The Evolution of the On Screen Superhero

Superheroes in mass-consumed media, specifically movies and television, have evolved a good deal from their on-the-page comic book roots. From early incarnations with largely comical natures to their modern counterparts that have the capacity to be dark and gritty as well as light-hearted and humorous, the superhero genre has seen a lot of change and growth. Not all of this growth turned out well, but that’s where the magic of rebooting a franchise could always be worked. Oscar wins for movies like Big Hero 6 speak volumes for the current state of these movies, and so it’s important to take a look back and see exactly what paved the way for the modern superhero epic, both in film and on television.

Long before the gravel-mouthed Christian Bale incarnation of Batman was even a Bat-signal shaped twinkle in Christopher Nolan’s eye, there was the 1960s incarnation of Batman starring Adam West. From today’s perspective it may seem absurdly dated and over the top, especially in how it handles the tough-as-nails caped crusader, but it was a show that made no promise to be dark or gritty. It was, in essence, a straight-to-TV adaptation of the comic books complete with the iconic fighting sound effects. Cliffhangers weren’t uncommon, and West’s Batman largely played out like a show the whole family could sit down and enjoy.

adam west 2

On the early side of superhero cartoons, Spider-Man and The Justice League brought plenty of cheesy comic book antics to the television screen, these series’ were another seemingly direct translation from page to screen, but when Batman: The Animated Series arrived in 1992, it set the new standard for Saturday morning superhero cartoons. It featured tremendous depth in its storylines, a cast of immensely talented voice actors, and some of the best, most fluid animation this genre has ever seen. This era was filled with a darker, grittier Batman, a particularly twisted Joker, and some very tragic backstories for the lesser-used villains such as Clayface. (A much more welcome direction than Tim Burton’s Batman which featured ‘the Schwarzenegger performance we’d all love to forget’.) However an even more notable turning point in the superhero genre was Sam Raimi’s take on Spider-Man. This live action release was well received and felt like the first modern marriage of comedy and grittiness in a superhero movie. There was a good deal of raw emotion with establishing Peter Parker’s tragic past, and nobody can possibly stand up to J.K. Simmons’ performance as J. Jonah Jameson in terms of creating organic moments of hilarious hatred toward one certain masked webslinger. The movies did admittedly devolve into a parody of themselves by the third installment, and it’s hard to forget Peter Parker’s ‘venom phase’- strolling down the sidewalk awkwardly bedecked in clothing that said less about saving the world and more like looking forward to the next album release by The Cure. But despite clumsy moments they were also an important step towards the newer, slicker superhero movies we’re enjoying now.

Christian Bale’s Batman trilogy took the darker, grittier path that has become common in live action DC properties. Though this trilogy initially had its shortcomings, it was clearly far more accessible to a wider audience given its reviews and went from strength to strength in its second and third installments. It could also be argued that it’s thanks to The Dark Knight’s casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker that people seem to be a little more willing to accept less conventional casting choices in these movies. We’re looking at you, Chris Pratt as Star Lord and Jared Leto as The Suicide Squad’s Joker.

bale as batman

The television properties of DC and Marvel echo their cinematic counterparts, which is admittedly something that has worked out better for DC than it has Marvel. Flash and Arrow play out like costumed procedural dramas, and both titles embrace this to their respective benefits. Agents of SHIELD, though improved from its first few episodes, seems to struggle in the shadow of its blockbuster counterparts. This could be attributed to its smaller budget and shorter run-time. Nonetheless the emergence and popularity of these programmes has been a notable boost to the popularity and relevance of the genre.

Another group of films that have had a significant role in re-moulding the genre into its latest form were those leading up to The Avengers– all featuring significantly larger budgets than their predecessors and all incorporated a strong balance of humor and drama. Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark plays out as a not entirely irredeemable narcissistic man-child, who seems to have more money than brains at times, drew strong responses from audiences, which seemed to pave the way for laughs in movies such as Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. These Marvel films would have played out much differently if they were narratives purely built on maintaining that dark, mysterious, and perhaps a little depressing view of superhero stories. Iron Man would have likely failed miserably if it hadn’t struck such a strong balance of comedy and tragedy, which in turn could have killed the likelihood of seeing more big-budget superhero movies.

Remarkably warm public receptions for Guardians of the Galaxy and Disney’s Big Hero 6 are a strong indication of what resonates with much of the broader, albeit not always conventional, comic-to-cinema audience. Both of these films struck a strong, delightful balance of whimsy, humor, and heart-wrenching drama, and they were hugely successful at the box office as a result. It’s by the trial and error of past superhero movies such as Burton’s Batman that movies like Big Hero 6 eventually became possible, and it’s safe to say that this is a genre that will continue to grow and change its focus so long as the general public continues to return for more.

By Phil Gorski

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