We, this occasionally ungrateful and entitled generation, are blessed with the ability to live in the renaissance of the Superhero Genre. We take it SO for granted that we are getting amazing characters and iconic storylines on the big screen! Just take a minute and think about that. Most of these superheros are older than most people alive and all that time the readers of these classic stories have been dreaming, wishing, begging for these movies to be made... and all we do is complain about them. That's neither here nor there, though, and not what I want to talk about. This renaissance, this "Golden Age" didn't happen over night. It has been a long and arduous process, having many ups and down, triumphs and failures. Being a short sighted populace, I think it's important to break down how exactly we got to where we are now; how we got to having Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, AND Doctor Strange all come out in one year; how we got to seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, Winter Soldier, Spiderman, War Machine, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Zemo, Black Widow, Falcon, and Black Panther all share the screen.
It wasn't always easy.
We're going to take a look back at 10 different milestones that lead us to this current height of the genre; each from different eras and each for different reasons.
Superman the Movie (1978)
Odds are, you haven't seen this movie. Despite its iconic status and world shattering reputation, most people from this generation failed to see Superman The Movie because, frankly, it's before our time and a little dated. But I would be severely remiss if I didn't mention the Grandaddy of all superhero movies, the one that really started it all. People can talk about their favorite Batman or which MCU movie is best, you can talk about this and that, but what cannot be denied is the fact that Superman (as a character and a movie) practically invented the genre the have today. It created nearly every trope-- from the colorful, tall, square-jawed hero to the over the top villain-- and started a theatrical language by which superhero movies are still made today. Besides that, he also created a sense of awe and complete belief with its special affects. Though corny though, in '78 audiences really learned to "Believe a man can fly". It's the definition of iconic, it was the greatest CBM (comic book movie) for decades, and is still included in discussions of some of the greatest blockbusters ever made.
It's fitting that after Superman created this world, Batman came around to perfect it. This movie-- according to nearly all logic and reason-- shouldn't have worked. Mr. Mom is Batman? Jack Nicholson in clown make-up? An unproven director? A dark, grim, gothic setting? There's no way it should have been pulled off to the degree that it was. But, contrary to everything, it succeeded and more. This movie proved that not all superhero movies had to have men flying in tights and bright colors; that you could trust your audience with seriousness and darkness even with such out of this world characters. It added a new tone and feel to everything attributed to CBM. It was dangerous-- a little sexy-- and a whole lot of fun. And audiences went for it. They loved it! Batman become a MASSIVE hit, just crushing all expectations and shooting so many people into stardom. Everybody loved it: audiences, critics, filmmakers, and even Bob Kane, the creator himself. This rebranded Batman and started off what many believed to be the golden years of the genre... unfortunately, it was not.
Batman and Robin (1997)
Not every milestone is a good one... Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin may be one of the worst, most hated, most despised, least appraised films to ever hit the screen. It has its fans-- though they may be few-- but if you didn't watch this as a kid, it is impossible to enjoy it. The acting is embarrassing. The writing is awful. The directing is a joke. The neon and horrifying color pallette is stomach-churning. The jokes... oh the puns... lets just say, they should have been left on ice. It undid years of work and acceptance, easily turning the genre and fanbase into a punchline and leading to the subsequent Superhero Dark Ages. It played up every trope to terrible results, butchered a well crafted cast, and is possible to this day, the worst entry into the genre. What started in '89 as a revolutionary take on a classic character turned into a parody of everything we loved. On the brightside, if it wasn't for this, we wouldn't have gotten Nolan's trilogy.
Amidst the garbage of its day, X-Men somehow got passed the confines of its own genre and brought a new level of respect to CBMs. This movie took a different approach, a smaller approach. Where movies like both of Schumacher's Batman's tried to go bigger and bigger with each film, X-Men decided to make a more personal, realist narrative. It started in a concentration camp. It focused on oppressed, neglected minorities crying out for freedom. It highlighted the difference of ideologies between two men both yearning for freedom. This movie changed the game, a feat most people don't give it credit for. In a time where the genre was drowning, this franchise helped it stay afloat. Sure, it was serious, it was colorless, it wasn't "comic booky", but it brought to the forefront what we were lacking in the films up to that point: the message. It tackled real life issues with an all star cast (and that's putting it lightly). The fact that the whole franchise is an allegory for LGBT rights-- and issue we're STILL TALKING ABOUT TODAY-- and it did so utilizing the talents of Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry says a lot about the film. Don't under appreciate the film.
Since Batman and Robin, only two film franchises seemed to really keep the genre alive: X-Men and Spiderman. You couldn't ask for two more different franchises to coexist so well. Where the X-Men movies proved that superheros could be real and grounded, the Spiderman movies proved they could be fun and goofy. Sure, it didn't go too far into the extremes, but Spiderman really embraced its comic book background. It brought more humor and levity back to the genre but didn't sacrifice good storytelling and heart to do so. In an era full of Daredevil, Hulk, The Crow, Catwoman, Elektra, The Punisher, Son of the Mask, Fantastic Four, Superman Returns, Blade: Trinity, and the frickin' League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sam Raimi's films found a way to succeed head and shoulders above the rest. It proved he could have comedy in our CBMs without becoming overly campy and cheesy. It also proved that audiences were ready to accept the weirdness that comes with Superhero movies. It trusted its audience and trusted in its source material; in the end, it really pulled it off.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Though Batman Begins may have kicked off this franchise, The Dark Knight is by far the standout and possibly the most significant CBM to ever come out. Now, some say it's "overrated" or "over-hyped", but it all honesty, this movie... this movie is impeccable. Say what you will about what you want but Christopher Nolan and his team crafted one of the only perfect movies to ever come out. It brought the entire genre-- and some would argue filmmaking-- to a new level never really considered before. It was real. It was heart pounding and jaw dropping. Not only did the late (and great) Heath Ledger win for his turn as the now legendary Joker, but people cried out for it to be nominated for Best Picture. It's in a league of its own and for the last 8 years everyone has compared new CBMs to it. In the perfect storm of world class filmmaking, top notch acting, and a fantastic story, The Dark Knight proved to any naysayer, any doubter and hater, that the Superhero Genre was not something to be taken lightly. If for no other reason, this movie redefined what a villain should be in movies and in superhero films.
