Netflix is increasingly becoming a haven for superheroes and their various adventures, whether those be initially designed for cinemas or television. They’re the home of original Marvel series programming, ranging from Daredevil to Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the forthcoming The Defenders and The Punisher. They’re also the source for streaming episodes of current network series like The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends Of Tomorrow and Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Beyond that, they also serve as the streaming source for some twenty feature films of the superhero genre that span the past half a century, a guide to which follows.
Please note: this article refers to Netflix US only.
Batman: The Movie
Last year the Adam West Batman television series celebrated its 50th Anniversary, but what may have been lost over the decades is just how big a phenomenon this show really was. It launched Batmania and made instant superstars of both West, cast in the title role as well as alter ego Bruce Wayne, and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin. So successful was the show in its first season that 20th Century Fox brought it to the big screen (representing one of the first times this had ever been done), pitting the Caped Crusaders against arch enemies The Joker (Cesar Romero), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith — Mickey from the Rocky films) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin).
It may not be a classic, but this one starts off with Jane Fonda (young Jane Fonda, not Grace And Frankie Jane Fonda) performing an anti-grav striptease. Beyond that little factoid, it’s based on the French comic of the same name, is directed by Roger Vadim (the actress’ then husband) and produced by Dino De Laurentiis. The plot has something to do with 41st Century astronaut Barbarella sent from Earth to retrieve the kidnapped Doctor Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) and his deadly Positronic Ray, which could be used against Earth by the Tau Ceti region. Along the way she must battle deadly dolls with razor-sharp teeth, encounters a depressed Angel named Pygar (John Phillip Law), who she cheers up and returns the will to fly to by having sex with him, and she must suffer through the power of the orgasmatron! Did we mention it starts with an anti-grav striptease?
Superman: The Movie
By 1978 — forty years after his creation — Superman had already been brought to life a number of times on the big screen (Max Fleischer’s classic animated shorts, movie serials of the 1940s) and the small (George Reeves’ The Adventures of Superman), but he had never lived the way he did as personified by Christopher Reeve in this classic of the superhero genre. Directed by Richard Donner, the film was broken into three distinct segments — his birth on and escape from the doomed planet of Krypton, his years growing up as Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas, where he was raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent; and, finally, his arrival as the Man Of Steel in Metropolis. It is there, after taking a job as a reporter at the Daily Planet, that Clark meets and instantly falls in love with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and battles nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who has stolen two nuclear weapons and comes damn close to sinking California into the ocean. Revolutionary effects, a genuine romance between Superman and Lois, John Williams’ amazing score which has resonance to this day, Marlon Brando as Supes’ Kryptonian father, Jor-El; and Reeve looking like he’s just stepped off the comic book page.
Today there is seldom a film made that doesn’t have the word franchise attached to it, but back in 1980 the odds of finding a sequel that came close to the original was pretty rare (Godfather II and Rocky II come to mind). While not matching the epic feel of the first film, Superman II was nonetheless a better than average follow-up that deepens the romance between Superman and Lois Lane. To the point where they sleep together, but to do so — to put one human above the rest — he must rid himself of his superpowers. While it definitely pays off for Lois and Supes, the timing kind of sucks as three evil Kryptonians arrive on Earth and, working with the returning Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, fairly effortlessly take over the planet. Can Superman get his powers back and set things right? He’s Superman, dammit! Directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night).
For all the praise that had been handed to Superman II, unfortunately the third entry in the series is a pretty disappointing mixture of superheroics, campy humor, an out-of-place Richard Pryor as an inadvertent computer genius manipulated to evil by Robert Vaughn’ scenery-chewing power broker Ross Webster. Two highlights, however, are a sweet romance between Clark and Smallville sweetheart Lana Lang (Anette O’Toole), and, after being exposed to artificial Kryptonite, Supes ending up in battle against Clark Kent. Reeve is great as always, but you’ll have to be the judge regarding the rest.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
Things only went from bad to worse with this one. Superman decides to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, but here comes Lex Luthor to screw it all up with a clone made from the Man of Steel’s hair, nick-named Nuclear Man. The rights to the character having been purchased by schlockmeisters Cannon Films, the $35 million budget was slashed in half literally just before production began. The result is a bargain-basement adventure that — outside of a wonderful scene in which Superman addresses the United Nations — is just awful. Christopher Reeve’s final turn as Superman.
James O’Barr’s 1989 comic book is brought to life, with Brandon Lee (son of late martial artist/actor Bruce Lee) cast as Eric Draven, murdered along with his fiance, but who supernaturally comes back from the dead to seek vengeance against their killers. Sadly the film’s release was overshadowed by the fact that Lee was killed on set due to a faulty blank fired from a gun. His sequences incomplete at the time of his death, Lee’s part was brought to conclusion through a combination of stunt double and digital effects.
Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra for a 1977 issue of the 2000 AD British sci-fi anthology comic, it took eighteen years for the character to reach movie screens. The results made such an impact that it took another seventeen years before someone tried again. Set in Mega-City One in the 2080s, the law of the land is in the hands of Street Judges, who serve as judge, jury and executioner of lawbreakers. One of the most celebrated, Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone), finds himself hunted by the system he swore to protect when he’s framed for murder. Directed by Danny Cannon and also starring Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Rob Schneider and Max von Sydow. For God’s sake, make sure you wait for the moment when Stallone proclaims, “I am the law!” (at least that’s what we think he says).
