In Between the Panels: A Look At Subversive Superhero Movies

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

Spoilers below for “Super”, “Chronicle”, and “Unbreakable”

Halfway through the 2010 vigilante movie Super, our two anti-hero Frank and his younger sidekick Libby pause between rounds of dealing out violent justice to petty criminals.  Libby, inspired by her favorite heroes in comic books, is new to the vigilante gig and bemoans the long spaces in their work where they sit around waiting for crime to happen.

“I just got so bored behind that dumpster,” she complains, “You don’t see them getting bored in comic books.”

“That’s what happens in-between the panels,” Frank responds.

Libby looks up at Frank with newfound affection, “In-between the panels, is that where we are right now?  We can do anything here.”

To Libby, “in-between the panels” is that place where the stuff you never see in comic books can happen, in her case where a superhero can become romantically involved with his much younger sidekick.  It’s the sort of thing you don’t typically see in superhero movies, and Super isn’t your typical superhero movie.  It’s a grimy low budget film about a needy husband trying to win back the affections of his wife from a drug dealer.  It’s also the story of a man who throws on a one-piece suit and a mask to fight crime. In the world of comic book movies, it’s a story unrestrained by common superhero conventions, using the genre to tell a different sort of story.

This sort of subversion isn’t new to superhero movies.  As far back as the late 90s, people have been trying to reinvent the genre.  Sometimes it may be in the form of a spoof movie, such as Mystery Men (1999), or sometimes it’s in the form of a gritty lone wolf western such as Logan (2017).

Just this past week saw the release of Brightburn, an origin story that asks, “What if Superman was an evil jerk?”  The movie relies so heavily on an awareness of Superman’s origins and upbringing, and could only exist in a world where we’ve seen countless traditional takes on the man of steel. Brightburn isn’t just a dark superhero movie, it’s a full on slasher.

Today we’re going to take a look at three of these unconventional “superhero” movies that try to do something unique.  They don’t just spin the genre on its head, they use it as a launching point to explore completely different types of stories.  Their fantastic trappings are a backdrop to something darker and more dramatic. In the world of comic books, these are the sorts of movies that can only exists “in-between the panels”.

Super (2010)

Directed by James Gunn

Middle-aged cook Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) is devastated when his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a (much more confident) drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  In a moment of emotional stress, Frank believes he is inspired by God to don a red superhero outfit and beat street criminals with a wrench. His brutal vigilante spree eventually leads him to Jaques’ house, where Frank’s unstable emotions come to a head in a violent face-off.

Super is the only one of these three movies to have no actual superpowered beings in it, but it’s also the one that tries the hardest to connect to its comic book trappings.  This is clearly the story of an unstable man falling into a spiral of death and anger, but the movie treats its subject like an origin story. It’s told from Frank’s warped point of view, highlighting the righteousness he sees in his actions, but to the audience it’s clear that this “mission from God” is nothing more than an unhealthy delusional outlash.

Stylistically the movie is the furthest thing from the bright and bombastic comic book movies we’ve come to expect.  It’s washed out and sickly, with a sort of dirty quality that matches Frank’s psyche. The violence is brutally realistic, further contrasting Frank’s perception of his heroic actions against the bloody acts they actually are.  Director James Gunn uses the superhero backdrop to accentuate the horrific actions of our anti-hero, and he often plays into that contrast for dark comedy.

Unfortunately Super falters in the third act where its darkly comedic sensibilities and Frank’s twisted worldview clash in a muddled mess that seems less aware of just how horrible Frank has become, but the bulk of the movie is clearly meant to be a marriage of indie exploitation and domestic drama sensibilities seen through a superhero lens.

Chronicle (2012)

Directed by Josh Trank

If Super is a dark drama masquerading as a superhero movie, than Chronicle is a superhero movie masquerading as a drama.  Out of these three examples, it’s the most obvious example of a “what if” scenario: What if the story of a kid gaining superpowers was actually a high school drama about social anxiety and adolescent angst?

