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Super-heroes on the big Screen

Updated on May 24, 2011

The Man of Steel brought Super Heroes to the screen


Iron Man 2 was the latest entry in a genre that has grown from obscurity to prominence in the last 32 years. Since the late 1970’s, comic book adaptations, particularly those featuring super heroes, have consistently delivered crowd pleasing adventures for the masses and high profits for studios. Just as these films have become accepted as a legitimate genre, they have also evolved from their comic book roots to suit the times.

Undoubtedly, the super hero genre really began in 1978 with the phenomenal success of Richard Donner’s big budget adventure Superman: the Movie. Before Donner’s blockbuster came to the screen, super heroes were mostly limited to comic books, TV and animation. No studio was willing to invest a large amount of money in a comic book adaptation.

Of course, Donner’s film wasn’t the first time super heroes had made it to the silver screen. Way back in the 40s and 50s, there were a number of low budget movie serials featuring comic book heroes such as Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Congo Bill, Blackhawk, the Shadow and Batman. An ultra low-rent Superman film called Superman vs. the Mole Men was released in 1951 as a pilot for the 1950s TV series starring George Reeves. And in 1966, a feature film version of the popular Batman TV series was produced. All these films and serials were of uniformly poor quality. The scripts were terrible, or in the case of the Batman film, self parodying. Films like these merely added credence to the myth that Super Heroes could never be mainstream entertainment. Although there had been successful TV shows, movies were seen as a different matter all together.

The 1978 Superman film starred Christopher Reeve, who many still see as the ultimate Superman actor, along with Gene Hackman as arch enemy Lex Luthor. Screen legend Marlon Brando added credibility to the project by appearing as Superman’s father. Despite skeptics, the movie became one of the top 10 films ever made at the time. Fans and critics alike praised it. The genre that was once a joke suddenly became the cool new trend.

The Superman film series was the dominant super hero franchise of the eighties. It spawned three sequels of diminishing quality, as well as a spin-off. Superman 2 (1981) was action packed and blessed with a deliciously evil performance by Terrance Stamp as General Zod. Superman 3 (1983), co-starring comedian Richard Pryor, made the mistake of being self-parodying. Superman 4: the Quest for Peace (1987) was the least successful of the films and ended the franchise. The spin-off Supergirl (1984) was meant to start a separate franchise but flopped at the box office. All the Superman films were done with a wholesome, family-friendly style that suited the image of the moral Man of Steel. The tone remained light and there was no extraneous violence.

On the heels of Superman, other super hero films started to pop up during the 80’s. The first was Wes Craven’s The Swamp Thing (1982), starring Ray Wise and Adrienne Barbeau, along with Louis Jourdan as the villainous Arcade. The movie had a darker tone than the Superman films, which is logical since it was based on a horror comic. Yet the film still retained enough of the expected light-hearted silliness that was expected from a comic book film. The sequel Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), starring Dick Durrock, Heather Locklear and Jourdan again as Arcade, was even lighter in tone than the first. In fact, it bordered on comedy, which was its undoing.

The other big franchise of 80’s was the Conan series, based on the stories of Robert E. Howard. Conan the Barbarian (1982) introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the titular hero, battling James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom. The first Conan film was a far cry from what people expected from super hero films. There was blood, gore and sex. However, the sequel Conan the Destroyer (1984) was tone down for a younger audience, and even gave Conan a teenage love interest. Legal matters killed the franchise but a spin-off film, Red Sonja (1985) starring Brigitte Nielsen, was quickly developed to keep the series going until the legalities were worked out. However, the film performed poorly and the Conan series faded away ingloriously.

A direct-to-video version of The Punisher (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren and Louis Gossett Jr., made very little impact (nor did the 2004 remake with Thomas Jane and John Travolta) and it was beginning to seem that the super hero genre, which had had such a spectacular debut a decade earlier was starting to run out of steam. However, another super hero film debuted the same year which would jump start the ailing genre.

