One of the discussions I periodically have with my fellow superhero film and comic book fan nerds is detecting when Hollywood's drift toward a more confident approach toward serious storytelling within the film genre appears.
I'm going to mark the early development of the superhero film genre in the form that we recognize such films today as beginning in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (see further below). But for most of the time that superhero films have been in existence the most prevalent attitude by the studios stamped upon such movies has been, in a nutshell, "Okay, this is a comic book: so we will adopt a camp, whimsical, and lighthearted approach to telling the story." I suspect this stemmed from older studio executives until even the late 1990s using the 1966 Batman film as their chief frame of reference.
In turn, I would imagine that the strongest influence upon 1966's Batman was the Superman television show staring George Reeves, which had the same "nod and a wink" whimsical approach that such a story is not to be taken seriously because it's from a comic book.
Incidentally, the Superman television series was produced after the 1951 release of Superman and the Mole Men, which like the TV series also featured George Reeves as Superman and Phyllis Coates and Lois Lane.
It seems clear enough that this sort of entertainment was based on the premise that the audience was primarily children. Parents who took their kids to the theater from 1951-1966 might also have a fond nostalgia for the comics from their own childhood (Superman and Batman comics had been around since circa 1939-1940). Many of those parents were also born in the 1920s and their fantastic childhood heroes were from movie serials if not comic books and the pulp magazines. But anyway, the attitude seems to be that you were an adult, so it would be embarrassing to admit enjoyment of the comic book 'mythos' other than in a kind of spoofy way, i.e., that pokes fun at it. Perhaps making fun of the source material was intended to provide some cover for enjoying something so childish.
Not for nothing, I remember as a child when the Batman television show appeared being very conflicted that on the one hand, I was excited at simply seeing Batman and Robin on TV, but on the other hand being annoyed that they had used the characters to make a comedy! Overall, it was a letdown for sure.
I have not seen all the superhero films that were released following Batman (1966) through the 1970s. But it seems that they were relatively low budget television films.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
It was with Richard Donner's 1978's Superman (aka Superman: The Movie) that moviegoers were for the first time treated to a big budget major studio production superhero film that was targeted at adults.
Superman's origin is told as a dramatic story, of course featuring plenty of excitement that we would associate with any other sort of escapist entertainment from other action genres. The dichotomy of Clark versus Superman is well told and superbly acted by Christopher Reeve. The love story between Superman and Lois is particularly endearing. Finally a superhero film for adults!
The storytelling approach did have a lighthearted touch, however. The film itself, on the whole, inspires a kind of buoyant enthusiasm for the hero and what he is all about as a character. (A tag line for a poster for the film was "You'll believe a man can fly.") But it is specifically in the treatment of the film's villains, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), Otis (Ned Beatty--and what the hell happened here?), and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) that a camp element is introduced. Otherwise the story stands on its own dramatically without resorting to campiness (perhaps with exception of Marlon Brando's God-ish Jor-El "my only son" speech which plays up Brando's grandiose persona). This is simply to note that the villains are portrayed in a largely whimsical way, with comic flourishes. Seemingly a standard is set by this, and an obligatory use of campy villains becomes a convention that continues all the way to the late 1990s.
The next landmark film in this direction of a confident approach to serious storytelling is Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. Who would have thought that Burton could produce a relatively straightforward action film? Yet he did, and it was a fine film.
Our focus here is on relatively serious dramatic storytelling versus campiness. Batman's story is told straightforwardly from a dramatic standpoint--and like Superman (1978) did, doing a very good job of emphasizing the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman. It is fair to say, I think, that although the Joker is without a doubt given a comedic flair, that is driven by the psychological nature of the character and Nicholson's ability to creatively use an offbeat style of humor. So the humor stems more from a creative acting performance than a sense that the audience expects and wants the villain to be camp (according to convention).
And yet we still have a strong humorous undertone to the villain, nevertheless. He is to some extent an homage to the 1960's Caesar Romero Joker. Nicholson plays the role with aplomb, of course. And the film updates the character with some deliciously cynical satire about television's preoccupation with physical attractiveness, and mass marketing, and so forth. Anyway, this characterization does essentially give us a truly remarkable, menacing, and dramatically complex villain.
Unfortunately, what follows for subsequent Batman and Superman films of that era is a return to the camp villain. Each of the series hit their nadirs, respectively, with 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and 1997's Batman and Robin--both of which were debacles that went far beyond just having villains that were either downright silly and/or posed no real sense of threat dramatically.
Best I can see (and please share in the comments if you think I have missed something here), the first superhero film to completely have the confidence to make a picture that doesn't feel compelled to apologize in some way for using a comic book source, is 1998's Blade, directed by Steven Norrington.
This film makes no apologies about the genre it belongs to, and takes no prisoners in its approach. It says: Yes, this is a comic book character, and yes this is going to be a kick ass action film--and with a villain that you could actually feel terrified of if it was real. The film performed quite well at the box office even though it got panned for the most part by the critics. Interestingly, Blade did not enter the mainstream consciousness for the superhero film genre. Perhaps this was due to the hero not being relatively unknown by the general public, and perhaps not as relatable a figure as Batman and Superman... maybe in part because the hero is African American... and I would guess most of all because it belongs also to the horror genre (perhaps making it too much of an odd duck). But it did solidify an approach to telling the story that was confident about dropping "spoofy" elements.
