While I am a fan of the superhero comic genre (Shadoweyes, Spinerette, and Danger Club for example), some of my favorite superhero stories and universes are not from comics. They’re often overlooked because comics are almost synonymous with superheroes, I wanted to show some love for a movie, a tabletop RPG, a cooperative card game, and a novel.
Super is a 2011 dark comedy film written and directed by James Gunn (the writer and director of Slither as well as the director and one of the writers of Guardians of the Galaxy). The plot follows Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson), a meek and unassuming man, when his wife leaves him for a drug dealer (played by Kevin Bacon, so this move seems understandable) as she dives back into a life of drugs. In his grief, Frank believes he is touched by God and is now holy ordained to fight crime and clean up his city as “The Crimson Bolt”, which is just him in a shoddy red, partially-armored costume. After some practice, help from superhero-obsessed comic shop worker Lilly (portrayed brilliantly by Ellen Page), and refining his attack strategies and arsenal by fighting smaller criminals, he plans a siege to rescue his wife.
Wilson does an amazing job portraying a man who’s relatable enough to make me sympathetic to his mission, but frayed and broken enough to think he could be legitimately dangerous and snap on anyone given the wrong moment. The humor comes in the form of sometimes disturbingly realistic violence against criminals as well as Frank’s inner struggle with worthlessness, loneliness, and powerlessness; all great comedic fodder for a dark comedy. The spot-on writing is further curated by the performances of Rainn, Ellen Page, and Kevin Bacon.
Why did it make the list? The film deals with soul-crushing subject matter, but it presents it in a way that’s digestible and objectively hilarious, which is pretty much the essence of a good black comedy. It made me laugh, cringe, and tear up in its modest hour and thirty-six minute run time. It also tells a truly heroic story, whether you think Frank is mad or brave for his actions. It shows the absurdity and risk to himself and others by attempting to be the hero and take on evil, but it also shows how an overwhelming amount of compassion and selflessness is the fuel he uses to try and save his wife and others by stopping crime. That paradox is at the crux of the movie, and it does a beautiful job exploring it.
The movie is on Hulu (via subscription) and Netflix at the time of writing.
“When all the super heroes of the world are blown to kingdom come by an army of invading aliens, who will save the day? Evil…”
Necessary Evil is an RPG campaign setting using the Savage Worlds system with some altered and expanded rules. It focuses around playing a villain thrust into a situation where they have to save the world or have an alien invader destroy it. But that’s just the game’s setting. You can use the book to create your own world of superheroes, insert new characters into an existing world, or recreate your favorite heroes (though I highly recommend making your own).
It tweaks the easy-to-learn but sufficiently in-depth Savage Worlds system and offers new mechanics to better use super powers and a good system to create new powers. The versatility and simplicity of the Savage Worlds system lets new and seasoned players experiment and create interesting powers with entertaining abilities and limitations as well as diverse heroes with unique qualities and flaws.
Why did it make the list? Necessary Evil allows the players and GM to create an interactive and dynamic superhero setting– something comics, movies, shows, and novels cannot offer. While the campaign setting is interesting, it’s the versatility and adaptability it provides that allows the players to focus on what really matters to them so they can tap into that as a superhero.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
I love board and card games where players work together to defeat a non-player controlled enemy rather than each other. It’s one of the reasons I love the Horde Magic game type for Magic: The Gathering and games like Elder Sign, aside from apocalyptic and extra dimensional horror themes. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a card game that allows the players to each assume the role of one of over two dozen superheroes to defeat one (or several) super villains in different environments.
Aside from each hero having their own special powers, they have a deck with cards unique to them. Each player works with the strengths of the hero they’re playing along with the team to defeat the villain deck that is automated but never stale or static. Before the game starts, you also choose an environment, which has its own deck. Each time you play, the cards the villain, heroes, and environment draw changes how you play, keeping the game dynamic for greater replayability.
Why did it make the list? I highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys games that involve teamwork and deemphasize the need for a competitive edge. If you love being competitive, you can work to be the most efficient player possible, but it is teamwork that will win the game. No player can win it alone. That teamwork is essential to most good superhero stories, showing how a diverse group of people with different strengths and weaknesses can work together to defeat overwhelming odds.
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
A friend of mine got into the Ex-Heroes series of novels from a bookstore pitch that said: “It’s like The Avengers meets The Walking Dead.” He likes both of those things, so he picked up all four books that were available (there are five now). Ex-Heroes is set in a world where superheroes were a recent, but established, part of humanity, and then a zombie apocalypse overtook the world.
Ex-Heroes deals with incredible superheroes in a situation where their fantastic powers no average human could ever possess are overshadowed by the power of the unending hordes of zombies— or ex-humans— that plague the world. They can’t defeat one super villain to save the day or outthink a devious plot to save lives. They are moreso trying to survive than defeat their enemy, and victory always comes at a price.
The tone of the book offers an oppressive, crushing feeling that always lingers in the background and subtext. You know people and heroes alike are cracking under the pressure, but you’re not sure how or when it will manifest. The dead surround them, filling the air with a constant clicking noise of their teeth, reminding human and hero alike that death waits for all of them just outside the walls. Yet in all of that, there are some compelling character arcs and truly superhero-level fight scenes that manage to subdue that grimness for a short while.
Why did it make the list? Being both a zombie apocalypse story and a superhero story, it manages to balance the two genres to remove some of the tropes that can bore lovers of those genres. For instance, because of some of the heroes’ powers, they are able to fortify a large area as a safe zone before the novel even begins. One hero, Zzzap, has electrical powers and can provide electricity to the whole complex and store it in batteries for a short time. This solves many of the resource problems that most zombie apocalypse stories spend a lot of time dealing with and allows the story to venture forth into more interesting subject matter for both superheroes and zombie survivors.
I seriously enjoy all of the things I mentioned, and I hope you enjoy them just as much now that you know about them.
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