In a market that’s somewhat overstuffed with superhero movies and TV shows, it’s a nice change of pace to find something that’s just as exciting and engaging as a superhero tale, but not quite the same flavor. Sure, everyone loves the hits of the MCU, and it looks like Wonder Woman has breathed new life into the struggling DCEU, but maybe costumes and capes aren’t quite your thing. If you look closely though, there are quite a few superhero stories hiding in action movies and TV shows.
For lack of a better term, the industry’s started calling this genre of storytelling “alternative superhero” stories, meaning anything that involves superpowers but avoids some of the hero cliches like secret identities and costumes, etc. This concept of the “alternative superhero” is a relatively new one, obviously evolving from the classic superhero narrative, but a few films and TV shows before the creation of this genre managed to hit all the same beats. There’s actually a pretty great selection of these kind of stories, both old and new, so if you’re looking for something to watch that takes the classic elements of superhero stories and mixes them up into something unique, then CBR has got some great suggestions for you, 15 to be exact.
While not exactly the most well-received film, Jumper still has a few interesting aspects to offer. The plot and characters get a little lost in their own boring haziness, but the most interesting aspect of Jumper is the world it builds. In this world, based on the books by Steven Gould, there are “Jumpers” who can teleport nearly anywhere, and the Paladins who hunt them, a great “good vs. evil” narrative that leaves you questioning who is who.
The main character, Davey, acts as our “hero.” Though he robs banks using his power, he finds himself using his ability for good when he comes across Griffin, another Jumper who acts as a foil for Davy. Again, the plot isn’t perfectly executed, but the interesting world-building aspects and plays on classic superhero storytelling make Jumper worth a watch, or at the very least, consideration for a reboot.
Another movie that isn’t widely received, but has a lot of cool things to offer is Push. In this movie, there are nine types of psychic superhumans: Watchers are clairvoyant, Movers are telekinetic, Pushers can implant compulsions and memories into others minds, Bleeders can emit sonic vibrations, Sniffs can track people or objects, Shifters can alter the appearances of an object, Wipers can erase memories, Shadows can counteract Sniffs and Watchers, and Stitches can psychically heal others.
The film, while a bit scattered and slow moving at times, does a pretty good job of playing around in the sandbox that the backstory and world-building presents. Push is your basic good guys with powers vs. bad guys plot with some other elements thrown in to make it a rather enjoyable unconventional superhero story. Plus, Chris Evans uses his telekinesis to fire guns with his mind, which is pretty badass.
Not to be confused with the the real band, nor fictional band from Jem and the Holograms, Misfits is a British sci-fi drama/comedy that follows a group of young juvie teens on a work-release program who get superpowers from an electrical storm. Right away, the setup turns a superhero story on it’s head, giving powers to what are essentially teenage prisoners as they try to atone for their crimes with community service.
Misfits still has all the main aspects of great superhero comics like teenagers with superpowers trying to do good (though not always necessarily with their powers) and the drama that comes with being superhuman. The show’s cast and characters have been staggered and rotated quite a bit as actors left the show, but the super-powered drama continues throughout. The show ran for five “series” (how British television divides up shows) and has had rather positive reception, especially for the first series.
Looper is regarded as one of the best modern sci-fi movies and is about a hitman named Joe, a “Looper” who kills future targets as they are sent back to his time period. During one of these jobs, Joe’s future self appears and seeks to stop the first use of time travel, the rise of ” The Rainmaker,” a future telekinetic mob boss.
Old Joe plans to kill the younger version of The Rainmaker, an uncommonly powerful telekinetic child named Cid. Young Joe eventually learns that the death of Cid’s mother is what leads him to become The Rainmaker and sacrifices himself to stop his older self from killing Cid’s mother. This is what makes Looper secretly a superhero origin story. If Cid doesn’t become The Rainmaker, then his power is might be used for good, and the future is in the hands of the world’s first superhero, rather than its first supervillain.
