When it comes to film genres that dominated eras, we tend to think of the American western’s influence over the 50s and 60s, action movies defining the 80s, and, of course, the way superhero films have been unmatched for the last two decades. Over that time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reigned supreme, with only Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy – which concluded ten years ago – able to consistently match the MCU for quality and box office success.

RELATED:The Top Pre-MCU Superhero Movies, Ranked

But there have been so many others who have not only offered great stories, but have been able to surpass their MCU counterparts in some way. From recent character-driven dramas to unashamedly fun adventures, and even to blockbusters that never got their due, these underrated superhero movies offer some of the genre’s best experiences and give the most successful films in the category a run for their money.

Updated on Dec. 28th, 2022, by Hannah Saab:

With Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe about to begin through the highly-anticipated first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (February 17, 2023), it’s clear that there’s enduring interest in MCU superhero movies. Fans looking for non-MCU superhero films are in luck, as there continues to be a wide selection of underrated flicks outside of the mega-franchise’s universe.

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse’ (2018)

Available to stream on FuboTV, FXNow and DirecTV.

SpiderMan Into the Spiderverse

Sony’s Spider-Man filmography ranges from the acclaimed heights of Spider-Man 2 to the meme-worthily mundane Morbius. Unfortunately for many, the highlights of the company’s tenure with the friendly neighborhood hero belong to the Sam Raimi trilogy, with far fewer celebrating the landmark achievement that was Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse.

A hit among the genre’s fans, the animated feature garnered universal acclaim from critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike due to its fantastic story, overwhelming charm, ingenious visual effects and gorgeous animation. Regarded by those who have seen it as one of the best superhero movies of all time, it’s a masterpiece that absolutely anyone can enjoy.

‘Defendor’ (2009)

Available to stream on Tubi TV.

Woody Harrelson in Defendor

A tragedy masked as a dark comedy which is actually a superhero movie, Defendor juggles a lot as a character study of a man with delusions and mental health conditions searching for ‘Captain Industry,’ the villain responsible for his mother’s death when he was a child. Armed with a trench club, marbles and lime juice, Arthur Poppington (Woody Harrelson) takes to the streets as Defendor.

At times, the film does suffer from drastic tonal shifts and its reach exceeding its grasp, but Harrelson’s performance – one of the best and most underrated of his career – keeps you locked in. Supported by a stellar cast, Defendor is a small superhero flick that packs a very big punch.

‘Mystery Men’ (1999)

Available to stream on Peacock Premium.

Mystery Men

One for those who just want to have a ton of fun, Mystery Men is an endearing spoof boasting a stacked cast and a healthy dose of absurdity. When the arrogant Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is captured by his nemesis, it falls to Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) and his team of aspiring, but seemingly useless, superheroes to do something.

Much like the heroes within it, the film fumbles the execution a little, but good intentions and a ton of heart see it emerge as a triumph, especially for a superhero film from pre-2000. It might not stand up to the MCU’s biggest pictures, but against the franchise’s smaller comedic endeavors it more than holds its own.

‘Blade II’ (2002)

Available to stream on Hulu.

Wesley Snipes in Blade II

Effortlessly cool with a penchant for style and action, Blade II is one of those rare sequels that surpasses its predecessor. Marvel’s legendary vampire hunter (played flawlessly by Wesley Snipes) is approached by those he slays to help them hunt down an even deadlier blood-sucking foe known as ‘reapers.’

If intricate storytelling and character development are what you’re after you may want to look elsewhere, but Guillermo del Toro gives this action-horror hybrid the king of energy and an atmosphere that few other superhero films have been able to match. It will be fascinating to see how the MCU’s take on the vampire-hunting hero stacks up against this ultra-violent gem.

‘Man of Steel’ (2013)

Available to stream on HBO Max.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steal
Image via Warner Bros.

From flickers of brilliance to total capitulation, the evolution of the DCEU has been tough for even the most optimistic superhero fan, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it started out on the right foot. Following the success of The Dark Knight trilogy, and buoyed by the record-breaking achievements of the MCU, Man of Steel introduced audiences to a new-look Superman.

Henry Cavill was perfectly cast and the relationships his Kal-El has with both sets of parents are well explored to underline the movie with a strong emotional core. Zach Snyder’s adrenaline-junkie antics lend themselves to the film’s massive action sequences which offer a pulsating climax to what was such an exciting beginning.

‘The Rocketeer’ (1991)

Available to stream on Disney+.

The Rocketeer

Captain America: The First Avenger may be the most well-known of director Joe Johnston’s American-underdog-gains-power-and-takes-on-the-Nazis collection, but it wasn’t his first. That honor goes to 1991’s The Rocketeer, a truly delightful superhero flick based on the 1982 comic book of the same name.

