Rich Handley Author and Editor

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Hilarious!

We’re living in a golden age of superheroes, with stories based on comic books or featuring masked crime-fighters dominating film and television. Not all have proven successful, but as soon as one show or movie fails to catch the audience’s attention, five more soon take its place. Superhero stories are typically dramatic, sexy, and exciting, but some of the best ones are also funny as hell. So let’s look back at some superhero comedies that made audiences laugh faster than a speeding bullet and more powerfully than a locomotive, as well as others that utterly failed to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

So Funny, the Joker Would Applaud

Batman

Holy top-ten, Batman! No list of superhero comedies would be worth its weight in anti-shark repellant if it didn’t include William Dozier’s campy 1960s Batman series for ABC, starring Adam West, Burt Ward, and Alan Napier as the Caped Crusaders and their trusted butler, Alfred Pennyworth. The series lasted for only three seasons (1966 to 1968) and a madcap theatrical film, but it made a permanent stamp on television with its over-the-top villains (most notably Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler), its upbeat theme song from Neal Hefti, its purple-prose narration, its silly yet earnest portrayals of both Batman and Robin, and its rather absurd attempt at a Batgirl spinoff pilot.

The Greatest American Hero

ABC charmed viewers from 1981 to 1983 with Stephen J. Cannell’s comedy-drama The Greatest American Hero. Starring William Katt, Robert Culp, Connie Sellecca, Michael Paré, and Faye Grant, the series records the adventures of school teacher Ralph Hinkley, who receives a special suit from extraterrestrials that affords him a range of superhuman skills, including increased strength, extrasensory perception, invisibility, flight, and more. The catch? He quickly misplaces the instructions and thus has no idea how to use his newfound abilities.

The Tick

If television has proven one thing, it’s this: you can’t keep a good arachnid down. In 1986, cartoonist Ben Edlund parodied comic book characters with the Tick, a super-strong, super-friendly but equally super-obtuse superhero. The comic spawned an animated TV series that lasted from 1994 to 1996, followed by a live-action version from 2001 to 2002, and a third iteration from 2016 to 2019. The shows have developed cult followings, with the cartoon earning several Annie and Emmy Award nominations, but it’s the live-action casting of Patrick Warburton as the titular Tick that is the true casting coup of the bunch.

Mystery Men

In 1999, director Kinka Usher adapted writer Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics as a sadly under-appreciated film about would-be heroes with more potential than they know. The motley team—Mr. Furious, the Bowler, the Shoveler, the Invisible Boy, the Spleen, the Sphinx, and the Blue Raja—are viewed as losers until circumstances allow them to prove their worth. Some of the humor is admittedly juvenile (Paul Reubens’ Spleen has the power of deadly farts, for example), but Ben Stiller (Furious), Hank Azaria (Raja), and especially William H. Macy (Shoveler) make us care about their everyman characters, while Geoffrey Rush and Eddie Izzard are brilliantly insane as the villains Casanova Frankenstein and Tony P.

The Incredibles and Incredibles 2

Brad Bird’s 2004 computer-animated gem The Incredibles is not only one of Pixar’s best films to date, but also a far better version of the Fantastic Four than any of the four movies to date about that team (though an upcoming MCU Fantastic Four movie might just change that), and its 2018 follow-up, Incredibles 2, is almost just as good. Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter star as the husband and wife leaders of a one-time superhero family now leading boring suburban lives due to the Watchmen-like governmental outlawing of masked crime-fighting, while Samuel L. Jackson steals the spotlight as their friend Frozone. A loving homage to 1960s comics and spy films, The Incredibles is an ingenious send-up of the superhero genre, as well as a wonderful superhero film in its own right, which shines a pointed spotlight on society’s frustrating attitudes toward excellence and mediocrity.

