It’s Marvel and DC’s world and we’re all living in it. With the upcoming return of Groot and Spidey next summer as well as the teaser trailer for Thor: Ragnarok recently released online, there’s been plenty of discussion and talk about superheroes and their upcoming theatrical releases within the last few months. Of course the genre is at the peak of its popularity, but many people may have forgotten about its humble beginnings. Allow me to take you on a magical ride through the films featuring men and women in capes and tights.
While there were a few superhero flicks here and there before the 70s, the first major film in the genre was the first “Superman” movie in 1978. The film was truly one-of-a-kind, as while audiences saw the Man of Steel on television and in animated shorts before, they never saw the character quite like this. As the most expensive film at the time, “Superman” was one of the biggest films ever in terms of scope, and anyone who was anyone went out to see it, quickly making it the first superhero event movie.
The rest of the decade and the 1980s didn’t necessarily share the same fate. “Superman II” was popular, but wasn’t the cultural smash of its predecessor. The only other major superhero movie to be a hit was Conan the Barbarian as the rest either became later cult hits (“Flash Gordon”) or were notorious critical and financial flops (“The Punisher,” every “Superman” film after the second one). Understandable since “Superman” was a true anomaly in terms of visuals at the time, and studios were still unsure if “Superman” was just a freak accident whose success could never be duplicated. But in 1989, everything changed as DC’s other household character got his own film.
In the summer of 1989, everything changed with the release of “Batman.” Instead of the cheese of the Adam West series, director Tim Burton made a dark and gothic adaptation of the classic comic book character. Much like Superman, “Batman” became a gigantic event, grossing over $250 million in the domestic box office, which was no small feat in 1989, and is still mighty impressive even today.
Unlike Superman, Batman did somewhat usher in a new wave of superheroes, but not quite the heroes people expected. While Batman continued throughout the 90s with “Returns,” “Forever,” and “Batman and Robin,” the rest of the superhero stories were more esoteric compared to the likes of Superman or Spider-Man. The beginning of the decade had the big screen debut of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and two subsequent sequels, with the rest of the slate consisting of characters like the Power Rangers, Tank Girl, Spawn, The Crow, The Shadow and The Phantom. There were even some original heroes like The Rocketeer. Some were successful and some were not, but there was still a decent enough wave of cult hits that the genre still had some decent footing.
Of course the most interesting thing about the 70s, 80s and 90s was Marvel being MIA. There were films produced of Captain America and The Fantastic Four, but the former went Direct-to-Video, and the latter didn’t even get released at all. However, 1998 was the year “Blade” was released. While it wasn’t a megahit like “Batman” or “Superman,” there were still plenty of people who liked the film for its action and Wesley Snipes portraal the titular character. It wasn’t until two years later audiences finally got to see the Marvel heavyweights in action on the big screen.
Thanks to the advancements in computer technology, Marvel finally decided to enter the ring and bring their famous characters to life, beginning with 2000’s “X-Men.” It was a big hit and began a gigantic franchise which is still going strong today, but the film everyone saw was 2002’s “Spider-Man.” After many decades in development hell, the superhero flick became a phenomenon, being the first movie to gross over $100 million in its opening weekend. The result was a superhero boom that’s still going on to this day, with movies like “Daredevil,” “Batman Begins,” “Hellboy,” “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” and many more.
It was through many of these movies, as well as the likes of “Unbreakable,” “The Incredibles” and “Sky High” the superhero movie not only skyrocketed in popularity, but also deconstructed ideas of the superhero mythos, whether it be for drama, comedy or both. As superheroes become more well-known, much of their popularity came from the movies that played it straight, took risks, and looked at the concept in a new light, as shown in “The Dark Knight” and “The Incredibles.”
But in 2008, while millions were gawking at “Dark Knight,” Marvel’s “Iron Man” was released two months later and jumpstarted a new era of superhero films that officially launched in the following decade.
After the success of “Iron Man,” Marvel was fully confident in beginning their ideas for a shared universe where dozens of other superheroes could come together in one franchise and have the ability to crossover and cameo in one another’s films, and even team up in major movies like “The Avengers.” What it created was a huge push towards cinematic universes across all franchises and characters. WB built up their own shared universe with 2013’s “Man of Steel,” although whether these movies are successful depend on how you see the glass. Additionally, FOX has expanded the “X-Men” universe through exploring characters and teams who didn’t get much attention before, like Deadpool and the upcoming New Mutants and X-Force. Now, we are in the world of the shared universe, where studios are now able to make even more gobs of money. So long as you’re a part of a shared universe, you’re pretty much guaranteed to do well. 10 years ago, Guardians of the Galaxy would have just been a cult classic at best. Now, it’s one of the most famous films of the decade, with its sequel releasing next month and is sure to rake in all of the bucks from moviegoers this summer, all thanks to that shared universe connection.
It’s unknown what the future of superhero movies shall be, but it’s a guarantee that almost everyone will be watching it.