The Superhero Movie Learning Curve, Part One: Object Permanence
Ever since superheroes first appeared in the pages of comic books, Hollywood has been trying to figure out how to put these larger-than-life characters on screen. Over the course of the past 100 years, superhero movies have gradually gained momentum, before exploding in popularity in the past two decades.
But I think the most fascinating aspect of superhero movies is not how much more high profile they've become, but how they've gradually evolved into their own genre, and how the films have generally become more faithful to - and perhaps less ashamed of - their source material.
In fact, as we chart the development of superhero IP in film, we can see it developing the same way a human does: with important milestones as the genre comes into its own. In this first installment, we'll chart the childhood years of superhero films, as these characters become imbedded in the public consciousness.
Infancy (1930s – 1960s)
Beginning with the movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s, superheroes started cropping up on the big screen, with heroes like Green Hornet, Batman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel getting their own serial stories. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because you can kind of guess how good they were, or how faithful they were – which is to say, not so much (to both). There’s nothing quite like watching a Batman with a saggy gut stumble around a set and casually toss around ethnic slurs.
I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on television series that have come and gone over the years – but I do want to take a minute to discuss Batman ‘66.
For those who aren't familiar with the details, Batman was a TV series in 1966 that starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The show ran for three seasons, and even earned with a theatrical film (Batman: The Movie, 1966), to great success overall. And this series is especially notable because it’s where the entire world formed an opinion about superheroes.
First, let’s get this out of the way – Batman ‘66 is a fantastic series. It’s absolutely campy and cheesy, but it's delightful. And despite what some detractors believe, this wasn’t just “the way TV was back then” – it was a genuine attempt to make a comedy that was subversive and self-aware, yet also completely earnest. And while it is a fairly accurate depiction of the goofy, kid-friendly tone of superhero comics in the 50s and 60s, the series is presented with a tongue-in-cheek nature that’s perfectly clear the moment you watch it. And yes, it’s for kids, there’s no denying that – but that sense of humor makes it more than just kid’s stuff. While it seems cliché, the series truly is family fun.
But for a lot of people, this was their first major exposure to not just Batman, but to the world of superheroes and comic books. So, when Batman punched someone and the word ‘POW!’ appeared in bright letters over the screen, or Robin spouted catchphrases like, “Holy Bill of Rights, Batman!”, this became the default for the audience at large. To them, that’s what a superhero was. And for those who missed the satire in every episode, they learned the wrong lesson: superheroes weren't family fun, they were "kid's stuff."
(This, by the way, is a stigma that comics had already been dealing with, and that continues to plague them to this day. Even today, it's not uncommon for an article about superheroes or superhero films to start with the phrase, "Bam! Pow!" This series was seriously iconic.)
The Toddler Years (1970s – 1980s)
Before we got more big-screen movies, audiences saw the premiere of the Incredible Hulk (1977), a television series ran for 5 seasons (with three TV-movie sequels in the late 80s). The show, starring Bill Bixby as Banner and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, was a smashing success (pun). It was a fairly serious take on the character, and is often pointed to as the quintessential portrayal of the Hulk (particularly Bixby’s performance). But we’ll come back around to that in another installment…
By the late ’70s, with the help of movies like Star Wars, visual effects started to evolve to the point where it was now possible to translate some of these superheroes and their outlandish powers to the screen. And this is where the learning curve really begins in earnest, as superheroes go from starring in silly TV shows to summer blockbusters. Thus, in 1978, we got Superman: The Movie.
This film kicks off the true early development of the superhero movie. At this point, Hollywood’s ability to make a superhero movie is still in the toddler stage, where – quite frankly – you’re just happy it exists. You look at it and think, “What a miracle that we have this!” But if you examine it on its merits, it may not quite be able to measure up.
In my opinion, the first Superman movie is not as good as everyone remembers. The cast is fantastic, and there are some genuinely great bits, but there’s also a scene where Superman takes Lois flying, and we are treated to several minutes of awkward voiceover, as she basically delivers a poem about Superman called “Can You Read My Mind?” The film drags on at the beginning, Lex Luthor’s plot makes absolutely no sense… and then there’s that whole “flies so fast he travels back in time” business.