Sky High

Sky High, released in 2005 and directed by Mike Mitchell, is a good deal funnier than you might expect. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is a ninth-grader whose parents (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston) are revered superheroes. Will has enrolled at Sky High, a school for super-powered teens, but he harbors an embarrassing secret: unlike his parents, he exhibits no special abilities. Though aimed at younger viewers, this entertaining coming-of-age yarn contains in-jokes for the older crowd as well, including the casting of Lynda Carter as Principal Powers, Bruce Campbell as Coach Boomer, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Spex. Where else can you watch Snake Plissken, Wonder Woman, Ash Williams, and Frau Blücher all in one film?

The Middleman

One of the smartest action-adventure shows aired on television in 2008, yet few knew it existed. Created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, The Middleman ran for only a single season. Natalie Morales played Wendy Watson, a struggling artist recruited to fight evil in a secret organization alongside a handsome hero, the Middleman (Matt Keeslar). Doing justice to this smartly written comedy with a mere synopsis would be doomed to failure, as its plots spoofed not only the superhero and spy genres, but also Planet of the Apes, The Godfather, Japanese martial-arts films, Fantastic Voyage, Die Hard, Star Trek, and many other favorites. Alas, it aired on ABC Family and was mostly overlooked, leading to a quick cancelation. It deserved a far longer run.

Big Hero 6

Disney’s 2014 computer-animated film Big Hero 6, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, centers around a robotics prodigy named Hiro Hamada, who, upon losing his brother under tragic circumstances, assembles an unlikely superhero team to bring down the masked killer. The star of the film is Hiro’s inflatable robot, Baymax, and the movie’s heart is the touching relationship between the two. Sharp-witted and emotionally laden, with a storyline recalling Iron Giant and visuals reminiscent of Stargate and other science-fiction franchises, Big Hero 6 remains one of the best animated films in recent decades, and despite the somber aspects of its plot it’s also charmingly funny.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Its Sequels

Jetpack-clad human Peter Quill forms an extraterrestrial team of misfits to steal an alien artifact before a galactic evildoer can conquer the universe. It’s Star Wars meets superheroes—though one could argue that it’s not truly a superhero film, since its protagonists are actually criminals when we first meet them. Nonetheless, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released in 2014, is one of the best entries in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe—and so are its equally satisfying sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023). Why? Two words: Rocket Raccoon. Three more words: I am Groot. Need more words? Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldaña, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Josh Brolin, and Kevin Bacon.

Deadpool and Deadpool 2

Deadpool, a 2016 film directed by Tim Miller, exceeded all expectations, delivering not only one of the funniest films to hit theaters in some time, but also one of the strongest chapters in the regrettably uneven theatrical exploits of the X-Men. It’s vulgar and crude, with more references to anal and oral sex than the average pornographic movie, but Ryan Reynolds pulled it off so well it’s hard to believe X-Men Origins: Wolverine ever happened—and Deadpool hilariously reminds you of that cinematic misstep several times, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to mock the filmmakers, the previous films, the superhero genre in general, Hugh Jackman, and even Reynolds himself. The 2018 sequel, Deadpool 2, is just as hilarious, and there’s every reason to believe 2024’s Deadpool 3 will continue the trend, because that one will be set in the MCU.

Honorable Mentions: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984—assuming you classify it a superhero movie), The Mask (1994—one of Jim Carrey’s funniest films, back when he still made them), My Secret Identity (1988 to 1991—a forgotten gem from early in Jerry O’Connell’s TV career), The Specials (2000—about a superhero group on their day off), Kick-Ass (2010—in which a teenager becomes a masked crime-fighter), Super (2010—an early James Gunn vehicle about a non-heroic man rescuing his wife from a drug dealer), Thor: Ragnarok (2017—Thor, Loki, and Hulk are genuinely funny together, but Jeff Goldblum steals the show), 2019’s Shazam! (if for no other reason than it being one of the few DCEU movies not to be needlessly dark and broody), and Doom Patrol (2019 to present—which would have landed on the main list if not for the fact that despite being hilarious, the show is at heart a portrait of depression and dysfunction).

