Kick-Ass is here, and judging from the early buzz, Matthew Vaughn's irreverent action flick about ordinary folks who become crime-fighting vigilantes is almost certain to become a cult classic — and not the kind that only makes its money years later from DVD sales. But Kick-Ass is far from the first movie to portray superheroes in a non-traditional fashion. There’s Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and then there are these films, which dare to stray from the traditional comic-book movie formula, opting for much stranger pathways:
Who can forget Sam Raimi’s first foray into studio filmmaking? The answer is, lots of people, unfortunately. Darkman (unlike its straight-to-video sequels) is a cool little movie about a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who is all but murdered by a mobster while trying to protect his girlfriend (Frances McDormand) from a corrupt developer. The attack leaves him horribly burned, destroying his nerve endings and rendering him incapable of feeling pain. He puts on a costume and tracks down the criminals responsible, using realistic-looking but short-lived masks of people’s faces to go where he pleases. Darkman was an early attempt by Hollywood to explore the darker side of comic heroes and while it made a profit, it wasn't quite the juggernaut everyone was hoping for.
Perhaps The Crow gathered more praise than it deserved due to the tragic on-set death of its star, Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee. At least that’s what some detractors have said. For others, it represents the high-water mark for gothic action films. Certainly the comic, which was a brilliant, sad, and a beautifuly cathartic release for its author James O’Barr, earned all its success. The film adaptation follows guitarist Eric Draven (Lee) who, along with his girlfriend, is murdered by thugs who break into his apartment. A year after his death, a crow lands on his tombstone and he is reborn, climbing out of his grave. Although the film doesn’t detail exactly how it works, the crow apparently allows some folks to come back from the dead in order to avenge their deaths and that’s exactly what Draven does, cutting a violent (yet artistic) bloody swath across the gangland, killing criminals one by one. Heavily stylized films have a tendency to fall into navel-gazing, but The Crow avoids this by filling the screen with action, blood, and even, at points, comedy. And did I mention how great the soundtrack is?
Though it's growing more difficult by the day to believe that M. Night Shyamalan was once a great filmmaker, he certainly got off to a strong start before he spiraled downwards into the hammy hack he's known as now. As good as The Sixth Sense was, Unbreakable was a masterpiece, a dark thriller that slowly and gorgeously unfolded until it gradually dawned on the audience what they were watching: a superhero origin film. Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosser, a blue-collar shmoe just trying to make a living to support his partially estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn) and their son. After becoming the lone survivor of a horrific train accident, he is contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an eclectic comic collector/dealer who suffers from a rare disease that causes his bones to shatter easily, and who is convinced that Jack is his opposite, a person almost...wait for it...unbreakable. For folks looking for a superhero story that feels like it actually occurs in the real world, look no further.
Not every off-the-beaten-path superhero story has to be super-realistic or hyper-violent. Here’s a film from the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, featuring a superhero who uses sex to fight crime. And it’s not even a porn movie! Okay, well, it’s about porn movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Parker stars as a Mormon missionary who reluctantly agrees to act in a porn film to earn the money needed to marry his fiancee. He plays a hero called “Orgazmo” who fights crime with the help of his sidekick, Choda Boy, and his Orgazmorator, a gun that induces sudden, explosive climaxes in whoever he points it at. When the film's director kidnaps Trey’s fiancee in order to blackmail him into making sequels, he designs a real Orgazmorator and begins to battle porn evil. Do I have to tell you that this is much better than it sounds? Do I have to say how cool it is that porn legend Ron Jeremy shows up as a thug (Jizzmaster Zero)? It’s written and directed by the South Park guys....‘nuff said.
Michael Rapaport plays Les Franken, a loser who signs up for experimental drug trials only to discover that the drug is gradually bestowing upon him super powers! Les is a big comics geek and has his heart in the right place, so he looks forward to becoming a protector of the innocent and starts designing his costume. The problem is, what the drug is actually doing is merely making him THINK that he has superpowers. When he walks through walls, he, of course, merely walks into them and hurts himself, but in his mind, the bloody nose is just a side effect of the effort it takes to do it. His doctor tells him to quit the drug, but Les thinks he can communicate telepathically and in his head he hears the doc secretly urging him to keep taking it but that "they’re listening." As you might imagine, Les is in for a rough, paranoia-induced ride. Yet Special has an innocence to it, a positivity about the sort of folks who yearn to be superheroes, that keeps its story charming throughout.
Confessions of a Superhero
There are no superheroes in the real world. Deal with it, fanboys. The closest you’re gonna get is flights of fantasy like Kick-Ass and this documentary about four aspiring actors in Hollywood who spend their days dressed up as superheroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, The Hulk, and Batman), walking around the Hollywood Walk of Fame and taking pictures with tourists for donations. It’s an especially strange existence they lead, and each of them has a unique inspiration and worldview. The film's centerpiece is Christopher Dennis, who not only dresses up as Superman but revolves his entire being around the character. He may have a touch of mental illness, but in many ways he comes off as more inspiring than sad.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Okay, it's not actually out yet, but now that we’ve seen the trailer for Edgar Wright’s new rock/video game/superhero action-comedy, who seriously believes it won't rank right up there with sliced bread? The film stars Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim, a bass guitarist who wants to date an uber-hottie named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but has to defeat her seven evil exes in combat. It’s a completely offbeat tale set in an original, but heavily pop-culture embellished fantasy world where everybody seems to have super powers. The early word here is all glowy, with audiences reportedly being bowled over by the film. When you put this together with Kick-Ass, I think we’re in the midst of a year in which studios have finally taken notice that audiences are increasingly drawn to atypical superhero stories. At least I hope so. If I were an indie comic book writer, I’d be getting my pitch together right about now.