Before the 2013 remake of the Stephen King novel, the original 1976 version of Carrie gave the world a rather frightening version of the superhero narrative. Though, we should probably say supervillain narrative, since the events of Carrie lead the titular character to do some pretty horrific things by the end of the film.
Carrie is about a shy teenager who is constantly bullied by her mother and peers. As she goes through her school days, strange things start happening around her, lightbulbs bursting, shattered mirrors, etc. Carrie eventually learns that she has telekinesis and begins having outbursts, the most notable being the famous scene in which she has pig’s blood dropped on her at prom, leading her to kill nearly everyone in the gym. Again, perhaps it’s more a villain story, but the use of telekinesis is enough to keep you interested if you’re looking for a pseudo-superhero film.
When 24-year-old Lucy is captured during while studying abroad in Taiwan, an experimental drug is released into her system after she is forced to mule the substance for her captors. The drug, known as CPH4, causes Lucy to develop impressive and increasingly powerful mental, physical and metaphysical abilities including telepathy, telekinesis and time travel.
Lucy starts as a crime thriller, then turns into a superhero origin, a sci-fi super-powered action and finally a surreal and existential mind trip. As Lucy’s power continue to grow and develop, she becomes a god, eventually dispersing her cells into everything in the world. While the second half of the film is more sci-fi oriented, the first half acts a lot like your classic superhero origin, as the character is wronged before being given powers as a means of righting those wrongs.
Another Stephen King adaptation, Firestarter is about exactly what it sounds like, a young pyrokinetic. This little girl named Charlie is being hunted by a government organization who seeks to control her and her powers. Charlie’s parents took part in a drug trial prior to Charlie’s birth which resulted in Charlie’s fire-starting powers, as well as her ability to see into the near future.
Firestarter is one of the earliest versions of a realistic take on what a human with superpowers would go through in the real world. While displaying her abilities, Charlie is targeted by the Department of Scientific Intelligence, who hunt her down to research her and use her as a weapon. It’s exactly what a real superhuman would go through, which is what makes Firestarter a great deconstruction of the superhero narrative.
Akira is another telekinetic film that takes apart the superhero origin. The film has gained a cult following and is widely considered one of best Japanese animated films of all time. Akira takes place in a war-ravaged future in the reestablished city of Neo-Tokyo, built on the remains of the original after a psychic singularity triggered WWIII. In this world, Kaneda and his motorcycle gang fight with a rival gang, which leads to his friend Tetsuo to gain telekinetic abilities.
As Tetsuo’s powers start to get further and further out of control, he destroys the city while his mutations worsen. Tetsuo’s descent into destruction is a result of constantly living in Kaneda’s shadow and being bullied at school. These actions are a great twist on the superhero narrative as they show how circumstances determine what makes a hero, not just the powers.
7. QUANTUM LEAP
Alright, hear us out on this one, because it’s actually pretty mind-blowing. Quantum Leap is a TV show that started in 1989 and followed Sam Beckett, a physicist who’s experiment-gone-wrong leads his consciousness to enter the minds and bodies of various people throughout his lifetime. While he leaps through these different people’s lives, he must find out what wrong to right in order to move on and eventually return home.
Now, that doesn’t sound very superhero-y when you look at it, but let’s break it down: We have a scientist protagonist who’s lab accident gives him “powers” in the form of leaping through time and space, albeit uncontrollably. Though our protagonist doesn’t want these abilities, he still does what’s right and uses them for good. It’s pretty mind-blowing to find out the cult series was secretly a superhero show the whole time.
6. STEVEN UNIVERSE
Steven Universe is a wildly popular Cartoon Network series that follows Steven, an alien/human hybrid, and The Crystal Gems, alien members of a centuries-old rebellion against their own kind. Steven and the Gems are the guardians of earth from supernatural and alien threats.
