Secret Identity: The Tale of the Obscure Superhero Movie

It is quite clear that we are all living in the age of the superhero. The titans of tomorrow have clearly proven their dominance with not just big-screen box office success but also the impact it has had on the small screen.

Throughout the year we are treated to a multitude of tales about our favorite heroes—stories of good conquering evil, worlds filled with glory and honor. We watch on as the titans amongst us do battle with threats of unfathomable proportions.

We see these fine men and women go against all odds to do what is right to save the world countless times. When all of these heroes of ours do battle on the grandest of stages there are those more obscure heroes, on a smaller stage but no less grand in terms of their heroics.

Now it is time for some of my favorite obscure superhero movies to take center stage and to bask in the warm glow of that often taken spotlight. Get ready: it’s time to suit up.

Mystery Men (1999)

The Mystery Men gather together dressed in the superhero garb ready for battle
The Mystery Men suited up and headed for battle

Based on the Dark Horse comic of the same name, Mystery Men is clearly a product of its time. The ’90s was the golden age of the spoof. Even though it is an obvious product of the ’90s, the film pays homage to so much more from not only its time but the three decades that proceeded its era.

The world of Champion City that our heroes inhabit seems to be a perfect mishmash filled with influences from ’70s disco culture, ’80s punk rock, and the ’90s grunge scene. What shouldn’t work in any sense instead creates a truly singular world. The ridiculous over the top action is slapstick absurdity filled with bumbling mistakes by the also-ran vigilantes that occupy this Gothamesque City.

Ben Stiller (Mr.Furious), William H. Macy (The Shoveler), and Hank Azaria (Blue Raja) are in the roles of the co-leads. I love the chemistry the trio share, playing off each other with incredible ease. Their relationship turns what should be hapless buffoons into flawed, sympathetic do-gooders. These men—who are so hilariously out of their depth— will stop at nothing to prove to themselves as much as everyone else that they have what it takes to fight the forces of evil.

My personal favorite is Wes Studi as the terribly mysterious Sphynx—to use Blue Raja’s words.     Studi almost steals the show entirely. His pep talks and motivational tidbits are some of the funniest moments from the movie. His words of profound wisdom are little more than a formulaic turn of phrase. Saying things along the lines of, “for one to learn how to head off an enemy with a balanced attack first one must learn how to balance a tack hammer on their head.” This is a perfect example of Mystery Men’s nonsensical brilliance.

Greg Kinnear takes on the role of the egomaniac Captain Amazing with vigor, the champion of Champion City as it were, the pinnacle of everything that is good and bad about this dank metropolis. The way Kinnear plays the bombastic Captain is as enjoyable to watch as it seems to have been for him to play. Kinnear is seemingly the only one in on the joke, constantly giving a half look and a wink to the audience.

To play off the dry and self-obsessed Kinnear is Geoffrey Rush as the perfect foil in the role of one of the greatest named villains of all time—the strange, crazed megalomaniac that is Casanova Frankenstein. There is nothing I enjoy more than watching an actor relishing every second in a role. Rush plays the part with a ridiculous sense of delight, never missing a chance to ham it all the way up to 11.

The one-liner heavy script should get tiresome but it never does, the strength of the cast picks up any lag from the constant onslaught of the pun laced bits. The way the star-studded ensemble commits wholeheartedly to their roles lifts this superhero satire to the brink of excellence.

Mystery Men had all the hallmarks of being another generic spoof of its time. What it actually became was a cult classic jam-packed with so much self-aware comedic intelligence that it is an absolute triumph of satirical genius.

Defendor (2009)

A young woman and a man are stood either side of a man wielding a trench club dressed like a superhero
(Left) Kat Dennings (Center) Woody Harrelson (Right) Michael Kelly

What is sold to the audience at first glance as another procedural comedy/drama is actually a very compassionate portrayal of mental health issues told through the guise of the superhero genre. Woody Harrelson once again excels in this outing, perfectly embodying the lead role of the mentally ill Arthur Poppinton, the man that has decided to oppose all that is crooked and corrupt through taking on the persona of Defendor. He is a construction worker by day, and crime-fighting vigilante by night.

The part of Poppington could have so easily have been your typical justice-seeking frothing at the mouth role. Instead, Harrelson goes the other direction with how he brings the character to life, selling the excellent script with an assured rooted performance. His Poppington is broken, tragic. Everything about him is so heartbreaking, as he wears what he has endured like open wounds, festering and poisoning his stunted mind from the inside out.

What is really fascinating about Defendor is how it takes a stark look at people who have been victimized and abused, how the result can often lead to imbalanced people with a skewed sense of reality causing delusions of grandeur—in this case, Defendor’s search for his perceived arch-nemesis Captain Industry. This nemesis is wholly concocted from within the Poppington’s psyche, another effect of the unstable upbringing he was forced to endure growing up.

