We live in a golden age for the superhero film – a period that will go down in cinematic history for its unprecedented levels of productivity, creativity and popular acclaim. The comic books where these films find their origins have been beloved by millions almost since the film format was first popularised at the start of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the new millennium that the genre found the success we know today.
Superheroes had enjoyed brief popularity on screen before, but never for a sustained period. There was the original brilliance of Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) with Christopher Reeve, then the off-kilter chaos of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), but these were rare bright spots in an otherwise empty superhero skyline. The lights went out shortly after with the embarrassing failure of Batman & Robin (1997), an attempt to extend Burton’s Batman franchise, but despite this setback, the potential of the genre had become apparent. In 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men began a new era of superhero films that is still flourishing today, but how did the genre become so popular?
One crucial factor that allowed the genre to realise its potential was the improvement in visual effects over the previous decades. It’s never stopped the film industry before, but in the past, special effects simply weren’t advanced enough to do justice to the stunning visual exploits performed by most superheroes. Sure, Superman was flying in the seventies, but just think how good he and his caped comrades would look on screen with another twenty years of technological advances under their utility belts. These evolutions in visual effects were evident even by the time of the relatively low-key Batman, so in the early noughties the prospect of doing justice to Storm or Mystique’s mutant powers or Spidey’s New York skyscraper acrobatics was much less daunting.
It wasn’t just the advances in visual technology that had an effect. The unstoppable rise of music, computing and communications technology fostered a new attitude in society where the ‘geeks’ who created these products earned greater respect and status. People who obsessed over the newest advances in technology used to be an oddity; nowadays, we all do it. The clearest example was at Apple with the release of the iPod in 2001 becoming the flagship for an increasingly sleek and digital world. It’s an old stereotype to say that ‘geeks’ tend to be fans of superheroes and comic books, but it’s one that holds a lot of truth. Once it became a desirable rather than a derogatory label, the associated culture also gained a newfound level of exposure, bringing a niche world into the mainstream.
The central conflict of good vs evil found in all superhero stories became even more relevant after the tragic events of 9/11. The age old figure of the superhero became a comforting one for an American audience in search of a protector – the kind of cinematic protagonist with strong moral values and a determination to protect the average American citizen. Superheroes have always responded to such contemporary concerns throughout their history, with Batman’s fight against organised crime, Captain America’s role as a symbol of patriotism in World War II and the X-Men’s parallels with the American civil rights movement.
At this dark point in America’s recent past, the superhero became a safe and powerful icon of what was good about the country, at a time when many were questioning just what a modern America stood for if it could attract such violence and hatred from foreign nations. This tension is explored most transparently in Iron Man (2008), with Tony Stark achieving the foreign policy dream of stopping Afghan terrorists, saving Afghan civilians and showing contrition for arms dealing. Fascinatingly it’s also the film that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, leading up to the high-point of The Avengers (2012) with its own 9/11 parallels as the team defend New York from an airborne alien threat that leaves crumbling skyscrapers in its wake.
More recently the genre has even adapted to that other worldwide harbinger of doom, the global recession, most notably in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). This direction may not have been entirely successful, but it tapped into one of the key elements of the genre, the superhero as a figure of hope for the downtrodden and persecuted, the underdogs and outsiders. At a time when billions of people across the world felt let down by the leaders meant to serve them, the sense of justice and the purer examples set by heroes like Spider-Man, Captain America and Batman made them welcome role models to look up to.
Beyond all of these social reasons for the success of the modern superhero film, there are two ever-present forces at play: the quality of the films and the profits they make. Studios began to produce superhero films at such an aggressive rate because they were financially successful, and overwhelmingly so. Spider-Man (2002) was the film that really perked up studio interest in the genre with its lifetime gross takings of $400 million making it the fifth biggest superhero film ever, despite being released so early in this golden era. With even flops like Green Lantern and Ghost Rider making over $100 million, superhero films were, and still are, the safest bet in Hollywood.
Most importantly for the legacy of the genre, it was validated to a certain degree beyond its blockbuster roots by the arrival of Nolan’s Batman. Before then, even the best examples of the genre were labelled as “brilliant – for a superhero film”, but Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was the first to be just brilliant on its own terms. This critical acclaim was born from the series’ tone more than anything, with its high-minded and glassy realism making it appealing to adult film fans, not just teenagers. Even the equally auterist Burton films of the 90s embraced the comic book mentality, whereas Nolan created arguably the first arthouse superhero.
In essence, the modern superhero film succeeded for the same reasons as any blockbuster: talented people spent a lot of money and creative effort in sculpting thrilling spectacles for a mass audience. But, beyond that, social factors meant that the turn of the millennium was the perfect point for the revival of a genre that had been popular for the last 60 years without ever really taking off on film.
With audiences flooding into theatres and more superhero films being produced every year throughout the noughties, the genre seems in great health, but are appearances deceptive? The superhero film may seem on top of the world commercially, but what of its alter ego: the critical response? Do the films stand up to critics’ scrutiny and the test of time, or do they work as little more than a temporary thrill, as disposable as the popcorn they’re accompanied by?
Part two coming soon: Why the Modern Superhero Film Failed…