The story itself is textbook superhero material.  Three teenagers stumble upon a mysterious underground cavern that grants them all telekinetic abilities, such as super strength, flight, and the ability to move things with their minds.  As they develop their abilities, one of them (named Andrew) struggles against the stigma of being a social outcast and his abusive home life, ultimately lashing out against those closest to him in his times of emotional stress.

In some ways, Chronicle mirrors Super in that its protagonist is abusing his newfound abilities to lash out emotionally, hurting people along the way.  But unlike Super, Chronicle is rooted in relatable situations the audience has an easier time grasping.  Frank was an emotionally immature grown man using fantasy as an excuse for violent release, Andrew is a struggling high school student who just wants to disappear into the background, and keeps finding himself hurt by those close to him.  After a life of being publicly ridiculed, he is suddenly thrown into a family dynamic when the other two boys who went into the cave with him accept him as a comrade. They grow and learn together, creating a tight bond. When Andrew struggles with his abusive father with nowhere to turn, he ends up hurting those around him.

As if to further distance itself from his superhero storytelling, Chronicle is a found footage movie.  Everything is shown from the perspective of cameras within the world of the story.  As a way to retreat into himself, Andrew documents everything around him, and over the course of the movie he runs into other people using cameras for various other reasons.  Everything we see is shown through the lens of one of these cameras, which grounds the movie in a way no other polished superhero movie does.

But at its heart, Chronicle is still a superhero book movie.  There’s an inciting force that grants our heroes powers, our characters spend extensive time exploring and honing their powers, and there’s a large scale superpowered fight to finish things off.  Just in this case everything is staged with smaller, more intimate stakes that make the movie feel like it’s in a completely different genre.

Unbreakable (2000)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Now we come to the most unique of these three movies, and the one that started it all.

Unbreakable came out long before the current stream of Marvel movies, in fact it came at a time when superhero films were still struggling to find their identity.  Batman had recently finished a string of colorful comedic duds with Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) and Marvel had yet to produce a successful movie.  In fact, the superhero landscape was dominated by smaller, darker movies like The Crow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Darkman (1990), and Spawn (1997).

Superhero movies were seen as silly and childish, even when they were dark and violent.  It had been years since Superman dominated the box office or Batman had been taken seriously, and comic book movies were considered little more than films based on picture books for immature adults.

Unbreakable was Shyamalan’s attempt to reinvent the genre in the public mind.  What if superpowers were just an extension of the real world? The movie is steeped in comic book mythology, taking its roots very seriously; comic book panels aren’t just pictures, they’re high art.  Our hero is a middle aged dad trying to hold his marriage together and make a living, yet he happens to be abnormally strong and possibly impenetrable. His journey of realization is what drives the movie as he discovers not only what he is, but what he is supposed to do with his abilities.

It isn’t a movie trying to put a comic book cover on a different genre, nor is it trying to turn an unconventional story into a comic book movie.  Unbreakable is trying to redefine what a superhero movie can be.  There is a hero, a villain, powers, an origin story, yet it’s all recontextualized in a way we’ve never seen before.  It’s a quiet, somber movie, yet it is still a superhero movie.  Shyamalan tried to reclaim the prestige the genre had lost.  

Years later, comic book movies would once again come into their own as the Marvel machine chugged on, spitting out blockbuster after blockbuster.  In this world, Shyamalan once again tried to shake up the scene with a sequel to Unbreakable in Glass, but this time it failed to capture audience’s hearts in the way Unbreakable had.  Then the genre was overdue for a reinvigoration, now it had become the mainstream.

But as Brightburn has shown, no matter in what shape the superhero movie scene is at any given time, people will always try to find ways to subvert it.  Who knows? Maybe one of these days someone will create the next Unbreakable, that next movie that will jumpstart a new blend of genres that makes us look at superhero movies in a whole new way.

About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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