When did the superhero movie ascend to the heights of respectability? They used to be what parents let their kids go see while they went shopping, but those were also the days you could see a movie and buy popcorn all for ten dollars. But now these movies do not just make up Hollywood’s most financially successful genre; they have become critical successes as well. The latest example, this weekend Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has an aggregate score of 90 percent positive responses from North American movie critics.
Hollywood released their first live-action superhero movie based on a comic-book in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men starring George Reeves. The next did not come until 1966, an adaptation of television’s Batman staring Adam West. The first attempt at a respectable superhero movie would not be until Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978. The studio decided to hire Marlon Brando for a small part in the film, a sign they were taking the project seriously and with a big budget and cutting edge special effects, audience and critics were both impressed. Superman II in 1980 repeated the success.
It wouldn’t be until 1989, when Tim Burton released his own vision of Batman, that another superhero film would be taken seriously. Before then, the Superman sequels had descended into parody and the only other big studio release was the infamous Howard the Duck. But like Donner’s Superman, Warner Bros. hired major stars Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson to give the film some gravitas and again it worked with both audiences and critics.
During the next decade, studios began increasing their production of superhero movies as they were ascending to the financial stratosphere. Some, like Sam Raimi’s Darkman and Burton’s Batman followup, Batman Returns, were critical success but most were modestly budgeted movies with lesser movie stars that neither resonated with audiences nor critics. Joel Shumacher’s last Batman movie, Batman Forever, was emblematic of the time and was so bad it almost got the director laughed out of Hollywood. It was not until Bryan Singer’s X-Men, M. Night Shayamalan’s Unbreakable, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man that studios showed again superhero movies could be successful in all areas, a legacy that has continued up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
In 2004, when Christopher Nolan opened what was a third reboot of the Batman series, superhero movies had started to consistently succeed with critics. Nolan had turned into one of Hollywood’s hottest directors and his film, Batman Begins, brought a new level of respectability to the genre. Top directors had already begun to treat superhero movies as works of art, or at least some of them.
Success with audiences is obviously the barometer of how a film does. With the hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at directors to keep the studios happy, one of the most important elements in making a film successful is pleasing the critics. Budgets on some of these films were so high they required more than just the male, teenaged audiences that had previously kept the films rolling. Older audiences and women had to also be enticed into the theaters and a critical buzz was the best way to do it. Respectability matters and studios have been smart enough to make sure it happens as much as possible.
Captain America: Winter Soldier is the latest in a long line of recent critically successful movies. The Batman series, most of the Spiderman movies and their reboots, the Ironman series, Watchmen, Chronicle, and Pixar’s The Incredibles have all been among the critical and financial success of the last decade. Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s The Avengers has even managed to ascend to the billion dollar club while over 90 percent of major critics gave it favorable reviews. Captain America is poised to be the latest success; industry watchers are predicting a possible $100 million dollar opening weekend. And with the continued successes, and the talent that keeps returning, more good superhero films are sure to follow.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein