The Superhero Movie Learning Curve – Part One

Hollywood has been trying to put superheroes on screen since the very beginning. And while they may not all be winners, on the whole they have been gradually getting better, both as stronger films, and as films that are more faithful to the source material. And you can see the stages of evolution, like a child developing through the years…

Infancy (1930s – 1960s)

Ever since the movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s, superheroes have been cropping up on the big screen, with heroes like Green Hornet, Batman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel getting their own serial stories. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because you can kind of guess how good they were, or how faithful they were – which is to say, not so much (to both). There’s nothing quite like watching a Batman with a saggy gut stumble around a set and casually toss around ethnic slurs. (It’s okay, they were government agents fighting an evil Japanese scientist… actually, no, none of that is okay.)

I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on television series that have come and gone over the years – but I do want to take a minute to discuss Batman ‘66.

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For those who might not know, Batman was a TV series in 1966 that starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, and ran for three seasons, along with a theatrical film (Batman: The Movie, 1966), to great success overall. And this series is especially notable because it’s where the entire world formed an opinion about superheroes.

First, let’s get this out of the way – Batman ‘66 is NOT a bad series. It’s actually a lot of fun – absolutely campy and cheesy, but fun. And despite what some detractors choose to believe, this wasn’t just “the way TV was back then” – it was a genuine attempt to make a comedy that was subversive and self-aware, yet also completely earnest. Though it is a fairly accurate depiction of the goofy, kid-friendly tone of superhero comics in the 50s and 60s, the series is done with a tongue-in-cheek nature that’s perfectly clear the moment you watch it. And yes, it’s for kids, there’s no denying that – but that sense of humor makes it more than just kid’s stuff. It’s family fun.

But for a lot of people, this was their first major exposure not just to Batman, but to the world of superheroes and comic books. So, when Batman punches someone and the word ‘POW!’ appears in bright letters over the screen, or Robin spouts catchphrases like, “Holy Bill of Rights, Batman!”, this becomes the default for the audience at large. To them, that’s what a superhero is. And, completely missing the irony in every episode, they just think of superheroes as just kid’s stuff.

(This, by the way, is a stigma that comics had already been dealing with, and that continues to plague them to this day.)

The Toddler Years (1970s – 1980s)

Again, before we get into the big-screen movies, I’d like to discuss the TV series The Incredible Hulk (1977). The series ran for 5 seasons (with three TV-movie sequels in the late 80s), and was a smashing success (pun). The series starred Bill Bixby as Banner, and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. It was a fairly serious take on the character, and is often pointed to as the quintessential portrayal of the Hulk (particularly Bixby’s performance). But we’ll come back around to that later…

By the late ’70s, with the help of movies like Star Wars, visual effects started to evolve to the point where it was now possible to translate some of these superheroes and their outlandish powers to the screen. And this is where the learning curve really begins in earnest, as superheroes go from starring in silly TV shows to summer blockbusters. Thus, in 1978, we got Superman: The Movie.

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This film kicks off the true early development of the superhero movie. At this point, Hollywood’s ability to make a superhero movie is still in the toddler stage, where – quite frankly – you’re just happy it exists. You look at it and think, “What a miracle that we have this!” But if you examine it on its merits, it doesn’t have that much to say for itself.

The Superman movie is not as well done as everyone remembers. The cast does a great job, and there are some genuinely great bits, but there’s also a scene where Superman flies Lois around, and we are treated to several minutes of awkward voiceover, as she basically delivers a poem about Superman called “Can You Read My Mind?” The film drags on at the beginning, Lex Luthor’s plot makes absolutely no sense… and then there’s that whole “flies so fast he travels back in time” business.

And that scene sort of sums up a lot of the issues I have with this movie. For those who might not know what I’m talking about, Lex fires two missiles, one at California (he wants to sink it to turn Arizona into better real estate value or something, it doesn’t really make sense), and one at New Jersey (insert easy New Jersey joke here), and Superman isn’t fast enough to stop both, and the missile triggers an earthquake in California, and Lois is killed. So he flies so fast around the earth he goes back in time and saves the day. Which means he wasn’t fast enough to save Lois from a missile (which is going decidedly slower than Mach Time-Reversal), but he is able to go back and save the day by using a power that not only doesn’t make sense, but that Superman has never used before (and, it should be noted, never uses again in any of the other films).

And that sort of says it all. Because the rule of Hollywood says there has to be a moment in act three where All Is Lost, a moment where it seems the hero is going to lose. And rather than come up with something that makes sense, they whipped this scene together and just rolled with it. And I think they got away with it because, at the end of the day, it’s just a superhero movie. Why would anyone think about it? And it’s important to note, I don’t blame anyone. That’s why I refer to this era as the ‘Toddler Stage’ – they do dumb things like this because they just don’t know any better.

We got a few other superhero movies in this era, and most of them were Superman films – Superman II (1980 – and again, not as good as everyone wanted it to be or remembers it as), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). We also got Swamp Thing (1982), Supergirl (1984), and the first big-screen Marvel adaptation, Howard the Duck (1986), which… yeah. The less said about that one, the better.

The Childhood Years (1988 – 1999)

Let’s be honest – when you’re a toddler, everything you do is adorable, because each day you don’t stick a fork in your eye is a miracle. You just aren’t aware enough of the world around you to know the difference. You are still fascinated by the fact that you have feet.

Childhood, however, is a different matter. When you’re a child, you’re still making mistakes, but it’s not cute anymore. When you draw on the walls, it’s expected that you should know better, so you get punished more severely. When you screw up, your parents are “very disappointed in you.”

With that in mind, let’s talk about Batman (1989).

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Look, full disclosure – I’m not really a Tim Burton fan. I don’t think he’s bad or anything, he’s just not my cup of tea, and that’s okay. But this is a bad Batman movie.

