The Art of the Superhero Movie

Another weekend, another superhero movie. This time it’s DC’s Green Lantern that’s making waves at the box office, which opened with a (relatively speaking) good-but-not-great $52.7 million in its first weekend. By now, the superhero movie – once an outpost of the sci-fi / fantasy genre – has become a fixture at the multiplex. That being so, we here at Daily Lounge headquarters wanted to offer a look back at the history of America’s favorite genre – and at some of the best, and worst, that it’s generated.

The History of the Superhero Movie

Superhero movies started out, as they continue today, as big-screen extensions of the comic book heroes popularized by DC and Marvel, with Batman, Superman, and Captain America all featured in television serials during the 1940s. These were essentially the forerunners of the modern-day Saturday morning cartoon. They mostly died out in the 1950s and 1960s, however, with only the 1966 Adam West Batman carrying the genre forward.

Everything changed in 1978, however, with the release of the mega-hit Superman. Featuring an iconic John Williams score and memorable performances from Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, Superman grossed $300.22 million and was Warner Brothers’ highest-grossing film to date. That led to further interest in the genre, and DC characters dominated the following two decades, with Superman and Batman seeing multiple editions. Meanwhile, Marvel was unable to develop any franchises based on its characters until the 1998 release of Blade, while a number of films based on characters outside the two comic book giants, like the Phantom and Dick Tracy, also found audiences.

Since 2000, however, Marvel has dominated the superhero movie genre. The release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 arguably created the modern form of the genre, while the success of Spiderman in 2002 provided the impetus for bringing lesser-known characters to the screen. And, while Marvel has given us no less than five X-Men movies, three Spiderman movies, two separate Hulk franchises, two Fantastic Four films, two Iron Men (you see what we did there?), and a handful of other less well-known adaptations, DC has struggled, managing only one forgettable Superman sequel, the recent release of Green Lantern, and, of course, the two Batman flicks. Other DC projects, most notably their long-awaited Wonder Woman adaptation, have been mired in development Purgatory for years.

Still, one must give credit where credit is due: The Dark Knight is the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time, having earned over $1 billion worldwide, and its sequel, next year’s The Dark Knight Rises, may be the most hotly anticipated superhero movie ever.

And now, without further ado, a look back at some of the best – and worst – that the genre has had to offer:

The Good

X2 – the first X-Men movie may have kicked off the recent superhero movie craze, but X2 was really the best edition in the franchise, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen raising the drama to Shakespearian levels while Hugh Jackman’s sideburns inspired a new generation of questionable facial hair choices. Director Singer seemed like he was playing around in the first one; in X2 he figured out exactly what he was doing.

The Incredibles – Okay, it’s from Pixar and it’s animated, but we’ll put The Incredibles up against almost any flick that DC and Marvel have to offer. Featuring Pixar’s trademark witty twists (who can forget French villain Bomb Voyage?) and a story that’s as much about family as it is about superpowers, this is one of the few superhero movies that you can watch with your parents (or your little cousin) as easily as with your friends – and it’s a lot of fun, to boot.

The Bad

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – As great as the first two Superman movies were, they began disappoint after that, with Superman IV representing the nadir of the franchise. Really, we’re not sure what to say about this one: it was so bad that Bryan Singer essentially pretended that it didn’t exist when he rebooted the franchise in 2006. Featuring blatantly anti-war messages and a villain creatively called “Nuclear Man,” as well as some plot developments that stretch the bounds even of suspended disbelief, this one is a true stinker.

Daredevil – Marvel attempted to bring their blind Batman imitation to the screen in 2003, and it didn’t go well. Ben Affleck was unsurprisingly uninspiring in the title role. Strong performances from the villains, including a goateed, bald Colin Farrell, offer a few redeeming moments, but, to be honest, Daredevil suffers from being the least interesting comic book character of all time. And the movie isn’t very interesting, either.

The Silly

Batman and Robin – by now, the Joel Schumacher camp vehicle is famous for its tongue-in-cheek dialogue, absurd plot structure, and – most of all – the nipples on the Batsuit. And, indeed, Batman and Robin is often ranked among the worst superhero movies of all time (and totaled an impressive 11 Razzie nominations). Still, watching the movie now, we always find ourselves busting out laughing. It’s masterpiece of camp – which means that it is, in the end, still a masterpiece….right?

Thor – Really, Kenneth Branagh’s first superhero directorial effort isn’t half bad, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t supremely silly. But, to be honest, Thor was fast-tracked for this category from the moment it was announced; after all, its main character is famously the “God of Thunder” who travels between Asgard and Earth by way of a rainbow bridge. Anthony Hopkins’s gold armor and ridiculous eyepatch didn’t help things, though.

The Really, Really Good

The Dark Knight – Fans of the Tim Burton Batman version may disagree, but the fact is that this is the greatest superhero movie ever made. The Dark Knight featured a virtuoso performance from Heath Ledger and the tightest, most human plot yet seen in the genre; its failure to gain a Best Picture nomination is widely credited with driving the Academy to switch out of the five-film-only nomination format. Alert readers will already be aware that it’s the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time. If Hamlet wore a Batsuit, he wouldn’t be out of place in Christopher Nolan’s superhero epic.

[Pic via Green Lantern trailer]

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