Stephen Arnell

Ten cerebral superhero films to rival The Batman

Ten cerebral superhero films to rival The Batman
Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne in The Batman (Warner Bros)
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With an added ‘The’ for extra gravitas, Matt Reeves’ fresh take on The Batman is picking up generally favourable notices both for the movie and Robert Pattinson’s interpretation of the character, which apparently makes Christian Bale’s dour Bruce Wayne a happy-go-lucky scamp in comparison. The Spectator's Deborah Ross wasn't convinced by yet another dark twist on the superhero but elsewhere the film has received solid reviews.

The Caped Crusader has seen many iterations on film, the most recent being Ben Affleck’s constipated billionaire, which never really caught on with audiences.

Christopher Nolan’s three motion pictures (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) raised the bar for both Batman films and superhero movies as a whole, earning praise from critics who previously shunned the genre.

With Reeves’ new movie upping both the grimness ante and the political subtext of TDKR (which was seen as anti the Occupy movements of the time), The Batman promises to be a superhero flick that film snobs can be seen to enjoy. If that’s the right word.

With this in mind, a cinematic smorgasbord at the more intellectual end of the latex-clad hero market.

Watchmen (2009) Amazon Rent/Buy

Deemed ‘unfilmable’ by many, Alan Moore’s dystopian superhero story was brought to the screen rather too literally (with one major plot exception) by bombastic director Zack Snyder (300).

Snyder’s overuse of slow-motion, poor prosthetics, a cringe-inducing sex scene (to the decidedly unromantic strains of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah) and slavish attempt to recreate the panels of the original graphic novel can be off-putting, but the picture remains a watchable diversion from the more run-of-the-mill superhero flicks.

For me, HBO’s 2019 mini-series sequel was a far more enjoyable experience, writer Damon Lindelof (Lost/The Leftovers) taking Moore’s concept in an interesting direction, although some accused the show of being ‘a woke left fantasy’.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

A Marvel movie for those who hate Marvel movies? Probably not, but The Winter Soldier stands out from the herd with its deliberate evocation of 1970s conspiracy movies, referenced in the casting of Robert Redford (Three Days of the Condor) as chief bad guy Alexander Pierce.

Redford is very good in the picture, although he upset Marvel fans by revealing his role well before its cinema release: 'I like the idea of playing a villain...I did that just because it's a different thing for me to do.'


The Winter Soldier is only let down by the now mandatory last third of every superhero picture where punch-ups and wholesale destruction run interminably on.

Chronicle (2012) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

This low-budget ‘found-footage’ superhero adventure was greeted as heralding a rising directorial talent in Josh Trank.

But…the disaster of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot FANT4STIC and his mediocre Capone biopic (2020) means that the promise of his first picture appears to be a one-off.

A shame, since Chronicle is a good movie; the premise of the effect of telekinetic powers gained from an alien object on three teenagers is played out contrary to expectations.

Bullied ‘Incel’ Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) finds the temptation of his new powers too strong to resist, resulting in a settling of scores and accompanying death and destruction.

DeHaan went onto play the cackling Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), whilst co-star Michael B. Jordan took the role of The Human Torch in Trank’s FF film before starring as the villain 'Killmonger' Erik Stevens in Marvel’s Black Panther (2018).

Jordan was the second ‘monger’ in a Marvel movie, the first being Jeff Bridges’ Ironmonger in the first Iron Man (2008).

If MCU introduces (as is rumoured) the aquatic superhero Prince Namor (The Submariner) one wonders if he will face an adversary called ‘The Fishmonger’. Doubtful.

Birdman (2014) Amazon Rent/Buy

Does art mirror life in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (The Revenant) black comedy, where washed up former superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) attempts to recover his creative mojo by starring, writing, and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?

Thomson is plagued by visions of and the internal voice of his film character Birdman, who urges the actor to go back to the role.

As we know, Keaton will play Batman again after an absence of decades for upcoming DC picture The Flash and essayed the role of Marvel’s feathery baddie The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).

