Caped Crusaders: The Evolution of Superhero Movies

Christopher Molinari ‘23

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“Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”. “The truth is… I am Iron Man. ” “The hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now.” These iconic quotes send goosebumps down the backs of all my fellow geeks, and thanks to the ever growing superhero movie industry, down the backs of everyone. Superheroes have been around for a long time, but the superhero movie genre is young in most people’s eyes. These caped crusaders have had a long journey from their early days fighting crime on the pages of young kids and adult’s comic books to where they are now. From Batman to Guardians of the Galaxy to Shazam!, superhero movies have come a long way. Some of these movies, however, were not just good. They changed the way people thought about their oldest heroes and the newest movies.

 

Superman the Movie, 1979

Let’s start back where it all began. THE superhero movie of the 70’s. No one had seen anything like this before. Richard Donner was able to craft a masterpiece in which lighthearted humor, great action, phenomenal storytelling, and heavy themes were able to combine for a comic book flicks like never before. The relatively unknown Christopher Reeve burst onto the scene with his picture perfect performance as the clumsy, well meaning Clark Kent and his well meaning alter ego, the Man of Steel. This film has a very feel good vibe around it. Superman isn’t supposed to be dark like Batman or Daredevil, he’s supposed to be a friendly guy who’s just fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way”. Superhero movies give us someone to look up to, they give us hope for the future. They give us a hero. Christopher Reeve is able to give everyone who watches this movie a hero. This movie not only changed fans opinions on superhero movies, but filmmakers as well, as this is really considered to be the first superhero film in the modern era.

 

Batman, 1989

“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” These famous words were uttered by non-other than Jack Nicholson, who some consider to be the best Joker of all time. Tim Burton’s Batman was the second pivotal superhero flick on this list, and still one of the best. Before this, fans still had the image of Adam West using shark spray in the old 60’s Batman TV Show. Now, fans got the Batman they had been waiting for. Micheal Keaton produced a dark, brooding Batman and a perfectly snarky yet slightly removed Bruce Wayne that is identical to the comics. Then there’s the Joker. It’s hard for me as someone who has grown up with the ancient battle between Batman and the Joker right in front of me in comics and movies to describe how good this portrayal is. There’s only one that rivals it on the big screen but we’ll get to that later. Nicholsons maniacal performance is really perfect for him. His Joker is delightfully evil and chaotic. He perfectly encompasses the feeling of a villain who wants nothing but to do whatever he finds funny. This movie may not be as pivotal or influential as some of the others on this list, but the fact that it really brought Batman back into public view as a dark grim vigilante with one rule. 

 

X-Men, 2000

Now we arrive at the movie that the newer generation of fans recognize as the beginning of modern superhero movies. It comes from the perfect franchise, as the X-Men were very, very popular with readers everywhere. This is probably the worst film out of this list, but that’s not to say it’s bad. This was a very good movie, but the reason it makes the cut is really because it helped set the template for the new age of superhero movies. The highlights of this movie were definitely the performances by the lead actors. Patrick Stewart’s Professor X is a great representation of the wise founder Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters. Sir Ian McCellin is also flawless as Magneto. He gives such an accurate portrayal of the character. You can feel his anger and hatred towards humanity is coming from a place that has a point. He makes you think about our own morals. Hugh Jackman rounds out this lineup with one of the most iconic performances ever. His portrayal of Wolverine is just the right kind of animalistic, slicin’ and dicin’ mutant fans were hoping for.

 

