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The Top 15 Worst Superhero Films of All-Time

Scraping the comic book gutters for the best of the worst

By Tim Janson     December 11, 2008


Top 15 Worst Superhero Movies slideshow
© Mania

There’s no denying the popularity of the Superhero film these days. Taking a look at the U.S. Box-office totals, there are six superhero/comic book films that rank among the top 21 all-time grossing films. It’s no surprise that dozens more are in the planning stages. However for every good superhero film there is at least two that are, well, not so good. When a superhero film goes wrong it’s like a train derailing into a busy intersection. I’ve decided to take a loot at what I think are the Top 15 worst superhero films. To do so, I set a few ground rules:

First, the film had to be released theatrically or direct-to-video. I did not want to include made-for-TV films as they are not on the same playing field and frankly the list would be littered with them.

Second, don’t take the term “superhero” too literally. Obviously characters like Batman and the Punisher do not have any superpowers but they’ll be included under the general distinction as being a comic-based hero.

Finally, I wanted to step a bit out of the box with my selections and examine films that perhaps fly a bit under the radar. Thus I decided to limit selections to one per franchise, i.e. one Superman film, one Batman film, etc. So read and let us know what films you think should have been included or rated higher or lower.

#15 - The Phantom (1996)

The Phantom, created by Lee Falk, is one of the longest running newspaper strips in history. The strip premiered in 1936 and is still running today. However this big-budget adaptation died a quick death. With a budget of $42 million dollars, the film grossed just over $17 million. While it was fairly faithful to Falk’s ideas, it had an inane plot about a wealthy madman looking for some magical skulls (long before Indiana Jones did) that would allow him to take over the world. Billy Zane starred as the Phantom and while a decent actor, Zane was lacking in charisma.

#14 Barb Wire

#14 - Barb Wire (1996)

The movie that made Pam Anderson a superstar! Not quite…actually that movie would come a few years later when she did the sex tape with Tommy Lee. Based on the Dark Horse comic book, Anderson plays the title character who owns a nightclub, dances topless, and who just happens to be a bounty hunter and mercenary on the side. It is so horrifically bad one might think Dark Horse would burn every existing copy of the comic series to distance their selves from the travesty. Only watchable for diehard Anderson fans.


#13 - Steel (1997)

Following the Death of Superman storyline in DC comics where Superman is killed fighting Doomsday, four new superheroes arose to replace Superman…and the worst one of those was actually turned into a film…Steel! Played by Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, Steel was John Henry Irons, a weapons designer for the military. No..seriously! When his weapons are used by criminals, he builds a suit of armor with a big hammer to fight crime. With a very modest budget of $16 million, the film did not even make over $2 million at the boxoffice. With a failed career as a rap star and actor, it’s no wonder that O’Neal has not retired from basketball yet.

 

#12 Blade Trinity

#12 - Blade Trinity 2004)

Blade Trinity breaks one of those Cardinal rules of superhero films by taking the stance that more is better. Blade’s battled vamps, and uber-vamps, and now he’s battling the legendary Dracula…although he’s never called Dracula. Those fans hoping for a Gene Colan-inspired Lord of the Vampires might have been more than a little disappointed with Dominic Purcell’s portrayal of something that really doesn’t look like a vampire. On top of that were the awful inclusions of Jessica Biel (hotness not withstanding) as Abigail Whistler and Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King forming the “trinity” of the film’s title. Oh, and let’s not forget wrestler Triple H as a gold-fanged lackey of Dracula. Domestically, the film grossed only $50…and cost $65 million to produce!

#11 - The Punisher (1989)

Now I know a lot of you are probably saying the 2004 Punisher movie should be here but sorry, while bad, it’s nowhere near as bad as the original. The mere credit of “Starring Dolph Lundgren” should be enough to send you running in the other direction. The Punisher was exhibit A as to why Marvel Comics had such a terrible time with getting good films made in the 1980s. They let the studios dictate too much to the point of the characters becoming unrecognizable. I recall Stan Lee talking about this film and saying that while they couldn’t get the Punisher’s trademark skull shirt in the film, they did get him to use knives with skulls on them. Whoopee! There’s some decent action here but Lundgren’s monotone acting makes guys like Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris seem like Shakespearian actors. And as far as which Punisher film truly is the worst, I’m thinking that Punisher: War Zone will give both of them a run for their money!

 

#10 Batman: The Movie (1966)

#10 - Batman (1966)

The original Batman film falls squarely into the “so bad it’s good” category. In an effort to take advantage of the enormously popular TV show, 20th Century Fox releases this “big budget” theatrical film. The budget turned out to be less than $2 million dollars and is shows, particularly in the famous rubber shark sequence where Batman has to use his trust “Bat Shark Repellent” spray. The Dynamic Duo squared off against the four greatest villains: Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Cat-Woman who turned the members of the United World Security council to powder by dehydrating them. Sure, it had all the campiness of the TV show and more, but weren’t fans expecting and deserving of more in a theatrical release?

