With Comic-Con coming up this weekend, there’s a good chance that we all have superheroes on the brain. And since most of us can’t actually go to SDCC this year (not that you’d know it from the grotesquely packed convention halls), this week Now Streaming is going to highlight all the best superhero movies currently available for free on all the various services online.
That may sound like a daunting task, since the world is full of superhero movies nowadays, but for whatever reason, most of them aren’t available to stream at this particular moment in time without spending extra money. If you have VOD or Amazon Prime, you can rent or buy most of them, but if you couldn’t get into Comic-Con because you didn’t have enough cash to swing it, you probably don’t want to add insult to injury by having to pay for superhero flicks on your own damned couch.
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These are our picks for the five best superhero films currently available without an additional charge from Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, slim pickings though they are. Excelsior!
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Hulu Plus)
So you’ve already watched all of Netflix’s Daredevil (as well you should have), and you can’t wait until 2016 to see more of a blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen do battle against the Kingpin. You could watch the live-action Daredevil movie we already know about – the one with the god-awful Evanescence soundtrack, laughable CGI and plot holes you could drive a radioactive truck through – or you could watch the dated but very fun OTHER live-action Daredevil movie from 1989. The one most people haven’t even heard of. It’s called The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.
The film was a spin-off of the popular Incredible Hulk TV series, but the title hero takes a backseat this time as his alter ego David Banner (Bill Bixby, who also directed) finds himself in trouble with the law. Fortunately his attorney is Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), sporting a black costume just like the one he wears in most of the Netflix series. He fights the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies from The Lord of the Rings), who is trying to consolidate his power over multiple crime families, also just like the Netflix series. But unlike the Netflix series, the Kingpin also has a flying car of some kind.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is pretty silly sometimes, but when it plays the story straight it actually gets away with it. It’s got nifty street fights and some decent acting from Smith as Daredevil. It’s doesn’t amount to much more than a pop culture curio, but it’s not the sort of embarrassment we’ve come to expect from the Dr. Strange TV movie or that laughable Roger Corman Fantastic Four that never got officially released. It’s well worth watching if you’re a lifelong Daredevil fan, or a brand new one as of earlier this year.
Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is beloved for his independent horror movies – like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone – but tends to have a harder time finding mainstream success. Perhaps that’s because his taste in smaller dramas and thrillers skews thoughtful and artsy, and his taste in broad entertainment is really, really broad. Case in point, his first adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, which threw creepy imagery, goofy humor and 1980s badass action cinema into a blender and turned out… pretty good.
Hellboy excels when it’s building its clever world of the supernatural, luxuriating in impressive production design and makeup effects, and asking big questions about the Elder Gods who control our fates. Ron Perlman is also excellent as the title character, and Selma Blair makes the most out of her underwritten role as a pyrokinetic downer. The villains are weird and fun, Doug Jones is fantastic as the aquatic Abe Sapien (and David Hyde Pierce is just plain perfect as his voice), and the action is pretty nifty. But the plot is a generic mishmash of Chosen One clichés, and the whole thing is tied together by an impossibly bland protagonist played by Rupert Evans, who has absolutely no reason to be in the movie except to have things explained to him.
But as much of a jumble as it is, Hellboy is a fun watch. It’s too bad Hellboy II: The Golden Army isn’t also available along with it, because that’s the one that goes completely nuts in the plot and production design department.
Batman: The Movie (Amazon Prime)
It took us long enough, but popular culture has finally come back around to loving the 1960s Batman television series. The campy show starred Adam West as Bruce Wayne, Burt Ward as Robin, and a litany of impressive guest stars as the less-than-dark knight’s various villains. In the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman movies the show fell out of favor, because everyone wanted their superheroes taken seriously, but now there are so many live-action costumed crusaders out there that the goofy charms of the old Batman show can be enjoyed for exactly what they are: good natured silliness.
And one of the best examples remains the 1966 feature Batman: The Movie, which found our heroes facing off against an all-star team-up of their greatest villains: The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Their plot is absurd, and Batman’s attempts to stop them only slightly less so. At one point our hero’s got a giant explosive in his hands and keeps trying to dispose of it, only to find his path barred by increasingly helpless and adorable bystanders. “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb” he complains, and it’s one of the funniest movie moments of the 1960s.
Batman: The Movie is a trifle, but it’s an extremely funny trifle that’s the perfect antidote to all comically serious superhero movies making the rounds these days.
The Crow (Amazon Prime)
The release of Alex Proyas’s moody and gorgeous 1994 adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book series The Crow was marred by tragedy; namely, the on-set death of the film’s star, Brandon Lee, who gave an incredible performance as a martyred rock star meting out revenge for his wife’s murder from beyond the grave. Lee finished most of the movie except for a few (rather important) scenes, forcing Proyas to get tricky with editing and body doubles, and while you can always tell when the actor was there and when he wasn’t, the inky shadows and MTV trickery that permeates throughout the whole movie hides the effect pretty well.
Over 20 years later, with the pain of Lee’s death no longer quite as fresh, The Crow is probably more effective than ever as a done-in-one, artsy supernatural saga. The cinematography is incredible, the acting uniformly excellent, the action violently cool and the film’s dystopic tone is a remarkable counterpoint to most “guy with superpowers avenges stuff” movies that emerged in the decades since. But the film still wouldn’t have worked without Brandon Lee, whose acting provides melancholy, wit and even hints of joy to a film that otherwise doesn’t boast a lot of nuance.
The best superhero movie currently available on instant streaming is, ironically enough, the one that isn’t based on an actual comic book. But it does come from Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn, who earlier in his career made this R-rated ultraviolent dramedy about a guy played by Rainn Wilson who loses his mind, thinks he sees God (who has tentacles) and thinks his destiny is to fight crime. So he makes himself a costume and, since crime is hard to actually find just walking around on the street, hitting everyday jerks on the head with a wrench. It’s as gruesome as it sounds.
Joining him is a local comic book nerd played by Ellen Page, who adds a lot of humor and sexuality to a story about why people really play dress up. Eventually they do have to fight actual criminals, and it goes just about as well as you’d imagine. Gross, funny and impressively human, Super is the closest the superhero movie genre has ever come Taxi Driver, challenging our assumptions about people and their motivations, about genre convention, and about our ongoing love/hate relationship with violence. It’s pretty super, damn it.