While the superpowers and designs of the Gems definitely pay homage to superheroes, what makes Steven Universe such a great take on the superhero narrative is the idea of legacy. Steven’s mother was Rose Quartz, the leader of the Gem rebellion and protector of humankind. By all means, she was a superhero, and when Steven was born, her gem was passed down to him, causing her to disappear. This is the equivalent of Superman dying and the remaining Justice League members taking in Superboy to raise him as a hero. There’s also a lot of influence form superhero-esque anime like DBZ and Sailor Moon thrown in.
5. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
Okay, admittedly, this one is actually pretty obviously a superhero-styled story. Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows Buffy Summers after she learns she is the latest in a long line of warriors who fight against dark forces like vampires and demons. The show is wildly popular and still has a huge following to this day, over 10 years after it’s end.
The obvious superhero connections are there: a girl who inherits powers to fight bad guys, supported by her friends as they try to keep their second life a secret from school and family. It’s pretty much every teenage superhero story. What really drives the alternative superhero aspects of Buffy home is the similarities it shares with the “magical girl” super-heroine genre of anime and manga. Both have female protagonists, a supporting cast of allies with similar abilities, and the fact that they play with female character stereotypes.
4. AVATAR: TLA & THE LEGEND OF KORRA
Superpowers are a huge (pardon the pun) element of Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino’s Avatar world. Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra have a lot of superhero elements to them, each with their own twists on the narrative.
The original Last Airbender series is a classic heroes journey tale, as young avatar Aang learns to master the elements so that he can bring down the evil fire nation. The superhero elements here are rather obvious as Aang learns responsibility and courage while he prepares to fight the series’ major villain. The sequel series, Legend of Korra, has a lot more variety of superhero elements, since the first season is a lot like a reverse X-Men, and as the series progresses, we see Korra face off against a different villain with each season, evoking a sense of classic superhero serial storytelling.
Another somewhat obvious one, M. Night Shyamalan’s critically acclaimed Unbreakable was heavily inspired by comic books and is chock full of superhero elements and tropes. The film follows David Dunn (note the superhero alliteration), the lone survivor of a massively fatal train crash who discovers that he is super strong and nearly indestructible. Through the help of disabled comic book enthusiast Elijah Price, David begins to fight crime before learning of Price’s true nature as a manipulative psychopath.
There’s a lot superhero storytelling to this film, its three-act story structure was stated by Shyamalan himself to be lifted directly from classic comic books. Further, comic books are actually used as props, conversation pieces and plot devices throughout the film. Really, when it comes down to it, Unbreakable is a superhero movie just without the costume, and even then, David’s poncho almost fills that role as a surrogate cape near the end of the movie.
2. DISNEY’S HERCULES
Weren’t expecting this one, were ya? Yes, superhero stories are actually derivative of greek mythology, but since the film was made in 1997, we think we have a case here. Disney’s Hercules is of course based on the Greek legend of the same name, but the way the story is streamlined and presented by Disney make it perhaps the greatest Superman story of all time.
Okay, roll with us here: Both Superman and Hercules descended from the sky in some manner, both were raised by adoptive farmer parents, both have superpowers, both sought heroism and both have a place they go to talk to their biological fathers. Hercules is arguably the best Superman story since it presents all of these shared elements while being one of the best-written and best-received films of all time, animated or otherwise. Is your mind blown yet?
Josh Trank’s Chronicle has a lot in common with the aforementioned Akira, but definitely does enough to be its own unique and thrilling piece of modern cinema. The film follows three kids — Andrew, Matt and Steve — after they gain telekinetic powers from a mysterious force as they use the powers for immature and irresponsible purposes. Eventually, Andrew’s mental stability begins to fall apart as he is bullied by kids and abused by his father.
Combining elements of various other telekinesis films that came before it, Chronicle is essentially a superhero origin that’s “interrupted” by the three teenagers doing exactly what teenagers would do if they were to somehow obtain superpowers. The film also works as both a superhero and supervillain origin since Andrew falls into darkness while Matt works to keep people safe from Andrew’s rampage.
Can you think of any other movies or TV shows that are actually superhero stories in disguise? Let us know which ones in the comments!