Powers, Disguises, and Moral Demises: A List of Not-So-Super Heroes in Films

Chronicling the best of the brave, brawny, and behaviorally blemished, Mike LeSuer counts off the ten most disappointingly human cinematic superheroes since the formation of the Justice League.

With the recent revival of blockbuster films based on superhero comics, it can be an overwhelming task sifting through the revenue-driven blunders cashing in on an audience’s loyalty to the genre to find the genuine, innovative adaptations that will withstand the test of time. While pictures like Catwoman and Green Lantern have been ostracized by the superhero community (Ebert’s take on the latter: “the greens were…real green”), Marvel’s incestuous Avengers franchise has made quite an impression on the all-time U.S. box office gross earnings list.

So what makes for a successful superhero movie? Certainly the popularity (or novelty) of a crime fighter will attract a wide range of viewers, and an obedience to its source material will impress die hard fans. But it’s important to note that the transition from page to screen has allowed for one of the most engulfing American fantasies of the twentieth century to come to life, so when the life it achieves wavers, it can be seen for what it really is pre-post-production: an awkward stab at the impossible task of presenting cartoons as reality.

That being said, success within the genre appears to be measured considerably by a film’s ability to exist flawlessly in two realities at once: the fantastic and the relatable. The incomprehensible CGI disaster that was Catwoman can be tossed aside due to its inability to succeed as a fantasy-reality, while the unlikeliness to perceive any form of relatability in Green Lantern’s one dimensional characters makes it unwatchable for any empathetic being. The films on this list have each been hand picked as ideal examples of visually-seamless depictions of alternative realities that could easily be related to our own experiences. Though few of the list’s subjects possess superhuman powers, each hero displays remarkable traits worthy of cinematic exposure, regardless of their relatively mundane inspirations.

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10. Speed Racer (from Speed Racer, dir. Lana & Andy Wachowski, 2008)

One part DC’s Flash, two parts D.C.’s Crash, Speed Racer’s lightning-fast agility is a superpower fully dependent on a vehicular technology transcending the explicit boundaries of human physicality forming a superhuman desire to maintain the independence of his Mom and Pops racing company, and, of course, win the Grand Prix. Like Tony Stark’s titanium tuxedo, the Mach 5’s DNA becomes so infused with that of its helmsman that the two form a hybrid hellbent on repeatedly standing up to the monolithic corporate adversary known as Royalton Industries. Impacted by family tragedy and impervious to all obstacles (lawsuits, spearhooks, parental discretion), Speed’s dedication to honest success in spite of his passion’s apocalyptically Darwinian culture is perhaps the only thing that’s not cartoonish about this impossibly colorful film.

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9. Jake LaMotta/Raging Bull (from Raging Bull, dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980)

An untameable destructive force of Jekyll-and-Hyde volatility, Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta is the wild card of the superhero universe, as his cataclysmic character often has self-destructive consequences. Shrivelling into irrational brute force at the slightest suspicion of his wife’s disloyalty, the Raging Bull is apt to misuse his powers in a domestic setting. However the superhuman strength conjured up when he’s green with envy is used for good inside the boxing ring, where he effortlessly knocks out foes in defense of his championship belt. In the silent, meditative shots of the hero waiting to strike, we can almost hear the words forming in his head: “Jake is strongest one there is!”

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8. Otto Maddox/Repo Man (from Repo Man, dir. Alex Cox, 1984)

Crossing over into the realm of science fiction, Repo Man can be seen as a less convoluted interpretation of the Campbellian hero’s journey in comparison to the recent plight of the Green Lantern. The cocky young hero of the film, recently fired supermarket employee and delinquent punk rocker Otto Maddox, is hand-picked by destiny to join a gang of questionable figures on a covert mission. Resisting at first, Otto’s acceptance of his destiny triggers a chain of events leading up to an intergalactic initiation that will change his life, and perhaps the fate of the universe, forever. Repo Man differs from the other films listed in its documentation of the detestable everyman finding incredible purpose as opposed to the exposition of this process’ results, and it differs from Green Lantern in that it focuses its efforts on developing flesh-and-blood characters as opposed to pen-and-ink. The neon green glow in question, however, is just as ambiguous.

