Liking Superhero Movies
Comic book superheros are modern myths. They are the epic hero turned into an accessible pulp story, borrowing genre elements from science fiction or fantasy as culture passes through new fads.
Comic books have evolved through ages of their own. Beginning with the Golden Age, when heroes were good and they triumphed over evil in uncomplicated narratives. The characters had little in the way of personality, but they carried strong identifying symbolism. Superman is created as an immigrant fable, coming to this new land and embodying all its best principles. Batman grabbed the zeitgeist of the detective novel and revenge stories of the 1930s and embraced the emerging post modernism. It borrowed style from the popular Zorro, and the dark ethos of The Shadow. The result is a mishmash of popularism that counter-balances Superman’s modernism and fills the gaps left over.
From the beginning, sequential art was designed to pull together art and interest from far and wide and craft it into something compelling.
So as the genre grew up, so did the sophistication. The Silver Age is born of Marvel and Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. A playful writer, Stan sought to inject a bit of real life into the stories, to ground his characters and make them more relatable. The result is a much more rounded personality with depth, challenges, struggle and triumph. Whether it is the drama of high school, or the family bickering of the Fantastic Four, superheroes are humanized in this phase.
In the early 1970s comics take a turn toward the dark with the death of Gwen Stacy, a love interest of Spiderman who he’s unable to save. This typically denotes the birth of the Bronze Age, where stories expand upon the reality of the Silver Age by focusing on societal issues like racism. Once indefatigable ideas were able to be bucked and counter-culture begins to be embraced. We see the rise of minority superheroes, horror comics (as the Comics Code is relaxed), and the embracing of non-superhero comic stories as the genre diversified.
Not to be out-darked, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen comes along in the 80s and with it the Modern Age. Independent comics flourish. Characters are rewritten and relaunched. The industry is almost wholly revised to the new sensibilities of their audience.
Here we also see the development of the X-Men franchise. More than a single storyline, this included a number of spin off series like X-Force, X-Factor, Excalibur, Wolverine, and New Mutants. And these series didn’t operate independently, but would have continuous cross overs, or X-overs, with one another. The network of interconnected stories became increasingly complex and sales skyrocketed. Fandom would dive deep in this new complexity.
Other series and companies saw this success and sought to copy the pattern. DC built up its own universe. At its peak one needed to read five different Superman comic series to keep up on the single narrative.
A new larger universe picture began to be painted with these overlapping stories and for the first time we began to see massive events impact multiple stories at once. Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, Infinity Wars, Flashpoint, Crisis on Infinite Earths. These massive ideas promulgate through the ecosystem building into things far larger than their individual parts. Following along takes patience, care, and often extended arguments in comic shops over interpretations.
Meanwhile, this evolution was being shadowed by another medium. Comic book film adaptations, specifically superhero adaptations, wanted to cash in on the success of the comic book popularity, but would continue to struggle to do so for decades.
At first, it seems like an easy transition from comic to screen. Bob Kane put it, “Comic books and films are both highly visual media, the comic book panel a condensed version of a film frame." But success was far from guaranteed.
In the very early days there were almost no commercially successful comic book adaptations to film. There were a few minor gems that appealed to specialty hobbyist, but nothing notable for the mass public.
In 1978 Richard Donner’s Superman marks the first wide-spread success. It’s quickly followed by Superman II, and then the series falls off into poor reception. In the same year as Superman II, Marvel tried to release a Spider-Man film (made up of a 2-parter from a short lived TV series), Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge. It’s awful.
Thus is the pattern for the 80s and 90s. A film will stand out as pretty good, only to be drowned in dozens of half-hearted adaptations that feel phoned-in. Supergirl, The Punisher, Tim Burton’s Batman and follow-ups, The Rocketeer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Darkman, Blankman, The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, The Fantastic Four, Spawn, Men in Black, Blade, The Crow, Daredevil, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four again!, Elektra, Constantine, Catwoman, Hellboy, Ghost Rider, and the list goes on and on.
