While no one bats an eye today when The Dark Knight Rises pulls in a bajillion dollars at the box office, that would've been unthinkable just 15 years ago. In the '90s, all of the major money-maker movies were Die Hard knockoffs (Con Air, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), sober explorations of tragedies (Dances With Wolves, Schindler's List, Titanic), Adam Sandler being a dumbass, and Tom Hanks doing things that usually didn't involve having superpowers.
This changed in 2000 and 2001 when X-Men, Spider-Man, and the first The Lord of the Rings came out. Remember that back then those geek-centric movies were all pretty risky investments for the studios. Not only was this the first time that either of those Marvel superheroes would be seen on screen, but the last superhero movie to come out at that time had been Batman & Robin, which, you know, we'd rather not talk about. As for The Lord of the Rings, the last attempt at an adaptation was a godawful cartoon that was made in the 1980s.
How long did it take you to realize that Gandalf isn't jacking off a fire-dick?