And that scene sort of sums up a lot of the issues I have with this movie. For those who might not know what I’m talking about, Lex fires two missiles, one at California (he wants to sink it to turn Arizona into better real estate value or something, it doesn’t really make sense), and one at New Jersey (insert easy New Jersey joke here). Superman isn’t fast enough to stop both, and one of the missiles triggers an earthquake in California, which kills Lois Lane. So he flies so fast around the earth he goes back in time and saves the day.
Which means he wasn’t fast enough to save Lois from a missile (which is going decidedly slower than "Mach Time-Reversal"), but he is able to go back and save the day by using a power that not only doesn’t make sense, but that Superman has never used before (and, it should be noted, never uses again in any of the other films).
And that sort of says it all. Because the rules of Hollywood says there has to be a moment in act three where All Is Lost, where it seems the hero is going to lose. And rather than come up with something that makes sense, they whipped this scene together and just rolled with it. And I think they got away with it because, at the end of the day, it’s just a superhero movie. Why would anyone think too hard about it? And it’s important to note, I don’t blame anyone. That’s why I refer to this era as the ‘Toddler Stage’ – they do dumb things like this because they just don’t know any better.
We got a few other superhero movies in this era, and most of them were Superman films – Superman II (1980 – and again, not as good as everyone wanted it to be or remembers it as), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). We also got Swamp Thing (1982), Supergirl (1984), and the first big-screen Marvel adaptation, Howard the Duck (1986), which… yeah. The less said about that one, the better.
The Childhood Years (1988 – 1999)
Let’s be honest – when you’re a toddler, everything you do is adorable, because each day you don’t stick a fork in your eye is a miracle. You just aren’t aware enough of the world around you to know the difference; you are still fascinated by the fact that you have feet.
Childhood, however, is a different matter. When you’re a child, you’re still making mistakes, but it’s not cute anymore. When you draw on the walls, it’s expected that you should know better, so you get punished more severely. When you screw up, your parents are “very disappointed in you.”
With that in mind, let’s talk about Batman (1989).
Look, full disclosure – I’m not really a Tim Burton fan. I don’t think he’s bad or anything, he’s just not my cup of tea, and that’s okay. But this is a bad Batman movie.
This is a weird example, since at first glance it seems like a much more faithful adaptation of Batman comics, especially compared to the ‘66 series/film. He’s dark, brooding, deals with life-and-death stakes, etc. But, despite what people seem to remember, this film DIDN’T get rid of the campy/goofy stuff from the 60s series; that stuff is all still in there. It’s "darker," mostly in the sense that people die on-screen, and that much more of the story is set at night. The film is still dopey, only now it’s been stripped of all the charm that made it appealing in the Adam West days.
This is one of the first major examples of a comic book movie making baffling changes for no reason at all, and fans scratching their heads and saying, “You should have known better.” For example, Bruce Wayne sleeps upside down. Why? Why would he do that? Because he’s like a bat, right? I guarantee you that was as far as the original thought process went. And it might seem like I’m nitpicking, but I’m not – these dumb changes are indicative of a much larger issue throughout the film.
This film is a strange example, in that it gets Joker’s origin right (criminal who fell in acid and got his skin bleached), but the guy we see on screen isn’t quite the character from the comics. He’s just a gangster with the giggles, and a bunch of dumb plans that have nothing to do with each other as he jumps from one to the next.
Also, that other guy is not really Batman. He doesn’t really do anything throughout the movie. The first thing he does as Batman is get shot in the chest and fall down. And yes, he then gets back up, and it’s meant to show that he’s basically more than human – but he’s not. He’s a guy who can dodge bullets, because he has to dodge bullets. He also doesn’t seem to be quite so strict on his "no guns" policy, since he has machine guns on the front of the Batmobile that he uses to knock down a building (which is full of people), and later tries to shoot the Joker from his jet. And at the end of the film, he ties Joker’s leg to a gargoyle as Joker tries to get away on his helicopter, and the gargoyle ends up breaking loose, and the Joker ends up falling to his death.
And this is something we’re gonna see a lot of over the next few decades of superhero films: The Bad Guy Dies. Almost without fail, the bad guys get killed off at the end of most of these films, and usually the hero is at least partially responsible, if not directly. Why? Because that’s how action movies work. John McClain drops Hans Gruber off the side of the Nakatomi building. Sarah Connor smashes the Terminator into bits. Rambo kills pretty much everybody he meets. And since superhero movies fall into the action movie genre by default, this truism of action films became a trope of superhero films as well.
