I would like to begin this piece by saying that this is more of an analysis than an editorial; given how heated this topic can get in certain circles. If you are a moviegoer in any capacity, then chances are you’ve seen at least one of the superhero movies released this summer thus far. A common topic brought up by many purists in the comic book community is how faithful said movies are to the source material. Given the numerous amount of movies and the deviations therein, it begs the question “Who should be the ones in charge of bringing these characters to the silver screen, the comic companies that brought them to life or the company willing to produce the films?”
Before we get into the debate itself, let us take a look at a brief history of Superheroes in Cinema.
Comics and the Saturday Morning Serial:
The concept of the superhero is something that has existed for as long as time itself. Many of the ancient myths tell of people, predominately men, who had attributes that were beyond what the normal humans are capable of. The Ancient Greeks had Heracles, more commonly known by the Roman name Hercules, the Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh, and so on.
Many more of these types of stories, whether the characters were strong in body or strong in mind, would soon follow throughout the years and become cultural staples, resulting in such characters as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. However, when it comes to the comic book archetype of superheroes, many historians credit its debut to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman.
Due to the success of the superhero concept, many other companies followed suit in creating additional heroes, resulting in the era we refer to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As we approached World War II, many of those comics gained an nationalistic focus, in which heroes would do battle against Nazis, and later Communists, resulting in the debut of characters such as Captain America. The ensuing popularity of these characters resulted in Hollywood producing what was the equivalent of TV series at the time, the Saturday morning serial.
Back then there were only three ways to get the news. You read it in the paper, listened to the radio or went to your local movie theater to watch that week’s news reel. Before the theater would play the news reel, they would play either a cartoon produced by studios such as Universal or Warner Brothers, or play an “episode” of a serial such a Flash Gordon or The Phantom Creeps.
Film studios saw the popularity of superheroes to make money and began producing serials based on these characters. The earliest known serial was the 12 part Adventures of Captain Marvel, produced in 1941 by Republic Pictures, based on the superhero that is now owned by DC comics. This was later followed by a Batman serial produced by Columbia pictures two years later, in addition to producing a serial based on The Phantom. They would later produce a serial based on Superman. However, DC, called National Comics at the time, was not the only company whose heroes were being adapted as Republic Pictures, as its last superhero serial, produced as a series loosely based on the character from Timely Comics, which would later become Marvel, Captain America.
From the Big Screen to the Small Screen:
With the rise of television and the decline in popularity for superheroes, the serials were eventually phased out. During the 50s however, Superman would still soar on the small screen in the popular Adventures of Superman television series. Television became a new haven for the genre in both animated and live-action form for many decades afterwards. It’s here we get shows such as the Batman series in the 60s and The Incredible Hulk in the late 70s.
The genre saw a huge resurgence in the 90s in both iterations, brought about by not only the Marvel Animated Universe, to which the Spider-Man and X-men series belong, but also by the debut of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, a US adaptation of the Japanese television show KyōryūSentai Zyuranger, the 16th entry in the long running Super Sentai series. It is interesting to note that American superheroes stayed mostly within the realm of animation while Japanese superheroes began to conquer the US live action market during this period.
The Return to the Silver Screen
The success of television superhero shows prompted Hollywood to take a few chances. Overseas, many episodes of US superhero shows were re-edited and released as feature length films. However, many superhero films now regarded as classics were being made as early as the late 70s. Much like the genre itself, it was jump-started by the Man of Steel in Richard Donner’s Superman, which featured Christopher Reeve’s now iconic portrayal of the last son of Krypton. Followed up by four sequels and the critically panned Supergirl, this prompted the return of another DC character to the silver screen in Tim Burton’s Batman.
Many other films followed, such as the cult classic The Toxic Avenger and the cinematic forays of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Even the 90s television shows were given theatrical outings, these films include Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a spin off of the animated series, as well as the two theatrical Power Rangers film, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, the latter film being considering canon in the main TV series timeline. Even early pulp heroes such as The Shadow and Dick Tracy were given new life.
Much like the experimental phase of comics, superhero film began to feature darker superheroes, resulting in films such as The Crow, the film that resulted in the death of the star, Brandon Lee, eight days before the end of production. This was soon followed by a film adaptation of the Image’s flagship character, Spawn, and the first Marvel film to result in a franchise, Blade. Films such as these began to transform the superhero film into a genre more akin to the modern action film, which is both good and bad depending on who you ask.
The early 2000’s produced the most profitable franchises in the history of cinema and the genre has been mostly dominated by Marvel comics. However, DC has managed to makes its own contributions, most notably The Dark Knight, which is not only one of the highest grossing superhero films, but is the seventh highest grossing films of all time. It set a new standard for the genre as a whole.
The Present State of Affairs
We are now in what is best referred to as another superhero renaissance. Many people wonder if this is a mere fad in the industry much like vampires and zombies in the past, or if this simply a long awaited triumphant return. Whichever theory you chose, it is undeniable that this is the next stage of evolution for the genre as a whole. Next week, we’ll take a look at the current trends of a genre that, to paraphrase Scott McCloud, is like an atom waiting to be split.