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.

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