In 1990, I got into “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and eventually learned that the source material was adult-aimed comic books. The same year, the “Toxic Crusaders” cartoon was on TV and the Playmates action figures were right next to “TMNT” toys on the shelves. The source material here makes “TMNT’s” look tame by comparison, and I can only hope not too many kids checked out the 1984 “Toxic Avenger” movie and became traumatized.
The Rocketeer” (1991) launched the 1990s boom of nostalgic proto-superhero films set in the time before “Superman’s” 1938 invention, and it set the bar high enough that it wouldn’t be matched by “The Shadow,” “The Phantom” or “The Mask of Zorro.” Director Joe Johnston’s film has everything, in a good way: Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly in star-making turns, rocket-pack flying effects that hold up today, unscrupulous feds and other baddies angling for the pack, classy dinner dates, chases through kitchens with pans flying, tommy-gun shootouts … tied together by James Horner’s score that evokes the idea of brighter days ahead.
Sky High” (2005) is totally formulaic, and that’s why it succeeds for most of its run time but ultimately flattens out into something safely disposable. It came out during what I like to think of as the Disney comedy boom of the early 21st century, the time of “Lizzie McGuire” and its ilk. Although the writers and director have worked almost entirely on Disney kids’ and animated projects, “Sky High” is a smart movie with a lot of too-wise-for-school humor.
Judge Dredd” (1995) lacks nuance as it presents a 22nd century police state where Street Judges (cops) serve as judge, jury and executioner. But should that really be a knock against director Danny Cannon’s film? After all, police states throughout history – other than perhaps using euphemistic language — aren’t exactly sneaky about how they do things.
The Phantom is a pivotal figure in comic superhero history. Unlike most other proto-superheroes (those who predate Superman), he originated not in pulp novels but rather in a syndicated comic strip. Created in 1936 by Lee Falk, the Africa-based Phantom wears a unitard costume and a mask that hides his true identity as everyday American Kit Walker (thus asking viewers to just go with the notion that other characters can’t recognize him, as with Superman and Batman).
Out of the films that regularly appear on “Worst Superhero Movies, Ever” lists, “Elektra” (2005) ranks as one of the best. While it admittedly has some confusing story points, it’s a notable improvement over the slick “Daredevil” (2003), where Elektra (invented for comics in 1981 by Frank Miller) is a nothing character. This spinoff features a lot of natural woodsy settings, a strong performance by Jennifer Garner in the lead role, a score by “Buffy’s” Christophe Beck and confident direction by “The X-Files’ ” Rob Bowman.
The Shadow” (1994) is one of those pre-Superman non-comic superheroes. Created by Walter B. Gibson, The Shadow originated in a pulp novel in 1930. He fights crime in New York City and has the supernatural ability to cloud people’s minds; when he attacks, his enemies see a shadow at most, and possibly nothing at all, as if he’s invisible.
Green Lantern” (2011) has a reputation for being garbage, but it’s a perfectly fine adaptation of the DC superhero who was created in 1940 by Alan Scott and Martin Nodell. If you go in hearing about how bad it is, you might even think “Hey, that wasn’t so bad.” Since my superhero-watching journey is partly for the sake of learning about the major figures in comic-book lore, I found this to be a painless piece of homework.
Zorro is a rare superhero who doesn’t come from comic books, and indeed he predates the 1938 invention of Superman. He was created in 1919 by pulp novelist Johnston McCulley. The “Zorro” film series, of which the two Antonio Banderas-starring entries are the 10th and 11th American outings, dates back to 1920. Arguably, Zorro is not a superhero (he has no superpowers and did not originate in comics), but he’s listed as such enough times that I’ll categorize him as a proto-superhero for now and let the debate continue.
Ilove the two “Sin City” films (2005, 2014), so the existence of “The Spirit” (2008) is both good and bad. On one hand, it’s another hardboiled movie in the style of a black-and-white comic (along with red and some washed-out colors). On the other hand, it’s a much lesser installment in this little subgenre, even though it’s written and directed by “Sin City’s” Frank Miller.