The Dark Knight,2008

“The hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now.” These famous words were uttered by Jim Gordon in arguably the greatest line in arguably the greatest superhero movie of all time. This movie is probably the most pivotal of the pivotal movies on this list. Let’s  start with the opening scene. The Joker and his crew pull off a masterfully planned and filmed bank robbery, with each member killing another off until only the Joker remains. This scene thrusts you right into the masterful action of the film, as well as both villains. Both the Joker and the mob are introduced in this scene, as the Joker is stealing money from the mob. The line that really introduces viewers to the late Heath Ledger’s phenomenal Joker is after he’s stolen the money and the bank manager(who works for the mob), gives a short monologue about how criminals used to have class, but now are all animals. He then proceeds to ask the Joker, “What do you believe in!?” The Joker walks over to him, shoves a can of poisonous gas in his mouth, and says, “I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.” With this line the audience can tell that this version of the Clown Prince of Crime will be perfectly crazy, and “agent of chaos”. The really masterful part of this film is how it’s not a Batman movie. It’s about Bruce Wayne finding out how far he will go to stop evil. It’s a character study of Gotham city and its citizens. It’s about Jim Gordon and his quest to take down the mob while battling a corrupt police force from the inside. But most importantly, it’s about the rise and fall of one Harvey Dent. In the beginning of the movie he’s on top of the world. He’s a hotshot D.A in Gotham, he’s dating the girl of his dreams, and he’s closing in on the mob. But as the movie progresses, we see the Jokers master plan come into play. As much as the point is made that he doesn’t have one, the Joker’s goal was to take the best of Gotham, Harvey Dent, and break him. Gotham’s White Knight falls at the hand of a maniac. Harvey is slowly pushed over the edge, first doing small things like threatening to kill a criminal he captured if he didn’t give him any info, but there is a breaking point. I don’t want to spoil  what happens, but the masterful integration of his story in this already elaborate tale is truly incredible. To wrap it up, my personal favorite part of this movie is Bruce Wayne’s mental journey. Throughout the movie, the Joker does awful things in an attempt to prove that in the end, everyone can be just as crazy as him when put in the right conditions(evident from the end scene and the plot with Harvey Dent). Bruce obviously has no killing policy, as that’s the thing separating him from the criminals he fights to put away. The thing is, that’s his only rule. This movie really explores that, as well as how close he will come to that line to find and stop the Joker. The scene that this is most evident in, is when Batman attempts to find the Joker by interrogating Sal Maroni, the new head of the Falcone crime family(following the events of Batman Begins) and holds him off the edge of a roof about 50-60 feet up. Maroni comments that if Batman is trying to scare him, he should pick somewhere higher, as the fall wouldn’t kill him. Batman then delivers one of my personal favorite lines “I’m counting on it”, and drops him, causing a broken ankle. That’s DARK. He just dropped him from 60 feet in the air and caused a defenseless man a broken leg, which is much different than a broken leg that’s acquired during a fight. In all, the Dark Knight is one of the greatest superhero flicks ever created and changed how people think about superhero movies, as they could now have many plots interwoven and explore characters and societies beyond the title character. 

 

Iron Man,2008

He we are, ladies and gentleman, the granddaddy of the MCU. This is the movie that changed everything. The movie that started the largest and most successful film franchise of all time, rivaled only by Star Wars. Iron Man may be old in terms of the MCU, but it’s certainly still one of its best movies. Holywood, take notes. This is how an origin story is done. Robert Downey Jr is perfect as the egotistical, genius billionaire Tony Stark. He is funny, charismatic, and totally self-absorbed, and it’s absolutely perfect. Probably the best part about this movie is watching his transformation and how it’s executed. From being critically wounded by his own weapon to meeting the man in the prison with him. You see him began to care about Yinsen and when he finally dawns the suit he’s not just doing it for himself he’s doing it for Yinsen as well. The rest of the movie is great, with Jeff Bridges playing a wonderfully conniving Obidiah Stane. Overall, this movie did a great job of taking a B-list comic book character and making him an overnight household name. This was also a great way to launch the MCU and had by far the best end credit scene in the MCU, paving the way for our next flick, 2012’s, The Avengers

 

The Avengers,2012

This, my friends, is the big one. Well, it was the big one, until the MCU continued to break their own standard, but we’ll get to that later. This movie was everything fans hoped it would be, and the best part is, nobody expected it to be as good as it was. Putting together six heroes, four of whom have pre-existing movie franchises was unprecedented. Absolutely nobody expected this movie to click the way it did. Tom Hiddleston is great as always as the sneaky, conniving god of mischief Loki. He is a great beacon that the team can form around. He gives everyone a motive, and the fact that in the story he uses the fact that they have to work as a team for the first time against them adds an extra layer of depth to the story. Joss Whedon does a great job with the actual team chemistry, as everyone’s lines seem to work off each other. The banter is downright hilarious and the action is extremely well choreographed. So, if your looking to make a great team up movie, look to the original one that did it best.  

 

Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014

This is definitely a movie that will have anyone reading this surprised. I know it’s weird, but before this movie the farthest Marvel had expand was to Asgard in Thor. Don’t get me wrong, Asgard is pretty wild, but Guardians of the Galaxy is nuts. It’s like Stanley Kubrick, James Gunn, and J.J. Abrams had a brain child, and that brain child threw up all of its creative juices into a camera. A space outlaw, a talking tree, a talking racoon, a green skinned assassin and a blue skinned raging berserker team up to take down Ronan the Accuser, all with the films McGuffin, the Orb, is always in the center of the plot. So, why is this movie one of the pivotal movies along the evolution of superhero flicks? Well, after this movie, the sky was the limit. After this movie was released, every option was on the table. James Gunn showed Hollywood that you can take a crazy, ragtag group of heros without any previous screen time and pull off a hilarious, action packed, roller coaster of a film. The way he’s able to introduce all of these characters who have great emotional depth in the first act is phenomenal. And don’t even get me started on the humor. This is still one of the funniest films in the MCU, with Chris Pratt’s Starlord, Dave Bautista’s Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Racoon being the comedic stars. Now, I couldn’t talk about Guardians of the Galaxy without talking about the music. Honestly, one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever is the opening scene where Starlord walks, or should I say dances, through the abandoned wastelands of Morag to Come and Get Your Love by Redbone. The rest of the movie contains classics such as Cherry Pie, Hooked on a Feeling, and Escape(the Pina Colada Song). These songs create a feeling of familiarity among that resonates between the audience and the film. After this movie, there was actually a small renaissance of this type of classic rock. The point is, this movie changed the way people viewed the scale and range of the superhero genre. No longer was it limited to costumed heroes fighting for the fate of a city or the world. They could now be in the outer reaches of space, fighting for distant planets, protecting them from infinity stones with the power to wipe out entire races by touching it to the ground. The point is, this movie really expanded the scope of the superhero genre in the exact opposite direction of The Dark Knight, proving to viewers and producers that superhero movies could be weird, wacky, funny, and totally out of this world. 

