The popularity of superhero cinema today is extremely massive, and in the most high-profile cases has become a billion-dollar business at the box office. While the genre has certainly not always done that level of immense business over the course of its life, it's hard to deny that it has certainly always been popular. The beginning of the modern superhero film was 1978's Superman: The Movie directed by Richard Donner, and it created a precedent of popularity with audiences for making us "believe a man could fly."
By today's standards, superhero movies have evolved quite a bit since the days of Christopher Reeve's Superman squaring off against Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. Where before you could expect relatively simple, straightforward "good vs. evil" plots in those stories, now superhero films have become bigger, broader, and especially more narratively sophisticated. Contemporary audiences expect (and in some cases demand) that their heroes have problems. The depiction of a paragon in a cape simply does not work well for modern superhero film audiences (as evidenced by the bland reputation of a film like Superman Returns), and a straightforward "good vs. evil" plot can also be similarly derided by audiences for a lack of complexity.
When and where did this happen? Superheroes were archetypal characters created primarily for children in the 1930s, so how have they skewed so much from that demographic to become part-time Oscar contenders today? Well, like most material mined for these movies, the evolution of the films' content comes from the same place that the characters and stories do: the comics.
The Early Evolution of Comic Book Storytelling
By the mid-to-late 1970s, straightforward good-vs.-evil plots had been a hallmark of superhero comic books for nearly 40 years, since Superman was first seen single-handedly wrecking a car on the cover of Action Comics #1. In the '40s the covers depicted the Man of Steel pummeling Adolf Hitler and Japanese Emperor Hirohito while encouraging readers to buy war bonds, and the 1950s took things in an even zanier direction by having sci-fi stories featuring previously grounded characters like Batman. In the 1960s, with the introduction of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man, Marvel Comics proved that you could get a little more complex without losing readers, and can, in fact, get very dark while enthralling them (as proved by the death of Gwen Stacy).
The 1970s saw some more socially conscious comic book storytelling, particularly by the legendary creative team of writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams at DC. The pair's stories in Green Lantern/Green Arrow saw important issues like race relations and drug abuse tackled within the story pages, while the team's jump to Batman returned that character to his darker roots in the wake of the '60s TV show's cancellation. Still, even in reading these revolutionary (for their time) comics today, there's an element in the storytelling itself that can feel somewhat dated (for instance, every sentence ending in an exclamation mark!). As important as the 1960s and '70s were to the evolution of comic book storytelling on a thematic level, the next decade would prove to be a pivotal turning point in both style and substance.
The 1980s and the British Invasion... of Comics
With the dawn of the 1980s, a massive amount of changes in both reading audience and in the creators themselves brought about something of a renaissance in comic book storytelling. Fans that had been reading as children in the 1960s and '70s were now older, and with an older reading audience came a greater need for more thematically complex storytelling. This was really the moment when the so-called "British invasion" of comics brought a multitude of new, talented creators from across the Atlantic to work on the library of American comic characters. Artists like Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons and Steve Dillon helped to establish a new visual language for comics for the new decade, and it wasn't long before a new narrative language was established as well.
It was Alan Moore's now classic work on DC's ongoing Swamp Thing series that prompted DC Comics editor Karen Berger to bring in a wealth of other talent from the U.K., and some of the names she helped bring now account for some of the most beloved creators in the history of the medium: Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean and Grant Morrison among them. Gaiman, of course, went on to create Sandman and a multitude of other original works that have firmly cemented him as one of the best storytellers of the modern era, comics or not.
Morrison, who got his start writing an eccentric and acclaimed Animal Man series for DC, has gone on to contribute heavily to the mythologies of other superheroes like the X-Men, Batman and Superman in addition to creating highly imaginative creator-owned stories like The Filth, We3, The Invisibles and Joe the Barbarian. Comics now had a license to go places never thought before, and this was a signal to other American creators to go new places as well.
This was a sign to Frank Miller, who in the 1980s became perhaps the most visionary and celebrated American comics creator with the publication of his seminal Batman series The Dark Knight Returns. While the 1970s had done a lot for the Batman character in returning him to his more menacing roots, DKR proved to be a transformative tale for the character, perhaps doing the most in the minds of readers to banish the image of the campy "bright knight" Adam West had created in the 1960s. This was a sign to producers like Michael Uslan, who had tried with great difficulty since the late 1970s to get a darker Batman film green-lit at any major studio that would take it. Now, he had visual ammunition with which to pitch the creation of a serious cinematic undertaking for Batman, and with the publication of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke in 1988, things finally started to happen.
In 1989, Tim Burton's Batman was released to a public that was absolutely clamoring for it, and it became one of the biggest blockbusters of the entire decade. Darker subject matter and tortured characters became the order of the day, and although it helped comic book cinema in the short term, it would be another decade before the stories of the 1980s became the source material for an entirely new generation of comic book films.
The Birth of the Modern Comic Book Movie
Comic book cinema saw its modern resurgence with the release of 2000's X-Men. With a new generation of filmmakers now taking on the responsibility of adapting these characters, a new concern came with them: fidelity to the source material. In the comic book films of the 1990s, there was never really a concern to adapt existing material in the same fashion that other directors would choose to adapt a book or a play. For whatever reason, directors, writers and executives felt that basing a comic character's film off of a comic book was beneath them somehow. Kevin Smith has gone on record about suggesting that Warner Bros. hire then-Superman comics editor Mike Carlin to write a script for a Superman film, but the suggestion was shut down because "comic book people" and "movie people" were too different.
With a bit more room between the defining stories of the 1980s, and a generation of filmmakers with more reverence for that material coming up as stewards of that material, comic book movies were now free to tell not only new stories on film with these kinds of characters, but also stay true to traits and situations first established in the pages of the comics themselves.
It's the reverence to source material that gave rise to films like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, the original Iron Man, as well as the heavy hitters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight. Comic book cinema took longer than many fans would've liked to take substantive lessons from the source material, but since it finally has -- and with the promise of many new and interesting comics films on the horizon, like the Man of Steel sequel featuring Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- it's hard not to come to a conclusion that we're enjoying something of a new golden age when it comes to comics on film.
Thanks for reading this week's column! We'll see you right back here next week.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: