Friday, March 30, 2012

The Golden Age of the Superhero Movie

Oscar season. December 15, 1978. A labor of love hit theaters. Richard Donner was the director. But Superman was the brain child of Ilya Salkind. He spent a year trying to get the film rights from DC Comics. Went though a list of potential actors for the role of the Man of Steel, from Dustin Hoffman to Muhammed Ali. The chance to direct was offered to a slew of helmsmen. Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, even George Lucas, who had to turn it down to film his own passion film, Star Wars. Spielberg was on the list as well, prior to the release of Jaws. Richard Donner got the job because of his success with The Omen. That's how long Salkind was working on it.

Marlon Brando was the first actor cast. For a part as small as Jor-El, he received a shockingly high paycheck. His total salary, including his percentage of the gross was $19 million. An insane amount of money to pay an actor in the 1970s. Especially considering he only worked 12 days on the film and didn't memorize a single line of dialog. From the time he was cast, it was still another 2 years before they started shooting.

Little bit of trivia: The scene at the beginning of Superman II with Lois Lane in Paris and Superman flying the bomb into space where he accidentally destroys the Phantom Zone, releasing General Zod? That's the original ending of Superman. They decided not to end it on a cliffhanger, just in case the movie bombed.

It didn't bomb. In fact, it became the 6th highest grossing film of all-time with a whopping $134 million domestic. Needless to say, it's not still #6. Actually, it's #282. In 2012 dollars, it made the equivalent of close to $450 million. It was THAT kind of hit. Adjusted for inflation, it's the biggest superhero film of all-time not featuring Batman or Spider-Man.

Most importantly though, it launched the Golden Age of the Superhero Movie. The age where comic book characters could be used in a serious film. Granted, it didn't happen all at once. The first 2 Superman films were attempts at art. But it was surrounded by less serious films like Flash Gordon, Sheena, and Supergirl. Then came Superman 3 and 4 and it seemed to come to a halt. That is, until 2 years later, when Tim Burton's Batman was released.

An enormous box office hit, one would have thought more films in the genre would have followed. There were a few: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Rocketeer were the most notable. Less so was Darkman, which is only worth noting since it was directed by Sam Raimi, who went on to direct the Spider-Man films featuring Tobey Maguire.But the only ones making good money were the Batman films and TMNT. The latter was not at all serious and the Batman film seemed to stop trying after Burton left the franchise. Other films fell by the wayside: The Shadow, Tank Girl, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire. While box office disappointments, they did help set up what was to come. Essentially, they taught the studios two things: 1. Audiences take these characters seriously and 2. You can't do them half-assed.

Then the summer of 1998 happened. Two heroes hit the screen that summer. One, very familiar with audiences; the other, not so much. The first film was The Mask of Zorro, proof that studios had learned the above considering that the previous Zorro film was Zorro, the Gay Blade. Audiences didn't want a Gay Blade. They wanted a more serious Zorro. Also in the summer of '98 was a different kind of Blade, one that killed vampires and wasn't the least bit gay. As result of those two films, more classic characters went into production, but America would have to wait another two years.

Two more serious superhero films launched in 2000. Bryan Singer's X-Men went on to gross $157 million that summer. In the winter, M. Night Shyalaman brought us a new kind of superhero movie where we get to know the hero as much as the powers. Unbreakable did a solid $95 million.

At this point, the studios must have been convinced (finally) of the wide appeal of the superhero genre. And if they weren't by 2000, they definitely were by 2002, when Spider-Man became the first film EVER to do the previously unthinkable: The $100 million opening weekend. $114 million is 3 days, to be exact. Not bad considering the film "only" cost $139 million to make. But, with a box office take of over $400 million, the formula was cemented. Blade 2 also hit that summer, making even more than the first.

Still, we are talking about studios here. Just because you have the recipe, doesn't mean they know how to cook it. In 2003, they learned you can't rush these films, even with good directors. Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil and Ang Lee's Hulk, while blockbusters, were creative disappointments. The upside was Bryan Singer's follow-up X2: X-Men United, a huge hit that summer.

It was in 2004 that the true onslaught began. Amazingly, it didn't even start until April with Guillermo Del Toro (who directed Blade II) and the creative Hellboy. That year also brought us The Punisher, Spider-Man 2, Catwoman, The Incredibles, and Blade: Trinity. Needless to say, not all were successful, but Spider-Man 2 and Pixar's Incredibles were enough to keep the genre riding high.

2005 was a bit of a setback. Only one film stood out, but, boy, did it ever. Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins introduced to audiences the concept of the reboot. Most fans still remembered Tim Burton's Batman very well and didn't see right away why telling the origin story again a mere 16 years later would be necessary. One viewing and you could see why. But its success certainly made up for Elektra (the Daredevil spinoff no one asked for), Sky High (the parody no one asked for), The Legend of Zorro (the sequel people stopped asking for years ago), and The Fantastic Four, which was a decent-sized hit despite not being close to the film people wanted.

