Kind of like zombie movies that don’t actually use the word “zombie,” lots of films work perfectly well as a superhero story without resorting to commonly accepted superhero iconography, like secret identities and costumes. One such film, Chronicle, impressed audiences early this year with its psychological take on the superheroic myths, examining what real-life teenagers would do with unnatural psychic abilities in the day and age of Jackass-inspired YouTube videos and hyper-emotional lashing out a world that doesn’t understand them. The film, available on DVD and Blu-ray May 15, has inspired us to look at ten other great superhero movies without superheroes. These are films that explore the power fantasies and storytelling tropes of superhero myths without ever actually coming out and saying it.
Scanners (dir. David Cronenberg, 1981)
David Cronenberg’s odd attempt to combine superhero story dynamics and his usual blend of grotesque body horror was a mixed bag at best, but captures the plight of its superpowered characters well. The plot involves a corporation, ConSec, that seeks out individuals with telepathic and telekinetic abilities for their own conspiratorial purposes, and the dangerous Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a “scanner” who wants to take ConSec down. Ironically, the hero, played by Canadian painter Stephen Lack, is working for ConSec to take Revok down. The film, not one of Cronenberg’s very best, is best known for its memorable “scanning” sequences, in particular the opening sequence in which Ironside makes a poor schlub’s head explode.
Dreamscape (dir. Joseph Ruben, 1984)
Before there was Inception there was Dreamscape, starring Dennis Quaid in his memorable sci-fi hero phase (a period which also brought you Innerspace and Enemy Mine). Quaid plays a psychic – all the rage at the time – who is recruited for a scientific experiment that would allow him to enter another person’s dreams. Initially, his adventures involve merely curing people from their worst nightmares, including a classic sequence where Quaid takes down a horrifying snake monster. But the real purpose of the experiment is to slip into the dreams of heads of state, and the film culminates with Quaid fighting an all-powerful David Patrick Kelly in the President’s apocalyptic subconscious. It’s like A Nightmare on Elm Street crossed with a superhero movie. Come to think of it… well, we’ll get to that.
Step Up 3D (dir. Jon M. Chu, 2010)
The Step Up franchise has gone through some weird permutations over the years, but none was weirder – or more welcome – than G.I. Joe: Retaliation director Jon M. Chu’s dance competition/superhero hybrid, Step Up 3D. The plot involves a young college student forced to hide his uncanny abilities from his love interest after he joins a team of superpowered dancers (including a robot) who compete against post-apocalyptic road warriors and samurais to save their club, which has a high-tech danger room situated on top of it. It’s… a little silly, but Chu fills his cast with likable characters and dance choreography that holds up better than the most Hollywood fight sequences.
Highlander (dir. Russell Mulcahy, 1986)
Who wants to live forever? We do, if we get to live by Highlander rules. Russell Mulcahy’s quasi-superhero film tells the story of a secret society of people who cannot die unless you chop their heads off. So folks like Conner McCloud drift through history doing whatever the hell they want, and fighting each other to the death with swords because, in the end, “there can be only one.” (How they know that is a little hazy.) Mulcahy gets the pathos of eternal life right, but never forgets that he’s making a melodramatic action romp with larger than life actors like Sean Connery and Clancy Brown. And the music, by Queen, is to die for. Highlander inspired a series of disappointing sequels and a television series with a cult following, but the original film remains a genre classic.
