Superhero Movies Before They Were Cool

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Once upon a time, superhero movies were not the norm. They didn’t dominate. They certainly weren’t the most popular and profitable film genre on the planet. Hollywood had had dalliances with comic book adaptations, for sure – Christopher Reeve’s SUPERMAN movies of the 70s and 80s, and the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton BATMAN films of the 80s and 90s, but the capes and spandex had yet to take hold. What superheroes that did emerge beyond the Boy Scout and the Bat tended to be far darker and lesser-known, with a smaller box office, but no less interesting.  Here’s three of the most notable examples, what they meant then, and how they influenced the industry today.

DARKMAN (1990)

DARKMAN is a long-standing template for dark superhero movies (arguably even above Burton’s Batman). It’s the only original superhero (not adapted from a pre-existing comic) on the list, and that’s only because Sam Raimi couldn’t secure the rights to the superhero he wanted to use (The Shadow).

In his breakthrough role, Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, a scientist horribly burned when he is the victim of a mobster’s shakedown in revenge for Westlake’s lawyer girlfriend’s rooting out of underworld corruption. Now immune to pain and highly mentally unstable, he shrouds himself in bandages and becomes Darkman, a good-hearted monster determined to finish his work and driven by regret, love and revenge.

In Darkman, you can see Sam Raimi’s career in microcosm – he still hasn’t abandoned his mischievous comedy-horror roots in the EVIL DEAD films, but he is just starting to move towards the more mainstream fare epitomised by SPIDER-MAN. He also pays affectionate tribute to the Universal Horror movies in the way the film looks, and what is driving it underneath. Darkman himself looks like the lovechild of antagonists of THE MUMMY and THE INVISIBLE MAN, and his motivations are somewhere between the doctor in FRANKENSTEIN and the eponymous PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Despite the horror and superhero elements, like a lot of Raimi films, you have to be able to stomach a certain amount of camp to really enjoy this one, and the action set pieces are looking more threadbare than other early 90s movies. The special makeup effects are still fantastic, though, and it’s entertaining to watch Neeson give a really over-the-top performance.

THE CROW (1994)

Still as thematically satisfying and character-driven as ever, Alex Proyas’ cult masterpiece THE CROW still packs a punch today, even without the unexpected real-life tragedy of Brandon Lee. It’s influenced everything from THE MATRIX to THE DARK KNIGHT in terms of aesthetics, and though it was never more than a sleeper hit on release (beyond morbid curiosity) it has had a lasting impact.

Eric Draven (Lee) lived a happy bohemian life with his girlfriend before they were both brutalised and killed by a gang looking for a kick on Devil’s Night. But Eric’s spirit isn’t letting go of his grip on the world of the living without a fight, at least not until justice is done…

A film about a resurrected murder victim seeking violent revenge of course has to be dark, and The Crow is, very much so. But it’s also really funny. Brandon Lee relishes Eric’s gallows humour (just looks at his face when he asks his victim “is that gasoline I smell” before blowing up his pawn shop) and played captivating unhinged long before Heath Ledger. Michael Wincott’s foul fencing fanatic gang boss Top Dollar is a memorable antagonist, entertaining in the way film villains used to be – simply enjoying being nasty – in the days before every bad guy had to have a sympathetic streak. Add to this a killer goth rock soundtrack, and you’ve got the makings of an enduring cult classic.

I’m actually surprised the avenging angel as superhero movie hasn’t been attempted more since this. It’s the perfect excuse for your movie to be cool and moody, and allows for the exploration of grand, complex pseudo-religious themes and the unapologetic punishment of bad people. As influential on good films as it was, The Crow did also give birth to some truly terrible sequels that didn’t even have the dignity to be awful in their own right, but rather repeated the exact same beats of the Proyas/Lee original,  but badly. No-one could match Lee’s portrayal of course, but the villains were dull as well, and the sequels also lacked the beating heart in this film that chiefly came from Eric’s brotherly relationship with the waifish Sarah (Rochelle Davis).

SPAWN (1997)

SPAWN had brilliant production design, and the effects are still interesting enough to (mostly) still hold up, but the ambitious themes and scale makes the plot a mess and the performances and screenplay leave a lot to be desired. Being a comic book adaptation is not an excuse to completely lack nuance. Michael Jai White is OK, and John Leguizamo is irritatingly funny, but Martin Sheen is God-awful.

Like The Crow, Spawn tells the story of a murdered man returning to the world of the living for revenge against his killers. Unlike Eric Draven, Al Simmons (White) was not an innocent, always inhabiting a morally grey area as he employed his considerable skill as an assassin of high-profile targets. When he is betrayed and murdered, he makes a deal with the Devil to return to Earth to save his family and stop his killers from unleashing a new hell on the world.

I’m not saying there aren’t some great ideas on show, but few of them are executed well. You have to balance a lot of competing narrative, tonal and thematic elements to successfully pull off a story about the eternal battle between good and evil, and much of Spawn feels skewed in the wrong direction for one reason or another. The visual effects are undeniably influential on the good (HELLBOY), the bad (GHOST RIDER) and the interesting (NIGHT WATCH), and a superhero’s suit has rarely looked so awesome on film. Also as the first big screen live-action African American superhero, arguably without Spawn, you might never have had BLADE.

If Alex Proyas had directed this as originally planned, the whole thing might have ended up more coherent, but then we might have never seen DARK CITY, which would be a terrible loss for cinema. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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