Given the big picture, one might think that superhero cinema started with the MCU, with ‘Avengers’ (and that little preamble that is ‘Iron Man’) sweeping the box office and laying the groundwork for how to make a super people movie in meshes. And that before that, another blockbuster trio, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, have conditioned the tone and aesthetics of all cinema based on the DC Universe , until the arrival of the grateful turn of ‘ Aquaman ‘ and ‘ Shazam ! ‘. And it seems that out of everything that orbits around both galaxies have been parodies, experiments and low-intensity superhero movies.
And that is not entirely true. In fact, the MCU has imposed a way of visualizing the superheroes that make that when some type of jewel appears ‘Spider-Man: A new universe’ , that disrupts all the concepts we had about the genre and rebuilds them in a radically new way, remember fleetingly we have been watching superhero movies all our lives. Most, outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe . And many of them, as or more worthy. Perhaps less spectacular, certainly less box office, perhaps with less avalanche of merchandising … but worthy of being remembered equally.
We’ve gotten to work to prove that not all onscreen superheroes have been invented by the MCU . These are some of the best superhero movies the cinema has given us before the Marvel avalanche.
Best Superhero Movies
It seems incredible that a hero with the fame of dark and dramatic Batman has to his credit three of the best comedies based on a comic superhero of all time: the magnificent and always vindicable “Batman and Robin”, the very goal “Batman : the LEGO movie ‘and this feature film version of the incarnation camp television of the Dark Knight . Well aware of its ridiculousness and overflowing with moments of glory, all the tics in the series are here, plus a few more that have deservedly passed to Olympus in masked humor, such as the anti-shark repellent or the superb bomb gag.
Although today it is easy to miss its merits, ‘Superman’ is full of milestones: it is the first superproduction that officially adapts a comic of the genre, with first-rate actors and overwhelming effects and media. It became a mass phenomenon that has never been equaled, even by Marvel . And he turned his storyline story structure into a canon from which even modern productions are still afraid to depart. With a unique and very appropriate balance between camp humor , tragedy for all audiences and smooth action, ‘Superman’ is still today a true festival of color and fantasy.
‘The Toxic Avenger’ (1984)
One of the most gruesome and grotesque parodies of the superhero phenomenon came with this New Jersey mutant who falls into a barrel of radioactive waste and, dressed in a tutu and armed with a mop, roams the city unraveling mishaps . What is half a lysergic version of ‘Carrie’ and half the origin story of a Batman supervillain became the most iconic film by the indescribable producer Troma Films. Curiously, the hero ended up starring in something so typical of a Marvel comic – but not so appropriate for a Troma character – such as a series of children’s cartoons with an ecological message. It had several sequels (plus an extra in the portfolio) and crossovers with other heroes of the house such as Sergeant Kabukiman, in true comic style.
One of the most memorable and best superhero movies of the nascent 1990s, endowed with a sense of wonder absolutely unmatched by any other show of the genre. Incomparable even with Sam Raimi’s own work, which would return to superheroes with the most spectacular, successful and cold Spider-Man trilogy . In ‘Darkman,’ Raimi combined vindictive urban superheroes with Universal’s tragic monsters, and the result was a feverish superhero opera with an anthological lead trio (Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, and Larry Drake).
‘Batman: the mask of the ghost’ (1993)
The best Batman movie of all time had to be based, obviously, on the unforgettable animation series of the nineties , which with its refined aesthetics and assimilation of the Batman constants became the perfect adaptation of the DC icon . Here we have a villain created for the occasion, but also a Joker who carries more direct moral dilemmas and with less fuss than Heath Ledger’s. Visually compelling and thematically complex, but also very fun and attentive to the essence of superhero fiction.
‘The Raven’ (1994)
With the cinematic Batman at the height of popularity, this pseudo-superhero based on an underground comic book borrowed elements from both the conventions of the genre (superhuman powers, combat ability, willingness to fix everything with blows, the raincoat as a cape to chill) ) as from the cinema of revenge, from where he grabbed his plot starting point. Who knows if the film would have had the same repercussion if the promising Brandon Lee had not died in unusual circumstances , but the truth is that the result is very nice, a gothic pop exhibition with a wonderful and very inbred soundtrack, in a fruitful mix of superheroism, post-Burton terror and video clip aesthetics for bad guys who are not allowed to play on the street until late.
