What exactly is an underrated superhero film? It could be a superhero film that was critically panned, but is in fact pretty good, like Brightburn, if you thought that was good (which it isn’t, but you get the idea.)
Or it could be a superhero film that isn’t much known but should be, like Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. Or it could be a film that is known and liked but isn’t considered a superhero film for the most part, like, say Robocop.
The list below has a mix of underrated movies defined in at least some of these ways. It’s in chronological order.
1. Batman: The Movie (1966)
Adam West is still seen as a vaguely embarrassing weird uncle by many current superhero fans. The truth though is that Batman: The Movie is the best superhero movie ever made, and it’s not close.
The film is a celebration of the exuberant fun of superheroes (the color palette alone is stunning). It’s also an exercise in sublime super-silliness (crash-landing on a foam rubber display! The submarine with penguin flippers! “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”). And it’s a ruthlessly witty parody. Batman’s a goody-goody doofus, saved by luck and happenstance at best and accidentally scrambling the brains of the UN security council at worst. He’s the good, milk-drinking, sexy pure Bat Daddy authority figure we all want and the incompetent self-righteous blundering Bat Daddy authority figure we’ve all got.
Also, did I mention that the submarine has penguin flippers?
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.
2. Superman 2 (1981)
The second classic Superman film is fondly remembered by critics and fans, not least for the wonderful screwball banter between Superman (Christopher Reeves) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). But even so, I don’t think the movie really gets credit enough for establishing the modern superhero template. The first Superman movie featured our hero fighting natural catastrophes and a mad scientist with a hunk of green rock. The supervillains and super fights which define the genre today started with the sequel, with escaped Kryptonians led by General Zod (Terence Stamp).
The FX are charmingly cheesy by today’s standards: the scene where Zod and Superman punch each other in the sewer while the camera stays safely aboveground to conserve the budget is a particular highlight. But still, in whatever clunky fashion, tanks are tossed energy blasts are blasted, leveling a path for much onscreen super-feating to come.
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
3. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
As you’re probably aware, Friday the 13th is a horror slasher franchise. It has victims aplenty and a looming villain, but no superheroes.
And yet! When the hockey-masked Jason climbs out of Crystal Lake for his usual murderous routine, he’s got a surprise in store. Young Tina Shepard (Lar Park Lincoln) has Carrie-esque telekinetic powers. Jason comes at her with edged weapons, and she lights him up with electrical wires. He tries to strangle her, and she drops a house on him.
The effects are low-fi, but their grungy horror tactility holds up well against the blandness of current slick CGI. Similarly, the fact that Tina doesn’t see herself as a superhero makes her a more sympathetic protagonist. She’s just trying to survive this unstoppable, monstrous stand-in for her abusive father. Her desperation and fear make her unexpected strength all the more exhilarating.
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures
4. The Heroic Trio (1993)
Johnnie To’s largely forgotten superhero martial arts masterpiece is a brutal ballet of rustling cloaks, shotgun blasts, and babies who are rescued less often than you might think. The evil Evil Master (Yen Shi-Kwan) is stealing infants for some ill-defined scheme, and it’s up to the virtuous Wonder Woman (Anita Mui), the mercenary Thief Catcher (Maggie Cheung), and the (temporarily) enthralled Invisible Woman (Michelle Yeoh) to save the day.
The plot floats and flaps and occasionally explodes like the gorgeous choreography, dripping with doomed love, horseback rides, and runaway freight trains. In the final epic confrontation, a demon skeleton wraps itself around Invisible Woman and manipulates her like a macabre puppeteer. This movie is completely, gloriously bonkers.
Image Credit: China Entertainment Films.
5. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001)
Jesus could walk on water and rise from the dead. He could be a superhero, right? Director Lee Demarbre answers that question once and for all in this low-budget giggle-fest by giving Jesus (Phil Caracas) nifty martial arts abilities and sending him out into the streets of Ottowa to rescue lesbians from evil vampires! Along the way he battles atheists (who he defeats easily because duh he’s Jesus) sings some songs and teams up with Mexican wrestler El Santo Jeff Moffet)!