Iron Man (2008)
The one that started it all. 2008 was a big year because while The Dark Knight was snagging up Oscars, Iron Man was preparing to redefine the idea of what a franchise was and how the cinematic climate should be. It really changed the game for not only this genre, but every big budget project since. Because of its fantastic reception and visionary foresight, Iron Man was able to successfully set up an entire universe of films that today have now grossed more than 10 BILLION dollars, with 13 movies out at the moment, 2 of which being some of highest grossing ever, with a multitude more on the way. Because of Iron Man we have connected movie world. Because of Iron Man we know of many smaller name actors. Because of Iron Man we have been able to see classic stories brought to the big screen. Because of Iron Man we not only have one successful franchise, but SIX successful ones with Doctor Strange, Spiderman, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and possibly Black Widow priming to join the mix. This movie's impact on the blockbuster world cannot be overstated. It created the modern tone of the genre. It found the proper blend of grittiness and comedy. It set up a formula for billions of dollars worth of success in the future. It reintroduced us to Robert Downey Jr. for Pete's sake! Needless to say, we as comic book fans owe a great deal to Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios.
The Avengers (2012)
Avengers was the culmination of not only four years of hard work, five films, and millions of dollars, it was also the first time multiple franchises had been combined to this degree of success; and its success cannot be overstated. It is still the highest grossing CBM ever, holding many records, and has cemented itself as an iconic action film. In the tomes of movie history, this one will go down as the moment Marvel "did it". They won. They succeeded. Avengers somehow managed to pull off the teaming up of a billionaire narcissist, a 90 year old boy scout, a monstrous physicist, a one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson, and a Norse God without feeling overcrowded, bloated, or confusing. It seamlessly wove differing personalities and plot lines into a coherent and enjoyable film. This movie proved to every studio that to compete in this franchised world, you gotta bring your A-Game; you have to be able to pull off the impossible over and over. As one of the biggest movies of all time, Avengers has crowned itself the king of the genre and until its dethroned, we can't say anything about it.
The Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
If you look up the definition of "defying expectations", this move might pop up. Predicted as Marvel's first flop, a big gamble, or a huge mistake, Guardians of the Galaxy somehow managed to become the 3rd highest rated MCU film according to Rotten Tomatoes. With only Iron Man and The Avengers ahead of it, this movie shattered everyone's perception of the power of the genre. It took nearly unknown characters (even to comic book fans) and turned them into Hollywood gold. Somehow a team made up of a goofy bandit, a green assassin, a brooding killer, a talking raccoon, and a humanoid tree managed to out out gross dozens of better known characters and became the dark horse, sleeper hit of 2014. It was so successful that a sequel was green lit and pushed forward before other franchises like Thor: Ragnarok and Spiderman: Homecoming. Its even Steven Spielberg's favorite one. Most importantly, however, it introduced an entirely different tone and feel to a genre that had never really ventured into space and had never fully embraced it fringe weirdness. All in all, it proved the Marvel brand alone could carry a movie and that not all CBMs needed to follow the same tone or ideas in order for them to be successful.
An underdog story, a studio risk, a failed property. Everything was going against Deadpool from the start. It was in production hell for nearly a decade. It's budget was slashed. Producers and directors fell through. The studio had no interest in doing it. Despite having a dedicated star in Ryan Reynolds and having a good team behind him, it seemed utterly unlikely that this film would ever see the light of day. Yet somehow-- due to a "leaked" scene-- this movie has now domestically out grossed Batman v Superman, become the highest grossing X-Men film, the second highest grossing rated R film OF ALL TIME, gained and 83% on RT, become a bigger hit than most of the MCU, and somehow is set for a sequel, a team up movie, and a possible inclusion in the X-Men Proper. Thats insane; completely insane. Deadpool took a massive risk-- MASSIVE-- by starring a faile, little well known character with an unpopular actor, an first time director, and a studio with no belief in it. Not make matters worse, they went for a hard R rating, embraced the fourth wall breaking of the character, and even had a supporting cast of barely nameable actors. By all systems of logic, this movie should not have worked. But by taking the risk, diving in head first, and truly caring about the character, Deadpool has now become an unparalleled success. This proves that the genre can grow and spread and that no fatigue or boredom has come to the genre just yet.
So, there you have it, 10 films I felt helped shape the genre and propel it to the top of the charts today. Thanks to each of these films we get the movies we love with the characters we care about. We can get the grit as well as the wackiness. We can get the drama as well as the comedy. We owe a lot to these films and the comics they're all based on. I know my childhood was shaped by them and so many people's were.
Most Influential Superhero Movie?
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'Til next time!