 

#9 Popeye

#9 - Popeye (1980)

Put down the rocks. Popeye might be considered a borderline inclusion but the fact is the Popeye may really be the first superhero. He pre-dates Superman by a decade and his eating spinach to gain strength is not really any different than Billy Batson yelling “Shazam!” or Hourman popping a Miraclo pill. Not only was this 1980 film (Robin Williams played Popeye) boring beyond belief, but Popeye’s trademark spinach ingestion didn’t even happen until the final moments of the nearly two hour film. The producers of this mess should be made to watch it and eat spinach until they puke!

 

#8  - The Shadow (1994)

The Shadow is the greatest pulp hero ever. He also was a star on radio, comics, movie serials. He is the character that inspired Bob Kane to create Batman. Finally fans get a big time film about the Shadow and it turns out to be a dud. Ultimately the film did make back its $40 budget, but just barely. The film was visually outstanding and captured the look of 1930s New York but it was all a bit too bold and colorful. The Shadow’s world was dark and gritty. Criminals were terrified of him and with good reason as he was all too willing to blow them away with his trusty .45s. The film portrayed none of that crime noir feel. On top of that we had a ludicrous plot about the Shadow (Alec Baldwin) battling a descendent of Genghis Khan. This SHOULD have been a great film. Alec Baldwin once said that if George Bush won re-election that he would leave the country. I think Shadow fans everywhere would only be too happy to buy him a one way ticket to the country of his choosing.

 

#7 Supergirl

#7 - Supergirl (1984)

So just how bad is Supergirl? Christopher Reeve was to have made a cameo reprising his role as Superman, but Reeve thought the script was so bad he declined. So let me get this straight…the guy who thought the scripts WERE good enough for Superman III and Superman IV declined to do THIS movie! Helen Slater did her best as Supergirl and looked the part in a 60s/70s fashion so to speak, but her nemesis was a Witch (Faye Dunaway), the special effects were terrible, and the theatrical release suffered numerous edits that were fairly important to making sense of the plot.

 

#6- Judge Dredd (1995)

There are many things that amaze me about the Judge Dredd movie. First is that it had a budget of $85 million dollars. Secondly was the fact that as an action filmed aimed at a base pre-teen and teen audience, the filmmakers could NOT get the film down to a PG-13 rating, leaving it with an “R” which doomed any chance it might have had for box-office success. And seriously, who thought the pairing of Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider would garner anything but derision from moviegoers? Fans of Dredd know that he never takes off his helmet and shows his face in the comics, and yet here’s Stallone, with the helmet more off than on throughout the film.

 

#5 Daredevil

#5 - Daredevil (2003)

Ben Affleck said of his role as Daredevil, “Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn't want to do again soon.” Well thank GOD for that! Give the guy credit for knowing how much he sucked! In terms of straight dollars, Daredevil WAS a successful film. Had the film followed a dark and gritty plot (based on Frank Miller’s stories) Daredevil could have had the kind of critical success that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight enjoyed, if not the financial success. Daredevil has long been one of Marvel’s most tragic and flawed heroes and it would have made for a brilliant movie…if not for, well, just about everything from Affleck’s cringe-inducing performance, to a bald Bullseye. If there is one positive about the film it is that the Director’s Cut DVD does improve the overall experience with a darker, grittier tone but it still cannot totally escape Affleck’s clumsy shadow.

 

#4 Captain America

#4 - Captain America (1990)

One of the producers of Captain America is Menahem Golan. If you’re not familiar him, he produced some of the cheesiet action films of the 1980s including: Hercules, Revenge of the Ninja, Invasion USA, Death Wish 3, Cobra, Over the Top, and Superman IV. The fact that he produced this piece of junk is hardly surprising. Planned for a major theatrical release to coincide with Captain America’s 50th anniversary in 1990, the film experienced numerous delays and went straight to video in 1992. Teamed with awful made-for-TV films in the 1970s, and the 1940s film serial regarded as one of the worst ever, no superhero has been treated as poorly onscreen as ol’ Cap. Matt Salinger (son of writer J.D. Salinger) played the title role and even though he’s generally pretty bad, you can’t fault him for this mess that included an ITALIAN Red Skull, instead of a German one. We can only hope that the new Captain America film, tentatively scheduled for 2011, will finally treat cap with the reverence he deserves. You can watch the trailer below or see more clips of the film here.

