A Somewhat Brief History of Comic Book Films
By Daniel F.
Comic book movies have been around for a long time. The new craze going around is nothing new. Nowadays, comic book films are major box office contenders, but the history of these movies is long and interesting to the film buff in us all.
The first major comic book film came from a TV show: “Batman” from the 60’s.
Starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader with Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin, the show is now known for being campy (with the whole absurd Bat-Shark Repellant and every other Bat gadget) and with the fight scenes. You know the kind, the ones with BANG! and POW! coming onto the screen with someone gets hit. The movie (where Bat-Shark Repellent came from) featured the two heroes facing off against The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman. This film showed the comedic side of comic books.
In 1978, Richard Donner directed the next major comic book film: “Superman.”
This film had Christopher Reeve as the titular hero. It focused on Superman romancing Lois Lane and battling Lex Luthor. The film is notable for being both a critical and financial success, something that wasn’t common for comic book films in the 60s and 70s. It is also included on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies List. It spawned numerous sequels, another thing that would become common for comic book films.
The 80s featured the first major comic book film boom. Films such as 1980’s “Flash Gordon” (with a soundtrack by Queen, of all bands), “Superman II,” 1982’s “Swamp Thing,” 1983’s “Superman III,” 1984’s “Supergirl,” and 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (seeing a pattern here) all brought comic book movies to the forefront of cinema. Some were successes (“Superman II,” “Swamp Thing,” “Flash Gordon”) and others were failures (everything else).
However, one movie turned the superhero and comic book genre on its head. That film: Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989).
“Batman” featured a Gothic and darker tone than other comic book films. The film featured Batman (Michael Keaton) taking on The Joker (Jack Nicholson). It’s also a prominent Joker story. Jack Nicholson owned the role of the Clown Prince of Crime and made a super villain look cool. A sequel, “Batman Returns” (1992), came out and was even darker than the original.
Another good and underrated Batman film to note is 1993’s “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.” This movie came out of the 90s cartoon “Batman: The Animated Series”.
In the movie, Batman (Kevin Conroy) deals with a new villain, The Phantasm, who is murdering crime bosses around Gotham. Did I mention this movie was for kids? The Joker (Mark Hamill) also shows up in the film as another obstacle for Batman.
When Joel Schumacher took over the Batman films returned to the campiness of the 60s. His movies, “Batman Forever” and the godawful “Batman & Robin,” returned to the campiness of the original Batman show.
However, dark and gritty comic book films were not dead yet. 1994 saw the release of Alex Proyas’ “The Crow.” This movie, based off of the 1989 comic book, followed Eric Draven, (Brandon Lee, who sadly died during the film) a rock musician who is murdered and brought back to life to avenge his death and the rape and murder of his fiancé. That’s right folks, this movie is violent.
“The Crow” also featured something new to comic book films, an R rating.
The film spawned several sequels and other R rated comic book films, such as the “Blade Trilogy.” “Blade” featured a half-vampire half-human hybrid (Wesley Snipes) who fought other vampires.
Another famous comic book film during the 90s was “Men in Black.”
The film featured Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent J (Will Smith) as Men in Black fighting and supervising alien lifeforms on Earth. It also became the first Marvel movie to win an Oscar (Best Makeup). Both this and “Blade” began Marvel’s film success.
The 2000s saw more popular superheroes get film adaptations. These are more well known today. 2000 saw the beginning of the “X-Men” franchise, which focused on super powered mutants. This franchise continues today, with last year’s “Logan” being a swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and possibly Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier.
In 2002, Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead,” yes that Sam Raimi) released “Spider-Man.”
The titular web-slinger (Tobey Maguire) fought off against his arch rival The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). The film was also released after the 9/11 attacks and featured a trailer with a giant web in between World Trade Center towers. This was pulled after the attacks, but still became a profound statement. The movie spawned two sequels, “Spider-Man 2,” (which is considered the best of the three) and “Spider-Man 3.”
Other films that came out included “Daredevil” (2003), “Hulk” (2003), “Catwoman” (2004), “The Punisher” (2004), “Fantastic Four” (2005), and “Ghost Rider” (2007). Most of these movies had poor receptions (with “Hulk” having a more mixed reception).
Comic book films had branched out during this time as well. Guillermo del Toro directed 2004’s “Hellboy,” which followed a demon fighting against undead Nazis.
In 2006, “V for Vendetta,” based off of the Alan Moore comic, came out.
The film followed the anarchist V (Hugo Weaving) battling against a corrupt “1984”-esque government led by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, who played the protagonist Winston Smith of the “1984’ film adaptation).
Another Alan Moore comic, “From Hell” had a movie adaptation come out in 2001. This movie followed a Sherlock Holmes-esque figure (Johnny Depp) hunting Jack the Ripper.
Finally, 2005’s “Constantine” (another Alan Moore comic character) followed the titular occult detective (Keanu Reeves) battling demons. All of these, except “Hellboy,” had R ratings.
2008 was the year comic book films changed into what they are now. With two films, one Marvel, one DC, released just about two months apart, the comic book film became the critical and financial darling it is today.
Feature image from Marvel Entertainment’s Twitter page.