Hollywood Set Out to Make Superheroes Credible

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures
October 11th, 2013

Hollywood Set Out to Make Superheroes Credible

These days, superheroes command a lot of respect. Their versatility is part of their charm. In one scene, a superhero might don an improbably tight outfit and pull off superhuman martial arts moves. In the next scene, he shows his human side, revealing just how complex and tortured a superhero's private life can be. This play between light and dark is one of the hallmarks of many contemporary superhero movies. The merger of slick action and sophisticated themes has turned superheroes into one of Hollywood's most credible box office draws. However, action heroes didn't always have this level of credibility. It's been an ongoing fight for superheroes to truly be taken seriously.

Once upon a time, superheroes were mostly relegated to the pages of comic books. Mostly considered entertainment for kids, these masked avengers provided easy escapism and a sense of wholesome adventure. Tall, muscle-bound, and patriotic, comic book superheroes saved the damsels in distress and tossed out pithy one-liners. Although plenty of adults also enjoyed reading about the adventures of Superman and Batman, younger people remained their biggest and most loyal fan base.

After rising to prominence during the 1930s and 1940s, these wholesome superheroes hit a rough patch for the next few decades. They ultimately survived by jumping ship and transitioning to a new medium. Batman, Wonder Woman, and other caped crusaders found new audiences with their successful TV series. Still, these TV shows tended to be flashy and campy. During the 1960s and part of the 1970s, it seemed that superheroes would have to eke out a living by relying on their comedic talents as much as their superpowers.

In the late 1970s, superheroes finally had a fresh chance to grow as characters. Comic book writers began to explore darker themes and show audiences the complex minds behind the mysterious masks. This was the beginning of a new age for vigilantes. In 1978, "Superman" hit theaters. As the first major movie based on a comic book superhero, "Superman" made audiences everywhere rethink the potential of the superhero narrative. The movie blends humor with serious themes, managing to make Superman both an epic hero and a relatable character. People who had never cracked open a comic book were starting to take serious notice of superheroes for the first time.

In the 1980s, innovative director Tim Burton stepped in to revitalize the Batman franchise. He brought a dark whimsy and stylized strangeness to Gotham City. His artistic vision was a success, encouraging other filmmakers to experiment with the genre. The next few decades would feature a slow ramping up of superhero flicks. The lineup soon included both successes and flops. In 1990, "Dick Tracy" won Oscar awards in categories including art direction and makeup. This kind of recognition helped further the credibility of superhero movies.

The true golden age of superhero movies didn't occur until the 2000s. Along the way, movies such as "Batman & Robin" (1997) and "Steel" (1997) nearly destroyed the good reputation that superheroes had started to gain. Wesley Snipes starred in "Blade" in 1998. With its vampire-focused plotline and intense visuals, "Blade" stood out from the crowd. The darker, edgier superhero movie captured fan's imaginations, paving the way for the epoch that was just around the corner. These 1990s movies showed critics that superhero movies could be visually interesting and adrenaline-charged. However, the concept of superheroes as versatile, interesting characters still hadn't gained full traction in Hollywood.

"X-Men" (2000) exceeded fans' expectations with a strong ensemble cast and a blend of action scenes and engaging storytelling. Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" (2002) was a phenomenal success a few years later. Spider-Man has always been a unique superhero with a compelling origin story. Audiences responded to Raimi's richly realized superhero movie by flocking to the theaters. With the box office proceeds to motivate them, studios and directors realized just how credible superheroes had become.

These days, Hollywood's love affair with comic book superheroes is still going strong. The most prestigious actors and directors are eager to tackle superhero projects. Christopher Nolan's critically acclaimed reboot of the Batman franchise stars serious actors such as Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, and Morgan Freeman. Alan Moore's intelligent, challenging graphic novels have acted as source material for films including "Watchmen" (2009). "Iron Man" (2008) and its sequels feature Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero with depth and charisma to spare. Joss Whedon brought both wit and smarts to "The Avengers" (2012). The movie has an unparalleled ensemble cast that shows just how far superhero movies have come.

Superheroes have not always been a serious force in American pop culture. While caped crusaders will always owe an incredible debt to comic books, they owe their credibility and far-reaching appeal to Hollywood.