The Three Eras of The Modern Comic Book Movie

Holy superhero movies, Batman!

It didn’t take long for Marvel’s superhero mash-up Avengers: Age of Ultron to pass the $1 billion mark at the box office, having one of the most successful opening weekends worldwide. Heck, even a movie called Ant-Man garnered a near $400 million this summer. It seems like the only ingredients you need to make a successful Hollywood blockbuster these days are masked men and super human abilities. With Marvel’s “Civil War” adaptation under way and a DC cinematic crossover coming next year in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I think it’s safe to say that the comic book movie genre is at its most triumphant.

Superhero films look much different today than they did back in the seventies when Christopher Reeve was Superman. The ‘modern comic book movie’ has evolved as it’s passed through several eras of styles, starting in the early 2000s. Fifteen years ago, superheroes were apparently just for kids, and hardly anything to get excited over. Late instalments in the once majestic Superman and Batman franchises failed financially and weren’t loved by fans (recall George Clooney ice skating in a rubber Batman suit with nipples). The comic book movie was looking to be a dead genre. But like the fall of the Roman Empire before the rebirth of art in 14th Century Europe, everything was about to change.

The Renaissance: Early 2000’s

Wolverine becomes a father figure for Rogue in X-Men
Wolverine becomes a father figure for Rogue in X-Men

At the turn of the century, an unknown Hugh Jackman led a cast of mostly nobodies in a superhero movie of lesser known origins than any comic book adaptation preceding it. The Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader had been pop culture icons for decades, but Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ was a relatively unfamiliar series of comics – at least to the general public. Legendary comic book writer Stan Lee created this team of superheroes as societal outcasts – a banded group of misfits from all over the world who, through childhood trauma, had unlocked radical genetic mutation, ranging from telekinesis to laser-vision.

The storylines became trademark for mirroring current events of the time, like the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. The themes of prejudice and racism were maintained in the 2000 ensemble spectacle, X-Men, with Patrick Stewart’s Professor Charles “X” Xavier resembling Martin Luther King Jr., given their similar stature as peaceful revolutionaries in an inequality crisis. On the flip side, Ian McKellen’s Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr mirrored Malcolm X as the more aggressive human rights activist. Logan Howlett, better known as the “Wolverine,” has become the face of the franchise, alongside Marie/”Rogue”, whose story was the focus of the first film. Unable to have physical contact with another human being, teenage Rogue crosses paths with the ageless Wolverine, a war veteran who can’t remember his past, and the two form an unlikely bond. Eventually their relationship becomes almost father-daughter like, which helps him rediscover his humanity, and her mature into an independent young woman.

The film’s opening scene begins in a 1944 Poland concentration camp, telling audiences right away that this was something very different than anything they had seen before in a comic book movie. Instead of relying on larger-than-life action sequences or giant set pieces (though this film still has great action and set pieces), director Bryan Singer approached it as a human drama, and treated the ‘mutant problem’ like real life people who have been persecuted (homosexuals, for instance). Most importantly, X-Men proved that superheroes were still relevant in the modern era of cinema, grossing an estimated $300 million. The movie spawned six subsequent instalments in the now-massive franchise (with DeadpoolX-Men: Apocalypse, and a third Wolverine standalone film also on the way), as well as Hugh Jackman’s career (who won Best Actor at the Saturn Awards).

Bruce Willis plays an unlikely hero in Unbreakable
Bruce Willis plays an unlikely hero in Unbreakable

The same year, another unconventional twist on the superhero film stormed theatres in Unbreakable. Coming off of the Oscar buzz from Best Picture-nominated The Sixth Sense, director M. Night Shyamalan found more success in this entirely original superhero-esque story. Although not based on any pre-existing source material, the subject matter of the movie revolves around comic books, so it’s still technically a ‘comic book movie.’ Elijah Prince is a victim of a rare disease called Type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta. His body is so weak that upon birth he came out of the womb with both arms and legs broken. David Dunn, on the other hand, has never been sick a day in his life, and when the movie opens, is the only survivor of a train wreck.

It’s a quieter superhero film than most, and like X-men, was light on action, but heavy on drama. Quentin Tarentino called it one of the best films of the last twenty years, saying it’s a “brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology,” and that the question being raised in the film was, “what if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?” Shyamalan himself noted the similarities to superhero archetypes, saying, “good cannot exist without evil and evil cannot exist without good.” Unbreakable‘s boldness to explore philosophical questions without sacrificing the essence of superhero-ness helped comic book movies resurface and undergo a transformation that allowed for more thought-provoking films.

After the success of X-Men and Unbreakable, superhero movies were being taken seriously again, so it wasn’t long before the wise-cracking web-slinger swung his way to the big screen in Spider-man. Taking a beat from X-men by using an outcast as the protagonist, this superhero flick starred Tobey Maguire as the ever-so-relatable (especially to comic book readers) high-school nerd, Peter Parker. After being bit by a radioactive super spider, Parker develops super-human, spider-like abilities, and becomes New York’s friendly neighbourhood crime-fighter.

Peter and Mary Jane become closer in "Spider-man 2"
Peter and Mary Jane become closer in “Spider-man 2”

While X-Men and Unbreakable redefined the tone of comic book movies, Spider-man helped breathe personality into the new wave of superhero cinema. Tobey Maguire proved himself as the leading man for this franchise and his performance helped bring layers not just to the character of Peter Parker but influenced casting choices for future comic book adaptations to come; superhero movies of recent have become iconic for spot-on actors taking on these roles (ie. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, etc.). The sequel, inspired by the comic issue “Spider-man No More!”, dealt with Peter Parker adjusting to life after losing his abilities. Upon release, the film was hailed as the greatest comic book movie of all time.