Except, in comics, supervillains don’t really die. These characters are specifically crafted for repeat appearances, designed to come back over and over again, because the writers need to fill 22 pages per issue, and bringing back characters like the Riddler or the Green Goblin saves them the effort of coming up with new villains from scratch every month. That’s how good villains become great villains, because they endure – something about them draws writers to them, and they keep coming back for more. But for this same reason, most superheroes don’t kill. It’s in their DNA. The design of Batman, as a character, necessitates that he doesn’t kill his villains; not just because it’s easier just to have the Joker come back a bunch of times, but because Batman isn’t a killer. Because he experienced the trauma of murder at such an early age.
And no, he doesn’t technically murder the Joker outright, but he’s smart enough to be able to guess how the "tie Joker to a gargoyle" plan was going to end. He's still responsible for killing his villain, like so many great action heroes who aren't Batman.
This gets worse with the god-awful mess that is Batman Returns (1992).
Let’s get through this one quick. One, it’s probably the worst Batman movie (although Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice certainly gives it a run for its money), but I really, deeply dislike this film. The Penguin has two or three origins, none of them from the comics (historically he’s just been a gangster with a fondness for birds and trick umbrellas, not a weirdly deformed freak who bites noses off), or even compatible with one another (how can you be raised by penguins in the sewers under Gotham AND raised by traveling circus-folk?). Catwoman is nothing like her comics character (more on that in a minute). Batman throws a bomb at a guy and he explodes, clearly violating the only absolute rule of Batman, which is he does not straight-up murder dudes. The plot is a mess, the tone is completely inconsistent, and again, Penguin nearly bites a dude’s nose off.
And then there’s Catwoman. Or rather, the cat-like woman who appears in this film, yet has nothing to do with the character from the comics. Because in the comics, she’s just a catburglar. Seriously, she's just a criminal with a thing for cats, who has a complicated romance with Batman. In this film, she is a timid girl who is killed by her boss, then resurrected by cat spirits, develops multiple personality disorder, and starts running around doing random stuff while using up her very literal nine lives. In fact, this origin is so dissimilar from Catwoman in the comics, that it was basically stolen for an ABC Family TV show and it was far closer to Buffy than Batman.
She also makes her own costume, and look: I’m not denying Michelle Pfeiffer is an attractive woman, and I'm all for characters making their own costumes in superhero movies, but this doesn’t really look home-made at all – it might, if not for the big, goofy, cartoony Tim Burton stitches. But, man… Tim Burton missed the mark with this film.
There’s not a lot to say about the next few Batman films. Batman Forever (1995) is a decent effort at bringing in some more fun, but it’s still just a mess. This also marked Michael Keaton being recast with Val Kilmer, showing that Batman actors were just as replaceable as Bond actors. And Batman and Robin (1997, now with George Clooney) is almost universally reviled – yet, despite that, it’s actually successful in that it just wanted to be a straight-up modernization of Batman ‘66, combined with a toy commercial. And honestly, that’s all it is. Most of the lines are groaners and eye-rollers, to be sure, but it also feels like the live-action adaptation of an energetic cartoon, so you can’t really say they didn’t accomplish what they were aiming for.
The films of this era, and the Batman films especially, have no substance. It’s all very basic, surface-level characterization, with big, over-the-top villainy, and plots that very clearly weren’t well thought-out. This era also gave us The Punisher (1989, starring Dolph Lundgren), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Spawn (1997), The Mask of Zorro (1998), and Blade (1998) – again, whatever your feelings on each of these movies, they’re all very straightforward action movies.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, some of these movies are truly great. I think Blade especially is an absolute delight, and the Mask of Zorro slaps hard. But these aren’t superhero films - they’re 90s action movies with a superhero veneer. It would be a long time before anyone questioned whether the superhero movie genre should have its own tropes and subtleties, but for now these are still a product of their time.
The Hollywood Superhero Movie Machine was still in its early years, still learning just what it was capable of, and starting to form opinions for the first time – but still making a lot of mistakes, because that’s the only way any of us learn anything. But soon, the stakes would get higher, and the genre would begin to come into its own.
Next time: Adolescence…