While it may not be safe to declare the superhero film genre here to stay for good, it isn’t taking a risk to assert that it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Obviously, it wasn’t always this way. At one time, those of us who thrilled to the monthly exploits of our favorite comics characters viewed the chances of their making it onto the big screen as little more than a pipe dream. Sadly, when the rare hero did make it, the end result was rarely a cause for celebration.
These days, superheroes are not only getting their due, they’re also mostly being handled by people who are getting it right. Where once the very notion of spandex-clad crusaders was considered box office poison, now A-list actors are clamoring to be included in their adventures. One sub-genre that seems to have been overlooked, however, is what we will refer to as the “real-life superhero” film. These are movies that take the notion of (mostly) men in spandex fighting crime and places them in more believable, true to life contexts.
Below is a list of the “essential” films fitting that particular sub-genre:
Hero at Large- The granddaddy of real-life superhero films, this 1980 sleeper starred John Ritter as a struggling New York City actor so desperate for work he dresses up as “Captain Avenger” at comics stores and conventions. He is one of many but when he foils a liquor store robbery, he suddenly finds himself in the unique position to make a difference. What set this film about from superhero tales of the time was how grounded in reality it was, and how it showed the end result of trying to live a dual identity without gifted writers providing your situations. He also got shot, which didn’t happen to costumed heroes back then!
The Naked Man- Certainly a lesser-known choice, this Ethan Coen co-written tale of a grieving chiropractor turned professional wrestler and finally costumed vigilante is as offbeat as it gets. What makes this film interesting aside from its main protagonist’s profession is how he goes about using his knowledge of anatomy to cause a stunning amount of graphic physical damage to those he fights. Comic book fans should recognize two distinct familiar stand-bys in this film: First, the loss of the main character’s parents and his subsequent insanity, and two, his choice to become a wrestler first before using his “powers” for good. A true study in how insanity and the desire to right wrongs often go hand-in-hand. It is possibly Michael Rappaport’s finest performance.
Kick Ass I&II- This is the most obvious choice due to its relatively high profile, but it’s worth mentioning because it holds the superhero concept under a microscope and shows things those of us who are fans might not feel comfortable seeing. Following the adventures of a teenager whose body received constant adrenal output, both of these films deal directly with the requisite mental illness as well as the consequences of trying to fight evil in the real world without super powers. While some consider the first film superior, it’s difficult to separate them as they both tell an extended tale.
Super- Starring Rainn Wilson, this is “Kick Ass” for grownups featuring a miserable protagonist whose only good memories are marrying his wife (Liv Tyler as a drug addicted cheater) and the time he directed a police officer to catch a purse snatcher. When his wife leaves him for a slick-talking strip club owner (Kevin Bacon) our hero (wait for it!) goes insane and becomes the Crimson Bolt, a costumed hero persona he uses to try and rescue her from her own bad choices. Most films in this sub-genre are a study in the choices we make and the consequences that result, but none of them hammer it home the way this one does! The Crimson Bolt beats criminals (and one guy who takes cuts in a movie line) severely, making us wonder how different he is from the bad guys. His sidekick is a female minor (Think Robin or Bucky of “Captain America” fame) with a crush on him and his wife seems perfectly content being strung out on drugs and used by her new boyfriend. It is only at the end that we realize what the film is saying about true heroism and it is a statement that will resonate long after the credits have rolled.
Griff the Invisible- Australians have always been delightfully deconstructionist in their views on the more self-referential, somber American film genres. The superhero genre has to be the biggest and most obvious target of all time, yet few Down Under filmmakers have tackled it. “Griff” does, however, in a rather unique way. Instead of a literal reinterpretation of comic book lore set in a real world with real consequences, this film is all about (here it goes!) finding comfort in one’s own insanity. It’s the ultimate “live and let live” story with the title character convinced he is a costumed vigilante who patrols his neighborhood by night. His daytime life is a mess, however, partly due to his severe social anxiety but also because of the bully at work who refuses to leave him alone. Like most of these films, Griff has a female admirer, but in this case, she sees something in him not unlike what others see in her.
Unbreakable- Arguably M. Knight Shaymalan’s last great moment, this is the one film on the list that actually features a character with real super powers. Bruce Willis’ world-weary everyman security guard has been keeping a secret for his entire life: He doesn’t get sick…ever. He has other abilities as well. Elijah Price (Samual Jackson) a comic art dealer knows he exists and is determined to bring him to his fullest potential. What results is brilliantly wrought extended origin story featuring a surprise ending that will leave the viewer in stunned silence for minutes afterwards.
*Note to readers- “Defendor” starring Woody Harrelson was not included because the article’s author hasn’t seen it yet*