The 11 Best Pre-MCU Superhero Movies

With Disney as Galactus (and Kevin Feige as its distinctly non-silver herald), devouring all forms of media in its path, it might be hard to remember a time before the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, the vastly ambitious scope and size of the MCU changed superhero cinema. Suddenly, it wasn't good enough for comic movies to be independent entities; shared universes and crossovers became the norm.

And sure, while the last ever superhero movie will probably be a Marvel property, showing on screens as the encroaching sun boils the oceans into vapor (it'll still have two post-credit sequences), superheroes thrived well before the MCU. Marvel had seen some box office success with their characters (notably the X-Men, Spider-Man and Blade), as had DC with several Superman and Batman movies, before the MCU arrived. Heck, the first superhero movie — a tale about a mysterious vigilante called "Judex"  — and debuted all the way back in 1916. It's available to watch on YouTube and, despite being ancient, has still aged better than 1997's Shaquille O'Neal vehicle, "Steel." 

For the purposes of this article, we're classing the first MCU movie as "Iron Man," which debuted in 2008. There were some brilliant superhero films from both Marvel and DC as well as independent comics companies before then. We'll be going through the very memorable and best. Readers assemble!

Danger: Diabolik

John Philip Law (straight from "Barbarella," another film that could have easily made it onto this list) plays Diabolik, a suave and sophisticated master thief. More supervillain than good guy, this anti-James Bond is torn straight from the pages of the 1962 comics created by the Giussani sisters.

Mario Bava, one of the masters of Italian horror, directed and co-wrote this lively comic book adaptation. It has all of the trademarks of a '60s espionage thriller — fast cars, exotic European locations, elaborate gadgetry, and drop-dead gorgeous women — and ties in perfectly with '60s counterculture. Diabolik's lust for wealth always comes at the expense of the authorities, who are constantly one step behind their elusive prey.

"Danger: Diabolik" went on to inspire comic book characters like Grant Morrison's X-Man Fantomex and Mark Millar's twisted take on Batman, Nemesis, and is a textbook superhero movie. Unlike the emeralds that Diabolik craves, however, it's not without flaws. The plot is a little chaotic and unstructured, and Terry-Thomas appears to be playing, well, Terry-Thomas, but it's easy to forgive the low points and get carried away by the outstanding Ennio Morricone soundtrack and the beautiful imagery. Bava was an incredible talent, and it's visible in every moment of this camp classic — any single shot could be framed and displayed alongside its comic panel counterpart.

Superman II

Richard Donner's "Superman" is a stone-cold classic, and, despite a cop-out resolution in which it turns out that Kryptonians can reverse the flow of time, is one of the earliest examples of a superhero done justice (and truth, and the American way). It's always worth remembering just how good Christopher Reeve was in the role; the differences in body language between stoic, calm Superman, and bumbling, awkward Clark Kent are a masterclass in how it should be done, with Reeve convincingly playing both roles. Subsequent Superman actors would prove themselves adept at one or the other, but none are as good as Reeve at doing both.

But while "Superman" did exactly what it said on the posters — it made you believe a man could fly — "Superman 2" gave that flying man something to do. At times, the comics struggle to give Kal-El a foe worthy of his god-like powers. Magic frequently comes into play, and Kryptonite is way more common than the fragments of an exploded planet should be. The first movie has this problem, too: Lex Luthor is a semi-comedic character, rarely a match for the Last Son of Krypton.

"Superman 2" fixes that by pitting Superman against three imprisoned refugees from his doomed planet: General Zod, Ursa, and the mute Non (channeling James Bond's Jaws). The result is what you want from a superhero movie — superpowered beings beating the ever-living crap out of each other — and remains infinitely more fun and entertaining than 2013's "Man of Steel," which brought Zod back to the silver screen.


It's easy to forget the uproar when Michael Keaton was cast as the Caped Crusader. Despite proving himself more than capable of acting against type in Tim Burton's  "Beetlejuice," fans were outraged. Frank Miller's ground-breaking "The Dark Knight Returns" and Denny O'Neil's run on the comics had made Batman grim and gritty again, and fans were convinced that Tim Burton's Batman would embrace the camp and humor of the Adam West TV series.

They needn't have worried. Keaton turned out to be perfectly at home as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and, although it's not without moments of levity, Burton's "Batman" was a dark, gothic masterpiece. Despite being as packed as Batman's utility belt with Burton's trademark flourishes, it still retained the essence of the character we'd grown up with (Burton's aborted take on Superman wasn't going to be nearly as faithful, but that's another story). A perfectly cast Jack Nicholson is sublime as the Joker, with no piece of art nouveau scenery left unchewed. 

