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
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 Deadpool, X-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).
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.
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.
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
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.”
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, V 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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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