The Boondock Saints (dir. Troy Duffy, 1999)
Troy Duffy’s cult favorite The Boondock Saints is more than just a vigilante movie, it’s a buddy Punisher flick starring two invincible gun-toting wiseacres who do battle with over-the-top Irish hit men and a cross-dressing Willem Dafoe. The Boondock Saints plays like a post-Tarantino pop culture swagger-fest, but the spirit of good fun, outlandish overacting and superhuman acts of action nonsense give the impression that it's just a couple of colorful costumes away from a Garth Ennis series like Hitman. It’s a thin film, but undeniably entertaining in old-fashioned funnybook way. The sequel, 2009 Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, only continues the tradition of craziness, giving the dynamic duo their own goofy sidekick and building up the mythology of the franchise.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (dir. Chuck Russell, 1987)
Remember how we described Dreamscape as “Nightmare on Elm Street crossed with a superhero movie?” Well, guess what? Three years afterwards, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise did just that. Wisely realizing that horror icon Freddy Krueger had a lot in common with a supervillain, the third film in the lucrative franchise repositioned itself as a morbid power fantasy, in which his latest wave of victims fight back using the power of their dreams to give themselves superhuman abilities. One kid turns himself into a wizard, while Patricia Arquette makes herself into a world-class acrobat (not the most creative solution when dealing with an all-powerful reality-altering demon, but somehow it actually works out better than the wizard thing). Dream Warriors turned out to be one of the few good sequels in the franchise, thanks to its distinctive tone, game cast and creative reimagining of the series’ central conceit.
Nightbreed (dir. Clive Barker, 1990)
Lots of classic superheroes are monsters. The Hulk, The Thing, even The X-Men are often forced to protect a world that can see only their deformities. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed takes a similar tactic, imagining an underground city of ghouls who are actually an oppressed minority, forced only to protect themselves from the greatest villain of all: man. Man, in this case, is led by a quasi-Batman villain played by horror legend David Cronenberg, who is obsessed with ridding human (and later inhuman) vermin from the Earth and framing the hero, Craig Sheffer, for his crimes. Although the film has rarely been seen in its unedited director’s cut, leading to a choppy storyline, the love of superhuman beasts with a heart of gold, or at least unwarranted victimization, earns Nightbreed its place as the X-Men of the horror genre.
Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas, 1998)
Co-written by future Batman Begins scribe David Goyer, the science fiction thriller Dark City is often confused with a comic book adaptation thanks to its colorful production design and pseudo-superhero plot, which finds an amnesiac with mental powers fighting to save the perpetually nocturnal city of the title from a subterranean race of supervillains. The mystery of the film (inexplicably given away in the opening credits in the theatrical cut), is one of unnatural conspiracy and sci-fi mumbo jumbo, but under Proyas’ direction the film feels almost like a subtle German Expressionist version of popular superhero tropes… like Tim Burton’s Batman movies but with psychic powers. It gets a little over the top right at the end, but the film is so full of intriguing ideas and beautiful imagery that it’s pretty forgivable.
The Matrix (dirs. The Wachowskis, 1999)
Many superhero sagas involve ordinary, workaday joes who discover that they have abilities beyond those of their peers. They discover new worlds beneath the ones in which they live and use their newfound abilities to save humanity from an evil invasion. In The Matrix, the invasion has already happened, and the “real world” is all just a computer simulation designed to keep mankind from rising up against their robot overlords. It’s a little silly when you say it like that, but The Wachowski Siblings (previously The Wachowski Brothers) pump their film so full of high-minded sci-fi concepts and martial arts movie clichés that the film plays like a deadly serious, and extremely excellent superhero movie filled with fetish outfits and grand fights with all-powerful antagonists. Great heroes, great villains and cool nicknames make The Matrix only a cape away from a superhero movie. And the sequels give Keanu Reeves that cape in the form of a flouncy trenchcoat, which looks really cool when he flies around like Superman. The transformation is complete.
Robocop (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
A heroic cop is reborn as an unstoppable cyborg who takes down the bad guys terrorizing his fair city. If Robocop wasn’t oppressively cynical and hilariously violent, it would be a kids film. (Come to think of it, they tried that with Robocop 3, but it didn’t work.) Robocop sets the high water mark for non-superhero superhero movies, casting its protagonist as a tragic figure whose abilities come at the price of doing his corporate sponsors’ bidding. Since those sponsors are the bad guys, it leads to fascinating questions about an individual’s place in a world increasingly driven on commoditization. And just as importantly, it’s a ridiculously cool film filled with exciting shootouts, robot fights and subversive humor. One of the greats.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by 20th Century Fox.