Comic book adaptations have been a mainstay of our cinema diet since 1989. While it has had its ups and downs, and despite predictions that we are fed up with tights and capes, they still continue to be produced. That being said, there are some films in the genre that standout. This article will go over the films that I thought did exactly that. Be warned, it's a bit of a read.
10 Superhero Films That Impacted the Genre
- Batman & Robin
- The Dark Knight
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Captain America: Civil War
1. 'Superman' (1978)
While not the first film to come to mind for birthing a genre, we can thank Superman and Christopher Reeve for The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. Before this film, comic book adaptations had never really been done before. There had been TV shows, but nothing that translated into putting butts in seats.
While the 38-year-old film looks pretty dated now, it created the imagery of what it would be like to fly and have superpowers. It had the classic origin story of how Kal-El’s world was destroyed, his journey to earth, and learning of his powers and growing into the role of the hero.
An unusual element, considering more contemporary films, is that the ending features no big boss battles. Yes, Superman faces off against his mortal enemy Lex Luthor, but he’s not in some powersuit or has any powers. He is, however, a criminal genius and the movie’s climax has Superman trying to stop a plan to detonate two nukes simultaneously. It also seemingly ends with the death of the love interest, Lois Lane, until Superman uses his super speed to reverse time to the point where Lois is about to die so that he can save her.
This movie provided a character with growth and change, confronting the moral dilemmas of being a hero while also being biased with personal attachments. The villain is not comedy relief and has no superpowers, but they are a villain by force of personality. These elements have been hard to follow up as technology has gotten better and movies become more spectacle than storytelling, something even this franchise has declined into. But Superman will always be the first superhero movie and accomplished what it set out to do in terms of balancing storytelling, spectacle, and bringing people to the theaters.
2. 'Batman' (1989)
I already did an article on the legacy of this movie, so I will only be covering why it was a game changer. Prior to Batman, the only other superhero franchise out there was Superman. That series had petered out by the late eighties. It is also important to note that there was no cinematic arms race going on between DC and Marvel at this time.
Starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Batman both reinvigorated interest in superhero films and created the modern era of the genre. Superman was largely a product of its time; it had a clear moral compass and simple protagonist. It was something Americans at the time could grasp. It was not complicated, making it the perfect escapist movie.
By 1989, however, things were becoming less black and white. The public was becoming wary of generic products that were lacking substance and creativity. Batman brought that heroic spirit, but in a new, much darker form. The Caped Crusader was not a hero in the sense of his Kryptonian peer, but a vigilante. He is motivated to fight crime at night, out of the sight of the public. The only inspiration he wants to give is fear in the heart of his enemies. He is open to killing and does not go on any moralist preaching about right and wrong. He just goes in, kicks ass, and vanishes.
Batman is arguably the first anti-hero film and it opened up new doors of what could be done with these characters in movies. Like Superman though, it still used a heavy dose of spectacle, creating a universe that had a life of its own, down to the overbearing dark colors all over the screen. Also like Superman, it kicked off a franchise and made Batman a global icon recognized the world over. Its biggest legacy was showing the studios the amount of cash that could be made. It made $411 million dollars on a $35 million budget. That was $100 million more than what Superman made in 1978, which was still pretty good.
With that much green in the eye, it didn’t take a film expert to know that the movie business was not going to let this new cash cow go.
3. 'Batman & Robin' (1997)
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Why the hell would I put this disaster of a movie on a list of genre-altering films?
The answer is pretty simple. It was the first comic book adaptation to show the limits of how commercialized a movie could get before failing. At this time, the Caped Crusader had dominated the 1990s. Other superhero films that came after the original Batman were clearly copycats, providing nothing more than mild entertainment at best. The franchise itself had undergone some significant alterations.
Tim Burton, who had directed the 1989 movie, did Batman Returns in 1992. Just as the former was viewed through the lens of a dark, gothic circus, so did had the latter. It was even more strange and bizarre. Though the sequel was successful, the studio decided not bring on Burton for future Batman movies. He was replaced by Joel Schumacher, who brought a much different vision to the vigilante in Batman Forever in 1995.
This director’s vision was to shine some light back into the Dark Knight’s world. Characters were more campy, Batman told jokes, and the movie seemed more exaggerated, bordering on ridiculous. Batman & Robin continued that trend.
This time, the character was portrayed by new Hollywood poster boy George Clooney, reintroduced Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell from the last movie, and brought in a new sidekick in the form of Batgirl, performed by Alicia Silverstone. In this more colorful circus of Gotham, the heroic trio faced off against two villains, repeating Burton’s direction of having multiple villains. This time it was Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.
