There were a few earlier exceptions, but for the most part, a trend started right after I was born that would define a large share of Hollywood's cinematic output for the rest of time. I can't verify the last few words, but can you imagine movies, in general, anymore without quite a bit of superhero element?
The first superhero movie.
I'm starting this column while the GREEN LANTERN movie is just finishing up on cable. I haven't seen the whole thing, I turned it on late in the movie, and I haven't really watched it since I did, because I'm writing this. I meant to see it before but I just haven't. Oh well. It doesn't seem very good. That's the sacrifice if you're a fan of the genre. Some of them are great. Some of them are terrible.
According to my online findings, the first major superhero release was SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN in 1951. Before it there were serials and so forth, but that was the first "movie" movie.
The movie they made out of the 60s "Batman" TV show is a classic in my book. Sure, it's a deluxe episode of the show without the credits and commercial breaks, but it's a movie in its own right. I haven't seen a movie based on a really popular comic character that's this funny. It's a satire of any production about good versus evil, just as the show is. The writing and situations in it are brilliant, as well as the performances. Other movies have tried a similar approach, but just couldn't pull it off. If you haven't seen this movie, I highly recommend it.
The movie that really started the whole modern superhero trend was SUPERMAN in 1978. It was a big deal because the effects in that movie hadn't been seen up to then, and it was genuinely possible to believe that a human being could fly; infact, that was basically the ad line. For the first time it didn't look cheesy. And this movie proved to Hollywood that superheroes could be a viable cash cow. On top of that, it was a great movie, and still is.
SUPERMAN II was the first movie I ever saw at the theater, so I've always had a particular kinship with superhero movies. In my opinion, that one's even better than the first. I remember my dad and his friend taking me to see it, and telling me on the way that Superman, who I hadn't heard of before, was great friends with the Hulk and Spiderman, who were my buds.
The third Superman movie got points with me for being as campy as it is, and for including Richard Pryor. Much like the third Spiderman movie and the most recent Indiana Jones, I'm often prepared to give a pass to certain series entries that most people hate, simply because they up the camp factor. The fourth entry in the series was not up to par, but there was still merit in the fact that it had Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder playing their characters again (Jon Cryer too, as a new character).
Throughout the 80s, there were more low profile superhero movies, like SUPERGIRL, THE PUNISHER, and THE SWAMP THING (if you can count that one). But the first Tim Burton BATMAN movie was the next really big superhero movie. And if you were alive at the time, you know that there was nothing bigger. I saw that movie four times at the theater, and I still have the original poster that I got from the sneak preview the night before the movie was released (a Greensboro radio station was there and giving them away). BATMAN was the first dark superhero movie, and still one of the best, in my opinion. It was a really cool thing.
Less than a year later, there was the first TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movie, which was geared specifically towards the kids who were such big fans of the characters, but which borrowed a lot of its production design from BATMAN, and which contained a surprising amount of sophisticated adult humor. There were a few sequels after that, at least the first of which I know was terrible (didn't see number three), but the original Ninja Turtles movie was actually kind of...good.
That summer brought DICK TRACY, which I also saw at a sneak preview, at which I also got a souvenir (an "I saw it first" Dick Tracy shirt). Great movie, and also a great looking movie, but in a completely different way from BATMAN (as opposed to sinister darkness, the world in DICK TRACY used about every Crayola color there is). Later that summer came DARKMAN, which was like a more outrageous BATMAN. That one was directed by Sam Raimi, way before he did the Spiderman movies. It showed he had a feel for the genre even then. Several
sequels followed, mostly straight-to-video releases.
My first superhero movie.
Going back to a few paragraphs ago, I'll again address that there are a lot of in-between movies based on comic characters. Some of them just don't get much exposure.
According to my online research, there was a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie in 1990. That's news to me, although I do remember the TV show they made that year of THE FLASH. At the time, I thought it was pretty good, and I was a regular follower. I liked the effects, I loved the character, and it gave me some of that BATMAN feeling that I couldn't help but crave (even though I had already watched the VHS of that movie about a hundred times at that point, I reckon).
And as I'm looking back over a list of superhero movies over the years, I'm realizing that I'd forgotten about movies like Robert Townsend's THE METEOR MAN, the 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR (produced by Roger Corman), THE SHADOW, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS, THE MASK, THE PHANTOM, JUDGE DREDD, MYSTERY MEN etc. There was also UNBREAKABLE, which was an interesting dissection of the comic book/superhero thing.
This reawakening of there being more to the genre than I usually think about is interesting to me, because often in my mind, there were no original superhero movies between BATMAN and SPIDERMAN (even though I saw some of the movies I just mentioned at the theater when they were released). And though I have to go back and remind myself that this isn't true, I'm still only discussing in detail the ones I consider to be the big ones.
