Superhero movies are all the rage these days, with members of The Avengers, the Justice League and the X-Men dominating at the global box office. But along the way high-concept flicks have taken those tropes, conventions and devices and twisted them into stories that may not be about actual superheroes. But aren’t far off. With the following 10 of the best.
Powers: Part man. Part machine.
Costume: Robotic silver armour.
Origin: In near-future Michigan, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a top cop patrolling the mean streets of Detroit. When chasing down a gang of hijackers, Murphy himself is caught, and promptly executed. His body is recovered however, and rebuilt as part of the questionable ‘RoboCop’ programme, with Murphy’s memory pretty much lost, and replaced with three directives — “serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law.” RoboCop blindly follows these orders, and has some success ridding the streets of crime thanks to being a badass ‘bot. But something isn’t right, and as Alex’s memories return, so too does his humanity, with RoboCop eventually taking out his evil bosses, and again calling himself Murphy.
Powers: Massive brain.
Costume: Sharp suit and tie. Improved hair.
Origin: Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is an author with terrible hair and writer’s block. Until he bumps into an old buddy with a supply of smart drug NZT-48, which apparently opens up the 80% of the human brain that we don’t use. Overnight Eddie’s mind grows, enabling him to learn lots of stuff, remember lots of stuff, and write that pesky book. He also makes a killing on the stock market, learns several languages, becomes irresistible to the opposite sex, and sorts out that hair. In the process maybe, potentially, possibly, probably, inspiring the next entry…
Powers: Massive brain.
Costume: Little black dress. Louboutin heels.
Origin: Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, an American tricked into being a drug mule in Taiwan. The drug — called CPH4 — is sewn into her stomach, but the bag breaks open, releasing said substance into her system. And Lucy immediately starts to change, both physically and mentally. As Morgan Freeman states — in a figure slightly different to the Limitless number — “It has been estimated that human beings only use 10% of their brain capacity.” Well Lucy spends the rest of Lucy working her way up to 100, initially outwitting the drug dealers who kidnap her, then developing telepathy and telekinesis abilities, followed by travelling back to the beginning of time, before finally achieving ‘total consciousness,’ disintegrating, and finally re-appearing via a text that states: “I AM EVERYWHERE.” Though “I am Limitless” might have been a more accurate statement.
Powers: Telekinesis. Maths.
Costume: Summer dresses or jeans and T-shirt combo.
Origin: Matilda has been a genius since birth, and impresses the teacher at her new school with mad maths skills. But Matilda’s super-power is telekinesis, being able to move objects — and eventually people — with her mind. At home, she makes the TV explode, while at school she tips a glass of water over her evil headmistress. And as she gradually learns to control her powers, so Matilda uses them as a force for good, battling injustice, and getting sweet-natured revenge on her bullies. Meaning Matilda’s life plays out like a nice version of the Carrie story.
The Matrix (1999)
Powers: Manipulating the laws of physics. Avoiding bullets in bullet time. Kung fu.
Costume: Leather. PVC. Black shades.
Origin: The machines have won; it’s their world, and we just live in it. The Matrix is the simulation they use to control us while harvesting human bio-electricity. Neo has lived in The Matrix since birth, but freedom fighter Morpheus gives him a wake-up call, telling Neo the truth and teaching him kung fu. Turns out Neo is ‘The One’ — mankind’s saviour, who is part-God and part-Superman. He learns to control The Matrix, and by the end of the film has figured out how to fly. But while he might be able to save the world, Neo fails to rescue the two lacklustre Matrix sequels.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Powers: Strength. Endurance. Agility. Cheers.
Costume: Cheerleader outfit, obvs. Stake.
Origin: This precursor to the TV show stars Kristy Swanson as the titular air-head cheerleader who finds out she is a ‘Slayer,’ born to kill vampires. Buffy trains with her Watcher/mentor Merrick (Donald Sutherland) and discovers that her cheerleading skills, combined with lightning-quick reflexes, make her more than a match for ancient blood-sucker Lothos (Rutger Hauer). Turning her into a cracking vampire slayer. But not quite as good as TV’s Buffy, who was played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and arrived on small screens in 1997.
The Fly (1986)
Powers: Clinging to walls and ceilings. Vomit that burns like acid.
Costume: Lots of bristly hair. Big bug eyes.
Origin: Scientist Seth Brundle invents a teleportation device, in which he accidentally fuses himself with a housefly. Which initially transforms Seth into a sex god and arm-wrestling pro. But as fly-like bristles begin to grow all over his body, so ‘Brundlefly’ gives in to his baser instinct. And starts vomiting on both his food and his victims, predictably alienating new love Veronica (Geena Davis). Seth turns nastier still as he becomes full-blown fly, but manages to claw back a little piece of his human soul in the film’s emotionally charged finale, sacrificing himself to save Veronica.
Bruce Almighty (2003)
Costume: Check shirt. White tee. Beige chinos.
Origin: TV reporter Bruce — played by Jim Carrey — thinks God is picking on him, complains to the big fella, and God calls his bluff, visiting Bruce, and endowing him with his almighty powers. Bruce initially uses them for personal gain, turning his car into a sports model, increasing the size of his girlfriend’s breasts, and screwing over his colleagues at work. But Bruce eventually does the right thing, answering prayers and learning sentimental lessons of his own in the process. Not to be confused with Liar Liar, in which Carrey’s superpower is telling the truth. Or sequel Evan Almighty. Which is just plain bad.
Powers: Flight. Magic. Song. Dance.
Costume: Red/white dress. Navy overcoat. Hat with flowers. Umbrella.
Origin: It’s not explained where Mary Poppins comes from or how she came by her powers. She just shows up one day, in Edwardian London, to look after the Banks children. But Mary is no normal nanny. Because she can fly, communicate with animals, bring inanimate objects to life, transport humans into paintings, and sing like an angel. Making her pretty much all-powerful. Her greatest trick is encouraging the Banks family to reconnect with each other, however. Which is nice. But we’d have preferred her do something about Dick Van Dyke’s accent.
Powers: Telekinesis. Mainly involving girls’ clothes.
Costume: Prom tuxedo.
Origin: They say that with great power comes great responsibility. But responsibility couldn’t be further from the mind of teenager Barney Springboro (Scott Baio), a science geek who has a lab accident and ends up with telekinetic powers. Which he could use to make the world a better place. But instead employs to make boobs pop out of sweaters. As he becomes more skilled with his new-found powers, Barney levitates and transports objects with his mind, animates a ventriloquist’s dummy, and hits a game-winning home run. But he saves the best for last, making the clothes fly off every kid at prom. Spider-Man he ain’t.