Superhero movies have long been a box office phenomenon, dominating the blockbuster market year after year. Still, while the genre is often dismissed as being just for kids, there’s never been any shortage of superhero movies that are definitely just for grown-ups.
Take the following comic book movies, which definitely were not made with younger audiences in mind.
30. Barbarella (1968)
Director Roger Vadim’s 1968 camp classic Barbarella is among the first major movie adaptations of a comic book, but it almost certainly isn’t one you’d sit down to watch with the entire family. In what proved to be one of her signature roles, Jane Fonda plays comic creator Jean-Claude Forest’s interstellar heroine, sent on a mission to save the universe.
The adults-only vibe is apparent from the opening credits, which see Fonda’s Barbarella strip out of her spacesuit in zero gravity. While she’s not averse to the odd space battle, Barbarella is considerably more comfortable settling matters peacefully by means of free love; it was the 60s, after all.
29. Heavy Metal (1981)
The words ‘animated movie based on a comic book’ might immediately imply something you can comfortably watch with pre-teens, but we’d advise against this in the case of Heavy Metal. That is unless you’re keen to expose your innocent younglings to graphic violence, profanity, drug references and copious nudity (all in animated form, of course).
Produced by Ivan Reitman, this 1981 feature takes an anthology approach, adapting several well-loved stories from the best-selling French sci-fi publication Metal Hurlant. The stories and their content vary, but we have at least two bona fide superheroes in the form of musclebound macho man Den and pterodactyl-riding warrior woman Taarna.
28. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Despite their popularity, superheroes are never going to be everyone’s cup of tea – but if we’re talking acquired tastes, few superhero movies are likely to be quite so selective in their appeal as The Toxic Avenger. Produced by notorious low budget indie film company Troma, the film centres on an average weakling who mutates into a hulking superhuman after falling in toxic waste.
Hero Melvin soon decides to use his newfound powers to fight violence and corruption in his home town of Tromaville, taking something of a zero-tolerance attitude toward crime. While it’s far too cheap and campy to take seriously, The Toxic Avenger still gets pretty over-the-top with its violence and distasteful content, and is pretty much guaranteed to offend viewers of a delicate sensibility.
27. Darkman (1990)
Like The Toxic Avenger, 1990’s Gothic fantasy thriller Darkman was an original creation not adapted from a comic book. Even so, writer-director Sam Raimi was forthright in declaring the film to be heavily inspired by classic pulp-era superheroes like Batman and The Shadow – and it shows.
Liam Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a brilliant scientist almost killed in an attack by mobsters which leaves him hideously scarred and no longer able to feel pain, to say nothing of what it does for his temper. Utilising his remarkable formula for artificial skin, with which he can temporarily pose as anyone, Westlake becomes Darkman and hits the streets for justice.
26. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s Batman helped pave the way for the comic book blockbuster boom that came a decade later. Such was the success of the 1989 film, studio Warner Bros agreed to give Burton considerably more freedom for 1992 sequel Batman Returns – although they would come to rue this decision.
Although there’s nothing in Batman Returns to push it beyond a PG-13 rating, the film’s downbeat tone, dark humour and overtones of perversity proved off-putting to family audiences (McDonald’s famously abruptly pulled a tie-in Happy Meal promotion in revulsion at the film’s content). This prompted Warner Bros to make follow-up films Batman Forever and Batman & Robin considerably more family-friendly.
25. Model by Day (1994)
Chances are you might not have heard of this one; and if so, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. Still, TV movie Model by Day took stepped into adult-oriented superhero territory before that arena had been explored too widely on the big screen. Adapted from an also-largely-forgotten 1990 comic, this 1994 production centres on a supermodel who turns superheroine as masked vigilante Lady X.
Intended as a pilot episode for a TV series that never got the go-ahead, Model by Day would most likely be forgotten altogether were it not for the presence of future big screen star Famke Janssen in the lead, plus Sean Young in a supporting role. The film’s superhero action scenes feel stilted today, but even those haven’t aged as badly as the hints of Red Shoe Diaries-esque eroticism.
24. The Crow (1994)
This revenge fantasy from director Alex Proyas will always have a dark shadow cast over it by the tragic death of its leading man Brandon Lee, who was fatally wounded on set in a firearms accident. Despite this, The Crow still proved massively successful, and was one of the first comic book adaptations to fully cast aside camp and present a gritty take on the source material.
Lee proved pitch-perfect casting as Eric Draven, rock guitarist-turned-undead avenger who returns from the grave to punish the criminals who murdered him and his fiancé. Draven might be a very dark hero, but he definitely qualifies as ‘super’ thanks to his invulnerability, psychic abilities and healing powers.
