10 Worst Superhero Films

by Randy Krinsky

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the eleventh film in the MCU; can you believe it?  I still remember how good the first Iron Man film was and thinking, this could be it!  Marvel is going to make some good movies!  As of this writing, Avengers: Age of Ultron has amassed a worldwide gross of $1.3 billion, making it the 2nd highest grossing film of 2015 (barely behind Furious 7), and the 6th highest grossing film of all-time!  The age of the quality, for the most part, superhero film is upon us!  At a time like this, it is customary to take a look back at some of the films that fell short of greatness and were left to wallow in mediocrity.  (cue the ominous voice reverb) I’m counting down the Ten Worst Superhero Films of All-Time!  Let’s begin:

#10 Superman III (1983)

Director: Richard Lester

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Jackie Cooper, Marc McClure, Annette O’Toole, Pamela Stephenson, Robert Vaughn, Margot Kidder

I really wanted to like this movie, and on some levels, I do; however, bad is bad.  Christopher Reeve was the quintessential Superman; he made a generation believe a man could fly.  The ousted Richard Donner was replaced by Richard Lester, and executive producer Ilya Salkind just had to cast comedian Richard Pryor in a key role.  Donner made the Superman franchise great.  The first two movies were incredible and quite possibly could’ve set the pace for future superhero films had it not been for Superman III.  It was like Lester was deliberately trying to destroy all that Donner had created; the camp and humor was upped and the legendary Richard Pryor, funny as he might have been, seemed out of place and misused in this film.

The film was produced on a budget of $39 million, and it made its money back with an international gross of around $60 million; however the critics and many filmgoers felt cheated.  As a young kid watching, I was amused and enjoyed parts of the film.  As an adult, I see now that I was a just a diehard fanboy that didn’t want to believe it was a bad movie.  But, hey, for its merits, at least I ranked it #10, wait until we get to #1!


#9 Captain America (1990)

Director: Albert Pyun

Cast: Matt Salinger, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin, Michael Nouri, Scott Paulin

You might not remember this one.  Just try not to confuse it with the pair of 1970’s Captain America films that starred Reb Brown.  Those films were campy themselves but at least had enough merit to stay off this list.  THIS film, starring Matt Salinger as the man out of time was just an all-around failure.  The film’s domestic theatrical release was cancelled, opting only for international distribution, and the reels shelved until it was finally released to video in 1993.

In 1989, years after Superman III worked hard to stop the development of good superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman came along.  Superhero film credibility was back!  However, just because filmmakers could get funding for superhero projects didn’t mean they should.  Most producers and writers just didn’t understand comic book stories and mythology.  The filmmakers of today had the luxury of all the awesome animated superhero shows of the 1990s to draw from during the time of the comic book resurgence.  What Burton created was magic and the rush to try to copy his creation left the cinematic landscape with many a substandard film.  Films such as 1990’s Captain America could be the reason the superhero movie craze died out quickly and wasn’t to gain favor again until Bryan Singer came along with X-Men (2000).

Filmmakers of the period just didn’t get comic books (Burton admitted he didn’t get them either) and this was evident in this film.  It came across as just plain senseless.  I liked Matt Salinger.  I thought he was a good-enough actor to portray Cap; however the producers really didn’t give him much to work with.  They tried to take to comic book costume and translate it literally into the real world as-is.  The result was just plain ridiculous.  I mean, at least Reb Brown’s costume was altered to appear like a cycle suit and helmet.  This costume had the big red gauntlets and the white feathers protruding out of the mask; looks great in a comic book, not practical in real-life.  I know, very little about a superhero is practical in real-life, but go with me on this one.  The costume included plastic ears in place of Salinger’s real ears!  The story goes that the mask originally had holes for the actor’s ears to show through but the material kept irritating his skin.  Therefore, prosthetic ears were crafted and placed on the mask.

The film tries to tell the story of Captain America but basically we only see him in costume at the beginning of the film, during the time of World War II, and then again in the film’s climax.  The rest of the time we see him as Steve Rogers.  Even the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), the film’s antagonist, is only the Red Skull in the beginning, and he’s Italian in this film, not German.  Here, he’s an Italian aristocrat (for the life of me, I can’t figure out why) who gets plastic surgery after the war to hide his Red Skulliness.  The filmmakers, to their credit, probably realized the level of camp in showing Cap in his costume throughout, as well as not being able to do justice to the Red Skull’s appearance due to special effects being what they were in 1990.  However, a better story could’ve been written to try to update the tale to explain why the characters were discarding the old to make way for something new; Cap realizing he was a man out of time and leaving his old costume behind in favor of something more updated and functional.