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7. The Idiots (from The Idiots, dir. Lars von Trier, 1998)

An ensemble cast of memorable Danish heroes, The Idiots are a bizarro Avengers who replace clichéd purpose with comic nihilism, and permit Dogme law to overrule stuffy mainstream appeal. Each member of the Unbalanced Undectet brings to the table a unique talent for disregard of social conventions, all housed under the blanket term “spassing,” ranging from childlike outbursts to vegetative indolence to rampant public nudity, and culminating in the most intense scene of drooling ever filmed. Poster-children of primality amongst (and against) the cultured, earth’s flightiest heroes counter the epidemic of bourgeois dignity by embracing human nature’s basest instincts.

easy rider

6. Wyatt/Easy Rider (from Easy Rider, dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)

Nicknamed after the fictional patriotic hero of World War II, Captain America is the protagonist of Easy Rider whose dangerous mission is to locate the values his namesake fought to protect a quarter century earlier. Similarly conceived of in response to overwhelming political conditions, the film’s protagonist (also known as Wyatt after a less-fictional American hero) and his partner Bucky, er, Billy are a pair of social outcasts struggling to fit into the framework of a country built upon the ideal that everyone is free to exist outside of said framework. While the original Captain America represents the unity of a country standing up against foreign opposition, Wyatt is a symbol of a severed counter-cultural shard of this now-shattered country, who fights to retain its harmony.

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5. Riggan Thomson/Birdman (from Birdman, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

The hero whose superpowers include levitation, telekinesis, and existing in a universe alternative to that of his fellow washed-up Watchmen, Birdman specializes in staying relevant despite the overwhelming unimportance of his present state. Battling the media, critics, and the ever-persistent avian incarnation of past successes, Riggan Thomson’s alter-ego as film star rarely takes the back seat to his daytime identity of responsible father and dignified human being as he attempts the Sisyphean task of directing a play while maintaining an adequate human existence.

immigrant

4. Ewa Cybulska/The Immigrant (from The Immigrant, dir. James Gray, 2013)

Relocating to a metropolitan “Man’s World” and quickly adopting an all-too-necessary selflessness in order to protect the otherwise-vulnerable, The Immigrant is a jarringly realistic portrait of the excessive hardships facing the female hero. While her costumed cousin Wonder Woman whips her Lasso of Truth, a symbol of amenable feminine charm, The Immigrant‘s protagonist is slowly strangled by the Lasso of Truth that is the cold, unwelcoming world of 1920s New York, which constantly pits Ewa between a man’s gawk and a hard place. With heroic feats of tolerance, she allows herself to become a “woman of low morals” in order to save her ailing sister and start a new life for herself, though her unintentional charm and negligible social status leave her no other choice. Documenting the assimilation of the female foreigner into the corrupt reality of the Promised Land as more chagrined than heroic, the good news is that she finally has her own movie.

sydney

3. Sydney (from Hard Eight [Sydney], dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)

Unique to the superhero genre, Sydney’s superpowers stem mostly from accumulated experience and sheer level-headedness, which he imparts unsparingly unto his naive underlings. Acting as Batman to John “The Boy Wonder” Finnegan’s Robin, the suave, secretive, and endlessly wealthy alternative-title character takes Finnegan under his wing after the death of his mother, teaching him the ins and outs of tackling the city (Las Vegas)’s monumental foes (casinos). Sydney proves a fascinating character due to an unclear past that has graced him with inexhaustible wisdom and compassion, which tragically goes unheeded as he ultimately plays the disappointed father figure to an entire generation of helplessly confused man- and woman-children.

temptation

2. Not-Based-on-the-Gospels Christ (from The Last Temptation of Christ, dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988)

Supernaturally conceived and unremarkably raised, Scorsese-via-Kazantzakis’ Christ is destined to eradicate evil with powers courtesy of his Not-Based-on-the-Gospels Holy Father in a time of moral ambiguity. With a dual identity of Average Joe and Heaven’s bestowed, NBG Christ proves victorious in all confrontations with his megalomaniacal archenemy (taking the form of snake, flame, and little girl – surprisingly never angry bald man) despite severe physical and mental anguish. Yet his ever-present Kryptonite – a pathetic, sniveling humanness – plagues him through most of the film, separating him completely from both the Christ of the New Testament and most caped crusaders.

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1. Seth Brundle/The Fly (from The Fly, dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)

Much like Peter Parker before him, Seth Brundle’s unlikely encounter with a minuscule arthropod in a scientific setting has transformed him into a mutant with great power necessitating great responsibility. Unlike Parker, though, Brundle is plagued with such insurmountable human obstacles as the inherent shame in failure and physical otherness, the frustration with a changing identity in an otherwise static universe, and the overwhelming selfishness of handling one’s personal life before thwarting the schemes of vagrant goons. Fighting under the not-so-altered-ego “Brundlefly” as opposed to embracing the anonymity most superheroes find attractive, The Fly publicly asserts his physical dominance only once in the film by winning an arm wrestling contest at a seedy bar in a scene that will definitely ruin arm wrestling for you forever. Easily the most disappointing hero on this list in terms of potential, The Fly is also the most realistic depiction of superpowers embodied by an unsuspecting hero.

Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant at Facets.

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