23. Tank Girl (1995)
Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s underground comic Tank Girl became a cult sensation in the early 90s, so it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling. The ensuing film from director Rachel Talalay also enjoys cult status today, despite the fact that what made it to the screen wound up being quite far removed from the source material.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Lori Petty takes the title role as a rebellious outcast trying to get by in the wastelands. A troubled production, Tank Girl wound up having a lot of its more provocative material cut by the studio in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure a PG-13. Even so, it’s still pretty out-there in terms of its sexuality and aggression.
22. Barb Wire (1996)
Another 90s adaptation of a cult comic book, Barb Wire gave Baywatch star Pamela Anderson her first major leading role as a nightclub owner in a dystopian future who does a little mercenary work on the side, all whilst sewn into an impossibly tight leather corset. Against her will, Barb finds herself drawn into the rebellious uprising against the totalitarian regime that has overtaken America.
No one in their right mind would ever claim that Barb Wire is a good movie or that Anderson gives a particularly good performance in it. Even so, it’s hard to dispute the film exudes entertainment value of the trashiest kind. And of course, given the level of violence, profanity and sexuality, it’s most definitely not one to watch with the entire family.
21. Blade (1998)
This groundbreaking blend of action and horror from director Stephen Norrington was a major turning point for the film industry, even if no one seemed to realise it at the time. Legendary comic publishers Marvel (who were then on the brink of bankruptcy) took their first steps into producing their own films with this live-action take on their streetwise vampire hunter.
Introduced in horror comic The Tomb of Dracula in 1973, Blade wasn’t a well-known character until the movie series made him one. As befits a vampire movie, the 1998 film and its two sequels are gory and violent affairs, but it’s Wesley Snipes’ super-cool portrayal of the unshakable ‘daywalker’ that really makes the movies work.
20. Unbreakable (2000)
Made hot on the heels of M Night Shyamalan and Bruce Willis’ 1999 smash hit The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable approaches comic book heroics in much the same way the earlier film handled ghosts: it’s a grittily realistic contemplation of how ordinary people might react to extraordinary phenomena, in this case the discovery that Willis’ security guard has superpowers.
While it’s not strictly unsuitable for children, the mature tone of Unbreakable (whose story world Shyamalan would later revisit with Split and Glass) gears it very much towards an adult audience. It’s also a significant film in that it gave Samuel L Jackson his first superhero-related role, eight years before the actor helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Nick Fury in Iron Man.
19. Constantine (2005)
This first big-screen outing for the character created by artist Stephen R Bissette and writer Alan Moore left many fans a tad dissatisfied on Constantine’s release. Many took exception to the casting of Keanu Reeves in the title role, as the dark-haired American is pretty far removed from the blond-haired Englishman that John Constantine has always been in the comics.
Never mind, because Reeves is as watchable as ever as the world-weary occult investigator doing battle with demons. The special effects and designs are great, and there’s a strong supporting cast including Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Stormare, not to mention an early turn from the notorious Shia LaBeouf.
18. V for Vendetta (2006)
This adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s classic comic series takes place in a dystopian future owing a great deal to George Orwell’s 1984. Hugo Weaving stars as V, the verbose vigilante in the now-iconic Guy Fawkes mask, who plots to bring down the corrupt powers that be with the (initially unwilling) assistance of Natalie Portman’s Evey Hammond.
The V for Vendetta movie irked some fans, and Alan Moore himself, by toning down the psychotic V of the comic into a more romantic character (it’s worth noting that original V actor James Purefoy quit over ‘creative differences’ regarding the role). This take may wash over the more ambiguous tone of the source material, but the film still gives us a compelling and distinctly grown-up take on the caped crusader archetype.
17. Wanted (2008)
Director Timur Bekmambetov’s 2008 adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book casts a pre-X-Men James McAvoy as Wesley, a bored office worker who takes medication to combat anxiety. However, he learns that his ‘panic attacks’ are in fact a special ability via which he can access high levels of adrenaline and achieve superhuman strength and speed.
Learning that his late father had the same ability, Wesley leaves his old life behind to learn the ways of the assassins alongside Angelina Jolie’s Fox, and under the tutelage of Morgan Freeman’s Sloan. Wanted is a high octane shoot-’em-up adventure with plenty of twists and turns, but with a great deal more grit and gore than many films of its ilk.
16. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Originally introduced as a villain in the Spider-Man comic books, The Punisher has always been one of the more controversial Marvel superheroes. It’s no surprise, then, that every live action take on the character thus far has been completely unsuitable for children – not least 2008’s frankly ridiculous blood-fest Punisher: War Zone.
Until the TV series with Jon Bernthal, this (third) big-screen take on The Punisher was the most brutal adaptation of the lot. Director Lexi Alexander’s film casts Ray Stevenson as the hard-boiled Frank Castle, who does battle with New York gangsters to often absurdly gruesome effect. If Superman made you believe a man can fly, Punisher: War Zone makes you believe a man’s fist can literally go through another man’s face.
