Back in 1966 the television series Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward got the big screen treatment, in a film known as Batman: The Movie. In the film the caped crusader along with his trusty sidekick battled four major super villains, Joker, Catwoman, The Riddler, and Penguin. In the television world Batman was seen as a comedy, it was even nominated for Best Comedy Series at the Primetime Emmy Awards during it's first year 1966. This film was in fact the first feature film to be made based on a comic book. So Pow, Twap, and Kaboom, super heroes burst onto the film screen in a very interesting way, more with a laugh.
Before we asses the beginning of the comic book movie era, I must explain the breakdown I have created within the world of comic book movies. For those who do not read comics, or are familiar comic book history is broken down by eras or ages. The first is the Golden Age 1933-1954, The Silver Age 1954-1971, The Bronze Age 1971-1989, and The Copper Age 1989-Present. What are the differences? The style of writing and how they represent the generation.
This website (http://www.bipcomics.com/showcase/docs/ages.cfm) is a great breakdown of what happened during this time period to reflect each age.
It was interesting growing up collecting in the current Age, the Copper Age (I started collecting in 1990), and I have loved the various story lines and the darker evolution of things. I remember talking to a comic book shop owner back home in Albany who was a bit older, and loved hearing him reminisce about both the Silver and Bronze Age and the simpler nature of comics. This brings me to the evolution of comic movies today. I would like to think you could break films down into ages as well. These are of course my own breakdowns, and do not correspond with the ages within the comic book world. Yet for the sake of simplicity I have used the same names.
The Golden Age (1941-1966)
The first comic book movies were shown in the theatres as serials before feature length films. One of the first The Adventures of Captain Marvel was shown in 12 parts in 1941. I think that this is interesting because obviously the technology was not available to create a true super hero like we know today, but this was the beginning.
In 1951 Superman was the first person (with whom we follow today) to get his own serial Superman and the Mole Men.
As stated above the next and first feature length film Batman: The Movie would be the last film released within this age. Batman's comedic timing and simplistic construction provides the initial vantage point for comic book films and television shows, action packed but funny. Batman was clearly meant for children, and the other films were serialized to entertain small children in anti caption for the feature film.
What categorizes this as the the Golden Age? To me these films are the birth of it all, they set things going, and helped to establish a base knowledge of the super hero. Being that many of these films were actually serials set them a part in a different pantheon.
The Silver Age (1978-1988)
Thanks in large part to the Star Wars franchise super hero films came back in a big way, but not for another 12 years in 1978. Superman flew onto the screen, and the film became a massive hit. This was the first major hit hit at the box office making 134 million domestic in 1978, pretty impressive.
Superman dominated this age of film, which makes sense. During this time he was the most accessible comic book character to the larger audiences out there. Director Richard Donner made the first two, but left after these films. There was of course, and unfortunately a Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).
Along with the four films in the Superman franchise there was also Swamp Thing (1982) and Sequels, Supergirl (1984), The Toxic Avenger (1984) and sequels.
What categorizes the Silver Age of the comic book films? Not surprisingly the answer is Superman. While the Richard Donner films were the best, the whole series represents the emblematic nature of this age. We often regard Superman as the first super hero, and he is the symbol of the strong. One of my favorite things about Americans paint him as all-American, but often forget he is an alien. With that said Clark Kent is the Midwest boy next store, who is smart, and strong. These films are the the true origin of the next step in super hero films.
The Bronze Age (1989-1999)
While first trying to breakdown the ages for myself I was about to end the Silver Age with the first Batman film, from Tim Burton, but I think think Burton's Batman walks away from Donner's Superman, and starts this age with a different, and interesting transitional tone.
Batman released in 1989 starred two major movie stars of the time, Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. Like with the Superman model Keaton was a bit of a smaller star the way Reeves was. Yet the tone of Burton's Batman, was this dark and ominous Gothic style, which was both unique yet fit the Batman model.
Batman dominated this age, and Tim Burton came back in 1992 with his sequel Batman Returns. While still dark there was this tinge of comedic elements that hearkened back to the original television series. Burton has always blended the light and the dark with a hint of dark comedy.
Burton stepped away from Batman, and then Joel Schumacher entered for Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997). I watched both films about a week, and found them both painfully over the top, I used to enjoy Batman Forever mildly, but it lost something..
What these Batman films (all four) represented within this era was a darker transition with this sometimes comedic element. The films felt like a comic book as well never leaping into the realism elements.
Other films which capture this element from this era are all of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies, The Rocketeer (1991), The Crow (1994), The Mask (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), The Phantom (1996), Spawn (1997), and Blade (1998).
All of these films had dark elements, better visual effects, but yet still felt as though you were in a two dimensional comic book. Save for the the original Batman which ironically was the oldest.
The Copper Age (2000-Present)
Where did the change begin? What change? The change to comic book films which realized the true real life nature of their super heroes. This is hard, and could be highly debated. I have 2000 down because I am going to cite a film with which M. Night Shyamalan does not get enough credit for, Unbreakable. Unbreakable follows not real comic book character, but rather a man (Willis) who soon starts to think he may be a real life super hero. The film explores the concept of the super hero in everyday terms, and from a realistic point of view, while maintaining classic comic book structure of the good versus evil trope.
Yet within this year you X-Men (2000), and in 2002 the original Spider-Man film. Both of these films were born with the mindset of the Silver Age comic book movie in mind yet their sequels stepped out on a limb and pushed the boundaries of the comic book film even further. X-2: X:Men United (2003) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) were the first two comic book films about super heroes which explored the psyche of the everyday life better than anything I have ever seen as a comic book fan. There have of course been back slides, especially with the third film in each of their franchises, as though they got sloppy.
2008 was the year it all changed, with the release of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. While Batman Begins started the shake up for the new Batman franchise, these three films changed the landscape for comic book films forever.
In an age where people started just peddling garbage like The Fantastic Four (both 1 and 2), Daredevil, Elektra, Wolverine: Origins, Hancock, and many more. People like Christopher Nolan stepped up and said I am going to make good movies about comic book characters, which happen to be some of the most realistic films at the same time. Both Nolan and John Favreau (Iron Man) used the concept of the crumbling economy, terrorism, global structures, and so much more to frame their films.
As films go forward they have to compete with the benchmark set, that you can't just slap things together, but that you have to know your audience, and make a film that will cater to the fans, and speak to the greater issues of it all.
As we are still in this age, Marvel pushes forward (way ahead of DC now) with the Avengers I can't help but think how far these films have come, and where they may go next. There is so much to explore, but will we look back on these films, and think I can't believe I though this was good? Or will this just continue to push comic book films to be that much better? I think the latter.