In the beginning, there were heroes and then… superheroes. For centuries, myths and legends of men of extraordinary valor were told and written as a reminder of the existence of humanity among gods and to prove that humans could reach higher heights, at any cost. Today, not many children would want to play being Achilles or Ulysses. Instead, Superman or Batman are more appealing to them. But, is there a big difference between those figures?
If the heel is the weakness of Achilles, Superman has kryptonite. Who could have said that two seemingly insignificant things might be such a threat to those omnipotent characters? Then, we have a man and his unalterable will to go back home, fighting barehanded against man and gods. His superpower? He is cunning. Ulysses is cunning enough to cheat a Cyclops and face off the god’s wrath and survive. Is it that Batman defeats his enemies (and even Superman) with all his gadgets or is it because he is cunning? Up to this point something is clear: heroes and superheroes are all part of the same group. They belonged to myths and legends of men and no matter if they come from a comic or literary source, their stories are timeless, the absolute proof that a hero has become a legend.
Back in time, comics were written and draw for children and as they matured, comics did as well. See for example Captain America and his anti-nazi propaganda during wartime. It is no coincidence that as soon as the conflict ended, Captain America was forgotten too. And then we see another jump in comics when those started dealing with problems in society, both economic and social issues for equal. Towards the 80’s, Watchmen, for instance, is the break point and Frank Miller’s job defined the way that comic characters needed to follow if they were to succeed. Writers and cartoonists understood something: they needed to reinvent themselves. Comic books were then not for children anymore. If the world changed, they needed to change as well.
Nowadays, talk about superhero movies is just as normal as to address any other film but in the 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s few studios would dare to invest in a superhero film. Superman and its first two entries are the first precedent of fully realized projects, if we allow ourselves to forget Superman III and IV, being the version of Richard Donner one of the most definitive in the annals of the new born superhero genre. Then Tim Burton and his dark, in color, Batman proved that if a superhero film was carefully executed and understood, then a product like Batman Returns might be as powerful as any of the new superhero movies, and even better. Nonetheless, superheroes were far beyond of being considered a profitable enterprise. And then there came gigantic failures like Batman and Robin and Batman Forever. Those let downs were enough for studios, not even Warner, to consider make another superhero film for a while. So the time passed and when superhero films seemed to be buried, Bryan Singer, without knowing or even planning it, changed everything. A new century had come and a new genre was about to emerge.
For many, when an X-Men film was announced, it was a terrible mistake to even try making a movie about the much beloved mutants but Singer proved us all to be wrong. His X-Men film remains as one of the seminal works in the genre. The X-Men film takes all the comic aspects and the actors on screen, most of the time, fulfill the roles they were assigned to, especially the unknown Hugh Jackman. Moreover, one characteristic of the X-Men films, putting aside the spin-offs, is that they exercise with the tension between normal people and mutants, a fine commentary on the racial theme and how politics contribute to either soften or aggravate the issue. But the films never lost track of what they are and what they are aiming for: entertain.
By the time Sam Raimi and his first Spiderman film broke every box-office record in 2002, major studios felt that maybe time had come to revive the superhero movies. Following the success of Raimi and Singer, films like Catwoman, Punisher of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen saw the light to quickly fall into the abyss of oblivion. Nobody wants to remember bad things in life and those movies are an example. And just when studios felt that they had found the gold of the Treasure Island, 2006 saw Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand fail on screen. Nevertheless, a year before a low-profile director named Christopher Nolan had presented a fresh new version of Batman and the key to his success was “simple”: ground the character in reality and make it dark, visceral and plausible.
Finally, 2008 came and two opposite superhero movies debuted and cinema changed, forever. The Dark Knight and Iron Man are the stones in which the superhero genre is cemented. Nolan made a thriller disguised in a superhero costume and Jon Favreau’s vision of Iron Man immediately made us recall the comic books. While Iron Man simply play with the idea of being a superhero, by using fantasy and adventure, The Dark Knight signifies itself by attempting a portrayal of a world in chaos and collapsing institutions and, more important, the role that society plays and how it reacts to those. If Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the landmark of the superhero genre (if we consider The Dark Knight Rises the be only of the three that makes a more extensive use of the fantastic elements of the comics) then Marvel movies kept on dealing with the source material… until Phase 2.
At some point in between the release of The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers, Kevin Feige said in an interview that Marvel movies were not by any means looking forward Nolan style, dark and gritty. If comic books evolve to survive, movies should do as well. The major change we can see in Marvel movies is how those softly attempt to be dark and enigmatic. The Dark World is radically different of what we saw in Thor not to mention that The Winter Soldier is opposite to Captain America: The First Avenger. Captain America and The Winter Soldier are the best example of how Marvel movies more forward by understanding themselves first. Jon Johnstone film is everything Captain America was in the comic books when it first appeared. He was a good man trying to do what its best for his country, even scarifying himself. After WWI and WWII America changed so did Captain America. In the Winter Soldier, Steve Rodgers sees a world that won the war against oppression but never knew what it lost. Still, Rodgers remained faithful to his values and beliefs. If the world changes, for worse, we need to remember who we were. The two Captain America movies deal with changes and how those affect the individual. For the first time we can see the evolution of a comic character on screen that is not the Batman of Christopher Nolan. What is more, The Winter Soldier is the only Marvel movie that without the fantastic elements remains a solid, in its case a thriller, much alike The Dark Knight.
If the first superhero movies up until 2005 can be considered to be the Golden Age of the superheroes on screen, today we are in the beginning of the Silver Age and it is long way to go before the superhero genre gets exhausted. What in the beginning were movies for children and comic book fans, today superhero movies are for everyone and audience is constantly looking for something new. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy deals with family and social relationships and how those affect the individual, for instance. The Superhero Genre came to stay and as long as there are director like Nolan, Whedon, Gunn or Singer, willing to explore the infinite possibilities that comic book characters offer is safe to say we will have every once in a while an Iron Man, a Dark Knight or an X-Men one.
In the beginning it was ink and pen, then film and camera. From comic stripes to movies, and from within as well, superheroes will evolve but one thing is for sure: their stories will remain timeless.