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A Beginner’s Guide to Superhero Cinema

A Beginner’s Guide to Superhero Cinema: Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Depending on how you define “modern,” one could say that the first modern superhero movie was Richard Donner’s Superman, which arrived in 1978 and became a worldwide hit. Of course there were various forms of “superhero cinema” prior to 1978, including old-school serials (1943’s Batman and 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men), TV productions (starring Spider-Man, Batman, Hulk, Wonder Woman and even Dr. Strange!), and the 1966 camp classic Batman feature film. But it was that ’78 Superman that first opened the floodgates for all sorts of newfangled cinematic superheroes. Here’s Part 1 of a history lesson, taking us from Superman to just before the first X-Men; stay tuned for Part 2, arriving next Friday.

Oh, and one more thing: We’re focusing solely on superhero adaptations here. “Original screenplay superheroes,” such as the ones found in Darkman, Unbreakable and The Incredibles are so prevalent they deserve a Beginner’s Guide of their own!


1978

Superman The great-grandfather of the contemporary superhero cinema, and a wonderfully entertaining example of how to “translate” a comic-book panel for the big screen. It’s not just Christopher Reeve’s pitch-perfect performances (his Clark Kent is flawless and his Superman is even better), Richard Donner’s affectionate directorial approach, John Williams’ rousing musical score or the excellent supporting cast; it’s the intangible, old-fashioned playfulness that works just as well today as it did back in 1978.

If the movie sort of flies off the rails late in the third act, you can blame a pair of short-sighted producers who tried to turn one long movie into two movies, and did so in clunky-yet-successful fashion. But there’s too much great stuff here to focus on one Earth-spinningly silly finale, not the least of which is Gene Hackman’s wonderfully oily portrayal of evil genius Lex Luthor.


1980

Superman II It’s got more action, more humor and more villains than the first Superman movie, but unfortunately it’s also lacking some key components in the charm department. Whereas Superman was a great origin story capped off with a nifty batch of disaster movie mayhem, the sequel is a beat-em-up action-fest between Metropolis’ favorite hero and three super-evil Kryptonian fugitives who carry a massive grudge.

At first glance Superman II gets a lot of things right but upon multiple viewings (and after doing just a small amount of research) it becomes exceedingly clear how schizophrenic the sequel is. Chalk that up to the aforementioned producers who tried to piece their sequel together with unused Superman footage and some wildly incongruous new material from a completely different director. For more evidence on how Richard Lester was not really suited to direct Superman films, please refer to Superman III. For the hardcore Super-fan: there is a pretty interesting “Richard Donner Cut” of Superman II on DVD, should you choose to compare the two versions.


1982

Swamp Thing It didn’t take long for other producers to take note of how Warner Bros. struck gold with a DC character, and so logically someone decided to take the relatively obscure Swamp Thing character and give it to horror-centric filmmaker Wes Craven. It’s certainly not the flashiest superhero movie out there, but Swamp Thing does exhibit a nice dash of tongue-in-cheek B-movie charm, thanks mainly to Mr. Craven’s colorful screenplay and an ensemble cast that features Ray Wise, Louis Jourdan, Adrienne Barbeau and Dick Durock as the titular thing.


1983

Superman III Sneaky film producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind caused a lot of trouble during the production of Superman II, but at least they managed to produce a decent sequel. The same cannot be said for their efforts on Superman III. Not only did they bring back the ill-fitting Richard Lester and turn Superman into almost a supporting character in his own sequel; they also lost Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder, who were two big reasons why the first two films were so much fun. Fans of the late, great Richard Pryor may appreciate Superman III more than the comic book fans do… but not by much.


1984

Supergirl Desperate to squeeze just a few more bucks out of their Superfranchise, the Salkinds set their sights on Superman’s adorable little cousin. The results were not good. Despite an impressive cast (Faye Dunaway, Peter O'Toole, Mia Farrow, Peter Cook and a very young Helen Slater in the title role), the final product turned out to be a chintzy mess. The actors do their best but are routinely undone by shoddy writing, bizarre tonal shifts and (worst of all) a pervasive air of low-budget corner-cutting. Supergirl deserved better, although she’d have to wait until 2015 to get it.


1987

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace By this point the Salkinds had given up, and the film rights to Superman fell to… Cannon Films. Yes, those Golan/Globus maniacs who spent most of the 1980s littering theaters with the wackiest, wildest and frequently worst genre films under the sun. (For more on Cannon, check out the fantastic documentary called Electric Boogaloo, and no I don’t mean the Breakin’ sequel.) Regarding Superman IV… wow. It simply has to be seen to be disbelieved. It starts out with Superman opting to rid the Earth of all nuclear weapons, which is a nice gesture, and it ends with a battle royale finale that plays like one of the chintzier Godzilla sequels.

