The Amazing Spider-Man hits theaters next week, rebooting a superhero movie franchise that almost no one thought needed a makeover. Doubly frustrating: there are plenty of outstanding superhero properties desperate for, and more deserving of, a big screen restart — and we’ve got a top 10 list of likely candidates below.
Until recently, he was known as Captain Marvel, but almost everyone calls him Shazam, so DC Comics gave in and renamed the character. Whatever the title, Shazam is the perfect intersection of Harry Potter and Superman. Preteen orphan Billy Batson is bestowed by an immortal wizard with the power of six mythical gods and demigods, transforming him into the adult superhero that could give him the life he always wanted (finding his lost family) — but he uses the powers to help others instead. His nemesis is Black Adam, the ancient Egyptian warrior that misuses the same abilities for selfish ends (while trying to bring his dead family and nation back to life). That’s an awesome movie before we even mention the talking sentient tiger sidekick. Besides, we need something to wash away the aftertaste of the worst superhero TV show of the 1970s.
Yes, the Superfriends version of Arthur Curry has been the rightful butt of lame superhero jokes for decades, but when you realize that Aquaman’s origin is basically Gladiator set underwater– the outcast heir to the throne of Atlantis, half-brother to the villainous imposter-king Orm who would conquer the surface – you start to see the potential. Write Aquaman as a warrior king determined to save both the surface and undersea worlds from mutual destruction — at the hands of the only family he has left — and you’ve got an epic action fantasy winner on your hands. Just, please, no giant seahorses.
One of the many, many properties done ill by Smallville, Cyborg is basically The Bionic Man retold as an urban father-son drama. Victor Stone is the son of aloof cyberneticist Silas Stone, and the younger Stone so resents his father’s obsession with technology that he rebels, becoming an anti-intellectual athlete and borderline gang member. An accident (in the comics it was a dimensional teleporter mishap, but the movie could make it a more simple crime gone wrong) sees Victor’s mother killed while Victor is horribly maimed — saved only by his father’s technology. The father and son are forced to reconcile to bring Victor’s mother’s killers to justice, along the way learning of each other’s worlds. The fact that Victor is super-strong and can connect to every spy satellite and database on Earth makes this an actioner with heart and smarts, provided Hollywood wants to do it right.
Yet another victim of Smallville, Zatanna is the only daughter of Giovanni Zatara, the world-famous stage magician who, unbeknownst to the public and his family, is the foremost sorcerer on the planet charged with warding off supernatural threats kept secret from mortal eyes. When Zatara goes missing, Zatanna discovers she has inherited his mystical powers, responsibilities, contacts — and his enemies. She has a catchy gimmick of casting spells by speaking backwards, and a quasi-exploitative costume that could be slyly empowering if played the right way. In her debut film, Zatanna must solve the mystery of her father’s abduction before the apocalypse-conjuring plot that kidnapped him comes to fruition. It’s a girl-power action-comedy with a supernatural twist. In short, it’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith meets Percy Jackson & The Olympians. That’s worth a shot.
6. Black Panther
Imagine Batman as the hereditary king of an African nation that just happens to hold the geologic monopoly on the most valuable mineral on Earth. It’s Iron Man meets Blood Diamond, only with more sass. T’Challa is the royal liege of Wakanda, a sub-Saharan country that’s home to the Vibranium Mound, source of the rarefied metal used to make Captain America’s invincible shield. He’s trained since birth to both rule and protect his people, using ancestral (and perhaps mystical) vibranium weapons if necessary. He’s also the first black superhero in comic book history. Every superpower on Earth (be it a nation or a person) wants access to vibranium to build weapons, which T’Challa is avowed to prevent. Black Panther is not an orphan, not a punk, not a cliché — he’s a perfect anti-Blaxploitation hero. In the film, T’Challa wants his people to leave the primitive mysticism behind and use vibranium exports to modernize his country, but when he’s deposed by a coup financed by foreign investors, T’Challa must don the traditional Black Panther costume to fight his oppressors outside the law. If Batman can be socially relevant, Black Panther has to be.
