You can throw out any number of explanations for the enduring popularity of superheroes – the flashy, larger-than-life battles, the never-ending soap opera storylines, the desire of fans to immerse themselves in worlds where good and evil are easily delineated, etc.
Currently we live in a time when the superhero movie’s popularity is at an all time high. Between DC and Marvel (more the latter) alone it feels like something new and exciting is being released every time we turn our heads.
As kids in the ’80s, we would have killed for these type of movies. Just imagine if Captain America: Civil War were released 30 years ago, our heads would have collectively exploded! But, this isn’t to say that we didn’t have our own superhero movies to swoon over. Sure, they weren’t as impressive as today (for the most part), but they still hold a special place in our hearts. And that’s the topic at hand today.
Yes indeedy, this is the 10 Best Superhero Movies Of The ’80s.
10. Hero At Large (1980)
The concept of a normal person donning a mask and cape, and then attempting to fight crime as a vigilante, is inherently interesting. Several films have attempted to explore this conceit – Kick-Ass and James Gunn’s Super being the standouts – but most of them are too caught up in their own violence to actually explore any sort of reality. Perhaps reality is too boring. To this day, the most realistic portrayal of what would happen if a normal person attempted to become a superhero is in this early (and sadly forgotten) John Ritter movie – Hero At Large.
Ritter’s character, Steve Nichols, isn’t a comic book fan trying to live out his fantasies. Nichols is merely a struggling actor who finds his life unexpectedly complicated when he stops a robbery while wearing the costume of a superhero character of a film he’s been hired to promote. He decides to dabble at being a superhero only to find that it is more difficult and dangerous than he ever imagined.
The only unrealistic thing about Hero At Large today is that Steve Nichols is just a guy who wants to help. He doesn’t have any deep-seated quest for revenge, he’s just a nice guy who later realizes that he’s in over his head. Could a movie like this get made today without the bloodlust or cynicism of what we’ve seen? Doubtful… which is disappointing.
9. Supergirl (1984)
Made after the powers that be basically gave up on the Superman franchise, Supergirl was conceived as a cheap way to keep the franchise alive without having to bring back any of the essential characters. It’s uber-cheesy, has a terrible storyline and enough hammy acting to choke Mama Cass. But these are precisely the reasons why this movie is so amazing.
When Superman left Earth on a peacekeeping mission, he left Supergirl, a.k.a. Linda Lee, to clean up the mess an evil witch was causing. Yes, she does look like a Barbie playing dress-up in Superman’s clothes, but don’t underestimate her power. Supergirl picks up the slack and overcomes the evils of sorcery (a Kryptonian’s other weakness besides kryptonite) to save the world from total destruction.
8. The Punisher (1989)
Incorruptible cop Frank Castle, who makes his living taking down gangsters, goes rogue when his family is murdered in a revenge killing. He wages a one man war on crime while his former partner searches for him in hopes of bringing him back to the man he once was.
Many people consider it one in a string of Marvel disasters from the time, but The Punisher actually holds up pretty well as a ridiculous, stylized action movie along the lines of Stallone’s Cobra or Schwarzenegger’s Red Heat. Dolph Lundgren’s Frank Castle is one of the vigilante character’s weirder portrayals, and he spends as much time praying in the sewers (naked) as he does killing Yakuza. Louis Gossett Jr. is great as always playing cop Jake Berkowitz, and when the action gets going, this is an awesome guilty pleasure.
7. Masters Of The Universe (1987)
Think back to those role-playing scenarios you used to enact with your trusty He-Man and Skeletor action figures – no matter how simplistic your favorite made-up storyline was, it was undoubtedly better conceived and thematically stronger than Gary Goddard’s piss-poor big-screen take on the fantastical swordsman’s world, Masters Of The Universe.
However, Masters Of The Universe is not without its redeeming qualities. For instance, Frank Langella as Skeletor is simply wonderful. No joke: Langella has described Skeletor as one of his favorite roles, and you can sense it in his game-on, scenery-chewing performance. The double Tony winner and Oscar nominee brings a sinister theatricality to the part of He-Man’s main adversary that breathes life into every scene he’s in — even when he’s seated on a throne that looks like it was built out of cardboard. Yup, Masters Of The Universe is often mistaken for a terrible movie when it is in fact a so-bad-it’s-great masterpiece. After all, it had… the POOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWER!
6. Flash Gordon (1980)
Bum bum bum bum, bum bum bum bum Flash! Ah-ahhhhh?!
We can’t get the song out of our heads now. Or the visuals: the yellows, reds and golds, the cartoon sky, the cheap special effects and the over-the-top script. Flash Gordon is a campy space epic featuring a legendary hero on a righteous mission.