Sequels would return to the series' campier elements with less success (and more neon, thanks to Joel Schumacher) but the original "Batman" still stands up today as an amazing take on the familiar character. Without its success, many of the films on this list simply wouldn't exist.


Years before Liam Neeson reinvented himself as an action hero with a particular set of skills, he appeared in the superhero horror flick "Darkman." Co-written and directed by a pre-"Spider-Man" Sam Raimi, the movie sees Neeson playing Peyton Westlake, a scientist working to create a synthetic skin when he is brutally attacked, disfigured, and left for dead. Saved by a procedure that renders him unable to feel pain and makes him prone to violent outbursts, he seeks revenge. Using his invention as a disguise — which, unfortunately, only remains stable for 99 minutes — Westlake hunts down the people who tried to kill him.

"Darkman," created by Raimi as an homage to the Universal monster movies of the '30s, is part "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," part "The Invisible Man," and part "The Phantom of the Opera." Raimi's distinctive directorial style is clearly influenced by comics, making it clear why he fits so well with the superhero genre, and will (hopefully) continue to do so with his work on the Doctor Strange sequel.

Even though "Darkman" is pure comic book entertainment, the "Evil Dead" director still retains his penchant for gore and violence. "Darkman" is one of the earliest R-rated superhero movies, alongside "RoboCop" and the first "Punisher." Just when the press was filled with a plethora of articles stating that comic books weren't just for kids, "Darkman" proved that comic book movies weren't necessarily, either.

The Rocketeer

Based on the Dave Stevens' 1982 comic book series, "The Rocketeer" is a loving homage to the Saturday morning matinee heroes from the '40s, with clear and obvious inspiration taken from the "King of the Rocket Men" serial from 1949. In the movie, Cliff Secord, stunt pilot, finds a hidden jetpack and becomes the Rocketeer, hero of the skies. However, Nazis are also after the rocket technology, and Cliff quickly locks horns with actor and Nazi double-agent Neville Sinclair.

Nazis always make for the best villains — let's face it, the two best Indiana Jones movies feature them — and "The Rocketeer" is no exception to this solid cinematic rule. Timothy Dalton plays the Errol Flynn-inspired Sinclair, a literal moustache-twirling bad guy, with a maniacal glee we wouldn't see from the actor until Edgar Wright's "Hot Fuzz" debuted 16 years later.

"The Rocketeer" is good fun, a throwback to a simpler, less sophisticated kind of movie where the heroes are square-jawed hunks, the women are bombshells, and the villains are caricatures, all goose-stepping snarl and pithy one-liners. The authentic period setting means that "The Rocketeer" doesn't feel dated. It disappointed at the box office, but is much more fondly remembered now. It's just nice to see a film so utterly unashamed of its origins.

The Crow

Sadly overshadowed by the death of its lead (Brandon Lee, just as his star was in the ascendance), "The Crow" is a supernatural revenge film based on James O'Barr's 1989 comic series of the same name. The concept of revenants (characters who return from the dead for revenge) isn't a new one in any media — the mediocre "Spawn" treads similar ground — but "The Crow" executes it with such a distinctive visual style that the movie can't help but stand out from the undead crowd.

And yet, to rewatch "The Crow" is to be reminded of how awful a tragedy Lee's accidental death on set was. 28-year-old Brandon is an enigmatic screen presence as both pre- and post-resurrection Eric Draven, and he was clearly destined for far greater things. His loss gifts "The Crow" with a certain kind of poignancy. 

Special mention must also go to the incredible soundtrack, which does as much  as any of the visuals in creating a distinctive sense of time and place. The genres of alternative and industrial rock were becoming increasingly popular on both sides of the pond when "The Crow" was released, and the film milks this to full effect. Style over substance? Perhaps, but acceptable when it manages to be this stylish.


When people are surprised at the success of movies based on little-known Marvel properties like "Guardians of the Galaxy," they shouldn't be. By now, that's practically a Marvel tradition.

Blade's first comic appearance was in 1973 in Marvel's "The Tomb of Dracula," where he was an afro-wearing vampire hunter who spoke in the same cliched jive-talking dialogue as many of Marvel's other Black characters at the time. He occasionally appeared in other characters' titles, but never enjoyed the same level of fame as the A-team of Spider-Man, the Hulk, and so onThe movie, however, was a phenomenon. The fact that few members of the audience had heard of the character before made no difference. "Blade" was an R-rated horror-superhero hybrid that received mixed reviews but made a fortune for New Line Cinema, garnering enough momentum for two sequels.