And yet no matter how bad this movie gets, regardless of how silly the scene or how goofy the spectacle gets, Christopher Reeve still manages to shine. Because he was the best Superman ever.


1989

Batman Say what you will about Tim Burton’s vision of Batman, but there’s no denying that Batman remains one of the most popular, successful and influential superhero films of all time. The plot is pretty basic stuff (Batman tangles with the Joker, basically) but the visual presentation is still pretty dazzling these days, and, Jack Nicholson’s shameless hamming aside, the ensemble cast does a fine job of bringing a new version of Gotham to life. Bonus points to Danny Elfman’s moody score, Anton Furst’s eye-popping production design and a handful of weirdly amusing moments—but I’ll stick with the sequel.

Opinions on the actual film notwithstanding, the plain truth is that Batman provided a template for “superhero cinema” that just about every studio subscribed to for the next several years…for better or for worse.

The Punisher Did you know that there was a 1989 rendition of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren? Well, there was. And it’s not good. Director Mark Goldblatt has gone on to become a very good film editor, so there’s a silver lining.

The Return of Swamp Thing Fans of the 1982 Swamp Thing will be pleased to learn that both Louis Jourdan and Dick Durock have returned to reprise their roles as Dr. Arcane and Swampy, respectively, but this sequel is considerably “lighter” than its predecessor—which is probably what happens when you replace horror-centric director Wes Craven with a B-movie veteran like Jim Wynorski. At least the “gorgeous female lead” factor is still in effect: the first movie had Adrienne Barbeau. This one has Heather Locklear!


1990

Captain America Did you know that there was a 1990 rendition of Captain America starring the grandson of legendary author J.D. Salinger? Well, there was. And it’s not good. Cap had already struggled through a few TV productions in the 1970s, and that’s sort of what this low-budget production feels like: a failed TV pilot that’s been forgotten amidst the sands of time. The movie is so bad that it sat on a shelf for two years before being unceremoniously dumped onto VHS—although there is now a special edition Blu-ray that should please fans of wildly lame superhero movies.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The cult classic comic book became a smash hit for New Line, and while it may have been a bit too family-friendly an adaptation for the old-school TMNT enthusiasts, the films (along with a highly popular 1987 cartoon series) helped turn the property into pop culture gold for years to come. The first film remains the most novel, not surprisingly, thanks mainly to a playful directorial approach by Steve Barron and some legitimately impressive turtle costumes from the geniuses at Jim Henson Studios.


1991

The Rocketeer Sometimes it makes more sense to adapt the more obscure superheroes, if only because a character like the Rocketeer doesn’t come with all the hassle of a Superman or a Spider-Man. Regardless of why Disney opted to dust off this 1982 graphic novel for a film adaptation, the end result is a thoroughly enjoyable and adorably old-fashioned adventure story of a boy with a rocket-pack, his lovely lady and a cadre of devious villains. Give this charming flick a fresh spin and you’ll easily see why director Joe Johnston was eventually tapped to helm the first Captain America movie.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze They’re back, to bring in a few more dollars for New Line. And they succeed. This is the one with Vanilla Ice “rapping” about ninjas/turtles, by the way.


1992

Batman Returns Given that the first Batman film pulled in over $400 million worldwide, it only made sense that director Tim Burton would demand a lot more creative leeway than he was given the first time around—and the end result is wildly evident throughout most of Batman Returns. From Michelle Pfeiffer’s unapologetically sexy Catwoman to Danny DeVito’s unexpectedly disturbing portrayal of the Penguin, this sequel was a lot darker, weirder and challenging than its predecessor. It’s got the best aspects of Batman ‘89 (score, production design, Michael Keaton, etc.) combined with some unique and decidedly risky new assets of its own, which makes it the best film in the franchise, by a long shot, if it’s me you’re asking.


1993

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 The ass-kicking reptiles travel back in time to 15th century Japan, and the results are very feudal indeed.


1994

The Crow Some may say that a rock star who comes back from the dead to destroy his enemies wouldn’t qualify as a “superhero,” but for the sake of this article, The Crow certainly warrants inclusion. Infamous even before its release—lead actor Brandon Lee was killed on set by a faulty blank—the film changed hands a few times before Miramax released it and turned a tidy profit. The film itself is a grim and compelling supernatural revenge story, although it’s tough to watch, all things considered. The Crow was followed by three (progressively more terrible) sequels and a short-lived TV series. We can probably expect a remake sooner rather than later.

