Minting a successful superhero franchise out of a preexisting comic book is easy (despite what Green Lantern might suggest). It’s far more notable to create an entirely new superhero who can contend on a Marvel scale—which is why no one’s done it. Rather, film history is littered with one-off adventures from new heroes who sprang wholly from the minds of Hollywood screenwriters. Some of these were more memorable than others: Hancock, Unbreakable, Chronicle, Darkman, The Meteor Man. While not all were box office hits, they have at least attained a certain place in the pantheon of superhero films. But more often than not, these would-be champions came and went, never receiving the call to assemble for some kind of Avengers-like super-team. Until now!


1. Condorman (1981)

Decades before it swallowed Marvel whole, Disney took a stab at creating its own big-screen superhero with Condorman, loosely based on Robert Sheckley’s spy-goof novel, The Game Of X. The real inspiration for Condorman, however, was most evident in its hiring of special effects coordinator Colin Chilvers, who brought in the exact same equipment he used on the first two Superman movies. In an apt metaphor for the whole production, Condorman star Michael Crawford (still a few years out from The Phantom Of The Opera) found he just wasn’t able to fit into the molds Chilvers made for Christopher Reeve. Likewise, Condorman didn’t exactly make kids want to run around, pretending to be Crawford’s Woody Wilkins, a comic book artist/crazy person who occasionally likes to dress up as his winged creation and jump off tall buildings. Because this was the ’80s, Woody soon finds himself caught up in a game of international espionage with a comely Russian spy (Barbara Carrera, whose character was creepily hailed by the studio’s then-president as “the sexiest in Disney’s history”), finally giving him the opportunity to become Condorman for real. The film was a critically panned bomb—those visible harnesses in the flying scenes certainly didn’t help—and Disney didn’t try getting into the superhero game again until 1991’s The Rocketeer, a movie that, while also a box office disappointment, was at least more fondly remembered. Or remembered, anyway. [Sean O’Neal]


2. Black Scorpion (1995)

Roger Corman wanted to do a “a female Superman-Spiderman-Batman,” the proudly mercenary producer said of his Showtime film, Black Scorpion, a politely roundabout way of saying he wanted to put a woman in tight, revealing latex, then delve into the psychosexual subtext of superheroes as only a cable movie with brief nudity can. To Corman’s credit, Black Scorpion at least gets the Batman part right: The titular superhero, played by direct-to-video doyenne Joan Severance, is similarly an ordinary person—and a detective—who’s compelled by her father’s death to don black rubber and fight criminals. She’s even provided with gadgets by her own, appropriately budget-priced Lucius Fox: a car thief portrayed by Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris. But while Black Scorpion is similarly effective at knocking around assorted pimps and thugs—and has her own nemesis, an asthmatic supervillain dubbed the Breathtaker—the most superheroic thing about her is the ability to run and fight in spiked stilettos. Black Scorpion proved popular enough to earn a sequel, 1997’s Black Scorpion II: Aftershock, and even a short-lived 2000 Sci-Fi TV series starring Michelle Lintel—which we suppose, technically, makes it a sort of franchise, one that inspired a generation of young comic book fans to cut Catwoman some slack. [Sean O’Neal]


3. The Pumaman (1980)

Advertisement

Advertisement

The descendant of alien beings worshiped by the Aztecs, the Pumaman protects the people of Earth with the powers of his namesake cat: superstrength, night vision, heightened reflexes, flight (?), teleportation (??), and the ability to survive falls from great heights. It’s the last item in that list that marks paleontologist Tony Farms (Walter George Alton) as the latest descendant in this noble lineage, a distinction he spends most of 1980’s The Pumaman whining about. And who can blame him? He has the deaths of several colleagues on his conscience. And now his dad’s old friend—and the aliens’ messenger on Earth, Vadinho (Miguel Angel Fuentes)—is bugging him about how Tony, and only Tony, can defeat the megalomaniacal Dr. Kobras (Donald Pleasence), who’s gotten hold of some ancient Pumaman (which Kobras pronounces “pyoo-mah man”) mind-control technology. Also, the khaki slacks of Tony’s superhero costume leave a lot to be desired, plus the film’s cut-rate special effects make his flying process look downright painful. (As the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew sings to the tune of the hero’s sprightly synth theme: “Pumaman / He flies like a moron.”) It’s all enough to make a guy give up the movie business altogether, in favor of the high-stakes, action-packed world of medical malpractice law. [Erik Adams]


4. Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990)

Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. probably wasn’t what Namco (publisher of Pac-Man and other arcade hits) had in mind when it partnered with the schlockmeisters of Troma Entertainment on a family-friendly superhero movie. What it got was… a Troma movie, with all the nudity, gore, and lowbrow humor that implies. Kabukiman is actually Det. Harry Griswold, your average hot-dog-chomping white dude who—through a twist of fate involving a mass murder at a kabuki performance—ends up possessed by the spirit of a legendary hero. In addition to now having an insatiable craving for Japanese food, Griswold can transform into his face-painted alter ego and gain powers as devastating as they are stereotypical: flight, superstrength, blasting gale force winds from his paper fans, and, of course, firing deadly, heat-seeking chopsticks from his hands. Kabukiman didn’t become the global phenomenon everyone but Troma mastermind Lloyd Kaufman wanted him to be, but he at least became a central figure of the Troma universe. He even has his own YouTube talk show. [Matt Gerardi]


5. Blankman (1994)

Hoping to capitalize on a mix of lingering Batman obsession and its stars’ In Living Color fame, Blankman introduced audiences to an aggressively shrill take on superhero vigilantism. Played by Damon Wayans at his most (intentionally) irritating, Darryl Walker is a perfectly normal, supergenius inventor—complete with taped-together nerd glasses—who realizes he can make a difference in his inner-city community through outreach and hard work. Just kidding: He straps on a cape, loads up stink bombs with his own farts, and attempts to roller-skate crime, led by Jon Polito’s Mafia baddie, right out of town. He’s reluctantly aided by his brother and straight man sidekick, David Alan Grier, and his sub-Rocky IV robot companion, J5, and held back by his kryptonite: the crippling erections he gets whenever he kisses a pretty girl. Blankman has taken on minor cult status in recent years, though contemporary critics and audiences weren’t shy about letting Wayans know that his crimefighting MO stank. [William Hughes]


6. The Specials (2000)

Advertisement

Advertisement

On paper, the array of superpowers on The Specials’ bench—flight, superstrength, invulnerability, antimatter control, shapeshifting, and, uh, “bird powers”—would make them a credible threat to evildoers. The only problem, though, is that they’re all assholes. Whether it’s Rob Lowe’s Weevil constantly angling to join a more prestigious team, or Paget Brewster’s Ms. Indestructible sleeping with Weevil behind the back of her husband, the uptight team leader Strobe (Thomas Haden Church), none of the Specials are able to get out of their own way in the pursuit of the greater good—which explains why they’re unable to land the kind of franchising fame and cushy merchandising deals afforded other superheroes. That joke became a self-fulfilling prophecy as The Specials would be all but overlooked upon release, taking in a modest $13,000 at the box office. Screenwriter James Gunn would have more luck with the “dysfunctional super-team” conceit 15 years later on Guardians Of The Galaxy, but not before trying his hand again at a movie about superheroes with intense personal problems. [William Hughes]


7. Super (2010)

Notable now mostly for being the superhero movie James Gunn directed before that other one, Super takes the far darker approach to superheroes as essentially psychopaths with weapons. Driven to despair after his wife leaves him, regular sad sack Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) suffers a hallucination in which God tells him to beat the shit out of bad people with a pipe wrench. And so he does, dressing up as his new superhero alter ego, the Crimson Bolt, and savagely assaulting purse-snatchers and line-cutters with three solid pounds of metal, all while yelling his half-formed catchphrase (“Shut up, crime!”). His enthusiasm attracts the attention of a young comic book store clerk (Ellen Page) who becomes his sidekick, Boltie, and proves herself to be even more deranged. Super is an even more violent, far more grim spin on the similarly themed—and much more successful—Kick-Ass, released six months earlier, and it struggled to find an audience. Luckily, Gunn soon bounced back with a superhero movie that added talking raccoons and dancing tree-people. You know—the fun kind of crazy. [William Hughes]


