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Category:    Home > Reviews > Superhero > Action > Adventure > Animation > Comedy > Filmmaking > Are Superhero Films Cinematic?

Are Superhero Films Cinematic?

This article is in two parts and only scratches the surface of what the Superhero genre is, how cinematic is it and that debates like this should be going on constantly about the arts, film, music, television and all other media. It is one of the healthiest things a free society can do. The first part of this article is the history of the rise of the genre on the big screen and the second half asks its cinematic value.

To start with, it is inarguable that comics books are now respected art and they did not need to keep having record sales of priceless editions to confirm that, the Pop Art movement of the 1960s more than confirmed that via Lichtenstein and Warhol alone. The question is how cinematic are the big screen feature films of these heroes.

With the debate raging on as this posts, it is time to ask if Superhero movies are a joke, cinematic or somewhere in between or even something else. Such characters as we know them today arrived in the 1930s during a period with two very dark things going on at the same time, The Great Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe that would soon lead to WWII. This new generation of characters were not just adventurers, but super intelligent fighters who used their brains and often, secret identities to fight new threats and evils arriving with the beginning of the industrial age, new technology and unexpected threats.

As the next step after action characters like Tarzan, John Carter and others, comic books and even pulp novels would be where they would debut. After several attempts fell through in the 1930s, The Shadow would be the first Superhero to make it onto the big screen, albeit through two hour-long B-movies for Grand National Pictures in 1937 (The Shadow Strikes) and 1938 (International Crime) with Rod La Rocque as the title hero and his secret identity, millionaire Lamont Cranston. Despite the low budget and deviating a bit from the original pulp novel materials, this was the debut of the first superhero of any kind on the big screen. More significant was that the radio version of The Shadow was a huge hit and Orson Welles would play him for two brilliant sets of shows that were never equalled also starting in 1937, though the show went on with other actors to high ratings including an underrated version in the U.K. and a underrated season with actor John Archer for which too few episodes survived. Thus the superhero genre had quietly arrived, amazing considering The Shadow started as a host earlier in the decade of an anthology show with no background and not as any kind of hero.

A big influence on the creation of Batman with many imitators over the years, Grand National and publisher Street and Smith had beat Timely/Marvel, Fawcett and DC Comics to the punch on the big screen by a few years. As the pulp novels and comic books continued to sell very well, other studios took notice with then-smaller Columbia Pictures unleashing a 1940 chapter serial shown Saturday mornings with Victor Jory as The Shadow and it was not the best serial, Columbia Pictures beat everyone to the punch in that format. Within a few years, Columbia teamed up with DC Comics to deliver two serials each with DC Comics on Batman and Superman, but before they were greenlit, Columbia also did a serial of The Phantom from King Features Syndicate, but before all that, The Fleischer Studios (via their distributor, Paramount Pictures, the top competitor to Disney until they folded) delivered some of the most expensive animated short films ever made in their Superman cartoon short series, totally cinematic and among the most important works in animation history, still highly influential and still way ahead of their time. They were also in Technicolor, the best color format around and a hit. It would be the only time any superhero would appear in color anywhere for decades to come on the big screen.

Republic Pictures (a direct competitor with Columbia and also then-smaller Universal in the serials market) was not going to miss out and licensed both Captain America from Marvel Comics and Captain Marvel (the one known only now as 'Shazam!' (from Fawcett Comics, now defunct) and found themselves with two more hits. Obviously, the success was not a fluke, even if it was from B-movie type production units. The Captain Marvel serial in particular is considered one of the greatest serials ever made.

In the 1950s, the entire comic book industry was targeted by the infamous anti-semitic witch hunts of the time, but TV had also arrived and George Reeves would play the next Superman in The Adventures of Superman, a huge early TV hit that helped build the industry and soon, would become one of the first TV shows ever made in color. That is 35mm film and over a decade before color TV arrived, so the Man of Steel was once again on the cutting edge of an almost-genre, though none of his villains were licensed for the series. Episodes were cut into fake theatrical films and this is where Superman was first seen in live action color for fans of the time.

The producers even tried launching spin off series in a weak attempt at Superboy and bizarre Superdog show that still defies logic and explanation, but both were not picked up. The producers did not get the success of the main show and that would be the ned of any more heroes on TV, though a Shadow pilot was also tired out and did not succeed.

