We’re all set for The Avengers a.k.a. Avengers Assemble (because apparently we were all going to get the superhero movie confused with the ‘60s spy show) to hit the big screen and blow our minds with the combined might of four movie franchises rolled into one. Avengers Assemble is essentially the culmination of the last decade of mainstream cinema, where nerd-culture has mostly been embraced by (and maybe a little dumbed-down for) the general public. As a nerd and a film-geek then it’s been fantastic to watch Hollywood deal with everybody’s favourite superheroes, resulting in films ranging from the good (Spiderman 2) to the not-so-good (Spiderman 3).
So by now everyone in the world has a grasp on the Hollywood re-imagined adventures of Spiderman, Batman, The Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America (or just ‘The First Avenger’ if your country was on the other side of the Cold War) and so on and so forth. Since the turn of the millennium, it’s been impossible to walk into a movie theatre in summer without seeing posters for recognisable heroes everywhere you turn. But what about the ones you haven’t recognised? Let’s take a look at three heroes whose adventures you might well have missed over the years.
The story goes that Sam Raimi, fresh off the back of becoming an ‘80s cult icon, decided that he wanted to adapt a comic book into his next film. He wanted Batman, no dice. He wanted The Shadow, no luck there either. So he decided to create his own superhero, and the result? Liam Neeson with severe burns.
After his lab is blown-up by the bad guy and his merry band of thugs, Dr. Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is propelled from his building and survives but is horrendously burned. One trip to the hospital and some… unconventional surgical procedures later and our scientist has lost the ability to feel pain, along with anything else, and has gained a small dosage of super-strength (and just a touch of insanity) from an increased supply of adrenaline.
So we have a slightly super-charged, horribly burned scientist, but what makes him unique as far as his skill-set goes? Well just before all of this, he just so happened to be working on a synthetic skin-replacement for burn victims. What are the chances?
Through some thorough usage of late ‘80s green-and-black-screened computers and some dated-looking-yet-somehow-advanced scanning technology, Westlake is able to create skin-masks of anyone he wants. As far as perfect disguises go, someone else’s actual face is pretty hard to beat. Unfortunately though for Westlake, he hadn’t quite perfected his synthetic skin yet and as such it can only last for ninety-nine minutes in sunlight.
With this imposed time-limit to any outdoor excursions, Westlake has to juggle this issue with his struggles concerning both his girlfriend (played by Frances McDormand) and the necessary villains of the piece, a corrupt city developer and a dangerous mobster (is there any other kind?).
The film plays out nice and (title-appropriately) darkly and it’s great to see an early-career Neeson having fun in his peculiar, twisted central role. The role that was initially intended for non-other than Raimi’s regular collaborator Bruce Campbell, but the studio decided he wasn’t the right man for the job and retrospectively it’s hard to argue when his replacement was Liam Neeson. Campbell does however get a tiny cameo late-on in the film, so watch out for his familiar face.
It’s the result of the director of Spider-man wanting to make Batman with Liam Neeson.
(Quite frankly if that doesn’t at least pique your interest a tad I wonder what will)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Next we move onto the only one of these three films to actually be a comic book adaptation, Disney’s fantastic The Rocketeer. The film kicks off in 1938 as the infamous rocket pack (designed in the story by real-world aviator/the insanely rich Howard Hughes – a name that should ring a bell if you’ve seen the Richard Gere flick, The Hoax) is stolen from its factory by mobsters. The mobsters are being pursued by the FBI and the resulting car-chase manages to interfere with our hero, Cliff Secord’s test flight of a new plane that’s ready for competition. The chase goes wrong, the flight goes spectacularly wrong and in the end Secord is left minus one plane and one of the mobsters stashes the rocket pack in Secord’s employer’s hanger for safety. Secord discovers the not-at-all well hidden rocket pack and with a little hesitation and eventually help from his mechanic-friend ‘Peevy’ (including designing the exceptional helmet), the Rocketeer is born.
Turns out the mobsters were working for world-renowned Hollywood star Neville Sinclair, played terrifically by Timothy Dalton right off the back of his turn as Bond. Sinclair gets the mobsters back on the case of catching Secord and retrieving the rocket pack and so the adventure continues right up to its extraordinary final set-piece.
A young Jennifer Connelly took on the role of the leading lady Jenny Blake, Secord’s girlfriend and aspiring-actress. Their relationship gets a little complicated after a couple of missteps from our flying hero, and Neville Sinclair, who happens to be the lead in the fantastic-looking fake film-within-a-film in which Blake is hired as an extra, tries to use their situation to his advantage.