This is a weird example, since at first glance it seems like a much more faithful adaptation of Batman than the ‘66 series / film. He’s dark, brooding, dealing with life-and-death stakes, etc. But, despite what people seem to remember, this film DIDN’T get rid of the campy / goofy stuff from the 60s series. That stuff is all still in there. It’s ‘darker,’ only in the sense that people die on-screen, and that much more of the story is set at night. The film is still dopey, only now it’s been stripped of the charm that made it appealing in the Adam West days.

This is one of the first major examples of a comic book movie making baffling changes for no reason at all, and fans scratching their heads and saying, “You should have known better.” For example, Bruce Wayne sleeps upside down. Why? Why would he do that? Because he’s like a bat, right? I guarantee you that was as far as the original thought process went. And it might seem like I’m nitpicking, but I’m not – these dumb changes are indicative of a much larger issue throughout the film.

This film is a strange example, in that it gets Joker’s origin right (criminal who fell in acid and got his skin bleached), but the guy we see on screen isn’t quite the character from the comics. He’s just a gangster with the giggles, and a bunch of dumb plans that have nothing to do with each other as he jumps from one to the next.

Also, that other guy is not really Batman. He doesn’t really DO anything throughout the movie. The first thing he does as Batman is get shot in the chest and fall down. And yes, he then gets back up, and it’s meant to show that he’s basically more than human – but he’s not. He’s a guy who can dodge bullets, because he HAS to dodge bullets. He also doesn’t seem to be quite so strict on his ‘no guns’ policy, since he has machine guns on the front of the Batmobile that he uses to knock down a building (which is full of people), and later tries to shoot the Joker from his jet. And, at the end of the film, he ties Joker’s leg to a gargoyle as Joker tries to get away on his helicopter, and the gargoyle ends up breaking loose, and the Joker ends up falling to his death.

And this is something we’re gonna see a lot of over the next few decades of superhero films: The Bad Guy Dies. Almost without fail, the bad guys get killed off at the end of most of these films, and usually the hero is at least partially responsible, if not directly. Why? Because that’s how action movies work. John McClain drops Hans Gruber off the side of the Nakatomi building. Sarah Connor smashes the Terminator into bits. Rambo kills pretty much everybody he meets. And since superhero movies fall into the action movie genre, this truism of action films became a trope of superhero films as well.

Except, in comics, supervillains don’t really die. These characters are specifically crafted for repeat appearances, designed to come back over and over again, because the writers need to fill 22 pages per issue, and bringing back characters like the Riddler or the Green Goblin saves them the time of coming up with new villains from scratch every month. That’s how good villains become great villains, because they endure – something about them draws writers to them, and they keep coming back for more. But for this same reason, most superheroes don’t kill. It’s in their DNA. The design of Batman, as a character, necessitates that he doesn’t kill his villains, not just because it’s easier just to have the Joker come back a bunch of times, but because Batman isn’t a killer, because he experienced the trauma of murder at such an early age. And no, he doesn’t technically murder the Joker outright, but he’s smart enough to be able to guess how that was going to end, and is still responsible.

This gets worse with the god-awful mess that is Batman Returns (1992).

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Let’s get through this one quick. One, it’s the worst Batman movie. Period. The Penguin has two or three origins, none of them from the comics (historically he’s just been a gangster with a fondness for birds and trick umbrellas, not a weirdly deformed freak who bites noses off), or even compatible with one another (how can you be raised by penguins in the sewers under Gotham AND raised by traveling circus-folk?). Catwoman is nothing like her comics character (more on that in a minute). Batman THROWS A BOMB AT A GUY AND HE EXPLODES, clearly violating the only absolute rule of Batman, which is he does not straight-up murder dudes. The plot is a mess, the tone is completely inconsistent, and Penguin nearly bites a dude’s nose off.

And then there’s Catwoman. Or rather, the cat-like woman who appears in this film, yet has nothing to do with the character from the comics. Because, in the comics, she’s just a catburglar. She’s seriously just a criminal with a thing for cats, who has a complicated romance with Batman. In this film, she is a timid girl who is killed by her boss, then resurrected by cat spirits, develops multiple personality disorder, and starts running around doing random stuff while using up her very literal nine lives. She also makes her own costume, and look: I’m not denying Michelle Pfeiffer is an attractive woman, but that costume is terrible. I’m all for characters making their own costumes, but this doesn’t really look home-made at all – it might, if not for the big, goofy, cartoony Tim Burton stitches. But, man… Tim Burton missed the mark with this film.

There’s not a lot to say about the next few Batman films. Batman Forever (1995) is a decent effort at bringing in some more fun, but it’s still just a mess. This also marked Michael Keaton being recast with Val Kilmer, showing that Batman actors were just as replaceable as Bond actors. And Batman and Robin (1997, now with George Clooney) is objectively terrible – yet, despite that, it’s actually successful in that it just wanted to be a straight-up modernization of Batman ‘66, and that’s ALL it is. Most of the lines are groaners and eye-rollers, to be sure, but you can also tell they weren’t really trying to accomplish anything that noteworthy, so you can’t really say they didn’t accomplish what they were aiming for.

The films of this era, and the Batman films especially, have no substance. It’s all very basic, surface-level characterization, with big, over-the-top villainy, and plots that very clearly weren’t well thought-out. This era also gave us The Punisher (1989, starring Dolph Lundgren), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Spawn (1997), and Blade (1998) – again, whatever your feelings on each of these movies, they’re all very simple, very literal, very basic. The Hollywood Superhero Movie Machine was still a child, still learning just what it is capable of, and starting to form opinions for the first time – but still making a lot of mistakes, because that’s the only way it learns anything.

Next time: Adolescence…

(Read Part Two and Part Three)

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