The supporting cast of Defendor is so important in keeping the narrative of the piece on track. Michael Kelly as Arthur’s concerned friend Paul Carter helps bear the weight of the piece. Kelly manages to put a lot of meat on a very lean role which is something of a habit of his.

Elias Koteas fills the role of corrupt cop Chuck Dooney with the same kind of greasy scumbaggery that Koteas does so well. Koteas consistently harvests a yield that is belying the size of the role he was initially given to cultivate from.

Who really shines from the supporting cast is Kat Dennings, putting in another solid display this time as the drug-addicted prostitute Katerina Debrofkowitz, who becomes a sidekick of sorts to Defendor. Katerina is constantly at odds with herself, flitting between whether to take care of or take advantage of the feeble-minded Arthur. Dennings does a fine job of making Katherina relatable instead of easily hateable, which was no small feat.

The climax is gut-wrenching to this beautifully constructed glimpse inside of a person with not only a damaged mind but also a damaged soul. I was left feeling crushed by the end as it comes with a hard-hitting thump but it also comes with a sense of a brighter tomorrow and that is all that Arthur Poppington ever wanted.

Chronicle (2012)

Three teenagers in discussion sitting around a table with textbooks on it
(Left) Dane DeHaan (Center) Michael B. Jordan (Right) Alex Russell

Josh Trank brings us a new take on the found footage formula with this superhero origin movie starring Michael B. Kordan, Dane DeHaan, and Alex Russell as three teens living in Seattle that make a discovery of an asteroid impact crater. Upon investigating the impact site the trio becomes imbued with immense power.

Even though the gifts the young men share are the same, the way they are affected by them is totally individualistic. Just like the X-Men obtaining their powers is a widely used metaphor for young adolescence entering into puberty, Chronicle does something similar but uses a different metaphor.

In place of pubescent change, the metaphor that is used for the discovery of these powers seems to be that of substance abuse in minors. Some minors use their drug of choice recreationally or for a thrill and then there are those at the other end of the spectrum that give into the lure of the substance. This time the addicting substance in question is that of the untold powers that these high schoolers now possess.

The three young leads shoulder the burden of the movie with assured confidence that belies their youth but in hindsight, it is no surprise considering the careers that two of the young men have had. Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan are widely regarded as two of the brightest young talents in Hollywood and rightly so. Jordan and DeHaan have proven on countless occasions that they can play virtually any type of role. The two men are insanely gifted in very different ways but to equal levels of effectiveness.

What always impresses me is how Chronicle evolves constantly, going from strength to strength as the tale of these three embryonic superhumans unfolds. Chronicle starts off as a superhero origin story before veering into a very personal story focusing on abuse and the perils of high school. It then takes its final turn towards becoming a villainous piece filled with a murderous rage that leads to an all-out superhuman throwdown.

The special effects in said throwdown are actually surprisingly impressive. Trank used every red cent he could get his mitts on and put it right back into the movie. Even after a decade the CGI still holds up pretty well, every penny spent is completely visible on the screen. It really shows when the money finds the right home that it can help smaller more independent movies to no end. I have a lot of admiration for smart directors, how they constantly prove that its brains, not the budget, that makes acorn sized ideas into full-grown movies with oak-like strength. Which is exactly what Trank proved this time out with Chronicle.

Super (2010)

A man and a young woman are sitting dressed as superheros sat in front of a bin
(Left) Crimson Bolt (Right) Boltie

James Gunn writes and directs this superhero story about a grill cook named Frank Darbo portrayed by Rainn Wilson. Darbo is a broken man, tired of what he perceives to be a broken system, finding it hard to adjust to life after losing his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) to her drug-dealing ne’er do well ex-boyfriend Jacques, played by Kevin Bacon.

Frank goes through life with his head filled with deranged fantasies, trying to get to grips with his new circumstance. When not flipping burgers, Frank spends his time at home feasting his eyes on a silly Christian children’s TV show led by The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion). Frank derives inspiration from the program’s protagonist to create the moniker of Crimson Bolt.

He dons a Daredevil like costume to not only clean up the filth from the dirt-covered streets that surround him but to also win back his drug-addled wife from the grips of the aforementioned drug pushing Jacques. When Frank pulls on that crimson mask he becomes someone else; he becomes something else (yes, that is an Arrow reference). He is unhinged, impulsive and seemingly bloodthirsty, with a taste for overzealous violence for the smallest infraction.

Wilson’s Darbo cuts a far less sympathetic figure than Woody Harrelson’s Artur Poppington in Defendor or Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Dave Lizewski in Kick-Ass. I think Gunn may have done this intentionally as Super takes a look at what a person would have to be like to really pull on that suit and fight crime. Most people who do commit to such an endeavor are often either mentally ill or borderline sociopathic.