8. Defendor (2009)

Woody Harrelson, for all his virtues, doesn’t really have a superhero face, too hangdog and knobby for the mask-and-cowl treatment. Defendor plays off this disadvantage, casting the actor as a powerless superhero who runs around with a duct-taped costume, tossing marbles and lime juice at criminals. Homeless and living in a construction depot with a crack-smoking sex worker named Kat (Kat Dennings), the setup is, like James Gunn’s Super, another Kick-Ass-style riff on unhinged self-made heroes interacting with the real world, with the pointedly misspelled Defendor taking on an arch-nemesis he calls Captain Industry. But if the setup screams bawdy yuks, the film pointedly disagrees, becoming an unsettling portrait of mental illness. It’s little wonder that, after snapping it up, Sony balked at releasing it in American theaters even with Harrelson attached. [Clayton Purdom]


9. Hero At Large (1980) 

Advertisement

Advertisement

Steve Nichols doesn’t have any superpowers or special skills—at least, beyond an acute recognition of his own limitations. But thanks to the considerable charms of John Ritter, Steve’s short-lived career as a crimefighter comes across as anything but delusional. Steve is a decent if rudderless guy, made all the more relatable by Ritter’s human-golden-retriever levels of likability. The cabbie and struggling actor first “becomes” Captain Avenger when he agrees to play the character—not in the Captain Avenger film within the film, but rather while bravely standing outside of movie theaters to sign autographs. When Steve decides to live up to the nonsensical name, Captain Avenger is soon shot at and embroiled in political scandal for his troubles. Hero At Large similarly failed to make a movie star out of Ritter—Roger Ebert shrugged that it was “just television on a wide screen”—but it at least offers a far more grounded, lighthearted spin on the territory later darkened by Super, Defendor, and Kick-Ass, et al. [Danette Chavez]


10. Special (2006)

Even among the dark subgenre of powerless men fancying themselves superheroes, Special is especially bleak—perhaps because unlike Super or Defendor, it plays the premise mostly for laughs. Michael Rapaport quite literally throws himself into his performance as Les Franken, a comic book fan who signs up for an experimental drug treatment, becoming convinced it’s given him superabilities, from low-level flying to telekinesis and telepathy. After foiling a convenience store robbery, Les begins life as a costumed vigilante, only to mostly get himself repeatedly injured. Meanwhile, his doctor tries to convince him to stop taking the drugs, leading to Les’ increasingly paranoid delusions as he rapidly mentally deteriorates. Special largely leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Les’ powers are real; we only see what he thinks he’s doing, not how it looks to everyone else. But the overall tone of Special is more depressing than funny, and even Rapaport’s dedicated performance doesn’t make Les the kind of hero you’d want helping the helpless. [Alex McLevy]


11. American Hero (2015)

“You’ll believe Stephen Dorff can be an asshole!” would be an unappealing, if accurate tagline for Nick Love’s superhero dramedy about a drunk deadbeat dad wasting his mysterious powers in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Indeed, Dorff’s Melvin mostly just bums around, occasionally donning a luchador mask and using his unexplained gifts of telekinesis to rip off convenience stores and do cheap street magic—like levitating his wheelchair-using buddy/sidekick, Lucille (Eddie Griffin)—but never doing any good. American Hero is basically a smaller, shaggier version of Hancock (with which it shares a theme of reluctant, even flat-out unlikable superheroes), or a less ambitious Chronicle (with which it shares a found-footage, “documentary” approach), and like both films, it finds Melvin eventually embracing his powers, using them to clean up his community and get rid of a local drug gang. But the fact that he doesn’t even bother coming up with a cool superhero name (he’s always just “Melvin”) speaks to how little interest he has in world-saving, or doing anything beyond the bare minimum to be considered hero enough to just earn visitation rights. [Sean O’Neal]