Though it made $238 million at the theaters, audiences generally rejected the movie for its bad acting, overly-campy approach, and just becoming too Hollywood. While Forever was also lighter, it retained enough of the dark element that made Batman feel like Batman. This film completely divorced itself from the source material. I remember seeing the commercials for this movie and being so put off that I didn’t even give them my money. I just knew it was going to suck.
The legacy of Batman & Robin indirectly established that the character and his universe was firmly rooted in darkness and there was no changing that. Burton’s films may have been dark, even depressing, but there was at least a solid story with the spectacle. Schumacher’s films lost that sense of balance.
The most enduring legacy was that it effectively killed off the franchise for eight years until Batman Begins in 2005. Hollywood and DC had lost their only franchise superhero and the disaster consequently made room for Marvel to step in with its own brand.
4. 'Spider-Man' (2002)
Marvel raised its own tent poles with Blade in 1998 and X-Men in 2000. Though both were successful, they still largely followed the same template as Batman; dark colors with equally dark heroes wearing black costumes. So in that sense, I couldn’t really regard them as markers on the genre.
Then came 2002 with Marvel’s flagship hero Spider-Man and the light was suddenly switched on, both figuratively and literally. Spider-Man almost completely abandoned the template of Batman. Taking place in New York City, it follows the journey of Peter Parker as he gains his powers, becomes a superhero, and comes to terms with his responsibilities (no that is not a pun).
Most of the action takes in place in broad daylight. Although the web-slinger was still a vigilante, his actions were out in public for all to see. His costume had no trace of black color patterns. The character, played by Toby Maguire, had issues. But with the exception of superpowers, they seemed largely normal. Parker was not the back up for his alter ego, but an equal player. Spider-Man was a coming-of-age story that was not afraid to go in a new direction with the classic hero.
The movie restored the balance of substantial story with spectacle in this new color palate. There were some trends it still continued. It had the bright colors and optimism of Superman, with the character complexity of Batman, and the light-hearted elements of Batman Forever. All the while still maintaining its own identity and balancing it out nearly perfectly.
Spider-Man reshaped the genre by freeing future movies from having to follow the same dark path as its predecessors in order to be successful. It also began Marvel’s long run of summer blockbusters and dominance of the genre.
5. 'The Dark Knight' (2008)
By this time, Batman had already made a successful return to the cinematic world with Batman Begins. Although it was no longer the only kid on the block or king of the hill, it established that when done right, the franchise was still a force to be reckoned with. However, it was The Dark Knight that took both the character and genre to a whole new level.
A follow-up to the success of Begins, the movie has Batman squaring off against his classic nemesis, the Joker. This was a forgone conclusion given the legacy of its inspiration. However, the take on the story and the villain was as eerie as it was profound. Nicholson’s Joker was an artistic and psychopathic genius. Heath Ledger took his incarnation in the direction of Christopher Nolan’s realistic vision.
The Joker did not survive a dip in an acid tank to get his distinct pale skin; he wore makeup. He also has no backstory; his origins are left clouded in mystery. He retains Nicholson's genius, but is more violent and unpredictable. He leaves Batman and the police constantly guessing at what his intentions are until the very end. A villain who proves himself this daunting for the heroes is very unusual. If he is funny, it’s either accidental, part of the character, or momentary.
Dark Knight also introduces the aspect of casualties and loss for the hero. Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes, is blown to hell.And that’s after she rejects him. Another supporting character and surprise villain, Harvey Dent, is clearly a hero for most of the film until the end. But by this point, you sympathize with him so much that when Batman is forced to tackle him off a ledge, thereby killing him, you feel the loss. Batman was hoping he would be his successor and now that hope was destroyed.
The film also strikes a social nerve as the Joker uses terrorist methods to force Gotham City to submit to his demands. The scene where he tries to force two boats full of passengers and prisoners to choose which one dies most explicitly demonstrates this theme. We were still scared and very overreactive to the threat of real terrorism. So for a superhero film to put our paranoia on display like that was a ballsy stroke of genius.
For all its darkness though, Dark Knight somehow retains its hopefulness in displaying Batman’s resolve to still do what is necessary, even in the face of such catastrophes. There is no easy, campy win that we normally assume to be present in the genre. But victory is well earned and deserved, elevating the idea of what Batman is in the social consciousness.
For its boldness, Dark Knight not only earned $374 million, but also several awards that year. The list included a posthumous Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor, as well as for Sound Editing. No superhero movie had achieved that level of success in both the theaters, the awards circuit, and with critics since Superman.
