With the release of "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the aged superhero nerd is forced to contemplate a harsh truth: Kids today have no idea how good they have it.
When I was a lad, there were no "shared superhero universes" at the movies. After decades of comics wherein superheroes all hung out together, the big-screen Spider-Man (licensed to Sony) was in his narrative silo and the big-screen X-Men (a Fox property) were in theirs.
We had movies with struggling special effects; dubious scripts by folks who seemed to have little regard for how these characters actually worked on the page; and CGI that lagged behind the imagination. And we went anyway. We went because we thought it was good for comics, good for movies and good for audiences to be exposed to the characters we loved. We were probably wrong about all of that, but these things happen.
Superheroes have been in cinemas since the early days of World War II-era serials. But ever since the 1989 film “Batman” made superhero movies extremely big business, studios have increasingly drawn on characters from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, smaller comics publishers and vintage newspaper strips for inspiration.
Here are 32 live action superhero movies made from 1989 to 2008 (the year the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched) that prefigured How We Superhero Now.
“Batman” (1989). Of course there were those 1940s serials, a few "Superman" movies of varying quality and "Supergirl," but here is the start of the contemporary cape-and-cowl picture. I remember both the first time I saw the trailer and what terrible movie it was in front of ("Three Fugitives").
It’s hard to overstate what a genuinely surreal cultural phenomenon this very mixed flick was. From the goth-y sets, to the still-head-scratching Prince soundtrack, to casting (an ultimately excellent) Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and an aging Jack Nicholson as the Joker, to the quixotic direction by Tim Burton from a script by Sam Hamm and legendary Austin screenwriter Warren Skaaren, nobody would have been shocked if it had flopped.
Instead, it was a global smash, defining the summer of 1989. Even back then, I wished Batman could turn his neck in that suit, but it was pretty gob-smacking if you were 11 to 16 years old. (Also of note that year: the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, a franchise which has remained viable for more than 30 years.)
“Dick Tracy” (1990). This is a cheat, as Detective Tracy is not technically a superhero. But this flick is an iconic comic book movie in that it is one of the strangest things you will ever see, tonally.
An extraordinary experiment in art direction, a charisma-free performance from Warren Beatty, Madonna about as good as she gets and a lunatic, set-gobbling Al Pacino as Big Boy. (“Captain America” also came out this year. It was direct to video in the U.S. and came out in a handful of theaters elsewhere, likely because it is very bad indeed. Stars Matthew Salinger, mostly famous now as they guy who has to deflect questions when people ask him when his dad J.D.’s unreleased writing is being published.)
“The Rocketeer” (1991). Based on legendary comics artist Dave Stevens’ ode to matinee serial movies of the ’30s and ’40s, this pleasant confection starred Billy Campbell (as the Rocketeer!), Jennifer Connelly (as the love interest!), Alan Arkin (as the inventor!) and Timothy Dalton (as the baddie!). Fun at the time but a box office bomb, it has probably aged harmlessly.
“Batman Returns” (1992). Aka "The One With Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and a Plot That Makes Zero Sense." A few highlights (Pfeiffer sewing her Catwoman suit, anytime DeVito and Christopher Walken are talking to each other, the opening fight scene with the circus) do not save this from being far, far worse (and far cornier) than you remember.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III" (1993). Rock music in 1993? Incredible. Live-action superhero movies? Dire. This was it for 1993. "TMNT III" is not very good.
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“The Crow” (1994). Aka "The One That Looked and Moved Like We Wish 'Batman' Looked and Moved." After he and his lady are killed by thugs in a hellish-looking Detroit, a young musician named Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) rises from the dead to seek revenge on those who caused his demise. A sleazy-looking movie already, “The Crow” gained a patina of fresh horror after Lee’s on-set death. It was a sleeper hit. Bonus: The great Michael Wincott as the big bad.
“Batman Forever” (1995). The start of the Joel Schumacher era of Batman movies was not as bad as you remember, but nobody is going to mistake it for good.
Val Kilmer is perfectly fine as Bruce Wayne. Chris O'Donnell changes the whole Batman/Robin dynamic by being an actual adult. Jim Carrey shows up to be Jim Carrey playing the Riddler. Tommy Lee Jones is a total misfire as Two-Face. Nicole Kidman is here as The Lady. Meh.
“The Phantom” (1996). Based on the Lee Falk newspaper strip, “The Phantom” was about a Caucasian guy (Billy Zane) who fights bad guys (think: pirates, maybe) in the jungle on behalf of natives. This makes it about the most white savior-ish thing ever. Rumor has it that the script was supposed to be funny and then was shot completely straight. Whoops. Still a brilliant costume, though.
“Batman & Robin” (1997). *clears throat* This is one of the most unjustly maligned movies ever made, and the reason is homophobia. Sure, the bat-nipples on the costumes were a little much, but this might be the most tonally consistent Batman movie (even if that tone is a mix of Burton and Batman ’66) of the initial volley. And yes, Bruce Wayne (George Clooney) and Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) absolutely seem like a couple. But as a goofy, great-looking action comedy that moves and shakes like a comic book, it totally works. And hey, Ahnold as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy.
