Superpowers are a mainstay of pop culture, and even of religion, so it’s almost impossible to craft a perfect list of the absolute best superpower depictions of a given period. Still, here’s a list of 10 well-known depictions you’ve probably seen and why they are special. Some of these superpowers are for good, others evil. Some are subtle and some are overt. In any case, they are all interesting and entertaining.
and Vampire Superpowers
It’s tame by today’s standards, but Tod Browning’s “Dracula” is all but overdosed on unnatural and supernatural powers. On his way to Dracula’s castle, Renfield (Dwight Frye) meets Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), who becomes someone very dear to him. No, wait — Renfield is actually cursed by Dracula, put under his spell, and driven mad! After a series of killings in London, Count Dracula unwittingly reveals his secret vampire nature (his lack of a reflection), and his intent becomes very clear. No one is to be spared Dracula’s wrath: Not even the loyal Renfield!
Early in the movie, we see Dracula’s castle as an otherworldly place. Sure, Dracula doesn’t exactly have an army of loyal vampire henchmen, but he’s tough enough to have cemented Bale Lugosi’s image as The Count. This film also arguably features demoniacs or people possessed by evil spirits, who initially attack Renfield and his group. After all, aren’t vampires sort of evil-possessed creatures, forced to dwell somewhere between life and death? As mentioned before, the main vampire guy drives Renfield insane, until he’s little more than a blithering, twisted manchild. Dracula is ultimately fatally stabbed, which means he wasn’t all-powerful, but he could still turn into a bat and flit around, which is a luxury the average person lacks.
In future Dracula movies and TV shows, Dracula comes across as a bit more powerful. In “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” for example, he is actually shown as a bit of a werewolf, and we can imagine him stalking in the nearby forest and barking and howling. It’s also obvious in that film that Dracula has more men (or demons, or whatever) under his control.
In fact, Dracula’s castle comes across as a bit more otherworldly in that installment than this one. Still, this movie isn’t quite as campy as, let’s say, Gremlins, and Bela Lugosi is still one of the all-time great versions of Dracula. This movie also makes clear enough what Dracula does with humans’ bodies, knowing that the film would’ve been too shocking to general audiences had it been too bloody (in fact, back in 1931, people were more likely to genuinely believe in vampires).
While Dracula is powerful, he also has many weaknesses. There’s more than one way to destroy the soul of a vampire. Finally, as a bit of trivia, the maker of sound effects for this film was Jack Foley — who was so influential that people in his profession are now called “Foley artists.”
The Twilight Zone (1959–1964)
Showcases Supernatural and/or Alien Superpowers
With the series’ legendary 5 seasons, Serling regularly described the show’s events as beyond time and space. Indeed, “The Twilight Zone” was brimming with stories and concepts about fear, the supernatural. Most of the stars were excellent in their roles, and some of the original stories were redone for the 1983 film, “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The television series has frequently been cited as an influence on countless science fiction franchises and individual films and TV shows.
As far as the best supernatural episodes, those are obviously a matter of taste. Still, standouts appear to be “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where William Shatner’s character faces off with a Gremlin. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” remains a classic, as it comments on how easily people could be manipulated into fear by simple applications of alien technology. “Living Doll” is a fun one, featuring a doll powerful and evil enough to give Chucky a run for his money. Of course, one shouldn’t forget “It’s a Good Life,” featuring a boy (Bill Mumy) with incredible, reality-warping powers. Classic stuff and Rod Serling was one cool dude.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Strongly Hints at Satanic Superpowers…Or is Rosemary Simply Crazy?
Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” begins as a simple tale of a couple — Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) — moving into a new building. Sounds like a walk in Central Park, right? Well, Guy becomes entrenched in his life as a theater performer, and they learn about some freakish events of the previous building occupants. The more details Rosemary learns, the more she begins to distrust her surroundings, as well as her initially very kind neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). Events unfold that will reveal the true identity of these neighbors…or is Rosemary simply going insane?
The Exorcist (1973)
Prominently Displays Satanic Superpowers
William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” is a Pazuzu, the demon who manages to torment, confuse, and distress so many, is revealed to be full of special, sinister powers. At times, Pazuzu makes young Regan (Linda Blair) seem like a clever witch — one who is in league with the fallen angel, Lucifer (or something like that).