Spider-man 2 made critic Roger Ebert’s top ten list for 2004, who praised the film for its human story: “It’s a real movie, full-blooded and smart, with qualities even for those who have no idea who Stan Lee is.” Lee has said he always intended for the Spider-man stories to be about Parker dealing with real issues when he’s not donning the mask. Instead of putting the focus on the action, Spider-man 2 relied on its roots and delve into the personal conflicts and identity crises of Peter Parker. Around the same time, the X-men sequel, X-Men: United, brought back the mutant gang in 2003, as old friends and mortal enemies Professor X and Magneto joined forces to defend their kind against a new threat. X2 is still regarded by many X-men fans as the best of the series, for its darker story and challenging themes.

Logan discovers more about his past in "X2"
Logan discovers more about his past in “X2”

One critic called it “bigger and more ambitious in every respect, from its action and visceral qualities to its themes” (Todd McCarthy, Variety), while others noted parallels to 9/11, politician John Ascroft, and The Patriot Act. Serving as an adaptation of the “God Loves, Man Kills” storyline from the comics, the film is remembered for the familial dynamic between the X-men and the heartbreaking reveal about Wolverine’s mysterious past. The unconventional relationship between hero and villain was explored deeper, having the Professor and his arch nemesis fighting side-by-side against the mutant community’s very own Saul of Tarsus (the persecutor of Christians post-Jesus). Their ongoing chess games continued even after Magneto’s incarceration (spoiler alert: X1 didn’t work out so well for the bad guy). The lingering question of Charles and Erik’s state of friendship, whilst being at opposite ends of an ongoing conflict, added a level of complexity to the story that was missing in other superhero stories pre-Renaissance.

Just as the Renaissance period in history marked a cultural rebirth of Western Europe, for comic book buffs, the early 2000’s was a time for re-introducing superheroes into movies and doing them justice again. Up until the midpoint of the decade, however, the once famous faces of comic books, Batman and Superman, were non-existent in this resurgence of comic book movies. Supes was getting his fair due in television (Smallville ran for ten seasons), and after the last two flops of Batman movies in the 90’s, it didn’t look like The World’s Greatest Detective was going to reappear in theatres any time soon either. But an up-and-coming filmmaker with an impressive résumé (fresh off the buzz of mind-bender Memento) had other plans.

The Dark Ages – Mid 2000’s

Young Bruce Wayne after his parents are murdered
Young Bruce Wayne after his parents are murdered

Although in history it refers to intellectual ‘darkness’ succeeding the Roman Empire’s demise, the mid 2000 phase of comic book films are characterized by their dark tone, as well as the influence of The Dark Knight movies. The studio was finally ready to give Batman another shot in 2005, and they got Christopher Nolan (most recently known for writing and directing Inception and Interstellar) to make it happen. Telling the origin story of Gotham’s feared vigilante, Batman Begins follows the life of Bruce Wayne; orphaned as a young boy and inheriting his parents wealth, reclusive Wayne travels the world in search of understanding fear and the criminal mind. Eventually, he learns the art of theatricality and deception after training under an organization of assassins in the Middle East. “[It] explores the tortured path that led Bruce Wayne from a parentless childhood to a friendless adult existence” – Roger Ebert on Batman Begins.

Much like Spider-man 2, Nolan approached the project as a character study rather than a summer action movie, with his goal to explore the psyche of a man compelled to dress like a bat: “people need dramatic examples to be shaken out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood – I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting” (Bruce Wayne, quote from Batman Begins). Batman returned in Nolan’s follow-up to Begins with The Dark Knight: a criminal mastermind with no known name other than “The Joker” is wreaking havoc on Gotham. Wayne’s ideals are tested as The Joker dissolves the city’s belief in hope, justice, and order in his campaign of chaos. Inspired by “The Killing Joke” and “The Long Halloween,” The Dark Knight is often regarded as more of a gritty crime drama than a superhero movie.

To prepare for his role as the self-appointed “Clown Prince of Crime,” actor Heath Ledger spent a solitary month living in a hotel room, having no contact with other people to get into character. He posthumously won the Oscar for his performance after a drug overdose before the film’s release. Even though the film didn’t get nominated for the “Best Picture” category, Academy Award president Sidney Ganis said, “I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words ‘Dark Knight’ did not come up.” It was also the number one movie of 2008 at the box office. Mike Davies, writer for the Birmingham Post, put it this way: “[The Dark Knight is] the most thematically sophisticated, most philosophically profound, most narratively complex and most viscerally thrilling super-hero movie of all. It transcends the genre.”

Joker and Batman in the famous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight
Joker and Batman in the famous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight

The brooding atmosphere and realism of Batman Begins inspired the aesthetics for several soon-to-be comic book movies. The first was V for Vendetta in 2006. Based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name, was about the near-future of the United Kingdom, now ruled under a totalitarian regime. Muslims and homosexuals are persecuted, and a fascist police system keeps civilians living in fear of their government – that is until a mysterious anarchist (whose face is hidden by a Guy Fawkes mask for the entire duration of the film) blows up the Old Baily on November 5th. Evey Hammond, a young British woman, unintentionally gets caught up in the freedom fighter’s plot, while Eric Finch, lead inspector on the hunt for “V,” slowly unravels a horrifying conspiracy within the government he works for.