So Bad They’re Good? No, Just Bad

Not every super-powered comedy packs a powerful punch. Some take a mighty beating from critics and leave fans super-disappointed. So let’s look back at some superhero comedies that made us cry out “Great Caesar’s ghost!” and reach for the nearest chunk of kryptonite.

Captain Nice

In 1967, riding the wave of Adam West’s Batman, CBS aired Mr. Terrific, a television comedy about nerdy Stanley Beamish (Stephen Strimpell), who could turn himself into a superhero whenever he needed to by swallowing a large pill. NBC simultaneously showed a remarkably similar series that same season, titled Captain Nice, from Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry. Neither show lasted for more than a single season—and in Captain Nice‘s case, that was a blessing for viewers, as the series and its mild-mannered mama’s boy of a main character failed to impress on pretty much any level.

Condorman

Despite its cult following, 1981’s Disney espionage spoof Condorman, directed by Charles Jarrott, was a non-powered dud. The movie, featuring Michael Crawford, Barbara Carrera, and Oliver Reed, told the tale of Woodrow Wilkins, an eccentric comic book artist who helps a CIA agent rescue a beautiful KGB spy looking to defect to the United States. The movie had a number of problems in terms of its not-so-special effects, not the least of which were the painfully visible harness and cable used to create the flying scenes in front of an all-too-obvious bluescreen. Typical bland Disney fare, Condorman is worth watching only if you were a fan of Crawford and Reed (who wasn’t?) or had a teen crush on Carrera (who didn’t?).

The Return of Captain Invincible

When a movie that costs $7 million only brings in $55,000 at the box office, that’s not good. Such was the case with 1983’s Australian musical comedy The Return of Captain Invincible, starring Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee, two immensely talented thespians who nonetheless appeared in a surprising number of career-jarring clunkers. The titular alcoholic superhero, forced into retirement due to government persecution, moves to Australia after being accused of being a communist, and hilarity… well, does not ensue. The lead hero’s arch-nemesis is a well-stocked bar, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about this unmemorable film.

    The Meteor Man

    Ah, The Meteor Man, the 1993 movie that should have been so much better than it turned out to be, given the talent involved. With Hollywood Shuffle‘s Robert Towensend at the helm and a supporting cast that included James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Marla Gibbs, Eddie Griffin, and a pre-scandal Bill Cosby, this project should have been hilarious. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. After being struck by a meteor, a schoolteacher develops super-powers and decides to take on a deadly drug syndicate, but finds his abilities fading just when he needs them most. It’s somewhat entertaining at times, but ultimately fails due to bad direction and a weak script.

    Blankman

    No discussion of superhero misfires would be complete without 1994’s Blankman, starring Damon Wayans. The film features the exploits of Darryl Walker, a socially inept virgin in his 30s who fashions a superhero costume out of bulletproof underwear and builds himself some crime-fighting robots to help clean up his city. Broadly written and childishly silly, Blankman (based on Wayans’ Handi-Man character from In Living Color) is simply awful, with little going for it other than the performance of David Alan Grier, who is always funny even when the material he is given is not.

    Son of the Mask

    Jim Carrey’s The Mask was a sharp and witty superhero satire about an everyman granted extraordinary abilities by an ancient artifact. The film boasted admirable special effects, strong performances by every lead, catchy music and many laugh-out-loud moments. Sadly, the 2005 sequel cannot make that same claim—which should come as no surprise, given that none of the previous movie’s actors reprised their roles, and that this second outing was noticeably more family-friendly. Jamie Kennedy, while a decent actor, is no Jim Carrey, and the otherwise fantastic Alan Cumming as the trickster god Loki is no Tom Hiddleston. There’s just no good reason to watch this film.

