Ten Comic Movies That Changed the Genre
Comic book films have been a mainstay of our cinema diet since 1989. While it has had its ups and downs, and despite predictions that we are fed up with tights and capes, they still continue to be produced. That being said though, there are some films in the genre that standout.. This article will go over what films I thought filled those roles. Be warned it's a bit of a read.
While not coming to most peoples’ minds for birthing a genre, fact is we can thank this film and its star, Christopher Reeve for the Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Before this, movies taken directly from comic books had never really been done before. There had been TV shows for superheroes yes, but nothing that translated into putting butts in seats.
While it obviously looks pretty dated now given that its thirty-eight years old, it made our imaginations of what it would be like to fly and have superpowers visible. It had the classic origin story of how Kal-el’s world was destroyed, his journey to earth and learning of his powers and growing into the role of the hero.
An unusual element given what we know of comic films today is that its ending features no big boss battles. Yes, Superman faces off against his mortal enemy Lex Luthor, but he’s not in some powersuit or has any powers. He is however a criminal genius and the movie’s climax is Superman trying to stop a plan to detonate two nukes simultaneously. More it seems to end with the death of the love interest, Lois Lane, until Superman uses his super speed to reverse time to the point where Lois is about to die so that he can save her.
This movie provided a character with growth and change, confronting the moral dilemmas of being a hero while also being biased with personal attachments, and a villain with who is not comedy relief or superpowers, but a villain by force of personality. These elements have been hard to follow up as technology has gotten better and movies become more spectacle than storytelling: something the franchise eventually declines into. But Superman will always be the first superhero movie and accomplished what it set out to do in terms of balanced storytelling, spectacle, and bring people to the theaters.
I already did an article on the legacy of this movie. So I will only be covering why it was a game changer. Prior to Batman, the only other superhero franchise out there was Superman and that had car had petered out by the late eighties. It is also important to note that there was no superhero movie arms race going on between DC and Marvel at this time.
Starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Batman both reinvigorated interest in superhero films and created the modern era of the genre. Superman was largely a product of its time, with a clear moral compass and simple protagonist. It was something Americans at the time could grasp and was not complicated, making it the perfect escapist movie.
By 1989 however, things were becoming less black and white, and the public was becoming wary of generic products that were lacking substance and creativity. Batman brought that spirit, but in a new, albeit much darker form. Batman was not hero in the sense of his Kryptonian peer, but a vigilante. He is motivated to fight crime at night out of the sight of the public and the only inspiration he wants to inspire is fear in the heart of his enemies. He is open to killing and does not go on any moralist preaching about right and wrong. He just goes in, kicks ass, and vanishes.
Batman is arguably the first anti-hero and opened up new doors of what could be done with heroes in movies. Like Superman though, it still used a heavy dose of spectacle, creating a live-in universe that had a life of its own, down to the overbearing dark colors all over the screen. Also like Superman, it kicked off a franchise and made Batman an global icon recognized the world over. Its biggest legacy though was showing the studios the amount of cash that could be made. It cashed in at $411 million dollars for being made for only $35 million. That was $100 million more than what Superman made in 1978, which was still good.
With that much green in the eye, it didn’t take a film expert to know that the business was not going to let this new cash cow go.
1997 Batman and Robin
Yea, I know what you’re thinking: why the hell would I put this disaster of a movie on the list of genre-altering films?
The answer is pretty simple: it was the first comic book movie to show the limits of commercial the movies could get before failing. At this time, the caped crusader had dominated the 1990’s. Other superhero films that came after the original Batman were clearly copycats, providing nothing more than mild entertainment at best. The franchise itself had undergone some significant alterations.
Tim Burton, who had directed the 1989 movie, did Batman Returns three years later in 1992. Just as the former was viewed through the lens of a dark, gothic circus, so too had the latter, but this time even more strange and bizarre. Though it too was successful, it was decided to not bring on the director for future Batman movies. He was replaced by Joel Schumacher, who brought a much different vision to the vigilante in 1995’s Batman Forever.
This director’s vision was to shine some light back into the dark knight’s world. Character’s were more campy, Batman told jokes and seemed less off his keel, and the movie seemed even more exaggerated, bordering on ridiculous. Batman and Robin continued that trend.
This time, the character was portrayed by new Hollywood posterboy, George Clooney, reintroduced Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell from the last movie, and brought in a new sidekick in the form of Batgirl, performed by Alicia Silverstone. In this more colorful circus of Gotham, the heroic trio faced off against two villains, repeating Burton’s 92 direction of having multiple villains: Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.