V for Vendetta successfully pulled off a thoughtful political subtext underneath its superhero thrills. In fact, libertarians and anarchists have used the film to promote their beliefs, viewing it as an allegory of oppression by the government. Members of the activist group known as ‘Anonymous’ are recognizable for donning the Guy Fawkes mask that V wears in the film (and graphic novel). One critic was so impressed with the uniqueness of the film he wrote:

“If you’re expecting an average comic book adaptation from “V for Vendetta”, then you’re out of luck. McTeigue’s film is both an excellent action film, and a brutally intelligent political thriller fixed to the modern socio-economic and political currents with biting satire, and an almost demented subtle commentary that only those in touch with the current political events can and will catch on towards; suffice it to say “V for Vendetta” is far from your typical superhero actioner” (Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed).

Natalie Portman stars as Evey Hammond in "V for Vendetta"
Natalie Portman stars as Evey Hammond in “V for Vendetta”

Movie-goers were embracing the new dose of darkness in their superheroes, which contrasted the pulpy light-heartedness of the Spider-man saga. The technique carried into the third episodes of both the X-Men and Spider-man franchises; X-Men: The Last Stand infamously killed off several major players in the X-team, while Spider-man 3 introduced the black suit Spider-man, with Peter Parker dealing with his inner demons. Even Hellboy himself got his due in two feature films (2004 and 2008, respectively), which were shrouded in a grim and gothic atmosphere, and lauded by critics and fans.

With the famous cape and cowl being worn again, it was time for Krypton’s last survivor to fly back to into theatres. Continuing the legacy of the Christopher Reeve series, Superman Returns picked up after a five-year long absence of Metropolis’ spandex-wearing saviour. Upon returning to Earth following an unsuccessful attempt to find remains of his home planet, Clark Kent discovers that Lois Lane has married and started a family, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” It was a bleaker film than Superman movies had been known for; Lois had moved on, and Kal-El was struggling to find his place in the universe.

Lois and Clarke in Superman Returns
Lois and Clarke in Superman Returns

The messianic overtones were particularly prominent this time around, as evidenced by the classic scene of Superman taking Lois up into the clouds and asking her, “Listen; what do you hear?” She replied with, “Nothing.” “I hear everything,” Clark responded (he’s got super ears, too, remember). “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear people crying out for one.”One critic called it a “tender film that steps outside its expected genre,” (Ryan Cracknell, Movie Views) while another wrote, “as a superhero film it’s really extremely impressive, probably higher in quality than even the first X-Men film and right up there with the Spiderman films” (Vic Holtreman, Screen Rants).

DC’s most bankable properties were selling again because they were evolving into darker, richer, more complex visions of their source material. Frank Miller got to adapt his own Sin City graphic novel, full of guns, girls, and guts. Another Alan Moore comic transitioned to the silver screen near the tale end of The Dark Ages, and it may have been the most mature of the batch from the mid-to-late 2000’s. Watchmen was set in an alternate version of 1985 at the height of the Cold War, where retired members of a team of superheroes begin to investigate a conspiracy against them after one of their old team mates is murdered.

It sealed a hard “R” rating for its graphic violence, language, sexuality, and disturbing imagery, which was almost unheard of for a superhero film. Although The Dark Knight movies had a target audience of older viewers, Watchmen was exclusively for adults. Roger Ebert began his four-star review by saying, “after the revelation of “The Dark Knight,” here is “Watchmen,” another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie.” Not everyone agreed with Ebert, though. Watchmen had a polarizing reaction from movie-goers. While some loved it for its unique style and heavy subject matter, others hated it for being stylish to a fault, hard to sit through, and downright depressing. The third Dark Knight film would be the only to survive the Dark Ages era, and would mark the end of the trend of the mid 2000s.

Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach in Watchmen
Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach in Watchmen

Nolan and Co. ended the Batman saga the same year as The Avengers with The Dark Knight Rises: after eight years of living in exile, The Batman returns to Gotham City when it is threatened by a terrorist, who turns out to have previous served under the League of Shadows. Like the previous two, The Dark Knight Rises was praised for being an ambitious and potent action film. The fans became so passionate towards the franchise that review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes had to shut down its user commentary section after physical threats were made to critics who gave the film a negative review (albeit they were small in number).

“The Dark Knight Rises is a majestic, gorgeous, brutal, and richly satisfying epic,” said one critic (Richard Roeper), while another went as far to say, “spoiler alert: “The Dark Knight Rises” will earn a billion dollars, be the subject of more master’s theses than “Citizen Kane” and win the Academy Award for best picture” (Joe Williams, St. Louis Post-Dispatch). The film even beat out the cultural phenomenon that was The Avengers in Forbes’ top pick for best modern comic book superhero adaptation on screen. Even though it was a dark story, the film marked a distinct transitional phase as superhero movies were moving into the next era. There had been an absence of the gleeful spirit than emanated the Renaissance period of comic book movies. It was time for a change, and Marvel had something planned that would put an end to the dry spell.

The Golden Age – Late 2000’s to today

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark in "Iron Man"
Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark in “Iron Man”

How do you walk the thread between Spider-man‘s playfulness and The Dark Knight‘s seriousness? The answer: Iron Man. Kick-starting what’s now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this Robert Downey, Jr.-led blockbuster brought to life Stan Lee’s metal man with glorious results. Billionaire playboy and chief weapons manufacturer for the United States military, Tony Stark begins to re-evaluate his life after being taken hostage by a terrorist group in Afghanistan. He puts his mechanical inclination to good use and builds a weaponized suit to escape from captivity. Returning home means putting an end to Stark Industries building weapons, as well as plans to liberate the Afghani villages that have been devastated by his own creations – with, of course, his new Iron Man armour.

