A brief history of every superhero movie ever made

Published on May 24, 2016

by Dr. Duck

‘You are not taking me to the cooooler’ decalred Mr Freeze, played by former Mr Universe, Terminator, Austrian and now former Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was one of 27 ice puns from the evil villain in the critically panned Batman and Robin made in 1998.

Today, almost two decades later, Warner Bros produced yet another critical flop with the film Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice. This comes after having two decades to learn from their misfire and perfect the comicbook formula from the recent success stories of the Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Are superhero movies worth it?

Steven Spielberg seems to think they’re a fad that will pass, like Westerns. Nevertheless, it seems every studio is banking on comicbook films to finance them for the short to long-term. The new strategy is to create a sustainable franchise of films that spin-off new characters from time to time.

Today film studios aren’t just banking on the return of one film. They’re willing to sacrifice the plot of one film and confuse their audience to service a larger story.


The Origin Story of Superman

This isn’t a new strategy. It actually began way back in 1978, a year before I existed, with the mega-hit, Superman: The Movie.

Directed by Richard Donnor, it featured Christopher Reeve, a relative unknown in the title role, with a supporting cast starring the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando, and two time Oscar winner Gene Hackman.

The film was developed with the view of making a legitimate film rather than some kids flick. So it featured serious actors with serious effects. Christopher Reeve was not to look like a man hanging from a wire. The catch-phrase of the film at the time was ‘you will believe a man can fly’.

The film went on to earn over $400 mil from a budget of $50 mil.

But there was already a long-term plan in place to maximise the return of actors like Brando and Hackman. As Superman: The Movie was being filmed, scenes for the sequel were being shot in parallel. Superman II was credited to Richard Lester although it was Donner who shot most of the scenes and was rumoured to be unceremoniously axed.

The sequel was a modest hit but quickly dissolved when Lester returned to direct Superman III with a strange focus on slapstick comedy. The film is simply remembered as simply being not as bad as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Flash forward to 1987, Superman IV included a poor investment of $11 mil to earn only $20 mil. It was also a critical flop and featured appalling special effects, including a scene where Mariel Hemingway falls, screaming, from the moon towards earth.

The first chapter of the Superman story closed on the Christopher Reeve era with a whimper. Two hits and two flops.

Are superhero movies worth it?


Seeing the light with the Dark Knight

In 1989, Warner Bros gave the Dark Knight—Batman—a go. Tim Burton, an up and coming director who stood out with the film Pee Wees Big Adventure, was signed up to direct. Burton is now known as that dark director with an eye for quirky, twisted, and troubled characters.

He was perfect for Batman and his popular, infamous antagonist, the Joker.

Yet, the film almost killed him. He had little control of the script that at one stage Jack Nicholson, who played the Joker, exclaimed to Burton ‘why are we walking up and down all these stairs?!’.

Nicholson was referring the climactic scene in a church tower that was being written by the film executives at the same time Burton desperately tried to film the scene.

It was Burton’s first major experience on working on a film with heavy studio interference and might explain why so many of his subsequent films have been under his full control. Today he is known for casting his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, and friend, Johnny Depp, in most of the films he creates.

Batman was a critical and commercial success and was immediately followed with an interesting but downbeat sequel Batman Returns also starring Michael Keaton, as Batman, Danny Devito, as the Penguin, and Michelle Phieffer, as Catwoman.

I wonder if the selection of characters was more for the marking of the film that enabled them to highlight ‘The Bat, the Cat, the Penguin’ in a movie poster and to sell the inevitable ‘Happy Meal’ toys at McDonalds?

But this darker and more twisted sequel led to children walking out of the theater in tears. The film featured Devito’s Penguin mangling a man’s nose with his teeth with blood spraying everywhere. In a later scene Penguin stumbles to his death, coughing up black blood oozing from his nose.

Meanwhile, Michelle Phieffer’s Catwoman kills the primary villain, played by Christopher Walken, by giving him a kiss whilst setting him on fire with a blast of electricity.

This was no film to sell Happy Meals.


A Lighter Knight

Out of fear of losing the key perceived demographic—kids—Warner Bros invited a fresh take on the dark knight with Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher.

The film featured ‘bat nipples’ on the bat suit, neon paint and lights, and a heavy dose of the popular 90s comedian, Jim Carrey, as the Riddler, who changes his lycra costume about half a dozen times. The film at the time was warmly welcomed as the light hearted fun missing from Burton’s films.

A couple of years later, George Clooney exclaimed in dismay–echoing Nicholson eight years earlier—‘why are we wearing new costumes?’. Clooney spends much of the film, Batman and Robin, looking confused.

One minute he’s wearing a black turtleneck, playing it serious as billionaire Bruce Wayne. The next minute the camera’s doing a close up of his codpiece and buttocks as he zips up the batsuit.

The final act features Batman and his sidekicks in new superhero suits, which were simply introduced to sell more toys. Schumacher, the guy who rescued Batman from being too dark, was immediately demonised for turning Batman into a joke.

