Top Ten Super-Hero Movies (Before They Were Cool)

by Alan Rapp on September 2, 2015

in Top Tens & Lists

Top Ten Super-Hero Movies (Before They Were Cool)

Believe it or not there was a time not so long ago where it wasn’t common to have super-heroes ruling the box office. Back in the day comic fans were lucky to get a comic movie every few years let alone multiple movies released all in the same summer. Long before Marvel Studios began building their Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan rebooted his Dark Knight super-heroes still found their way to the silver screen, albeit in smaller numbers. Imbued with a certain cheesy charm that today’s far gritter heroes might scoff at, these movies give us heroes in the true meaning of the word. Released between the period of 1940 and 1996, here are the Top Ten Super-Hero Movies (Before They Were Cool).

10. The Rocketeer

The Rocketeer

We start our list with the first of three period pieces that made the list, all set in worlds and times so similar they could have co-existed. Director Joe Johnston‘s 1991 film stars Billy Campbell as a stunt pilot who stumbles on a prototype jet pack. Along with a custom helmet and the help of a mechanic (Alan Arkin), The Rocketeer will battle gangsters, save the girl (Jennifer Connelly), and defeat a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton). Although I don’t have the same fondness for this film as some of the other movies higher up on the list, The Rocketeer is undeniably entertaining and shares the same earnest hero lacking in so many modern day super-hero movies.

9. The Mark of Zorro

The Mark of Zorro

Tyrone Power stars as Don Diego Vega who returns from Spain to play the foppish aristocrat in public while in private donning a mask to take on the corruption of southern California perpetrated by the corrupt new Alcalde (J. Edward Bromberg) and the villainous Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Zorro’s story has been told years over the years but the 1940 film is memorable not only for giving us the character’s full arc (in half the time of the modern movies) but also along with some great swordplay and a menacing villain in Rathbone.

8. Hero at Large

Hero at Large

Some heroes are born to greatness and some stumble into it blindly. John Ritter stars as a struggling actor and all-around good guy who stops a robbery one night in costume while coming home the theatrical opening of the newest super-hero movie, Captain Avenger. The mix of being turned down for jobs, the unexpected reaction to his unintentional heroism, and unrequited feelings for his beautiful next door neighbor (Anne Archer) force the actor back into the tights once more, with mixed results. He’s also got to deal with a greedy producer (Bert Convy) and dirty mayor (Kevin McCarthy) who have their own plans to use the hero to advance their agendas. Luckily for us, tights or no, our hero stand stalwart and true (even after the city turns against him). Largely forgotten, the 1980 film is worth watching (especially for fans who only know Ritter as the bumbling Jack Tripper). And if you do give it a chance keep an eye out for a cameo from a young Kevin Bacon.

7. The Shadow

The Shadow

The next two films, like The Rocketeer, are set in the recent past between two World Wars and do their best to capture the spirit and style of the times. Despite making substantial changes to our hero’s girl Friday (Penelope Ann Miller) and giving us a laughably over-the-top villain in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), The Shadow still manages to deliver thanks to the character’s cool concept and a pretty solid supporting cast. Alec Baldwin stars as a man with a shady past who has learned to cloud men’s minds allowing him to appear only as a shadow and exact vengeance while doing what he can to redeem his bloody past. When an enemy with similiar skills shows up in New York our hero’s mettle will be tested to not only save the city but the world from the mad man’s schemes. Check out my full review.

6. The Phantom

The Phantom

The latest entry on the list to make it into theaters, The Phantom has much in common with The Shadow. Billy Zane stars as the latest in the line of African heroes who have worn the mantle for so long the Phantom has become a legendary immortal protector of the jungles. When a greedy tycoon (Treat Williams) steals a powerful artifact from his homeland the Phantom will return to New York City, reconnect with his college sweetheart (Kristy Swanson), and attempt to stop the mad man from uniting three artifacts which would give him unlimited power. If she’ll forgive me for not putting her Zorro movie on the list, Catherine Zeta-Jones also stars as a Pussy Galore-ish pilot who becomes swayed to the hero’s side.