Iron Man had a record-breaking opening and was lauded for its witty sense of humour, and Downey, Jr.’s charisma in the lead role. One critic noted that that the movie was “refreshing in its earnestness to avoid dark dramatic stylings in favor of an easy-going, crowd-pleasing action movie with a sprinkle of anti-war and redemption themes” (Garth Franklin, Dark Horizons). The style of the film became a trademark for most subsequent Marvel movies. That same year, Downey, Jr. reprised his role for a post-credits scene in The Incredible Hulk. It established that a shared universe had been put together for these new Marvel characters, as well as starting the trend of putting in easter eggs after the credits of every movie (Iron Man‘s sequence teased ‘The Avengers Initiative’ with Samuel L. Jackson’s first appearance as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury).

The Incredible Hulk was followed by Iron Man 2, which introduced the character of Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. After that, there was Thor – a fish-out-of-water story starring Chris Hemsworth as the demi- God of Thunder stranded on Earth and stripped of his powers. Utilizing Iron Man’s quick-witted comedic timing and bringing in another future Avenger, Hawk Eye, this Shakespearean-esque tale became a hit too. The final ‘Phase 1’ standalone film in the MCU was Captain America: The First Avenger. Set during World War II, a frail but good-willed Steve Rogers undergoes a physical transformation into the star-spangled man as part of the Allies’ super-soldier program. In the end, Rogers is revived in present day and enlisted into the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division. Enter The Avengers.

Thor and Captain America fight side by side in The Avengers
Thor and Captain America fight side by side in The Avengers

A massive superhero crossover spectacle, The Avengers brought together Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap, and the others in this motion picture event of the summer of 2012. The story was simple: the world needs saving. And so Nick Fury initiates the Avengers – a team of Earth’s mightiest defenders going head-to-head with Thor’s brother, Loki, and his army of aliens. Justin Chang from Variety had this to say: “Like a superior, state-of-the-art model built from reconstituted parts, Joss Whedon’s buoyant, witty and robustly entertaining superhero smash-up is escapism of a sophisticated order, boasting a tonal assurance and rich reserves of humor…” It was a game-changer for comic book movies – especially after it garnered $1.5 billion, spawned a television series (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and everyone in Hollywood wanted to get involved in the next big superhero project.

DC had to catch up fast with Marvel hitting the ground running after Iron Man. With The Dark Knight trilogy at a close, another shared universe of superhero movies was set into action, only this time for DC characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. All they needed was a hit like Iron Man to get things moving. Who better than the last son of Krypton? Instead of making the planned Superman Returns sequel, the studios thought it’d be best to start with a clean slate. Watchmen director Zack Snyder was hired to retell the origin story of Kal-El for modern audiences, with a big-budget and talented cast at his disposal. Man of Steel flew into theatres in 2013, sharing tones from The Dark Age but was still relevant to the new flavour of comic book movies in its action sequences.

Like Snyder’s last superhero film, Man of Steel received very mixed responses from comic book fans and critics. Some loved it for the acting, narrative, visuals, and themes, while others criticized it for being generic, dull, and awkwardly paced. One of the reasons for the sub par reception might have been because it lacked the lightness and humour of the new Marvel movies, instead resembling something more suited to the Dark Ages era. That isn’t to say, though, that the mid 2000s movies didn’t have their place in film anymore. The Dark Knight trilogy continued to influence comic book movies in The Golden Age. The Spider-man remake drew inspiration from the tone of Batman Begins. The directors behind the X-Men origins films (Wolverine and First Class) both cited Chris Nolan’s take on Batman and the way he combined the comic book movie with other genres (ie. film noir) as inspiration for their versions of the X-Men. The first Wolverine standalone detailed Logan’s involvement with a special ops force after the Vietnam War, while First Class was set during the Cuban Missile crisis and had younger incarnations of Professor X and Magneto and some of the other mutants.

Magneto and Professor X in X-Men: First Class
Magneto and Professor X in X-Men: First Class

A second Wolverine standalone set in Japan had Logan dealing with the toll that agelessness has taken on him over the years. After the devastating events of The Last Stand, Logan the ‘Ronin’ (warrior without a master, in Japanese tongue) revisits an old friend he saved during Hiroshima. The film was praised for being the biggest departure from the X-Men movie tropes as it was purely a character study of Wolverine (only two other mutants appeared in the film, excusing Professor X and Magneto’s cameos post-credits), as well as for not shying away from the more violent side that Wolverine had become famous for in the comics. Last summer, timelines from all over the mutant history were visited in the time-travel ensemble picture, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Marking Hugh Jackman’s seventh appearance as his regenerative counterpart, the story dealt with a desolate future for mutant kind, enslaved to concentration camps and death by Sentinels. It also had a drug-addicted Charles Xavier. The film was one of the highest grossing of 2014, and the best reviewed entry in the X-saga.

In the same vein as Nolan’s genre mix-ups, Iron Man 3 was a viewed by some as a buddy cop movie set at Christmas, Thor: The Dark World a fantasy film, Ant-Man a heist comedy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier a political espionage thriller. Commenting on the choice for Captain America 2 directors, president of Marvel Studious, Kevin Fiege, explained it like this: “we really want to make a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie. Just like with the first film – we got Joe Johnston because we said, ‘We want to do a ’40s World War II movie masquerading as a big superhero movie.’ I love that we’re doing a sequel to a film that’s a completely different genre than the first film. I think that’s fun. And the comics do it all the time.”