    My Super Ex-Girlfriend

    With Uma Thurman, Luke Wilson, Anna Faris, Eddie Izzard, and Rainn Wilson in the cast, Ivan Reitman’s 2006 romantic comedy, about a man who discovers his ex-lover is a deranged, clingy crime-fighter with stalker tendencies, could have been hilarious. Had Don Payne’s half-hearted script given them anything interesting to do, that might have been the case. Thurman’s G-Girl, in one scene, lobs a live shark into the bed that Luke Wilson’s character shares with his new girlfriend, making it all too easy for viewers to quip about the film jumping the shark, and making it clear how misogynistic Hollywood’s reaction to female empowerment tends to be. Every member of the cast is better than this. So skip this one and instead watch the similarly named non-superhero TV show My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. You’ll be glad you did.

    Zoom

    Director Peter Hewitt’s 2006 adaptation of Jason Lethcoe’s Amazing Adventures from Zoom’s Academy is anything but amazing. Despite the involvement of Tim Allen, Courteney Cox, Chevy Chase, and Rip Torn, Zoom was a box office bomb, garnering only a 3 percent rating at RottenTomatoes and earning a Razzie Award nomination for Allen in the “Worst Actor” category. Captain Zoom (Allen) attempts to transform a ragtag group of teenagers into superheroes, and the result is a dull, forgettable tale that is bizarrely unfunny and fails to work even as a children’s story—think The Santa Clause sequels, but without the fat suit.

    Underdog

    There’s no need to fear, Underdog is… well, maybe there is a need. W. Watts Biggers’ 1960s superhero cartoon introduced the world to Shoeshine Boy, a mild-mannered pooch whose rhyming heroic alter ego, Underdog (then voiced by Wally Cox), appeared whenever evildoers Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff threatened his true love, Sweet Polly Purebred. The animated series is a treasured classic and deservedly so. So naturally, DreamWorks turned it into a lackluster, cliché-ridden film in 2007, written by Adam Rifkin (who had penned the script for Zoom, so there you go). My Name Is Earl‘s Jason Lee does a serviceable job voicing Underdog, while Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage hams it up suitably as Bar Sinister, but really, the movie’s just a bad dog.

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and TMNT: Out of the Shadows

    Michael Bay continues to make movies. That is unfortunate, since he is primarily known for explosion-filled, form-over-substance blockbusters that are long on gratuitous sexual titillation but short on acting and plot. Regrettably, he was let loose on the beloved “heroes in a half-shell” created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, in a pair of CGI-heavy snooze-fests that made a ton of money for the studios despite being critically lambasted for their dull scripts, questionable casting choices, lack of characterization, and grotesque, non-turtle-like designs. The turtles are supposed to be very, very funny, and this time out, they simply are not. Skip them both and rewatch the 1990 film or any of the animated versions. Better yet, read the original black-and-white comics.

    Honorable Mentions: The Toxic Avenger (1984—with the caveat that it’s meant to be bad, which actually makes it brilliant), Misfits of Science (1985—proof once again that Courteney Cox should avoid superhero stories), Batman & Robin (1997—which wasn’t supposed to be a comedy but was so laughably awful that it nearly killed the franchise), The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (2005—though it’s hard to deny that “Dream Song” almost makes the movie worth the price of admission), Superhero Movie (2008—reminding us that Leslie Nielsen used to make parodies that were much funnier), Kick-Ass 2 (2013—a lesser sequel that even Jim Carrey disavowed), and Powerless (2017—a situational comedy set in the DC universe that failed to find an audience).

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    Rich Handley has written, co-written, co-edited, or contributed to dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Planet of the Apes, Watchmen, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Stargate, Dark Shadows, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Red Dwarf, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman, the Joker, classic monsters, and more. He has also been a magazine writer and editor for nearly three decades. Rich edited Eaglemoss’s Star Trek Graphic Novel Collection, and he currently writes articles for Titan’s Star Trek Explorer magazine, as well as books for an as-yet-unannounced role-playing game. Learn more about Rich and his work at richhandley.com.

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