ByJames Buxton, writer at
Professional Nerf Herder. Twitter: @JayDBux
James Buxton

The superhero genre has changed over the years. While its origin is debatable, many consider 1966's Batman to be the dawn of the superhero age, with the Superman tetralogy cementing its place in cinema history.

However, the genre hasn't remained static. Effects notwithstanding, superhero films are nothing like they were. Gone are the days of whimsy and campiness, replaced with gritty realism and clever humor. The stakes are now always much higher and the villains darker and more cunning in their plans.

But it wasn't a gradual transition. Over the last 50 years, the superhero genre has evolved and adapted along with the rest of the film industry. But unlike the rest, the changes in the genre can often be pinpointed and be explained by the impact of just one movie.

Over the course of its lifetime, there have been five movies that have significantly changed the face of the superhero genre, each in their own unique way. So, in chronological order, let's pick them apart and see what makes them so different. Just for fun.

1. Batman (1989)

Before Tim Burton brought the Caped Crusader to the screen in 1989, the only superhero movies that existed were all ridiculously colorful and campy and often had very low stakes. Batman changed the game entirely, showing that the genre could be dark and edgy as well as fun. Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker balanced both these aspects and his performance became legendary.

The sequel, Batman Returns, built upon the legacy of the first movie, becoming even darker than its predecessor. Batman and Batman Returns gave the character a new, more brutal persona that followed the comics of the time. During the 1980s, the character of Batman saw a huge overhaul and changed from the over-the-top dancing Adam West-like hero to the dark, brooding vigilante we all recognize today. These two films perfectly captured that transition and paved the way for edgier, more intense subject matters in future movies.

2. Spider-Man (2002)

However, Batman's legacy was not to last. Following the release of the atrocious Batman and Robin in 1997, the superhero movie industry seemed to collapse in on itself. The genre began to stagnate, burdened by a chain of poor quality films that spelled the end of an era. With a few notable exceptions, (the Blade and X-Men franchises) all superhero movies released during the late 1990s and early 2000s were very poor. Then Spider-Man happened.

Despite its obvious practical effects and dated CGI, the first Spider-Man movie still holds up quite well even today. It brought new life into a dying genre, kickstarting a superhero renaissance. Spider-Man was the first really good picture since Tim Burton's Batman movies and its influence can still be seen today. If it hadn't been for the Spider-Man trilogy, chances are Marvel would have never attempted to build a cinematic universe and we would have missed out on so many good films. Spider-Man may not have brought anything original to the table, but without it the genre would have died out years ago.

3. Batman Begins (2005)

Before The Dark Knight Trilogy, superhero films had had no problem in testing the waters when it came to unbelievable scenarios. They were able to be as wild and over-the-top as they wanted and no one would bat an eyelid.

Batman Begins changed the formula again, making sure everything that occurred was well within the bounds of reality. Gone were the laser beams and unrealistic superpowers. Gone were the farfetched origin stories and impractical outfits. The Dark Knight Trilogy, although still existing in the realms of fantasy, felt like it could actually happen. The technology was fathomable and the action was realistic.

Batman Begins and, to a larger extent, The Dark Knight set off a chain reaction in which studios slowly began to abandon the campy, comic book style and opt for a more realistic take on the characters. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man took inspiration from this change, keeping their stories and characters grounded without making it feel like they were limiting themselves.

4. The Avengers (2012)

You all knew it was coming. The biggest event in modern cinema history, the coming together of everyone's favorite heroes, brought in a new era of superhero movies. While Iron Man and Thor had heavily established links between movies, it wasn't until The Avengers exploded onto our screens that the shape of the MCU finally became clear.

Before Marvel took a risk, the idea of an interconnected cinematic universe had never been tried. Sure, franchises could have a ton of sequels and prequels and TV shows, but for every movie released to be directly connected was not a risk many studios were willing to take.

Then the MCU happened and suddenly having a cinematic universe became the next big thing. Now, DC is planning one, FOX has one already and even Star Wars is testing the waters and it's all because Marvel took that first step. If The Avengers had never happened, chances are we wouldn't be getting a Justice League movie or a handful of Star Wars anthology movies any time soon. No matter where your superhero allegiance lies, you can't deny that Marvel saved the day this time around.

5. Deadpool (2016)

Now technically I am cheating for this last one as Deadpool hasn't even been released yet. But regardless of its critical reception, this movie is going to turn the entire genre on its head. In a world where rumors of superhero fatigue is floating around and even the fans are fearing that it may have gone on too long, enter Deadpool.

As a hard R-rated superhero movie, something that we haven't had in a long time, Deadpool plans to take everything you thought you knew about superhero movies, set it on fire and chuck it out a window. Not only is Deadpool insane, he's also not a straight up hero. When even the morally grey superheroes like Ant-Man and Green Arrow pale in comparison, you know you're onto a winner.

Deadpool is going to hit theaters in February of 2016 and promises to bring something new to the table that we haven't seen before. Additionally, Deadpool will be the first addition to the FOX Cinematic Universe that isn't a straight X-Men title, adding a little extra flavor on that front as well. While it may not have the publicity of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool promises to be one of, if not the, biggest superhero movie of the year. Let's just hope it lives up to its potential.

What is the definitive superhero movie?
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