Though it made $238 million at the theaters, audiences generally rejected the movie for its bad acting, overly-campy approach, and just becoming too Hollywood: big names and music video promos. While Forever was also lighter, it retained enough of the darkness element that made Batman, Batman. This film however completely divorced itself from source material. I remember when seeing the commercials for this movie being so put off that I didn’t even give them my money. I just knew it was going to suck.
Batman and Robin’s legacy indirectly established that the character and his universe was firmly rooted in darkness and there was no changing that. Burton’s films may have been dark end even depressing, but there was at least a solid story, with the spectacle and darkness being understandable given that it’s Batman. Schumaker’s films lost that sense of balance.
The most enduring legacy though was that it effectively killed off the franchise for eight years until 2005’s Batman Begins. Hollywood and DC had lost their only franchise superhero and the disaster consequently made room for Marvel to step in with its own brand of superheroes.
Marvel raised its own tent poles with Blade in 1998 and Xmen in 2000. Though both were successful, they still largely followed the same template as Batman: dark colors with equally dark heroes wearing black costumes. So in that sense, I couldn’t really regard them as markers on the genre.
Then came 2002 with Marvel’s flagship hero, Spiderman and the light was suddenly switched on, both figuratively and literally. Spiderman almost completely abandoned the template of Batman. Taking place in New York City, it follows the journey of Peter Parker as he gains his powers, becomes a superhero and comes to terms with its responsibilities (no that is not a pun).
Most of the action takes in place in broad daylight and though the web-slinger was still a vigilante, his actions were out in public for all to see. His costume had no trace of black color patterns. The character, played by Toby Maguire, had issues, but with the exception of superpowers, they seemed largely normal. Parker was not the back up for his alter ego, but an equal player. Spiderman was a coming of age story that was not afraid to go in a new direction with the classic hero.
The movie restored the balance of substantial story with spectacle in this new color palate. There were some trends it still continued. It had the bright colors and optimism of Superman, with the character complexity of Batman, and the light-hearted elements of Batman Forever. All the while still maintaining its own identity and balancing it out near perfectly.
Spiderman reshaped the genre by freeing future movies from having to follow the same dark path as its predecessors in order to be successful. It also began Marvel’s long run of the summer movies and dominance of the genre.
2008 The Dark Knight
By this time, Batman had already made a successful return to the cinematic world with Batman Begins. Although it was no longer the only kid on the block or king of the hill, it established that when done right, the franchise was still a force to be reckoned with. Dark Knight however took both the character and genre to a whole new level.
A follow up of Begins’ success, the movie has Batman squaring off against his classic arch villain since 1989, the Joker. This was of course already a forgone conclusion given the legacy of its inspiration. However the take on the story and the villain was eerie as it was profound. Nicholson’s Joker was an artistic and psychopathic genius. Heath Ledger took his incarnation in the direction with Christopher Nolan’s vision of a realistic universe.
The Joker did not survive a dip in the acid tank to get his distinct pale skin, but rather wore make-up. He also has no back history, with his origins left clouded in mystery. He retains the original’s genius, but is more violent and unpredictable, leaving Batman and the police constantly guessing at what his intentions are until the very end. A villain who proves himself this daunting for a movie’s heroes is very unusual. If he is funny, it’s either accidental, part of the character, or momentary.
Dark Knight also introduces the aspect of casualties and loss for the hero. Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, is blown to hell, and that’s after she rejects him. Another supporting character and surprise villain, Harvey Dent, is clearly a hero for most of the film until the end. But by this point, you sympathize with him so much that when Batman is forced to tackle him off a ledge thereby killing him, you feel the loss. Batman was hoping he would be his successor and now that hope was destroyed.
The film also strikes a social nerve as the Joker uses terrorist methods to force Gotham City to submit to his demands. The scene where he tries to force two boats full of passengers and prisoners to choose which one dies most explicitly demonstrates this theme. We were still scared and very over-reactive to the threat of real terrorism. So for a superhero film to put our paranoia on display like that was a ballsy and a stroke of genius.
For all its darkness though, Dark Knight somehow retains its hopefulness in displaying Batman’s resolve to still do what is necessary, even in the face of such catastrophes. It is no easy, campy win as we normally assume with comic films, but well earned and deserved, elevating the idea of what Batman is in the social consciousness.
For its boldness, Dark Knight not only earned $374 million, but over several awards that year. The list included a posthumous Oscar win of best supporting actor, as well as Oscars in producing, and writing. No superhero movie had achieved that level of success in both the theaters, the awards circuit, and with critics since Superman.
