Glass premieres next week, and despite mixed reviews so far I am eager to see it. The film comes at a time where superhero tales have taken over pop culture. At this point, you could throw a stick in any direction and hit a film or TV show that focuses on the exploits of a caped crusader. However, Glass is different in that it not only takes a philosophical approach to the superhero tale, but it is one of the few movies not based on a pre-existing comic book or character. In that spirit, I want to talk about five movies that are cut from the same cloth.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
The bedrock of the universe in which Glass and its predecessor Split are set, Unbreakable focuses on David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a horrific train crash. Dunn is approached by art dealer Elijah Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who insists that he has superhuman powers and that the world needs him to embrace them so that he could protect it. In the pantheon of superhero movies, Unbreakable stands out because it is the first movie that serves as a proper deconstruction of the genre. As time has passed, Unbreakable has not only been regarded as a hallmark of the genre but also as one of Shyamalan’s best films.
2. Sky High (2005)
Long before Disney brought the entire slab of Marvel characters to the big screen, they dabbled in their own superhero tales. And while everyone and their mother knows about The Incredibles, Sky High remains underrated and in my humble opinion, underpraised. The film follows Will Stronghold (Michael Arangano), who is the son of the world’s greatest superheroes, the super strong Commander (Kurt Russell) and high soaring Jetstream (Kelly Preston).
As Will attends the prestigious superhero school Sky High, he must deal with the usual teenage problems like bullies, school, and crushes on top of the fact that he has yet to manifest any superhuman abilities. Stacked with a top tier cast including The Expanse’s Steven Strait, The Flash’s Danielle Panabaker, and even Bruce Campbell and co-written by Kim Possible creators Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle, Sky High is a perfect blend of coming of age and superhero tropes.
3. Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi is best known for bringing Spider-Man to the silver screen and Liam Neeson has made a habit of playing lethal badasses. Before that, the pair united in 1990 to make Darkman. Brilliant scientist Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is beaten, burned, and left for dead when his attorney girlfriend stumbles upon a mobster’s plot.
Westlake undergoes a medical treatment which grants him superhuman strength and the ability to no longer feel pain, but at the cost of his sanity. He then embarks on a quest for vengeance against his would-be killers. Darkman is an example of Raimi’s ingenuity; unable to get the rights to Batman or The Shadow, he decided to make his own superhero. And the payoff was tremendous; Darkman was not only a success at the box office, but it also ended up spawning two sequels and is regarded to this day as a cult classic.
4. Chronicle (2012)
Chronicle is an answer to the question, “What happens if a supervillain was the star of the movie?” Directed by Josh Trank and written by Max Landis, Chronicle follows Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan,) a teenager whose life is, in a word, awful. His mother is slowly dying from cancer, his father is a drunken abuser, and he is virtually invisible at school. This changes when Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell,) and class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover an alien object that grants them psychic powers.
The boys bond over their newfound abilities but things take a turn for the worse when Andrew begins to dabble in destructive behavior. Chronicle is not only one of the best films to utilize the “found footage” technique, but it is also unique in the way it portrays teenagers with superpowers. Most teenage superheroes like Peter Parker or Terry McGinnis use their powers responsibly or manage to overcome their darker impulses. Andrew does not, and this leads to dire consequences for him and the people he loves.
5. Robocop (1987)
Like most superheroes, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller)has a tragic origin story: he is literally shot to pieces in the film’s opening. He also has a strong sense of justice, even before his death, a costume of sorts in his trademark silver and black armor, plus abilities far beyond those of normal men. This same outlook applies to Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). Boddicker revels in chaos, bloodshed, and debauchery-he is essentially the Joker to Murphy’s Batman.
Another trope the film explores-and ultimately subverts-is the role of law enforcement in a superhero’s world. The police force ends up under the control of the mega-conglomerate OCP, and Robocop‘s creation threatens to render normal law officers obsolete. However, Murphy is still an officer of the law and must uphold the law-even when dealing with Boddicker and corrupt OCP executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).
Given the variety of the superhero genre, we can definitely expect to see more projects like these in the future. Do you have any favorites that aren’t on the list? Let us know in the comments.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.