These films would occasionally hit and tell a simple story in a compelling way. More often than not they’d be panned by audiences and fans alike. Why? Sometimes the adaptation wouldn’t hold true to the comic, or would misrepresent the character. Sometimes they’d feel the need to inject juvenile humor or cringe-worthy cheesiness because of this idea that comic books are for kids, and that’s what they’ll like. Sometimes it seems earnest, but the technology wasn’t there, or the acting, or the script.
None of these films could really capture the essence of Modern Age comics, though, because they lacked the time and framework to tell the bigger story. Most superhero films would focus on an origin story first. It was easy to tell and provided a reliable model for a beginning, middle, and end. And then the follow up films would try packing in villains to make up for a lack of character development and fall flat.
We see this with each of the first two Spiderman series. We see it with Superman and with Batman. Even the first run of the X-Men follows this pattern. We finally start to see some exceptions in the late 2000s, though.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy starting in 2008 manages to complete itself without falling on its face. We still have other films trickling in beyond that time: the second Spider-Man series, Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Kick-Ass, more X-Men. But that 2008 date started the transition point.
Because also in 2008 is Iron Man, notable for being the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We see in a post-credit scene a hint of things to come in mentioning the Avengers Initiative. While the next several films will still be stand-alone origin stories for various superheroes, comic audiences familiar with Modern Age comics know what Marvel is building, and they begin to show their support for it.
For the first time on screen we see a hint of the macro-storyline, a film of films, a storyline that embraces multiple storylines like we’ve known in print for the last 30 years and which nobody has ever believed possible to see brought to the big screen. Audiences would never go for it, right? It’s such a crazy idea that you’d need to see these five films before you could enjoy this new one. Studios would never limit their audience in that way, so there’s no chance we’ll see that sort of adaptation.
And so when the Avengers take the big screen it’s a jaw-dropping moment of realization for the comic nerd. It is possible, it is happening, and these really niche things that have been a private joy and often public ridicule is now being embraced in the mainstream. This is uplifting and it is cathartic.
And it continues! Twenty one films lead up to Avengers: Endgame. That’s like saying you need to see every James Bond film every made to enjoy Casino Royale. It’s utterly ridiculous!
And boy do people hate it. Or rather, they love to hate on it. Now that this is a successful franchise it is ripe for criticism. “All the films are the same.” “It’s not art, it’s not cinema.” “Everything is being Marvelified.”
And is it true? Well, in some fashion it has truth in it. Studios see an impressive model based on existing intellectual property and want to do that themselves. They all want a cinematic universe. What an unbelievable cash cow!
But DC’s continued struggle to get off the ground proves it’s not that simple. People aren’t automatically going to get behind a comic book universe just because it’s there. They want good stories, and for the most part that’s what Marvel has delivered. They managed to move beyond the origin stories to tell new, interesting, compelling tales. They looked to their history and leaned into social commentary of the Bronze and Modern Ages. They build up toward the macro-story for punctuation in what would otherwise seem and endless plodding of films. Now there are Phases discussed. Each film and TV show must stand on its own, but also can rely on the macro story to pull in audiences that might otherwise not care. How many people had ever heard of these new comic characters that now get their own TV series?
Compelling stories get us there. Marvel has had literal decades to build them in print form. They know what their fans liked and didn’t like. They see opportunities to bring these to life, to give them a modern twist (like comics have always done since the start). They continue to evolve and do new things, and for that reason I’m still a fan.
What about when a show falls flat? Or a film? Well, that’s too bad. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. But it’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom for the whole franchise. If Ant Man 35: The Kitty Saucer doesn’t blow away audiences there’s a lot of momentum built that people are invested in and will stick around for. Is it possible for the whole thing to come crashing down one day? Oh certainly! But there’s still good stories to tell. There’s new ground to walk and things to see brought to the screen.
And yeah, when I watch a film that required 13 TV series and 44 films of pre-viewing before I get the inside joke in the post-credit scene, that comic book nerd in his 6th grade comic book club is cheering his head off inside my soul. This is awesome, and I feel no shame in enjoying it.