19 Underrated Superhero Movies That Came Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In the age of booming superhero movies, it’s easy to lose sight of what made us love these enchanting characters in the first place. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has injected a huge sum of attention (and cash) toward the superhero genre but fans who are new to the genre may be wondering what classics and underrated superhero movies precede the more recent cinematic spectacles.

In the midst of potential “superhero fatigue,” audiences may want to consider more nostalgic and under-the-radar movies that made the genre what it is today. In no particular order, here are 19 underrated superhero movies that precede the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Batman (1989)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Tim Burton’s Batman is one of the best examples of translating a superhero from the comic book to the big screens, foregoing skin-tight costumes with something much more intimidating. Michael Keaton, starring as Bruce Wayne, and Jack Nicholson as the iconic Joker makes this an instant classic. Tim Burton’s vision is the catalyst that gave us the modern, reinforced and intimidating hero that we associate with Batman today.

X-Men (2000)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

The first installment of the X-Men movie franchise signifies a new age in superhero movies. Not only does X-Men boast of a fantastic cast, starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, and more, it establishes its powerful yet deeply flawed superheroes in a world where their powers are exploited and their characters are ostracized.

Spider-man (2002)

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

The ongoing argument regarding the best Spider-man never seems to end, but Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Peter Parker certainly gets a strong backing from superhero purists. This origin story not only provides us with the context to which Tobey transformed into a superhero, but the sacrifices of becoming a superhero as well.

Despite the movie’s focus on Peter Parker’s romance with Mary Jane Watson, Peter struggles to accept his new responsibilities as he not only battles Willem Dafoe’s unrivaled Green Goblin but also the dynamics of his friendship with Danny Osborn, played by James Franoco.

Blade (1998)

Photo Credit:New Line Cinema.

It’s easy to forget that Blade is a Marvel character, mainly due the ruthlessness exhibited during his relentless pursuit of killing vampires. The half human, half vampire protagonist played by Wesley Snipes drives this action-packed movie in which he defends humans from blood thirsty vampires. Blade provides a glimpse into a more diverse, complex, and violent angle of superhero movies in the years to follow.

RoboCop (1987)

Photo Credit: Orion Pictures.

Following a murder, Officer Murphy is revived, or essentially reanimated into a robot cop who is the facilitator of justice and there is plenty of violence in this x-rated action sci-fi movie. Not only is RoboCop action-packed but it explores and parodizes topics such as corruption and morality, making us question many of the aspects that make our society so flawed.

Spider-man 2 (2004)

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Spider-man 2 won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. But it isn’t just about the spectacle of Spider-man 2, as its narrative engulfs viewers in conflicting themes that remind us that being a superhero isn’t something to be desired. Tobey Maguire returns as Peter Parker, not only navigating the skyscraper-littered skylines but also the conflicting emotions and responsibilities associated with being a superhero.

X2, X-Men United (2003)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

X2, or X-Men United, brings us back to the crew of mutants who not only put their powers to good use but have to fight to be accepted in a world that rejects them. This time, we’re introduced to new characters, such as General William Stryker, played by the brilliant Brian Cox. But despite the introduction of new characters, this installment provides audiences with plenty of character development and insight into the lives of these intriguing and multifaceted superheroes.

Superman (1978)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

How can you mention superheroes without mentioning Superman? Adored by viewers due to great realistic effects, Christopher Reeve’s iconic spitcurl, and the juggling of two alter egos, Superman embraces all of the classical tropes which makes us love Superhero movies. Clark Kent’s romance and chemistry with Lois Lane and his inevitable clash with his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, makes for a classic superhero movie.

Darkman (1990)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Darman is arguably the most underrated or under the radar movie on this list. Sami Rami’s movie follows a superhero, played by Liam Neeson with a violent approach. His vigilantism polarizes other superheroes of that time, such as Batman and Superman. As an x-rated movie, Darkman is often described as more horror than superhero.

Superman II (1980)

Photo Credit:Warner Bros.

Christopher Reeve is back following the success of the first installment. This time, Superman must compromise between the responsibility that comes with his powers and his love for Lois Lane. Sacrifices are made at the cost of love, security, and Clark Kent’s identity.

Batman Begins (2005)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s vision and Christian Bale’s performance provided us with an iconic superhero movie that transformed the genre. This origin story gives insight into how a young orphan became one of the world’s greatest yet merciless detectives. Batman Begins reminds us that superheroes don’t necessarily need superpowers and they aren’t just characters that children look up to, but deeply complex and tragic.

Batman Returns (1992)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

With the success of his previous Batman movie, Tim Burton returns with more action, tragedy, and grotesque characters, such as Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Balancing ruthless realism and twisted fantasy, this sequel is another excellent addition to the superhero genre.

The Rocketeer (1991)

Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures.

Directed by Joe Jonhston, who also directed Captain America: The First Avenger, the Rocketeer fills audiences with the nostalgic aura of superhero movies. This Disney movie follows a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who can now fly without the use of an aircraft thanks to a rocket pack prototype. But Cliff is also burdened with newfound responsibilities and unwanted attention from the FBI, mobsters, and Nazi operatives in the years leading up to World War II.

Blade II (2002)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Following the success of the box office touchdown that was Blade, Wesley Snipes returns as the half-human half-vampire superhero. This time, Guillermo del Toro is directing. In Blade II, he  must confront an enemy greater than the vampires he faced in the first installment, a mutated race of vampires called the Reapers.

The Crow (1994)

Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

Described by some as the best comic book to film adaptation, The Crow is a dark tale that follows a murdered man who seeks vengeance from beyond the grave for himself and his deceased fiance. Brandon Lee’s tragic character in this dark revenge fantasy makes viewers navigate themes of morbidity, tragedy, and death.

The Punisher (2004)

Photo Credit: Lions Gate Films.

Who doesn’t love a vigilante? Whether you think he’s a superhero or an antihero, The Punisher is a fan-favorite, no-nonsense protagonist. Thomas Jane does well to capture the mercilessness of the antihero that is Frank Castle. While critics were generally not impressed by the level of violence on display, the movie was well received among fans who crave action-packed entertainment. 

The Incredibles (2004)

Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Despite being an animation, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is much more than just a family entertainment flick. The two-time Oscar winning Pixar movie not only caters to younger audiences who enjoy the colorful spectacle but also older audiences who appreciate its satirical themes and subtle jokes.

Evil Dead (1981)

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

In the Evil Dead, Bruce Campbell plays the heroic Ash Williams who fights monsters and “deadites” in this comedy horror. Although not the typical “superhero” archetype, Ash Williams is a flawed, cult and iconic hero who’s canon to the Marvel universe. He makes up for his limited range of superpowers (compared to other superheroes) with plenty of grit, humor, and tenacity.

Van Helsing (2004)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Making another appearance on the list, this time Hugh Jackman plays Van Helsing, the fabled monster hunter. Van Helsing encounters iconic and notorious villains such as Dr. Frankenstein, Count Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde, among others. While this adventure movie isn’t necessarily thought-provoking, it provides a fun fantasy spectacle featuring our favorite monsters and villains.

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William Furney

Writer & Blogger

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