The film is lacking and fails to engross the audience as the filmmakers seemingly did not take the character very seriously.  Even actor Ronny Cox, who starred as Tom Kimball, the U.S. President and boyhood witness to Captain America’s exploits, couldn’t save this film.  Cox has even gone on record as saying that the original script he read for the film was great, but the finished product was a mess.  It didn’t help matters that the production company was having financial issues at the time.  If that was the case, why spend what little money you have to put out an inferior product; wait, don’t answer that, that’s still happening today in Hollywood.  Just add that to the list of reasons why 1990’s Captain America is one of the worst superhero films ever made.

#8 Hulk (2003)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte

Another film that had its origins in the 1990 superhero craze was the Hulk. Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, and Zak Penn, among others, all tried their hand at writing a durable screenplay.  Finally, Ang Lee was attached to direct and he brought on board James Schamus to write the story.  Ang Lee is an incredible director; this film was to be a masterpiece! Alas, I really don’t think Ang Lee knew what he was getting into when he signed on to the project.

Where to begin?  Ang Lee’s take on the material was tragic and psychological, which would’ve been fine and a fresh approach; however, the story changed much of the mythos of the Hulk.  To do so would be creative license, sure, but to do so and not really explain it within the film just leaves all the filmgoers scratching their heads.  Why is the Hulk 15-feet tall, then 12-feet, then 9-feet?  Sure, an astute viewer can guess he gets taller the angrier he gets, but why?  I mean, we all know Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets and, in the comics, there is really no limit to his rage, so under the film’s logic, Hulk’s height potential is limitless!

Any real fan can’t get upset over the greyish-green skin tone of the newly transformed Hulk, as he looked like that in the comics originally.  By the way, I give the producers credit for letting this film linger for twelve years in order to allow for CGI technology to advance enough to feasibly put this film together.  It’s really the story that makes this film one big superhero mess. Introducing the whole childhood ordeal backstory and Banner’s deranged father but not really developing any of it adds to the filmgoer’s confusion.

With a worldwide gross of about $245 million on a budget of roughly $137 million, the film made money and can’t really be seen as a failure; a convoluted mess of a story that should never be seen on the big screen again, sure, but not a financial failure.  I had high hopes for this film and I still hope that Kevin Feige and the current MCU mythmakers can pull this storyline together for one last attempt to get it right.

#7 The Spirit (2008)

Director: Frank Miller

Cast: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Paz Vega, Jaime King, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson

Frank Miller is an incredible writer; very few will question that statement.  As a director, his talent needs honing.  Sure, he worked on Sin City (2005), but he had help from Robert Rodriguez.  He should have sought out his help for this sleep fest of a film.  Will Eisner’s 1940s pulp comic, “The Spirit,” had a gritty, noir-like quality that Miller tried to translate onto the big screen, much like he did with Sin City; unfortunately, what came across was cold, bland and uninspired.  The film was quite simply, all style, no substance.

With a $60 million production cost and an international gross of only $38 million, this film is officially a dud.  This is too bad because had the film been a success, the source material could’ve been something fresh for a franchise, or a television series.

#6 Elektra (2005)

Director: Rob Bowman

Cast: Jennifer Garner, Goran Visnjic, Kirsten Prout, Will Yun Lee, Terence Stamp

Okay, so this is a kind-of sequel to 2003’s Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.  That film was profitable yet an uninspired take on the guardian of Hell’s Kitchen and his femme fatale love-interest, Elektra (Jennifer Garner).  Daredevil had mixed reviews and is pretty much remembered as a dark chapter in Marvel films (although I think Affleck was great and the film suffered from blasé writing).  However, in trying to distance itself from that film, Elektra, pretty much cast aside all the pain and backstory that could’ve fueled an interesting film.  What filmgoers ended up with was stoic acting, a cluttered story, and characters that viewers found it hard to invest in.  Jennifer Garner made a convincing Elektra; she did so in Daredevil as well.  Her presence in the film earned it points and the cinematography was top notch.  However, again, the writing was subpar.  Elektra is a strong character with a tragic history that should have been mined for a better screenplay.  Instead of trying to get away from Daredevil, they should have embraced it, built on it, and moved forward with better development in a storyline.  This film could’ve been the saving grace for Affleck’s character and the start of a new action career for Garner.  Oh, what could’ve been….


