Weekly Geeky Question #33: Modern Superhero Epic Movie History

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #33, and this week’s question is again about comic books and superheroes:

How did we get to the modern superhero movie?


Recently I’ve had more than one conversation with friends and relatives about how we got to the modern superhero film…what are the significant films over the last few decades that have helped develop this now-very popular genre?

Rod wasn’t sure what question to ask this week, but when he heard I was working on a post to sum up my thoughts on this, he asked me to do it for this column. So here goes…

Superman, the Movie (1978)

Directed by Richard Donner

In my lifetime, Superman, the Movie is where superhero films began.  Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind got this production rolling, and got risk-taking but reliable director Richard Donner on board.  Donner took “verisimilitude” as his watch-word over the project, and produced something that while a bit silly by modern standards, treated the material with more of a respectful touch than anyone would have imagined. Christopher Reeve was pitch-perfect in the double role of the Clark Kent & Superman of the time.

Superman the Movie was the first film to use a recognizable superhero as the centre of a big, special effects-driven Hollywood blockbuster in the era that followed on after Star Wars.  However, it wasn’t really the start of any sort of “superhero film movement”, like we’ve got today.  It more just introduced audiences at the time to the concept–we were still ages away from imagining that any of the more obscure characters we have today were going to get the silver screen treatment.

Batman (1989)

Directed by Tim Burton

Superman the Movie had a number of sequels of varying quality before the series petered out, with the lamentable Superman IV:  The Quest for Peace coming out in 1987.  However, superhero films received another shot in the arm a couple of years later with Batman, made by the master of the dark absurdist comedy, Tim Burton.  In a lot of ways, Batman created the template for the “modern” superhero movie.  It’s a giant style-over-substance spectacle that spawned a lot of pre-internet fan interest and controversy (“Michael Keaton, from Mr. Mom, as Batman??!”).  It deliberately broke away from the pop-culture image of Batman at the time–the Pow! Bam! Biff! era of Adam West was still in people’s minds–and presented a hero was nearly as dark and disturbed as his enemies, but was still a good guy.  It also introduced the trend of many superhero films to take the skin-tight costuming of the heroes and turn it into a bulky high-tech weaponized mass…an effort, presumably, to make the characters more “believable”.

However, even though Batman created that template for superhero films, it didn’t actually spawn a whole lot of other films featuring recognizable superheros–at least aside from its own sequels, which petered out in 1997 with the abysmal Batman & Robin.  Thus it was that when the next major mainstream superhero movie hit in 2000, it didn’t at all feel inevitable.

X-Men (2000)

Directed by Bryan Singer

After all the lurching starts through the 80’s and the 90’s, the current comic book movie genre kicks off properly in 200o with Bryan Singer’s X-Men.  And yet, at the same time, X-Men doesn’t seem to be completely comfortable in its own skin as a movie actually about superheros.  It is at its best when dealing with the grim and murky world of outsiders like Wolverine, Rogue and Magneto.  In particular, it helped launch the career of Hugh Jackman, whose performance as Wolverine was a highlight. It gets decidedly more awkward when the flashier powers of Cyclops and Storm show up, and stubbornly resists anything that would actually make them look like superheroes.  Still, it was a big, special-effects laden blockbuster based on one of the most popular superhero comics out there at the time, and it spawned its own franchise (and ultimately, shared cinematic universe) that is still ongoing today…so it definitely is a contender for the first modern day superhero film.


Spider-Man (2002)

Directed by Sam Raimi

X-Men did it first, but Spider-Man did it bigger and brighter.  This blockbuster by director Sam Raimi fully embraced its superhero identity, sporting a comic-accurate origin story, characterization and power-set (albeit with organic web-shooters).  Spider-Man was a character who, prior to his movie, was much more in the average public consciousness than any of the X-Men were, so there was something genuinely exciting about seeing such a popular character given such a classic treatment in such a big film–really, the first time we’d seen anything quite like that since Superman the Movie.  Tobey Maguire played an unashamedly nerdy Peter Parker alongside the swashbuckling Spider-Man, whose costume-style is refreshingly similar to the comic book concept, although his enemy the Green Goblin still falls victim to the trope of “turning a cloth costume into a suit of armor” that I mentioned earlier, to terrible effect.

