When did the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies start? How long will this trend of superhero movies last? Why is it so popular? Seems like nowadays we can’t go three months without a new superhero movie releasing in theaters. When nerds like me start seeing trends, we typically want to know how. Is it popularity that keeps superhero movies coming back, year after year, month after month? If that was simply the case, wouldn’t this trend have been said and done with back in 1978 with the release of Richard Donner’s Superman, staring late great Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando? Superman was widely loved by critics and fans alike and spawned four sequels and a spin-off movie, Supergirl in 1984. Or was it the Tim Burton directed Batman films? Certainly darker and more gritty than the bright colored 1966 TV series starring Adam West, but more popular? Well, that begs the question. Honestly, I think the popularity has always been there, even in the early days of The Shadow, Zorro, The Green Hornet, and even The Lone Ranger all the way into the cowabunga years of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Around the mid-90s is when, according to movie listings, we begin to see superhero flicks picking up, instead of the typically two-three a year quota, now we’re getting four or five, and this is despite low-quality production, which is another argument altogether. CGI alone has a short life span. Consider 1994’s Judge Dread or 1997’s Spawn, both widely loved by fans but now universally loathed as being both cheesy and unwatchable. If anything, we can say the quality in movies has improved, but not just graphics and effects, but also storytelling.
Let’s slow things down here and take a closer look.
While some of the past superhero movies had a gem or two regarding the art of story, for the most part, it was cut and paste motivations. Bad guy kidnaps so and so, evil genius threatens world domination, Hero must overcome some negating characteristic and win the day, blah blah blah. Spawn is a great example. One of my more beloved comic book storylines, it was very dark but also very in-depth, pitting a man who was never really that good, to begin with, but is in love and wants to be a better man is killed and returns as a Spawn, basically a demon with powers, yet at one point ends up giving said powers and ending his life to save “the other guy” his estranged wife married. There’s way more there, I kinda had to skip from comics one to fifty, but you get the idea. Complex characters with deep motivations. In the movie variation, we get the jest of the gov’t assassin who wants out so he can be with his wife. But after that, things get stuck one-dimensionally. Bag guy has a “doomsday” device. Hell works on releasing said doomsday device. The hero must learn to use his powers and save the world. In the comics, Spawn wouldn’t give two shits about the world.
More and more of these all most wonders were coming out, and then…
1998’s Blade is when the superhero movies started taking themselves a little more seriously and not just “for kids.” Certainly not Blade, which boasted an R-rating. I think Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 Punisher flick was the first of comic book movies to brave an R-rating. The issue with the 80s Punisher variation, among a majority of early superhero movies, is the omission of certain aspects of the characters that made them more compelling, giving realism to motivations, and letting us audience types to give a crap about them. Now Blade, some may say had issues. They wouldn’t be wrong. However, 1998 was the first time I actually cared about a superhero, other than Blankman, but no one was going to take Blankman seriously. People still don’t. But Blade. Oh my, Blade was a badass. I saw it in theaters in 98’ with my friends. Loved it then. Still, do. Even if the “cheesiness” in the CGI is starting to show. Yup. That’s right. I’m picking Blade over the Michael Keaton Batman flicks. Yes, those Bat-films were fun and awesome, but Batman is a very complex character and Tim Burton did nothing with exploring that. Burton is a great visual director. But his characters have always been 2-D. There’s room for argument, I’m sure. But while Blade may have had similar qualities as Batman, i.e. moody grumpy badass loner type, there are moments we see more. Blade has a twisted sense of humor, sadistic some might say. And when it comes to Whistler, there’s a father-son dynamic that adds just enough flavor to the Blade persona to make viewers care.
This is not when the Golden Age began, this is only a foreshadowing.