A loving ode to the Saturday matinée serials in both its spiffy visual style and charmingly innocent tone, the film follows a cocky stunt pilot who finds and uses a jetpack, rocketing him into the path of Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn), the FBI, the mafia, an evil actor and even Nazi spies. Doing away with chest-beating effects that stun audiences into disbelief, it instead enchants viewers with a comforting, feel-good bravado which American cinema has sadly lost touch with in recent times.

‘Kick-Ass’ (2010)

Available to stream on HBO Max.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Kick-Ass

From microwaved mafiosos to potty-mouthed pre-teens, Kick-Ass arrived just before the superhero genre really took off and remains one of the most shocking entries to the genre. A perfect blend of hard-hitting action and hilarious comedy, the film takes audiences on a wild ride as it makes use – and makes fun – of superhero tropes in a delightful manner.

Following Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his endeavors to be a crime-fighting superhero, the film touches on the genre’s themes of responsibility and identity with surprising potency. It’s the supporting cast who elevate the film though with the likes of Nic Cage, Mark Strong, Chloe Grace-Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse all scene-stealing figures throughout.

‘Unbreakable’ (2000)

Available to stream on Hulu and Peacock Premium.

Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable

One of the most well-known of the underrated superhero films, Unbreakable delves into the genre’s themes and motifs with a world-weary cynicism. A typically twisty film from M. Night Shyamalan with an all-star cast, the film was truly ahead of its time with its thoughtful deconstruction of the genre.

It follows David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sole survivor of a catastrophic train wreck who learns of his advanced strength and other gifts alongside Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book fanatic who lives with brittle bone disease. Giving both stars plenty of time to shine, Shyamalan’s exploration of character and theme still stands as one of the best movies in the genre.

‘Fast Color’ (2018)

Available to stream on Tubi TV.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint and Saniyya Sidney in Fast Color

The biggest shame of the superhero genre’s saturation is the fact that huge blockbusters get churned out at such a prolific rate that smaller non-comic hero gems like Fast Color often go unnoticed. On the run from mysterious forces, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – a woman with supernatural abilities – flees to her family house, reuniting with her mother (Lorraine Toussaint) and daughter (Saniyya Sidney) who she abandoned.

Matching the grandeur of the superhero spectacle with the intimacy of indie film, Fast Color finds a wonderful niche of character and visual effects amid an expertly crafted story. Hanging its hat on Mbatha-Raw’s powerhouse performance, it’s a must-see film that is as extraordinary as it is empowering.

‘V For Vendetta’ (2005)

Available to stream on HBO Max.

V from V For Vendetta

Except for Nolan’s Batman movies, no superhero film has explored the idea of the hero being a symbol with the contemplative sharpness of V For Vendetta. Just as comfortable as a high-octane political thriller as it is being a superhero flick, the dystopian drama sees V (Hugo Weaving) taking on a tyrannical government and toeing the line between revolutionary and terrorist.

Based on Alan Moore’s comic book, and adapted for the screen by The Wachowskis, V For Vendetta is often provocative, thrilling and terrifying all at once. With the themes it explores, the story it boasts and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the vulnerable yet undeniably strong Evey, it feels like a movie even more in its time today than it was when released.

‘Watchmen’ (2009)

Available to stream on HBO Max.


Based on the eponymous DC Comics limited series by Dave Gibbons and (an uncredited) Alan Moore, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a gritty superhero thriller set in an alternate version of 1985 at the height of the Cold War. It follows a group of retired American superheroes who investigate a major conspiracy that has changed the course of history.

The dark film tackles complex themes around politics and morality, all delivered through a stunning comics-inspired visual style that perfectly complements its heavy story. The cinematic techniques showcased throughout the movie make it a genuine standout in the genre, and still holds up today.

‘Dredd’ (2012)

Available to stream on Peacock Premium.


Director Pete TravisDredd takes place along the east coast of a dystopian planet decimated by nuclear war, where a superstructure named Mega-City One becomes the scene for a deadly struggle. Based on the 2000 AD comic strip, Judge Dredd, the film follows the titular character and the newbie he’s mentoring as they explore the mega-building following a series of horrific killings that point to the merciless Ma-Ma as the prime suspect.

Because of their roles as judge, jury and executioner, the Judges have seen the worst that society has to offer. With a new narcotic called Slo-Mo causing chaos and hurting the disadvantaged residents, the film takes some dark turns as Dredd and the rookie try to find the source of the problem while surviving the violence that ensues.

NEXT: The Best Marvel Movies Not In The MCU, Ranked

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