Yes, she becomes the spitting image of Satan’s daughter, ready to murder, telekinetically throw objects, vomits pea soup, spin heads, engages delightfully in blasphemous talk, and just generally give everyone a bad time. Sure, the possessed Regan will never become the ruler of the underworld, as she seems confined to her room, but things still get plenty rough.
Pazuzu is a reservoir of weirdness, too, initially referring to itself as “Captain Howdy.” It’s hard to know what it all means. There are some bizarre, cryptid clues scattered throughout “The Exorcist.” In the beginning, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) found an amulet resembling the demon, signifying an omen.
However, it’s never blatantly revealed what was used to lure or summon Pazuzu into the MacNeil home. The demon tricked her into the abyss? Also during the movie itself, the name “Pazuzu” never seems to be mentioned, nor do we get some opening scene with a fiery escape from hell. We’re left guessing about the destructive, Satanic forces at work, which might help the film succeed.
Had “The Exorcist” bogged itself in details related to, say, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, it would seem like an entirely different movie. It could have been a deeper philosophic work, questioning everything from “sin” to issues within male-dominated societies. However, a lot of these religious issues are simply channeled through Father/Dr. Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who’s having problems accepting traditionally understood Catholicism. He could be said to most closely parallel modern traditions, where contradictions in belief systems either get smoothed over or lead to loss of faith. Oh, and he also gets puked on by a demon. Let’s not forget that crucial plot point!
The Wicker Man (1973)
Asks: “Can Sacrifice Grow Bountiful, Superpowered Crops?”
Every list has to have an entry that bends the rules a bit, as this story’s supernaturalism is more about belief. Enter Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man,” where a mysterious island full of people believe in a certain kind of supernatural power. Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) shows up on Summerisle island investigating the disappearance of a girl named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). The more Howie learns, the less he likes the island and its inhabitants (to say the least).
Long story short, they believe that, if the fruit trees are beginning to grow, it might be attributable to some sort of sacrifice. What sort of sacrifice? Well, one that’s potentially against any non-Celtic visitors to the island. As the story moves along, you’ll find the poor Seargeant pressured to turn his back on his own faith. Meanwhile, who is the mysterious man who calls himself the Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee)?
Has Telekinetic Superpowers
Even today, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” is one of the most iconic Stephen King adaptations, being ranked 86th on Empire’s list of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Many people know about this film, so it’s hardly a spoiler to discuss the telekinetic powers of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). When audiences first realized Carrie’s talents, it no doubt sent chills up their spines. With her being intensely bullied at school, there’s already a sense that she could lash out at any point.
At the same time, Carrie’s mom, Margaret (Piper Laurie), threatens to give single mothers a bad name. Always ready for a religious fanatical frenzy, Margaret’s many fears about how to raise her daughter help drive Carrie straight over the edge. Quite simply, she doesn’t know anything about the responsibilities of motherhood, probably viewing changing diapers and feeding her as a baby like sinful deeds.
Just as freaky, she obviously needs Carrie to take after her mommy…or else. Carrie’s friends are few and far between, and it all leads up to a signature moment that transforms a nervous high schooler into a force of destruction. In terms of casting, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were absolutely the right people to play their respective roles. “Carrie” may not be the greatest Stephen King adaptation, and certainly not the scariest film of all time, but it hits plenty of correct notes and remains an interesting story.
Has Almost All the Superpowers In the Book!
Richard Donner’s “Superman” demonstrates a lot of bizarre powers, and not just from Superman / Kal-El (Christopher Reeve). His father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando), helps reveal the fantastical world of Krypton. We also briefly see General Zod (Terence Stamp), Non (Jack O’Halloran), and Ursa (Sarah Douglas) get oddly banished to the so-called “Phantom Zone” for their vague crimes (they later return in the sequel).
Anyway, because Krypton’s about to be destroyed by a red supergiant sun, baby Kal-El is shipped off to earth, where he promptly meets his adoptive parents, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). After moments of relative normalcy, Clark Kent receives weird signals to head to the Arctic to build his “Fortress of Solitude.” In the DC Universe, Superman represents some of the most starkly heroic qualities imaginable, presumably being willing to sacrifice his life to save the planet.
Of course, this sense of sacrifice/danger is hidden under his near-endless supply of superpowers (strength, speed, flight, stamina, x-ray vision, heat-ray vision, wind and freeze breath, super senses, etc.) At most, we expect Superman to be temporarily deterred from his life-long quest of living for others. On that note, humans are lucky that Kal-El’s on their side, lest they someday face a dire fate.