#5 Justice League of America (1997)

Director: Félix Enríquez Alcalá

Cast: Matthew Settle, Kimberly Oja, John Kassir, Michelle Hurd, Kenny Johnston, David Odgen Stiers, Miguel Ferrer

For those of us who grew watching Saturday morning cartoons and specifically Super Friends, we dreamt of seeing all our favorite heroes on the big screen, heck, even on the little screen. When we heard that CBS was going to air a television movie entitled “Justice League of America,” we shed tears of joy in anticipation!  What we ended up seeing caused us to cry again a different reason.

Today is the golden age of superhero movies and television.  I follow my favorite hero’s weekly exploits in The Flash, Arrow, Agent Carter, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  With even more comic book projects in development, it is easy to forget that period in the 1990s, when any superhero television project wasn’t going to get much of a budget to be done right.  Let’s face it, in the 1990s, television executives just weren’t prepared to understand or develop a superhero show.  That led to the demise of 1997’s “Justice League of America”.

Meant to be a pilot for a projected series, this television movie serves an example for evermore of how not to adapt a comic for live-action.  Director Félix Enríquez Alcalá demonstrated that he had understanding of his source material.  His production was high on the campiness, low on the action, and ended up being more of a sit-com in colored tights. For some, he tried to draw the heroes directly out of the pages of the comics despite how their costumes might look in the real world.  For others, he changed them, for no apparent reason, beyond all recognition!

We have Martian Manhunter, referred to in the movie simply by his given name J’onn J’onzz, portrayed by actor David Odgen Stiers. Acclaimed as he is, having an actor such as Stiers who is, how do you say, larger in girth, portraying a supposedly svelte superhero was a little hard to believe.  Don’t get me wrong, a great actor is capable of anything but I found it hard to watch.  Then let’s look at the Green Lantern, or Blue Lantern, or whoever he is really supposed to be in this film.  He is supposed to be Guy Gardner, but appears to be an amalgamation of three incarnations of the Green Lantern:  Silver Age’s Hal Jordan, 1980s Gardner and the Modern Age’s Kyle Rayner.  This version looks like Jordan, but with Rayner’s mask and wrist doohickey; however, his name and outfit are distinctly Gardner.  Also, the Green Lantern is wearing the blue costume of Kyle Rayner as the Blue Lantern!  I mean, what the hell!  As for The Flash, well, all I’ll say is if that is supposed to be Barry Allen (and it is), then I guess I don’t know Barry Allen.  Plus, the network really skimped on the costumes as I’ve seen far better by part-time cos-players.

Sure, budgetary restrictions pretty much put the kibosh on the biggies of DC’s League, but what we end up with, Flash and Lantern aside, are mostly second-stringers at best.  CBS tried, bless their hearts, they did, but the resulting mess was a campy action comedy that today still draws laughs, just not for the right reasons.  I could write about this film at length but I think award-winning comic writer Mark Waid said it best in describing this film as, “80 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”


#4 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Jon Cryer, Mariel Hemingway, Margot Kidder

Our story starts with Cannon Films, maker of notoriously low budget films.  In 1986, Cannon had acquired the rights to the Superman films from Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and subsequently decided to move forward on a new project.  Fraught with budget issues, the entire movie was filmed haphazardly in England.  Scenes supposedly taking place in front of the United Nations building in New York were shot in a rustic English town.  Most Cannon films from the Golan/Globus era were shot “on the cheap,” but this film actually ran out of funding before it even finished principal photography!

To say the production values for this film were low is an understatement.  Christopher Reeve was supposed to play Superman and his evil clone, Nuclear Man; however, due to cost restraints, his “clone” is played by Mark Pillow (voiced by Gene Hackman for some unknown reason).  The film lacks any of the grand scale that the first two films had (1980’s grand, not 2012 Avenger’s grand) and plays more like a made-for-television movie than a cinematic feature.

This film ended up being the final Superman film for Christopher Reeve, with Superman III being far from a stellar movie; Reeve’s co-wrote this one and naturally hoped it would return the character to familiar form. One of the reasons for the film’s failure was actually the story that Reeves helped write.  The story focused on Superman forcing global disarmament and centered on a peace forced on humanity.  This was not the Superman I remember from the comics.  Storylines of this nature have been explored in more recent animated films, but at the time, the concept was not well-received.  There’s even a scene in which Superman intercepts some test-fired missiles and tosses them into the Sun, because he’s Superman and he knows what’s best for humanity.  The critics panned the film citing its lack of action, cut-rate special effects, and low-grade acting.  Face it, even the actors knew they were stuck in a bad film!  Christopher Reeve always regretted his decision to make the film and it killed his plans for a fifth film, with Superman IV having earned only a $15.6 million return on a $17 million investment. Yikes!