Wesley Snipes is perfectly cast as the titular Daywalker, cursed with the need to feed on blood but possessing none of the other weaknesses of his vampire brethren. Snipes brought an effortless cool to the character, spitting out curt one-liners like Van Helsing channeling James Bond. "Blade" anticipated the cooler elements of "The Matrix" — trench coats and a contemporary dance soundtrack — by a year, and for a brief period in the late '90s, made comic books sexy. It'll be good to see Blade properly join the MCU, with plans currently underway to resurrect the half-vampire.

Mystery Men

Captain Amazing is the superhero guardian of Champion City, and is doing such a great job that it renders all other superheroes redundant. However, when the Captain is captured by his arch nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (a rarely better Geoffrey Rush), an unlikely squad of heroes must assemble to save him: the Mystery Men.

Although primarily a comedy populated by outlandish characters — this collection of weirdos and misfits is led by Ben Stiller's Mr. Furious, a man whose superpower is getting really, really angry — there's a genuine heart to "Mystery Men." There are no real surprises — the plot is basically "Dodgeball" with fewer balls — but it's fun and completely lacking any pretense. "Mystery Men" was way ahead of its time in its mockery of superhero culture, too — the visual gag of Captain Amazing's superhero costume being plastered with sponsors' stickers says everything you need to know about both his character and the tone of the movie.

After all, it's hard to be pompous when your superhero movie features a character whose superpower is super-flatulence. It could've been even weirder, though: The comic the Mystery Men came from also features the Flaming Carrot, a superhero who looks exactly like a sentient root vegetable. 


Still riding high on the phenomenal success of "The Sixth Sense" and before he'd painted himself in the corner with an over-reliance on twist endings, M. Night Shyamalan released "Unbreakable." Promoted, despite Shyamalan's requests, as a psychological thriller and not as a superhero movie, comic book fans would be forgiven for missing this one.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, the sole survivor of a train crash. As if his alliterative name wasn't indicative enough, David learns that he is — and potentially always has been – impervious to physical harm. His path crosses with Mr. Glass, a man cursed with brittle bone syndrome, making him an individual as vulnerable as David is invulnerable. Bringing superheroes into the "real world" had been done before, but rarely with such class and expertise. The inevitable M. Night Shyamalan twist is very well done, more understated than that in "The Sixth Sense," yet considerably deeper. It's interesting on rewatch to spot the subtle use of superhero tropes, not least of which is David's unofficial superhero costume: a raincoat with a distinctive silhouette.

Through a genuinely surprising post-credit scene in the James McAvoy vehicle "Split," "Unbreakable" ended up being the first of a trilogy. The series eventually concluded with the movie "Glass," released nearly two decades after the first (and still superior) installment.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie

Whereas our light-hearted, primary-colored cartoon superhero needs are now satiated by "Teen Titans Go," at the turn of the millennium we had "The Powerpuff Girls."

"The Powerpuff Girls Movie" is the origin story of the three courageous kindergarteners only hinted at in the opening titles of the TV series. Professor Utonium, using the tried-and-tested "perfect little girl" formula of sugar, spice, and everything nice, carelessly spilled some Chemical X into the mix, and the Powerpuff Girls were born from the resultant chemical goop. Malevolent mutant chimp Mojo Jojo gets an origin tale too, setting himself up nicely to be the girls' most prolific — and catastrophe-prone — foe.

As with "Teen Titans Go," "The Powerpuff Girls Movie" has a distinctive visual style that you'll ever love or despise, buzzing with the kind of energy that only toddlers hopped up on sugary soda can generate. Because it's a full-length movie, the scale and scope of the story are upped considerably from the TV series, pitting our heroines against an entire rogue's gallery of Mojo's menacing monkey minions. There are enough sly pop-culture references and bouts of ultra-violence to amuse the adults, and – like every episode of the TV series — some moral lessons to sneak by the kids.

Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi had already proven himself with 2002's "Spider-Man," a confident and exhilarating big screen debut for the web-slinging wallcrawler. In the sequel, freed from the obligation of having to retell Spidey's oh-so-familiar origin tale, Raimi gives Peter Parker and his arachnid alter-ego much more room to breathe, pitting him against one of the more notorious members of his rogue's gallery.

Villains in Spider-Man are frequently more misguided than outright evil, and Doctor Octopus is no exception. At the time, Alfred Molina was better known as an ubiquitous presence on British television than a movie star, but as a great actor, he imbued Otto Gunther Octavius with a pathos missing from most supervillains. He's a father figure for the still-grieving Peter Parker, filling the absence left by Uncle Ben. This only makes the cruelty of Octavius' degradation from friend to villain sting so much more.

"Spider-Man 2" is full of the typical frenetic Raimi visual flare, featuring a standout fight scene on the top of a train that stands up as one of the best duels in superhero cinema. "Spider-Man 2" would remain the best of the Spider-Man films up until 2018's "Into the Spider-Verse" swung by and stole the crown.