10 Superhero Movies You've Probably Never Heard Of
By Chris Tilly on
Superhero movies weren't always cool.
Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and Wonder Woman are household names, taking center stage in multiple movies that have grossed billions of dollars worldwide. They’ve made comic book movies the most profitable blockbusters on the planet. And they’ve paved the way for other, lesser known characters to cross over into the mainstream, from Doctor Strange and Deadpool to Aquaman and Captain Marvel.
But over the last four decades, there have been some brand new superheroes in cinemas as well, with names like Captain Avenger, Pumaman, and SuperBob--and with budgets that wouldn’t cover the catering on your average Marvel or DC movie.
Rather than being ripped from the pages of comics, they’ve been created specifically for the big screen, with many designed to spoof or satirize the genre. Yet while the majority of these movies have been made with good intentions, they’ve rarely hit the mark. Some have developed a cult following in the intervening years, and others disappeared into obscurity. Either way, these are 10 superhero movies you've probably never heard of.
1. Hero at Large (1980)
"He can't fly. He can't bend steel. But when there's danger, he can't turn away." Hot on the heels of Superman's motion picture success, Hero at Large was something of a superhero spoof. John Ritter plays a struggling actor who poses as fictional character "Captain Avenger" to help promote the movie of the same name. But when stopping an actual robbery while wearing said costume, he gets a taste for heroism, and so sets about fighting crime for real. Ritter is likeable in the lead, but the humour is broad and the storyline silly, resulting in Hero at Large failing to fully take flight.
2. The Pumaman (1980)
By far the worst movie on this list, Pumaman was Italian director Alberto Di Martino's own effort to cash in on Superman's success. But the shoestring budget resulted in some of the worst flying effects ever committed to film. Pumaman is actually paleontologist Tony Farms, who has no idea that he is a man-god spawned from aliens. We witness his powers--of super strength, teleportation, and the aforementioned, none-too-convincing flight--develop over the course of the film. Pumaman then uses them to do battle with the villainous Kobras (Halloween's Donald Pleasance), who has plans to take over the world via mind control. So bad it's practically unwatchable, The Pumaman nevertheless got a second lease on life when it featured in a 1998 episode of Mystery Science Theater.
3. The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Another spoof hobbled by a meager budget and a few too many bad jokes, The Return of Captain Invincible is nevertheless something of a curiosity, due to the plot, the cast, and the many musical numbers. The title character--played by Alan Arkin--is a WWII hero who finds himself accused of being a communist and charged with violating airspace and wearing his underwear in public. The "Legend in Leotards" moves to Australia and develops a drinking problem, before being forced out of retirement to face former nemesis Mr. Midnight, played by screen legend Christopher Lee. It's all deeply ridiculous, but worth watching for the songs, which are written by Rocky Horror duo Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley.
4. Star Kid (1997)
Star Kid sticks a superhero and ET into a blender, and the result is pretty tasteless and bland. Jurassic Park star Joseph Mazzello plays Spencer Griffith, a bullied teen who investigates a fallen meteorite, only to discover it's actually a "cybersuit" from another galaxy. He tries said suit on, befriends its AI (whom he calls Cy), and gains superpowers that Spencer uses to settle scores with a bully and save the girl on whom he has a crush. Intergalactic action follows as "Star Kid" and Cy do battle with an alien bug. And they emerge victorious, meaning Cy can head home--but not before Spencer and the suit share a tearful farewell that carries none of the weight or emotion of the same scene in ET.
5. The Specials (2000)
The Specials covers 24 hours in the lives of a gang of misfits who are less a superhero team and more a dysfunctional family. The group includes laser-shooting leader The Strobe, the indestructible Miss Indestructible, shrinking Minute Man, The Weevil (who wants to leave The Specials for the more successful Crusaders), and newest member Nightbird, who can lay eggs that contain weapons. The story finds them breaking up just as the group lands their first merchandising deal, with the film's focus on jokes rather than action. There are couple of good gags, but The Specials is most notable for being James Gunn's first superhero flick, in advance of the superior Super, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which tackle similar material, but with a bigger budget and much better jokes.
6. Defendor (2009)
Defendor stars Woody Harrelson as Arthur Poppington, who, due to a childhood trauma, pretends to be a superhero called Defendor. Dishing out vigilante justice, Defendor roams the streets in search of his nemesis Captain Industry, while his mission brings Arthur into contact with psychiatrist Dr. Park (Sandra Oh), corrupt cop Dooney (Elias Koteas), and sex worker Angel (Kat Dennings). Harrelson is terrific in the lead, and while superficially the film is a comedy, Defendor is actually more tragic than comic, dealing with depression and delusion as Arthur spends much of the movie hanging on by a thread.
7. Paper Man (2009)
Where the combination of comedy and drama works for Defendor, it's less successful in Paper Man (renamed Unlikely Hero in the UK). Jeff Daniels plays Richard, a struggling novelist who moves to a seaside town to cure his writer's block. He then spends far too much time talking to his imaginary childhood friend, Captain Excellent. Played by a bleached blonde Ryan Reynolds, Cap seems to have all the answers, but really controls and manipulates Richard, and sees his blossoming friendship with a young local--played by Emma Stone--as something of a threat. Much of the film is therefore concerned with Richard finally taking charge of his destiny, and endeavoring to part ways with his superhero companion. Unfortunately, that story is wholly unconvincing, so it's hard to care whether Captain Excellent sticks around or flies off for good.
8. Griff the Invisible (2010)
Griff is an office worker who feels invisible and struggles to connect with those around him. At night, he dons a Batman-like costume to fight crime, in an effort to give his life meaning. He also starts experimenting on himself to actually become invisible, with some success. But is this superpower real, or is it in his head? The second Australian entry on our list, Griff the Invisible tackles tough themes like loneliness and alienation, and is anchored by a touching and at times heartbreaking performance by Ryan Kwanten as the title character.
9. American Hero (2015)
Set in New Orleans, American Hero is a superhero movie shot documentary-style. Stephen Dorff plays Melvin, an alcoholic who is able move objects with his mind--a power he uses to perform street shows for booze and drug money. When hard partying causes his heart to briefly stop, Melvin decides to change his ways, and to stop crime rather than commit it. But in spite of the support of his wheelchair-bound best buddy Lucille (Eddie Griffin), he struggles to stay clean and on the straight and narrow. As a comedy, American Hero has its moments, but Melvin is such an unpleasant character, and the found footage style so distracting, that the film quickly overstays its welcome.
10. SuperBob (2015)
SuperBob is superhero satire well executed on a tiny budget. Set in the South London district of Peckham, the film is another spoof documentary, but here the conceit perfectly complements the storyline. Stand-up comic and co-writer Brett Goldstein stars as shy postman Bob, who was hit by a meteorite that gave him powers several years previous, and now works for the British Government as a high-flying civil servant. But rather than focus on Bob's heroic deeds and derring-do, the film instead follows the character on his day off, as Bob tries to inject some normality into his life, and confronts his shyness by going on a date. So while there's a spot of political intrigue regarding Britain and America competing for control of this weapon of mass destruction, the heart and soul of the story concerns Bob falling in love--resulting in a superhero story that's sweet rather than spectacular.