In the realm of comic-book films, there are two titans battling for world domination: Marvel (which gave us Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers) and DC (the home of Batman, Superman and Aquaman). But that doesn’t mean they’re the only games in town, as witnessed by Friday’s release of Glass, the third film in a trilogy of superhero movies from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan that started nearly 20 years ago with Unbreakable and continued with his surprise 2017 hit Split. These films don’t feature Spider-Man or Wonder Woman because they’re not parts of those cinematic universes. Which got me thinking about what the best non-Marvel/DC superhero film is.
My answer: Darkman, which came out in the summer of 1990, and starred a rising young actor named Liam Neeson as Peyton, a scientist working on synthetic skin. His experiments turn out to be incredibly valuable after a bunch of hoods torch his lab and leave him for dead, forcing him to make a mask of his face with the artificial skin. But because of his extreme burns, doctors had to perform an emergency surgery that keeps him from feeling pain — it has the unfortunate side effect, however, of making him super-angry and insane. Peyton seeks vengeance on those who disfigured him while trying to make amends with his long-suffering girlfriend (Frances McDormand), who he’s neglected for years in his pursuit of this scientific breakthrough. But instead of becoming a hero, Peyton discovers that he’s consumed by this newfound darkness — this is a comic-book movie with a decidedly unhappy ending.
Darkman was directed and co-written by Sam Raimi, who at that point was best known for the cult horror-comedy Evil Dead II. There’s still some of the same slapstick irreverence that informed that film in Darkman, which is a proud B-movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But there’s also an emotional component to Darkman, which follows a flawed but decent man who comes to realize that maybe he was never that great of a guy in the first place. Lots of kids long to be superheroes, but nobody would want to grow up to be Darkman: He’s a mournful, solitary figure driven by rage and revenge, like a modern Phantom of the Opera without the goofy mask. It’s a haunting film.
Funny enough, about a decade later, Raimi went on to direct the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy, one of the crucial early franchises in our current superhero glut.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best superhero movie that isn’t Marvel or DC. With great power comes some great selections.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Tim’s already picked the best one (Dark Man), but while I also considered Chronicle (a better X-Men movie than any of the actual X-Men movies) and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (“DAAAAAAAMN!!!!!”) for my runner-up, I’m going to have to go with Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Sure, purists don’t love the Guillermo Del Toro Hellboy movies, since they’re pretty tonally different to the books, but Ron Perlman and the rest put so much damn heart into those things that they remain endlessly watchable. This is especially true of the second installment, which improves over the original in every way: More world-building, more monsters, more emotion, and best of all — and the true reason for this being my pick — a drunken, heartbroken singalong to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You.”
There’s more humanity in this one sweetly silly moment than in the entirety of DC’s cinematic output so far, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of the rest of the film: Confidently goofy, touching, and to use a very British term, really rather lovely. I both thank and blame this movie for making “Can’t Smile Without You” my go-to I’m-gonna-crush-this karaoke song ever since. — Nick Leftley, Senior Editor
In the spirit of non-traditional heroes, Hancock (or Will Smith as the hero who totally DGAF) has to be my favorite “other” hero movie. A scruffy, cursing alcoholic is totally the hero the early 2000s deserved. After all, enough is enough. At some point saving people all day, everyday becomes redundant. Plus, you have to appreciate the “if a regular dude was a hero” motif as well as Jason Bateman’s aloof sarcasm. Men after my own heart. Not to mention, the ending theme of the film — that love is the one thing that weakens the armor of the invincible anti-hero as well as the thing that saves him from death. Hancock isn’t politically correct or overly decent, but he is who a real person is 100 percent of the time. — Ernest Crosby, Video Editor
Though The Crow debuted in 1994, more than a decade passed before I first watched it. This was the mid-aughts, back when I was really blooming into my aesthetic as a teenage indie scenester — you know, black jeans, studded belts, post-hardcore albums in my CD player (!) and a penchant for rewatching Donnie Darko. The kid who first introduced me to Death Cab for Cutie was also the first to ridicule me for not having seen The Crow. Clearly, it was appointment DVD viewing.
This is a dark movie in both its plot and visuals, but its drama is rooted in the righteous rage of protagonist Eric Draven, portrayed by young Brandon Lee (the son of Bruce Lee). Draven isn’t trying to save the world — he’s just trying to get revenge for the brutal rape and killing of his fianceé, Shelly. Draven himself is killed in this attack, but a mysterious crow appears at his grave and seems to give him supernatural powers overnight. Not only does he rise from his grave, Draven is now seemingly invincible: Wounds from bullets and knives just close right up.
Where did the crow come from? Why did it go to Draven? The movie doesn’t waste exposition on this, instead focusing on Draven’s drive to bring some sort of bloody justice for Shelley. He’s a vigilante, but not a blandly moralistic one like The Punisher or batshit violent like Spawn. On his John Wick-ian warpath, Draven earns the respect of the detective put on his case and works to repair the bond between a mother and a young girl, Sarah, who was a friend of Draven’s in his past life. He also murders the shit out of an entire criminal enterprise.
The film’s third act ends with Draven returning to his grave, to finally lay in the earth with some kind of peace next to his fianceé. Tragically, Lee himself died near the end of production after getting shot in the gut with what was supposed to be a prop gun. His death cast a heavy shadow on the whole film, but The Crow is by far Lee’s best work, and it left a fine legacy for the young actor, as well as a devoted cult following. — Eddie Kim, Staff Writer
Is Zorro a superhero? Honestly, I’m not sure, but if Alain Delon playing Zorro in the 1975 rendition of the man in the black mask and flat-brimmed fedora isn’t considered a superhero by today’s Marvel standards, well, I really don’t give a shit. Because when I was six years old and my uncle showed me the masked bandit riding atop his horse and zig-zagging the letter ‘Z’ into the pants of his often silly enemies, I too paraded around in a black mask pretending to bring justice to every room in our house.
Unlike most superheroes, Zorro is less burdened by the outlandish idea that he can “save humankind.” Instead Zorro just wants to bring justice to his village, help the poor, and of course, sweep the damsel off her feet. Did I mention he does all of this with a fencing sword? If that’s not considered super, well then, I’d like to see Captain America give it a go. — Andrew Fiouzi, Staff Writer