The immediate Batman sequels were a mixed bunch. I didn't like 1992's BATMAN RETURNS at all when I first saw it at the theater, but (as is the case with many things in my life) I was yet to really discover it. I liked it a lot upon second viewing, when it first came to video, and I have ever since. Looking at it nowadays, it's more like a weird BBC comedy than a triumphant sort of superhero movie. It's really funny, and it's also about more complex issues than anyone was expecting at the time, things like alienation, social insecurity, sexual anxiety, self hatred, corporate corruption etc. The main characters were all oddballs and outcasts. At the same time, a lot of the movie's tone was satirical. This mixture left a lot of people - including me - cold on a first viewing, and I don't think we really knew why at the time. In hindsight it's clear that it's because the nature of BATMAN RETURNS is so different from what you thought you'd get from a Batman movie. But it's really one of the better Batman movies. There's just so much more to it than a lot of the other ones. It creates its own world, and offers a lot to value. The movie seemed really dark then, but compared to the recent Batman movies, it's a lark.
The notorious Joel Schumacher Batman movies were released in 1995 and 1997. I still don't think the first, BATMAN FOREVER, was that bad. It was more tailored to kids, had some cool villains, and was a pretty well-put-together flick. However, the second, BATMAN AND ROBIN, was crap in every way. It was an attempt at the camp aspect of the show that was badly cast, poorly conceived, and without merit.
Two of the darkest series that descended from Burton's Batman movies were the Crow and Blade series. These were violent, R rated movies of varying quality. I haven't seen all of the Blade movies, but found the two I saw (1 and 3 - I doubt 2 was radically different) of a par and agreeable. And I only saw the original Crow movie, but from what I hear, that's the only one I need to see. I can't believe they're talking about remaking THE CROW, because it's basically Brandon Lee's legacy. Hold something sacred, people.
The movie that really re-started the superhero thing, as far as the yearly toy-selling summer releases trend is concerned, was X MEN. This was the first Marvel release that was suitable for children, and after it grossed a shitload of money, the floodgates opened. After that came SPIDERMAN, which was the first movie I'd seen since the original BATMAN (maybe the reason why these two are so fresh in my mind) that was based on the heroes I grew up loving. As I watched it, I was aware of this, that the hero I worshipped as a child was now realized on the screen in front of me. But with SPIDERMAN it was even more pure, because Batman's appearance had been changed from the character I knew (though he was made just as cool for me at the time). This was basically the Spiderman I'd known
all my life that I was seeing in a movie, and it was great.
I still have this original poster.
After Spiderman, there was HULK, the first movie about the other superhero I was first familiar with (unless you count the TV movies they made out of the show with Lou Ferrigno, a program I loved as a child). Seeing this movie was fun for me too, though the tone was too dark and serious. The 2008 INCREDIBLE HULK movie was lighter, but didn't really improve on one of the problems with the 2003 Hulk movie, which was that the character - having been created through CGI - just didn't fit comfortably with the live action characters. This would be solved by another movie, which I'll get to later.
And of course there were the Spiderman sequels. I liked 'em both, and again, I'm in the minority about 3. There were the X Men sequels. I liked em both, and I'm in the minority about 3 - what is it about the third entry in these series? [I'm sure THE DARK KNIGHT RISES will break that trend for most people.] There were the new FANTASTIC FOUR movies. I saw the first one, thought it was terrible, and didn't see the second one for that reason. There were the new PUNISHER movies. I didn't see em. But like CONSTANTINE (which wasn't bad) the HELLBOY movies (which I didn't see, but supposedly weren't bad), and the GHOST RIDER movies (I didn't see them either - jesus, there's a lot of these fucking things), they were geared more for adults.
And there were novelties like DAREDEVIL, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, ELEKTRA, UNDERDOG and CATWOMAN (barf). There was also SON OF THE MASK, for what that's worth. I saw none of these, but they're there.
One attempt at reviving a classic series that was an unfortunate mistake was 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS. What's strange is that I have very fond memories of going to see this with my brother and my dad. It's just one of those situations in life: I'd just moved into a place in Raleigh, and we had a great day together, then went to see this movie. Plus SUPERMAN II was the first movie I'd ever seen in a theater, and seeing the opening credits kick in, with the original theme music blaring, beside my dad in a theater again was a real treat. Unfortunately (I keep using that word), the movie genuinely sucked. The effort its creators made at restoring the feel of the first two movies is admirable. But the guy playing the title character just couldn't pull off Clark Kent, the movie took the character too seriously (Christ symbolism? He has surgery at the end?), Lex Luthor was made to be humorless and too cruel, and it went on forever. No wonder they're rebooting that series, but good luck replacing Christopher Reeve.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a movie released a year earlier had reset the mold, after a lot of shitty attempts at superhero flicks. BATMAN BEGINS was the first Batman movie that was worth a shit in ten years, and - though it's technically the fifth (or sixth counting the 60s one) - it became a new first entry in a Batman series. Some people even considered it the first movie that got the character of Batman right. I'm not one of them, but I can see where they were coming from. It had a completely different feel, putting the emphasis on action and plotting more than any of the ones before, and perhaps capturing the tone of the modern comics better as well.
