While Marvel and DC have been throwing their PVC-clad muscular men and fetishised women hero franchises at us for the better part of a century, there is something to be said for films that follow the non-obvious path and bring us something new.
M Night Shyamalan was in full swing when he directed ‘Unbreakable’. Bringing together the star talents of Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson, ‘Unbreakable’ gives us a vision of super heroes as might occur in our own very real world, rather than the utopian and dystopian realities brought to us care of Gotham City and Metropolis. The movie’s stunning and heart-wrenching opening follows the scene of an horrendous train crash, in which the protagonist, Willis’s David Dunn, appears to be the only survivor. His explorations into why he survived bring him to realise that he is more than a normal man. Cue Jackson as Elijah Price, who seems to be able to help Dunn come to grips with his new sense of self. ‘Unbreakable’ is a marvellous film, and in my opinion, the greatest super-hero film ever made.
The Dead Zone 
I remember seeing ‘The Dead Zone’ as a young member of generation VHS. This David Cronenberg film explores the phenomenon of precognition through the experiences of its protagonist, imaginatively named Johnny Smith, as portrayed by Christopher Walken. Smith awakes from a coma to discover that he has the ability to see into people’s future by touching them. However, as useful as this skill turns out to be, his ability seems to take a physical toll on him. Despite Walken’s appearance in the classic, ‘The Deer Hunter’, this was my first Walken experience. I remember being totally impressed by his performance. He is clearly an actor that says as much through movement as he does through intonation and facial expression. He makes a truly creepy hero and Stephen King’s tale is a perfect showcase for his abilities.
With a remake on the eve of release, Robocop is recognised as a classic hero, despite not having been conceived via the traditional comic book route. Paul Verhoeven’s cynical dystopian vision of corporate America sees a bankrupt Detroit privatise its entire law enforcement operations through the sinister OCP corporation. The titular Robocop is a crime-fighting cyborg constructed using the remains of a police officer, Alex Murphy, played by Peter Weller, who barely survives a violent death at the hands of criminals. The cyborg appears to be devoid of any memory of his more human incarnation until he is encouraged by his partner, Anne Lewis. Murphy begins to become a vital part of the previously frosty Robocop’s demeanour as he and his partner start to unravel the web of corruption spun by the OCP corporation.
Dark Man 
‘Dark Man’ is a violent hero story from the hand of Sam Raimi. A director who started his career with nasties such as ‘The Evil Dead’, but went on to make the 2002 remake of ‘Spiderman’. Indeed, the film fits half-way between these two poles, in that it retains the nastiness of ‘Evil Dead’, while delivering a hero story. Liam Neeson portrays Dr Peyton Westlake, a scientist developing synthetic skin for use in the treatment of burns victims. His results are not entirely successful as his skin substitute disintegrates after 99 minutes exposure to daylight. Of course, the way these sort of films go, it’s Westlake himself that is forced to use his own invention as the pantomime-style bad guys, headed by ruthless mob boss, Robert G. Durant and crooked property developer, Louis Strack Jr, get the better of him in a vicious attack. Westlake is forced underground and after radical life-saving surgery, he is both invigorated with enhanced strength, immune to pain, but also becomes violent and psycholgically unhinged. It is this cocktail of ingredients together with his relationship with attorney, Julie Hastings that drives the intriguing but violent plot.
Darkman is an intriguing character. Almost a mix between Phantom Of The Opera’s Erik and Toxie from The Toxic Avenger. Toxie came very close to making this list, but seeing as I have already written extensively about him, I’m sure he can forgive me for reducing his evident presence with a quick mention. More about Toxie here, in case you’re intrigued…
The Matrix 
The original film, made by the ever-impressive Wachowskis, is a truly modern superhero film. Keanu Reeves’s Neo begins to unravel a fundamental conspiracy in the nature of reality. Reality itself turns out to be merely a virtual construct fed into people’s minds, while their true purpose as human beings is to behave as organic batteries for a planet earth dominated by sentient computers and machines. It is against this backdrop that Neo emerges as the hero, under the guidance of uber-mentor, Morpheus, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. ‘The Matrix’ is a great original concept that needed no comic-book translation. To say that it came out in the same summer as ‘The Phantom Menace’, it fared extremely well. Perhaps its reputation was tainted only by the less than impressive sequels that were rushed into production off the back of this movie’s unexpected success.
