“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
-Prof. Charles Xavier, X-Men (2000)
While the majority of the films in the Superhero Genre have come out in the last 10 years, the genre is by no means new. As I have previously mentioned, superheroes starred in serials as far back as the 1940s and there were a few films in the 1950s and 1960s. Still, it was not until 1978 and the release of Richard Donner’s Superman that the Superhero Film was truly born. Since then, there have been two distinct periods during which the Superhero Film developed in new and important ways: the Silver Age of Superhero Films (1978-1999) and the Golden Age of Superhero Films (2000-present). The development of these two Ages is not unlike the way superheroes developed in comic books, and the histories of the two mediums are still very much intertwined.
The release of Superman is one of the most important events in the history of the Superhero Film. It was the first Superhero Film that was not a serial or a TV show spin-off. It was a huge success critically as well as in the box-office, becoming one of the highest grossing films ever at the time. In addition, it set up many of the tropes and traits most commonly associated with the genre, becoming as much of an archetype as Superman himself. The film spawned three sequels and one spin-off, although they were met with a more mixed reception.
Superman serves as the beginning of the Silver Age of Superhero Films. These films were typically light and mostly aimed at younger audiences. They tended to focus more on action than plot or character development. Additionally, the films rarely made an effort to maintain a sense of realism, choosing instead to create more fantastic and stylized worlds.
As the Silver Age of Superhero Films began, the Silver Age of Comic Books was coming to a close. The 1980s saw characters losing their heroic innocence and turning down darker, more serious paths. Heroes of the Modern Age of Comic Books started dealing with more real world issues, such as drug use, racism and permanent character deaths. These new comics were directed at a more mature audience and continued to get darker and darker. Two seminal series, Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1986-87), served as the culmination of the dark trend, blurring the line between hero and villain. This trend continued into the 1990s, with an influx of dark anti-heroes.
The Superman films were a bright contrast to these dark heroes, the tone much more in keeping with the Silver Age comics. By the time the series came to an end, it was verging on the absurd and it came as no surprise when it was announced that plans for Superman V were put on hold. With dark characters becoming more popular in print, it seemed the time was right for a dark hero to come to the big screen, and so in 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman descended on cinemas.
Batman was very different from Superman. A more serious entry in the Superhero Genre than the Superman series (or the previous campy Adam West TV show) it proved that the genre could appeal to adults as well as children. It was a huge financial success, and maintained its title as the highest grossing film based on a DC property until The Dark Knight’s release in 2008. Its highly stylized design, which draws much from German Expressionism, is typically praised, with many of the criticisms stemming from Jack Nicholson’s Joker stealing the show from Michael Keaton’s Batman (an emphasis on the villains over the hero would become a running theme in the series). In addition to spawning three sequels, Batman’s success lead directly to the development of highly-praised Batman: The Animated Series, which itself was responsible for many of the animated superhero TV shows of the 1990s.
While the Batman films dominated the genre in the 1990s, there were a few others, most emulating the dark tone Burton established. However, interest in comic books began to dwindle once more. As the 1990s drew to a close, it looked like the genre was on its last legs once again. Batman & Robin, one of the last entries in the Silver Age of Superhero Films, seemed to have brought the genre full circle, returning to its campy roots and using flashy effects and big name stars to fill seats. DC had tapped out both of its powerhouse characters and fell back into a shameful retreat that lasted almost a decade.
For most of the 20th Century, Marvel had stayed away from putting its characters on the big screen. It was true that Marvel had produced three feature-length films, but none of them actually made it to cinemas. The Punisher (Goldblatt, 1989) was a direct-to-video release, Captain America (Pyun, 1990) became a TV movie, and The Fantastic Four (Sassone, 1994) was only produced so that Fox could retain the rights to the Fantastic Four and never saw the light of day.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Marvel finally tested the waters with Stephen Norrington’s Blade. This dark, violent, R-rated film was a far cry from the campy DC films. Although able to maintain a serious tone throughout, there are still many fantastic elements that make it hard to place the film squarely in either the Silver or the Golden Age. Instead, Blade serves as a transition between the two periods. It is easy to believe that Marvel’s goal in producing the movie was to see whether they could create a Superhero Film that would be taken seriously. Blade is an obvious choice to gauge audience potential, since the inclusion of vampires allows it to incorporate horror and action elements that would attract a wider audience. The success of Blade was enough for Marvel to finally bring its most famous characters to the big screen.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men, released in 2000, was the first movie of the Golden Age of Superhero Films. Staying as far away as it could from the campiness that had characterized the genre for so long, X-Men was able to make a world populated by super-powered mutants seem believable. The movie successfully incorporated the themes of teenage alienation and prejudice that had always played such an important role in the X-Men comics. All of this led to the film’s financial and critical success.
The Golden Age Superhero Films have followed in X-Men’s footsteps. Golden Age characters are usually much more developed than their Silver Age counterparts, often spending just as much time with their masks off as with them on. While still including heavy doses of special effects and action, the settings tend to be more realistic and much less stylized. Compare the two versions of Gotham City below:
Christopher Nolan’s Gotham is much more of a real city, while Burton’s is more of a nightmare. In addition, many Golden Age films spend more time showing superheroes dealing with the military and police (the real crime-and-terrorist-fighters), something that was never emphasized in Silver Age Films. Changes like these brought the Golden Age Superhero Films closer to reality, making the heroes actions more relatable and relevant.
Lately, comic books have been making a push towards realism as well. The 2000s saw the birth of the Ultimate Age of Superhero Comics. Heroes have been slightly weakened or redefined; both DC and Marvel have participated in universe wide retroactive continuity changes to redefine some of their most popular characters. The Age takes its name from Marvel’s new “Ultimate” imprint, the sole purpose of which has been to update old characters for the modern world and create an even more interconnected universe.
There have been over thirty Superhero Films released since X-Men, two thirds of which have been based on Marvel properties. Lately, Marvel has been attempting to create a cohesive universe in their films, similar to their comics, called the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel has only just started to build the MCU through shared actors and plot elements, which will grow during next summer’s films and culminate in The Avengers in 2012.
While they started out as silly, popcorn movies, the Superhero genre has grown to become more serious and lucrative. Some of the biggest movies of the last decade have been Superhero Films and in many ways, we have just begun to see what the genre is capable of.