 

Avengers Infinity War, 2018

Welcome to the supersized version of the hit 2012 movie. In Avengers Infinity War the entire MCU up to that point culminated in one massive blockbuster that pitted the MCU’s heroes against the maniacal Thanos, who was played in epic fashion by Josh Brolin. Throughout the hole movie you know that this is the climax, but it also really feels like the climax. You can feel the MCU peaking, and how every movie has lead to this. The Russo Brothers did a great job of balancing all of the stories, as we followed multiple groups of heroes at once. They also did a great job of incorporating the events of the Civil War into it, as the fallout from that movie was so massive that it was still affecting the Avengers two years later. The best part about this movie, I felt, was that Thanos did have an insane plan, but sometimes you understood where he was coming from. As horrible as it is having less people can make an area more prosperous. Of course his methods were terrible, but it provokes an interesting philosophical conversation about population control. A big thing in this movie was the emotions that one could feel throughout, as it’s nostalgic for all of us who have grown up watching almost all of these movies in theatres. Overall, this was just a great movie that proved you can have an epic ending to a fantastic saga. 

 

Joker,2019

The final movie on the list is by far the darkest. When DC and Warner Bros. announced they would be making a Joker origin movie most of the comic book world including myself were very skeptical. The director of The Hangover mixed with a premise that seemed doomed from the start did not sound like a good mix, but boy were we wrong. Joker is a psychological exploration of an insane man who just needs one person to love him, but nobody does. It’s an exploration of society and how we tend to ignore mentally dissabled people. Many people believe it’s about a mentally ill person finally standing up for himself, and that worried a lot of people with the message it could send, but that’s really not what it’s about. It’s a cautionary tale of what could happen to anybody in the inner city who gets bullied by society. Arthur is just a well meaning emotionally unstable man at the beginning of the movie who just wants to make people laugh, but over the course of the movie we see his progression into insanity as he is repeatedly bullied and put down. The interesting dynamic in this movie is that you root for Arthur, as he’s such a well meaning person most of the time, but you know the inevitable outcome and that creates a lot of emotions. One of the most interesting parts about this movie is that it’s told from Arthur’s perspective, so it can be hard to know what was real and what was fake, even after the movie’s end. The interesting thing is the fact that every superhero movie up to this point has had a protagonist and an antagonist. A hero and a villain. With Joker, the lines are blurred. For starters, there’s Arthur Fleck, who starts off as a clear protagonist with society acting as an antagonist. As previously stated, he just wants to make people laugh but due to mental and emotional instability coupled with pathological laughter, he has absolutely no idea of what’s funny and when to make jokes. Society is horrible in the first two acts, as Arthur is repeatedly shunned and bullied by everyone in Gotham. He is brutally beaten up by people on the streets and neglected by the rich and powerful. This contributes to the cautionary tale in the movie, as there are political commentaries on poor city areas everywhere. Philips cautions viewers against neglecting the mentally ill and ignoring the poor. Enter the third act, and the script flips, as Arthur takes his expected turn towards becoming the infamous Joker, and you start to see that the society around him is still terrible, but becomes kind of an anti-hero, as you understand that society still has big flaws, but Arthur is now a full fledged bad guy and must be stopped. The most thought provoking thing about Joker, however, is the idea that maybe if just one person had been nice to him throughout the course of the movie, maybe he wouldn’t have turned bad. Maybe he would’ve made a better attempt to fit in with society. In the end, I don’t think this movie was meant to be some sort of sympathy towards violent mentally ill people, but a warning to society on how little things we do without thinking can have a profound effect on the less fortunate. The movie serves as a great origin story and political commentary. The reason this movie is a pivotal superhero flick is because it showed the industry that philosophical, thought provoking themes could be introduced into darker superhero movies.