Where Batman & Robin showed the genre its limits when done poorly, Dark Knight did the exact opposite. It showed the world that a comic book adaptation could be successful, relevant, entertaining, and a critical success when it was treated with respect by all involved. It set a very high bar for all to follow. Many considered the film to be lightning in a bottle and still do as the genre is not normally taken seriously the award circuits. That said, the sky was now the limit for just how successful the genre could be and was now taken more seriously.
6. 'Ironman' (2008)
Dark Knight was definitely a hard act to follow, but Ironman managed to make its own mark on superhero cinema. By now, the arms race was beginning between Marvel and DC. Ironman was the new Marvel Studio’s turn at bat. The origin story of Tony Stark, a hedonistic billionaire and genius becoming a superhero, was not much different from its peers.
In comparison, it follows a similar beat with the earlier Spider-Man by contrasting a different atmosphere from the dark world of Batman. The protagonists are similar, but the directional take was different. Stark loves every bit of the spotlight as much as Bruce Wayne shuns it. The point of Stark not being Batman was hammered home at the end of the movie when he comes out as being Ironman in a news conference. You could argue that was the movie’s underlying point all along.
While the hero being publicly known is new, its true mark on the genre was introducing the concept of the shared universe and staying in the seats for the end credits. Marvel had begun an ambitious project of pulling together multiple superheroes by linking their individual movies. The end credits scene referred to something called the Avenger Initiative. This had never been done before.
Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and X-Men all belonged to different film studios. So even if they had wanted to do a shared universe back in the early 2000s, they legally couldn’t. And DC at that point only had Batman as its game piece on the superhero game board. They had no other real prospects.
So while the villain was second rate, the story somewhat typical, and not winning any major awards, Ironman managed to get Marvel Studios' foot in the door. It was starting something truly new and creative and the audience pondered if such an attempt was even possible.
7. 'The Avengers' (2012)
Avengers was an atomic blast everyone saw coming, but didn’t think would work. Since Ironman, Marvel Studios had been slowly and studiously setting up its major heroes for the ultimate team up. It was a true comic book brought to life on the big screen. The problem was that, with a few exceptions, superhero movies with multiple characters tended not to work. It was difficult to give each character their screen time in a way that felt legitimate and personal development usually failed.
Batman Returns was criticized by some critics for this, while still successful. Both Batman & Robin and Spiderman 3 effectively killed their franchises by attempting it. So when Marvel was set to bring Captain America, Ironman, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye onto the same arena together, I think we wondered if this was going to be the biggest bomb in the genre’s history.
However, the movie proved us all wrong. It made an astonishing $1.52 billion. This made it Marvel’s equivalent to The Dark Knight’s earlier award circuit success. Avengers was an earthquake that destroyed many preconceptions of what could be done with the genre, even more so than Dark Knight. The reasons for that success though are similar. We had a director and actors who respected the universe, and a mastering of the balancing act between a good script and spectacle.
It also proved the value of a long-term investment as the characters were already fleshed out and familiar to us because of their earlier, individual movies. Therefore, the trope of the origin story was entirely skipped, devoting more time to developing character relations.
After this, every major studio who owned a superhero began scrambling to recreate Marvel’s success. Their eyes must have exploded from all that green! However, they have ignored the major ingredient of patience in building character familiarity with the audience. Because of this, any future shared universe efforts are going to be forced to do an origin story or force new characters down our throats first and familiarize us with them second.
8. 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' (2014)
Marvel continued its dominance of the genre and then changed the game again with Winter Soldier. Part of the studio’s Phase 2 plan, it followed Captain America’s adventures as an agent for SHIELD and reintroduced a character to the MCU, Bucky Barnes. The film was made as a political thriller this time around.
This opened up new doors for the genre in its ability to tell a superhero story with different cinematic themes. An origin story was not needed and the writing was very grounded and down to earth. Watching it, I didn’t feel like I was watching super powered beings at all.
Interest became renewed in the genre. We no longer had to feel like we were watching a repeat of the same equation with different characters. It allowed those characters to react and behave differently, beyond what they would do in a typical genre film. New ways to be creative were now available to tell different, yet familiar, stories.
Another impact wasn’t as much of a game changer, but rather a cultural reminder. The movie’s theme of government surveillance for national security hit a chord with audiences already dealing with real life news about the issue. It was the same reaction with The Dark Knight, where the film transcends both the source material and itself, becoming a cultural beacon. Again, good writing with substance can create impactful rewards in any genre.
