Superhero movies have long been a source of fascination for Hollywood. Long before Christopher Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly with 1978’s Superman: The Movie and kickstarted the modern era of high-budget comic book features, the film industry had already spent decades bringing the adventures of costumed crusaders to the screen both in movies and on television.
The quintessential American superhero is one who traces their roots to the comic book world, where companies like DC and Marvel Comics have spent decades enthralling readers with stories about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man etc. But not every great superhero movie is based on a comic book, or originates from America. Let us take a look at superhero movies from around the world that did not need a comic-based source material to make an impact on the genre.
M. Night Shyamalan is hardly the sort of filmmaker you would expect to make a big, flashy superhero movie. Yet the filmmaker has made not just one but three superhero movies in his career. Of course, being a true auteur, Shyamalan bent the requirements of the genre to suit his tastes rather than bending over backwards himself to accommodate the genre, meaning no over-the-top theatrics, flashy superhero costumes, or loud action set pieces.
2000’s Unbreakabletells the story of David Dunn, the sole survivor of a train crash that reveals David has a bunch of superpowers including invulnerability and telepathy. Almost two decades later, Shyamalan delivered an unexpected sequel to Unbreakable with Split, telling the story of supervillain-in-in-the-making Kevin Wendell Crumb. Finally, Shyamalan rounded out the trilogy with Glass in 2019, detailing a final showdown between David, Kevin, and a criminal mastermind named Mr. Glass.
After rocketing to fame with the success of his debut horror feature Evil Dead, filmmaker Sam Raimi was keen to use his skills to create a superhero movie experience. Unfortunately, Raimi was having difficulty convincing the studios who owned the rights to the most popular superheroes that he was the man for the job. Thus, Raimi decided to create his own superhero movie character from scratch.
That is how the world was introduced to Darkman, a vengeful anti-hero covered in bandages played to chilling effect by Liam Neeson. Darkman operates in the shadows like classic superheroes in the vein of Batman and The Shadow. The character was also heavily inspired by classic literary figures like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The success of Darkman directly led to Raimi getting to make the long-awaited live-action Spider-Man movie a decade later.
By the 2000s. superhero movies had become mainstream. This meant the bare-bones requirements of a superhero story had already entered the collective pop culture consciousness, and was waiting to be subverted by daring filmmakers. One such budding filmmaker was Josh Trank, who made a big impact with his small-budget debut movie Chronicle.
Filmed in the vein of a found-footage horror story, the film tells the saga of a group of friends who gain mental superpowers after coming into contact with a mysterious meteor. Instead of becoming superheroes, the friends start using their powers for selfish reasons. After one of the friends starts morphing into a full-fledged super villain, the other two must decide what path they want to take with their new powers.
Indian storytelling traditions are replete with intricate mythologies and larger-than-life heroic sagas to rival the best Greek and Nordic epics. But superhero stories are a vanishingly small part of Indian pop culture. In 2006 Bollywood created the industry’s first modern age superhero hewing closely to the tradition of DC and Marvel Comics characters in a movie called Krrish.
The titular Krrish is a young man named Krishna who is born with extraordinary abilities. After living a life of seclusion for most of his formative years, Krishna is unexpectedly thrust into the limelight when he travels to Singapore to woo the girl of his dreams. Faced with an increasing threat of violence and a promise he made to his grandmother to keep his powers a secret, Krishna is forced to assume the secret identity of the superhero Krrish to save the world from a mad scientist who has gained access to a computer that can show the future.
As one of the biggest stars of the ’90s and 2000s, there had long been a demand to see Will Smith play a superhero. After a close brush with playing Superman, Smith’s superhero career took an unexpected turn when he starred in 2008’s Hancock. A subversive take on superhero culture, the movie places Smith’s titular character in the role of a Superman-type savior with major personality issues.
Hancock is a washed up alcoholic who also happens to be a super-strong dude with invulnerable skin and the powers of flight and super speed. Despite meaning well most of the time, Hancock’s careless use of his powers in helping people often leads to more harm than good, turning public opinion against him. After a PR consultant vows to turn Hancock’s public image around, Hancock sees a chance for redemption and the possibility of getting some answers about his mysterious past.
4 The Incredibles
Despite being some of the most popular superhero characters in comic book history, The Fantastic Four have struggled to find decent representation on the big screen. Then along came The Incredibles, and gave the world the perfect Fantastic Four movie in spite of being an original story created by Pixar.
After a series of very public catastrophes turn the world against superheroes, meta-humans are forced to go into hiding with the help of the government. Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl are two such supers who hang up their costumes for a stab at family life. But after years of uneventful domesticity, Mr. Incredible yearns to feel the rush of his old crime-fighting days again. One day an opportunity presents itself that seems promising at first, but which soon turns dangerous as it swallows up not just Mr. Incredible, but his super-powered family as well.
Today James Gunn is one of the most noted names in superhero movie culture. But before giving memorable additions to the MCU and DCEU with the Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad, Gunn took a stab at creating his own original superhero characters in a gritty, grounded reality. The movie, released in 2010, was called Super, and it starred Rainn Wilson, Elliot Page, and Kevin Bacon.
The film tells the story of short-order cook Frank Darbo, who feels he has been chosen by God to become a superhero. Clad in a red costume and calling himself The Crimson Bolt, Frank starts a war on crime that soon gets the attention of the news media and the city’s criminal elements. Despite being a low-budget, gritty affair, you see many of Gunn’s trademark style of humor, pathos, and gore on display in Super that the filmmaker would later employ in his MCU and DCEU outings.
2 The Toxic Avenger
Before superhero movies became money-minting machines at the box-office and their budgets ballooned as a result, most films in the genre were campy, low-budget affairs in the vein of slasher horror movies. The most famous superhero film from that era is The Toxic Avenger film franchise, started in 1984 with the first entry in the series that sought to marry superhero sensibilities with slasher horror movie tropes.
Melvin Ferd Junko III is a weak, meek janitor who gets bullied relentlessly by the patrons of the gym where he works. A cruel prank by said patrons leads to Melvin falling into a toxic vat of sludge. This transforms Melvin into an inhumanly large and powerful monster, and he sets off on a rampage to get revenge against the people that had wronged him for so long. The Toxic Avenger proved popular enough to spawn multiple sequels, and is currently getting rebooted for the modern superhero age.
1 The Scarlet Pimpernel
Before there were comic books like DC and Marvel, there was the 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. The novel, and its 1982 movie adaptation, tell the story of Sir Percy Blakeney, an English nobleman who affects a languid and foppish manner in public. Behind closed doors, however, Percy operates as the dashing vigilante known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, who uses his extensive wealth and combat skills to rid the world of oppression.
If that set up sounds similar to Batman, Zorro, and so many other superheroes, just remember that the Scarlet Pimpernel came before all of them. The character has long been credited with creating many of the tropes that came to codify the superhero genre, like having a secret identity and various unexpected superhero sidekicks. Apart from its influence on the superhero genre, 1982’s The Scarlet Pimpernel stands on its own as a well-made film with a compelling star cast that includes Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour, and Ian McKellen.