Essay: The Evolution of Superhero Movies

The last decade has seen an explosive rise in popularity of the so-called ‘Superhero’ genre, from B-movie experiments, to big budget summer events. No longer relegated to the role of niche appeal schedule filler, and thanks to some truly commendable risk, vision and commitment from contemporary filmmakers, the Superhero genre has went from being a Hollywood footnote, to breaking sales records in a relatively short space of time.

The genre’s roots could be argued to start in 1978 with Richard Donner’s highly successful ‘Superman’– fitting, and perhaps not surprising that the first superhero movie should be based on the first and most iconic superhero ever conceived. The evolution of the genre was unfortunately marred by a string of sequels each less successful than the last. It would take another 10 years, with the release of Tim Burton’s cult classic ‘Batman’ in 1989 to revitalise the genre.

However, despite some early successes it would still take another decade for the genre to gather steam in Hollywood. The early nineties saw a few tentative steps taken with low budget movies based on lesser known characters such as The Flash’ and ‘Captain America’. But without the conviction of the filmmakers to accurately portray the source material, nor the budgets to match the action and intensity of the comic books, these were largely ignored by all but the most dedicated fans. Titles such as ‘The Phantom’, ‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘The Shadow’ were enjoyable, if forgettable forays into the pulp genre of early 20th century comics, while films such as ‘Spawn’ and ‘Blade’ experimented with more violent, adult orientated material, resulting in slightly better performance in cinemas.

   

The release of Bryan Singer’s ‘X Men’ in 2000 marked a watershed where the genre started to be taken more seriously, and after the phenomenal success of Sam Raimi’s ‘Spiderman’ in 2002 movie studios were eager to buy up any comic book licenses they could get their hands on, with each subsequent year playing host to several titles of varying quality.

Occurring around the same time was the proliferation of the 12A certificate rating- Many movies, even sequels to 18-rated franchises such as the ‘Blade’ and ‘Terminator’ series were toned down considerably to appeal to the young teenage crowd eager to part with their cash in the Summer blockbuster season.

In 2008 Marvel, the publisher of such comic titles as ‘Spiderman’, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’ started an ambitious and unprecedented campaign to produce films that all existed in the same universe, and would ultimately converge in the recently released ‘Avengers Assemble’. Still in theatres, the long awaited Avengers movie has opened to the largest opening weekend box office takings in history.

The last couple of years have also seen a peculiar deviation of the genre in the indie sector. With lower budgets requiring more inventive ways of telling the typical superhero story, films such as ‘Defendor’ and Super’ have been fascinating character studies and a harsh wake up call to the violent reality of every geek’s fantasy of dressing up and fighting crime in the real world.
   

Why are they so popular now?

So how exactly did the superhero genre become so popular, and why now? It would be easy to assume that Hollywood – an industry more concerned with risk free profit than artistic integrity – is simply adapting any intellectual property already consigned to print rather than taking a gamble on something new. Take for example current trends of splitting single books into two movies to double the ticket sales, or buying the rights to whichever teenage book series happens to be selling most this week in hopes of producing the next ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’ saga.

However, the truth is that the genre was popularised by something much more powerful than the Hollywood executives- the Internet. The ability to broadcast even the tiniest bit of news instantaneously from both amateur and professional news outlets alike is a vital source of marketing and publicity.

A generational shift is also significantly responsible for the current abundance of comic book related films. It’s no surprise that popular culture is dominated by the so called ‘geek chic’. For the first time in history, the kids who were buying comics and playing videogames are now the guys making films; the kids who were watching Saturday morning cartoons in the early nineties are the new wave of internet journalists and cinemagoers, fuelling the machine that makes these films so popular, and so appealing to the execs in Hollywood. The superhero movie is the contemporary equivalent of the westerns and the war movies that proliferated in the mid 20th century.

The problems with translation.

As said before, early film experiments with comic book characters often failed due to inhibiting small budgets, or too much deviation from the source material. However, a greater obstacle could come from sticking too closely to it. Comic books have long been criticised for creating an impenetrable continuity, often spanning decades of stories and crossover between titles. Combined with rampant ‘ret-conning’ (rebooting or changing a characters history) made this even more problematic, and is to this day a barrier preventing many people from entering and enjoying comic book fiction. That Marvel attempted to include a continuity, albeit simpler and more forgiving to newcomers in its current crop of film releases was a huge gamble, particularly with films such as ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Thor’ – characters largely unknown to the general public. These could easily have been box office failures in the hands of less caring producers.

One of the most prominent examples of a poorly handled adaptation was Joel Schumachers ‘Batman and Robin’ in 1997. Replacing the dark gritty tone associated with the Batman character, with a campy, neon aesthetic turned out to be catasptrophic- the film receiving 11 nominations in the 1997 Razzie Awards for terrible movies. Poor casting decisions and a weak script also contributed to the Batman franchise being put on hold for almost 10 years until Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ would bring the character to unprecedented cinematic heights in 2005.

   

What does the future hold?

After over thirty years of experimentation, successes and failures the superhero movie genre has never been stronger.  Nolan’s current Batman series brought the genre from summer action fare to Oscar winning critical acclaim, meanwhile 2012’s ‘Chronicle’ was a highly successful mash up of the superhero and found footage genres proving that there is still plenty of creativity and originality to be tapped into in the coming years.

The dominance of the internet as a form of communication and expression has allowed comic books to become as influential in popular culture as the television set. A quick search on Youtube will even unearth a surprising number of self proclaimed real life superheroes- inspired or perhaps deluded by Hollywood romanticism and the current phenomenon of internet celebrity status.

How much longer before the bubble bursts and we get sick paying to see lone men and women take on entire armies of oddly dresses goons, or before someone tries to mimic their on screen counterparts and ends up paying dearly for it remains to be seen.

But until then one thing’s for sure – today the geeks have inherited the earth.

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