A “dark Superman” doesn’t really exist in this film (unless you see Zod in that way), but you can find a similar character on Amazon’s “The Boys,” where Antony Starr plays the Superman-like “Homelander.” Still, Superman is scarily tough. Realistically, your life would be a mere pebble in his grasp. If he wanted, he could destroy you with one fiery whisper of a moment.
The original Superman film features Gene Hackman as the dastardly Lex Luthor, who at no point seems ready, willing, or able to be rehabilitated. In fact, what would happen if Clark refuses to save his city, Earth, from someone like Lex? Luthor seems willing to destroy the sun because he doesn’t want a tan. Luthor’s only advantage is his knowledge of Superman’s weakness: Kryptonite.
The Shining (1980)
Has a Haunted House with Evil Superpowers and Guests with Psychic Superpowers
As Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” takes us through its main character’s tortured minds, it ventures through several years’ worth of vague, frightening ghost stories, from the ballroom that particularly haunts Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) to the mysterious Room 237.
Basically, the Overlook Hotel is a shadow world inhabited by spirits, which has become a psychological “battering ram” for visitors like Jack, who are sucked into the unknown madness. Yes, the supernatural powers here won’t just swiftly leave you dead on the floor. They like to play with their proverbial food first. Jack’s son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), and hotel chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) also have psychic powers, but they are barely any kind of match for the madness that unfolds at the Overlook, or that of Jack.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
and Its Werewolf Curse Superpowers
So many special effects are not looking good nowadays, despite all these advanced CG technologies. The John Landis classic, “An American Werewolf in London,” never had that problem because practical effects are a key component of what brings its werewolf transformations to life. Poor David Kessler (David Naughton) appears to go through hell when he transforms, and we’re right there with him, but in the most entertaining way. Yes, we’re calling a werewolf curse a supernatural superpower here. Hey, did we say the powers had to be 100% voluntary?
Interestingly enough, part of “An American Werewolf in London” is a love story, as well as a story of friendship, and there are even elements of police investigation (though we see the evidence being created firsthand, in some rather gruesome attack scenes). And it all stems from an incident involving two American backpackers, David and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who set out at night and fail to stay on the main road. A possible lesson: Don’t be tourists in a remote area. Or, if you do, heed the advice of local weirdos, especially if they’re in a serious pub like the Slaughtered Lamb. If they warn you about supernatural threats, they might mean business.
Of course, part of a werewolf curse is that generally speaking, the person who transforms is also a victim. They usually cannot control themselves when it happens. They might be looking at loved ones as potential casualties. So if you wish to spare your immediate companions the risk of becoming fatalities, try to avoid werewolf bites, okay? If you can, stay inside when the moon is full. Even aside from werewolf risk, they say people get nuttier during full moons.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Introduces Demonic “Deadite” Superpowers
Before he was being pulled through time, Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) was just an ordinary guy expected to do ordinary things. In fact, Sam Raimi’s original “Evil Dead” film barely has Ash doing any action hero kind of stuff. Really, it seems he’s a survivor here mostly due to luck and a bit of raw grit and determination. In the sequels and subsequent television series, Ash would evolve into a more dynamic, bad-ass character, at times seeming to act according to an unknown force greater than himself. Here he’s just a dork inside the cabin of doom, facing off against demonic powers he can scarcely begin comprehending.
As Ash, Scott, (Richard DeManincor), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Theresa Tilly) find the Necronomicon and stumble into activating its dark powers, we’re left wondering if it’s worth it to visit a cabin, go on a hike through the woods, or listen to tape recordings of cryptic passes again. At any time, these demons — often called Deadites — are ready to climb their ladder our from Hell, and they’ll do it in some very twisted ways. Ash approaches them like a true novice, almost accidentally standing a fighting chance. As the door to the cabin opens, sanity flees that place, never to return (and Deadites regard tortures as one big, humorous joke).
The darkest scene, of course, is the tree assault scene, where branches grab Cheryl and throw her to the ground, physically violating her with some primordial, unconscious evil. She emerges from the woods as a different person, and the story is no longer about two goofballs and a gaggle of pretty girls bringing their duffel bags out to the woods. Never leave home without a Sumerian dagger!
What are your thoughts on these depictions of superpowers? Let us know in the comments!