A small hit followed by one of the worst superhero movies of all time.

Are superhero movies worth it?


Bryan Singer’s Superman love affair

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox entered the scene in 2000 with the critical and commercial success of X-Men. Mirroring Burton’s experience with Warners, director Bryan Singer found himself with the studio micro-managing and cutting his budget. Nevertheless, he was able to restore some of the credibility lost with the Schumacher fiasco.

Using Richard Donner’s original Superman as a guide, Singer wanted X-Men to be a legitimate film. He recruited award winning Shakespearean actors Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen as the leads and focussed on developing characters.

The film was a massive success, in part because it made $296 mil from the small $75 mil budget it was assigned.

The sequel X2 was equally successful, but Singer was seduced by Warner Bros to dump the third sequel in favour of a more prestigious project. He was to follow his love of Donner’s Superman to create his own Superman film.

The X-Men series persevered with a modestly successful but generally loathed film X-Men 3. It was directed by Brett Ratner, who made a lot of silly films with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. The sequel almost ended the X-Men franchise by killing off key characters and aggravating fans.

Singer also failed to impress with the exchange. So enamoured with Donner’s original, he decided to make a pseudo-sequel to Superman II, pretending that III and IV didn’t exist. He recruited model, Brandon Routh, to play Superman possibly because he had a passing resemblance to Christopher Reeve.

Kevin Spacey was brought in to play the evil villain, Lex Luthor, which seemed to be a good move until you realise Spacey and Routh have virtually no interaction in the film or chemistry. The film did ok at the box office but was lukewarm enough for Warner Bros to cancel the planned sequel. Routh has gone on to do…not much.

Are superhero movies worth it?


The Dark Knight Returns and Rises

Around the same time Warner Bros invested in the sequel with Superman, they experimented with a new approach with Batman.

Batman Begins, directed by a relative newcomer, Christopher Nolan, abandoned the camp silliness of Joel Schumacher and presented the Batman character as if he existed in the real world. The film was the first in a series of ‘reboots’, which refers to moving on from sequels and simply restarting the franchise with a clean slate.

Following Superman: The Movie formula, Nolan also acknowledged the film needed legitimacy, recruiting supporting actors with credibility.

He cast Michael Cain as Batman’s humble butler, as well as Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson. Intense and respected British actor, Christian Bale, was also cast as Batman. The actor displayed the same intensity of the fictional character, losing 63 pounds for a role in the Machinist and re-gaining the same weight and muscle in just a few months to play Batman.

Batman Begins was followed by the mega-hit, the Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger as the Joker, who died before the film was released but won an Oscar for the role.

Years after its release, Nolan returned to finish his Batman story with the Dark Knight Rises. The film was also a financial and critical success.

But Nolan had finished his story. Bale had hung up the cape and cowl, and it was too soon to reinvent Batman all over again.

Spiderman Spiderman, does what every other superhero film can

Meanwhile, Sony had undergone its own highs and lows with Spiderman. In 2002, and after a decade of on again off again production woes, Sam Raimi delivered the hit starring Tobey Maguire. It was shortly followed by Spiderman II, which was declared the best superhero movie of all time…at the time.

But following the law of diminishing returns, Raimi failed to impress with the second sequel, Spiderman 3. Following the experiences of Donner, Burton, and Singer, even Raimi was not immune to the tinkering of the studio, as they shoe horned a villain into the already bloated story to please fans.

The film buckled under the studio pressure and like others before it, killed the chances of another sequel.

So, Sony decided to do their own reboot. Spiderman was reintroduced only five years after Spiderman 3, with Andrew Garfield taking over the role, which was a modest success.

A couple of years later, yet another Spiderman sequel was released but was a critical failure. The plot, again, was bloated with studio over involvement, attempting to set up more characters and sequels, which simply distracted from the film itself.


Marvel’s dream run

In part, this idea to use a film as a mere catalyst for more films was spurred by Marvel, who had the surprise hit Iron Man with Robert Downey Jnr in 2008. Unlike Batman, Superman, and Spiderman, Iron Man was not a household name and relied heavily on Downey Jr’s charisma to attract a new kind of audience.

This audience liked the tongue and cheek jokes and self-referential humour as much as the action and drama. The film also benefited from being introduced at a time the special effects were allowing directors more freedom to shoot exactly what they dreamed up on the storyboard.

But more importantly, Iron Man started planting the seeds that this one story was simply a smaller chapter, if not paragraph, in a bigger universe.  Marvel has capitalised on this message for the better part of 10 years as they continue to introduce new, lesser known comicbook  characters by simply allowing them to leap frog off more popular ones.

Iron Man was shortly followed by a flurry of related films, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man 2. In fact, Iron Man 2 is now regarded as a mere stopover film to introduce more characters to the Marvel Universe.

This strategy allowed Marvel to release The Avengers, the first superhero team-up movie. The film was a mega-blockbuster, taking in an estimated $1.5 bil in total, demonstrating the power of building a universe of characters rather than creating stand-alone films with sequels.

