Traditionally, I write exclusively on Marvel. I prefer to pretend that DC doesn’t exist, mostly because I only have time to write on Marvel. Every week, with new episodes of Gotham, Flash, and Arrow, not to mention a whole other Cinematic Universe populated with rumors and news, I am very glad I only write for Marvel.
That being said, I break that rule today. I’ve been looking at the shifts in attitudes in comic book movies throughout the years, and I have determined 5 “turning points” for superhero movies throughout history. Not all of them are Marvel, but 2.5 of them are, so I will call it good.
Let’s take a look at the five most important comic book movies of all time.
Christopher Reeves was the first superhero to take the big screen. Adam West had his television show and movie as Batman, but it was Superman and its sequel (which basically make one cohesive movie) that opened the doors for every superhero movie after.
The second movie is considered one of the greatest superhero movies of all time, but it doesn’t quite hold up. For the day, it was an incredibly impressive. Today, it’s a little cheesy, but still enjoyable.
Superman 3 was a flop and Superman 4 is considered one of the worst superhero movies of all time, but it’s fitting that the first and, as many would say, the greatest superhero of all time is also the first one to the big screen.
Tim Burton has been known for mostly movies including Johnny Depp, with strange tones and odd characters. Some forget that he made two Batman movies, which were the first comic movies with dark tones. Before, Batman was only seen as Adam West’s comical grey and blue suit.
Superman’s bright and colorful approach was seen as one of the only way of making Superhero movies, especially with the light tones of many classic comics. Superhero movies were for kids, accessible to a young audience. Burton’s Batman was frightening and dark. There were funny parts of it, but for the most part it was a darker, older tone. Batman Forever and (God help us all) Batman & Robin walked away from that tone, but Batman proved that it was possible.
X-men / Spider-Man (2000-2002)
The Super-hero genre was dead after Batman & Robin. Yes, the first Blade movie came out in 1998, but the movie hit only a select audience. Brian Singer and Sam Raimi were the directors that turned it all around. Spider-Man was one of the highest grossing movies of the day. X-men was the beginning of a universe that still lasts today. These two movies both spawned incredible 2nd movies and horrendous third movies, but they did something more than that.
These two movies were the beginning of a massive flow of superhero movies. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, The Punisher, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and Elektra all had their own movies within the next seven years. Most of these movies were very similar in tone. This 6-8 year run was “phase 1” of modern superhero movies. It began to end with movies like Spiderman 3, X-men 3, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, where the genre appeared to have been dwindling in quality. Many fans believed it was the end of the golden days.
The Dark Knight / Iron Man (2008)
The tone of these two movies rapidly shifted the entire genre, breathing new life into superhero and comic book movies everywhere. They introduced an era of practical and gritty movies. Iron Man’s suit was explained and potentially realistic. Batman’s gadgets could exist in real life. Suddenly, superheroes were moved out of the cheesy and colorful and into realistic.
Also, these two movies set the tones for Marvel and DC for the next seven years. DC tried to follow the gritty realism with movies such as Man of Steel and even to some extent the Green Lantern. It’s assumed that the future movies that DC are producing will attempt to follow the same path. Marvel, meanwhile, has also gone for the realistic approach, but also with a touch of “just go with it”. It was small at first, with technologies that couldn’t and didn’t exist in Iron Man, but quickly expanded to include Asgard and Captain America’s deep freeze. It was all sealed over with humor, still evidenced today with Guardians of the Galaxy.
These two movies revitalized the genre and established two distinct tones for Marvel and DC, which carry on today.
The Avengers (2012)
This movie was the result of four years. It began with Nick Fury saying the words, “The Avenger Initiative”. Through five movies, Marvel established recurring characters, organizations, and themes, to construct a single universe. It culminated with the Avengers, proving that not only could it be done, and not only could it be done well, but that it could be done lucratively. The Avengers is the highest grossing superhero movie of all time, and the third highest grossing movie of all time.
Thus was the end of superhero trilogies and ongoing series. The rage now is cinematic universes. It could be argued that X-men had it before anyone else, but truly the origin of the Cinematic Universe predates color TVs. The Universal Monsters all took place in the same universe, complete with crossovers. It was the Avengers that proved that it could work today…profitably.
Not only has the X-men continued to expand outward in their Universe (possibly including the Fantastic Four), but Spider-Man and DC have both attempted to replicate the Cinematic Universe. It’s quickly becoming the norm for comic book movies.
It’s not just limited to this genre, however, but the “new Universal Monsters” are attempting to create a universe of their own, beginning with Dracula Untold. The next movie for them is the Mummy, which will exist in the same universe.
In short, the superhero genre has undergone many changes through the years. Superman began it, Batman made it for adults, Spider-man and X-men began a wave of superhero movies, the dark knight and Iron Man changed their tones to something more gritty and realistic, and the Avengers established the norm of Cinematic Universes. These five movies were turning points for the genre.
The big question for all of this is what movie will be the next big moment? Only time will tell.