I was born in the early 1980’s, so naturally, the first super hero movie I ever saw was the 1978 Richard Donner / Christopher Reeves Superman. Up until that time, the only “major” super hero film was the 1966 Batman movie based on the Adam West and Burt Ward TV series. Superman had the benefit of coming out after Jaws and Star Wars and being one of the big movies of the late 70’s and early 80’s which began the cinematic event films known as “Blockbusters”. It was also filmed simultaneously with the 1980 sequel Superman II. To me, these two films were my very first taste of super heroes and the idea of comic books and cartoons being ripe for the picking for live action movies.
For the rest of the remainder of the 1980’s comic book movies seemed to come out sparingly and to pretty poor results. I remember suffering through movies like Swamp Thing, Superman III, Supergirl, Howard the Duck, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Imagine you are introducing someone to Marvel movies and making them start with Howard the Duck. After seeing that, why would you trust Marvel to make a good movie ever again? This was the “dark age” of comic book movies. Until… a young, promising director partnered with a comedic actor, Michael Keaton, to play the serious role and a mostly dramatic actor, Jack Nicholson, to play the role of a clown.
In 1989 the world was blown away by Tim Burton’s take on Batman. It was dark and serious, but fun and enjoyable. The film was thought to be a flop, but surprised nearly everyone. That same year we got the bar raised again, in my opinion, by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Suddenly, people began to take notice that these pulp magazines were a source of creatively written, clever stories, with interesting characters.
Throughout the 1990’s DC gave us 3 Batman movie sequels of varying quality (I’m looking at you, Clooney). There was also a Shaquille O’Neal vehicle about a DC character, the titular Steel, which was basically a cash grab featuring an NBA star who couldn’t act or shoot free throws, starred in bad video games, and tried to make rap music. Long story short… the character wasn’t well known and the movie was just about as good as you would expect based on this description.
However, we got a glimmer of hope in the late 90’s from Marvel with 1997’s Men in Black and 1998’s Blade. Men in Black was summer blockbuster starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as two government agents tasked with regulating alien affairs. Blade starred Wesley Snipes as the eponymous half-human, half-vampire who hunted vampires and doled out his own personal brand of justice. Both films are still recognized as being fairly decent.
With the new millennium looming and the internet beginning to become more commonplace in most households, we were given a glimpse of something new and different. For the first time, it looked like we were going to get a super hero team up movie done with respect and care in the form or X-Men. Fox dropped this bomb on the world and it hasn’t been the same since. Now, I was not a huge fan of this movie, but it would be wrong of me to not acknowledge its place in cinematic history. Suddenly, Hollywood smelled gold.
Since Marvel was divided among several studios, whereas Warner Bros. owned the full rights to DC properties, the output during the early 2000’s was exponential.
Join me on a quick journey…
The year was 2001. I was sitting in a movie theater preparing to watch a film. A trailer comes on for what appears to be a generic bank heist film. Some masked guys rob a bank and then retreat to the top of the building to board their waiting helicopter. That’s kind of an interesting way to rob a bank, I thought. They fly off, but suddenly they stop dead in their tracks. The helicopter isn’t moving. Zoom out. The blades are caught in something and still trying to turn. Zoom out. The chopper is caught in a giant spider web between the World Trade Center buildings. “NO!”, I shouted. “NO WAY!... NO THEY DIDN’T!” and then we see him… I never thought I would see him on a theater screen. FUCKING SPIDER-MAN! Spidey was my guy and he was getting his own movie. I was ecstatic to the point that when this movie came out the day of my senior prom, I was late to pick up my date because I had gone to see it.
These early years of the 2000’s gave us the AMAZING (pun intended) Spider-Man and it’s SUPERIOR (pun intended) sequel Spider-Man 2, and X2: X-Men United. However, there was a bit of “quantity over quality” as other Marvel movies were spewed out in the forms of Blade II, Men in Black II, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Blade: Trinity, Elektra, Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Most of these films were met with mediocre to poor reviews. There had been a significant drop in quality for the most part. This was also the time frame when Spider-Man 3 showed up with the ultimate 4th wall break and killed the character and franchise dead in its tracks and literally danced on its own grave.