The only untouched genre for Marvel at this point was space adventure, and they weren’t about to miss that opportunity either. Their most daring project yet, adapting the zany “Guardians of the Galaxy,” ended up being one of their biggest (and most surprising) successes. Heavy on the comedic beats, the sci-fi action-adventure was described by some as a mash-up between Star Wars and Star Trek. It proved that Marvel could get away with just about anything at this point, and plans for crossing the Guardians group with the Avengers team were already being made (see Infinity War).

Captain America and Black Widow become fugitives in "The Winter Soldier"
Captain America and Black Widow become fugitives in “The Winter Soldier”

In response to a jab taken at comic book movies during February’s Oscar night, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said, “whatever the case, the truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite. I’ve already won more awards than I ever expected for Guardians. What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them than people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films … if you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we’re dumb. But if you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”

The title of “golden age” is usually attributed to a period where a given art reaches its peak. Call it a premature prescription, but given the current state of high quantity and quality of superhero movies right now and soon to come is enough to convince most people, comic book purists or not, that we are living in the golden age of the genre. It’s hard to tell when the public interest in these stories will die out. The last dip in appeal for these kinds of films was mostly because of laziness; Joel Schumacher, the man behind Batman and Robin (1997), didn’t seem to have a care for treating the property with respect or sincerity. Now that superheroes and heroines are the centre of bona fide dramatic and comedic narratives, we should expect more blocks to be busted in anticipation for upcoming Marvel and DC instalments.

Looking back at the rising popularity of comic book films in the last fifteen years, it looks like the secret to success isn’t as simple as just slapping neon tights on a hip movie star and calling “action.” It starts with feasibility – the audience needs to be convinced that these characters can exist in the real world. X-Men laid the groundwork for the future of superhero cinema by viewing itself as serious drama. Spider-man opened the doors to a new era of visual effects and performance-driven action vehicles. The Dark Knight trilogy shifted the tone and aesthetics of the genre, which influenced they way we think about superheroes. Since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has established itself as one of the most profitable film franchises of today, thanks to its balance of spectacle, clever wit, and earnest storytelling.

How long can this last though? The poor response to the Fantastic Four remake could be a sign of superhero fatigue. Come the conclusion of Justice League and Infinity War in a few years, the current comic book craze may have settled down. But for now, you can expect a lot more WHAM!, POW!, and BANG! coming to theatres near you in these next few years. We may very well be at the peak of quality entertainment in the realm of superheroes. That’s what it means to live in the Golden Age of comic book movies.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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71 Comments

  1. coffman
    1

    I think the point is you can’t just look to tell a superhero story, you need to tell a story – that just happens to have superheroes in it. Some of the films in the Genre to it well, such as Batman Begins, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron man – etc etc – where as others just don’t unfortunately.

    • NurseManhattan

      Very true. It’s the key to making any good genre film!

    • I agree. Superhero movies by themselves can be really lame: “Ridiculously implausible vigilante beats up questionably motivated villains.” However, as soon as you take the focus off the “super” part of it and shift the focus to the humans and their interactions with each other and themselves – that’s what makes a great movie. And you can cross into so many other genres and tell so many more stories that way.

  2. Milford Murrell
    0

    I do hope they cover what happened to young Bruce Wayne’s parents in the upcoming Superman vs Batman; Dawn of Justice, most movie goers are in the dark as to what would tip the young lad into winged vigilantism.

  3. lets hope the super hero bubble has burst

    • ThirstyBane
      0

      It burst ages ago in comics. The best stuff doesn’t have any flying steroid cases in tights, and is more likely to be about a nerdy girl in glasses trying to avoid subterranean witches.

  4. I would like to see a proper villain origin story like Dr DOOM done in the style of the last Dredd movie. Give us something different then different hero same movie each time

    • NurseManhattan

      That one scene where Doom is walking down the hallfway int he new fant4stic was pretty cool, but besides that yeah I know where you’re coming from. He’s a great character that hasn’t got his due on the big screen yet.

  5. VelvetRose

    Wonderful article. Very interesting and very true. Other things you could have mentioned are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle remakes, the previous Fantastic Four, the Spider-man remakes, etc. But otherwise, really good job!

    • NurseManhattan

      Thank you so much! Originally I covered all of those movies in my rough draft, but I decided to shed some of that off to not make it too long/dragged out. Thanks again though!

  6. This was a great article. Definitely a bit longer than some of the ones I’m used to on here, but I’ve always loved any analysis that involves threes.

    • NurseManhattan

      Hey thanks a lot! Yeah sorry about that, I tried to shave off as much unnecessary stuff as possible. Thanks for giving it a read though!

  7. Lazarinth

    What about non-super hero comic book films?

    • NurseManhattan

      Yeah absolutely, I mentioned sin city which definitely isn’t a ‘superhero movie.’ But I mostly didn’t have time to go into other types of comic book movies. It was already pretty long

  8. Great article. My brother and I talk about this “super hero fad” all the time. Like many, I am a huge fan of The Dark Knight trilogy. To me, they’re on a completely different level than the rest. Nolan opened doors for the genre in ways that most could not have. I find that directors have failed to “copy” his approach. Like you mentioned with Zack Snyder and Man of Steel. I am curious to see if the genre fades away in the coming years. Again, it was a great read.

    • NurseManhattan

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I’m a big batman buff too. Begins might still be my favourite comic book movie of all time.

  9. I had never really thought about it in this way, though I have always noticed the clear “breaks” in types of comic book films. Those earlier versions from different “ages” left plenty of room for tweaking, as we see with remakes like Netflix’s Daredevil. I’m curious to see just where this heads next. What more can we do with this stories that so many of us have followed for decades?

  10. Wimberly
    0

    Fantastic Four is a bankrupt superhero franchise. Every attempt to make movies around the Four have utterly failed been boring at best.