“Blade” (1998). Starring Wesley Snipes in a role he was clearly born to play, the title character in “Blade” is a vampire-ish vampire hunter. Great action, good cinematography and editing, a solid action picture with a dazzling amount of blood. The first legitimately good movie with the word "Marvel" attached.
“Mystery Men” (1999). You would be perfectly within your rights to be completely sick of Ben Stiller, but if you are not, take a look at this superhero comedy, which hews so closely to the absurdist sensibility of the source material (“Flaming Carrot” creator Bob Burden’s comic of the same name) that it might be the most on-point adaptation of a comic ever. The cast is bonkers-good: Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Janeane Garofalo and William H. Macy are just a few of the terrible, terrible superheroes. An atomic bomb at the box office, it deserved better. (And Google the words "director Kinka Usher" is you want to head down a particularly odd rabbit hole.)
“X-Men” (2000). Another landmark up there with “Batman” and “Blade,” “X-Men” looks oddly stiff now. But back then it was a revelation, an adaptation of a beloved property that more or less held together. It also helped that two key characters were dead ringers for their comics counterparts: Patrick Stewart as Professor X and a sensational Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Except for the height (in comics Wolverine is supposed to be 5 feet, 3 inches; Jackman is over 6 feet), nobody has ever looked more like the comic book character than Jackman looked like Wolverine.
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“Spider-Man” (2002). Another landmark movie. Columbia took a swing at the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler and cranked it out of the park to the tune of a $403 million domestic gross, which was a mind-boggling sum at the time. Pros: Tobey Maguire as a genuinely odd Peter Parker, more in line with Steve Ditko’s nebbishy rendering than later artists'; spectacular web-swinging. Cons: the Green Goblin’s costume, which, when an image of it leaked, everyone thought was a plastic toy. (Also that year: “Blade II,” a movie directed by Guillermo del Toro that makes almost zero sense and is completely awesome anyway.)
“Hulk” (2003). By this point, prestige directors were being tapped to try their hand at superheroes. Which is to say Ang Lee, then best known for emotionally chilly ’70s domestic drama “The Ice Storm” and gorgeous martial arts flick “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” was hired to make *checks notes* a movie about a Cold War-era, atomic-powered rage monster. Eric Bana is appropriately high-strung as Bruce Banner, and Lee makes a lot of intriguing choices (there's a bad guy but no real heroes) that feel far more European in flavor than American. It is easy to imagine Hulk as a monster out of French comics.
Either way, audiences stayed away in droves. (Also that year: “X2: X-Men United,” which is more fun than the original, and “Daredevil," which is more fun than getting punched in the face, but not by much.)
“Hellboy” (2004). Guillermo del Toro was probably the perfect fellow to bring Mike Mignola’s wonderful Lovecraft-meets-Jack Kirby comic to the screen. Ron Perlman was the perfect guy to play the title character, a demon raised by humans to fight all manner of mystical baddies. Indeed, it worked so well that an attempt to reboot the franchise with David Harbour as the big man failed to find an audience. (Also that year: “Spider-Man 2,” which is widely regarded as the best of the Sam Raimi-helmed films, and “Blade: Trinity,” which is kind of terrible but also fun and features a very carefully groomed, pre-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds.)
“Fantastic Four” (2005). Upon the rock of the Fantastic Four did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby build the church of the Marvel Universe. But the first family of Marvel has never once translated well to film, brilliantly illustrating how that which works amazingly well on the page (Mr. Fantastic's stretchy body) can still look janky on the big screen.
The script is dire, and Michael Chiklis looks terrible as the Thing. But "Fantastic Four" has one charming element: a legitimately inspired performance by a young man named Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. Evans is the only one who seems to understand his character, and he is a joy to watch. No wonder he returned to Marvel's pantheon as Captain America. (Also that year: “Elektra,” in which Fox makes a lousy sequel to the lousy “Daredevil”; “Constantine,” which has its own Keanu Reeves-based cult; and “Batman Begins,” which rebooted Batman as a grim-and-gritty, tactically armored millionaire, directed by Christopher Nolan.)
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“X-Men: The Last Stand.” (2006). Speaking of things from comics that are apparently very hard to put on screen, filmmakers have taken two swings at changing Jean Gray into Dark Phoenix and failed both times. Director Brett Ratner stuffs the flick with mutants, constructs a decent-if-confused final battle and kills off Cyclops for some reason. A movie so disliked by fans that Fox’s next swing at the X-Men was the soft reboot “X-Men: First Class.” (Also this year: the dazzlingly boring “Superman Returns,” directed by once-and-future X-Men director Bryan Singer, who has since been accused of sexual assault by multiple men.)
“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007). Perhaps it is indeed darkest before the dawn. In 2007, we got “Spider-Man 3,” the least loved of the original trilogy; “Ghost Rider," which everyone seems to have forgotten completely; and this movie, which has all of the original's flaws (but also Evans), plus a cool-looking Silver Surfer who couldn't save it.
"Iron Man.” (2008), The rare year in which DC and Marvel both delivered like Domino’s. The Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with this shockingly well-realized flick starring a brilliantly cast Robert Downey Jr. as a cynical weapons manufacturer who grows a conscience as he builds a really cool battle suit. In DC’s corner stood “The Dark Knight,” in which Nolan made a Michael Mann-style crime epic starring Christian Bale, but really starring a jaw-dropping Heath Ledger as the Joker.