The Iron Giant
If there was ever a time when we actually needed a “Street Judge” (see Judge Dredd), it was for the people who did not see this instant animated classic. Directed by Brad Bird, who co-writes with Tim McCanlies, the focus is on nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), who encounters any kid’s ultimate fantasy: a giant robot who becomes his best friend. That would be the title character (voiced by Vin Diesel), a fifty-foot tall robot who has forgotten that he was created to be a weapon. Through his journey with Hogarth as they try to elude a government agent and the army, he eventually comes to realize that the choice is his to “be a gun or be Superman.” His answer is heartbreakingly poignant. Other voice cast members include Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr. and Christopher McDonald.
Guillermo del Toro lovingly adapts the Dark Horse comic from Mike Mignola starring Ron Perlman in the title role. The character is a demon, found as a baby who grows up to be a beer-chugging, sandwich-eating reluctant superhero working for the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense). In the midst of having to save the world from the supernatural, he’s dealing with the fact that he’s love with a firestarter named Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who has sworn off of him for her own mental well being. Also starring John Hurt and Doug Jones (one of the cast members of the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery).
The second version of Marvel’s The Punisher and a marked improvement on the first (made in 1989 and starring post-Rocky IV Dolph Lundgren — so not good). Thomas Jane is Frank Castle, whose family is murdered and he is left for dead by ruthless businessman Howard Saint (John Travolta). Of course, by its very definition being left for dead doesn’t mean you’re actually dead. Translation: Castle dons a T-shirt with a skull face adorning it, and sets out for revenge. Jane would be succeeded by Ray Stevenson in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, but for the best interpretation of the character check out Jon Bernthal in season two of Netflix’s Daredevil.
To this day, Marvel’s the Fantastic Four remains one of the toughest superhero nuts to crack or for the audience to get behind — this despite the fact that this particular version was profitable. Exposure to a cosmic storm while on a space stations results in Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) becoming Mr. Fantastic, who is endowed with the power to stretch; Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) the Invisible Girl, whose main power is obvious, though she’s also able to project force fields; Johnny Storm (a pre-Captain America Chris Evans) the Human Torch, who can fly while his body is alight with flame, and can emit fireballs; Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) the rock-covered and super-strong The Thing; and Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon) the group’s primary adversary, Doctor Doom. Directed by Tim Story.
It feels like a pre-Marvel Disney take on superheroes, largely because that's exactly what it is. In a time when superheroes are commonplace, teenager Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), the son of The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), is trying to make his way through high school as a normal kid, wondering if his powers will ever kick in. In a world of supers, Will feels like a complete outsider. Poor Will.
Like most people, director Bryan Singer decided to ignore Superman III and Superman IV, picking up on plot threads from the first two films starring Christopher Reeve. This time Brandon Routh steps into the blue and red tights and is a solid successor in the role. Kevin Spacey is Lex Luthor (whose real estate caper this time out is really nuts), and Kate Bosworth is Lois Lane, a genuine misstep in the film as she comes across more like a kid than a weathered reporter. The other problem is that Singer is so focused on trying to rekindle the relationship between Supes and Lois that he forgets to have the Man of Steel actually punch something (hence the film’s nick-name, “Superman Lifts”). Welcome returns are Marlon Brando (thank you outtakes) as Jor-El and John Williams’ Superman theme.
In a nutshell (or is that half-shell?), when an ancient evil is awakened, unleashing thirteen creatures on Earth, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo) have to try and overcome their differences (and there are a lot of them) and begin working together again. Written and directed by Kevin Munroe, this CG animated film actually has more heart than most other adaptations of the Turtles comic. Surprising voice talent includes Buffy The Vampire Slayer herself Sarah Michelle Gellar as April O’Neil, Patrick Stewart as the villain and Chris Evans (still pre-Captain America) as Casey Jones.
Before he put the Guardians of the Galaxy through their paces, writer/director James Gunn turned the US version of The Office’s Rainn Wilson into superhero wannabe Crimson Bolt. When his wife falls under the influence of a drug dealer, Frank Darbo slips into a depression and has a vision of God telling him he needs to go out and make a difference in the world. Armed with a costume and a pipe wrench, he starts attempting to do exactly that. This is one frakked up superhero film.
Right from the start we need to point out that this one is from The Asylum so please set your expectations appropriately. This low budget adventure unites female fairy tale characters Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Red (as in Riding Hood) as they travel to our world to stop the evil machinations of Rumpelstiltskin and his henchman, The Wolf. Think of it as The Avengers Meets Once Upon a Time.
Captain America: Civil War
Ever since Marvel Studios entered the scene in 2008 with Iron Man, for the most part they’ve been moving from strength to strength and that has never been more true than with this film. While the government is trying to reign in the various superheroes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) serves as a primary impetus for a massive conflict between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). The action is absolutely incredible, and as expansive as it is, directors Joe and Anthony Russo never step too far away from the heart and emotional truths of the characters. And beyond that, not only do we get the return of such luminaries as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany). Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), but we get our first amazing looks at Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
This digital film is based on the series of Young Adult novels by James Patterson, focusing on a group of teens who escape from a secret lab referred to as “The School” and have taken flight. Literally. Each of them are human-avian hybrids, meaning that they have wings, which they use to try and elude the government and different types of hybrids that are in pursuit. While there’s not a lot here, quite a bit was accomplished considering how low the budget was and how short the shooting schedule. Safe to assume there won’t be a follow-up.
After his friend Lucy (Maisie Williams) is attacked, Tom (Bill Milner) attempts to call the police on his cell phone, but is shot in the head. Awakening from a coma, he’s informed that pieces of his phone have become embedded in his brain. Somehow this triggers powers within him in which he can visualize digital signals and hear phone transmissions. With this ability, he begins tracking down and seeking revenge against the people who hurt Lucy. This British film aired as a Netflix original.