Come the 1960s and the Pop Art movement and comic books were finally being taken seriously as at least art. That situation led to Fox and the ABC Network in the U.S. to contact DC Comics and license the other popular hero who was Superman's friend and had also appeared on the hit Superman radio show: Batman. Though the result made ABC think they had a disaster on their hands, they soon broadcast the first episode of the new series and for the third-palace, new major network in town, they had a hit on their hands. The show would sell more color TVs and a whole new era of Superhero productions were on the way.

Batman lasted three seasons, used canted angles from old Film Noir films as a new style approach, advertising agency Filmation would enter the TV business with a slew of animated DC Comics TV shows like Superman, Batman, Aquaman and others on rival CBS before those characters switched to rival Hanna-Barbera, who launched SuperFriends! in 1973 with ABC to astronomical ratings and a 13 year run. Marvel launched their own animated series in the late 1960s, including Spider-Man and other hits that established newly reorganized Marvel as DC's permanent rival.

By the time Batman was over with its craze behind it and one feature film made for theaters in 1966 in between seasons, it was a hit all over again in syndication as the 1950s Superman had been and two new classics hit TV shows arrived a few years later with Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk, both actors perfect for the roles and trying to add something a little more cinematic to their shows. The first Wonder Woman season was et during WWII and did what it could with its budget, while Hulk producer Kenneth Johnson tried to push the limits the best he could visually for his show to be something more than what we would usually see on TV. Hulk was Marvel's first live action hit of any kind.

Batman was so popular, DC not only continued to have him and Robin on SuperFriends! and reruns, but allowed a surging Filmation to create a new Batman series with better animation and most important, the reuniting of Adam West and Burt Ward in their original TV roles, even if it was voice over work. Though it had silly humor with Batmite, Batgirl and a few cliches from the series, it had animation as good as anything on TV and was rightly a hit. But Warner Bros., now owning DC Comics, took the next step and the first fully-developed project for the big screen since the 1940s serials.

Boldly calling itself Superman: The Movie, the Man of Steel was once again going to be the recipient of the biggest bucks and the studio went all out and shocked the industry, hiring Godfather writer Mario Puzo to help with the story, trying out unknown Christopher Reeve in more perfect casting, then hiring two of the most respected actors for the film, the kind of film you would not expect either to do. Gene Hackman would play Lex Luthor and no less than Marlon Brando would play Superman's father. The very title announced something big and cinematic, which was even more promising since all the TV hits had been so well liked and received.

The result was a huge blockbuster success with more critical acclaim than expected and big set pieces that showed off Hollywood at its best, including some major sequences that subverted the disaster film cycle. After many decades, this is the feature film that finally established superheroes (coined by the Mego Toy Company in the 1970s to sell action figures) that finally established the genre after 41 years. It would be followed by three sequels (only the first of which was good) and a Supergirl spin-off that was an interesting mess despite interesting casting, but no superhero boom. TV then only started delivering mostly superhero cartoons and the genre in any form was still seen as a joke and kids stuff to most people. Whatever cinematic was achieved, it did not stick or add up enough for audiences, Hollywood or anyone else but die hard fans.

The whole genre on and off screen was suffering during the 1980s when Marvel started to get overextended in too many licenses that took decades to settle and Warner got too formulaic and controlling with DC, so it took Frank Miller's 1986 classic The Dark Knight Returns to break up the gridlock. The book bashed the Reagan/Thatcher era and batman was suddenly not best friends with Superman. This was shocking, but the genre had reawakened to its original mission and the following year, Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987) become the first X-rated (for violence) Superhero film and a surprise hit, even cut for an R-rating.

However, what is still the most thoroughly promoted film of all time would be a homophobic, right wing take on the genre arrived and was a hit: Tim Burton's 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The sequels that followed did not hold onto that political stance and eventually regressed into the final of four films being one of the most 'proto-gay' (for lack of a better term vs. just saying camp) Superhero films ever made: Batman & Robin (1997). Still, a new set of feature films and TV series (animated and live action still going on non-stop 30 years and counting) resulted, but the films have been a wild mix of good, bad, odd and unfortunate.

