As it is now, the superhero film could easily be called its own genre. This year alone, several superhero films have already been released to great critical and financial success, from the low-budget Chronicle to the record-breaking Avengers and the much-anticipated and critically acclaimed finale to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. But it hasn’t always been this way.
As late as 2001, the only decent superhero franchise was the X-Men. Superman, the standard of early super-powered movies, had long been grounded, and Batman, who had risen to new heights with the help of Tim Burton had crashed and burned in the hands of Joel Schumacher in the heinously bad Batman Forever and the even worse Batman & Robin.
Then came Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, a turning point for the superhero film. The first movie, released in 2002, received positive reviews and was a major commercial success, becoming the first film to pass the $100 million mark in its opening weekend. It also became the highest grossing superhero film of all time, a title which remained in the franchise until 2008’s The Dark Knight (which was later displaced by Joss Whedon’s The Avengers).
With a gross of $403,706,375 in the United States and Canada, Spider-Man brought attention and interest to the superhero film.
Interestingly, the two major superhero franchises of the time, X-Men and Spider-Man, were both members of the Marvel comic universe. The other major name in comics, DC, decided to return to the big screen, and in 2003 hired director Christopher Nolan, known mainly at the time for the low-budget thriller Memento to pick up the Batman franchise, which had spent the past several years in a post-Schumacher hiatus.
With little to nothing salvageable from Batman & Robin, Nolan instead decided to reboot the entire franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins, which turned the campiest of the camp into the grittiest, most realistic superhero on film, and set the stage for two even better received sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
Although the later two films received more accolades and broke box-office records, it was the first that had the greatest impact on superhero films as a whole, only equaled by the that of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy. The concept of a reboot was genius in many aspects, as it allowed for re-casting and, more importantly, to revive a franchise that had been mangled by prior films. As an added bonus, these films had built-in fan bases from both the comics and prior films.
In the time since Batman Begins, a handful superhero reboots have been made, such as 2011’s X-Men: First Class and this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, with several more in various stages of production. Up next? Superman gets a reboot in next year’s Man of Steel, Chronicle director Josh Trank has signed on to direct the Fantastic Four’s return to the big screen, and the X-Men will also have their fair share of screen time, with an X-Men: First Class sequel in the works in addition to the upcoming The Wolverine. Other non-reboots in the works include sequels to Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Avengers, with fellow Marvel universe members the Black Panther and Ant-Man in talks to receive their own films.
The superhero genre is booming, but will the craze continue? As long as they keep making money, the answer is yes. And making money is something superhero films will most likely continue to do, at least for the foreseeable future. Somewhere down the road, it is possible people could lose interest in superheroes from overexposure or a string of bad releases, as has happened in the past, but it is also possible that the superhero genre will be around for the long haul. Only time can tell.