Iñárritu’s arthouse picture has a patina of superhero interest, but is chiefly distinguished by the director’s decision to give the impression that it was filmed in one continuous single take.

So, if your children are clamouring for another comic book adventure to watch, best to avoid, especially since Thomson (*spoiler alert*) attempts suicide at the end.

Logan (2017) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Although Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) spin-off Logan won critical plaudits, the movie is a bit of a downer – to say the least.

In the near future, a visibly past-it Logan, and Alzheimer's-inflicted Professor X (Patrick Stewart) face off against an evil corporation creating a cadre of weaponised children using mutant DNA.

A dying Logan confronts a younger, evil clone of himself in one final battle as he guides the kids to the comparative safety of Canada. British actors Stephen Merchant (The Outlaws) and Richard E Grant (Withnail & I) pop up respectively as an albino mutant and a sinister geneticist.

Super (2010) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

James Gunn’s extremely dark comedy is a million miles away from his two Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, closer in tone to his 2021 reboot of The Suicide Squad for rivals DC.

More depressing than laugh out loud, as disturbed burger-flipper Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) flips out after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for local strip club owner/drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon).

Inspired by Christian TV superhero The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillon), Frank adopts the identity of costumed vigilante The Crimson Bolt and embarks on a campaign of righteous vengeance against the criminal underworld.

He is joined in this by even more deranged sidekick/sexsomaniac ‘Boltie’, played by Elliot Page. As with Birdman, not one to put the kids in front of.

The Dark Knight (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

Rated as the best of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (although I personally prefer Rises), The Dark Knight boasts some superb set pieces, but tends to drag, and Heath Ledger’s Joker is not quite the tour-de-force performance critics thought at the time of release.

Far better though than Jared Leto’s attempts and more chipper when compared to Joaquin Phoenix’s miserabilist in Joker (2019).

And, it must be said, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face is a distinct improvement on Tommy Lee Jones's risible version of the character in Batman Forever (1995).

Unbreakable (2000) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy Disney+

Bruce Willis teams up with his Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan’s talky movie which he revisited for his universe-building Split (2017) and Glass (2019).

Willis plays working stiff David Dunn, the sole survivor of a horrifying train crash who discovers his superpowers (strength, invulnerability, and limited ESP) under the guidance of disabled comic bookstore owner Elijah Price aka Mr Glass.

If you haven’t seen Unbreakable, I won’t spoil Shyamalan’s trademark twist ending.

The picture garnered positive reviews, making $248.1m on a $75m budget, so presumably Willis was happy with his share of the back end.

Defendor (2009) Amazon Buy Only

In the same vein as Super, Defendor follows the exploits of the titular costumed non-super powered hero on a mission to clean up the city streets.

Woody Harrelson plays Arthur Poppington aka Defendor, who is revealed to be suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome. Whether you find that particularly amusing will colour your enjoyment of the movie.

As well as Harrelson (who recently starred as Carnage in the trashy Venom sequel), Defendor stars Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh and Kat Dennings, who played Darcy in the first two Thor movies and Disney+’s underwhelming Wandavision.

If you fancy a genuinely funny superhero comedy, why not check out 1999’s Mystery Men, which star Ben Stiller is keen to return to.

Brightburn (2019) Amazon Rent/Buy

What if an alien humanoid baby was found by a childless Midwestern couple who adopt him as their own?

No, not Clark Kent aka Kal-El/Superman but little Brandon Breyer, who, unlike the Kryptonian, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

On entering his teenage years, the extraterrestrial larrikin discovers that his destiny is to ‘Take the World’.

Which Brandon proceeds to do with extreme prejudice, his deadly laser vision earning him the sobriquet ‘Brightburn’.

Rainn Wilson appears in a photograph at the end of the film as Crimson Bolt from Super; James Gunn produced Brightburn, which was scripted by his brothers Mark and Brian.