And finally we have the first X-Men (2000) film. Here again we saw an approach that actually uses superheroes to tell a fantastic story that is more like a good novel, with characters driven by serious challenges and issues.
The main villain Magneto has just a slight hint of 'mwahaha' campiness to him. But in the same sense that Nicholson's Joker may be forgiven, so my this characterization of Eric Lensherr (aka Magneto). It is to my eye essentially Ian McKellen having a bit of fun--and he is just so great at the character, that it basically slips by without notice.
It is clear by now that the main audience is adults (in the 18-36 year old demographic) , and it is made for a theater-goer who wants the film to take its subject matter seriously in terms of craft.
After this film we see continued development of X-men, the Spider-Man series, and the Nolan trilogy. Hellboy in 2004 is on par with the films we see today. And then of course in 2008 Iron-Man begins what we now have in the current explosion of high quality film-making (and fairly sophisticated story-telling) for superhero films. It is even at the point now that Zack Snyder has said that his intention is to tell more humanly relatable and realistic feeling stories using superheroes.
Some Examples of Films Caught in Limbo During the Transition (Mid 90s to Early 00s)
The Crow (1994)
The Crow tries to take a serious approach to storytelling. It reflects a youth fascination with Goth at the time (as the graphic novel does), but I do think it wants to do it justice as serious cinematic art. In a number of respects it nearly succeeds but for its pair of horrendously exaggerated villains (who appear to be devil worshipers).
This is a classic example of trying to make the villains so tremendously evil that they're just too much.
The Phantom (1996)
This is a modest and, unfortunately, really not very good film that aims at trying to capture the appeal that Raiders of the Lost Ark so brilliantly achieved in harking back to the 1940s adventure serials. It is based on the comic strip of the same name that began in the 1930s and (I was surprised to learn) still runs to this day in the Sunday funny papers. The film fails pretty miserably but it does attempt to remain true to its comic strip origins. It features a very low key but still oddly engaging performance by Billy Zane. The villains aren't hugely over-the-top in their evilness, and actually don't seem all that far off from in spirit to the feel of the comic strip. The picture wants to move in the direction of telling a good old fashioned adventure yarn from days past (somewhat like 1991's Rocketeer) but the effort is half-hearted. This film is a bit tough to fit into the schema of serious storytelling, because it has relatively unusual aims. The Phantom does seem to try in its own way to seriously adopt a particular cinematic style toward telling an adventure story, and it isn't an overt "spoof." However the type of storytelling that it uses as a basis is fundamentally 'corny' to begin with. It does not succeed in recreating/updating the 40's serial excitement as Raiders of the Lost Ark did, that's for sure! It lacks conviction (and execution) in that effort.
It is a shame that 2003's Daredevil was late to the party regarding the shift away from campy villains beginning in around 1998-2000. And I'm talking about the Director's Cut, mind you.
I know many fans loathe this film (many of whom are also probably Affleck haters, is my guess). But imvho there are actually more things to like about it than hate. And while the film is anything but perfect, for the most part I actually really liked it overall--with the main, glaring exception of an absolutely cringe-worthy, over-the-top performance of Bullseye by Colin Farrell. (To some extent Michael Duncan Clark's Kingpin suffers a bit from the same treatment, but that performance manages to escape tumbling into the abyss in the way that Bullseye did.)
I don't blame Farrell for this, as I will assume that he was directed to play the character that way. It was still during a transition period in which studios were beginning to get that goofy villains were not at all obligatory in superhero pictures--and indeed, that they were actually not only unnecessary but downright harmful to the film.
Ben Affleck has commented that the studio apparently had no interest in trying to make Daredevil a good film, implying that they basically just slapped it together. (Again, even so, I still find it enjoyable in a lot of ways.) But in any case, I do think Daredevil serves as an interesting film to watch regarding the sort of evolution that I'm talking about here in this article. It is kind of a transitional film that shows the trend toward a more serious approach to the subject matter, and can't yet tear itself away from the trope of a corny villain. Read my full analysis of the film here.
Okay, anyway that's the basic thesis. I'm curious to hear your feedback.
In many respects, how serious the dramatic approach is to storytelling overall in a superhero film can be measured by how truly dark and menacing its depiction of the villain. Hollywood has shown an ambivalence towards how seriously to treat its villains. It has shown a tendency to typically make them camp rather than scary.
One of the reasons Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) is so highly praised critically is that it gives us truly frightening, creepy, and deranged psychopath of a villain. Now that said, it is my opinion that the public would burn out quickly if all superhero villains were stamped from a similar mold. But the point is that Ledger's Joker is a villain that feels compelling as an actual threat. A real sense of menace can still be imparted with wildly fantastic villains. Most comic book villains are fanciful and outlandish. It's the nature of the source material. But that doesn't mean that they can't be taken seriously as threats. Tom Hiddleston's brilliant Loki is an excellent example of a fantastic comic book character that feels truly menacing.
A Few Final Thoughts
In closing I will add that Superhero films will always fundamentally be an escapist form of entertainment, in the same way that we enjoy any other escapist genre. We enjoy action, science fiction, and fantasy (and in the past westerns, gangster films, war movies, etc.) in order to lose ourselves for a couple hours in a fictional world. None of that need be lost when a film tells a story from a more serious dramatic film-making standpoint. In fact, for many, if not most, it serves to enhance the overall experience of the film. If a sophisticated approach to storytelling helps engage us more in the story, and works toward providing greater 'willing suspension of disbelief', then chances are we're probably going to get even more enjoyment from the movie.