Five Superhero Films that Evolved the Genre

Superhero movies have been around for a long time. Superman's first film appearance was in 1941, and Batman's in 1943. Yet for a majority of its existence, the superhero film has been regarded as pulpy, nonsensical and for kids, while comic fans are quick to point out that in the century-long history of the superhero, many, many stories of every kind of genre have been told.

These five films have contributed to the evolution of the superhero film into a genre that stands on its own as great entertainment and, more importantly, has started to transcend into something greater.

SUPERMAN (1978)


Superman was a film that shouldn’t have existed. It was the first big budget attempt to see if the genre would work, and honestly, everything was conspiring against it: from Marlon Brando’s exorbitant salary to Donner walking off the project halfway through, the producers not having a ton of faith in the project to the unknown lead that had no real name caché. Yet, it was a wonderful film, and stood tall as a standard for the genre for decades to come. It directly influenced writers and directors who are making the same kind of content today.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)


Batman (1989) may have restarted the superhero craze and led to the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series, which spawned several spin off cartoons, which likely gave Fox the courage to green light X-Men… and so on. In retrospect, the Nolan films (starting with Batman Begins) are a strange blend of traditional film-making with big budget action set pieces. Yet the middle film in the trilogy stands out even today as groundbreaking. It wasn’t just well made. Just like Superman showed us how a man could fly, The Dark Knight showed us that these movies could make us feel. It was dark, and powerful and tragic. Without costumes, it would’ve been an epic crime drama that probably would’ve won best picture.

THE AVENGERS (2012) 


With the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and specifically Iron Man, the superhero film landscape changed forever. We were teased that characters leading their own franchises could come together for something special. It was something comic readers had known forever, but a general audience buying in to an Avengers film? Leave it to Joss Whedon to break the world a little and show us how it’s done. The Avengers is an achievement, not just in filmmaking but in allowing us to finally have comic books as they truly are show up on screen.

LOGAN (2017)


The Fox X-Men series has always been a bit of a strange bird, almost ashamed of the genre it finds itself in, and most of the movies in the series range from bad to merely good. Perhaps two of them could be considered very good. Logan uses superheroes as allegory (the way the best X-Men comics have always done) to tell a personal story of aging and parenthood. This is a hard movie, emotional and very powerful. While The Dark Knight made us feel for the characters, this one made us cry. It doesn’t really matter if you are a superhero fan, this movie elevates both its characters and the genre to a better place. One where the lines of genre are gone.

JOKER (2019)


Then came Joker. For a long time we all argued online whether there was even a reason to tell a Joker story without the Batman. Why bother, especially if it wasn’t going to serve as an origin story for a new Joker to join the DC Cinematic Universe? But what we got was a gripping and superbly acted character study examining the genre from the lens of real life social struggles and mental illness. We are taken on a ride with this film, and are left wounded and vulnerable. Once again the idea of a superhero film is used as a backdrop to tell a brilliantly crafted story of one man’s descent into madness.


What does it all mean? I think that any story in any format is valid, but because all entertainment is subjective, that art is up to interpretation. I watched all these films and I saw greatness. Another could sit in that same theater and find nothing but pointless drivel. Yet as this genre has progressed, and the gap between eye-rolling and Academy Award winning has closed to the point that someday in the near future, a movie like these will take home a statue for Best Picture.
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J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting choices. I would include Tim Burton's first Batman, because it gave the Dark Knight some depth while retaining the comic book sensibilty.
What I mean by that is the genuine thrills of the imagination that comics offer at their best. Like Moore's Swamp Thing, beautiful and terrifying and relevant in so many troubling issues.