    • Maybe it’s because as superheroes go Fantastic Four are simply dull. Their origin story is dull and their relationships are dull. A bit like Spiderman really – another incredibly dull superhero with multiple rubbish movie adaptations.

    • Sona Duarte
      0

      The FF are beloved by Marvel silver age afficianados (particularly The Thing) but by nobody else. Even the name smacks of an era that has now disappeared.

  11. I preferred it when movies generally didn’t make any money. Funny how money ruins things.

  12. Bishnavaz
    0

    When will people learn that they’re being taken for a ride by “Hollywood”? How many Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four, Hulk reboots do you need to sit through to get fed up? Part of the reason they keep making these ridiculous reboots is because you lot keep paying for them!

    • EveryThing
      0

      but how many drama’s about a disabled person do ‘we’ have to sit through before we learn we are being taken for a ride? How many comedies? Or action films, sports, romantic comedies, dramadies, musicals and all the other genre/sub genre films? I’m guessing a lot of people out there don’t one or more of just those types, so what do they do? thats right they don’t watch the types of films they don’t like.

      Myself and many others like these comic book films and having only three, four at most coming out every year is not enough for people like me, and is not a lot when compared to the fact that just this month there are probably a bunch of rom-coms or action movies out, let us enjoy the films, we’re not less than you because we like a particular thing that you don’t like.

    • OH GOD NO!!!! HOLLYWOOD IS MAKING FILMS THAT PEOPLE PAY MONEY TO SEE!!!

      How has no one ever noticed this horrific state of affairs before? All those decades where they were doing such good charity work and now they have turned into people making films for profit. God, this is awful. How did we let this happen?

      Also, Hollywood is a place. You don’t need quotation marks.

      Also, also, people pay for these films because they like them. Is that really so hard to grasp?

    • True in a sense. But they have to keep releasing these films because if a certain number of years pass and they haven’t used the characters, the rights move back to Marvel.

      they want to keep the characters, so they keep rebooting. Which is still rubbish.

  13. In terms of quality, if superhero movies turn out as bad as Fant4stic (yes, Fant-four-stic), only then will we see superhero fatigue, but if more movies like The Winter Soldier or The Dark Knight keep coming, it’ll stay afloat. It’s only too much if it applies to bad movies.

  14. washo

    Such a great article! I’ve never considered placing these movies on a timeline; will have to see for myself.

    • NurseManhattan

      Thanks a lot! Yeah I really started to notice it when I thought about all of those ‘dark and gritty’ comic book movies, and realized they all came out right around the same time. And I was like wait a minute…

  15. Love the article! It’s so wild to see how large the crowds are for superhero/comic-based films nowadays. Growing up, the turnout was nowhere near what it is now. I love the popularity that these movies have gained, especially because it allows for a more critical view of the content from a wider audience. It’ll be nice to move away from straight (and cis), white, male characters and heroes!! I also adore the various fanworks that are being circulated within these major comic fandoms.

    • NurseManhattan

      Hey thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the article! This current ‘golden age’ has really become a time for variety, so you’re absolutely right, we’re definitely moving away from white, male leading heroes all the time.

  16. Jeff MacLeod

    I really enjoyed this article. I’m a fan of Superman Returns and I appreciate the sensitive treatment toward it here. Indeed, this work hits on many relevant themes to assist readers through this complex genre.

  17. Really enjoyed the article as an overview of superhero movies. I think now that (as you posit) the golden age is upon us, writers can feel more flexible, and be free to have more minority characters. I know that there’s a Captain Marvel movie coming, but it would also be great to see other female superheroes (cough cough BLACK WIDOW), especially women of color.

  18. I think it’ll be the next Spiderman that has the biggest problem, as we watch yet another Uncle Ben get gunned down again. Might as well just jump right in to him being Spiderman, everyone knows the set up by now.

  19. This was a well thought out article that brought up many clear points and articulated a clear timeline. I thought it was clever of the writer to break down the trend and reference both the D.C and Marvel universes. My only complaint was that the “flop” films such as Green Lantern, Fantastic Four series, Daredevil and Elektra were not mentioned. I’d love to have seen how they fit into this timeline as well as why audiences tend to disregard these films and continue watching.

    • NurseManhattan

      Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to talk about everything, but you’re right it would be interesting to see how those ‘flop’ films fit into the grand scheme. Thanks so much for the feedback!

  20. Aaron Hatch

    Loved this article because it perfectly captures why we love comic book movies. As much as some critics may write them off as dumb explosion movies, comic book movies shape how we look at cinema, and how action and smart storytelling don’t need to be separated. Watchmen for example does highlight the importance of the original graphic novel. It may have chafe the execution of the ending, but it still keeps political message behind it.

  21. Very interesting, I especially liked your points about ‘V for Vendetta,’ it’s an excellent film but often gets overlooked when discussing the superhero genre.

  22. A bad film is a bad film, regardless of how it approaches the plot.

  23. This article was a great read. I completely forgot how many comic book films there have actually been, some I’m glad I forgot existed. I think this was well thought out and makes great points on how comics are being portrayed today. At some points, I felt as though I was just reading a compilation of film reviews, which isn’t bad, but sometimes it would take me out of what I personally wanted to read about (The impact those comics had) . I feel its quite appropriate though so…Great Work on that!

    • NurseManhattan

      Thanks you so much! The reason I referenced critics reviews was to echo the impacts that these movies did have on film culture (why they were ‘good’ and how they fit into their given era). Instead of me just saying “hey the dark knight is pretty cool guys” I thought it’d be more effect to pull from professionals who consider the dark knight a monumental achievement in the industry, and to therefore get the reader thinking more deeply about what these kinds of movies are capable of. Again, thanks a lot for the comment!