Marvel were also able to re-introduce another lukewarm hero, the Incredible Hulk, who had already two misfires in Ang Lee’s Hulk, with Eric Bana, and the Incredible Hulk, with Edward Norton. The  Hulk may not be able to carry a film in of itself but is incredibly popular as a supporting act.

The Marvel formula continues to deliver even though the films are in serious danger of collapsing with all the characters, related characters, plots and related plots.

Since the Avengers, we have also seen the related films: Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor 2, Captain America Winter Soldier, Ant Man, Iron Man 3, Deadpool, and the Avengers 2.

Downey Jr has played Iron Man in five films, with another three on the way, and has literally dedicated the third act of his career to this hero. Conceding to the mighty Marvel juggernaut, Sony have allowed their popular character, Spiderman, to appear in Captain America Civil War.

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Sony have their own problems. Not only have the new Spidey films they made failed to resonate but they also invested in three Fantastic Four films each of which have been critical failures.


Superman Returns…again?

As Marvel continues to dominate, Warner Bros must have reflected on their own course of action. Although they achieved enormous success with Nolan’s Batman, Nolan was always keen to contain not expand his universe. Each of his three Batman films were treated as stand alone projects and he did the unthinkable with the Dark Knight Rises by ending Batman’s career, giving him a happy conclusion.

Warners hired Nolan and his brother to help out with the writing and producing of Man of Steel, the first Superman film since Singer’s ill-fated Superman Returns. They were banking on another reboot to pave the way forward.

Nolan and his brother were viewed as chief architects but they got director Zack Snyder to direct who is well known for another comic book success/failure, Watchmen. Watchmen made money but had mixed reviews from fans and the general audience alike.

Man of Steel was no more successful than Superman Returns but in this environment where minor characters like Thor were churning out minor blockbusters, Warners decided Man of Steel was good enough to establish their own ‘DC Universe’.


The Dark Knight Returns…again?

So, they went hunting for Christian Bale who declined to return. When they couldn’t convince Bale to don the cape and cowl again, a new strategy appeared to form. Batman would be reintroduced in Batman versus Superman in much the same way Spiderman was rebooted and Batman before him in Batman Begins.

Another reboot to the Batman character who had been rebooted once before after many sequels. It was starting to look like Warner Bros didn’t really have much in the way of a long-term plan.

This Batman, now played by Ben Affleck, is a world weary veteran with his own back story that is played largely off screen. The director, Zack Snyder, seems intent on reinventing the character and bypassing a lot of his legacy. Yet he spends the opening credits of Batman versus Superman showing the death of Batman’s parents—the third time this has been depicted on screen.


Batman versus Superman: Dawn of a New Franchise

Batman versus Superman was introduced off the back of decades of misfires, reboots, restarts, sequels and pseudo sequels.

Warner Bros brought in Snyder to direct again and started to let the scope creep a little bit every month. First, the film was to be a Superman sequel to Man of Steel. Shortly after this messaging, it became a Batman and Superman film. And not long after this, it was really a set up for the new Batman character.

In the mix of this inconsistent messaging, it became the catalyst for a ‘Justice League’ film, with the title ‘Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice’, implying that the popular Justice League superhero team the would appear.

Characters like the Flash and Aquaman were hinted at and others, like Wonder Woman, were revealed to be making their debut.

Batman versus Superman has met with one of the most mixed responses of all time. It is technically a critical flop. Most critics hate it. Most fans seem to hate it too. Yet, the film secured one of the largest opening weekends of all time.

Warner Bros, no doubt, would prefer the money over the critical acclaim but, no doubt, would be seriously concerned that their platform for future films could be undermined by the negative word of mouth.

And they should. A week later, the film dropped its takings by 75%. Of course, any film that topples the box office has only one place to go—down—so some of this drop is likely a bit of regression to the mean.


The future of franchises

A spinoff with villains is also ready for release, called ‘Suicide Squad’. Affleck is planning to direct his own Batman film. A Wonder Woman film is in the works as are spinoff characters Aquaman and Cyborg.

Warners have now gone too far to turn back and it will now be a gamble to see if these spin-off films can help anchor and stablise the franchise for future return. Fans have already petitioned to have Zack Snyder removed from future Warner Bros projects and have demanded their favourite characters are treated with more respect.

Meanwhile, Marvel have launched their new Captain America film, which bears a strong resemblance to the $1.5 bil hit the Avengers and has already started to bring in record figures. Marvel also have Avengers sequels in development as well as a long line of sequels planned for all its smaller characters.

20th Century Fox have also recovered more recently with X-Men, inviting Singer to return to direct the last successful sequel and X-Men Apocalypse. Their strategy seems to be more about expanding the universe rather than ending the storyline.

Meanwhile, Sony will be testing its return on investment for introducing Spiderman in a Marvel film.

Are superhero films worth it?

If you’re Zack Snyder or Ben Affleck, you’d be thinking it’s a bit of a roll of the dice right now. But if you’re attached in anyway to Marvel, you’d have to think the dice are loaded in your favour.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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