The Best Superhero Movies You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we look up in the sky for the best superhero movies you've never seen.)

You may or may not be aware of it, but superhero movies are big business these days. From Supergirl to Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, from Darkman to Doctor Mordrid, audiences just can't get enough of heroes with superpowers and/or good intentions. One just released in theaters to the biggest opening weekend in film history, meaning the people suggesting "superhero fatigue" is setting in are clearly not to be trusted. They're not all as successful as the likes of Condorman (pictured above), though, and that's where I come in.

My name's Rob, and while I hesitate to call it a "superpower" exactly, I do enjoy drawing attention and eyeballs towards underappreciated and underseen films. The big names in this genre belong almost exclusively with Marvel and DC, so I'm going to point you elsewhere for movies that satisfy your need for justice, action, and the kind of heroics that only a cape and mask can provide.

Keep reading for a look at six of the best superhero movies you've probably never seen.

Hero at Large (1980)

A struggling actor looking for the role of a lifetime finds it after a brief gig working promotion for a new superhero movie. He stops an armed robbery while in costume and is surprised to see news of his mysterious avenger take the city by storm. With no other opportunities knocking on his door, he decides to continue his hand at being an accidental hero.

John Ritter left us far too soon, and while the majority of his career was spent making the world laugh on TV and the big screen (Three's Company, Real Men) he also dabbled in more heartfelt fare. Hero at Large certainly has its comedic charms, but Ritter brings a sincerity to the character as a man whose efforts move from unintentional to selfless. He's a nice guy who wins our hearts early on before doing the same with the city's populace, and he leaves us cheering for him to succeed, survive, and get the girl. Plus you get a brief early appearance by a young Kevin Bacon!

The girl in question is played by the eternally under-appreciated Anne Archer, which, for my money, is an equally compelling selling point. It's a good thing, since the film's budget doesn't exactly allow for big, impressive set pieces. There are a couple of smaller action sequences on the way to a fiery finale, but most of the film focuses on the journey undertaken by Ritter's character. He gets played by some big-wigs trying to shape the story to their own needs, and people turn on him when he doesn't live up to expectations, but in the end it turns out that his greatest power is...integrity. Cheesy? Maybe. But Ritter and friends make it work as a story about a guy finding the hero within.

Watch Hero at Large on Amazon.

The Heroic Trio (Hong Kong, 1993)

Someone is stealing babies for nefarious purposes, and the city is living in fear. Three heroes enter the fray, initially on opposite sides, but as the truth comes out about the evil at the heart of the abductions, the three women unite in the name of all that's good. Their names? Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman, and Thief Catcher.

Before you start thinking I've somehow gone against my opening statement and included DC/Marvel characters in my picks, rest assured that these heroes are wholly original creations. Their only true superpowers are in the areas of wire-fu and fashion – the rest of their badassery comes down to weapons, martial arts, and an advanced understanding of the law of physics. They run on power lines, ride flaming barrels into the sky, battle undead skeletons, and flip through fire and smoke-filled air while looking stunning in cloaks, goggles, and thigh-high stockings.

I know it already sounds ridiculously appealing, and it is, but I haven't even mentioned the talents involved yet. It's a Johnnie To (Drug War, Running on Karma) film, meaning you know the action sequences are in great hands, and the three heroes are played by a trio of legendary leading ladies from Hong Kong cinema – Maggie Cheung (Police Story), Anita Mui (Rumble In the Bronx), and Michelle Yeoh (Supercop). They played active sidekicks in those three Jackie Chan movies, but here they're all front and center through the fights, stunts, and catty banter. The script is more than a little wonky, but even when the story details lose you, the visual splendor holds tight.

The Heroic Trio isn't currently streaming.

K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask (Japan, 2008)

It's 1949, and Japan is an untouched leader in the world. Society is divided into classes, but while the wealthy revel in success and the poor grovel in the dirt, someone walks dangerously in the shadows. A master thief is stealing items of great value, and when a poor acrobat is framed for the crimes, he decides to step up and become what he's accused of being in order to catch the true criminal.

This is everything that fans of The Shadow, The Phantom, and The Rocketeer claim those films to be – a fun, pulpy adventure filled with gadgets, gunplay, and set pieces that feel as if they've been torn from comics or serials past. Architecture plays an integral role here as the action moves in, on, and off walls, rooftops, and more. Illustrated backdrops blend beautifully with practical stunt work, and at the heart of it all are characters who engage in their depth and humanity. Don't mistake that for an overly serious tone, though, as the film finds humor in interactions both verbal and physical.

