Kick-Ass, this week’s movie under consideration, is one part spoof and one part celebration of superhero movies. The fact that it exists at all, in the form it does, is in itself a testament to just how pervasive costumed crimefighters have become in modern movies. When Kick-Ass is in only the third week of its theatrical run, the second Iron Man movie will be opening while movies based on Thor, Captain America and The Green Lantern will be in production on all over the world.
As it happens, by now there’ve probably been so many superhero movies that plenty have essentially vanished from the public consciousness. Here’s a brief collection – in no particular order – of noteworthy movies about bold men doing brave things in silly outfits, some of which you may have forgotten and (hopefully) a few of which you might never have heard of.
(As before, the majority of titles are available on DVD to the best of my knowledge unless otherwise noted, though availability may differ by region.)
Here’s a great Canadian indie that I’m really amazed never got much attention – hell, I’d never have heard of it if not for a Netflix recommendation – a great example of how much can be accomplished with a handful of actors, sparse locations and a solid script. Shy, comic-loving office drone Norman Neale (Perry Mucci) discovers that his slick, ladies-man coworker Victor Ventura (David Ingram) possesses nascent telekinetic superpowers and offers to help him train, imagining that he can help give the world its first real-life superhero. Just one problem: In real life, not everyone with a gift wants to use it to help people, and Norman must confront the realization that he may have unwittingly unleashed a – now very, very dangerous – supervillain on the world. It’s a character piece (it could’ve been done as a stage play, easily) focused on the familiar frustrations of watching someone waste or even abuse a gift you’d kill to have. Seek this one out.
Japanese yakuza/horror specialist Takeshi Miike too his first stab at “family fare” (sort of) with this warped but big-hearted love letter to Japanese superhero shows of the 60s and 70s. Encouraged by a young boy who’s obsessed with an obscure superhero series from his own childhood, an introverted teacher dons his homemade ZebraMan suit and – since this is a Takeshi Miike movie – immediately gets wrapped up in a conspiracy involving prophetic TV screenplays and alien cover-ups. If I told you how this movie ended, you would not believe me.
For awhile there were more superhero spoofs than there were superheroes, and this is one of the funniest, courtesy of the Wayans Brothers and underrated director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me.) Damon Wayans is an eccentric inventor who uses his wacky gadgets to become a costumed vigilante and battle a crime boss, in a funny and ultra-quotable spoof that was also ahead of its time in treating Adam West’s Batman as a source of nostalgia and inspiration when, at the time, it was trendy to bash it in favor of the “grim ‘n’ gritty” Frank Miller/Tim Burton take on the character.
Mercury Man (2006)
Quick: If I said there was a recent movie where a patriotic firefighter becomes a superhero and takes on a Jihadist terrorist group led by a villain named – I kid you not – Osama Bin-Ali, you’d guess it was from the U.S., right? Well, you’d be wrong. Mercury Man is from Thailand. Visually, it’s a Spider-Man knockoff (MM basically wears a black Spidey suit with Thai Buddhist designs instead of a web pattern) but imbued with the gleeful kitchen-sink inventiveness we’ve come to expect from modern Thai action-cinema. I should mention it also comes complete with the unabashed nationalism that many have found somewhat uncomfortable in modern Thai action-cinema: The bad guys’ evil scheme is converting magical Buddhist relics into Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the running subtext frames the conflict as a clash of worldviews between the Mercury Man’s Buddhism and the unspecified (but presumably Islamic) monotheism of the bad guys. “The Thai believe in life … we believe in death!” says Bin-Ali in his why-we’ll-win bad guy speech. Yikes! Still, the action scenes are awesome (the final fight is easily one of the best superpower battles I’ve ever seen) and the plot embraces its own inherent fantasy in a way most Western superhero movies would do well to imitate.
Meteor Man (1993)
Writer/director Robert Townsend is best known for movie and TV projects made with sincerity and admirable motives that just don’t work as well as you’d want them to. This is one of those, an obviously heartfelt and welcome attempt to create a wholly-new counterpart to Superman for African American kids to call their own. (Interestingly, Milestone Comics, created with a similar mission to create an entire universe of minority heroes, launched the same year.) Townsend is the title character, an inner-city teacher who’s struck by a meteor and gains all the usual Superman powers plus some nifty new ones – he can talk to animals and absorb knowledge by touching books – which he uses to rally his community against the local drug gang. Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillame, Sinbad, Don Cheadle and a young Eddie Griffin all pitch in to help, and in the end the nobility of the effort helps elevate what’s otherwise a pretty average movie. Good intentions count, sometimes.
Mister Freedom (1969)
You wanna talk obscure? Here’s an absurdist French political parody from American expatriate filmmaker William Klein (best known, if at all, in the states for Who Are You, Polly Magoo?) in which a bigoted right-wing American “patriotic” superhero is dispatched to halt the rising tide of left-wing political thought in France. When he discovers that the French citizenry aren’t feeling all that threatened and don’t want him around, Mister Freedom – who dresses like a football player and acts like people who don’t know much about Captain America tend to imagine Captain America acts – loses it and things start to get out of hand. The heavy-handed satire of Cold War posturing is, of course, dated and the movie isn’t exactly Dr. Strangelove, but it does feature a bellowing idiot in patriotic football gear arguing with Red China Man – a gigantic talking balloon – and I’m positive you’ve never seen that before.
The Guyver (1991)
Occuring as it did before the advent of digital distribution or even the internet itself, the “anime boom” in America in the early 90s was probably the last cross-cultural phenomenon to bubble up in awkward fits and starts – the only climate in which something as weird as this live-action reimagining of Yoshiki Takaya’s legendary Manga hero: It’s one-part fan-film, one-part crass Americanization and one-part Cronenbergian body horror. An American kung fu student becomes host to an alien symbiote, which turns him into a bio-mechanical armored hero to do battle with alien Zoanoids who want the armor for themselves. Famed Special FX pros Steve Wang and Screaming Mad George (yes, that is how he’s credited) created the slimy, creepy creature effects, including the truly spectacular Guyver suit, and the overall effect is like the grossest episode of Power Rangers (or maybe Kamen Rider) you’ve ever seen. Oh, and Mark Hamill morphs into a giant grasshopper. Seriously. A more faithful sequel came next, which threw out the American-style comedy but replaced it with the international language of boring.
Supaidaman, aka “Japanese Spider-Man” (1970s)
Okay, “forgotten” is pushing it, but too wild not to include. The next time you complain about the Americanization of Asian or European characters, remember that the reverse has happened plenty of times, too. Case in point: In 1978, Marvel licensed its characters to Toei for use in Japanese TV shows. The result was this series, which made Spider-Man Japanese to a vastly greater degree than even Dragonball: Evolution made Goku American. Supaidaman gets his powers from aliens, battles the minions of Professor Monster, rides a motorcycle and summons a spaceship that transforms into a giant robot when he’s really in a fix. No, really. Sadly, you can’t get this (officially) on DVD in most of the Western world, though you can watch episodes on Marvel’s website: Yes, this is a real thing.
Although, if you want to really blow your mind, hunt down the Turkish cult-classic 3 Dev Adam, in which Captain America and El Santo (yes, the Lucha Libre wrestler) team up to fight the evil.. um… Spider-Man. All unauthorized, of course. Believe it or not, Captain America being the hero of a Turkish action movie is the least bizarre thing that happens.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.