After years of being stalled for various reasons, Tim Burton brought the caped crusader to the big screen in Batman (1989), starring Michael Keaton in the title role and the great Jack Nicholson as arch-nemesis the Joker. The film was a huge box office smash and it proved that the super hero genre was not just a passing fad. The Batman film retained a grim tone that suited the dour hero and the story focused on Bruce Wayne’s damaged psyche. Burton’s stylistic approach to the film was reminiscent of the German expressionistic period. There was a film noir quality to it as well, because it almost always seemed to be night time, as opposed to the brightness of the Reeve’s Superman films. Like the Superman franchise there were three sequels of diminishing quality made. Batman Returns (1992), co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer was Burton’s and Keaton’s swan song on the franchise. Batman Forever (1995), starring Val Kilmer as the Batman was silly fun, but the dismal Batman and Robin (1997) starring George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger nailed the coffin lid on the Batman series for several years. An attempt to resurrect the series in 2004 with Catwoman, starring HalleBerry, also failed because the movie was unquestionably awful.

The 90’s brought a whole slue of Super Hero films, most of which were not exceptionally memorable. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and its two sequels TMNT 2: the Secret of the Ooze (1991) and TMNT 3 (1993), all were comical movies aimed at a young audience. (A remake was released in 2007). Another entry in the hero genre was the Rocketeer (1991) starring Bill Campbell and Jennifer Connelly, which captured the Gosh-Golly feel of a 1940s movie serial. A dreadful direct-to-video version of the Fantastic Four was made in 1994 and quickly forgotten, as was the direct-to-video Captain America (1990). Sylvester Stallone starred in a disappointing version of Judge Dread (1995) which performed too poorly for any sequel to be made. A film version of the popular comic Spawn (1997) underperformed at the box office and the expected franchise never came to be. Steele (1997) starring Shaquille O’Neal was a notorious bomb.

Other than the Batman films, the most notable super hero film of the nineties was probably Blade (1998) starring Wesley Snipes as the vampire hunting warrior. The film was clearly aimed at adults and did not hesitate to use excessive violence. The film also benefited from some exciting martial arts action (Martial arts was a popular genre in the 90’s due to Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.) The film led to two sequels, Blade 2 (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004). A third sequel is rumored to be in the preliminary stages.

The 21st century brought a change in the way Super hero films were made. Since the genre was now long proven to be marketable to the audiences of all types, not just kids or comic aficionados, super hero films took on a new level of sophistication. Studios were willing to admit that a comic adaptation could be called art, just as much as any other film. The genre started dealing with heavier topics and themes.

The first super film of the 21st Century was The X-Men (2000), a cinematic blockbuster that launched a very successful franchise. The film introduced the world to Hugh Jackman, who played the part of Wolverine. The film also starred Patrick Stewart, HalleBerry and Ian McKellen. The story dealt with the heavy issues of racism, in the guise of anti-mutant prejudice. This profitable film led to numerous sequels including X2: X-Men United (2003), X-Men 3: the Last Stand (2006), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Upcoming sequels planed include Deadpool and Magneto, both tentatively scheduled for a 2011 release.

Two years after the X-Men franchise began, we saw the film debut of one of the all-time most popular super-heroes in comic history. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) starring Tobey Maguire and Willem Dafoe, was a record breaking mega-hit. The film went beyond mere action, offering characterization and romance to spice up the proceedings. Kirsten Dunst played our hero’s love interest MJ. Not surprisingly, the incredible success of the movie led to sequels. Spider Man 2 (2004), co-starring Alfred Molina, is considered by many to be one of those rare sequels that is better than the original. However, Spider-Man 3 (2007) is widely regarded to be a misfire. Plans for a fourth film were cancelled but a total revamp for the series is planned for 2012.

Another popular character came to theaters in Hulk (2003) directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana. The film was a mediocre affair, focusing too much time on the Hamlet-esque Father/son friction and too little on the green skinned protagonist. Ironically, the focus on character which made the Spider Man films so good proved a detriment for the Hulk. A remake called The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton, wasn’t much better.