Takeshi Kaneshiro takes the lead here and gives a terrifically charismatic and athletic performance as a reluctant hero. All of the actors do great work and collectively add to an atmosphere that feels real even as an alternate past. World War II never happened, at least not as we know it, and the population in power is unchallenged until the rise of K-20. What starts as criminal acts made purely for personal gain becomes something grander as the acrobatic turns villainy into heroics – which in turn highlight the world's true villains. It's a grand, epic adventure that brings a period that never was to life.

K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask isn't currently streaming.

Defendor (Canada, 2009)

Arthur Poppington is a mild-mannered man most of the time, but at night he dons a costume of his own shoddy making and prowls the streets as the Defendor. He's on the hunt for wrong-doers big and small, but his ultimate prey is a villain known only as the Captain of Industry. Also, Arthur isn't all there in the head.

Like Hero at Large above, this is a tale about a regular guy who wades into danger hoping to help, but there's nothing accidental about Arthur's efforts. He's on a mission, and while he thinks he knows what he's doing, viewers won't be too sure. His weapons of choice include marbles, wasps, lime juice, and a billy club, and his disinterest in guns stems in part because he feels impervious to bullets. That belief creates a sense of security that may or may not be accurate.

Woody Harrelson channels all kinds of crazy for the mildly off-kilter Arthur, but he also finds the heart that's necessary for viewers and other characters to actually care. He has people in his life with his best interests at heart, but the pull of vicious criminals and the motivation of his mother's death see him return to the street to face down villains of all stripes. The film works as a minor action movie, but it doesn't shy away from the drama inherent in Arthur's mental state and instead explores his mindset, the psychological need for justice, and the effect a true hero can have on the rest of us. It's like a low-key sibling to James Gunn's Super – complete with Kat Dennings instead of Ellen Page – and it's an effective and affecting feature.

Watch Defendor on Amazon.

Antboy (Denmark, 2013)

Pelle is something of a loner who has trouble making friends and harbors a secret crush on a girl at school. His boring life takes a turn, though, when he's bitten by a very special ant and develops some equally special superpowers. His newfound career as a pint-sized hero is fun for a while, but he's soon challenged when his crush is kidnapped by a villain calling himself The Flea.

This is a light-hearted romp aimed squarely at the pre-teen market, and as such it might leave older viewers a bit cold. Take it on its own terms, though, and the film is a delightful action/adventure that sees its young hero stumble into abilities that he very intentionally uses for good. The film riffs pretty damn closely on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, but rather than feel like a rip-off, the movie works as an homage for younger generations. It's based on a local comic book and went on to spawn at least two sequels, so if your little one is into the first, there's more to follow.

It's absolutely a kids movie, but The Flea is no joke. He's a darkly threatening creation played a bit heavier and creepier than the rest of the film suggests is necessary. Most of the movie is tremendously goofy as twelve-year-old Pelle struggles to get a grip on his abilities, uses them to wow and impress the other kids, and trades comic book wisdom with his nerdy new friend. The Flea, though, is legitimately unsettling – albeit in a still silly way – so if you do share this one with kids, you may be waking to their nightmares.

Watch Antboy on Amazon.

Psychokinesis (South Korea, 2018)

A security guard drinks from water that's been tainted by a meteorite and soon discovers he's developed new abilities. Namely, he can move things with his mind: small things, big things, and even himself. That's right, he can fly when he puts his mind to it. When corporate thugs threaten his estranged daughter's livelihood and neighborhood, he steps up to become the hero he was never capable of being before.

There's a simplicity at the heart of this Korean superhero origin story as a normal guy is gifted with abnormal powers, but it balances the genre elements with a beautiful tale of a father and daughter in distress and a compelling one of small businesses at the mercy of corporate greed. Both of those angles offer an intimacy to the story – the world isn't at risk, millions aren't in peril – but the stakes feel no less heavy for it. When it does come time for action, some pretty sharp CG and solid stunt work bring it all to exciting life.

This is as far removed from Yeon Sang-ho's previous film (Train to Busan) as that was from the animated movies that preceded it. The one constant across his drama, action/horror, and superhero shenanigans is an incredible skill at crafting visually engaging, highly affecting entertainment. His latest lacks a propulsive pace, but both thrills and an emotional connection are present here, meaning that we're left cheering as it heads towards a climax where no one's fate is certain. That's one of the beauties of South Korean cinema: tone can shift from playful to heartbreaking in moments, and Psychokinesis isn't afraid to do just that.

Watch Psychokinesis on Netflix.