How Superhero Movies Have Changed

Reeves and Cavill superman split and combined
A comparison between then and now. Media by Thomas Broomfield.

Superhero movies are big bucks nowadays. From Endgame to Shazam, it seems that every time a superhero flick comes out, there are predictions that it’ll make a billion dollars in the opening weekend, particularly if it’s Marvel.

To say that this is different from how it was in the ‘80s/’90s would be an understatement.

In the earlier days of superhero movies, each movie rarely interconnected with each other unless they were direct sequels. You weren’t going to see Superman in Batman Returns, and you weren’t going to see really any Marvel movies.

Poster for Howard the Duck
Marvel’s first cinematic venture… yes, seriously. Media by Wikipedia.

While Marvel did make films around this time, they weren’t as polished as they are now. Marvel’s first theatrical release as we know them (serials from the ’40s notwithstanding) came with 1986’s Howard the Duck. This was a mistake on Marvel’s part. Howard the Duck was and still is a very niche and obscure comic book character. Why would they choose this character to make their first cinematic release since 1944?

Presumably, they were hoping the name power of the film’s executive producer, George Lucas, would help them out. The problem is, what average joe knows what an executive producer is? That might’ve been the point; to sucker people in by giving Lucas a position that nobody knew what the heck he was doing. That didn’t pan out.

Marvel hit flop after flop in the ’80s and ’90s. They followed their brilliant Howard the Duck move by making a film about The Punisher, played by Dolph Lundgren. They followed this in 1990 with Captian America, both of which were not well received. Both of these were released direct-to-video in the US, with international getting a limited theatrical run. 

Then, there was Marvel’s biggest blunder of the ’90s, Fantastic Four. Even the people reading this article who’ve seen Howard the Duck, Punisher and Captain America, probably haven’t seen this one, and for good reason. This film was so bad, it was NEVER RELEASED.

Yes, the film was apparently so atrocious, no theatre would except it, and the film never came out, not even direct-to-video. Illegal copies have been circulating over the years, but no official copy has ever been released, baring a small exhibition to the public in 1994.

Christopher Reeve's Superman flying through the air;
For DC, the box office was soaring as high as the man of steel himself. Media by Den of Geek.

As for DC, the ones who seem to flounder nowadays, they were doing pretty good for themselves. The late ‘70s to early ‘80s was the Man of Steel’s time to shine, with Richard Donner’s Superman series breaking box office records and giving us groundbreaking technology… for the time. The tagline of the first film was “You will believe a man can fly,” and needless to say, a lot of people did. This was followed by a successful sequel, which had Superman taking on the evil General Zod.

Unfortunately, Superman’s success couldn’t last forever. Richard Donner left after the second movie, leading to Superman 3, starring Richard Pryor. This was followed by Superman 4 in 1987, which was harshly panned by critics and audiences, and for good reason. It was stupid, cheesy, and the effects had taken a serious downgrade; it was an overall mess.

Needless to say, the superfamily wasn’t doing great. So in 1989, DC struck gold with the Dark Knight, Batman. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Micheal Keaton (who continues to be the best live-action Batman even years later). This was a massive hit for DC, leading to Batman being their golden cow for their film studios, and it also led to the caped crusader’s explosion in popularity.

Classic and (semi) modern Batman. Media by Comic Vine.

So yes, superhero films have changed. But is it for the better? If you’re talking to my interviewee, a huge fan of superhero movies named Scott Heckman, then yes. “You get drawn into Iron Man and Black Widow in ways that you don’t with Reeve’s Superman because they show you their personal lives. You see the human side of the story with them that you really don’t get with Superman. I still enjoy the older Superman movies, but newer Marvel films just tell stories in a way that older superhero films didn’t and they are more interesting for it.”

While he does have a very good point, I personally will always have a soft spot for the older films, warts and all. Are they perfect? No. Are they the big-budget goliaths that they are nowadays? Absolutely not. But we wouldn’t be where we are without Reeves or Keaton to pave the way for Cavill or Pattison. In the end, despite the upgrades, you always have to respect the originals.


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