Warner/DC continued to dominate the big screen over Marvel, whose only hit still was that 1940 Captain America serial, while their live action shows extrapolated from Hulk TV movie revivals and two late 1970s live action duds in Spider-Man and a few Captain America telefilms gave them a horrible live action reputation. A 1986 Captain America feature film was hardly released and very early live action Fantastic Four film was so bad, it was never released at all!

Universal even relaunched The Shadow (1995) with Alec Baldwin that looked good, but had mixed critical and commercial results, though it would be a transitional Superhero film much like, if not as good as Robocop. Ironically, it was New Line Cinema, now a part of Warner, that licensed a Marvel Comics Superhero and that film finally proved the viability of Marvel on the big screen, was very innovative and groundbreaking visually and was a hit. Blade (1998) with Wesley Snipes as the daywalking vampire hunter was a hit, influenced the Matrix films and offered then-new squeeze lenses that worked great and were lighter, so better to film action sequences. Add Robocop 2 (1990, an underrated sequel, co-written by Frank Miller) and a backlash against the genre being hijacked by the very people it criticized arrived, would only get more interesting and more cinematic.

Warner hired Christopher Nolan to revive Batman and using many points from the 1995 Shadow film with Batman Begins (2000) starting a trilogy with Christian Bale as the caped crusader that was as sprawlingly cinematic as anything made before, with sequels that would use an unprecedented amount of large frame film formats (70mm, VistaVision, IMAX) to show its action. It may have had some problematic politics at times, but joined the first two Blade and first two Robocop films as picking up where the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films left off.

The Blade films ended with an awful third film and forgettable TV series, while The Phantom with Billy Zane had some success, but no sequel and two Fantastic Four films and a parade of mixed X-Men films were also made. Marvel (still on their own) finally took the unprecedented step for any comic book company and formed their own movie studio, though Sony/Columbia were going to produce a solid series of Spider-Man feature films (with the James Cameron/Leonardo DiCaprio film sadly shelved, they did a Sam Raimi trilogy with Tobey MacGuire (though that third one was a problem), two more with Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield) that were separate from Marvel's new studio.

At first, things were promising for Marvel. While underrated films were being made outside of the new studio (namely The Punisher with Thomas Jane) the most cinematic films of this new Marvel Universe (not counting any Guardians Of The Galaxy films) are Iron Man (2008, questioning what was going on with U.S. involvement in the Middle East post-9/11), The Avengers (2012, pulling the characters together in finally realized versions that worked) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), but the films after within the studio universe take a few turns that work against the films that followed, no matter their success.

Zac Snyder had put out a problematic hit version of another important comic book classic in Watchmen (2009, now unfolding even better as a TV series a decade later), but even though it was a deconstruction of the genre disowned by its creator, ti was enough for Warner/DC to trust him with Man Of Steel (its next short-lived Superman revival), Batman Vs. Superman and Justice League, but they all underperformed and like the poorer Marvel films to come, played more like two hour toy ads or two hour previews for the next film that it would deliver what these films were supposed to. This is where the test marketing, lack of cinematic anything and other repetitive issues have set in and considering what did and did not make money, you think both studios (especially Warner) would have taken more evasive action to not allow this to happen.

Thus, darker films (a Ed Norton Hulk sequel, WWII Wonder Woman film, several Flash films, et al) had been shelved, while Suicide Squad was not what it should have been. Marvel finally finished their first story arc with the surprise of the success of Black Panther (originally Wesley Snipes choice of Marvel hero before Blade), while Warner/DC fared much better with Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Unfortunately, in all this, no major independent Superhero films have been made with any wide release or success (the odd Robocop revival rightly bombed) and then the debate started.


The success of the Superhero genre at the box office has been huge, even more critic-proof, than anyone wants to admit and can imagine. Though some films underperform, they sell toys, shirts, comic books and other memorabilia (while sending older collectibles to new records) so they have been money in the bank by the time they hit home video and now, streaming. Steven Spielberg made the first interesting prediction when he said these films would be like Westerns, all over the place now, then disappear down the line. Like Biblical Epics and Sword & Sandals B-movies, such crazes did cause the genres to burn out, but I am not so certain that analogy will hold.

