Friday, April 27, 2012

The Most Seminal Superhero Films of All-Time

With The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises hitting theaters this Summer, I figured it'd be fun to take a look back at what I feel were the most seminal superhero films of all-time, in essence, the superhero movies that changed the game.  As a fan of comic books, a filmmaker, and a die hard film fan, there is always going to be that push from me to try and get people to take superhero films as seriously as they take an Oscar winning drama like The Artist.  Alas, most do not, but I will continue to be an advocate for superhero films, which is why I think examining the films that have made the largest strides in making superhero films not just viable entertainment, but worthwhile drama as well, is so important.  Now in my personal opinion, there have only been five superhero films that can be labeled as gamechangers of the genre and those five are...You didn't really think I was gonna give it away, did you?  First, we've gotta understand where the public opinion of superhero films not being worthy of dramatic notice, came from.

In so many ways, the comic book companies have themselves to blame.  The early superhero comics through the '40s, '50s, and '60s, were for the most part infantile in story and character, with very little drama, and were very campy.  Therefore, Hollywood reflected that in their own superhero productions.  The early Batman and Superman movie serials in the '40s were campy and targeted towards kids, they didn't feature the complicated, dramatic storylines of the normal films the studios were producing at that time.  Then, TV made it worse in the '50s and '60s, with the Saturday morning cartoons and the TV shows of these superheroes that were more making fun of these heroes than representing them as great, complex characters.  Of course, the biggest blow came in the late '60s when Batman came out, the Adam West film spawned from the TV series, and suffice to say, that put the nail in the coffin for superheroes on film till 10 years later, when the first of the five seminal superhero films hit theaters in 1978.

Superman:  The Movie is a seminal superhero film, because it was the first ever superhero film to treat the source material with the respect that it deserved, and managed to appeal not just to children, but to adults as well.  What director Richard Donner and actor Christopher Reeve did with this film, was they treated the character of Superman as an emotionally conflicted man who happened to be from outer space.  They didn't make jokes at the character's expense like Adam West did, but if they made jokes it was simply because the characters were funny (i.e. all of the great banter between Lois and Clark or the arguing between Lex and Otis).  As well, they made it dramatic.  They weren't doing little wink-winks to the camera when the nukes were launched in the climax of the film, they took it seriously.  They presented it as drama.  When Lois Lane dies at the end of the film and Superman cries over her lifeless body, that is something you would have never seen George Reeves or Adam West ever do.  With this greater attention to drama and human emotion, Superman:  The Movie is the first seminal superhero film, because it bridged the gap between kids' entertainment and adult entertainment, however it was still viewed as just that, entertainment.

Moving on to 1989 and the second of the seminal superhero films, Tim Burton's Batman.  Batman was a seminal superhero film, because if Superman:  The Movie proved there were adults willing to take superheroes seriously on the big screen, then Batman reaped all of the benefits.  In so many ways, Batman was not a movie made for children, it was dark and very adult from the very first frames of the film showing prostitutes and gangsters walking the streets of Gotham.  The film was taken serious from the very beginning, a large part thanks to the appearance of critically successful actor Jack Nicholson as the Joker.  However, even though the film picked up the ball where Superman left it, Batman did not go beyond being pure entertainment, that still took many more years.

The third of the seminal superhero films would have to be 2002's Spider-Man, as directed by Sam Raimi.  Why Spider-Man and not some other superhero flick from the early 2000s?  Well, quite simply, Spider-Man led this current wave of superhero cinema that has done so well over the past decade.  Like Batman and Superman:  The Movie it was mostly seen as an entertainment, albeit a great emotion-filled thrill ride, however Spider-Man came into its own by redefining the tropes of the superhero genre.  Before Spider-Man there had always been the pre-requisite villain and love interest, which Spider-Man had, but Spider-Man redefined the genre by presenting the most in depth origin story for any superhero put to screen till that point.  Now, almost every superhero origin story follows the same plot points as Spider-Man or another seminal film that I will mention in a short little while, but Spider-Man was one of the first superhero films to really explore who the character was underneath the mask and let that shape the character kicking butt and taking names, in so doing it made the origin story more in depth.  The origin of Spider-Man focused more so on Peter Parker and the affects that these new super powers had on him and his family, rather than focusing on the science fiction aspects or on the hero himself, like Superman:  The Movie did with portraying Superman as the real character and not Clark Kent, or even Batman where Batman is a more dominating force in Michael Keaton's performance than Bruce Wayne.

The fourth most seminal superhero film would have to be another Batman flick, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, released in 2005.  In so many ways, Batman Begins is not only one of the most seminal superhero movies of all-time, it also just happens to be one of the more seminal blockbusters of the past decade as well.  What Batman Begins did was it was the first real superhero film that I can remember to ever get serious consideration from many pundits to be up for an Academy Award.  Batman Begins was a gripping drama first, and an action epic second.  In some ways, Batman Begins was one of the first superhero films to cross over from being pure entertainment to being critically successful to the point that it wound up on many critics' best films of the year lists.  That is a rare feat, that many superhero movies before had not achieved.  While some other superhero flicks, like X-2 and Spider-Man 2 were equally loved by critics and were great at the drama first, action second mantra, where Batman Begins earns a spot and not those other films, is that it also revolutionized the way so many blockbusters were made after the fact.  Batman Begins was a big budget action film that utilized a non-linear narrative, that was as focused on flashbacks as it was on the present day story.  Before Batman Begins, blockbusters had the occasional flashback, but none before it had ever really been 1/3 flashback.  The focus on disrupting the traditional flow of the three-act structure separated Batman Begins from not just any other superhero film, but it also separated it from other blockbusters, as well, making people take notice to what Christopher Nolan was doing, and now there's a glut of non-linear blockbusters every year.

The fifth and final most seminal superhero film of all-time would have to be the big elephant in the room, The Dark Knight.  Not only is it the most financially successful superhero film of all-time, but it just so happens to be one of the most critically appreciated, so much so that when it was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, the following year the Academy Awards expanded the field from 5 to 10 nominees to accomodate more blockbusters that are deserving of being nominated for Best Picture.  How many times since The Dark Knight have I read or heard a director saying they wanted to make their blockbuster film, "Dark and realistic, like The Dark Knight?"  Too many to count.  The Dark Knight has had a profound impact on film, because of Christopher Nolan's unique vision as a director.  What made The Dark Knight so groundbreaking was he took everything dead seriously.  He portrayed it as if it was all happening in our real world, and that sense of realism has bled into every blockbuster since, whether I felt it was needed or not, but that's a different post for a different time.  What I do know is the effects of all five of these films are still being felt to this day, and they will continue to influence superhero films for many more years to come.

Now, you may be thinking there are an awful lot of Batman films and not many Marvel movies up here, but when Spider-Man or Iron Man have made as many films as Batman has, they can call and set up an appointment.  Of course, I personally foresee this list only getting larger as more and more talented filmmakers start to realize that superhero films can also be just really great films in general, and not just kids' movies.  This Summer may hold two new additions to this list.  If The Avengers fulfills the promise that Marvel has been dangling in front of us since the first Iron Man film of seeing the first multi-movie superhero crossover, bringing together heroes from four separate superhero films into one, then there is no way it wont make this list.  As for The Dark Knight Rises, I don't wanna jump to any conclusions, but if both of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have already made the cut, perhaps this one will be up to snuff?  I hope all superhero films are good, but only a few have been genuinely special, so here is hoping that The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises fulfill all of their promises.

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