15. Watchmen (2009)
There’s no debate that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1987 graphic novel is one of the greatest comic book stories ever written, but opinion has always been a little more divided on director Zack Snyder’s fiercely reverential 2009 film adaptation. Set in an alternate 1980s, the story considers how superheroes might fare if they existed in the real world – and for the most part, the results aren’t pretty.
Even if some felt it misunderstood the source material, the movie proved influential on subsequent screen adaptations of comic books, including the more recent Watchmen TV series. It was also Zack Snyder’s first step into the superhero arena, where the filmmaker would go on to have a significant impact in the decade that followed.
14. Kick-Ass (2010)
As the story of an ordinary high schooler who dons a colourful costume to fight crime, Kick-Ass might initially seem like your standard childhood wish-fulfilment adventure. However, director Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book is one of the most hard-hitting films of its kind you’re likely to see.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes for a suitably awkward gangly teen-turned-green-suited vigilante, up against Mark Strong’s imposing mob boss. The show is stolen by Chloë Grace Moretz, aged just 13 when she played miniature super-heroine Hit-Girl, whose brutality and foul mouth are very far removed from anything that would ever be allowed in a kids’ movie.
13. Super (2010)
Before writer-director James Gunn was given the reins to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, he gave us this considerably smaller, more grounded and disturbing take on superhero lore (and another of the few on our list not adapted from a pre-existing comic book). Super casts Rainn Wilson as Frank Darbo, an under-achiever whose world falls apart when his drug-addicted wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) walks out on him.
Soon thereafter, Frank has a vision/psychotic episode that convinces him to become a real-life superhero and battle injustice on the streets, regardless of his total lack of skills or abilities. Darkly funny and at times genuinely unsettling, Super is a strange and confrontational film that nevertheless manages to find hope in its bleak vision of the modern world.
12. Dredd (2012)
Most fans agreed that the 1995 Judge Dredd movie starring Sylvester Stallone demonstrated how not to bring a beloved comic book character to the big screen. 2012 reboot Dredd, however, might very well be considered a masterclass in how to get it exactly right. It’s a rough and ready rollercoaster ride of a movie set in an eerily plausible future setting.
Written by lifelong Judge Dredd fan Alex Garland (reportedly the film’s unofficial co-director), Dredd follows Mega City One’s toughest lawmaker (a perfectly cast Karl Urban) as he takes psychic rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a training day that proves to be a baptism by fire. The two soon find themselves trapped in a massive urban city block with every criminal in the vicinity out to get them.
11. Deadpool (2016)
For years, no one thought a big budget superhero movie could work with an R-rating, until 20th Century Fox took a chance on Deadpool. Defying conventional wisdom, the film’s satirical, fourth-wall-breaking take on the superhero genre became a smash hit, proving that grown-ups were more than happy to leave the kids with the babysitter and flock out to see a movie about a super-powered man in tights.
Thanks in no small part to the central performance of the constantly-wisecracking Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool and its 2019 sequel are bursting at the seams with tongue-in-cheek humour, but both are still hard-edged movies that pack a serious punch. Although the franchise now lives at the Disney-owned Marvel Studios, it has been promised the in-development Deadpool 3 will also be R-rated.
10. Logan (2017)
Given that he’s a hairy beast with metal claws and a tendency for violent bursts of rage, it was entirely appropriate that Wolverine should eventually be allowed to let loose in an R-rated movie. So it was that Hugh Jackman ended his unprecedented 17-year tenure in the role with the very adults-only Logan, which finally showed the full extent of the damage those claws can do.
Serving as a swan song to the initial X-Men series, Logan is startling in its savagery, not to mention its level of profanity (the F-word is literally the first thing we hear from our mutant hero’s mouth). Logan is also surprisingly reflective and melancholic, displaying a true maturity often lacking in modern blockbusters, as reflected by its Best Screenplay Oscar nomination (a rare accolade for a superhero movie).
9. Venom (2018)
Acclaimed British actor Tom Hardy is never one for doing things simply, so it shouldn’t have come as too great a surprise that when he signed on to play Marvel Comics anti-hero Venom, the results would be a bit weird. Even so, no one anticipated Venom being quite so bizarre and creepy as it wound up being.
In the wake of Deadpool, it was heavily speculated that Venom would be the second major R-rated superhero movie of the 20teens, but studio Sony ultimately decided against this. Still, considering the film’s protagonist is a monstrous symbiotic lifeform with razor-sharp teeth and a taste for human heads, Venom is hardly a film to take your infants to see.
