Superheroes - Past and Present The Hey-Day of Superhero Films

With films featuring Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil and Hulk all either in cinemas now, or just around the corner, it would seem that we are in the middle of what might be called the hey-day of superhero films.

Yes, there have been plenty of comic book adaptations throughout the history of the cinema, but they really haven’t been a patch on what the studios are offering us right now – or for the foreseeable future.

Some of our best actors have been drawn to a genre which in the past was seen as something only for children.The ‘X-Men’ films star not only Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame), but also an incredible array of acting talent from people as diverse as Sir Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen, ‘Spider-Man’ scarred the young Tobey Maguire as our web-slinging hero and also featured both Kirstin Dunst and Willem Dafoe.

Most recently ‘Daredevil’ saw the talents of Hollywood hunk Ben Affleck tempted into a red leather outfit to spar with both Jennifer Garner (recently voted the sexiest woman alive) and our own. Colin FarrelI (who seems to be everywhere at the moment), The list is definitely impressive, and it goes on as the soon to be released ‘Hulk’ is being directed Ang Lee (‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) and Ray (Darth Maul) Park is set to don the flowing pyjamas as ‘Iron Fist’.

However, it hasn’t always been this way. Superhero films of the past were more likely to make careers (if they were successful) or sink them (if not).

Some of the earliest comic adaptations appeared not long after the superhero genre debuted in comic book form. Probably the earliest screen superhero was ‘Flash Gordon’ (1936) star Buster Crabbe. Although not empowered with superhuman attributes, in this film series he and his companions visited the planet Mongo to thwart the evil schemes of Emperor Ming the Merciless.The films were almost a blueprint for what was to follow, featuring space travel, monsters, aliens and beautiful women, Both ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman’ (two of the earliest comic heroes) took to the big screen in the forties with ‘The Batman’ (1943) and ‘Superman’ (1948).

In The Batman’, Lewis Wilson starred as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Douglas Croft as Robin, neither of whom became particularly well-known household although Wilson’s son Michael is now the producer of the amazingly successful James Bond films! Batman is a normal man (well yes, he does dress up in a bat outfit) who derives his superhero status from his detective capabilities, his highly trained physique and his wonderful gadgets. Without the Batmobile, he is no more a superhero than say, Sherlock Holmes.

But it was ‘Superman’ that really started the ball rolling. Superman is just that, a super-powered man. Born on a planet in a far off galaxy, as a baby our hero was shot off into space just before his home-world exploded. Landing on Earth, as well as finding adoptive parents to raise him, he grows up to discover that our yellow sun has given him incredible powers. He can fly, he has super strength and bullets ricochet harmlessly off his body, With the careful upbringing of Ma and Pa Kent, Our hero (now named Clark) uses his powers to uphold truth, justice in the American way. Now that is a superhero!

The 1948 film starred Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent/Superman and although the special effects were practically non-existent, as a period piece it is watchable even now. The story of Superman would be filmed time and again over die years, appearing as a TV show in 1952 (starring the ill fated George Reeves), in a classic series of films in the seventies (with the now wheel-chair bound Christopher Reeves) and back on TV most recently with “Lois & Clark; The New Adventures of Superman” (1993) and “Smallville” (200l). The fact that George Reeves shot himself and that Christopher Reeves (no relation) suffered a riding accident that left him paralysed has led to some morbid theories that the role is jinxed. however neither Dean Cain nor Tom Welling seem to have had any problems.. .so far.

With the most famous heroes around (at the time) on film, there weren’t that many other superheroes to turn into films (although there was an early version of the star spangled warrior ‘Captain America’ in (1944). No, for more source material, Hollywood would have to wait until the debut of Marvel comics in the 60s.

Both Superman and Batman, together with a whole host of other heroes including Wonder Woman and The Flash, were owned by National Periodicals or DC comics, but in 1962 a new company started publishing superhero comics, Marvel. Although it wouldn’t result in any films for some time, the adventures of The Hulk, Iron Man and Spider-Man gave the comic industry a much needed shot in the arm. Whereas DC’s characters were always larger than life, Marvel created a roster of heroes who, as well as being superhuman, had some very human problems. Spiderman had girl troubles and an ailing aunt to look after. These qualities made a whole new generation of readers identify with these heroes more than ever before.

Throughout the sixties Marvel and DC fought to keep their comics outselling each other, and one of the spin offs from this was the 1966 “Batman” TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Not only did this camp and vaguely psychedelic show feature almost all of the caped crusaders amazing enemies and include appearances from a very sleek, purple cat-suited Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, it also brought forth one big screen adventure -‘Batman’ (1966) featuring four of the series best villains; Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). The Joker (Cesar Romero). The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and The Riddler (Frank Gorshinj. With superheroes back in vogue, we also saw “The Green Hornet” on TV (featuring the young Bruce Lee as the hero’s sidekick Kato, but for most of the sixties, the only exposure to these comic heroes was in the form of low budget animated TV series.

As flares and stack-heels became popular in the 1970’s so too, once again, did the ever present superhero formula, however by this time special effects had come of age and, by the mid-seventies, Hollywood was ready to tell us we’d believe a man could fly. Or crawl up a wall. Or that a woman could spin herself around so much that she’d become an Olympian goddess.

In 1976 a TV show debuted that was as much a superhero show as it was a feminist outrage -“Wonder Woman”. Starring the beautiful Lynda Carter, a whole generation of teenage boys fell in love, and the same amount of teenage girls were inspired, by the heroic deeds performed in the show – all in a pair of star-spangled hot-pants and a red and gold bustier.

