Opinions change with time.
Below is an arbitrary listicle I whipped up for the old site. I am including the original preamble despite the fact that I am now going to contradict it at the end of the listicle.
I had recently remarked that Avengers Infinity War was almost but not quite my new number one superhero film. Which naturally provoked the question of, what are my top five superhero movies?
This arbitrary list is made up of the superhero films that I feel, “moved things to the next level.” Perhaps not the biggest money makers of all time but they set the bar for various reasons.
And lets get this one out of the way now. No. I did not include Tim Burton’s Batman on the grounds that it was not a Batman film or a superhero film, it was a Tim Burton film. Far from moving things to the next level it ended up retarding the entire genre for a decade.
I will start with my number one
1, The Dark Knight (2008)
This one is still the reigning champ. It was easily the best movie of 2008 and of course it didn’t even get nominated, which is par for the course with the Academy. Heath Ledger did get a well deserved Oscar nod for his portrayal of Joker but he literally had to die to get it.
Regardless, this film remains the summit that all other superhero films must surpass if they want to be number one.
The characters and their motivations were established in Batman Begins, this picture was where Batman’s story really begins. Bruce Wayne goes through genuine loss and suffering on his hunt for a prey that enjoys being hunted and won’t be defeated by a mere physical beat down from the Dark Knight.
2. Avengers Infinity War
This one came close to beating out Dark Knight but it had one major stumbling block. When Rachal Dawes dies in Dark Knight you absolutely know for certain that she is staying dead. There will be no walking that one back.
Where as you also know damn good and well that all of the of the Marvel heroes, probably to include Loki will rise from the dead at the end of the next movie.
Not a happy film to be certain but a good one none the less and a proper send off for Hugh Jackman’s iteration. Sure Wolverine is going to be back but it will never be Jackman playing him again.
4. X-Men (2000)
This is the one that in my opinion started the superhero cycle in earnest. After the disaster of the Batman cycle in the 1990s superheroes were either comic camp (Batman and Robin) or supernatural monsters (Blade, Spawn).
The X-Men were actually heroic heroes with super villains for opponents. But they were well structured villains. It was hard not to sympathize with Magento. You could get where he was coming from.
But here’s the thing. This movie did set the bar and set it pretty high. It created the standard for all of the superhero movies that followed it.
5. Superman (1978)
This was genesis. The first superhero movie (do not even consider mentioning Batman (1966). I admit freely that it hasn’t aged well but it is still pretty watchable. It was the first movie to approach the subject matter in a (more or less) serious manner. Superman was made as an epic and it worked as one. John Williams scores has stood the test of time.
The let down was the enemy. Lex Luthor was too catoonish as a villain to take seriously, however, it should be noted that Zod was always meant to be the main villain and that Superman I and II were originally meant to be one film. It decided by the producers to make it two films and then they removed Richard Donner for that hack Lester in mid production of Superman II. There is now a “Richard Donner Cut” available which I have not seen.
Regardless. Little Cataline never quite believed a man could fly but he almost could. Christopher Reeve remains the Superman gold standard. His portrayal is still the one that everyone knows is the best Man of Steel.
I had said… Rather haughtily… That I didn’t include Tim Burton’s Batman as a superhero film because it wasn’t one. My opinion has changed due to a paradigm shift.
Superhero movies come in ages. I only realized that now because one of them just ended. And the Avengers Endgame is quite clearly the end of an era.
The first era was the Radio Days of the 1940s Age. Both film serials and radio shows played it relatively straight. It was adventure, only meant to be light, exciting entertainment. The Adventures of the Superman in the 1950s continued that milieu. The primary audience was intended to be juvenile.
But then came Batman the TV show. It was the start of a new era. The Superheroes as Camp Age. Although the audience remained juvenile, (with some stoner college hippies thrown in) superheroes were now meant to be played for laughs.
Superman the movie was also part of this age. Although he wasn’t really meant to be. Richard Donner wanted to make the first serious superhero movie. The studio on the other hand got cold feet and decided to go with a more conservative, superhero as camp approach. Superman 3 and 4 made no attempt at anything weighty, they were basically TV’s Batman with a guy who could fly. Ironically this was at a point in time where comics were suddenly very grownup indeed. And in point of fact it lead to the next age.
Two years after the horror that was Superman IV the Quest for Peace, Warner Brothers decided they might have something with a film treatment of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. We’ll never know if they were right because the only guy interested in directing it was Tim Burton and he barely glanced at Miller’s comic book in passing.
Two things that have to be remembered about Batman (1989) and the furor that surrounded it before it’s opening. One, the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker was the primary reason we wanted to see it in the first place. Two, this was the first film superhero that young, cynical Generation X took a real interest in. Superman had been fine when we were kids but now we were ready for some grown up fare. It wasn’t the Dark Knight but it would do.
It was very much the start of a new age and deliberately so. All of the cast members from the 1966 show were sidelined and Adam West and Burt Ward got cease desist orders to stop wearing their costumes to supermarket openings.
The thoroughly grim-dark Batman paved the way for the monster-heroes of the 1990s like Spawn and Blade. No kids allowed for those flicks. Although towards the end of the decade, the Burton Batman had reverted to camp. Which despite a poor box office performance, appears to have inspired the thoroughly forgettable Mystery Men. The movie that brought the Age of the Nineties Batman to a close.
The next age began with X-Men in 2000. That film in addition to Spiderman heralded a new realism in the genre that would be the hallmark of the 00s. Kids were allowed back in but they were not the primary audience. Adults were the real market.
Now to outward appearances, the X-Men Age is the one we are in today but really it isn’t. That era began to transition into the modern one with the failure of The Incredible Hulk (2008). That same year saw the release of Ironman.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) poured cement on the X-Men Age’s grave. The torch had been passed. Grim-dark wasn’t selling for Marvel* anymore and Tony (the Ultimate Gen-Xer) Stark was.
When Captain America was released, the Infinity Stones Age was begun and with the release of Endgame it has now ended.
This is kind of an odd thing. Before now it took a bit of hindsight to see that an era had ended but this time it’s obvious. We all know something is over for Marvel and for superheroes in general.
*Yeah, I know what year Dark Knight Rises came out and how much it made. But that movie had the inertia of two other movies behind it.
2 thoughts on “The Superhero Lifecycle”
Hey, I liked Mystery Men, as a lovable doofy satire of Superhero films. (It was a VERY 90’s college-goer film and I was just at the right age/stage of my life for it.) I suppose you just had to be there….
My comic shop manager turned me on to Mystery Men. It was one of the movies I’d run on the DVD player when I was running the store. The other big one was Batman Begins. I don’t know how many times I watched that one. It never got old. Perfect movie.