Suicide Squad represents a bold new breakout in blockbuster superhero cinema. Whereas standard adventures showcase righteous titans crusading for truth and justice, this epic DC Comics adaptation focuses on supervillians unleashed to pull off black ops missions in order to get their prison sentences cut short. It’s a deliciously deviant premise: here, at last, it’s time to root for the bad guys! The roster of troublemakers running riot in Suicide Squad includes the Joker (Jared Leto), Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re a powder keg of crackpot criminal masterminds and they combust spectacularly.
Still, no matter how original their dastardly deeds may be, even evildoers come from a set of twisted traditions. As such, Hollywood has mischievously tinkered with the superhero formula in times past, in ways that have made Suicide Squad possible. Some such offbeat adventures proved to be huge hits, some went on to be cult classics, and others are still ready for proper rediscovery.
No matter what, though watching these flicks as a run-up to Suicide Squad would make for a truly Kick-Ass (pun intended) film festival.
Ryan Reynolds’ flippant, hyper-violent anti-hero splatters comic book movie expectations all over the screen in a wild onslaught of brutal jokes and bone-crunching action. Audiences embraced the raunchy, jokey, R-rated flick in record-setting numbers. We’re for Deadpool 2 in 2017 to see if the rumor is true that he’ll meet up with his fellow authority-bucking X-Men member: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2015)
Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn comes from a B-movie background (Tromeo and Juliet; Slither), and he subverted superhero dynamics in 2010 by way of Super, his dark indie comedy starring Rainn Wilson as an everyman turned costumed crime-fighter. Gunn translates that sly, witty sensibility to the hugest of blockbuster canvases in Guardians, an absolutely visionary interpretation of Marvel’s weirdest unsung crusaders, one of whom is an ambulatory plant (Vin Diesel as Groot), while another is a wisecracking raccoon (Bradley Cooper as Rocket).
Dark humor and brutal slapstick prevails in Kick-Ass, an exciting and inventive saga of average citizens who heed the call to combat injustice by donning uniforms and hitting the streets in search of mayhem—some of which they end up creating on their own. Aaron Johnson stars as the hero of the title, Nicolas Cage is drolly funny as the Batman-like Big Daddy, and Chloe Grace Moretz steals the film as foul-mouthed, face-stomping, eleven-year-old Hit-Girl. Kick-Ass 2 (2013) adds Jim Carrey to the mix as trigger-happy Colonel Stars and Stripes.
Will Smith brings comic grace to Hancock in the lead role a flying, superhumanly strong crime-fighter who’s also chronically depressed and desperately alcoholic. He’s also the first on-screen comic-book-style hero who seems to get nothing but grief from the public: his rescue missions and daring captures routinely cause millions of dollars in property damage and ludicrous amounts of chaos. Two monstrously popular 2016 blockbusters explored similar damaging effects that fantasy derring-do might wreak on real-world populations: Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. As such, Hancock now looks like it was a hit ahead of its time.
Mystery Men (1999)
A who’s who of late-’90s comedy stars in Mystery Men as a backward, broken league of misfits and miscreants whose super-powers seem to be as much a curse and a blessing—in fact, hilariously so. The Mystery Men squad includes Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Bowler (Janeane Garofolo), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), The Spleen (Paul Reubens), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), and Doc Heller (Tom Waits). Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), back by Tony P. (Eddie Izzard) and his Disco Boys, supply appropriately uproarious villainy.
Tank Girl (1995)
Attempts to turn the brash and beloved British alt-comic Tank Girl into a movie had proved challenging throughout the ’90s. At one point, test shooting commenced with UK performer Emily Lloyd, but she bowed out due to refusing to cut her hair into the characters buzzy punk style. Director Rachel Talalay then cast Lori Petty in the lead, saying the actress “is crazy in her own life, and Tank Girl needed somebody like that.” Ice-T then joined as a half-human/half-kangaroo desert fighter and Malcolm McDowell as the diabolical baddie. In terms of instant mainstream success, Tank Girl bombed at the box office when it first opened, but a hardcore audience caught on quick and the movie never went away. Over the years, the film has evolved into a cult sensation and regularly plays midnight screenings at hip theaters worldwide. Tank Girl is a genuine feminist superhero success—it just took much of the public a minute to catch up with that fact.
Writer-director Sam Raimi leaps from his hyper-stylish, ultraviolent Evil Dead horror epics to a hyper-stylish, ultraviolent superhero origin story with Darkman. Liam Neeson stars as a scientist whose experiments on himself with synthetic skin giving him incredible strength, but also a nuclear-strength temper. After greedy villains beat, burn, and leave Neeson for dead, he uses his concoction to become Darkman, and to right the wrongs committed against both himself and society. Darkman generated enough of a following to warrant a couple of direct-to-video sequels: Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995) and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996). Most importantly, the film’s aesthetic bravura and directorial confidence proved that Raimi would be the ideal filmmaker to usher in the modern superhero age with Spider-Man (2002).
Howard the Duck (1986)
George Lucas produced this sprawling, comedic, rock-and-roll-themed adaptation of the cult late-’70s Marvel comic, and infamously, Howard the Duck came out to angry reviews and empty theaters upon arrival. Although, fair or not, the movie still has that general reputation, no dearth of Howard the Duck fans have remained loyal to the film through the years. Initially, kids embraced the waddling, cigar-smoking, guitar-shredding foul of the title and his crazy adventures among the “talking apes” of Earth. In time, those original fans grew up and they continue to champion Howard as being close to their hearts. It’s no wonder, then, that Howard’s surprise appearance in the post-credits sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy generated so much joy.
The Toxic Avenger (1984)
New York City’s low-budget Troma Films had scored a couple of hits prior to The Toxic Avenger, but it was this berserk, gore-blasted, absolutely unfiltered spin on an Incredible-Hulk-like origin story of “The First Superhero From New Jersey” that permanently put the proudly schlocky studio on the map. Four sequels, an animated cartoon series for kids(!), and countless convention appearances have kept “Toxie” in the popular consciousness. Given the present examples, where top-ticket blockbusters occasionally transgress barriers of bloodshed and/or good taste, you can almost hear the team at Troma giggling and high-fiving one another.
Batman, the 1966 movie, is big-screen spinoff of the pop art TV phenomenon that invented superhero subversion with dry wit, boundless creativity, and brilliant style. The show’s caped crusaders Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) battle their best-known adversaries, the Joker (Cesar Romero), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). As with the series, the movie’s genius is that kids love it as a straightforward superhero saga, while adults get to catch all the sneaky in-jokes and ironic parodies.