The humble superhero movie, much like the comics industry itself, has been through a succession of peaks and troughs over the years. Five years on from Spider-Man, Hollywood is still ploughing its way through every superhero imaginable – with films featuring Iron Man, Batman, the Hulk and Hellboy due out this year alone. But even just ten years ago, it was a very different story. Kicking off with the Reeve/Donner Superman – which really set out the template for the blockbuster superhero flick – allow us to take you on a trip along the rollercoaster of four-colour heroes on screen…
Superman (1978)Thirty years on, the original is still the greatest. There is arguably no finer superhero movie moment than “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”, and Christopher Reeve’s performance remains unmatched in the genre. Plus, I don’t care what anyone says – John Williams’ theme is better than both Star Wars and Indiana Jones.Superman II (1980) Many fanboys prefer the sequel to the original, as it gives our hero a proper superpowered villain to fight. But honestly, the directorial switch harms it, with the touches of lightness feeling jarring, and it doesn’t quite have the charming sense of awe and wonder of its predecessor.Superman III (1983) Every ounce of gravitas and integrity that the first two Superman films had built up were dispensed with in an instant by this awful attempt to “lighten” the franchise, which only gets an extra star by virtue of strong performances by Reeve (of course) and Annette O’Toole, and the utterly awesome Clark Kent/Evil Superman junkyard fight scene.
Supergirl (1984) Misguided in just about every way. No-one’s ever really got Supergirl – otherwise a nice idea – right in the comics, never mind onscreen. Helen Slater certainly looks the part, but it really is absolutely incomprehensible nonsense.Superman IV : The Quest For Peace (1987) Superman IV is so low-budget that we’re supposed to believe that what is quite recognisably Milton Keynes station forecourt is the United Nations building. That’s really all you need to know about Superman IV.Batman (1989)It’s a melding of mass-market appeal and Burton and Furst’s aesthetic sensibilities that doesn’t always come off, and the plot is pretty lightweight – but the first of the series brought some badly-needed respectability back to the character in the eyes of a general public that made it a phenomenal success.
The Punisher (1989)
The Flash (TVM) (1990)Technically the first two episodes of the short-lived series edited together into one TV movie, we’re nevertheless letting it count because it’s the only solo representation of DC’s scarlet speedster. Actually not half bad, as it happens, as well – a fairly faithful adaptation, John Wesley Shipp quite decent in the lead role, it’s a shame it became something of a footnote in the history of heroes on screen.Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) Oh, don’t laugh. Look past the fact that the Turtles cartoon and action figures were everywhere at the time, and the movie is actually a quite solid adaptation of Eastman and Laird’s original and somewhat darker series, while still appealing to its target audience. Plus – Corey Feldman!Captain America (1991) So bad that, although originally planned for a theatrical release, it was eventually dumped straight to video. The oft-quoted fact that it starred JD Salinger’s son Matt is really the only interesting thing about it.The Rocketeer (1991) Surprisingly good fun, this underrated romp successfully evokes the spirit of ‘30s and ‘40s adventure serials. It’s a bit simplistic, but it’s very nicely made, and Timothy Dalton hams up the villainy to the extreme.Batman Returns (1992) The highlight of the “first” Batman franchise, largely because Tim Burton was actually allowed to make a Tim Burton film this time out. The style isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the villains are great, and Keaton had really started to grow into the role.Batman Forever (1995) And so, in swooped Joel Schumacher; although his obsession with rubber nipples and neon lighting didn’t quite destroy the franchise at this attempt, thanks largely to a superb performance by Jim Carrey, and just enough lingering hints of Burton’s darkness.The Phantom (1996) Completely forgettable attempt to tap into the pulp serial tradition. It’s just impossible to take Billy Zane in all-over purple spandex seriously, even if the film had been and good. Which it wasn’t.
Steel (1997)It’s hard to figure out who exactly thought this was a good idea. A character spun off from Superman who’d only existed for a few years, turned into a cheap and incredibly cheesy Shaq O’Neal vehicle. The fact that Judd Nelson plays the villain should tell you just about everything.
Batman and Robin (1997)It’s hard to find the words that succinctly sum up the horror of this utterly wretched endeavour. Shamelessly attempting to replicate the high-camp mastery of the 1966 Adam West film, it succeeds in precisely nothing it sets out to achieve, coaxes career-worst performances out of everybody involved, and is infused throughout with a loathsome sense of thinking it’s far funnier than it actually is.
Justice League of America (TVM) (1997)There’s a certain amount of charm to this TV pilot, but unlike the character comedy-driven Justice League International upon which it’s based, it can’t hold the interest in the absence of any A-list heroes; and the production values – particularly on the costumes, which appear to be made out of foam – are abysmal.
