Marvel and DC might be the two powerhouses when it comes to superhero movies, but there's too much conventionality in their films. It feels like neither is interested in exploring the fringes of superhero culture and telling unique stories in unique ways.
Then again, why would they bother? Their current strategies are paying off at the box office, so it's no surprise that they continue to make the same movies that follow the same templates.
But Marvel and DC aren't the only ones making superhero movies. From first-time indie filmmakers to renowned directors, many have pushed the bar and given us against-type superhero stories that enthrall and delight in ways that conventional superhero movies don't.
Here are our picks for the best unconventional superhero movies that successfully did something different.
7. Batman Returns (1992)
One could argue that 1989's Batman is the film that started the superhero era, with Tim Burton's vision of Batman and Gotham City becoming iconic for its gothic tone and dark nature.
However, it wasn't until Batman Returns that Burton got full license from Warner Brothers to truly unleash his inner freak.
The sequel film is darker and more grotesque than the first, with Michael Keaton coming back as bold as ever in using the duality of his character to explore Bruce Wayne's psyche like nobody has.
Batman Returns dropped the notion of an all-out action superhero film and instead pushed in a new direction: more depth to its villains and more complexity to Batman, who thinks more than he fights.
6. The Incredibles (2004)
Less a superhero movie and more a film about the importance of family, The Incredibles centers on family dynamics and character relationships. The costumes, capes, and superpowers are just bells, whistles, and icing on the cake.
Despite being superheroes, the Incredibles have the same worries and anxieties that all families have.
Helen and Bob argue about needing to keep their family out of the public eye, while Violet and Dash deal with having powers in a world where they would be rejected for having them at all.
Even though the plot sees Syndrome trying to murder countless superheroes and become a hero himself, the family at the core of this film is what drives it foward.
5. The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant, based on a classic sci-fi novel, shows an expanded narrative that focuses on a giant metal robot that comes to Earth from unknown parts and befriends a boy named Hogarth.
As the robot is hunted by the US military despite Hogarth's attempts to hide him, he starts to show his original programming once Hogarth is hurt during an escape. This causes the robot to rampage against the military and destroy everything in his path—that is, until Hogarth stops him.
The film's parallels with Superman are evident, but more than that, the movie has an emotional core that's far deeper than any other movie of its kind up until this point. It succeeds on a human level and shows that superhero movies come in all shapes and (giant) sizes.
It's every bit a superhero tale—one that failed at the box office when it first released, but eventually gained the recognition it deserves with time to become of the best animated movies of all time.
4. Logan (2017)
In Hugh Jackman's final portrayal of Wolverine, Fox told him he could do as he pleased, knowing that his name and his last film would bring bums into theater seats no matter what.
So, along with Jim Mangold, the pair went off and decided to upend the genre by creating Logan, a neo-Western masterpiece of intense cinema that thrilled and horrified in equal measure.
The unrestrained script pushed boundaries to give fans the kind of bloody, sweaty, and teary story they never knew they could have with an on-screen Wolverine. It was Jackman's finest hour as the character, with a performance that's now gold-standard in superhero movies.
Logan proved that superhero storytelling had reached a new age with its R-rated violence and emotional journey, and it even broke ground by becoming the first superhero film to garner an Academy Award nomination for Adapted Screenplay.
3. Split (2016)
Up until the final moments of Split, nobody knew that it was meant as a direct sequel to Unbreakable.
Split appeared to be a standalone film about the kidnapping of three young women and the 24 different personalities hidden within the body and mind of their kidnapper, Kevin Wendel Crumb.
Throughout the film, the various personalities take turns in making sure that "The Beast" is happy with the "sacrifice" they've given to him in the girls. Of course, it all leads up to the eventual outbreak of The Beast himself, and the overall journey is a thrilling one.
The rumors throughout the film about the abilities of The Beast feel like folktales made to scare children at night. However, when The Beast arrives, it's all too real—he's able to survive shotgun blasts to the chest and even bends steel bars with his bare hands.
Split went to places that few other superhero films dare to go, showing hero and villain inside the same body while highlighting abuse (both mental and physical) as part of its narrative structure.
2. Super (2010)
Though it might not feature any "super" heroes, Super does show the story of an ordinary man who grows fed up with the injustice in his neighborhood and chooses to dole out his own style of justice—while dressed as his hero alias, The Crimson Bolt.
James Gunn's film is presented as a comedy, but it's also violent and brutal in its depiction of what an actual vigilante might be like in the real world. We experience that with our own eyes when his sidekick dies after being shot in the face.
Gunn might be best known for his work on Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out a few years after Super, but his work on Super shows how successful he can be when going against type.
Super underperformed at the box office, but it's now seen as a cult film and a beloved look at the bohemian life of an ordinary citizen who's simply pushed too far.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable is a film with a clear hero and a clear villain. It's a story about one man with extraordinary durability and another whose mind is trapped in a body that's slowly crumbling from the inside.
David Dunn and Elijah Price are two people brought together by a train crash. David is the sole survivor of said train crash, and Elijah has a theory—that people with supernatural abilities really do exist in the real world, not just in the pages of comic books.
But when David discovers the nature of Elijah's obsession, the traditional hero-and-villain dynamic pulls the audience inside, showing the stories of those who belong in comics but are living lives in the real world.
Unbreakable became a most unconventional superhero movie, uniquely painting a story that's unlike any of the blockbusters that would come in the decades after it. To this day, Unbreakable is a refuge for viewers who crave a different style of superhero story altogether.