9. 'Captain America: Civil War' (2016)
The most recent film within the sub trilogy of Captain America movies, Civil War was Marvel Studios doing the impossible again. As I mentioned earlier, the bane of most films in the genre is an overload of heroes and villains. In fact, many felt that the Avengers sequel, which introduced even more characters to the MCU, was now starting to become plagued by this problem.
Civil War brought together a new team of Avengers, only to rip them apart over different views. This was embodied with the faction leaders, Ironman and Captain America. The film already benefited from us being familiar with most of the characters, with the only newbies being Black Panther and Zemo. However, rather than going into origin stories for both of them, the film briefly mentions or emphasizes their backstory as it develops. It killed two birds with one stone.
This movie made its mark on the genre in two ways. The first being the start to the airport battle, where it literally starts off looking like they ripped the pages off a comic book and threw it on screen. I remember seeing previews hinting at this and thinking it was going to be dumb. Yeah, I was really wrong.
What it did was show that you can take imagery from comic books without looking stupid, if done well. This had always been a common criticism among fanboys and prior to this film, such scenes were deemed not feasible.
The second mark was that the villain actually wins! Zemo is a former soldier from a destroyed country in Avengers: Age of Ultron. He lost his family, and like the rest of the world, he blames the Avengers for this collateral damage.
Where most villains would try to get superpowers or recruit allies who have them, Zemo instead outsmarts his adversaries. One of the criticisms of the MCU has been that most of its villains are one-dimensional and expendable. Zemo masterfully plays everyone and is rewarded with the Avengers having their friendships broken. While he is captured at the end, he clearly believes he has succeeded and we are left wondering if he had.
This is a risky angle for any movie to play, but if done well, it can go a long way. We are kept on our toes for not knowing if the good guys are going to win or not, and fatigue is pushed away by that element of surprise.
10 'Deadpool' (2016)
This selection is almost a given, but is also debatable in terms of reshaping the genre. Deadpool definitely stands out in terms of being truly a passion project. Actor Ryan Reynolds pushed for years to have the movie made, but was largely met with rejection because of his insistence that the film be rated R. He had played the character before in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where despite making impressive entrance, he met an unimpressive end. Deadpool was in part an attempt to correct that injustice and the movie even references it several times.
The movie is considered groundbreaking for the fact that it got the R rating and was still successful. This led many to call it the first R-rated comic book film, but that is not true. Blade was actually the first successful R-rated superhero movie. However, it was nowhere near as successful as Deadpool.
Unlike its predecessor, Deadpool did not copy elements from other movies. It didn’t borrow any of the generic humor from The Avengers, did not use any dark colors for costumes like Batman, and did not rely on either overly grim or overly bright tones like Batman and Spiderman. Instead, it drew directly from its source material in a way that has arguably not been done since Superman. In fact, the film insults its peers for following trends.
Before this film, studios insisted that their comic book adaptations be PG-13 so that toys could be sold and that the movie could marketed to a wider audience. Therefore, even if the source material demanded stronger content, it was breaking the fundamental studio rule; a restricted audience means less money. So when this movie made $783 million, it came as a rude awakening. The rule suddenly went out the window.
It also put the dominant Marvel Studios in an awkward position because its long term plans were believed to be wearing thin on their audiences. DC got shown up by the film that made their darker themes work. Deadpool’s refreshing dark humor went in a direction that the studios didn’t want to go in on the big screen. New opportunities for the X-Men franchise were now open, which had been struggling to reestablish itself.
The surprise hit also brought in a new air of creativity by adhering to the comic’s reputation of Deadpool breaking the fourth wall. This was where the light-hearted and perverted humor was allowed to shine. It vocalized what many viewers were already thinking. It created a unique position where comic book humor could work without being campy.
There was even talk of Deadpool pulling a Dark Knight and winning its own streak of awards. It hit its own run, but fell just short of the latter’s success. Still, it was a reminder of how far the genre could go.
So that’s my list of movies that changed the genre. Sorry for the length, but I had to give them their proper due. From its humble beginnings, the genre is now evolving at an incredible rate and continues defying many predictions while challenging Hollywood expectations as well. They are starting to understand what it takes to make these movies work; respect, creativity, and patience. It only took them nearly 40 years to get it!
However, how many times can you reinvent themes before we catch on to what you’re doing? The genre flourishes best when it is allowed to be creative, go in different directions, and take risks. Franchises have died from losing sight of this. If superhero movies can continue their creative streak unhindered by corporate greed, then there is a future. But if they can’t, then eventually we’ll stop caring.