5. Fantastic Four
Four astronauts gain elemental superpowers in a radiation accident, then use those powers to become media-darling billionaires that occasionally save the world. Gee, you think there’s a celebrity culture commentary with one-liners and explosions in that somewhere? And, yes, it has to be better than the one where Captain America played the Human Torch. The dawn of private spacecraft makes the Fantastic Four’s self-funded space mission suddenly plausible, and playing Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards as a hybrid Tony Stark/Richard Branson entrepreneur techno-adventurer could be timely as all get out. Dealing with the reality that his riverboat-gambler science turned his best friend and pilot Ben Grimm into the hideous Thing would be poignant, while his wife Sue must ride herd on her camera-starved brother Johnny’s sudden infamy as the Human Torch. Think The Incredibles as directed by Paul Verhoeven. Yes, please.
4. Birds of Prey
A post-Batman female empowerment film starring a crippled ex-Batgirl who recruits former lady super-sidekicks into a covert ops team that outshines the guy-heroes they once carried water for. Her lead agent is Green Arrow’s ex-girlfriend Black Canary, who grew so tired of his philandering ways she changed coasts and made it her mission to outshine him in the do-gooder department. Think The Bourne Identity meets Salt by way of The Dark Knight. It could be epic, and can only be better than the awful TV version that flickered out in 2002.
3. Dr. Strange
Arrogant but brilliant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange loses the use of his hands in a drunken car accident, subsequently costing him the girlfriend, wealth, and facile friendships built on his material success. Heading to the Far East on a spiritual retreat to find new meaning, he is unknowingly mentored by the last in a long line of Sorcerer Supremes — mystical guardians of the Earth who alone stand between humanity and the forces of demonic doom. When the last Sorcerer is betrayed and murdered by his chief apprentice — now in league with dark god Dormammu to conquer the world — it falls to Strange to thwart an apocalyptic prophecy he barely understands. It’s Harry Potter as written by John Le Carre, and only a true cinematic masterpiece can erase the flashbacks of the trippy and bizarre 1970s Strange film.
2. The Flash
A bizarre lab accident somehow links police scientist Barry Allen with an extradimensional “speed force” that allows him to think and move at superhuman velocities — seemingly in violation of the laws of physics. As he discovers his powers, he becomes aware of another hyperspeed operative — Eobard Thawne — who claims to have used the speed force to travel back in time and “preemptively” murder the criminals who will someday destroy the world economy and environment. Barry must defeat an opponent only he can see, who knows his powers better than he does, and who is fighting for a cause that defies conventional understandings of justice and innocence. It’s Minority Report by way of Primer, with more plot twists and cutting edge effects than the early 1990s TV Flash ever dreamed of.
1. Wonder Woman
I’ve gone on record about the untapped potential of the Amazing Amazon before, but her recently revamped comic book origin cries out for a big screen adaptation more than even the most diehard 1970s TV Wonder Woman devotee could dare dream. Diana is the latest — and perhaps last — in a long line of children produced from the Greek god Zeus’s romantic dalliances with mortal women. As such, she is literally the modern equivalent of Hercules — complete with demigoddess strength and parahuman powers — as raised by some of the last remaining acolytes by the Greek pantheon. The Greek gods, taking a cue from Zeus’s sudden return to interacting with mortals, are once again using humans as disposable playthings, forcing Diana to protect humanity from her own half-kin. She is the product of two worlds who belongs to neither, and is alternately loved and despised by elements of both. She’s the perfect female icon, invulnerable yet fallible, a goddess and a mortal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Clash of the Titans. Tell me that isn’t worth the price of admission.
Got a quarrel with the rankings, or simply have a favorite superhero you think deserves a spot on the list? Throw down in the comments section.