Fantastic Four This is the legendary superhero movie that Roger Corman produced solely in order to hold on to the character rights. Although it’s never been officially released in any form, astute movie geeks know where to find it. Whether or not the film was ever meant to be released is a topic of much debate, and while wise-ass aficionados may claim that the 1994 version of Fantastic Four is better than the 2015 version, it’s at least worthy of a YouTube search just so you can experience it for yourself. (It’s not every day you see a Fantastic Four movie that had a budget of one million bucks.) For more on this fascinating misfire, check out a documentary entitled Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.

The Shadow Alec Baldwin stars as a nefarious villain turned hypnotic hero. Relatively forgotten these days, but it’s not a bad film, thanks mainly to a superlative ensemble (Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Tim Curry, John Lone, Ian McKellen) and a deft period presentation by genre veteran Russell Mulcahy.


1995

Batman Forever Bat-fans will, of course, turn their nose up at the merest mention of this film’s successor (that’d be Batman & Robin) but it’s interesting to note how this second sequel laid the groundwork for the franchise’s horrific derailment. Not only was Joel Schumacher not the right guy to direct a Batman movie; he may have been the worst choice in the history of superhero cinema. (To be fair, Mr. Schumacher has made several good films… none of which have the word “Batman” in the title.)

From the chintzy-looking sets and the overtly stupid dialogue, nothing seems to work. The cast is jam-packed with A-list movie star—Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey seem to be participating in a scenery chewing contest—but very little attention seems to have been paid to presenting anything cohesive, energetic, or fun. Also Val Kilmer is maybe the most bored-looking Batman of all time.

Judge Dredd Long before Karl Urban and director Pete Travis got this character right, Sylvester Stallone and director Danny Cannon did not. Has a few stray moments of amusing diversion, but also stars Rob Schneider, which doesn’t help at all.


1996

The Phantom Another one from the obscure hero files. By this point virtually every studio was scrambling to turn old superheroes into new profits, and while this colorful little experiment didn’t make much of a splash upon its theatrical release, it seems to maintain a small but loyal fan base all the same. Based on a 1936 comic by Lee Falk, The Phantom covers the heroic exploits of the 21st consecutive Phantom as he makes his way through the New York City of the late 1930s. Hardly the most eye-popping superhero flick under the sun, but it’s not every day you get to see Billy Zane kicking butt in a purple superhero suit. Plus Treat Williams is clearly having fun as head baddie “Xander Drax,” and it’s tough to dislike any movie that features not only Kristy Swanson, but Catherine Zeta-Jones as well.


1997

Batman & Robin The undisputed train wreck of the Batman universe. From the garish sets and the ridiculous costumes to the confusing plot and mind-numbing dialogue, this woeful misfire still deserves to be cited as one of the worst superhero movies ever made. So disastrous was the film’s release that Warner Bros. opted to stick the whole franchise on a shelf for a few years, just to let the stink die down. Ever wonder why Batman movies got so much darker after this one? It’s partially because of how damn stupid Batman & Robin was.

Spawn One of the coolest characters to be found in the “indie comic book” realm…and yet the movie turned out to be a weirdly atonal mess. Based on the Faustian comic book by Todd McFarlane, Spawn tells the story of a bad-ass soldier-type who is assassinated by his boss, visits Hell, and comes back to Earth to wreak unholy revenge. Pretty straightforward stuff, story-wise, but aside from some fairly nifty special effects (for the late '90s, that is) the movie is flat, basic and frequently stupid. Word is there’s a new version going into production some time soon, which is good, because this creepy character deserves a much better movie.

Steel Noted thespian Shaquille O'Neal stars as DC’s armor-covered superlunkhead. A truly terrible experience for all involved, especially the viewers.


1998

Blade Up to this point one could say that Superman '78 and Batman '89 were the most influential superhero movies, but Stephen Norrington’s wildly kinetic and enjoyably wise-assed rendition of Marvel’s Blade character also deserves a spot on that short list. This was the movie that reignited the entire superhero movie craze after a long and forgettable series of relative misfires—and it set the stage for many more Marvel-based movies. Plus that opening dance club massacre scene still kicks all sorts of ass today.


1999

Mystery Men While many superhero movies were funny by accident, Mystery Men did its best to bring broad comedy and clever satire to a tale of goofy second-tier superheroes who are desperate to prove themselves capable. And while Mystery Men didn’t exactly blow down the box office doors upon its initial release, it has gone on to become a bona-fide cult classic among fans of silly superhero cinema. The film’s assets include a stellar ensemble cast, several legitimately funny bits, and a palpable affection for superhero stories.


Click here for Part 2, which starts with 2000’s X-Men and rockets straight through the present.


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