Superhero Movie History: A Century of Titans and Adventures

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BY August 12, 2019

In a decade where The Avengers and other popular superheroes dominated the box office, it’s important to recognize that the superhero movie hasn’t always been as successful, and comes with some history. The genre has had a wild ride. Early years saw the introduction of heroes, mostly from comic books, adapted onto the big screen. And, while DC and Marvel may be dominating theatres now, it hasn’t always been a clashing of the two. So, let’s take a dive into the history of the superhero movie!

The (Very) Early History of Superhero Movies

What is considered the “first superhero movie” is often a hot topic for debate. The oldest movie amongst these discussions is Judex, from 1916. Yes, you heard right – superhero movies have been around for over a century. Now, Judex wasn’t your typical hero movie. Most of the popular cinema attractions of the time were film serials. This means that pieces of the story, like chapters, would be released in theatres on a regular basis (often weekly). Judex originally released all at once, after prolonged-release difficulties following the war. This French film tells its story in 12 chapters, which can be watched together, as it premiered, or separately, in serialized fashion. The story follows Judex, a somewhat-masked vigilante who fights bad guys. The film became so popular, it inspired a now-lost sequel and remakes.

Shortly after Judex, in 1920, The Mask of Zorro first released. This silent film features Don Diego Vega, a.k.a. Zorro, as a protector who fights corruption in his village. Zorro has since become an iconic character, featured in many remakes and adaptations. Some may consider these early films to align closer with themes of adventure, rather than what comes to mind when we hear ‘Superhero.’ Regardless, Judex and Zorro are both heroes in their own right. Whether they began the superhero movie or just inspired them, doesn’t take away from their cultural impact on cinema.

Zorro Lobby Card
Image via the Douglas Fairbanks Pictures Corporation

The 40s: Emergence of the “Super” in Superhero

Judex and Zorro may be heroes, but they lack the “super” quality of characters like Superman or Spider-Man. 1941 saw what many consider as the first “true” superhero movie in history, with Adventures of Captain Marvel. And no, it’s not about Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel but Zachary Levi’s Shazam. This comic adaptation features Captain Marvel fighting against Scorpion, a masked mastermind villain. Another 12-chapter serial, Republic Pictures based this film on the Captain Marvel character that originated from Whiz Comics, published by Fawcetts. At the time, Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero. In 1972, Fawcett licensed the character rights to DC Comics, and the rest is history. This film built the foundation of the superhero movie, featuring genre devices like secret identities, superhero costumes, villains, and giving thousands of theatre-watchers a hero to aspire to become.

Batman was up next. In 1943, the first Batman adaptation was released by Columbia Pictures. As a 15-chapter story, Batman and Robin begin to fight crime on screen. All of the fan favorites are there, from Alfred to the Batcave. Five years later, in 1948, Superman had his theatrical release with a 15 part serial, also by Columbia Pictures. Both Superman and Lois Lane appeared. Throughout the 40s, other comic book characters made their first appearances, including Captain America with a self-titled serial in 1944. By the end of the decade, the superhero serial became less popular and less profitable. They fizzled out of production.

The Reemergence in the 70s and 80s

Adam West’s Batman made a theatrical appearance with Batman: The Movie in 1966, but that was a rare film appearance by superheroes at the time. The film followed a very successful television series enjoyed mostly by children. However, the campy nature of the series endeared it to adults as well. In fact, this version of Batman, not “the Dark Knight,” inspired Joel Schumacher to make his Batman films 30 years later.

Finally, in 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman became a comeback for the genre. The film was an incredibly expensive film for the time, with a budget of $55 million. It starred legends like Marlon Brando and Christopher Reeve, and ended up making $300.5 million at the box office. The film was a success, with audiences and critics praising Christopher Reeve for his portrayal of the hero. Its legacy speaks for itself, with numerous awards and sequels. It has been credited for not only reviving the superhero movie but for playing a part in the reemergence of science fiction films, as well.

Another fan favorite, Batman, returned to theatres in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman. The film, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, took the superhero movie to a whole new level. It used Burton’s typical dark and gritty thematic devices and jumpstarted the on-screen portrayals of Batman (and the Joker) that we all know and love today. With a budget of $35 million, and pulling $411.5 million at the box office, this movie proved that superhero films were officially a hit.

Where’s Marvel?

By this point, you may be asking yourself where your favorite Marvel heroes are. Well, don’t worry. They’re coming! But, at the time, they weren’t having as much success as the DC Comics characters were. While The Incredible Hulk had a successful television show from 1977 to 1982, films weren’t nearly as successful. Marvel Entertainment was going through some changes in ownership, and so there was some difficulty with licensing characters for theatrical releases. A few films tried to break into the superhero scene, like The Punisher in 1989, and Captain America in 1990, but there was little success. In fact, Captain America, with a budget of $10 million, made $10,000, and is one of the worst movies on IMDb’s rankings. Now that’s pretty embarrassing, considering that Captain America: The First Avenger earned $370.6 million at the box office.

The Sequels Begin

Burton’s Batman was so successful that Warner Bros. had to make the best of it. Batman Returns was released in 1992. Unfortunately, the sequel didn’t do as well, even with its impressive cast. Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken, to name a few, all joined in the bat-antics. Despite its mild success, Warner Bros. wanted to create a lighter and more family-friendly film for its next Batman feature. Joel Schumacher replaced Burton as the director for Batman Forever, in 1995, with Val Kilmer as Batman. This film managed to more than triple its $100 million budget. The next film, Batman & Robin, starring George Clooney, was arguably the worst of the bunch. Critics deemed it too campy and it’s often considered the worst Batman movie and possibly worst superhero movie in history.

