The history behind the superhero movie genre

By ARIELLA SHUA | April 26, 2018

For the majority of those of you who are reading this, the upcoming weekend doesn’t stand out in any particular way beyond being the precursor to the last week of classes. 

But some of you have been waiting on this weekend for nearly 10 years. Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War is finally coming out.

After the release of Iron Man in 2008, superhero fans saw the movie market explode, with more and more comic-book-themed action movies.

I’ve always had a vague interest in comic books but could never get into the superhero genre at all — until I began watching the movies that is. But superhero movies have been around for a while, and they’ve never been as popular as they are now. What caused the change?

Here are the questions — and answers, helpfully provided by the internet — that I found more pressing than the questions my professors had assigned this week:

What was the first superhero movie?

According to some, the first superhero film was 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, a silent movie based on a 1919 pulp magazine serial. (In the DC Comics universe, this is also the name of the movie that Bruce Wayne was watching with his parents before their deaths.) Another claim is that 1937’s The Shadow, based on a pulp magazine character and a radio show, was the first. 

Both centered on characters who continued to have popularity both on-screen and in print throughout the next few decades. But neither managed to launch a level of popularity like later superhero films did. 

Through the mid-1900s, films and TV shows based on serials or comic book characters were considered childish, campy and sometimes comedic — never taken as serious entertainment.

What was the first mainstream successful superhero movie?

It wasn’t until 1978, with the release of Superman, that superhero films emerged as major players in the film industry. With the highest budget of any movie ever at the time, Superman was considered groundbreaking, particularly for its special effects. 

Of course, though, with Hollywood being Hollywood, several sequels of varying quality followed. While the first was a success, later films in the franchise were failures, and superhero films faded back into obscurity. 

Tim Burton revived the superhero movie in 1989 with Batman. However, the Batman movies that followed also fell into a downward spiral, culminating with George Clooney in the infamously horrific Batman & Robin.

Since the late 1990s, superhero movies slowly began crawling back into mainstream acceptance. After a series of successful franchise builders (X-Men and the original Spider-Man films), Marvel cemented the genre by opening its films up to the first superhero cinematic universe with Iron Man.

Who has been cast as a superhero most often?

Although Hollywood has thousands of actors ready to find roles, for some reason, superhero parts seem to constantly be delegated to white men named Chris. 

But before this trend started, Hugh Jackman was cast as Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men and stuck with the role through 2017. Over nearly two decades, he portrayed the character in nine different films.

Which are more popular now, the comic books or the movies?

After a movie adaptation of a novel is released, the popularity of the book it’s based on often surges. For comic books, unfortunately, this effect doesn’t seem to hold true. 

Although Marvel, and more recently DC, have had movies coming out on a consistent basis for years now, their actual source material sales have been suffering for decades. 

Comic book prices have increased to several dollars per issue, but the number of pages typically remains in the 20s. Consumers are, reasonably, less excited to buy dozens of comics just to read one story when they could watch a similar story in live-action for less, in one sitting. 

As Marvel and DC constantly reboot characters and create alternate timelines, new readers feel confused and turn away, preferring the simplicity of the movies. 

Hopefully the comic book industry will be able to turn things around, but both Marvel and DC seem to be prioritizing their films over their comic publications. 

Which is the best superhero movie?

Though the superhero genre is one that is often overlooked, several films have been able to win prestigious awards. A total of seven superhero movies have managed to win Academy Awards, including two animated films. 

The Dark Knight is well-known for having won Heath Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award, while the original Superman won the Special Achievement Award, only given in years of exceptional merit. 

Obviously, however, the correct answer is Pixar’s The Incredibles. If any movie deserves a sequel, it is this one, and you can be sure I’ll be seeing it.

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