Comic Book Superheroes at the Movies: Rise, Fall, Reboot
January 28, 2011
I am old enough to remember the buzz surrounding the first really serious big-budget movie based on a comic book. That movie was Superman (1978), and it was a smash hit, both critically and at the box office. This was great news for a comic book aficionado like me. Alas, much to my dismay, the fortunes of superheroes on the silver screen have been mixed.
Superman II (1981) introduced us to the scenery-chewing goodness of Terrence Stamp as General Zod, but the Superman franchise fell into a death spiral with the lackluster Superman III (1983), the awful Supergirl (1984), and the atrocious Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Thus vanquished, not by kryptonite but by poor scripts and bad acting, Superman laid low until the mostly successful franchise reboot, Superman Returns (2006). Now, if we can only get a movie version of Superman vs. Bizarro.
No comic book franchise better illustrates the rise, fall, and reboot cycle than Superman’s DC Comics stable-mate, Batman. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was a massive critical and popular success, with Michael Keaton portraying the Dark Knight as a morally ambiguous, tortured vigilante facing off against a scene-stealing Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) was even darker, with Danny DeVito as a grotesque Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as an alluring and dangerous Catwoman.
Joel Schumacher took up the directing reins of the franchise with the mostly successful Batman Forever (1995). All was not well with the Dark Knight’s movie career, however, as Schumacher drove a stake through its heart with the abomination that is Batman & Robin (1997). To make a movie starring George Clooney, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger into a massive flop is a considerable achievement of sorts, as this atrocity is widely considered to be the worst comic book movie of all time.
Thankfully, along came Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale with the franchise reboot, Batman Begins (2005). Nolan followed up with what may be the greatest superhero film yet made, the stunning The Dark Knight (2008), featuring Heath Ledger’s electrifying swan-song performance as the Joker. Whether Nolan and Bale can top or even maintain that level of greatness remains to be seen in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.
Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man and X-Men franchises seem to be following the same path of excellence to mediocrity to awfulness to reboot. Other Marvel characters have suffered a crueler fate: the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic 4, Daredevil, Elektra and the Punisher have fallen flat on their faces. All is not lost for Marvel fans, however as the successful Iron Man franchise is giving rise to the upcoming and greatly anticipated Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and The Avengers. The DC heroes aren’t being forgotten either, with The Green Lantern on the way as well.
So, despite the mixed track record of superhero films, I still dutifully show up at the theater for every new release. I still hold out hope that my favorite childhood comic book heroes, the Fantastic 4 and the Silver Surfer, will get the reboot they so dearly deserve after the debacles of 2005 and 2007. How can you make Galactus boring, I ask you? Oh well, I guess I've got those old comic books. What? My mother threw them away? Oh no...