Superhero movies have been enjoying a measure of success as of late, with the genre making a total of $16 trillion dollars at the box office. Since the late 1930s, superheroes have captivated the minds and hearts of young people all around the world with comic book characters like Superman and Batman swooping in to save the day. The first superhero movie was released in 1941 as a 12-part serial based on the Fawcett Comics hero Captain Marvel. But the first full-length theatrical adaptation of a superhero wouldn’t come until 1966 with Batman: The Movie which is based on the popular 1960’s tv version of the DC character. Marvel got into the superhero movie business as well, but on a smaller scale with television movie adaptations of Spider-Man in 1977 and Doctor Strange in 1978. It would be that same year that we would get our first serious superhero film with Superman: The Movie. Superman is considered the first superhero so it would only make sense that he would be the one to put superhero movies on the map.
With a screenplay written by Godfather writer Mario Puzo and directed by The Omen director Richard Donner, this was the first superhero movie to take the source material seriously and not play it for laughs like the Batman movie did. Superman was released on December 15, 1978, to critical and financial success. It is the first superhero movie to go over the million dollar mark and it also received praise for newcomer Christopher Reeve’s performance as Superman. Groundbreaking in its use of special effects and intricate storytelling, this film is single-handily responsible for the popularity of the superhero film. After the success of Superman and its sequel, everyone was getting into the superhero business. The third DC Comics character to get his own film would be Swamp Thing, then DC would release the first female superhero movie with Supergirl and in 1986 Marvel would finally enter the fray with the big screen adaption of Howard the Duck. All these films would bomb at the box office. Superman wasn’t doing so well at the box office either, with the failure of Superman 3and Superman 4: The Quest For Peace. The Man of Steel wasn’t looking so bulletproof anymore.
By 1988 it looked like superhero movies were taking a turn for the worst until DC and Warner Bros. decided to take a serious look at a certain caped crusader. In the summer of 1989, Batman was released. It was the first time Batman had been on the big screen in 23 years. But instead of using the campy tropes of its 1966 predecessor, this Batman drew from the dark tones of Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. Batman proved to be more of a critical and financial success than the Superman movie a decade before it by earning $400 million at the box office. It seemed that the superhero movie was back but in the 90s it looked as if Marvel nor other DC characters not named Batman were invited to the party. In the 90s it seemed as if studios only focused on indy superheroes such as The Crow or Tank Girl or just playing the superhero genre for laughs with movies like Blankman.
But 1997 was the culmination of every bad superhero movie ever made. The Batman franchise died with the release of Batman & Robin. Spawn’s first big screen release was a flop and to top it all off, DC and Warner Bros. decided to release Steel with basketball star Shaquille O’Neal as the main character. Superhero movies were in a bad place in 1997, so bad that the planned Superman Lives movie starring Nicolas Cage was canceled. The superhero movie had died until Marvel decided to breathe new life into it with the 1998 release of Blade. Blade was a different type of superhero; he didn’t wear a costume and he didn’t have a mask. He was a black vampire who hunted other vampires, which was something we had never seen before and it was successful by grossing $70 million at the U.S. box office and $131.2 million worldwide. By the turn of the millennium, it looked as if the superhero movie was more popular than ever as we would finally get big screen adaptions of The X-Men and Spider-Man. In 2008 Iron Man would be released and usher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would be the most groundbreaking thing to happen to the superhero movie genre. DC is also back in the fold with the success of The Dark Knight trilogy and the creation of the DCEU. With the now two-decades-long success of superhero movies, the question is still in the back of everyone’s mind. Will we have another 1997 ever again? We will just have to see.