November 20, 2015

MEDIA STOMP | A Brief Look at Superhero Films Part 1: Tights Through the Ages

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There is no question that superheroes are massively in vogue right now, especially in cinema. Recent years have seen a staggering influx of larger-than-life characters in costumes go up against bad guys in these huge multi-million-dollar spectaculars made by enough set and post-production crew members to fill a small town.

In the midst of this box office flood of caped crusaders, I feel it necessary to remark that the explosive success of superheroes in Hollywood is, in the greater history of cinema, a blip; a loud blip, but a blip nonetheless. Here, I’ll go over the history of the genre up until the release of two pivotal superhero films and continue to discuss the current saturation of the genre in my next post.

While the essence of the superhero film can be traced back to the original 1920 release of The Mask of Zorro, superheroes, as we know them, were never seen as a particularly lucrative or enticing property to adapt to screen until 1978 with the release Richard Donner’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve as the man from Krypton.

It was Superman that proved to both the public and to production houses that adapting comic books heroes to the screen could be at all successful. “Cape flicks” as a genre were still not popular, per se. Sure, you had films like Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and the associated sequels years later, but the atmosphere was just not there for the genre to take off.

Superhero films, at least popular or well-received ones, were still coming in at a slow trickle. The reason characters like Batman and Superman got adapted to the silver screen were less because of the strength of the source material and more because they were already considered American cultural icons. Keep in mind that comics at this point were still widely considered to be products for kids or niche hobbyists, and were not as widespread in their appeal as they are now.

Superheroes were considered particularly campy character-driven action flicks, a perception partially owed to the fact that digital effects were still in their fledgling state and there was only so much that practical effects could do to recreate visuals that were lifted from the comic panel.  

It was with the 2000 release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men and the 2002 release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man that the popularity of the superhero movie began to accelerate with the help of good directing and innovations in special effects. Audiences began to see that superhero movies could be inherently enjoyable both in spite of and due in part to the inherent campiness of the source material. The ground was fertile, but the reputation of the genre was not quite there with the release of critical bombs like Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil and Tim Story’s Fantastic Four.

It wasn’t until the year 2008, with the strangely coincidental release of two massive success stories (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man) that the genre was catapulted into its current money-printing status. Though the two were wildly different and based off of characters from the biggest two competitors in the comic book industry (DC Comics and Marvel, respectively), they complemented each other by offering two alternative approaches to the superhero movie formula, with the former taking the material and spinning it in a certain way to explore serious themes and the latter fully embracing its source material to make for a fun and compelling spectacle.

These two movies showed moviegoers, filmmakers and executives alike the massive potential that lay within the genre and acted as the catalyst that kicked off the current trend of saturation.

I’ll go over the state of the genre in recent years and reservations I have over future releases in Part 2, which will be my next post.

Mark Kasvin is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. With his blog, Media Stomp, he hopes to introduce all the lovely readers out there to the wonders of comics, games, films, and other things he also likes. He is current Editor-in-Chief of Rainy Day, a student-run semesterly literary magazine, and co-hosts a talk show called Weekly Runnings, airing every other Thursday. Media Stomp appears every other Friday. He is also alive and well and a pretty cool dude, I hear, and can be reached at [email protected]. Check him out! Ha ha!