Where we left off last superhero films were just getting their bearings. But in 1978 this all changed with the release of the first ever high budget superhero film: Superman.
To understand why Superman was made at this time, and how it got the budget it did ($55 million, equivalent to $218,000,000 in 2020) it’s important to understand where superhero fiction as a medium was at. It was during this time that the Comics Code Authority restrictions were loosening and comics were beginning to grow in popularity, and would only gain more popularity during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Also, it was around this time that science fiction and fantasy films were beginning to have a boom, with Star Wars being a factor. There were just a lot more science fiction films, so superhero films could prosper, and did.
Superman, while dated in terms of special effects, is still a pretty good movie. I saw it when I was a kid and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the camp. The budget certainly didn’t go to waste. It was the second highest grossing film of that year and was nominated for several awards. People loved that film, and it was not only the highest grossing but also the most popular superhero film of the time. Ultimately, it’s no surprise that it gave way to several sequels, and many other iconic DC properties.
The 1980s were a key time not just for superhero movies but for science fiction and fantasy as well. After all, a lot of the classic science fiction films were made during this time, such as Back to the Future and E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial. The decade is so tied with science fiction works it even has two science fiction aesthetics tied to it: cassette tape futurism and cyberpunk. This is why a lot of superhero classics came out at this time, including major DC titles such as Swamp Thing (We’ll get to Batman in a minute) and several others. There were also comic strip heroes such as Flash Gordon getting their own titles, and a few original characters introduced to film, including Condorman and The Toxic Avenger. In the 1980s there was at least one superhero film a year,which was a trend that was only going to grow.
Batman and the 1990s
While Superman and all of its sequels came out in the 1980s, the 1990s was the time for Batman. Director Tim Burton developed the character into his first ever big budget feature film adaptation, and Batman became DCs primary focus then, and arguably until now, including in the animation department (which is a subject for another chapter) The original film did relatively well, as it was able to spawn four sequels, if you’re including Batman & Robin, which some don’t. It was there you saw Jack Nicholson as Joker and Jim Carrey as Riddler, as well as many others. It was also a time, like with the ‘90s, for a lot of non-DC films to come out, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This era also allowed for one of the very few superhero horror titles, Darkman. Unfortunately, this reign of great superhero films ended with Batman & Robin.. This movie is one of the few I’ll talk about that actually had a negative impact. The movie is regarded as among the worst of all time, and it was so poorly rated it almost led to the death of the superhero movie. The entire point of the film, as many were at the time, was to make toys, (the entire mecha genre of anime that dominated the eighties and nineties was created to sell figurines) and toys they did end up making. But they forgot to actually make the film good, and made the poor choice of casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and George Clooney as Batman. The movie did so poorly the reputation of superhero films was squandered for years to come.
And that was the golden age of superhero movies. Where superhero movies really started to get popular. Unfortunately, Marvel had pretty much no output during this time, but that would all change in the next couple of years. Stay tuned for the next chapter, which will talk about the animated side of superhero movies.
The History of Superhero Films: Chapter 2, the Golden Era
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