Marvel Breaks Through

The first successful Marvel movie didn’t feature any of our favorites from the Avengers gang. It was Blade in 1998 that found success for Marvel. The film follows Eric Brooks (Blade) played by Wesley Snipes, a half-vampire who hunts full-blown vampires. The character, untouched since Blade: Trinity, is making a comeback in the MCU with Mahershala Ali taking up the sword.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review
Image via 20th Century Fox

Following Marvel’s newfound success, their next property to become a feature film was the X-Men. 20th Century Fox distributed the film and continued to own the rights to these Marvel characters. With X-Men‘s release in 2000, a new era was born. Directed by Bryan Singer, the film introduces the iconic portrayals of X-Men that lasted for years. This was the first appearance of Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Halle Berry as Storm. This film led to countless prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and an ever-growing fandom for the mutants.

Marvel Heroes Begin World Domination

Regardless of who your favorite Spider-Man portrayal has been, Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man films brought Marvel characters to worldwide recognition. These films began the Marvel/Sony production rights, but also began a superhero crush for countless audience goers. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man brought superhero movies to a lighter, more colorful approach that many of the previous hero films lacked. As such, the films became a hit for families and comic-book fans alike. The first of the trilogy made $821.7 million at the box office, and its final film, Spider-Man 3, made an even more impressive $890.9 million.

Tobey Maguire Spider Man
Image via Sony

With successes like the X-Men and Spider-Man stories to push them forward, Marvel began expanding. With numerous characters and stories, many from Stan Lee himself, Marvel had plenty of inspiration to draw from. In addition to the first Spidey films and the ongoing X-Men movies, many others were released throughout the early 2000s. Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and more released with little to moderate success. Spider-Man and its sequels remain the biggest pre-MCU earners, but movies continued to come.

DC Dark (K)Nights Ahead

While Marvel began picking up steam, DC wanted to maintain the dominance they enjoyed throughout the history of the superhero movie. Acclaimed director Christopher Nolan made his mark on Batman in a transformative way. So, when The Dark Knight released in 2008, both fans and cinema lovers were blown away by the cinematography, acting, directing and overall tone of the film. And, within all of the wonder that the film produced, Heath Ledger as The Joker changed villains forever. His portrayal, for which he earned a posthumous Academy Award, showed audiences a true villain doesn’t just scare you but captivates you, too.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel hasn’t always had the rights to their most popular characters, like the X-Men and Spider-Man. However, they do own other big names, like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. Led by Kevin Feige, the President of Production for Marvel, the company began an experimental and imaginative interconnected series of superhero films. Introductory character films for many of the big Marvel names were released, and seeds were planted within them to grow the stories of other characters. After introducing audiences to the likes of Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, The Avengers released in 2012. Earning more than $1.5 billion at the box office, this film solidified the MCU as a success.

Avengers Endgame Spoiler Review
Image via Marvel Studios

It would be impossible to have lived through 2015 onwards without hearing about the continuous record-smashing successes from the MCU. So, when Avengers: Infinity War released in 2018, you’d be alone if you said you hadn’t watched it. Making more than $2 billion, the film blew audiences away with a heart-breaking cliff hanger of an ending and featured more heroes than ever before. The film was followed up with the even bigger success of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, which currently holds the record of the highest-grossing movie ever. Marvel has certainly come a long way from making only $10,000 per movie. And, with their continued success, they will continue creating even more Marvel properties, including MCU streaming series on Disney+.

The DC Extended Universe

They may not have broken the record for the highest-grossing movie ever, but DC hasn’t been doing too bad for themselves. After the Nolan Batman films, DC tried to carry on in success with films like Green Lantern in 2011 and Watchmen in 2009. While they have their fans (not including Ryan Reynolds), they weren’t the successes that were needed to stand alongside the MCU. DC eventually started working on its own cinematic universe to compete with Marvel. 2013 saw the release of a new Superman film, with Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill.

The DC Extended Universe continued to expand, with films like Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Aquaman. While their solo-hero films made some money and earned some critical success, their group films faired poorly compared to those coming from Marvel. While they were making money, critical reception was going down. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earned a disastrous 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, and fans began doubting DC’s ability to make a great film. Their next group venture, Justice League, made even less money. They changed directors midway through, replacing Snyder with Joss Whedon, who directed the first two Avengers films. Still, for its failings, many fans want to see “The Snyder Cut” of Justice League.

The Future Of The Superhero Movie

DC hasn’t given up hope on reminding fans of their worthy heroes. 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, was a huge hit and made cultural waves for female superhero fans everywhere. A sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, will release on June 5th, 2020. Another Batman film comes in 2021. DC is continuing to experiment with their process and vision, and will undoubtedly continue to release movies until they can stand head-to-head with Marvel at the box office.

Speaking of Marvel, they aren’t going anywhere. Despite Endgame being the end of an era, they are continuing on with phase 4 of their lineup. On top of their upcoming Disney+ shows, they have a slate of new movies being released over the next few years. While it seems impossible to beat, perhaps they’ll break their own Endgame records in time. While DC and Marvel may have the longest history of superhero films, we know based on the history of the superhero movie that things can always change, and we never know what to expect.

So, readers, what is your favorite superhero movie across history?

Featured image via Marvel.

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Meghan Hale is a graduate student living right outside of Toronto, Canada. She has always been the go-to gal for talking about anything film related and has a frustratingly long list of movie trivia up her sleeve. She is currently working on her first screenplay, as well as a horror novel, with the goal of publishing it while Stephen King is still around to read it.

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