8. Hellboy (2019)
When the Hellboy reboot was announced, it was something of a good news/bad news scenario for fans. The bad news was, it seemed to rule out the chance of director Guillermo del Toro’s intended Hellboy trilogy ever being completed; the good news was, this version from director Neil Marshall promised to take the character further into full-on horror territory than the earlier PG-13 rated films had.
Unfortunately, the end results pale in comparison to the original Hellboy movies, even if they do pile on considerably more gore and swearing. The plot is dull and formulaic, and the over-abundance of video game-style CGI gets tiresome. Still, 2019’s Hellboy is not without its strengths, in particular an entertaining lead turn from David Harbour, who proves a fine replacement for Ron Perlman.
7. Joker (2019)
Sure, there’s absolutely nothing super nor heroic about Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, but it’s impossible to talk about superhero movies for adults without bringing up Joker. Director Todd Philips’ ground-breaking take on the iconic Batman villain went some way to silencing those who complain that all comic book adaptations are basically the same.
With its Oscar-winning turn from Phoenix, Joker pushes the boundaries of comic book movies about as far as they could conceivably go, in so doing attracting acclaim and outrage in roughly equal measure. However, those who love it and those who hate it can surely agree on at least one thing: Joker is most definitely not a film for children.
6. Birds of Prey (2020)
After her scene-stealing introduction in the divisive but commercially successful Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn took centre stage in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). With its excessive violence, bad language and fourth-wall-breaking humour, the influence of Deadpool is apparent, but director Cathy Yan’s film is a hugely entertaining superhero flick in its own right.
While Robbie’s psychiatrist-turned-psycho Harley Quinn is very much the lead, Birds of Prey is no solo movie: Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ella Jay Basco help make up an unlikely but endearing super-team, against Ewan McGregor’s suitably despicable Roman ‘Black Mask’ Sionis.
5. The New Mutants (2020)
This troubled production from writer-director Josh Boone proved to be the final film in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise. Breaking with series convention, The New Mutants is an intense, small-scale affair, veering away from epic adventure territory in favour of a teen-oriented horror movie with distinct echoes of the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
Despite a strong cast including Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams and Charlie Heaton, The New Mutants failed to inspire confidence from the studio, nor garner much audience interest. A casualty of the Disney takeover of 20th Century Fox, it was shot in 2017 but spent three years on the shelf before dying at the box office in 2020.
4. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
If we’re talking about superhero movies with troubled productions, Justice League is perhaps the most infamous of the lot. First released in 2017, the theatrical cut was overseen by Joss Whedon when Zack Snyder stood down in the wake of a personal tragedy, and the film that made it to screens was blasted by fans and critics alike as an ugly, dumbed-down disaster.
After an impassioned fan campaign, studio Warner Bros allowed Snyder to release his own distinct cut of the film, and it’s a very different affair: four hours in length, with a considerably darker tone, and a higher level of adult content including harsher violence and language. The resulting film went down a lot better with fans, and is arguably the pinnacle of Snyder’s DC trilogy.
3. The Suicide Squad (2021)
After 2016’s Suicide Squad pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, studio Warner Bros decided to let newly hired writer-director James Gunn go full-on R-rated with 2021’s The Suicide Squad. This semi-sequel/reboot sees a largely new ensemble of vaguely reformed super-villains sent out on a mission where all lives are considered expendable.
With its quirky tone and pop-heavy soundtrack, The Suicide Squad feels fairly close in tone both to the earlier film and to Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films. However, it takes things to another level with its violence: the level of carnage is so high, this just might be the single goriest comic book movie ever made.
2. The Batman (2022)
Built from the ashes of the Ben Affleck Batman solo movie which was originally intended, director Matt Reeves boldly took the Dark Knight in a new and very different direction with The Batman. Robert Pattinson stars as a younger, considerably angrier Batman in a movie that hinges more heavily on the superhero’s detective skills than any previous live-action incarnation.
Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Dark Knight trilogy may have presented a more mature Batman than in years gone by, but Reeves and Pattinson take things even further, presenting a Batman who truly strikes terror into the hearts of criminals. Things are made even more sinister by Paul Dano’s Riddler, who gives Heath Ledger‘s Joker a run for his money in the scary villain stakes.
1. Morbius (2022)
Following on from the success of Venom and its sequel, Sony set out to launch another Spider-Man villain in a solo movie with Morbius. Dubbed ‘the living vampire’ in the comics, Michael Morbius is a doctor struggling to overcome his own rare affliction when he hits upon a cure with unforeseen side effects: it turns him into a blood-sucking creature of the night.
Adding a vampire element to any superhero movie tends to make it a little less kid-friendly. Unfortunately, while blending superhero action with horror proved effective for the Blade movies, in Morbius this approach proves inconsistent and unsatisfying. Still, while the film was met with a largely negative response from critics, it went down a bit better with audiences.