An intergalactic tyrant by the name of Ming decides one day that he’s going to destroy the Earth. After a string of bizarre events football star Flash Gordon and a sexy young travel journalist are blasted off into outer space and land on the planet Mongo, which just so happens to be the home of Ming. Convenient, huh? At first Ming underestimates young Flash (how foolish) but he soon becomes the thorn in Ming’s merciless side, especially when the journalist is kidnapped and forced into a marriage against her will. Can Flash save the day and the woman? What do you think?
5. Swamp Thing (1982)
After creating some of the most memorable genre pictures of the late ‘70s (The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes), director Wes Craven turned his attention to a DC comic staple – Swamp Thing. It certainly seems a stretch as far as his established talents go, but it is understandable why someone would want to take a step in a different direction. Regardless of his choice, Swamp Thing is a charming little piece of cinematic camp that deserves a revisit.
In short, Swamp Thing is quite simply the best damn movie about a swamp creature fighting a sort of fake-looking wild boar/gator hybrid that used to be a French guy while Adrienne Barbeau and her cleavage watch anxiously. You’re probably not going to find a better recommendation than that, really.
4. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
The film that more or less solidified Troma as a Z-movie powerhouse, The Toxic Avenger follows Melvin, a 98 pound weakling janitor in a health spa who is constantly persecuted by a bunch of bullies. After tricking him into thinking a girl is interested in him, a prank with a pink tutu and a stuffed goat (don’t ask) goes horribly wrong and Melvin falls out of a window into a vat of noxious chemicals. He is transformed into the hideously disfigured Toxic Avenger who has considerable superpowers. He uses his powers for the good of Tromaville – mainly kicking the asses of the jocks who bullied him.
Toxie’s vigilantism is a thing of beauty to watch as he knocks off all of the obnoxious people in Tromaville in super violent ways. Yup, unlike most cinematic heroes Toxie actually kills people, which is a far better deterrent against crime than simply sticking them in a jail they’ll inevitably break out of. Oh yeah, and his best friend is a mop.
3. RoboCop (1987)
While Paul Verhoeven’s futuristic revenge saga is absolutely a traditional superhero tale, it could also be considered the strangest Charles Bronson movie never made. Set in Detroit in the near future, RoboCop takes an ordinary, albeit dead, policeman and places him in the body of an indestructible cyborg who rids the city of crime. Unfortunately for his corrupt creators, RoboCop retains some of his humanity and in a plot line reminiscent of Frankenstein, he turns on his creator.
A large part of RoboCop’s success is owed to Verhoeven’s willingness to treat a gun-busting robot as a character with real soul; as Robo pumps lead into every bad guy within eyesight, we’re rooting for him, not simply applauding the movie’s over-the-top violence (which, admittedly, is quite badass). His victory is satisfying because he’s got machinery and morals on his side. RoboCop is where high-tech meets High Noon.
2. Superman II (1980)
If Superman: The Movie was a blueprint for the superhero film, Superman II stands as a shining example of how to make a sequel. By all accounts this movie should have been a complete disaster; there was a lot of behind the scene drama that led to a change in directors during principal photography. Richard Donner had completed 75% of the movie in 1977 before being taken off the project and replaced by Richard Lester. Lester would continue on the franchise and is ultimately responsible for its decline in quality. He can be considered the Joel Schumacher of the Superman movies.
As with its predecessor, the performances here are top notch. Christopher Reeve proves he’s the definitive Superman and he definitely plays the vulnerable side of the character as he attempts to further his relationship with Margot Kidder’s Lois. However it’s Terrence Stamp’s Zod that steals the show. He’s cold, menacing, and arrogant, the polar opposite of Superman and a perfect foil. Lex is once again the jester, but his funny moments outshine those from the first film.
1. Batman (1989)
This is it. This is the line of division; the movie that made superheroed blockbusters what they are today. Quite simply, Tim Burton’s Batman is one of the most influential films of its kind ever made. Even though it was another decade before the genre really took off, the serious approach to the subject matter and myriad of merchandising tie-ins provided the template that the superhero genre still follows to this day.
Batman still works today because it is not simply a superhero flick of its time. Instead, it soars as a timeless tale of the age-old battle redecorated with pop culture icons. Characters in the film dress not only as people from the ‘80s, but also from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Almost all the cars are at least ten years old in the movie. It exists in a murky Never Never Land where Batman and Joker can do battle for eternity in our imaginations. Even now, they battle there and it’s still bloody entertaining.
Are there any other movies you’d like to add to the list? Let us know below.