Remember Sky High? Probably not. But whenever Hollywood is successful at something, they like to both play it to death and endlessly mock it. 2006 brought another X-Men sequel. This time, without Bryan Singer, who helmed the Superman reboot, Superman Returns. It also brought two more superhero "comedies", My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Zoom.

In 2007, we saw an attempt to launch another franchise, Ghost Rider, and more disappointing sequels, Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Much like every other trend in Hollywood, every time it seems a trend is about to see it's end, a film is made to create its comeback. 2008 was that, and then some.

It didn't start off that way. The first superhero movie that year was, appropriately enough, entitled Superhero Movie. Yet ANOTHER spoof of the genre. But then summer hit, starting off with an epic-sized bang in the form of Iron Man, launching both the Iron Man and Avengers franchises. Another addition to the Avengers franchise came a month later with the reboot of The Incredible Hulk. Wanted created its own franchise (assuming the sequel to the hit is ever made). The half-spoof/half-legit Hancock did sequel-worthy business over 4th of July, followed by Hellboy II. But despite all the buzz and talk of awards, no one could have expected the mammoth success of The Dark Knight, Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins, which achieved two milestones no other superhero film reached: the biggest box office hit of all-time (of films not made by James Cameron) and the first to win an Oscar in a major category (for Heath Ledger as the Joker). There was one more hero film that year, but almost no one even remembers The Spirit.

Only 2 films of note came out in 2009. Zack Snyder's highly ambitious Watchmen and a reboot of sorts, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

What 30 years of superhero films showed was the many different directions these films could go. Whether it's the epic route like Superman. The morally ambiguous (Watchmen). The good guy not always winning in the end (Dark Knight). Or just pure entertainment without dumbing it down (Spider-Man 2, X2 or Iron Man). Unlike other genres, like say romcoms, a lack of originality seems to always be punished.

Take 2010's slate: the low budget, rooted-in-reality Kick-Ass vs. the enormous budget, rushed into production Iron Man 2 or, the supervillain "comedy" Megamind. Kick-Ass wins that one.

2011 showed more of a return to form. The not-so-successful, but never boring The Green Hornet, two well-made Avengers films, Thor and Captain America, another reboot of sorts, the excellent X-Men: First Class, the Kick-Ass ripoff Super, and the "would have been better received any other year" The Green Lantern. Outside of Green Hornet and the all too realistic Super, it was a good year for the superhero genre.

2012 so far has further proven the creed that clever does well in this genre, retreads do not. We've had two films so far this year. Chronicle, which combined the superhero trend with the found footage genre, with great success, grossing almost $70 million despite a cast of unknowns and a budget more reminiscent of an indie drama ($12 million). The other was yet another sequel no one was pining for, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which cost 5 times what Chronicle cost and has made FAR less. But there's a lot to look forward to this year. Three HUGE entries into the pantheon. First up is the long-awaited Avengers movie, which combines the characters (both main and peripheral) of the Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America films. Followed by the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise (in 3-D, no less) and the final chapter to Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Best guess, those three films alone will account for a combined billion dollars domestically.

The Amazing Spider-Man will be a curiosity, for sure. First of all, Marc Webb is directing. His ONLY other film was the creative romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer. It takes a lot of guts to hand over a billion dollar franchise, a $250 million budget, to a guy who's only movie made less than what Sam Raimi's Spider-Man made the day it opened. Secondly, the villain is obscure except to those who know the comic books well.

Next year boasts more sequels and reboots. Iron Man 3, Thor 2 and The Wolverine. The one that I'm personally looking forward to, however, is the Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Zack Snyder, who directed the visually inventive, morally-challenged Watchmen, takes over the franchise. But, unlike Watchmen, Man of Steel boasts a script by David S. Goyer, who wrote the Nolan Batman films, based on a concept conceived by Goyer and Nolan during the writing of The Dark Knight, using a concept they were going to use for Batman, then scrapped it when they realized it would make, in their words, a far better Superman film. So they took it to Warner Brothers, who agreed. The question is: what is that concept that could have so easily been transferred from one superhero to another?

Despite all the ones I mentioned, it's still amazing to think that in this Golden Age of Superhero Movies, there have been 88 of them to hit theaters (ones like Blankman and Meteor Man didn't seem worth mentioning), with 7 more due out by the end of 2013.

Some other films coming down the pipeline:
  • Ant-Man (with Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead fame, rumored to direct)
  • Deadpool, another spinoff of the X-Men franchise
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • The Flash (presumably will be announced soon and is being written by the same writer as the Clash of the Titans/Wrath of the Titans films)
  • Solomon Grundy
  • Captain America 2
  • ANOTHER Batman reboot (Nolan overseeing it, but will not direct)
  • Amazing Spider-Man 2
  • A Daredevil reboot (directed by David Slade who did the unusual vampire film 30 Days of Night and the not-so-exciting vampire film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse)
  • And, of course, the forever-rumored Justice League film (which will likely never happen, but if you work at Warner Brothers, I've got an idea to make it work #shamelessplug)

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