A few years later, in 2008, its sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT, along with IRON MAN, pretty much changed the game. In the same way that - in my opinion - Black Sabbath and Kiss set the two forms that heavy metal would forever take, these two movies set the two tones for future superhero movies. Basically, they would be lighthearted, irreverant, highly comic and action-packed entertainments of the highest quality, such as IRON MAN. Or they would be dark, serious-minded, pseudo-realistic and action-packed entertainments of the highest quality, such as THE DARK KNIGHT. Either way, the bars were set for all superhero movies to follow suit or suffer in comparison, as similar bars were set for performances in such movies by Robert Downey Jr. and Heath Ledger (who I thought was brilliant and inspiring in his role).
THE DARK KNIGHT was an interesting creation. As a movie it's amazing. And even as a Batman movie, I found it held up very well to repeat viewings. It's the movie that's most fully realized the Batman world as a crime story, but in its vision of the characters and situations as being grounded to reality
(basically imagining that you could look in the paper and see stories about Batman and The Joker), it also is the movie that most fully drops the feelings of exhilaration and levity that I always associated with the world of "The Caped Crusader." There's a give and take there. I'm sure the next movie in the series will hold true to this tone, and that's fine with me. I've liked several Batman movies, and I'm open to several approaches. "Should this be the only approach the Batman series ever takes again?" is the question.
And right up to this very summer.
The doors to what movies about "superheroes" can achieve are being stretched by recent releases, partially because there are so many of these movies released that there's room for exploration.
I wasn't a fan of the "Watchmen" graphic novel, though I could see its merit. Because of this, I wasn't up for seeing the three hour movie version, though from the reviews I read, it seemed to hold nothing back in recapturing the "graphic" aspects of the novel, including animals and children being killed. And a Marvel offshoot called KICK-ASS was, in my opinion, an abomination; even though it was praised and recommended by a lot of my friends, I hated it. It was trying to be a critique of superhero movies, but it did it in such a smug way, while simultaneously infusing what should have been fantastical material with painfully realistic violence, that I thought it was disgusting. "If some kid really went out and tried to be Spiderman or Batman, they would get seriously hurt." the movie seemed to be saying. Ya know what? No fucking shit.
So now I'm up to the last few years, and the immediate future. Marvel normally has a few superhero movies to release every summer, all of them a lot of fun to watch. Last year, it was THOR, X MEN: FIRST CLASS, and CAPTAIN AMERICA. This summer started with the long-awaited THE AVENGERS, which is one of the best of these movies to ever be made.
The buildup to THE AVENGERS was incredibly smart, with each of the major members getting their own movies, leading to basically the movie version of a Wu Tang Clan record. And the initial AVENGERS movie is so funny that it would appeal even to people who don't like comics or superheroes (when it's discussed, I'm constantly hearing people say "It's so funny," which is rare for this kind of movie); it's also of such entertainment value that I can't imagine it being disliked by anybody. PLUS...as many thought about Batman in BATMAN BEGINS, I think (and I know others do too) that THE AVENGERS is the first movie that's ever gotten The Hulk right, both visually and in terms of character construction.
Marvel also has the upcoming THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN, which I'm sure isn't without entertainment value; I just can't distance it from the Sam Raimi films in my mind. I suppose it'll catch the really young kids who weren't even around when SPIDERMAN 3 was released, um, all those...years ago.
At this point Marvel has released so many successful superhero movies, infact, that DC has decided it really needs to step it up, albeit at a much slower rate. Some of its product has been kind of eccentric, like the WATCHMEN movie and JONAH HEX. Most of its attempts at its popular heroes, like SUPERMAN RETURNS and GREEN LANTERN, haven't really been that successful. Then there are the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, some of the biggest hits of all time. This summer, as with last summer, there's only one DC superhero movie being released. But that being said, since it's THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, that company doesn't really need another one.
Next summer, we'll get IRON MAN 3, THE MAN OF STEEL, the next Wolverine movie, THOR 2, and KICK-ASS 2. The summer after that, there'll be CAPTAIN AMERICA 2, the next Spiderman movie, NINJA TURTLES, and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS 2 (if that's really what it's going to be called, interesting title).
Back in the day, when a new SUPERMAN movie came out, when the original BATMAN came out, when the original SPIDERMAN came out...it was a rarity. An event. And superhero movies are still ones to very much look forward to. A good time is guaranteed, even in 3D, if you wanta see it that way. But it occurred to me recently that, since there are so many superhero movies released these days, it's become a bit like big summer tours by your favorite bands.
Batman's touring again this year? Spiderman's coming around? No shit! Who's in the band now?
Well, there ain't nothin' wrong with that. Rock on.
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This is an outlet granted to me by the makers, in which I will espouse grand words, unleashing in written form
the very movie-related praise and outrage I'm probably thinking about and/or discussing at the time anyway.
I was born in a log cabin that was built in a sewer. After serving during wartime, I woke up from this vicious dream and learned to tapdance.|
It's a commendable trade, but not a recommendable one. As I've said many a time, on one hand, I have five fingers. Yet on the other hand, I have
five fingers. Sometimes I sleep. I would probably watch more sumo wrestling if it was on TV more often. The first movie I saw at the theater was Superman
II...the last was The Terror, and this much is true. Far be it from me to call myself stupid, but if I did so (and believe me, I would), I'd say it behind
my back. Then I would figure out how I did it. Sometimes I sleep. Love, Nate.
If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Nathan Reece by clicking here.|