#3 Steel (1997)

Director: Kenneth Johnson

Cast: Shaquille O’Neal, Annabeth Gish, Judd Nelson, Richard Roundtree

First, I want to just put this out there that I believe Warner Brothers had something on Kenneth Johnson.  I don’t if it was compromising photos, his real college transcripts, DNA test results, I don’t know; somehow they corralled this guy into making this film.  I mean that is the only explanation.  Johnson is the creative genius who either created or developed such television classics as “The Bionic Woman,” “Alien Nation,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “V,” both 1980s and 2009 versions!  There should be a statue of this guy on the studio lot; or, rather there would’ve been had he not made Steel.

Shaquille O’Neal is an NBA legend and a likeable guy, but an actor, no.  He’s too stiff, he can’t deliver his lines, and his on-screen charm wears off quick; not that Judd Nelson is a legendary thespian either, but putting him with Shaq?  Did you ever see that action film with Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude Van Damme?  Ugh!  Scary!  I get the same kind of shivers when I think of Steel.

I guess we have to remember the year this film was made, 1997.  This was a time when studios were scrambling to come up with content that could bolster buzz for developing projects.  In this case, after the disaster that was Superman VI: The Quest for Advil-to-get-rid-of-that-horrible-headache-of-a-movie, Steel was basically an attempt to try to get another Superman movie into development. Warner Brothers was pushing for their Kevin Smith-Tim Burton-Nicholas Cage film, Superman Lives, which eventually fell through.  So you take a tertiary character from the Superman comic mythos and you make a movie about him – Steel.

Created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove, Steel, aka John Henry Irons, originally appeared in the ”Reign of the Supermen!” storyline where Superman returned from the dead after his grand fight with Doomsday. After the supposed death of Superman, four “Supermen” rise to claim the mantle of Superman in Metropolis, all with strong claims.  John Henry Irons, who is called the “Man of Steel,” later shortened to just Steel, is the longest lasting of these characters in the DC Comics universe.

Shaq did look quite a bit like the comic’s John Henry Irons, but I look like Kevin Smith and you don’t see me being cast to film his life story.  No, casting choice aside, CGI and effects technology just wasn’t where it needed to be to portray an armored tech-based superhero.  I mean, think about it, what if Iron Man was filmed in 1998, instead of 2008; we’d probably be talking about that film on this list as well!  Steel’s armor looked very minimalist, which works against the notion that he was the Tony Stark of DC Comics (in more ways that one). Plus, they totally ditched his connection to Superman for the film.  They should have left that in and it could’ve helped generate buzz for their Superman Lives film. Losing his Supes connection I think worked against this film because without it you are left with a quasi-science fiction/action film that is high in camp and cheesy acting.  With an estimated budget of $16 million, the film was received poorly and grossed only $1.7 million (Ouch!).  I don’t know, maybe they should have made it an animated film and targeted a younger audience?  That might have worked out better for the studio.

#2 Catwoman (2004)

Director: Pitof

Cast: Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt, Lambert Wilson

I once had the opportunity to talk with actress Michelle Rodriguez (Fast & Furious, Resident Evil), and I asked her what kind of character she would like to play next.  She said she would’ve loved to play Catwoman in a solo movie, but that door was now pretty much permanently closed due to this film.  Ann Hathaway’s performance aside (her portrayal was less cat-like than it was cat burglar-like); I doubt we will ever have another solo film in the foreseeable future featuring the Catwoman.

The story goes that everyone at Warner Brothers loved Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal in 1992’s Batman Returns.  Naturally, they explored all options to put out a solo film but it ended up sitting in development limbo for ten years.  By the time the studio was set to proceed, Michelle Pfeiffer had soured on the idea of reprising her role and dropped out.  As a recent Academy Award-winner, Halle Berry expressed interest and the studio executives jumped at the chance to cast her.  Now, does this mean that the original storyline depicted Selina Kyle and not Patience Phillips?  Was that the reason the character’s name was changed?  Were they hoping to keep Pfeiffer as an option for a later incarnation in a Batman film?  Who knows?  What we do know is that at some point rumors began to circulate that this project was being scrapped in favor of incorporating Berry’s character into 2005’s Batman Begins.  That didn’t happen.  It’s anybody’s guess how that would have played out.  We can’t be blamed for thinking what if, when what was is such a mess of a movie.