The following year, two of Marvel comic’s best known heroes made their live-action debuts.The made for TV movie, ‘The Amazing Spiderman’, with a young unknown Nicholas Hammond in the title role the film, and the series that followed in 1978 are well remembered slice of 70s TV, as are The Incredible Hulk’ movie and show. Although our hero’s wall climbing was little better that the Adam West Batman’s and the series didn’t feature any of the comic book villains, it was a big success and was only cancelled when CBS decided they wanted to change their image as “the superhero channel”. As for the Hulk, with Bill Bixby as Dr Banner and strongman Lou Ferigno as his green-skinned alter-ego, the show was a runaway success and remained on TV until 1982.

But it was in 1978 when the biggest motion picture event of the year was the spectacular film ‘Superman’ that the superhero film really came into its own. As already mentioned, the film starred Christopher Reeve as the “Man of Steel”, ably supported by an all star cast including Marlon Brando as his father on the planet Krypton, Jor-El; Gene Hackman as the villainous Lex Luthor and Margot Kidder as the love of Superman’s life, fellow reporter Lois Lane. At the time it was reported that Brando had I received an astounding $4 million for his ten minutes on screen and that even the credits sequence had cost more than most films made up to that point. The film was a staggering success, and went on to spawn not only two sequels, but also a spin-off film featuring Superman’s cousin ‘Supergirl’ (1984) with Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole.

Of the two Superman sequels, ‘Superman II’ (1980) continued a storyline that was started in the first film, as three super-villains who also survived the destruction of Krypton arrive to wreak havoc on Earth. Starring Terrence Stamp as the evil General Zod, the film was easily as good as it’s predecessor, and it was only unfortunate that the follow up,’Superman III’ (1983), could not live up to it’s promise (even though it boasted the talents of Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn and Pamela Stephenson!).

With DC’s number one hero captured on film, it was only a matter of time before their other big-hitter got his own film in ‘Batman’ (1989). Having created a whiter than white, all American hero for ‘Superman’, with ‘Batman’ Warner Bros took a big gamble and allowed British director Tim Burton to move away from any of the camp elements connected with the character and go for a much darker and more gothic tone. In ‘Batman’, starring Michael Keaton as the hero, the streets of Gotham City became a huge nightmarish vision of a city in decay. In the film. Batman fights his number one villain from the comic, the joker (played with a maniacal intensity by Jack Nicholson). ‘Batman’ is probably still one of the best evocations of the comic book hero with stunning effects and delightfully dark cinematography from Roger Pratt (who has worked most recently on ‘Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets’). As with the Superman films, ‘Batman Returns’ (1992) was as good as ‘Batman’, with both Keaton and Burton returning to star and direct. With Danny Devito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer portraying a sexy, leather-clad Catwoman, the film definitely had as dark a feeling as the first. However, as the series progressed with ‘Batman Forever’ (1995) and ‘Batman And Robin’ (1997), the quality started to go downhill.

During the rest of the nineties, there were several sad attempts to enliven the genre as Marvel Comics tried to push some of their properties onto the big screen.’The Punisher’ (1990) starring Dolph Lundgren was dire, as was the bizarre ‘Captain America’ (1991), and in 1994 schlock horror producer Roger Corman made a version of The Fantastic Four’ that was so bad it has never seen the light of day! Marvel had even got one of their most outlandish characters,’Howard The Duck’, onto the silver screen in 1986 (the executive producer was none other than Mr ‘Star Wars’ George Lucas) but was met by unmitigated disaster. Part of their problem was the choice of characters. All of their big selling comics demanded that they be taken seriously – and have superb special effects -and it seemed that the time just wasn’t right. However, a couple of films had been released that convinced everybody that just about anything could be done.

James Cameron’s Terminator 2′ had been released in 1991, and it’s use of digital effects had surprised everyone, but when Steven Spielberg unleashed ‘Jurassic Park’ in 1993 it really opened the eyes of the whole film industry as to what the possibilities of the new medium were. Add to that the fact that Marvel Comics came under the direction of a man with a bold new vision. Avi Arad, and the time was right for something really special.

That something special was ‘X-Men’ (2000). Directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects’) the film was stunning. It took the bare bones of the story about a group of mutants with extraordinary powers and turned it into a bold statement on racism and discrimination in the modern world.The film starred Patrick Stewart as the mutant’s leader and mentor; Ian McKellen as his nemesis Magneto; and brought a vast array of talented actors in as the heroes themselves.The film was a great success, prompting not only the sequel that is featured in this issue, but also a whole host of other comic adaptations. Last years ‘Spider-Man’ starring Tobey Maguire was the biggest money spinner of 2002, and a sequel is already planned for 2004. The Ben Affleck starrer.’Daredevil’ (2003) has not only done very well itself but it has also spawned not only a sequel, but also a planned spin-off movie featuring the Jennifer Garner character, Elektra. In July this year we will see the Ang Lee directed The Hulk’ starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connolly and Nick Nolte.

In fact, for superhero fans, the list just seems to go on forever, with many upcoming films including ‘Iron Fist’ (2003), ‘Ghost Rider’ (2004) The Fantastic Four’ (2004) due to be directed by Peyton Reed, ‘Iron Man’ (2005) from New Line Cinema and even the horror/superhero crossover ‘Werewolf By Night’… However, whether these films do well at the box office is, as with all things, by no means certain. Even if they are not as successful as ‘Spider-Man’, I at least comic fans can say with some certainty that their cherished heroes are being handled with the care they deserve – and we are all getting some of the best action films we have seen for years.

Source: Clayton Everett, Concept Publishing Ltd,