Where Batman and Robin showed the genre its limits when done poorly, Dark Knight did the exact opposite. It showed the world that a comic movie could be successful, relevant, entertaining and a critical success when it was treated with respect by all involved. It was a very high bar to set for all that followed it and many considered it lightning in the bottle and still do as the genre is not normally taken seriously by major awards circuits. That said, the sky was now the limit for just how successful the genre could be and was now taken more seriously.
Dark Knight was definitely a hard act to follow, but Ironman managed to make its own mark on the comic cinema. By now the ‘arms race’ of superheroes was beginning between Marvel and DC, and Ironman was the new Marvel Studio’s turn at bat. The origin story of Tony Stark, a hedonistic billionaire and genius becoming a superhero, story wise it was not different from its peers.
In comparison, it follows a similar beat with the earlier Spiderman by contrasting a different atmosphere from the returning dark world of the Batman. The protagonists were similar, but the directional take was different, with Stark loving every bit of the spotlight compared to Bruce Wayne’s shunning of it. This point of ‘I am not Batman’ was hammered home at the end of the movie when he comes out at a news conference as being Ironman. You could argue that was the movie’s underlying point all along.
While the hero being publicly known instead of keeping a secret identity is new, its true mark on the genre was introducing the concept of the shared universe and staying in the seats for end credits. Marvel had begun an ambitious project of pulling together multiple superheroes together by linking their individual movies. End credits scenes in their referred to something called the ‘Avenger Initiative’. This had never been done before.
Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and Xmen belonged to different companies though under the Marvel name. So even if they had wanted to do a shared world back in the 2000’s, they legally couldn’t. And DC so far only had Batman as its game piece on the superhero game board with no other real prospects.
So while the villain was second rate, the story somewhat typical, and not winning any major awards, Ironman managed to get Marvel Studio’s foot in the door. It was starting something truly new and creative and we the audience pondered if such an attempt was even possible.
2012 The Avengers
Avengers was an atomic blast everyone saw coming, but didn’t think would work. Since Ironman, Marvel Studios had been slowly and studiously setting up its major heroes for the ultimate team up. A true comic book brought to life on the big screen. The problem was that with a few exceptions, superhero movies with multiple characters tended not to work. It was difficult to give each character their screen time in a way that felt legitimate and personal development usually failed.
Batman Returns was criticized by some critics for this, while still successful. Both Batman and Robin and Spiderman 3 effectively killed their franchises by attempting it. So when Marvel set about to bringing Captain America, Ironman, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye onto the same arena together, I think we wondered if this was going to be the biggest bomb in the genre’s history.
However, the movie proved us all wrong, making an astonishing $1.52 billion. This made it Marvel’s equivalent to Dark Knight’s earlier award circuit success. Avengers was an earthquake that destroyed many preconceptions of what could be done with a Superhero movie, even more so than Dark Knight. The reasons for that success though are similar: a director and actors who respected the universe, and mastering the balancing act of good script and spectacle.
It also proved the value of long term investment as the characters were already fleshed out and familiar to us because of their earlier, individual movies. Therefore the trope of the origin story was entirely skipped, devoting more time to developing character relations.
After this, every major studio who owned a superhero began scrambling to re-create Marvel’s success. Their eyes most have exploded from all that green! However, they have ignored the major ingredient of patience in building character familiarity with the audience. Because of this, any future shared universe effort is going to be forced to do an origin story or force new characters down our throats first and familiarize us second.
2014 Captain America: Winter Soldier
Marvel continued its dominance of the genre and then changed the game again with Winter Soldier. Part of the studio’s Phase 2 plan, it followed Captain America’s adventures as an agent for SHIELD and re-introduced a character to the MCU, Bucky Barnes. The latter having been a major supporting character in Captain America: The First Avenger, it was done with political thriller context in mind.
This opened up new doors for the genre in the ability to tell a superhero story in different cinematic themes. An origin story was not needed and the writing was very grounded and down to earth style. Watching it, I didn’t feel like you were watching super powered beings at all.
Again, interest was renewed in the genre. We no longer had to feel like we were watching a repeat of the same equation with different characters. It allowed those characters to react and behave differently, beyond what they would do in a typical genre film. New ways to be creative were now available to tell different yet familiar stories.
Another impact wasn’t as much a game changer, but rather a cultural reminder. The movie’s theme of government surveillance for national security hit a chord with audiences already dealing with real life news about the issue. It was the same reaction with the Dark Knight, where the film transcends both the source material and itself, becoming a cultural beacon. Again, good writing with substance can create impactful rewards in any genre.
