The Evolution Of Superhero Films

Tim Burton's ‘Batman’ represented what would come to be a norm with this genre, a front-loaded blockbuster, being at the Star Wars of its generation. Batman helped kill the template of the ‘Action Star’ alas a movie star vehicle. Michael Keaton’s casting, despite controversy, proved you did not need a well-known or established action hero to anchor the film in question towards critical and commercial success. Although controversial at the time, Burton and producer Jon Peters insisted that comedic actor Michael Keaton had the “edgy, tormented quality” necessary to portray their darker version of Bruce Wayne and his costumed alter-ego. The film’s critical and financial success proved their quirky instincts correct. This risky decision opened doors for the unlikely casting of Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, and helped redefine what cinematic superheroes look like. 

This would pave the way, yet not immediately, for large studio tentpoles much like Batman to push Hollywood into confidently making Films that are dependent on concept over movie star. The appeal of seeing characters such as Batman on screen as well as their companions, be it a side kick like ‘Robin’ or a supervillain such as ‘The Joker’, whom vastly outshined the actors who played them. A very recent example of an original concept with a ‘reliable’ movie star is the Tom Cruise led Sci-Fi film Edge of Tomorrow a well-received Film that underperformed at the box office. Although having a star to support projects, it’s an ideal that concept remain key. But unlike successes, Star Wars or Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975) at the time, Batman was an adaptation of a very popular comic book which would then lead the character to spawn his own television show and so on. With that in mind, Warner Bro’s. who produced the Film was able to create something ‘original’ that could somehow play like a sequel due to the character being established in the comics with such a large support and fandom behind it. Batman’s story has intrigued its readers through all aspects of his character by relating to issues children face and giving them a hero to aspire to be. Doing this is what has helped the Batman franchise thrive for so long.

The huge success of ‘Batman’ lead to a constant flow of old projects such as television shows like ‘Mission: Impossible’ to return to the big screen in forms of reboots and sequels. This is an over saturated trend in the present day with originality heavily lacking in favour of these remakes of old content that people are too familiar with. Hollywood now practically utilises old projects and recycles them for a new market of nostalgic audiences as well as new ones to help increase any extra box office revenue they can get their hands on. Although old stories being re told does not always end favourably for the studios. Most of the time, the original achieved success due to its appeal to a certain audience. Consequently, the filmmakers of the reboot try to appeal to a different or wider demographic as a means to give it a distinction. As a result, we get movies like Ghostbusters (2016), which was one of the most hated movies of its release year. Instead, filmmakers need to realize that successful movies cater to and flourish within only a certain demographic.

A negative association with ‘Batman’s success can be, regardless of its astounding commercial performance which should be applauded, is that it had the advantage of being a pre-established property. It embodies the template for the modern-day blockbuster, leaving both a wonderful and terrible legacy behind it and setting the mould for every generic blockbuster that crowds the marketplace to this day. The growing reliance on pre-sold properties – themselves mainly drawn from the same junk – culture universe of old TV shows and comic books – captures the sense of a constant cannibalistic recycling of an exhausted set of tropes and paradigms to an even lower common denominator.

While it conveys the visceral wonder of seeing beloved characters much like the titular hero of ‘Batman’ himself, it carries the burden of setting the stage for a loss; seeing original characters who could be potentially iconic, if ever given the opportunity.

In present day, both Marvel and DC are without a doubt the most prominent franchises in the industry, across all genres and the whole film landscape. 2008 marked the beginning of not only the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ with the release of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) but of a ‘Superhero renaissance’ where the conversation always centres on the films of this genre and the critical and commercial success that follows them. Superhero film ideologically follow suit on the current climate of the society they take place in to reflect on audiences who are experiencing the same things as them. Pre-9/11, superheroes were depicted as over the top fantasy and camp entertainment, but now it’s all changed.

These figures are super powered beings, able to do things beyond the grasp of mortal man. But, in most cases, they are men and women themselves. The spectre of terrorism that reared its head on 9/11 has fundamentally changed the heroes, as well as the country. They are no longer purely nationalistic icons of the might of a nation state, or manifestations of a particular wish-dream or emotion. They are more vulnerable, uncertain in many of their decisions and constantly adapting to the changing position of America in the world. Which is why they have a much more oversaturated share in the market today, as these gritty depictions are more relatable for audiences to identify with which is what makes the majority of them such great successes.

Iron Man was released the same year as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), with both films being the highest grossing films of the domestic box office that year. Since then, their performances have remained consistent in success both critically and commercially, with the rate of delivery getting larger and larger to where 2018 had eight Superhero Films receive a theatrical release. This standing as the biggest, and best, year to date for superheroes at the box office, defying the doom-sayers, if perhaps not silencing them. This year, a record $11.4 billion was earned at the domestic box office, largely fueled by such superhero films.

Globally, the subgenre grossed $7.475 billion and counting. Pop culture is today strengthened by the symbolic themes these films portray and although comic books are still purchased and read, movies are the new medium to present these beloved characters to both old and new audiences which is reflected on the box office statistics. In many such cases, superheroes have not only had an overwhelming influence on pop culture but also on history itself, regardless of any personal opinion. 

16 August 2021
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