 

#3 Catwoman

#3 - Catwoman (2004)

Isn’t it great when an actor admits that a movie is a piece of crap…AFTER they do the movie? Star Halle Berry was very vocal about the film, blaming just about everyone connected while whining about the affect it would have on her career. Halle, if it looks like crap and smells like crap, it’s probably crap. You can almost hear studio executives thinking out loud…”Hey, Halle Berry’s hot, she just won an Academy Award, let’s put her in a skimpy costume and call her Catwoman!” Anyone expecting the Batman villainess, Selina Kyle, instead got some hokum about a murdered woman named Patience Phillips being brought back to life by an Egyptian cat Goddess and given feline superpowers in which to battle an evil cosmetics company. And you want to know what’s really funny? Several writers argued over who would get the credits in the film. They should have sued to get their names off the thing!

#2 Batman & Robin

#2 - Batman & Robin (1997)

 

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. I don’t care that the Batsuit that George Clooney wore had nipples. It’s the most-often criticized aspect of the film and also the dumbest. If the film had been good no one would have cared that the Batsuit had nipples. Besides, how often in superhero films does the costume match what we see in the comics? No, this movie is number two on the list because it stinks on ice. Director Joel Schumacher is the master of film excess. He figured if he used two heroes and two villains in Batman Forever, he’d up the ante with three heroes (adding Batgirl) and three villains: Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane. Clooney at least takes responsibility of being the guy who killed the franchise but his role was minor compared to Schumacher who still thinks he made a good movie. Let’s not leave the studio, Warner Brothers, free from blame either. They thought so much of the film (at least before it was released) that they were ready to give Schumacher a third Batman film entitled Batman Triumphant. If there was one good thing to come out of Batman and Robin it is that Warner Bros. took a step back and realized that fans didn’t want the campiness of the 1960s. As a result, the franchise was rebooted with the darker Batman Begins.

 

 

And The #1 Worst Superhero Movie of All Time...

#1 Superman IV

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Let me give you one figure that explains why this film was so bad. The first Superman film in 1978, was made with a budget of $55 million dollars. Superman IV, made nine years later, had a budget of $17 million, or roughly one-third. And when you consider adjusting for inflation is there any wonder how horrible the film was? Reeve only did the film because he was given creative control of the script resulting in the film’s heavy-handed anti-nuke peace message. Okay, so we know why Reeve did the film but what explains a respected actor like Gene Hackman returning? Did he need the paycheck that badly? One wouldn’t think so as this film was sandwiched between two of his better films, Hoosiers and No Way Out. Anyway the plot involves Lex Luthor stealing a lock of Superman’s hair and using it to create a clone dubbed “Nuclear Man” who looked like a model off one of those cheap romance novels. The film ends with Superman giving an eye-rolling speech about world peace. Bottom line is that this film killed the Superman franchise for nearly twenty years and that’s why it’s number one on the list.

 

Honorable mentions

I started out with a list of some 35 or 40 films and whittled it down from there and it wasn’t easy. And I would not argue that any of these could be included in the Top 15.

  • Batman Forever
  • Return of Swamp Thing (Truly bad but I couldn’t make a strong enough case to call it a superhero film)
  • Elektra
  • Meteor Man (This film almost made my list but I left if off since it is mainly a spoof)
  • Ghost Rider
  • Dick Tracy
  • And finally, I have to mention one film that was excluded that perhaps deserves the number one spot and that’s the 1994 Fantastic Four film that was never released theatrically or on video although it’s been heavily bootlegged. Intending it to be a $40 big budget film, the producer, Neu Constantin was about to lose his rights to the film and had to produce something. He hired director Roger Corman to make the film but not for $40 million. Corman had less than $2 million. Both he and the cast were unaware that the producers never intended it to be released. If you’ve never seen it, the film makes Superman IV look like an Oscar winner.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 52
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justin76pa 12/11/2008 2:44:16 AM

Popeye should not be on this list.  Ok, so it was a musical, other than that, the actors NAILED their parts, their costumes were perfect AND it was pretty much an origin story, hence the reason for the spinach at the END of the movie.  Tim... you suck.

theREALsterma 12/11/2008 3:49:40 AM

Got to agree with justin.  Popeye was A) meant to be tongue in cheek and B) allowed the studios to "experiment" with cartoons.  And evidently you never saw the origonal justice league live action pilot or the super hero film, "the specials"

hanso 12/11/2008 4:36:11 AM

Are you serious!?  Daredevil was no way near that bad where it would land at number 5.  Steel & Barb Wire are better than Daredevil?  Ridiculous.

Batman & Robin should be on the top of every list and not just cause of the bat suit nips.  The ice effects look terrible, they look like plastic.  And the Mr.Freeze one liner ice puns? They make me one to tear my eyes & ears out.   "You're not seending me to the cooler", "What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!!!"  "Cool party".  Sad.  Not as sad as the complete destruction of the Bane character!

needaname85 12/11/2008 5:24:28 AM

Agreed. Daredevil was't that bad.

I was 9 when I watched Barb Wire...it was hot!

I thought Popeye ran out of money towards the end of filming, that's why it looked like shit with that monster at the end. But, of all the movies listed, Popeye is the first movie to be discussed? Get on with it... 

batmark 12/11/2008 5:30:31 AM

How about Howard the Duck? The Duck didn't look like a duck. It looked like a little guy wearing a bad duck outfit. Also, I guess that it cost a FORTUNE. Script was kind of cheesy. It missed the point of the comic book. Nowhere near as witty enough. 

larkcall_home 12/11/2008 5:49:50 AM

Ok I agree with most of this list, but the Shadow was a great movie.  It was meant to be toung in cheek.  Com on, it had Jonathan Winters in it.

Regarding Swamp thing, how can you disclude that because he  is not technically a super hero, but you include Popeye?

And finally, the 1966 Batman movie was exactly what it was trying to be, and it worked.  It was a comedey, just like the TV show. 

jedi4sshield 12/11/2008 6:03:04 AM

Agreed Popeye should not be on this list. I thought it was a great movie and homage to the comic the Live-Action despite the musical parts and even those were entertaining.

CaptQuirk 12/11/2008 6:06:13 AM

I can only agree with half of this list. Sure, Batman and Robin deserve to be at the top, as do the original Punisher, Steel, and Superman IV. Ok, maybe one or two others too. But the rest really weren't that bad, as there were certainly far worse examples.

Since Cap was always my favorite, I'll start with him. Sure, the Matt Salinger version was off, but not awful. It was the closest we had to a true Captain America film, and far better than the few movies with Reb Brown as Cap.

The Original Batman was what it was, and it was meant to be fun, not serious. Being a kid when it came out, I grooved on it, since it was all that we had outside the comics and Hannah Barbara (which was way worse in my opinion!). Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman and Robin... Those were suppossed to be serious (The Jury is still out on B&R), and they were God-awful! And it wasn't Clooney that ruined Batman and Robin, it was a turd no matter what he did.

Catwoman was an ok flick, not great, not bad, just not the Catwoman everyone was expecting. If and when they do a Flash or Green Lantern, there will certainly be somebody that will bitch if it isn't Barry Allen or Hal Jordan, and that somebody will likely be me. But, it is just a movie after all, try to find something positiveabout it, or just don't watch it.

Superman IV was bad, but was it less in character than Superman Returns? Personally, I put all the Superman movies after the first one in the same bin (The trash bin that is), and I still don't think the first one was all that great. Like the Captain America movie, it just missed in my opinion.

Phantom and Shadow... I was never a huge fan of either, aside from occassionally reading the Phantom comic strip in the Sunday paper, so I really can't bias my opinion with the original characters. The movies were a little weak, but again, ok stories. Not great, not awful, but watchable if there isn't anything better to do.

Daredevil... missed the mark, but not nearly as bad as some of the others mentioned, and not nearly as bad as the X Men.

Popeye, again, not the same as the cartoons or the comic strips, but a decent translation into film. I dug the very stylized enviroment of the characters, and enjoyed it. I guess it is just a matter of tastes.

Whatever it is, there are likely worse examples of film out there. Enjoy what you can, and be thankful film making is evolving, and we have more choices than our Parents or Grandparents had in the 40's. Hopefully, we'll eventually get the Hero movie we always wanted to see on the big screen.

AMiSHPiRATE 12/11/2008 6:39:30 AM

Before getting into the specific movies, what's the criteria for worst?  Financial failure, critically panned, faithless translation of source material, low production values, still unenjoyable regardless of all of the above?  

Baldwin was the man in the Shadow.  For the mid `90's, that flick was a fun, pseudo-actiony time.  I can understand it not matching other people's tastes, but for what it was it was not terrible.

Between the two of them, Daredevil was a better made movie then Elektra.  If you (anyone) were forced to watch one of them again, are you telling me you'd rather watch Elektra?

Popeye was spot on and solid.  How the hell else would you (anyone) do a live action Popeye film?  If you're not a fan of popeye, that's a different case all together.

Why are there two batman movies on the list?  You stated upfront in your article that you'd limit one film from each franchise.  If you're breaking that rule, why adam west batman and not batman forever?  

Where's Superman Returns?  As bad as Superman III & IV were, Superman Returns was far worse.  After one financially successful film, WB is looking to reboot the franchise AGAIN?  That's gotta tell you something.

Where's X-Men 3?  

Thanks for leaving Tank Girl off the list.  As bad as it was, mutant kangaroos will always have a special place in my heart.  Good call on Cap'n America.  It was almost bad enough to be good again.  Maybe if it turned out he and the Red Skull were childhood friends and/or brothers that would have given it the extra edge it needed.

Wiseguy 12/11/2008 6:39:48 AM

You forgot Batman Begins and TDK.

By the way Wizard (the authority in comics) named the top 50 comic book films and IronMan was #1. Just wanted to throw that in there, hanso

 

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