Now, in the wake of the popularity of X-Men, Spider-Man and their sequels (both movies have Part 2’s which are better than the original), there were a whole bunch of other superhero films that were made, which were mostly pretty lame.  I’m thinking Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003), Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006)…not to mention the genuinely abysmal Catwoman by Pitof, from 2004.  However, amongst all of that, there was one film that stood head and shoulders above all the others, and is our next major stop on the evolution of the modern superhero film…

Batman Begins (2005)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Back in 2005, Christopher Nolan wasn’t quite one of the best American filmmakers of his generation and a master of the twisty psychological drama that we know him to be today.  Rather, he was just a guy who had impressed with a few films, especially the innovative Memento.  But Batman Begins brought him firmly into the public consciousness, with an impressive re-telling of Batman’s origins.  Really, this is the first (and last?) movie that was genuinely about Batman as a character, and not just using the concept to tell the story of some twisted and disturbed villain.  It kept the mechanized Batsuit concept introduced by Tim Burton 16 years earlier, but removed the more staged and cartoonishly weird elements in exchange for a visceral, immediate style of action and movement.  It’s common to refer to Nolan’s work as “gritty” or “grounded in reality”, which I think is a poor choice of words.  Really, I think what he did was pay attention to a realistic psychology for the main character, and to give all of the action an intense but natural feel.  The impact upon the meta-story of superhero films is that Batman Begins showed us just how good these movies could be, particularly when a director had his act together and was allowed to pursue his unique vision.  Nolan was not the first director to do this–maybe that honor goes to Tim Burton.  But in Nolan’s case, he didn’t position a character like Batman in some weird, darkly-comic subculture, but rather he placed him firmly in the midst of mainstream storytelling, and thus made an indelible mark on the superhero movie landscape to this day.

Three years later, two movies came out the same year which represent the completion of our journey.

Iron Man (2008)

Directed by Jon Favreau

The Dark Knight (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

It’s not too much to say that 2008 was the year where everything that had been going on superhero movies in the last decade reached its fruition.  Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was the first movie produced by Marvel Entertainment as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It was a standalone film featuring a character that was not widely known at the time, but was performed with such personality by Robert Downey jr. that he instantly became an A-lister.  This whole idea of a shared cinematic universe is something that is pretty common now for big franchises, and this movie and its successors are the reason why.  It showed us that movies could benefit from the same things that comics have for years, which is the cross-pollination of characters and concepts.

Dark Knight

A few months after Iron Man, the sequel to Batman Begins hit the screens.  And if Batman Begins hadn’t convinced us that superhero films couldn’t be artistically strong, then the Dark Knight definitely did so.  Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was deservedly Oscar-caliber, and the shear scope of the story exceeded anything that we’d had up that point.

From here on in, with these two movies and all that had led up to them, comic book superheros were a legit go-to for Hollywood blockbuster material, with the clear potential for both financial and artistic acclaim.

Now, of course it’s not that mainstream superhero movies haven’t continued to develop since then.  But I’d say that what’s happened in the last ten years has mainly tweaked the formula, rather than invented it.  Some of the notable develops since then have occurred in these movies:

The Avengers (2012) – The promise associated with the cinematic universe idea reaches its potential as Marvel’s main movie characters so far all team up in an epic adventure!

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) & Ant-Man (2015) – These two movies, with their financial and artistic success, showed us that really any character could become a star in a well made sci-fi action movie, not just the “popular” ones.

Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice (2016) – If this movie had come out 8 years earlier, it would be a lot more significant than it is, but it’s still notable for being the first live-action team up of the two characters who are basically the two best known superheros ever.  And if we throw Wonder Woman in there, then we could say maybe 3 of the top 5.

Deadpool (2016) & Logan (2017) – These two movies, both part of the “X-Universe” of movies, were both notable for being more or less mainstream comic book movies which deliberately sought out a hard-R rating, full of lots of swearing, violence, and other explicit content.  And they both achieved financial and critical success.  1989’s Batman had already done a lot to establish superhero films as not being just for kids anymore, but these two movies cemented that idea.

Wonder Woman (2017) & Black Panther (2018) – Wonder Woman was a good movie that fell off a bit at the end, and Black Panther was a decent but overrated movie with an usual amount of stupid laced throughout.  But both of these films made a lot of press for featuring marginalized groups–women and black people–in lead roles and treating them just as strongly as white men usually are.  I don’t include them on this list for exactly that reason, but for the fact that they demonstrate how the superhero genre had become so mainstream–the fact that women and black people have lead roles in such movies was seen–by some anyway–as a really big deal, and not just as an interesting bit of trivia.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – One step beyond The Avengers in terms of the potential of a cinematic universe.  Infinity War was the first half (presumably) of the climax of a story which had run in fits and starts over eighteen previous movies, and featured about a dozen characters who had had starring roles in those earlier projects.  Nothing like that has ever been done before, and with the money they’ve made I can tell you that everybody is hoping to do something like that in the future.





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