Hollow Man 
Paul Verhoeven gets a second bite at the Alternative Hero apple with his modern reinterpretation of H.G. Well’s ‘The Invisible Man’. Kevin Bacon stars as scientist, Sebastian Caine. His work on achieving invisibility is brilliantly highlighted in a special effects sequence near the beginning as we witness a test ape being rendered invisible by the process. Inevitably, Caine himself becomes the live subject of the experiment, but to disastrous effect. Even his partner and fellow scientist, played by Elizabeth Shue cannot support Caine as the process takes a grave psychological toll on him. ‘Hollow Man’ also dares to tread where Well’s tale was too polite to. Verhoeven is not too shy to explore the voyeuristic temptations of invisibility as a lecherous facet emerges in Caine’s psyche. A truly interesting vehicle, with Caine admittedly being more of a villain than a hero.
The Incredibles 
Most of the movies in this list seem to involve horrible or sinister events. Pixar is here to save the day. There is no disfigurement, or accident in the laboratory in this film, as seems to be the common pretext in many super hero films. Pixar’s movie gives us a comical vista into a remarkable super hero family. ‘The Incredibles’ would be my favourite Pixar film, if it weren’t for the flawless dystopia movie, ‘Wall-E’. Bob Parr, better known to the world as Mr Incredible, heads the Incredible family of heroes. Each with their own special ability. The film presents the traditional conflict against super villain adversaries, while exploring the family’s familiar, contemporary, everyday problems. The result is both hilarious and moving.
The original 1976 film was based on the Stephen King’s first novel of the same title. It was an early preview into the fantastic imagination of the classic American horror writer. Carrie was remade twice in both 2002 and more recently in 2013. The statement of the story is never better delivered than in the original format, however. Sissy Spacek introduced us to the titular character. The only child of a brutal god-fearing parent. Ostracised at high-school, she has all the desires of a normal teenager. Except she is not a normal teenager. She happens to possess the power of telekinesis, and this is brought to the fore during the events of the film that involve a cruel prank delivered at the hand of none other than disco-king, John Travolta.
Stephen King brought us yet another alternative hero in his novel, ‘Firestarter’. The movie stars a young Drew Barrymore alongside David Keith, who in my mind I remember being the similar-looking Kurt Russell. The movie follows Andy McGee, played by Keith, who is on the run. Having met his wife whilst taking part in a secret government experiment, their child turns out to yield results from the drug they are subjected to, a hallucinogen called ‘LOT-6’. The powers she exhibits include mind-reading and precognition, but more remarkably, the ability to cause spontaneous combustion. Of course, the nasty government men can’t wait to get their grubby little mits onto Charlie to make use of her unique ability.
The Fly 
This time, I have to go with David Cronenberg’s remake, rather than the also rather cool if a touch kitsch version of the fly, released in 1958 as part of Vincent Price’s wonderful portfolio. Jeff Goldblum stars as scientist, Seth Brundle. Brundle’s investigations explore the science of teleportation and he is on the verge of a major breakthrough, using a set of teleportation pods that have the ability to transfer matter from one point to another. Cue Veronica Quaife played by Geena Davis, as a journalist who becomes intrigued by the invention, and eventually the man. Brundle tries the teleportation pods on himself, not realising that he has shared his experience with a humble fly. Only one life-form emerges from the receiving pod, as Brundle is merged with the fly at a genetic level. Thus unfolds the film, with Cronenberg doing what he does best in delivering possibly his best film in the body-horror subgenre.
If you’ve been counting, you will realise that this is number 11, but I can’t compile this list without a quick mention to this great movie. Also a strong candidate for the best alternative superhero movie soundtrack, provided by the legendary Queen. Highlander is the story of Connor Macleod. Macleod (Christopher Lambert) turns out to be an immortal. And he ain’t the only one. There are a group of such Immortals, and they are hunting each other in the aim of becoming the ultimate immortal. But they’re immortal aren’t they? Well that’s where the swords come in. Turns out, their immortality is subject to decapitation. Clancy Brown pulls off a great performance as Macleod’s nemesis, the evil Kurgan. Similarly to ‘The Matrix’, the film’s reputation was spoiled by poor sequels. That isn’t stopping Hollywood’s new attempts to reboot the franchise.
As it turns out, Stephen king and David Cronenberg turn out to be the masters of the alternative superhero movie, with several examples each. If you are going to check out any of these films, the one you should head for has to be their collaboration, ‘The Dead Zone’. Hollywood seems to be very good at feeding us the safe prefabricated hero story from the stables of Marvel and DC. In fact, it is often these more original hero stories that are far more satisfying. The era of the 1980’s brought us many original heroes. Possibly driven by Marvel and DC generally turning down options for movie adaptations for fear of cheapening their trademarks. In our modern era, where Disney are at the controls, and special effects can crack a fair whip at realising their hero portfolio, such originality is harder to find.