The whole film feels rushed into production without any idea of where it is heading.  Like Steel, this film appears to be the victim of a studio (Warner Brothers, again…) that wanted to get something, anything, out in theaters to keep interest in their main property, this time Batman, until a new film could be developed.  They should have realized that this didn’t work out in 1997; it wouldn’t work out this time.

There is very little that is good about this film.  The plot is far-fetched (even for one of my beloved superhero movies), the writing is weak, and Catwoman’s costume belongs in a 1990s adaptation not in a modern superhero film.  The fact that changed Catwoman from Selina Kyle to Patience Phillips would not be that big a deal had the writers come up with a thought-provoking or stimulating take on the new character.  What’s worse is the totally disjointed final battle.  I mean, at its core it looked like a couple of women fighting over make-up.  Really, Sharon Stone and Halle Berry are better than this so I can’t blame them too much.  I hear the director, Pitof, read the screenplay and wanted an entirely different story but was refused (I would have loved to have heard what his story entailed).  Can you blame him?  This plot revolved around animal rights, noble as that may be, don’t get me wrong, but the film just doesn’t mesh together very well.  Pitof is an artsy guy and a visual effects artist from way back.  He is capable of so much better than this film.  They should have let him go with his artsy story; it couldn’t have been any worse than this!


#1 Batman & Robin (1997)

Director: Joel Schumacher

Cast: George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Alicia Silverstone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman

This is it, #1.  The movie that, though I watched it back in the old naïve days, I shudder now to think how we could have sunk to an all-time low!  Joel Schumacher set the bar for over-the-top campiness.  Any movie with both bat-nipples AND a Batman credit card has to top any list!

What Tim Burton brought to the first few Batman films was fresh; it was the dark, ominous tone that we have come to identify with Bruce Wayne’s troubled childhood (I mean, as troubled as you can be when you’re a ridiculously wealthy home alone kid – I mean his parents were killed).  After Burton, and the much-loved Michael Keaton, we got Val Kilmer, we lost Val Kilmer, we got George Clooney, and we get cod pieces, bat nipples, and bat-cards.  Why?  And, to top it off, just when you think the super-villain group of Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy (and the guy in the Bane outfit) were too much for our dynamic duo, wait, Alfred’s niece comes along with some black spanex to join the fun and tip the balance of justice, allowing our heroes to save the day.  This movie was a mess, short and simple.

The road to Schumacher’s camp-fest actually begins with Burton himself.  It seems that the first two films might have been too dark for some younger audiences.  Warner Brothers decided to make a change, with Burton set to only produce the third film.   At Tim Burton’s recommendation, Joel Schumacher was brought on to direct.  With a directive to make Batman Forever, and then Batman & Robin, lighter in tone and more appealing for merchandizing, Schumacher was set free to craft his work of art!

Batman Forever wasn’t bad, it wasn’t as good as the first two, but it was better than the fourth!  However, once Warner Brothers was emboldened by the modest success of Batman Forever, they forged ahead with what amounted to basically a feature-length toy commercial; the film could hardly be taken seriously. Some tried to compare it to the fun 1960s Adam West version of the character in terms of tone and camp.  However, the 1960s series was supposed to be satirical and fun, with the actors genuinely having a great time.  To produce Batman & Robin after those characters were redefined by the Neal Adams’ comics was just the wrong film at too late a time. Instead of visualizing what would make a good superhero movie, Warner Brothers executives were instead trying to crank out anything superhero-related with which they could market toys – remember Warner Brothers’ other 1997 gems, Justice League, and Steel? In doing so they forgot what made the characters appealing to viewers in the first place.  In the long run, they hurt their financial bottom line.  Sure, they sold toys, but they would’ve sold even more had the film been better; actually, anytime you make a Batman movie, you’re going to sell toys!  Warner Brothers forgot that you market your merchandise around your movie, not the other way around as they did with Batman & Robin.  Emboldened by the success of the Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel, Warner Brothers has started production on a whole new group of DC films.  Let’s hope they learned from the 1990s and don’t make the same mistakes.

Honorable mentions, I got ‘em! Jonah Hex?  Snore-fest extravaganza!  Spider-Man 3? Too many storylines; get it together people! Ghost Rider, 1 & 2; really?  Wow, I know Nick Cage likes his superhero stories but someone really should have stopped him from making not one but two of these films!  There are others that could have easily been on this list:  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), and Generation X (1996).  What do you think?  Agree? Disagree?

Below is the Batman & Robin Honest Trailer from Screen Junkies.

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