Critical reviews were tepid, which just shows that critics really need to get some religion. Superhero Jesus loves queer people and will save them all, in a good way. Even turning water into wine isn’t as awesome as that.
Image Credit: Odessa Filmworks, Inc.
6. Hulk (2003)
Ang Lee’s Hulk is generally viewed as a weird, giant green misstep in both the director’s career and superhero film. And I cannot argue that this is a great movie. The script is eh. Eric Bana as Bruce Banner is definitely there on screen the entire time. Nick Nolte’s overacting as the villain is a lot less fun than it should be.
Still, one thing makes the film a must-watch: the editing. Lee decided that a comic book movie should look like a comic book, and several of his action sequences are dizzying exercises in split-screen design. Insets appear, slide across the screen, and vanish. Hulk smashes here while off in the corner terrified people react to Hulk smashing there. It should be an irritating distraction, but Lee has such a masterful visual sense that the images pick up their own rhythm and flow. It’s like watching a choreographed dance scene, except with whirling images of carnage. No other superhero film looks anything like this. More’s the pity.
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.
7. Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (2017)
Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman has made the Amazonian princess a sword-wielding and solidly hetero pop culture icon. But if you want a sense of the original character, this biopic of her creator is the film you should see.
William Marston was a boisterous carny and crank who thought the world needed loving matriarchs to teach it the ways of submission and peace. He was inspired by his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and his graduate student and their eventual polyamorous partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote.)
Director Angela Robinson plays loose with biographical detail. But kinky dress-up, silken ties, role play, and fervent declarations of same-sex love are all true to those old Wonder Woman comics, in which everyone was tying up everyone for spanking and virtuous conversion at the drop of a golden tiara.
Image Credit: Annapurna Pictures.
8. Ant-man and the Wasp (2018)
The Ant-Man films are the overlooked little sibling of the MCU. But that’s hardly a bad thing. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a relatively small stakes family story about rescuing family and trying not to violate parole.
The special effects wittily drive home the theme, as Ant-Man, aka Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) struggles with glitching equipment which makes him small, then 13-year-old size, then giant. Meanwhile, buildings fit into suitcases and Hello Kitty Pez dispensers grow to giant attack boulder size. Problems can be big or small depending on how close they are, and the best superhero movies are sometimes those which rachet down of the big screen to meet the tiny as people watching exactly where they are.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios.
9. Upgrade (2018)
In Leigh Whannell’s near-future horror Upgrade, obsolete mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is paralyzed in a sabotaged self-driving car accident that kills his wife. Determined to find those responsible, he accepts an AI which moves his body for him. It gives him super fighting skills and a disturbingly ruthless way with a knife.
That all sounds like fairly standard super-heroing. But the story gets much, much darker from there. The AI has a mind of its own, and once you’ve started down the path of super-violence, turning the chassis is easier commanded than executed. Upgrade wears the mask of tech paranoia. But pull off that maks and underneath you see that it’s really warning you about humans and the power they love.
Image Credit: Madman Entertainment.
10. Dark Phoenix (2019)
Dark Phoenix was almost universally panned on release. It has only a 22% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
Nonetheless, Dark Phoenix is one of the best and smartest entries in the lackluster X-Men franchise. Ignore the uninteresting aliens; the real villain here is Professor X (James McAvoy) who betrays his student Jean Grey’s trust by messing in her mind without consent. When she finds out, Jean (Sophie Turner), sets out to destroy the world: a decent metaphor for what it’s like to take down a powerful abusive man and the institution he controls.
Unlike X-Men: The Last Stand, which makes a woman’s trauma all about the inner life of some guy standing off to the side, Dark Phoenix is Jean’s story all the way. Her triumph isn’t in killing anyone, or in putting them in jail. It’s in telling the truth, and thereby preventing the person who harmed her from harming anyone else. Not a very superhero ending, which is maybe part of why critics hated it—and why it’s worth watching.
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.
So if those are the most underrated superhero films, which are the most overrated? I don’t want to get myself in trouble, so I won’t speculate. (<cough>The Dark Knight<cough>)
I mean, a Batman film without Adam West? Why even bother?
More Superhero Recommendations From Wealth of Geeks
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Credit: Maggie Lovitt.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.