Chain Reaction: Stories Outside the (In)famous Superhero Canons

If 2000 was the year X-Men launched a wave of superhero films, then 2018 is set to be the year of the superhero blockbuster. Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, New Mutants, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Ant-Man 2, Deadpool 2, The Incredibles 2, and even Venom will hit theaters, in addition to an animated Spider-Man movie starring Miles Morales. That’s a lot. And that’s just Marvel; although DC took a hit with Justice LeagueAquaman comes to town in December to showcase one of the League’s most intriguing and underrated members. This isn’t even counting superheroes on television (hello, Runaways, Jessica Jones, and Cloak & Dagger!)  

That is a lot of name-dropping. Couldn’t be helped! All of these are really exciting to me. (Yes, I already have my tickets to Black Panther.)

However, if you’re tired of the mainstream superhero canons, in screen or comic book format, there are other options that are just as entertaining (or as dark and broody) as the superhero stories we all know and love. Sometimes that means looking outside of the science fiction genre (I know! It’s so difficult!). The most famous example is probably Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize — and isn’t really about superheros, per se, but about the people who create them. Still, there is plenty of action and adventure to be had. Some believe Chabon’s book was inspired by the lives of Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel — the creators of Superman.

Here are a few other stories and films that provide fresh looks at the superhero genre.


Chronicle (2012) is how Dane DeHaan (Valerian) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) first came to my attention. Normally, I am not a fan of “found-footage” movies. It wasn’t cute when The Blair Witch Project did it, and it isn’t cute now. But I am a fan of original stories, and Chronicle’s previews looked both troubling and exciting. If you haven’t seen it, Chronicle is a superior piece of storytelling and acting that surpasses the trope its storyline is built around. Three friends, Steve, Andrew, and Matt (Alex Russell) find a crystalline meteor that gives them powers of telekinesis and flight. At first they use their new abilities for pranks. But it is soon clear that Andrew’s (DeHaan) innate anger at both being bullied and his tragic home life fuels a need for revenge against the world at large. Steve confronts Andrew, who kills him, setting off a devastating, explosive final confrontation with Matt that almost destroys Seattle. The special effects, the acting, and the bittersweet ending make for a dark but captivating found-footage movie about the evils of superpowers. (It ranks at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer; for comparison, Mad Max: Fury Road ranks at 97% .)

The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) by Catherynne M. ValenteI’m sorry to say I almost forgot this one until I saw it on the shelf today and rushed to include it. Because it’s brilliant. Six deceased women — both superheroes and the romantic partners of superheroes — relate their experiences as targets of supervillains who just want to get to their heroic boyfriends. In case anyone is unfamiliar with the term, “refrigeration” (coined by comics writer Gail Simone) means somehow causing harm to or dispensing with a woman in a plotline in order to advance the super-important protagonist male’s narrative. Because. While all of the characters are original, comics readers will recognize the women and their stories, because Valente satirizes familiar characters and plotlines from the comics universe (Julia Ash = Jean Grey, for instance; see my earlier post on Jean Grey here), to comment on the comics industry’s laissez-faire attitude toward violence directed at women.

After the Golden Age (2012) and Dreams of the Golden Age (2014) by Carrie Vaughn. We’ve talked about guys and superheros a lot; now let’s talk about women and superpowers. These two books follow Celia West, daughter of superhero parents Captain Olympus and Spark. Celia — who doesn’t have any powers at all, and tired of being targeted by supervillains with vendettas against her parents — forges her own identity outside the travails of superherodom by becoming a forensic accountant. Her skill set comes in handy when her parents’ supernemesis, the Destructor, is on trial for — of all things — tax evasion. (Did I mention the humor?) In the second book, Celia’s teenage daughter Anna worries about how to hide her developing superpowers from her mother — an issue that’s compounded when she and her other super-powered friends are patrolling the city at night. But she should know better than to underestimate her mother — in more ways than the obvious. Vaughn’s books are a well-crafted mix of mystery, satire, and family drama in a superpowered setting.


Honorable (?) Mentions

Hancock (2008). What happens when a narcissistic, devil-may-care alcoholic superhero needs a publicist? Hancock, that’s what. Will Smith plays the immortal, emotionally damaged superhero, Jason Bateman plays his accidental publicist Ray, and Charlize Theron plays Ray’s wife Mary, who turns out to have some relevant secrets of her own. Hancock starts off well, but becomes problematic in the second half, when it can’t decide if it’s comedy or tragedy. But I like Hancock for its optimistic ending and for being a Will Smith film where he sticks to his character.

Chronicle’s powers-derived-from-meteor storyline also recalls My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), with Luke Wilson as Matt, whose attempts to dump his possessive ex-girlfriend Jenny, aka Uma Thurman, are rebuffed threefold. This is Ivan Reitman’s charmless, half-baked “gift” to us, as it’s filled with sexist clichés and characters you just can’t like. Both Chronicle and My Super Ex-Girlfriend ask questions about the uses and abuses of superpowers, but the latter was billed as a straight-up spoof of superhero films — one that falls way flat. 

I found a few more stories to add to my TBR pile: Nobody Gets the Girl, by James Maxey; Hero, by the late Perry Moore; the Reckoners Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson (I have yet to read anything by Sanderson, but this looks intriguing!) and Superpowers, by David J. Schwartz.

Add your favorite non-canon superhero stories and keep the chain going in the comments!

4 Comments

  • Shara White January 23, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the Maxey and the Schwartz.

    I can’t believe that for once, I’ve read/seen all the main things in your chain! It’s been forever since I’ve seen Chronicle, so I can’t comment there, but I adored The Refrigerator Monologues, and the Golden Age books from Vaughn are thoroughly enjoyable (and I love those covers).

    Reply
  • J.L. Gribble January 25, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    Invincible is one of my husband’s favorite series, written by Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead fame. I’ve read and enjoyed the first half of the run, then decided to wait to finish until it closes out this year. And there’s rumors of a film adaptation that I’m extremely excited for.

    Reply
    • Shara White January 27, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      My husband loves that series too. Keeps trying to get me to read it, but I’m not reading ANY comic these days, so I’m rather meh about trying anything new, no matter how awesome people promise it is. 🙂

      Reply
  • nancyotoole January 28, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    You know, I keep on forgetting that Venom is coming out this year….

    DO READ the Reckoners. Amazing, amazing trilogy. The gateway drug to Sanderson for a lot of people I know.

    And I really need to check out The Refrigerator Monologues. The premise intrigues me so.

    Reply

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