While the superhero genre has no doubt become expansive in recent years and bordering on over-saturated, there are few films within the genre depicting superheroes in the real world. These 20 films navigate the delicate balance between superhuman prowess and the gritty realities of our world.
From thought-provoking dramas to thrilling adventures, these movies offer a fresh perspective on superheroes' lives, exploring their vulnerabilities, struggles, and triumphs within the banality of reality.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable follows David Dunn, a security guard with an extraordinary ability—he is seemingly invincible. After surviving a catastrophic train crash unharmed, David encounters Elijah Price, a comic book art dealer who believes that David possesses superhuman powers. As David embraces his role as a real-life superhero, he faces personal and moral dilemmas that test his limits and shape his destiny.
2. Split (2016)
Split delves into the chilling world of Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who harbors 23 distinct personalities. When Kevin's most dangerous alter ego, known as “The Beast,” emerges, a group of captive girls must rely on their wits to escape.
As the film unravels, it becomes apparent that the supernatural abilities exhibited by some of Kevin's personalities blur the line between psychological disorder and something more extraordinary.
3. Mystery Men (1999)
In Mystery Men, a group of eccentric and less-than-impressive amateur superheroes step up to save the day when Champion City's beloved superhero, Captain Amazing, goes missing. The ragtag team includes characters such as Mr. Furious, The Shoveler, and The Blue Raja, each armed with unique, albeit unconventional, superpowers.
As they face off against the villainous Casanova Frankenstein, these unlikely heroes find themselves on a comical and endearing journey of self-discovery.
4. Hancock (2008)
Hancock introduces us to John Hancock, a reluctant and troubled superhero with incredible strength and invulnerability. Although his heart is in the right place, his unconventional crime-fighting methods often result in collateral damage and public backlash.
When Hancock saves the life of Ray Embrey, a PR executive, Ray takes it upon himself to help reshape Hancock's public image. As their unlikely friendship develops, secrets from Hancock's past begin to unravel, revealing a deeper connection to his superhuman abilities.
5. Chronicle (2012)
Chronicle takes an intimate look into the lives of three high school friends who gain telekinetic powers after encountering a mysterious object. The film presents their transformation from ordinary teenagers to superhumans with immense capabilities. As they experiment and test the boundaries of their newfound powers, their lives take a dark and unpredictable turn, blurring the line between heroism and villainy.
6. Watchmen (2009)
Watchmen is set in an alternate version of 1985, where superheroes exist as part of everyday life. Following the murder of one of their own, a group of retired superheroes sets out to uncover a conspiracy that threatens the world's fragile peace. As they navigate the complexities of morality and power, this ensemble of flawed and complex characters raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of heroism.
7. Brightburn (2019)
Brightburn explores the dark side of a superhero origin story. When a child from another world crash-lands on Earth, he is adopted by a loving couple who raise him as their own. However, as he enters adolescence, his extraordinary abilities take a sinister turn. With a chilling and unsettling tone, the film delves into the descent of a superpowered being into an evil force, questioning the inherent goodness often associated with superheroes.
8. The Equalizer 2 (2018)
In The Equalizer 2, we follow the life of Robert McCall, a retired CIA operative who becomes a vigilante, using his skills to deliver justice for the helpless and oppressed. This gritty action thriller showcases McCall's unwavering commitment to protecting those in need as he takes on a new mission that hits close to home.
Amidst the high-stakes action, the film explores themes of redemption, personal sacrifice, and the blurred boundaries between hero and anti-hero. While the films have yet to show any superhuman abilities, one scene in this film confirms that Denzel Washington's character sees himself as a superhero for the real world — a just vigilante with the insights and exceptionalism of a superhero.
9. Blankman (1994)
Blankman humorously chronicles the life of Darryl Walker, an eccentric and socially awkward inventor who becomes a bumbling superhero in a crime-ridden city. Armed with unconventional gadgets and a knack for getting into comical mishaps, Darryl attempts to fight crime while grappling with his own insecurities. This light-hearted comedy offers a satirical take on the superhero genre, celebrating the power of resourcefulness and individuality.