Trust me. While Blade is not a definitive moment when the Golden Age of Superhero Movies clock started, it is certainly the start of what made the Golden Age possible. It wasn’t a perfect start, by all means. But Blade marked the moment when hero flicks took themselves more seriously. And the popularity from there rose, not immediately, but steadily, climbing into a near explosion of movies based on Marvel, DC, Image, and other more obscure comic book label characters. Seriously, who outside of obscure comic book readers ever heard of Guardians of the Galaxy? Not many, I can assure you. Yet, despite said obscurity, Guardians of the Galaxy became one of the more successful superhero movies for Marvel to come out of 2014. And now fans eagerly await the release of Vol 2.
The road hasn’t been without its bumps. While 2000 gave us the first of many Bryan Singer directed X-Men movies, giving what fans had been dreaming about for years, Wolverine on the big screen, the early 2000’s also gave us the not-so-great Affleck flick Daredevil. That being said, we did get X-2 and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, which wowed audiences back in 2002. There was a hiccup somewhere in the mid-2000s, between Daredevil and Catwoman and Fantastic Four that fell due to campy forced storytelling. But the good ones were starting to outnumber the bad, V for Vendetta being one of the best to come out of 2006.
Okay. I’ve been blabbing on and on here. I hope some of this has made sense. But here’s the meat. Let me say first though that this article is an opinion piece based on my own personal analysis of movie and story trends. People more learned than I may have a different opinion, you may have a different opinion. BUT… I believe 2008 was the start of the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies. In 2008 alone, nine different comic book movies released to theaters. Some of those, not so good. But among them started a decade-spanning series that is still ongoing. That’s right, I’m talking about the Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr., an actor who up until that point was slipping into obscurity, somehow beat the odds and helped launch a multi-million dollar franchise.
But not just that, since Iron Man’s release, the number of crummy, 2-D storytelling superhero movies has exponentially (nice big word there) decreased. For example, while in 2009, Wolverine’s Origins movie may have been questionable, we did get Watchmen, which I thought was very in-depth and developed. In 2011, while The Green Hornet failed miserably, we got both Thor and one of my all-time favorite superhero movies, Captain America: The First Avenger. In 2012, some asshole released Ghost Rider 2, but…we did get The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, Dark Knight Rises, AND Dredd, which I feel is an overlooked movie. Superman returned in Man of Steele in a not too shabby 2013 new flick, as did Thor in an even better sequel to his first film. In 2014, we got THE WINTER FREAKING SOLDIER, not to mention Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy, huge films that overshadowed some lesser greats with the return of TMNT in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And last year, 2016…oh my. Even the TMNT upped their ante with Out of the Shadows, giving longtime fans what they’ve been wanting since the 1990s, Bebop and Rocksteady on the big screen, and a relaxing breather to go with the more serious toned superhero films like Captain America: Civil War, Apocalypse, and Batman V Superman. But not just those, we also got the surprise hit Doctor Strange, which blew my freaking mind, and lastly but not least, Deadpool, the next in hopefully a long series of R-rated superhero movies. I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard as I did at a movie before, other than maybe South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.
Why are we in a Golden Age of Superhero Movies? Seriously? I don’t know!!! That’s not what this post is about, but I thought I should mention the why since I explained the how. For me, the how is obvious. Back in 1998, Blade showed us what a good superhero movie was or could be. And over time we showed our expectations at the box office. And now we’re at a point when quality versus quantity seems mute. We’re getting quality movies and we’re getting a lot of them. And the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing. In 2017, we’re expecting Power Rangers, which BTW actually looks interesting and worthwhile (we’ll see), Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2., Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League.
There are movies projected, as from what I’ve been able to find, through 2020.
Will the Golden Age of Superhero Movies come to an end? Maybe eventually. But right now they’re offering a mode of storytelling that has become very appealing to audiences worldwide. This thirst of seeing the “best of us,” heroes more or less. Not just “super powered,” but human, regardless of superpowers or not. And that’s also why I titled this post as “Golden Age” instead of “Golden Era.” An era is typically confined to a decade. An Age can last, well…for reference, the Bronze Age, which is bronze weaponry, lasted for over 1700 years… Just saying, this can be awhile.
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.