The likes of Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Johnny Depp (who went on to do fairly well with Disney) were all reportedly in the running to play the titular hero, however the director Joe Johnston, who ended up with the job directing Captain America thanks in part to having The Rocketeer on his résumé, pushed for up-and-comer Billy Campbell to get the role. This turned out to be a great decision. Campbell gave the role a real believable sense of heroism and nailed the spirit of the humble small town American turned all American hero, and it didn’t hurt that his look suited the work of creator Dave Stevens down to a tee.
So good cast, fun concept and a big advertising push from Disney, so what happened? The audiences just didn’t show – at least not nearly in the kind of numbers Disney had hoped for. Disney had high hopes for this one, a trilogy was planned with Campbell signed on for both sequels and Connelly for at least the next one. They were hoping to have an impact along the lines of Indiana Jones but with a jetpack, which in hindsight sounds fair enough to me. With a jet pack people!
All American hero fights James Bond with a jet pack.
(also, Jennifer Connelly)
Last but by no means least, we come to Defendor. An instant little personal favourite of mine, Defendor tells a slightly odd and in places quite dark hero story. Woody Harrelson fits the bill perfectly as the loveable but tragically naive Arthur Poppington, a character who’s not quite all there as far as his mental state is concerned.
During the day, Arthur works a normal job for his friend Paul at a construction firm, but at night, out comes Defendor (that’s Defend-or, never Defend-er – Arthur doesn’t like that). The state of Arthur’s alter-ego is probably quite telling of his state of mind. With no actual super-powers or special skills to speak of, our hero Defendor is armed only with his trusty trench club, a slingshot and a handful of DIY gadgets (a stash of marbles, a jar of angry wasps, you get the idea). As for his hero’s costume, he dons a simple black jumper with a silver duct-tape ‘D’ motif and matching black hard hat with various attachments.
As Defendor, Arthur takes it upon himself to take down corrupt cops and criminals, often resulting in him getting way in over his head, with his ultimate goal always being to get revenge on his main enemy the infamous Captain Industry. Along the way Arthur befriends Kat, a.k.a. Angel (Kat Dennings), a crack-smoking prostitute and together they begin a strange yet fascinating friendship. Kat’s character provides a lot of interesting self-conflict, as she seems to take advantage of Arthur’s kindly nature, such as taking the chance to live with him in his construction company’s depot and charge him a daily rate in exchange for information she knows about local criminals, whilst also developing an increasingly caring side towards him, as she starts to genuinely look after Arthur.
The movie’s tale is, in places, a deeply tragic one, as we come to learn more about the ways Arthur views the world and how he deals with it in the only way he knows how, by donning that black outfit and fighting back against injustice. The dark tone of much of the film means that it pulls no punches when it comes to some of the seedier aspects of the world Arthur finds himself in, but Arthur’s spirit is always there to lift the mood when it needs lifting. Woody Harrelson’s tremendous performance adds layers of depth to Arthur’s personality and habits. Every moment of simple naivety and innocent confusion adds to the compassion you can’t help but feel towards this poor deluded soul whose heart is always in the right place and he quickly becomes a sympathetically likeable character.
I adored this movie; I found it a gripping tale of a character with a much more complex persona than is usually found in the genre. So why isn’t it better known?
You might have noticed from the year I stuck after its title at the top of this section, that Defendor seems like a surprisingly recent entry for this list. Well the ‘superheroes-without-powers’ subgenre blossomed rather oddly in the last few years with three very different films. Obviously the most famous of these is Kick-Ass (which I will unashamedly name as one of my absolute favourite films, judge me if you may), which showed up in early 2010. Then a little after that came Super, which had its world premiere in September 2010 and then its wide release early last year. Then there’s Defendor.
Defendor had something of a troubled release process. It premiered before either of those other two members of this peculiarly-specific subgenre in September 2009 (at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Super would premiere a year later). Sony Pictures then picked up the rights for distribution, but decided not to release Defendor theatrically in the U.S. As a result, the company who produced the film (Darius Films) released the film on a much smaller scale themselves in the states in February 2010, but the film never reached cinemas here in Blighty. It seems then that Defendor never really got a chance to leave its mark on the genre, which is a shame as I believe it really does have a lot to offer. Like angry wasps. In a jar. Genius!
A delightfully delusional Woody Harrelson takes it upon himself to fight crime – with bees!
(And a big silver D!)
So those were my thoughts on a few of the overlooked entries into the hero genre, but what do you think? Do you have any personal favourites I didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!