2016 Captain America Civil War
The last within the sub trilogy of Captain America movies, Civil War was Marvel Studios again doing the impossible. As I mentioned earlier, the bane of most films of the genre is an overload of heroes and villains. Many in fact felt that the second Avengers sequel, which introduced even more characters to the MCU was now starting to become plagued by this problem.
Civil War brought together a new team of Avengers, only to rip them apart over different views. This was embodied with the faction leaders, Ironman and Captain America. The film already benefited from us being familiar with most of the characters, with the only newbies being added being Black Panther and Zemo. However rather than going into origin stories for both of them, the film briefly mentions or emphasizes what it was as it develops. It killed two birds with one stone.
This movie though made its mark on the genre in two ways. The first being the entrance to the airport battle, where it literally starts off looking like they ripped the pages off a comic book and threw it on screen. I remember seeing previews hinting at this and thinking, ‘This is going to be dumb’. Yea, I was really wrong.
What it did was show that you can take imagery from comic books without looking stupid, if done well. This had always been a common criticism among fanboys and prior such scenes were deemed not feasible.
The second mark was that the villain actually wins! Zemo is a former soldier from a destroyed country in Avengers: Age of Ultron, who lost his family. Like the rest of the world, he blames the Avengers for this collateral damage, but takes a realistic approach at achieving that.
Where most villains would try to get superpowers or recruit allies who have them, Zemo instead outsmarts his adversaries. One of the criticisms of the MCU has been that most of its villains are one-dimensional and expendable. Zemo though masterfully plays everyone and is rewarded with the Avengers and their friendships broken. At the end of the movie, though he is captured, he clearly believes he has succeeded and we are left wondering if he had.
This is a risky angle for any movie to play, but if done well can go a long way. We are kept on our toes for not knowing if the good guys are going to win or not, and fatigue is pushed away further by that element of surprise.
This selection is almost a given, but is also debatable in terms of reshaping the genre. Deadpool definitely stands out in terms of being truly a passion project. Actor Ryan Reynolds, pushed for years to have the movie made, but was largely met with rejection because of his insistence that the film be rated-R. He had played the character before in Xmen Origins: Wolverine, where despite an impressive entrance, met an unimpressive end. Deadpool was in part an attempt to correct that injustice and the movie even references it several times.
The movie is considered ground breaking for the fact that it got the R-rating and was still successful. This lead many to call it the first r-rated comic book film, but here’s where it becomes debatable in that Blade was actually the first and was also a successful R-rated comic movie. However it was nowhere near as successful as Deadpool.
Unlike its predecessor, Deadpool did not copy elements from other movies. It didn’t borrow any of the generic humor of the Avengers, did not use any dark colors for costumes like Batman, and did not rely on either overly grim or overly bright overtones like Batman and Spiderman. Instead it drew directly from its source material in a way arguably not done since Superman and in fact insults its peers for following trends.
Before hand, studios were insistent that the movies be PG-13 so that toys could be sold and the movie marketed to a wider audience. Therefore even if the source material demanded stronger content, it was breaking the fundamental studio rule, restricted audience = less money. So when the movie made $783 million, it came as a rude awakening and that rule suddenly went out the window.
It also put the dominant Marvel Studios in an awkward position because its long term plans were believed to be wearing thin on their audiences. DC got shown up in the film making their darker themes work. Deadpool’s refreshing dark humor went in a direction that the studios didn’t want to go in on the big screen. New opportunities for the Xmen franchise now were open, which had been struggling to reestablish itself on the cinema game board.
The surprise hit also brought in a new air of creativity by adhering to the comic’s reputation of Deadpool breaking the fourth wall. This was where the light-hearted, but perverted humor is allowed to shine along, vocalizing what many viewers are already thinking. It created a unique position where comic book humor could work without being campy.
There was even talk of Deadpool pulling a Dark Knight by winning its own streak of awards on the circuit. It hit its own run, but fell just short of this the latter’s success. Still it was a reminder of how far the genre could go.
So that’s my list of movies that changed the genre. Sorry for the length, but I had to give them their due properly. From its humble beginnings, the genre is now evolving at an incredible rate and continues defying many predictions while challenging Hollywood expectations as well. They are starting to understand I think what it takes to make these movies work: respect, creativity, and patience. It only took them almost forty years after all!
However, how many times can you reinvent themes before we catch on to what you’re doing? The genre flourishes best when it is allowed to be creative, go in different directions, and take risks. Franchises have died from losing sight of this. If superhero movies can continue their creative streak unhindered by corporate greed, then there is a future. But if they can’t, then eventually we’ll stop caring.