Another tepid super hero film was Daredevil (2003) starring Ben Affleck and gorgeous Jennifer Garner as his love interest Electra who got her own spin-off Electra (2005), which was so bad, it made the dull Daredevil seem brilliant. Actually, the theatrical version of Daredevil was the victim of over-enthusiastic editing. The Director’s Cut DVD is far better.

Hellboy (2004) starring Ron Perelman, was a light hearted romp based on a demonic main character. Despite the hero being from hell, he spends most of his time making jokes and complaining about his boss. A sequel Hellboy 2: the Golden Army (2008) maintained the quality and humor of the first film. The following year came another supernatural genre entry, Constantine (2005) starring Keanu Reeves, which tried to be serious but was badly written and sorely miscast, and thus seemed unintentionally humorous.

A profitable but poorly written adaptation of the first Marvel comic’s super heroes was The Fantastic Four (2005), which didn’t seem to know if it was a comedy or a serious film. It’s generally reviled by comic fans who didn’t appreciate the way it treated its iconic characters, especially the evil Doctor Doom who deserved much better treatment than he got here. The sequel FF2: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) was a considerable improvement but still a disappointment overall.

After eight years, Warner Brothers managed to resurrect the Batman franchise by revamping the series from square one. Batman Begins (2005), starring Christian Bale as the caped crusader, was a dark re-imagining of the Batman mythos, giving us his origins in detail. Bruce Wayne wrestles against his inner demons as he battles Ras Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the Scarecrow (Cillain Murphy), with the help of Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Foxx (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). The film was highly successful, leading to a sequel that became not only one of the most successful comic book adaptations ever, it is also one of the top grossing films of any genre.

The Dark Knight (2008) was a phenomenal hit, conquering the box office and garnering generally favorable reviews. Like the second Spider-Man film, most people agree it surpasses the original and many comic fans name it as their favorite film. The major appeal of the Batman sequel is the unforgettable, powerhouse performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker. Ledger, who died tragically before the film was released, steals the movie and received a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It’s the first time an acting Oscar has been given for a super hero film. A third installment of the franchise is in the planning stages.

A year after the Batman revamp, Warner Brothers decided to try resuscitating the long dormant Superman Franchise with Superman Returns (2006), starring a Christopher Reeve clone named Brandon Routh, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. The film was meant to fit in between the second and third films of the Reeve’s franchise. Sadly, the film was dull, lacking in the humor and action that made the Reeve’s film so much fun. No further Superman films have been made since.

The same year, V for Vendetta (2005) came out. Hugo Weaving played the masked rebel V in a somewhat accurate adaptation of the British comic book by Alan Moore. The film was well reviewed and fairly profitable but it’s a stand-alone story and no sequel is expected. Another, even better, adaptation of an Alan Moore story came in the form of the long awaited film version of Moore’s Magnum Opus Watchmen (2009), possibly the most intricate and mature super hero story of all time. The story dealt with socio-political themes, as well as philosophical musings on life and detailed character development.

The Ghost Rider (2007), starred Nicholas Cage as the demonic hero with the flaming skull. Cage was miscast as the main character and the film failed to find an audience.

And that brings us back to Iron Man (2008). The first film followed the Spider-Man formula of focusing on character above action. Robert Downey Jr., as the protagonist Tony Stark, gives what many people believe to be the finest lead performance in a comic book adaptation ever. Critics universally praised him. His charisma fills the screen, making the film riveting even when our hero isn’t in armor. The 2010 sequel has been one of the most anticipated films to come along in several years.

Super heroes have come a long way since the days when no studio would risk a big investment for a comic book adaptation. Costumed heroes have conquered the box office, garnered awards and gained critical praise. It’s one of the most popular and profitable genres in film today. Not bad for something that was once dismissed as kid’s stuff.



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    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Thanks HH. Always good to hear from you.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      Thank you for your hard work regarding research. A well written hub and a joy to read.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Well, I was mainly sticking to characters who were adapted from comics originally. But Toxie was a blast!

    • Wayne Tilden profile image

      Wayne Tilden 

      8 years ago from Roseville, California

      I'm disappointed! No mention of the "Toxic Avenger" series. A true "super hero" film of the "B" genre.

      Good writing. I'm looking for more of the same.


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