But the current debate really started with someone at Marvel Studios making the fateful statement that Marvel movies were doing better at the box office than DC since they and the characters were more cinematic, despite the hits only happening since Blade. But it was cinema giant Martin Scorsese who really got it all going by saying that the Marvel films were not cinema and more like an amusement park, which has more validity now than it might have had in 2014. Francis Coppola, his equal as a filmmaking legend and cinematic literate, was harsher by calling them despicable. It has also been brought up again that Alan Moore, as innovative as Frank Miller in the superhero genre, has warned and criticized that the genre could be distorted into a vehicle for white nationalism, more relevant now than when he said that. We can only hope Black Panther and the new-era Aquaman (joining the female heroes' rising again) can off-set that.

Disney head Bob Iger (ignoring that the comments were aimed at him and his studio as much as anyone) said it was all disrespectful to the filmmakers, others in Marvel world said they were entitled to say what they wanted, but Marvel Producer Kevin Feige called Scorsese's comments unfortunate, after Scorsese wrote an essay going into detail.

Though I agree there is test marketing overkill on all these films at this point, there are a few issues with the criticisms. One, Scorsese admitted he had not seen the films and as a former film professor and critic, it is never good to criticize what you have not seen.More significant, he broke his golden rule of not commenting on filmmakers and films being made today unless he was exceptionally impressed.

More shocking to me is that both Marvel/Disney (the target of the comments) and Warner/DC (despite working with Scorsese early on for The Joker (2019)), is that no one (not even Kevin Smith, who jokingly said Scorsese's Superhero film was Last Temptation of Christ, when he should have really brought up The Aviator), is the huge fan factor. If the films early on did not work for them, they would not be the financial successes they have been. These characters are pre-sold and no marketing is needed, just make a good movie, though both studios seem to have lost that idea in some ways. Avengers: Endgame only works if you've seen al the earlier films, despite having interesting moments on its own. It is well thought out in connection to the earlier films, but not strong enough to stand on its own like real cinema would.

It also is true you are now seeing the same film over and over again, though it did not start out like that in the 1990s. Some of the most talented, smartest actors have been hired for films from both big companies, but it is hardly the most challenging work any of them have ever done, though they have been good in their roles. The genre is a big success at the moment because of the changing technological times we are in, of the inequality in our world that is like nothing since the genre showed up in the later 1930s, in a world with a resurgence of hate and because people want to see big things happen. In the U.S., this has not been the case since the 1970s!

But that brings us to new problems no one is discussing. Has Marvel ended the runs of some of the actors as their main heroes too soon (30 films cannot encompass about 80 years of print history) and by introducing new characters before the others really had a chance to totally strut their histories, is Marvel about to kill a good thing? Now that The Joker has confirmed a darker, but still smart direction for the DC films they did not have with Snyder, but did with Nolan, can they finally get continuity going in their films and avoid any fakeness or predictability that they and Marvel have drifted into here and there? Either way, even these changes will not create another era. For now, we are still in the Nolan/Blade era.

This will all come down to if the makers of the next five films from both studios (not counting Sony/Columbia's stand-alone Spider-Man animated features or Tom Holland live-action films) keep turning out to be two-hour trailers that write checks their behinds cannot cash or will they offer something new and necessary, something more challenging? Even now, the studios still cannot respect or take totally seriously the possibilities of these films, which get as little respect as horror films if not more so, except when they make a ton of money.

Robert Downey Jr. responded to Scorsese's initial comments that they opened in theaters and that does make them theatrical, but cinematic is something more. Since no one has superpowers in real life like this, these will always be commercial films like other such genres, but they can also exceed their genre and unless more of them do so soon, Superhero films could suffer the fate zombie films have by being just more of the same on auto pilot and that would be a shame. The people who created these characters had something more to say than just entertain. It was about a moral center and having the rare position to act on that, the ideas that built the U.S. and the world. When these films fail to represent that, they are more than despicable, they are lost opportunities bordering on disaster for starters and if that actually happens with all this money and talent on hand, it would land up being one of the biggest and most embarrassing events in filmmaking history.

Let's hope not.

- Nicholas Sheffo


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