12. Abar, The First Black Superman (1977)

Advertisement

Advertisement

Long before Black Panther—and before Spawn, Blankman, Blade, and Meteor Man—there was 1977’s Abar, The First Black Superman, a film which, true to its title, can lay claim to being the first real black superhero movie. Unfortunately, it is terrible. The low-rent blaxploitation film—directed by an actual pimp, who partially shot it in a working brothel—revolves around a black man who moves from the ghetto to the lily-white suburbs, with replacement-level funk guitars chugging throughout. Abar doesn’t even get superpowers until the film’s final 20 minutes, discovering that he’s bulletproof and has mind-control powers that he uses to clean up his community, giving prostitutes the strength to beat up their abusive handlers and sending craps-shooting delinquents to college. It’s a movie that has a well-intentioned heart—the use of (unlicensed) Martin Luther King audio throughout tells you that—but it’s all handled with such clumsiness that it’s no surprise it took another 40 years before we finally got the black superhero we deserved. [Clayton Purdom]


13. Argoman The Fantastic Superman (1967)

Sir Reginald Hoover (Roger Browne) has the debonair charm, rakish wit, psychedelic accoutrements, and moral gray areas of his fellow costumed Italian antihero, Diabolik. What Hoover’s alter ego, Argoman, lacks is any outfit as sleek and stylish as the mod catsuits worn by his compatriot in world-saving heists: Any and all sense of comic book cool in Argoman The Fantastic Superman is blown to pieces the moment Browne tears away at his Carnaby Street threads to reveal the canary long johns beneath. It’s an ensemble the telekinetic superthief tops off with a Cyclops visor and a loose-fitting balaclava, the crimson spit curl on the forehead letting foes know that his are powers… of the mind. Argoman’s amassed quite the collection of priceless “souvenirs” from his time assisting—and swindling—the authorities, but his greatest crime might be mucking up some perfectly good swingin’ ’60s spy dross with subpar superheroics. How could anyone with a space-age bachelor pad like Sir Reginald’s settle for a look as goofy as Argoman’s? [Erik Adams]


14. Doctor Mordrid (1992)

A quarter-century before Benedict Cumberbatch donned the pointy beard, director Charles Band—known for his work on beloved franchises like Trancers and Evil Bong—snagged the rights to make a Doctor Strange movie, only to see his option expire before he got the chance. Rather than scrap the idea, Band just made it anyway for drunk-movie-night dream factory Full Moon Features, simply renaming the character Doctor Mordrid and making a few other lawsuit-dodging alterations. As played by Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs, Dr. Mordrid is an intergalactic wizard hiding out on Earth as a criminal psychologist and part-time landlord, awaiting the return of his nemesis—and childhood pal—Kabal (Brian Thompson). Mordrid has all the powers you’d expect of a space-wizard/building superintendent, including telekinesis and the ability to shoot wicked light rays out of his hands. Aided by a police research consultant and love interest played by Yvette Nipar, Mordrid takes on Kabal in an epic sorcery battle that’s all wrapped up in a lean 74 minutes. Strangely, even for a company that managed to churn out more than a dozen Puppet Master movies, Full Moon didn’t see fit to make any Doctor Mordrid sequels. Who knows what exciting dimensions/apartments he would be ruling over if it had? [Sean O’Neal]


15. The Return Of Captain Invincible (1983)

The Return Of Captain Invincible has seemingly everything you need for a blockbuster: a superhero fighting for truth, justice, and the American way; Christopher Lee singing campy rock songs; Alan Arkin in tights. Yet the 1983 action-comedy hybrid—jazzed up with songs by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley—failed to find much of a following. Perhaps you could blame it on the title, which implied a second outing for a character no one had ever heard of. Or maybe it was the somewhat dark premise, involving a Captain America-type (Arkin) who’d bested Nazis before being driven into exile and alcoholism by a government that feared his powers. Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Zack Snyder would eventually take those themes seriously—to the tune of billions of dollars—Captain Invincible uses them as an excuse for slapstick-y satire, following Invincible’s bumbling attempts to get clean, recapture his mojo, and stop his old nemesis, Mr. Midnight (Lee), before he can, uh, cleanse New York of all minorities, all in between some goofy song-and-dance numbers. It’s a silly, tonally jarring goof that, not surprisingly, also marked The Departure Of Captain Invincible. [Sean O’Neal]