Generally credited as starting in 1920, when a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks wowed audiences in The Mark of Zorro, the superhero movie has gone through many incarnations over the decades. Some fans see it as really having kicked off in 1941, with the first onscreen demonstration of truly superhuman powers in Adventures of Captain Marvel, but all agree that the recent wave, beginning with X-Men in 1999, has played a crucial role in reshaping the film industry. Now that there’s something exciting to look forward to every other month, it’s time to take a look at how that happened.
The challenges facing Hollywood
A decade ago, Hollywood was in bad shape. It’s easy to look at the mega budgets of movies like Iron Man and Batman Begins and think everybody must be making a fortune, but in fact, most blockbusters spend a fortune on the technical stuff and all the little guys doing the hands-on work – as well as a lot of the actors – struggle to make ends meet. When internet piracy started taking a big bite out of the industry and nobody knew what to do about it, panic began to set in. Theater audiences were shrinking, ticket prices had to go up to compensate, and there was a danger that the industry would get stuck in a vicious circle. How could movie fans be persuaded to go back to the big screen?
A natural fit
This was one situation in which Batman, Spider-Man, the Green Lantern and others really did save the day. It wasn’t just that they were big, charismatic heroes naturally suited to dynamic films, it was that they had established profiles with loyal fan bases and were naturally suited to franchises. With sequels, the rule is that 40% of the audience for a successful original is guaranteed to return, so Hollywood could risk going back to big budgets and bringing back the excitement of big screen viewing.
One studio, which joined the revolution a little late but went on to make some of its biggest hits, is Universal. Beginning in 2008 with Timur Bekmambatov’s Wanted and Louis Leterrier’s take on The Incredible Hulk, they also produced Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and Kick-Ass 2, partly due to the enthusiasm for the source material felt by chief exec Marc Shmuger, who recognized their potential to reach far beyond the young male audiences that Hollywood had traditionally (and usually mistakenly) associated with this genre of films.
Into the future
The success of the superhero genre has seen movie theatre audiences gradually growing to the point where they are finally beginning to meet the numbers seen before the slump. After a series of hits with both the public and critics alike, however, there are some signs of fatigue. An approach that relies on making each epic bigger and louder than the one before can only last so long, so it’s good to see studios beginning to look at the genre afresh, with films like Peyton Reed’s micro-size Ant Man pointing to new possibilities. In the end, it is continual inventiveness that has made the superhero genre a lasting success in comic form, and the same goes for the movies.