5. Batman (1989)


When Tim Burton‘s Batman hit theaters super-hero movies were dying a slow agonizing death. Following the disappointments of the final two Superman movies and the lackluster Supergirl DC needed a hit. They found it in Burton’s Batman which earned over $400 million at the box office and, more than any other movie on this list, showed Hollywood that super-hero movies could be highly profitable while opening the door to the next 25 years of super-hero films. While Marvel would still spend another decade trying to get its shit together, Batman announced to the world that super-hero movies were here to stay. Michael Keaton stars as our hero, Jack Nicholson as the villain, and Kim Basinger as the love interest, as Burton successfully re-launched a live-action franchise for the character for the first time since the end of the 60s television series. Even if I deduct points for choosing to make the Joker responsible for the death of the Waynes, the movie still delivers an action-packed Dark Knight Detective (detective, hear that Nolan?!) movie and one of the coolest Batmobiles. Read the full review.

4. Condorman


I first saw Condorman in elementary school and my love for the film hasn’t waned over the years. It’s pure wish fulfillment. Michael Crawford stars as comic writer/artist Woody Wilkins whose grandest dreams are made reality when stepping into a civilian exchange of semi-classified documents in Istanbul for his low-level CIA agent best friend (James Hampton) he’s drawn into a world of international intrigue where he is granted the opportunity to become the hero he’s always written about – Condorman! With his wits and the grudging support of the CIA, Condorman will help a beautiful Russian agent (Barbara Carrera) defect, out race the villainous Prognoviach in Yugoslavia, and take to the air and the seas to defeat high-ranking KGB Agent Sergei Krokov (Oliver Reed) in Monte Carlo. Overflowing with cheesy goodness, and one of my favorite movie cars of all-time, Condorman remains a favorite. Read my full review.

3. Superman


I’m sure I’ll earn the ire of some Man of Steel fans for choosing only as single film featuring the Blue Boy Scout to make the list but for me the original is superior in every way to Superman II. Sure the ending is problematic but an entire subplot of Superman giving away his powers in the sequel isn’t? Director Richard Donner promised that we would believe a man could fly and we did. Christopher Reeve stepped into the Man of Steel’s tights and crystallized a version of Superman that even after 37 years has yet to be duplicated or surpassed on the big or small screen. Along with explaining Kal-El origins the movie also gives Gene Hackman as the hero’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor and Margot Kidder as Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane bringing Clark Kent to the big city to save the world and meet the woman of his dreams. To an entire generation Christopher Reeve was, and remains, the one true version of Superman that comic and movie fans not only want but also deserve.

2. Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon

He saved every one of us. Flash Gordon has made several appearances in both television and film over the years but never with the style of Dino De Laurentiis‘ 1980 film. The weakest aspect of Flash Gordon is Flash (Sam J. Jones) himself, but director Mike Hodges surrounds the New York Jets quarterback with amazing set design, a soundtrack by Queen, a strong supporting cast including Timothy Dalton, Topol, and Brian Blessed as the Prince of the Hawkmen, a pair of beautiful women (Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti), and a terrific villain (Max von Sydow). With the Earth under siege from a variety of odd weather anomalies Flash Gordon, Dale Arden (Anderson), and scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) journey through the void in a rocket ship to find themselves lost in the worlds of Mongo ruled over by the villainous dictator Ming the Merciless. Lost in a strange land with few allies, Flash Gordon proves himself every bit the hero in saving his homeworld, the woman he loves, and liberating all the worlds of Mongo in less than two hours. And he does it in style.

1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

It wouldn’t be a list if it didn’t include the best Batman movie ever made. Originally created as a straight-to-DVD project to help promote the television show, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm turned out so well the film got a marginal theatrical release. Even if it didn’t do great at the box office, the movie has stood the test of time. A Batman (Kevin Conroy) fights a deadly new vigilante targeting members of organized crime, the movie also gives us a look into the origins of Bruce Wayne’s grim alter-ego through flashbacks caused by the return of the great love of his life (Dana Delany). Darker in tone than some episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, the movie still gives us the same look and feel while focusing on a recurring tragedy in Bruce’s life where love is concerned. More than any other interpretation, this is the film that gets Batman right. And the movie also throws in Mark Hamill‘s Joker for good measure. What more could one ask for? Read my full review.

Derick November 11, 2018 at 4:42 pm

This is a great list!!!!

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