Gunn focuses on that age-old question: is vigilante justice even justice at all? Using a deft hand, he puts in place a perfect lens to view what are often glossy polished worlds in the most realistic of fashions. His hero is not heroic, iconic or maybe even that good of a guy. He did, after all, lead his “kid sidekick” Boltie (Ellen Page), a young naive girl, to her death. What makes Super stand out so much is instead of the perfectly quaffed superhero movie what we get is a dark satire about a frayed and frazzled man with real issues at his core.

Kick-Ass (2010)

A young man dressed in a green leotard holding two batons.
Kick-Ass readying himself for the fight

Kick-Ass is a stylish movie with action-packed scenes backed by exquisitely chosen music. The soundtrack is there to set the tone and Vaughan does that expertly. I love it how each note is impeccably paired with the events that are occurring on screen. Every scene is pieced together like some form of rave fueled ballet.

A youthful-looking Aaron Taylor-Johnson—as Aaron Taylor—takes on the title role as the surgically enhanced, nerve-damaged, green leotard wearing Kick-Ass, the crime-fighting alter ego of the quiet and nerdy Dave Lizewski; the young man who finally says enough is enough and decides to take a stand against all the injustices that he sees in the world.

Even though Kick-Ass does live up to his name—kind of—he is far from the only superhero vigilante trying to clean up the streets of New York, as we find out when he meets Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and his daughter sidekick Hit-Girl (Chloe-Grace Moretz). The meeting is a little more than fortuitous after Kick-Ass’ ill-fated attempt to stop some local thugs from pestering his school crush, Kate. (Lyndsy Fonseca)

When everything goes pear-shaped, in steps the baddest ass pre-teen in the history of cinema.—with the exception of maybe Daphne Kean’s X-23 from Logan. It is so much fun to watch Moretz, who goes about the role of Hit-Girl with childish glee. She slices and dices her way through an apartment worth of criminals until one nearly gets the drop on her before he is put down by Big Daddy. The entrance from Hit-Girl is insane. I know we see her before this out of costume but when she dons that purple wig, that little purpled haired girl gets to work and I mean she really gets to work.

Chloe-Grace Moretz is the most memorable thing about Kick-Ass. There is just nothing like seeing an 11-year-old girl taking down men twice her size, cutting through them like a hot knife through butter. Her performance goes a long way in helping the audience suspend their disbelief, as she gets into some serious knock down drag out battles with fully grown men and never looks out of place. The attitude she brings to the role takes it to another level. Moretz’ Hit-Girl truly is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and you do not want to see her claws.

The role of mentor to Hit-Girl is filled by Big Daddy, an Adam West/William Shatner hybrid dressed in Batman-like attire. Big Daddy has molded this young girl into a savage little weapon to be wielded to battle the criminal underworld on his quest for vengeance against crime boss Frank D’Amico. (Mark Strong).

Nicholas Cage puts in an excellent purposefully over the top performance. Though his character’s parenting methods might be a little more than unorthodox the love between the father/daughter crime-fighting duo is clear for all to see. They are each other’s world and their relationship is the foundation of the movie and everything else is built on top of it.

Vaughan captures the essence of their love brilliantly, none more than the scene of the unmasking of Kick-Ass, when Hit-Girl makes a last-ditch effort to save both Big Daddy and Kick-Ass from certain death at the hands of their enemies after they have been betrayed by Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

This scene breaks my heart every time I watch it. It is every bit soul-destroying as it is breathtakingly badass. Vaughan once again uses the score to maximum effect. Each moment fills your heart with hope at the same time as it is getting ready to break into a million pieces. By the time you have got done picking up those pieces, Kick-Ass kicks into full gear.

The climax comes thick and fast, nearly as thick as the blood that Hit-Girl splatters all over Frank D’Amico’s penthouse walls. The way Kick-Ass finishes is epic—as in jetpack with double Gatling guns epic—it breaks down barriers with the same glorious fervor that it blows up mob bosses. This movie truly is Kick-Ass by name kick-ass by nature.

Final Thoughts:

Now that you have read about my favorite obscure superhero movies, I would like to hear from you about yours. I want to hear what you would have put as your five favorites and why.

If you think that any of these movies are too mainstream, let me know.

I love everything superhero so if you have anything, I mean anything, that you think is lurking in the shadows waiting to have the light shined upon them. I would love to hear from you.

If you think there is anything that you think that is coming out in the future that may or may not be getting the attention that you think it deserves. Hit me up and maybe I could write a piece on it.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you all. Until next time, I’m out.

Written by Vincent Greene

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