DC also dropped a pile of crap in the form of 2004’s Catwoman before making the ultimate rebound which came in the form of Batman Begins.
Batman Begins was a major turning point for the genre. While Warner Brothers was trying to bring back Superman with Superman Returns with one hand, the other hand was focused on building a Batman trilogy which showed us the possibility of what a comic based film COULD be. Christopher Nolan made decisions that people didn’t initially agree with and bucked the contemporary trends in cinema. Fans questioned the casting of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, but from 2005 to 2012, Nolan’s movies were the toast of geek town. They brought comic book characters back into the cultural zeitgeist and made old fans happy while bringing these characters to a new generation starved for heroes on the big screen.
After the second film in the Nolan Batman series The Dark Knight took the world by storm, Marvel tinkered away on a film that had no right to be as good as it was. Like a captured billionaire genius playboy philanthropist alone in a cave, Iron Man was about to explode on the scene and shoot us all in the face with its awesomeness.
This was the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Iron Man surprised damn near everyone and it seems like the super hero and comic based film genre has never been the same. The creation of the MCU in 2008 with The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man represented a major shift in filmmaking. It was during this time that Disney stepped in and bought the majority of Marvel character film rights and built a massive connected film franchise that has no equal. While a few of their character rights lingered at other studios, they pushed forward making amazing films with lesser known characters. In an unprecedented move, Sony, who owns the film rights to Spider-man and struggled to reboot the franchise, decided to partner with Disney and Marvel to bring the character to the MCU. Even recently, when Fox decided to sell their movie studios in favor of news and sports, Disney stepped up to purchase the rights which most fans noticed included the rights to the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and several other Marvel properties. This juggernaut shows no signs of stopping and as of today, there are 19 films in the series which began 10 years ago.
Nearly every film studio started scheming on building their own cinematic universes. Even Universal started making a monster movie universe, which promptly crashed with premier of the “Dark Universe” film The Mummy. Warner Brothers and DC perceived this to be the writing on the wall for the future of cinema and began creating their DC Comics universe. They were a little bit behind the 8 ball as they had just released a reboot of the Superman franchise with Man of Steel. The Marvel experiment had paid off a year earlier with the culmination of The Avengers, a film in which Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor teamed up to save the world from an alien invasion. That film became one of the biggest blockbusters ever and DC decided to shift their movies toward building a team that could rival the Avengers.
Luckily, their extensive publishing history provided the answer in the form of the Justice League. But, in order to compete, they would need to expedite the process. While Marvel began to wind up for the next Avengers event, they released Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy before dropping the Avengers sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. After a lot of quiet delay, DC dropped Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
This movie was met with critical ire and some fan backlash, although I fully enjoyed it and thought the extended version released on home video was a much better film. The same year (2016), DC also released Suicide Squad which didn’t fare much better than its predecessor.
Marvel’s non-MCU releases after the birth of the DC cinematic universe included Fox’s sequel to their X-Men series reset X-Men: First Class, the acclaimed X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Ryan Reynold’s led Deadpool. The MCU continued to expand with entries Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. Finally, DC released their first expanded universe movie that most people seemed to agree was really decent in the form of Wonder Woman, then later that year we got the much maligned Justice League.
As of right now, the future of the DC film universe seems to be in flux. With Aquaman, Shazam!, and several other films on the horizon, there is still time and still hope from fans that DC can right the ship. I have enjoyed most of their films, but I also recognize that they are not up to the standard set by Disney and Marvel with recent films like Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther.
Today is a seminal day in the history of the MCU as Avengers: Infinity War has released. I am about to go see it and I am bubbling over with anticipation and excitement to see what happens to the characters I have followed for 10 years with my friends, wife, kids, and family. Even in the darkness of possibly losing characters to the villain Thanos, the future looks incredibly bright for Marvel. My hope for the future is that DC can course correct and become just as big and compete with Marvel on the battlefield of cinema and that people like Steven Spielberg are wrong about the future of the genre.