Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Reel Opinion: A Trip Down Superhero Lane

This week, the latest version of Superman flies to the big screen with the arrival of MAN OF STEEL. Unlike the iconic comic-book hero the film is based on, this film did not drop out of the sky; it is a culmination of superhero movies over many years. Specifically, the landmark super-flicks which steered the genre in the right direction at the right time.  
The first successful big-screen adaptation of a superhero from the comics was Superman himself, when SUPERMAN THE MOVIE arrived in 1978. The film would spawn a very successful (and perhaps superior) sequel, before leveling off with a third film and then bottoming out in the fourth movie. Despite being a tad dated due to the time period, SUPERMAN remains as the high bar for all superhero adaptations to shoot for…courtesy of its excellent casting, acting, and film craftsmanship. By earning nominations in major award categories and attracting high-profile actors, SUPERMAN proved right out of the gate that the genre could, and should be taken seriously.

Superhero films would then remain quiet for a few years, but then made a big dent in pop culture when BATMAN arrived in 1989. The new look at the caped crusader forever distanced the character from the campy and colorful version the world had been used to from television; a look that would remain consistent through its eventual re-boot nearly two decades later. The film brought more legitimacy to the genre by earning acting nominations in the Golden Globes and BAFTA’s. Although it preferred style over substance it spawned a successful sequel, and similar to SUPERMAN, bottomed out with two more follow-ups.
The genre would turn an important corner with the arrival of X-MEN (2000), and again with X2 (2003). The X-MEN proved that a superhero film does not have to be all about good guys vs. bad guys. By inserting social issues such as the fear of those who are different, the world realized that sometimes the biggest enemy a superhero has to face is the very society they are trying to protect; a theme that many super-films would be inspired by to this day.

Batman saw resurgence with the arrival of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy starting in 2005. The new vision took a fresh approach at superheroes by making the caped crusader as realistic as possible; realism and practicality were the priorities and changed the way filmmakers would approach superhero adaptations. The second film earned more legitimacy to the genre by winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and remains the third-highest grossing film domestically.
Not to be outdone by their DC counterparts, Marvel’s THE AVENGERS (2012) went on to become the second-highest grossing film (domestically) of all time. The film was a culmination of Marvel’s unprecedented efforts to bring all of their properties (characters) under one consistent and connected universe; a series of connected movies which looks to last at least another decade.

With the box office numbers proving that people want to see superhero films, filmmakers realized that they were not limited to comic-book adaptations. M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE (2000) was an alternate look at super-beings and super-villains, but most importantly, kept the focus on the characters. Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES (2004) was an animated family-based film which served as a wake-up call to the genre by calling attention to the many clich├ęs which had been embraced for years.

The accomplishments of these landmark films will all come together when MAN OF STEEL lands on Earth this weekend; realism, social issues, self-awareness, human stories and big-wow action. Whether or not the film flies away with the box office or is a hit with critics remains to be seen, but it will be fun to see the many years of superhero-film accomplishments all come together.


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