Spawn (1997)1997 really was annus horribilis for superheroes on film, wasn’t it? Todd MacFarlane’s grim avenger didn’t even have the advantage of being quality source material – but even by those standards, this live-action adaptation was rotten.Mystery Men (1999) Extremely underrated ensemble comedy, loosely based on the Dark Horse comic. Despite the inherent ludicrousness of its characters’ “powers”, it never descends into lazy parody, drawing most of its humour from character material, and a superbly-assembled cast all excel.
X-Men (2000)Much like Burton’s Batman, this was highly-praised at the time, but looks weaker in comparison to the successors for which it laid the groundwork. Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy, particularly the perfectly-cast Jackman, McKellen and Stewart, but it really feels like little more than a prologue for its far superior sequel.Unbreakable (2000)
Spider-Man (2002)Stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Superman as an absolutely perfect, iconic “origin” story. Yes, the Green Goblin costume is a bit crap, but it’s really only the weak thing about a film that strikes an absolutely perfect tone, supremely faithful to the comics despite certain cosmetic changes, and brilliantly cast from the top downwards.
Daredevil (2003)Gets a pretty bad reputation – surely due in part to the awful Elektra spin-off – but actually has a few things going for it. Affleck isn’t bad at all, Farrell steals it, and it’s a nicely shot bit of dark vigilantism. The director’s cut improves it significantly, as well.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)There are elements of “could have almost worked” dotted throughout this, but all in all it’s desperately unrepresentative of the brilliance of Alan Moore’s original work. You can switch your brain off and enjoy it, but you’d never really look forward to watching it again.X2 (2003) Tough going for the casual viewer, and so perhaps not as widely accessible as Superman or Spider-Man, X2 is nevertheless an absolutely textbook example of how to make a comic book film – and is arguably the only truly great team-based film in existence. Almost tries to cram a bit too much into a lengthy running time, but it’s a fanboy’s dream.
Hulk (2003) So badly regarded that the franchise is essentially being rebooted for another film five years on, which is surely some kind of record. As it happens, Ang Lee’s entry into the genre is more of a failed experiment than an out-and-out disaster – his “comic book panel” framing device is neat, but would have been better suited to a film far less slow and ponderous than this.
Hellboy (2004) In adapting Mike Mignola’s cult, indie, demonic hero, Guillermo del Toro shows a customary level of assured confidence. Well cast, with Ron Perlman finally finding the role he was born for, the BPRD’s motley crew make for an entertainingly idiosyncratic entry into the genre.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) Even better than the original, and that’s saying something. Spidey 2 made everything bigger, faster and louder, but didn’t lose sight of the inherent character-driven principles that made the first film so enduring. Alfred Molina makes for perhaps the finest tortured villain in superhero movie history, and the climactic scrap atop a speeding train is breathtaking and instantly iconic.The Incredibles (2004) Quite possibly Pixar’s finest hour – and again, that’s high praise indeed. A better Fantastic Four movie than Marvel themselves could ever hope to make, Brad Bird’s masterpiece brought family dynamics into the genre in spectacular fashion, once again adhering to the principle that a truly great superhero flick lets the viewer engage with the people behind the masks.
Batman Begins (2005) See, that’s how you make a Batman film. It’s not perfect – it wants for an iconic villain, and the Batsuit is fairly naff – but it strikes a fine balance between all the best versions of the caped one, and as with Spider-Man, it’s defined by a superb cast of actors, rather than stars.
Fantastic Four (2005) If you’re going to bring “light” to the superhero genre, it helps if you’re actually funny. Fantastic Four may not be offensively bad in a Batman & Robin kind of way, but it’s completely bland, silly, forgettable tosh.
Superman Returns (2006) Surprised everyone with just how much reverence it showed to the original Reeve films, and also by being a lot slower and less action-packed than anticipated. It’s certainly a bit long, and despite the strong casting of Spacey could do with a villain that isn’t Lex Luthor, but there are moments where it catches the essence of Superman perfectly – particularly in the awe-inspiring plane rescue, a sequence made even better by the knowledge that it could only be in a Superman film.
X-Men : The Last Stand (2006) While Bryan Singer may not have fully succeeded with Superman, his successors on the X franchise floundered even more. The legacy, and continuity of cast, mean that it still appeals – but it feels like a watered-down version of everything that’s gone before, and tries to cram too much into, for once, a bafflingly short running time.
Spider-Man 3 (2007) Oh, and Raimi nearly got the hat-trick. There is, of course, excellent stuff throughout – but it just doesn’t hang together as well as its predecessors, and certain elements, particularly Gwen Stacey and Venom, are desperately underused.
Not seen : Blade trilogy, The Punisher (2007), Fantastic Four : Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Ghost Rider (2007)
Also, see Simon’s earlier take on superhero films here.
Feel free to debate the above in the Comments section below…!