10. Mirageman (2007)
Mirageman follows Maco, a middle-aged man who becomes a real-life superhero after witnessing a crime. Determined to make a difference in his community, Maco creates a costume and adopts the moniker “Mirageman.” As he confronts the harsh realities of vigilantism, the film explores the personal sacrifices and psychological toll that come with the territory of being a masked crusader.
11. Glass (2019)
Glass serves as a conclusion to the narrative started in Unbreakable and Split. The film brings together David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb, and Elijah Price, who are all held captive in a psychiatric facility. As a psychiatrist attempts to convince them that their superhuman abilities are merely delusions, a deadly showdown looms on the horizon.
Glass delves into themes of identity, belief, and the blurred line between reality and the extraordinary, culminating in a gripping exploration of the consequences of living as a superhuman in a world that refuses to accept their existence.
12. Freaks (2018)
Freaks centers around a young girl named Chloe, who lives in seclusion with her paranoid father. As she longs to explore the outside world, Chloe discovers her own extraordinary abilities and the truth about her family. Blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, the film explores themes of identity, discrimination, and the lengths people will go to protect loved ones.
13. Kick-A (2010)
Kick-A takes a gritty and subversive approach to the superhero genre. Dave Lizewski, an ordinary high school student, dons a costume and becomes the masked crime fighter Kick-A, despite lacking any superhuman abilities. As he crosses paths with other unconventional heroes like Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, the film explores the consequences and pitfalls of real-life superheroics with a blend of dark humor, intense action, and social commentary.
14. Super (2010)
This darkly comedic and brutally violent film delves into the psyche of an everyday man turned vigilante, examining the blurred lines between heroism and vigilantism. Super follows the journey of Frank D'Arbo, a disillusioned man who transforms himself into the self-styled superhero “The Crimson Bolt.” Armed with a pipe wrench and unwavering determination, Frank takes to the streets to fight crime and rescue his wife from the clutches of a charismatic drug dealer.
15. A Vigilante (2010)
This dark crime drama is about a woman who finally escapes her abusive husband and makes it her life's mission to help others in danger. She trains and makes sure she's able to come back and defeat others' abusers with a vengeance. The film stars Olivia Wilde and Morgan Spector.
16. Boy Wonder (2010)
In Boy Wonder, Sean is traumatized at a young age after he witnesses a horrible act of violence. As a teenager, he decides he wants to do something about the horrible people in the world and he starts roaming the streets of New York City helping those in need, and making sure the bad guys are punished.
17. Brightburn (2019)
Brightburn feels like a superhero movie but with a dark twist. A family who has struggled with fertility finds a mysterious baby boy, who happens to be from a different planet. As he grows up, the family is happy with their talented child, but when he is near puberty, dark, terrible powers start to show themselves.
18. Fast Color (2018)
In Fast Color, a young woman has been in hiding for years but when her supernatural powers are discovered, she's forced on the run. Even though she's had to turn her back on everything she knew, the only place she can go safely now is back home. This dramatic thriller focuses more on the family and the dynamics that the actual powers the characters have.
Jaimee Marshall is a culture writer, avid movie buff, and political junkie. She spends the bulk of her time watching and critiquing films, writing political op-eds, and dabbling in philosophy. She has a Communication Studies degree from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she flirted with several different majors before deciding to pursue writing. As a result, she has a diverse educational background, having studied economics, political science, psychology, business admin, rhetoric, and debate.
At Wealth of Geeks, Jaimee places an emphasis on film and television analysis, ranking the best [and worst] in media so you can find more diamonds in the rough and waste less time on box-office duds. You can find her articles on politics and culture in Evie Magazine, Katie Couric Media, Lotus Eaters, and Her Campus. You can also find her find her episode of Popcorned Planet, where she analyzes the Johnny Depp & Amber Heard trial. She has written extensively about due process, free speech, and pop culture.