The SuperHero movie
BY OISÍN WALSH
It would prove difficult to attend a cinema today without seeing a promotion for at least one superhero film, be it an adaptation of a Marvel character, a DC character or even entirely new heroes such as Pixar’s The Incredibles. The superhero genre has profoundly impacted popular culture today with more people listening to the “golden oldie songs” from Guardians of the Galaxy to fans of The Dark Knight trilogy quoting villains like Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane frequently. It is shocking to see how quickly superhero fandom has entered the mainstream. The genre is a phenomenon that has seized power at a rapid pace and only promises to continue to consolidate that control with no end in sight.
It has only been in the past twenty years that superhero sinema really developed. Prior to this, the leading men of the DC universe had undergone the cinematic treatment with Tim Burton committing Batman to the screen as played by Michael Keaton with Batman and Batman Returns and a number of Superman films released with Christopher Reeve in the title role. Batman eventually fell to Val Kilmer and then George Clooney in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, both films which left a great deal to be desired. Likewise the last half of the Superman film series was widely panned with even Reeve stating, “the less said about Superman IV the better”. It comes as no surprise then that these series failed to ignite the production line of superhero films we are accustomed to today.
There are a number of key milestones which stand out on the superhero cinema timeline. In 2000 Bryan Singer’s X-Men was released to great wide audience and critical acclaim. This is the point when the cinematic superhero took off. It spawned the still active X-Men series and a number of other comic book adaptations. Other Marvel characters soon found success in The Fantastic Four and the Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 was widely considered the greatest superhero film of all time at the point of its release. The X-Men franchise continues to make cinema history with Logan, directed and co-written by James Mangold, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. This marks the first time that a superhero film has been acknowledged by the Academy for the quality of its story, noting a shift in attitude towards the superhero genre. People no longer consider the genre to be made up of easy, popular entertainment for the masses.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy is another turning point in the superhero genre. It demonstrated that comic book characters could be adapted into a world governed by gritty realism. Batman Begins received eight nominations at the 2008 Academy Awards and marked the first time that a superhero film had been honoured in one of the major categories when Heath Ledger posthumously won for Best Supporting Actor. His turn as the Joker transformed the character from being a flamboyant quirky criminal, to a deeply disturbed, unhinged, domestic terrorist. The Dark Knight existed within its own world, not introducing a world of super-powered characters like Marvel Studios later did. The film attracted a wider mainstream audience and solidified the notion that the must see film of the year could be a superhero film.
It is perhaps Marvel’s Iron Man (2008) which cemented this blooming genre and the films success catapulted Robert Downey Jr. back to his former movie stardom. This was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a media franchise which is soon to boast eighteen films in less than ten years with the release of Black Panther. This phenomenal growth is likely due to the creation of a universe which allows for fans to become engaged with various characters in their standalone films like Captain America and Thor before seeing them all come together in The Avengers. This formula continues to produce results with each film in the MCU receiving generally positive reviews and has successfully filled cinemas with audiences eager to hear Vin Diesel state “I am GROOT,” several times. The MCU has even expanded into the realm of television, further embedding audiences into the almost inescapable superhero genre.
The success of the MCU is a clear catalyst for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) which has been, up to this point, unable to effectively challenge the Marvel’s acclaim. It began with 2013’s Man Of Steel with Henry Cavill portraying the eponymous hero under the direction of Zack Snyder, previously known for his dystopian superhero film Watchmen. Despite the lukewarm reception of the film, the universe continued with the introduction of a new Batman, played by Ben Affleck, to challenge Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film was an incredible box office success but was received poorly by audiences and critics. Similarly, Suicide Squad directed by David Ayer was a highly anticipated entry that ultimately was widely panned by its viewers. It was only with Patty Jenkins’ 2017 blockbuster, Wonder Woman, that the DCEU felt the glory of widespread acclaim. Gal Gadot’s performance as the iconic superhero was praised and it seemed to be the “Hail Mary” that the DCEU needed for future development.
Lastly we have Justice League, a film which polarized audiences. Some found it to be dominated by messy action sequences, which the franchise is infamously known for. Others appreciated its tonal shift, marking a more hopeful future for the franchise, which has been dogged by poor action sequences and shallow characters.
Between Marvel and DC, international audiences can enjoy a guaranteed five superhero film releases every year. I have omitted discussion of a number of other superhero films like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable or even the charming Lego Batman Movie, but frankly there have been so many superhero films in the past twenty years that it could easily fill this issue. This trend shows no signs of stopping. At this rate, a blockbuster film without a superhero character could soon become a rarity and the superhero film genre will have carved out a clear space for itself in cinema history.