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Before crafting the Marvel megahit “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the writer-director James Gunn led this much darker indie hero tale. Working from the standard comic book template of the regular guy who transforms himself into a vigilante crime-fighter, “Super” imagines what would happen if said regular guy was both entirely free of super powers and more than a little unstable. Rainn Wilson (of “The Office”) is uproariously funny and mildly disturbing as the Crimson Bolt, who runs around town whacking bad guys on the head with a giant wrench while spouting the memorable catchphrase, “Shut up, crime!”; Ellen Page is delightful as his faithful sidekick, Boltie. It’s wise and wry, with a showdown climax that’s far darker than expected.
‘Paper Man’ (2009)
Before he was Deadpool (or the unfortunate Green Lantern), Ryan Reynolds was Captain Excellent, the imaginary superhero pal of the blocked novelist Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) in this modest dramedy from the writer-directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney. Reynolds is unsurprisingly convincing as the square-jawed hero, and his byplay with Daniels — verbalizing the writer’s inner struggle — is entertaining. Ultimately, Richard is trying to summon up the courage to cast off this childhood preoccupation and focus on grown-up matters, which is a message some Hollywood executives might want to heed.
‘Hero at Large’ (1980)
Superhero movies weren’t nearly as ubiquitous back in 1980 — Superman was pretty much the only game in town — but this gentle comedy from director Martin Davidson (and its contemporaneous television counterpart “The Greatest American Hero”) were already interested in the comic possibilities of the regular-Joe superhero. In “Hero at Large,” he is Steve Nichols (John Ritter), a struggling New York actor who foils a robbery while in costume for a promotional gig as “Captain Avenger” and is celebrated as the hero he didn’t mean to be. Ritter (who never got the credit he deserved as a charismatic big-screen comedian) is funny and likable in the leading role; Anne Archer lends able support as his better half.
The director Peter Berg, the writer Vincent Ngo and the writer Vince Gilligan (who went on to create “Breaking Bad”) entertainingly puncture the superhero craze with this part sendup, part participant from the summer of 2008, the same season that gave us “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.” Will Smith is deliciously entertaining as the title character, a bitter and disillusioned crime-fighter who continues to save the day, but with a foul temper and a carelessness that have caused him something of an image problem. Jason Bateman is hilarious as the public-relations man who offers to help him out, and Charlize Theron is appropriately enigmatic as his wife, who harbors some secrets of her own.
‘The Green Hornet’ (2011)
First created for radio in the 1930s, the crime-fighting alter ego of the millionaire playboy Britt Reid was often considered a companion to Batman — not only because of the similarity of the characters but also because of the crossovers between their mid-’60s television adaptations. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Green Hornet followed Batman to the silver screen in this 2011 adaptation, which veered wildly from the straight-faced style of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and even from Tim Burton’s. Seth Rogen, known more for stoner humor than high-flying heroics, starred as the titular hero (he also wrote the script with his “Pineapple Express” collaborator Evan Goldberg). The art-house favorite Michel Gondry directed, eschewing the typical and generic special effects and set pieces in favor of a quirky, handmade aesthetic.
‘Griff the Invisible’ (2010)
Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”) stars in this likable, Australian, “Walter Mitty”-like dramedy as a friendless office drone who strikes back against the bullies of the world by, you guessed it, donning a costume and hitting the mean streets of Sydney by night. The writer-director Leon Ford doesn’t let the film’s durable gimmick do all of the work; he sees the remoteness of his title character as an opportunity for poignancy rather than as a plot point. Griff’s potential romance with another loner (the memorable Maeve Dermody) plays as a possibility for genuine connection and escape rather than merely marking time.
Damon Wayans stars in and helped write this film about a scaredy-cat inventor who becomes a Scotch-taped superhero in this silly but sweet 1994 spoof from director Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”). Wayans’s castmate from “In Living Color” David Alan Grier also stars as Blankman’s impatient brother Kevin, who becomes a reluctant Robin to this low-budget Batman. Like Robert Townsend’s “The Meteor Man,” which hit theaters the previous summer, this broad sendup uses the tools of satire and superpowers to address real issues in the African-American community — winking forebears of a sort to “Black Panther.”
‘Mystery Men’ (1999)
An all-star cast — including Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell and Wes Studi — team up as the title crew, a gang of third-tier superheroes who gather to rescue the A-lister Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) from the evil clutches of the villainous Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). Director Kinka Usher mines considerable humor from the unimpressive powers of these “heroes” (Macy’s the Shoveler is an above-average digger; Stiller’s Mr. Furious gets really, really mad about stuff), and from the four-star chemistry of his ace ensemble.
‘The Toxic Avenger’ (1984)
This 1984 mash-up of superhero spoof and gross-out horror movie put the B-movie mavens Troma Entertainment on the map, becoming not only a huge hit on the ’80s midnight movie circuit, but launching several sequels, a video game, an Off Broadway musical and even a kids’ cartoon series. Sifting the Captain America-style weakling-becomes-hero story through the filter of ’80s nuclear panic, this story of a janitor who becomes a “monster hero” isn’t for the weak of stomach (Troma’s films rarely are), but it does offer plenty of pleasures for genre-movie fans and cult-movie aficionados.
The writer and director M. Night Shyamalan followed up the huge success of “The Sixth Sense” by re-teaming with Bruce Willis and reuniting him with his “Pulp Fiction” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” co-star Samuel L. Jackson for this moody action drama from 2000. Beginning as the story of an Everyman who survives a horrifying train crash, it develops less as a traditional origin story than as a psychological mystery. Its superhero elements are unraveled gradually but thrillingly, culminating in a big revelation that is genuinely shocking. Willis is terrific, finding layers and textures within his hero’s unshakable melancholy, while Jackson deftly crafts a character who tells us everything while revealing nothing.