite heroes. From the snarky Stark filled pants of Iron Man, to the Russian web of Black Widow, all the way to Wakanda, where Black Panther is still currently shattering box-office records, fans of the genre have their pick of the litter of who’s their favorite.
While there remain a few within the MCU that still don’t have a stand-alone film – though fans may be closer to that hotly debated Black Widow film – there seems to be more than a handful that make everyone’s favorites list stand out just a little bit above the rest.
Yet, it’s easy to forget that behind the decade’s worth of Marvel universe building lay dozens of superhero films that have, for better or worse, paved the road for the current state of superhero fandom. And while the road is long, often treacherous, and filled with dozens of entries that garner more attention than others, we at Set The Tape decided to highlight the superhero films that make up my cinematic universe, all while pointing you in their streaming direction.
Because when everyone is flocking to the theater this weekend, just maybe a few of you would prefer to stay home, and cozy up with five under-appreciated superhero films…
Sure, you won’t be seeing security guard David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis) joining any extended universe any time soon – though it would certainly be something seeing him join, let’s say, The Defenders – his invincibly strong everyman turns M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable into a superhero film for the common folk.
After David becomes the lone survivor of a train crash, he begins to question his place within the world, attracting the attention of a comic-book art dealer named Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), who may hold the key to unlocking David’s ability as a crime fighter. In between the superhero tropes of good verse evil is a family drama that further grounds Unbreakable in its rain-soaked reality that tends to feel more gothic noir than ripped from the pages.
Shyamalan writes David as a flawed and troubled man that feels right at home alongside Scott Lang or Frank Castle, yet the elements of super strength and elemental weakness – a fear of water after a childhood accident – make David more than just your typical crime fighter.
Where to watch: Now TV, Sky Go
Before The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence’s brooding Russian espionage thriller, Red Sparrow, director Francis Lawrence delivered Constantine, a devilishly dark adaptation of the DC Comics Hellblazer graphic novels. Keanu Reeves channels Johnny Utah, trading in badge and board for bastardly beliefs as John Constantine, a chain-smoking suicide case whose damnation to hell finds him exorcising more than just his own demons.
If there were ever a more perfect marriage between character and actor, then I’ll wait, because Reeves embodies the lonesome angst of Constantine with a soul crushing amen, consuming cigarette smoke like fiery brimstone while fighting off both angels and demons. Lawrence envelops the story in a color palette that, for better or worse, looks stuck between heaven and hell, where neon-rich reds and yellows swap intermittingly with a celestially splashed urban jungle.
It’s a look that gives the film a demonic haze, often feeling like a smoke bridled nuclear test site, and when things do heat up, Reeves and his too-cool-for-hell gaze manage to set the whole god-damn place ablaze.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
The Rocketeer (1991)
What better way to celebrate the modern superhero than to go back to where it all began; pre-war 1938! It’s a time where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman busted out of the pages of Action Comics No. 1, paving the way for today’s onslaught of superheroes that manage to draw massive box office numbers. It’s also where director Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) takes us with his first foray into superhero territory, mashing the tommy-gun riddled gangster genre with the adventure-laden superhero film to give us The Rocketeer, an ode to the man-of-steel of yesterday.
Combining period-piece crime drama with the comic book panache of Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer tells the story of Cliff Secord (played by Bill Campbell), a stunt pilot who comes across a rocket pack (stolen from Howard Hughes) that’s sought after by evil movie-star Neville Sinclair (a dashingly villainous Timothy Dalton). One thing leads to the other, and soon Cliff is jetting around the skyline of Los Angeles, battling it out with Nazi SS Officers and monstrous looking thugs that give the film an idiosyncratic gloss.
And amidst the capes and menacing cowls that have come to define what it means to be super in the modern world, The Rocketeer’s steel-plated heroin manages to offer a refreshing vitality to the genre that is often emulated, yet rarely beat.
Where to watch: Disney Life
Blade II (2002)
For fans of horror, it isn’t often that we are able to enjoy both the genre *and* superheroes all at the same time. That’s why when Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos) took over where director Stephen Norrington (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) left off within the leather clad world of 1998’s Blade, fans of both horror and Del Toro rejoiced.
Here was a director who dabbled in the fantastical, with a clear adoration for the old-school horror of creature features and love of cinema. While Blade’s debut into the cinematic universe of superheroes is one bloody good time, his sophomore effort as a fang-killer stuck between the world of vampires and humans is what helped secure Del Toro as a Hollywood fixture, while taking the character of Blade to new heights.
Set two years after the events of the first film, Blade (played by Wesley Snipes), along with his weapon-smith, Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) and new assistant Scud (Norman Reedus), finds himself hired by a high-order of vampires in order to eradicate a mutated form of night-crawlers known as Reapers. It’s a deep dive into a realm of a superhero that gives Del Toro ample opportunity to focus on the horror behind vampires, upping the action while ratcheting the element of fear present in a world that’s now rampant with blood-hungry super creatures.
Where the first film filled its darkened corridors with glow-stick wielding rave vamps, Blade II crowds its underbelly with terrifying beasts that move with the urgency of a monster movie, sinking its claws (and fangs!) into the superhero genre to see how tough it really is.
Where to watch: Nowhere right now… Amazon on DVD it is!
Batman Returns (1992)
Now before you scoff and roll your eyes, I’m aware of how cherished Tim Burton’s second run at the caped crusader is, with a relatively high number of movie-goers preferring the gothic tinged world of Michael Keaton’s Batman over Christopher Nolan’s grimacing take. Yet still, Batman Returns generally finds itself sitting Robin to its 1989 counterpart, which has fan favorite Joker (an excessively maniacal Jack Nicholson) terrorizing Gotham to the funk of Prince.
It manages to be fun, exuberant and at times haunting in its presentation of a crime-addled city, but when you add the Penguin, Catwoman, and a trigger happy mayor played by Christopher Walken to the sequel, everything just feels so much yummier. And it all really is, as Tim Burton’s sequel works not only as a Metropolis inspired superhero film, but a Christmas caper, ushering in the season with enough gloom and grotesquery to fill a stocking. And while the addition of three extra characters to Gotham certainly gives story, it’s the performances behind each one that places Batman Returns above all other Dark Knight entries.
Both Oswald Cobblepot’s The Penguin and Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) demonstrate the delicate balance between mayhem and mischief, giving Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer ample lengths to churn out unforgettable performances, while Walken’s corrupt Max Shreck doesn’t just fix you a medley of macabre; he hands it to you in a doggie-bag before pushing you out of a twenty-story window. And sorry Jack, but between the toothy, bloated Trumpism of Devito’s performance, to the hell-hath-no-fury seductiveness of Pfeiffer’s murdered secretary turned Catwoman, there really just isn’t enough room on this list for all of you.
Where to watch: Now TV, Sky Go
Avengers: Infinity War is out now… but why not give these a try? Let us know what your top 5 under-appreciated superhero films are.