  24. KingSheep

    In Superhero terms, your article needs a sequel. Actually, a prequel. What about the dawn of the modern superhero (Donner’s Superman) or the 80’s-90’s where any hint of quality was met with unapologetic nergasms? You’re not wrong to say we’ve entered a new era of superhero movies, where they are the norm for multiplexes, but to suggest that there are only “Three Eras” is like suggesting that comics didn’t exist before The Dark Knight Returns. Sure, the modern version of superheroes was defined in the 80’s by DKR and Watchmen, but it’s a glaring omission to suggest there was nothing before it. I hope you keep writing on the subject.

    • NurseManhattan

      I’m aware of what’s come before and after the three eras that I’ve established. I wasn’t intending to mislead the reader in any way, that’s why I called it the three eras of the MODERN comic book film, not comic book films in general. I’m already pushing the limits of ‘modern’ since I’m talking about movies that came out 15 years ago. I don’t think that by picking and choosing specific examples is suggesting that the other comic movies that came out in these three eras didn’t exist either. Of course there were tmnt movies. Of course there were fantastic four movies. Of course there are more than three eras of all comic book movies. But my article is already too long as is. I hope that makes sense. But I’m glad you think I’m worthy of writing on the subject! I’d like to do more on this topic in the future too.

      • KingSheep

        You’re absolutely right and I appreciate the clarification. One day our current (and modern) era will be looked back on as the era of mass popularity and the work you’ve already done will be very useful in helping define the qualities that shaped this period. Perhaps I’ll have your book on my shelf one day.

  25. Great article, really enjoyed the thorough analysis. The bubble bursting on superhero movies seems to be a ticking time bomb at this point. With these expanding cinematic universes being drawn out over the next half-decade it feels like Marvel and DC are just assuming that all of their upcoming films are going to continue to be hits and that they’re just Kevlar as they make the characters.

    In my mind, a real change has to be made to keep the genre fresh on the screen. How about going a little crazy and actually having an enticing villain that poses a real threat and maybe even…wins? Looking at Marvel in particular the villains have just been rinse, wash, repeat in terms of structure and arcs. And even more so, the heroes are never in any real danger! Even Coulson was resurrected because, as so it seems, none of the good guys ever lose. Hopefully this changes soon, I don’t mean to be rooting for the villains here but sometimes the payoff is even greater when we as an audience are emotionally invested in the heroes taking down the bad guy because said bad guy actually makes a mark on the heroes’ character development.

    • NurseManhattan

      Hey thanks so much! I totally know where you’re coming from. Marvel’s kryptonite is villains. They can’t seem to make even the one-off baddies interesting or compelling. I hope you’re right. Maybe Thanos will bring a change to that in Infinity War.

  26. Good article. I liked the reoccurring mentions of X-Men that helped tie the ages together. I would really have liked to see some exploration into some of the lesser films of the modern era like Daredevil, Fantastic Four ’05, and Catwoman since I think those films provide a fascinating case study.

    But what was here was very well written. Never really thought about dividing the modern comic book movie scene into three different eras but it totally makes sense.

    • NurseManhattan

      Thank you so much! You’re right, the films you’ve mentioned would have been a lot of fun to talk about. I just didn’t really have the time to get into every movie. But thanks again I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  27. As time goes on and as we evolve with the growth of technology, comic book movies have only grown to become a real life version of the comic book they came from. It helps newer generations that probably will not read the comic books actually be able to relate to the characters the way we use to with comics and make them believable.

  28. As for the remake of Fantastic Four, I know many people who are bothered by the change in story. Remakes are only good sometimes and that one is a half and half situation. I think people were also upset that the cast wasn’t the dame as it was before. I know that I was upset that the previous cast and the storyline had changed.

  29. This is such a great article! I love how as technology advances so does the complexity of the movies and their stories. We’re seeing characters built with so many layers and sides that superheroes become almost like rubik’s cubes that we want to solve. I would have never realized the timeline that comic book movies were on until after reading your article. I really want to go on a comic book movie marathon to look through the timeline.

  30. Great article. I liked how you pointed out the major shift in comic book movies that happened around the time “X-Men” (2000) came out. I believe after the release of the movie, more people start putting their faith back into comic book movies. Thanks to the laughable, disappointing “Batman and Robin” (1997), people lost hope in future superhero movies. The superhero franchises suffered for a while, but thanks to creative and talented filmmakers, such as Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, people started to love superhero movies again.

  31. I loved this piece, it really sums up this amazing phenomenon!
    A class I had 2 years ago studied the superhero phenomenon, and my professor cited that scene in Nazi Germany as the scene that started the whole craze.

    The films are amazing, especially when they’ve balanced out their outlandish heroes with the human condition.

    As much as I love this genre, however, I do think that while my love for comics may never die, the craze for cinema will end soon.
    As you said, the period since 2008 has been mostly high quality work, and everyone can’t get enough of this genre.
    However, we’re getting used to it already, our consumption based society will soon be ready for the next thing.

    Steven Speildberg recently remarked on this, saying that “…there will be a time where the superhero movie go the way of the western.”

    What do you think?

  32. Great analysis of a seemingly simple concept! All forms of art are informed by culture and history, and superhero movies are no exception.

  33. BlueJayy

    Great analysis of all the superhero movies, and the deeper meanings to them. I do think that they will always hold a place in our hearts because of our desire deep down as humans to feel special and powerful. As for the genre franchise, I think it will continue to prevail, especially with the remake of the TV show Heroes coming back around. The Superhero Genre might not be at the top of the list forever, but I’m sure they will continue to be around for awhile.

