Superhero movies have become synonymous with Marvel, with the biggest blockbusters from the past decade often being entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The franchise has had high highs and low lows, with recent years seeing more box-office flops than ever before as MCU fatigue affects more and more viewers.
Those looking for great superhero movies outside of the MCU will be glad to know there’s a good selection of films worth seeing. From comic book adaptations like Watchmen to must-see classics like RoboCop, the best superhero movies outside of the Marvel franchise depict distinct and exciting realities of their own that are full of powerful heroes and menacing villains.
7. Hellboy (2004)
Helmed by influential director Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy introduces fans to the titular character (Ron Perlman), a demon summoned to Earth by Nazis during World War II. Instead of fulfilling his fate as the harbinger of the apocalypse, Hellboy is instead raised by the kind Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), which leads to the protagonist becoming an investigator working for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Hellboy’s unique character design and distinct personality as a wisecracking, cigar-smoking investigator isn’t typically what audiences expect superheroes to look or act like. He works alongside a team made up of the psychic merman Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and these deeply flawed, but incredibly bold characters took viewers by surprise and tugged at many heartstrings, so much so that the franchise is still trying to make unsuccessful comebacks today.
6. Dredd (2012)
Dredd is an ultraviolent R-rated comic strip movie that portrays a chilling future full of crime and corruption, mostly found within the decaying urban metropolis Mega City One. Here, “judges” like Dredd (Karl Urban) act as judge, jury and executioner, chasing down wrongdoers and punishing them based on the extent of their crimes. When Dredd is called to a dangerous, towering, crime-ridden apartment complex to take on a drug cartel led by the ruthless Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), he and a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) have to survive every floor to get to the top.
One of the best dystopian superhero movies, Dredd paved the way for more adult-oriented comic book adaptations and extremely violent action flicks. It showed that superhero films with R ratings can work well if done right. The 2012 movie is worth revisiting today for anyone who enjoys over-the-top gruesome action anchored by a relentless protagonist who will stop at nothing to seek justice.
5. The Crow (1994)
Based on James O’Barr’s eponymous 1989 comic book series, The Crow is a dark superhero movie that follows musician Eric Draven (played by Brandon Lee). After he’s murdered along with his fiancée, he is resurrected by a mysterious crow on the anniversary of their deaths and is given new abilities. He uses this newfound power to to seek vengeance on those responsible for their murders, brutally killing one thug after another until he reaches head gangster, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott).
The Crow is unfortunately remembered for Lee’s fatal accident on set, where he was mortally wounded by a prop gun during filming. The shocking event cast a shadow over the movie’s release and marked a sad chapter in Hollywood’s history. With that context in mind and the film’s already macabre story, it’s a superhero movie unlike any other, and one dedicated to the memory of Lee and his fiancée, Eliza Hutton.
4. Unbreakable (2000)
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard who miraculously survives a train crash unharmed in Unbreakable. One of M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies, the film depicts David’s struggle to understand and accept his superhuman abilities. This is a journey complicated by a comic book art gallery owner, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes that Dunn is a real-life superhero.
Aside from Shyamalan’s classic twisty narrative, Unbreakable stands out in the genre for being a realistic take on superheroes. It points out the psychological toll of discovering a power that’s beyond human, which is cleverly explored through David’s character. Serving as the first and arguably best installment of the Unbreakable film series, the 2000 movie should be essential viewing for fans of gritty takes on the genre.
3. Watchmen (2009)
Although not a perfect adaptation of the famously “unfilmable” DC comics limited series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is still worth seeing. The movie is set in an alternate 1985 America where superheroes, once celebrated, face public distrust and government interference. When a murder mystery draws former heroes out of retirement, vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) unveils a major conspiracy that threatens humanity.
The film, like its source material, is a deconstruction of superhero tropes that attempts to pose ethical and even existential questions about these individuals. It pushes the characters to make impossible decisions given the complicated world-ending issues in front of them. Fans of the Watchmen comics will also appreciate its ambitious attempts at adapting their aesthetic by going so far as to recreate some iconic panels.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
A Pixar animated classic that undoubtedly has a special place in many fans’ hearts, The Incredibles is centered on the superpowered Parr family. Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), and his wife Helen, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), have been forced into retirement and banned from using their powers by the government, so they live their mundane suburban lives as best they can alongside their kids.
With humor and heart, the film portrays the daily frustrations that parents like Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl face, especially given their past as famous heroes. A new adventure that puts Mr. Incredible’s life in danger sees the rest of the family finally embracing their powers once again or for the first time, all to battle a rnew villain and his out-of-control robot. While its visuals may be a bit dated today compared to more recent animated films, The Incredibles is still worth watching for a nostalgic and undeniably fun viewing experience.
1. RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop is a cult classic sci-fi action movie set in a dystopian version of Detroit where Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a dedicated police officer, is brutally attacked and left for dead by a gang of criminals. This isn’t the end for Alex, however, who is brought back from the dead by the evil corporation Omni Consumer Products, which turns the protagonist into the titular cyborg law enforcement officer. With no memory of his past, RoboCop struggles with what’s left of his humanity while also uncovering a web of corruption that forces him to act.
The 1987 film generated controversy for its extreme violence, with RoboCop’s grueling mission leaving a trail of death wherever he went. It has since become a lauded aspect of the movie, as it complements RoboCop‘s brilliant use of satire to criticize corporate greed and consumerism. There’s no denying today that director Paul Verhoeven’s one-of-a-kind superhero film is a seminal work in the genre that’s still just as relevant as ever.