‘Batman Forever’ (1995)
Any of the first three Batman movies could have been here, but we’re left with this one because ‘Batman Returns’ is more of a Tim Burton movie than a Batman movie, and the first installment, despite its findings and historical significance, is very stiff as a superhero adventure. ‘Batman Forever’ is a stupendous sum of all that must be a colorful adaptation and for all audiences of the DC hero, with some very insane villains played by top- notch actors, a Val Kilmer who turned out like Bruce Wayne and lots of action, chases and gadgets . Somewhat glaring, perhaps, but as an unassuming blockbuster and superhero fantasy without excess drama it is unrivaled.
With the commercial fiasco of ‘Batman and Robin’ dispelled, two years before ‘X-Men’ (and one before another camouflaged superhero movie, ‘Matrix’), ‘Blade’ is the true hinge between the chaotic superhero cinema of the Eighties and nineties and a new era of blockbusters and adaptations increasingly faithful to comics. She started from a source material that could have given rise to a parody, being such a product of her time (decadent Hammerian Dracula + seventies blaxploitation), but she succeeded taking herself very seriously . Wesley Snipes is devastatingly cool, the gore and martial arts sequences are extraordinary and the airs of thunderous and noisy comics keep on top of a hilarious movie that would generate an interesting sequel to Guillermo del Toro and a buzzy third installment.
‘X-Men 2’ (2000)
Although the best productions of Fox mutants (‘ X-Men: First Generation ‘, ‘ Logan ‘ and ‘ Deadpool ‘) were released when the MCU was already underway, there are undisputed points of interest in previous installments. To begin with, they were the ones who paved the way for the superheroic explosion we are experiencing now . In ‘X-Men 2’, after a hesitant start to the franchise, we see a group that is blended with abundant moments of individual brilliance. There are villains with edges and charismatics (that Magneto that continues to be among the best of Bryan Singer’s installments), moments of brilliance such as the extraordinary presentation of Rondador Nocturno, fruitful metaphors and winks for fans, such as the appearance of Colossus. Without ‘X-Men 2’ the MCU would be very different, but the truth is that almost twenty years later, this sequel still maintains the type perfectly.
‘The protege’ (2000)
Just at the time when superhero cinema as we understand it today was stretching with a few summer blockbusters , M. Night Shyamalan was already making one of the best reflections on the genre that cinema has given. He intelligently adapted the topics of superheroes to a calm and realistic style (the uniform, the origin story, the secret identity, the connection between hero and villain) , with sophistication but without the need to go overboard, so that -a difference from ‘ Glass’, also great but in another way- can be perfectly enjoyed by fans and by those who are not. A wonder that perfectly explains, above anything else, why we like superhero fantasies so much.
‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)
As we have seen, the second parts of superhero franchises are usually the best (or be among the best). The case of the Spider-Man is one of the clearest : this sequel is the most balanced between Peter Parker’s everyday dramas (here with an excellent romantic part with Mary Jane) and bombastic action , in this case against the best villain of the franchise, Doctor Octopus who is given life by a disturbing but human Alfred Molina. Combat on the train is the best action scene in the series, and some almost horror movie-like sequences take Sam Raimi from ‘Darkman’ himself.
‘The Incredibles’ (2004)
In a moment of feverish superheroic creativity, ‘The Incredibles’ rebelled as a very fortunate experiment that combined the parody of the genre with overwhelming creativity and inventiveness that made this film a still ingenious and vibrant Pixar (Brad Bird was just out of nothing less than from ‘The Iron Giant’) as a very remarkable superhero movie. The inspiration in Marvel philosophy in general and in the Fantastic Four in particular was very clear, but in addition, Bird truffled everything with magnificent secondaries (Edna is a find) and a superb exploitation of the possibilities of the runaway powers. Perfect for a double program with the aesthetically less successful, but also very powerful in the conceptual ‘Megamind’.
‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Although the Christopher Nolan movies with Batman as the lead are not perfect, their influence has been as indisputable as it is unintentionally evil (because of it DC has spent a decade stuck in lean heroes and rainy alleys – even Superman! -). From the trilogy we rescue the most valuable, the second of them , far from the useless splendor of the first or the involuntary humorous delirium of the third. Thanks to Heath Ledger’s lavish composition as Joker and some daring scripting and staging ideas, this Batman adventure moves into the annals of pre-avalanche best superhero movies Marvel.