  34. Amanda Jarrell
    amandajarrell
    0

    I think that there will always be the concept of the superhero. The idea that even when a situation seems like it can’t get any worse, and that there is nothing that a normal person can, that’s when someone who can save the day comes in. Someone that can be looked up to and counted on to come to the rescue. For this person to be able to fit the demands they would have to have something special about them. Throughout the centuries and across cultures there are tales of super human people coming in and accomplishing something that the average person did not have the strength or will to do. I personally feel like society will always want someone to look up to. Movies are a major source of entertainment in this day and age and think that as long as movies are popular there will be superhero movies. The superhero movie genre might have to morph to fit society at some point in the future but I have faith that the movie producers will figure out a way to keep up with the times and still produce films that can be classified as a superhero movie. Who knows, maybe the answer will be that they quit trying to make movies off of the heroes that they have already made movies for and instead make some films about lesser known heroes or create new heroes. They might also explore making movies for more villains. They have already started this trend, just look at Suicide Squad. I’m excited to see what Hollywood comes up with next.

  35. So glad you gave a shout out to ‘Unbreakable’. I actually think it is M. Night Shyamalan’s finest hour; (slightly) clumsily handled ending aside, it’s every comic book deconstructionist’s wet dream of a motion picture.

  36. As a comic film fan, this was a great read. You know your stuff.

  37. Interesting take on the arc super hero movies have had recently. While there is never just one source of why films follow a trend or pattern, I think that the US involvement in an ongoing war certainly influenced things. The Dark Knight Rises is unquestionably authoritarian, while The Man of Steel embarks on an extended Jesus Joins the National Guard spectacle. It will be interesting to see where this all ends up. That said, all of these movies are following a formula, and I wonder when that formula will wear thin. Aside from packaging (gritty vs fun), the films do nothing new.

  38. casswaslike

    I would just like to say that this is a fantastic read. My only thought is that I wouldn’t consider DC’s agenda to be taking for an older age (the Dark Ages) but to be the franchise continuing it. Sure, The Golden Age is wonderful. I’m a huge fan of the work they have done integrating stories and keeping a fresh and human perspective. However, DC has taken on the dark and gritty as its own. I would say that Nolan is a big part of keeping that style alive. His films all portray some sort of haunted world where there is light that shines through the cracks. DC starts its films in dark, twisted worlds and shines a light. Marvel darkens as time goes on. It’s more than just the age of the comic movies; it’s the style of these characters.

  39. The important thing here is that these do not become the only thing at the movies. Marvel is great, but I fear that soon it may be possible to hit a point of “superhero fatigue.” We need to make sure that these movies aren’t being made just too constantly increase a roster or a quota. And if we stop enjoying the content being pushed out than we need to speak with our wallet (a reality that Fantastic Four had to face).

  40. My personal experience with the eras of the modern comic book movies, was that they were my childhood. These movies were my inspiration. I was brought up with the archetypes of the hero and villains and anti- hero. These films not only told actions story within the journey of the hero, yet they were aspects of demonstrating history of the 21st century. Today my favorite thing to do is to attend midnight showings of these comic book films. I am a strong supporter of the film industry and I wish the best for producers and writers so that the epidemic of ” superhero fatigue” for it not to come to pass.

  41. emilyinmannyc

    This is awesome, very fun! I love your tone throughout your piece, it made me chuckle many times. You move effortlessly though the different periods of superhero films and give great quotes and analysis. The need for a hero is part of the human condition and I think that the franchise says many things about our needs, hopes, and desires. I wonder what will follow after the ‘Golden Age’…

  42. ADenkyirah

    What a creative way to highlight the progressd through out the year. Super heroes or comic book characters are taking over the media. Netflix, movies, TV shows. It’s amazing how much things have changed. Once I saw DC and Marvel’s movie slates, I automatically touched my wallet, because I realized that I was going to be broke in the next couple of years.

  43. Marcie Waters

    I, for one, am really hoping the superhero streak is nearing an end. Maybe it’s because I didn’t read the comic books, but most of the films seem to all have a similar story. I’m ready for something different.

  44. Although the “golden ages” may be the era of top box office movies, the structuring of mainstream comic book movies are becoming both lazy and recycled. With the same backlash “witty humour” and misogynistic female character concepts playing the ideal physically capable, but tied with minor screen time, distress or left to play the love interest of the protagonist. Mainstream Comic book franchises in itself have tied themselves with countless social issues regarding lack of people of colour, female protagonists and heavy mounts of hetero normality, mixing with the mainstream film industry fills media with overwhelming idealistic standards.

  45. I really like how you divided these movies into different ages. You also touched on a couple of the new televisions shows that are coming out–it almost seems like these are coming faster than the movies.
    I think that the tremendous popularity of the movies and televisions shows does come from what you said about “the audience need[ing] to be convinced that these characters can exist in the real world.” But I think it might go beyond that. It may be that people are drawn to stories of good versus evil, right and wrong, et cetera. We can see that there is something good and true about a hero who has a power of some sort and puts it to good use. That contrasts with other characters–usually the villain–who may have similar power, but uses it for personal gain in some way. We like to see this fight, because we see, or think we see, these things happening in the world around us.
    Just some thoughts.
    Well done, Nurse!

    • NurseManhattan

      Hey thanks so much for the feedback! I totally agree, the classic good vs. evil mythological narrative has survived so long because it’s so interesting, especially in the form of a superhero story. Thanks for your thoughts! Appreciate it!

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