I've always loved superhero stories. Old issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up helped me learn to read, and a double feature of Superman and Superman II at the local drive-in was one of the first experiences to spark my love of movies.
In many ways, I wouldn't be the person I am today without superhero stories – but my most significant superhero movie memories aren't all of the DC and Marvel variety.
These days, Batman, Superman and the Avengers are all anyone can talk about, but I've always had a soft spot for the superhero movies that aren't based on characters known the world over. And it all started with a little movie called Condorman.
Back in 1981, Disney produced this live-action film about a comi -book creator who gets caught up in a beautiful KGB agent's plans to defect to the U.S. In order to pull off the daring extraction, he convinces the government to build him all of his creation's gadgets and vehicles, and – no surprise here – he finds a reason to use every one of them during their daring, globe-hopping adventure.
It was campy, ridiculous, and laughably silly, but I loved every second of it.
From his tricked-out car that turns into a boat to a set of wings that allows him to make an aerial escape, Condorman's gear instantly put him right alongside Batman in my subconscious superhero meter. And the fact that he was sort of goofy only made him cooler. More than anything else, though, the feeling that this was all there was to know about him made Condorman special as I got older.
My love for superheroes only grew as time went on, and as I became more aware of the long histories of my favorite characters, the desire to know everything there is to know about them clashed with the sheer volume of stories I'd have to track down (no easy task in the pre-Internet days) and read.
Thankfully, there was always Condorman.
Condorman's entire history was contained in a 90-minute movie. There wasn't volume upon volume of back issues to absorb, and there was no secret origin or past adventure that predated the contents of that VHS cassette I eventually wore out from countless viewings. Condorman tapped into all of the things I loved about superhero stories without any of the baggage.
That's why I'm pretty sure I have Condorman to thank for keeping an open mind over the years when it comes to superhero movies that fall outside the traditional Marvel and DC Comics fare. I'm endlessly fascinated by the way filmmakers tackle the superhero genre without the storyboard that comics provide, and fortunately, the ratio of bad to good in the world of original superhero movies doesn't differ all that much from that of the more traditional adaptations.
Yes, for every Meteor Man, there's a Catwoman – but for every Iron Man or X-Men there's also a Chronicle or The Incredibles.
And just like superhero movies based on comics have matured over the years, eventually dabbling in darker tones, so have the original, not-from-comics films that play in those familiar worlds. Just a year after Tim Burton gave the Dark Knight reason to live up to his nickname again in Batman, Sam Raimi gave us Darkman, an edgy, violent and unusually (for the time) dark movie that would've seemed right at home in the modern “gritty” superhero environment.
I remember watching Darkman several times over, knowing that the 1990 film was something special – not just because of its “R” rating and its hero's over-the-top violence, but also because it felt like a weird, wonderful experiment that could only happen with a hero created for this film (even if it was initially intended to be Raimi's version of pulp hero the Shadow).
With Darkman, none of the normal conventions of mainstream superhero stories applied. While you went into every Batman or Superman movie already knowing the basic rules that apply to the character and his adventures, those rules didn't apply to Darkman. He was a wildcard, writing the book as you watched him, and thanks to Liam Neeson's memorable performance, it was one heck of a story.
(On a side note: This was also the reason Neeson's violent, action-hero renaissance in Taken came as no surprise to me. I'd already seen him punch, kick and otherwise brutally dispatch a host of bad guys almost 20 years earlier.)
Sadly, the '90s proved to be pretty disappointing for both mainstream superhero movies and original films, with the aforementioned Meteor Man and various other terrible films “inspired” by comic books flopping their way into (and out of) the box office, as well as the most forgettable entires in the Batman franchise and a horrible movie that cast Shaquille O'Neal as Superman's armor-clad pal Steel.
Things got back on track with the arrival of a new millenium, though.
As Blade, X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man breathed new life into mainstream superhero movies, up-and-coming director M. Night Shyamalan parlayed his success with The Sixth Sense into making Unbreakable, a film that could easily be viewed as one of the first “dark” superhero movies of the modern trend.
The film cast Bruce Willis as a man who discovers (via the sort of traumatic incident that defines most classic superhero origins and their modern movie counterparts) that he is invulnerable. He dons a simple disguise and sets out to fight evil, and in doing so, discovers the heavy toll heroism can take on you and your loved ones.
It was the sort of angsty, emotional exploration of what a real-life superhero would experience that's become commonplace now, with a grounded story that focused on the characters instead of their superhuman powers and effects-fueled battles. And just like with Darkman, I remember watching Unbreakable and knowing that Shyamalan's film was breaking new ground in the genre I loved.
Fortunately, the years that followed have been high times for fans of superhero movies. Film franchises like Blade and X-Men have managed to find the right balance between the darker elements of their source material and the mainstream appeal the big-screen demands, and paved the way for more great projects lifted from comics, like Hellboy. Christopher Nolan went all in with his dark, gritty spin on Batman, while Marvel kept things light and exciting with its slate of blockbuster films.
But among all the well-known adaptations, the occasional, original superhero movie has still popped up (thankfully) and done a nice job of testing the waters which mainstream characters fear to tread. In 2008, Hancock gave us a superhero we weren't supposed to like, then found a way to make us cheer for him. And in 2012, Chronicle director Josh Trank took the DIY approach to superhero movies and gave audiences a first-person account of the way something as seemingly wonderful as superpowers can tear apart family and friends.
In fact, if it wasn't for the arrival of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man that same year, Chronicle – a powerful, tense film that takes the superhero movie genre to some fresh places – would've easily been my favorite superhero movie of 2012.
And that's the beauty of the time we're living in now: there's no shortage of great superhero movies. There's no better time to be a fan, and whether you prefer your films lifted from the page or entirely original, there's always another movie on the way that fits the bill.
And in the meantime, well... there's always Condorman.
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and is still not quite sure how he ended up writing (and talking) about comics, video games, and movies for a living. His personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org, and you can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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