'Superman' Movies Show How Hollywood Went From Hating Superheroes (To Obsessed Over Them)
When you look back at the history of superhero movies, two things become evident: 1) man, that's a lot of Jokers, and 2) it's kinda nuts that Hollywood's attitude toward the genre pulled a complete 180 within only a couple of decades. The people behind the scenes went from despising superheroes to being perhaps a little too into them. Nothing symbolizes that change better than the fact that we went from a movie where Superman pushes the moon to cause an eclipse and saves a lady from falling in space (luckily, she didn't seem to have any trouble breathing up there) ...
... to a movie with a subplot about Superman in congressional subcommittee hearings based on his violating international borders. It's all very deep and serious, at least until we get to the part with the jar Lex Luthor has been using as a toilet during gaming sessions.
On the one hand, we have a movie that tells us superhero films are Serious Business for Grown-Ups and must therefore be dense, kinda dull (both in terms of plot and color palette), and ideally over two and a half hours long.
And on the other hand, we have a movie that thinks so little of the audience that Superman can stand in front of the United Nations and tell them he's gonna steal their weapons and throw them into the sun, and they all start clapping, which is even more unbelievable than that lady breathing in space.
That's the sort of thing you can only include in a film if you assume your audience is made out of 10-year-olds and adults who knowingly signed up to watch a dumb cartoon -- and that goes for the good Christopher Reeve movies, too. The first Superman, a jewel of cinema, has a scene where Superman turns back time by physically reversing the rotation of the Earth (the script says he flew so fast that he broke the sound barrier, but that's not what the actual movie shows you).
The second movie revealed two of Superman's lesser-known powers: selectively erasing specific memories from people's minds by kissing them, and turning the S on his chest into a big cellophane trap to capture villains. Oh, and he can also create holograms of himself because “Who cares? it's a superhero movie. The audience are morons for watching this in the first place."
These scenes are like you were watching an X-Men movie and Wolverine suddenly started flying; you couldn't get away with something like that now, nor would producers even dare suggest it. But back in the '70s and '80s? Yeah, sure, let's do a scene where Superman goes evil and straightens the Leaning Tower of Pisa ...
... and then set is back when he's good again. The kids will eat it up!
Early superhero movies had an unintentional commitment to surrealism that was born from a hostility (or, at best, indifference) to the source material. You can see that hostility in the early TV adaptations, too: pre-'90s superhero cartoons were goofy nonsense and Marvel's bizarre '70s live-action efforts were made by people who clearly only looked at the comics to find out what not to do.
Hence that Captain America TV movie where he's a drifter who shoots himself up with a formula made from his father's glands, which seems to give him telekinetic powers judging from the scene below.
The makers of the Incredible Hulk TV show openly hated the comic and went out of their way to distance themselves from it. And then we have the nutty yet formulaic Adam West Batman show, whose Joker, Cesar Romero, thought so little of the character that he refused to shave his mustache and just painted it white. Here is that historic moment as dramatized with the full gravitas it deserves:
And guess what? Romero's DGAF approach still produced a more memorable result than Jared Leto's obsessive months-long process to immerse himself into the twisted psyche of the character. Likewise, the silly Superman fight scene up there is still better regarded than its gritty remake in The Man of Steel, which is so overly dramatic that it borders on unintentional hilarity. At least Superman II knew that adults would make fun of it.
Current Marvel movies may not be as self-serious as DC's ones, but they demonstrate the changing attitude toward superheroes via their obsession with continuity. Back in the '60s and '70s, comics were still seen as a disposable medium by most people. You read the comic, then you threw it into a pile of newspapers and supermarket flyers -- only porno mags were worth keeping around. This carried over to superhero movies, in that no one really cared about whether Adam West's Batman and Christopher Reeve's Superman existed in the same universe or if their respective series were building up to a greater narrative. You watched them, enjoyed them, and flushed the memory from your mind to make more space for disco dance moves.
Today, even Men's Health is writing Hawkeye recaps and "Is Kingpin going to be on the show?" pieces. Marvel not only encourages keeping close track of all the minute details and connections between their properties, but they actually made it part of their business model (hence stuff like post-credits scenes, cameos, Eater egg-packed trailers, etc.). Each tiny piece of spoilery information about an upcoming Marvel project counts as news now. Thanks to the internet and the success of the superhero genre, every other website now trades in the kind of arcane knowledge once confined to trading card power charts.
Imagine explaining to someone in 1981 the level of detail that surrounds modern superhero films or the fact that you have to keep track of 15 different franchises to truly understand what's going on. They'd demand your lunch money and walk away.
On the other hand, imagine the internet's reaction if Heath Ledger had a visible mustache under his Joker make-up throughout The Dark Knight. Again, you couldn't get away with something like that today, or with doing a Batman movie where we find out there are penguins living under Gotham City, and they can be trained to carry missiles on their backs.
Before superheroes became a massively profitable industry and dominated the media, there was a freedom born out of not really giving too much of a crap about them because everyone in Hollywood thought it was utter nonsense not worth losing any sleep over. That's why modern Hollywood struggles so much with Superman in particular -- it used to be much, much easier to convince people that a man can fly. It comes down to something Grant Morrison, one of the best modern superhero writers, once said, which not many of their colleagues seem to understand:
"Kids understand that real crabs don't sing like the ones in The Little Mermaid. But you give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really #@%&ing dumb questions like 'How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile's tires?' It's a #@%&ing made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!"
Now, we're not saying we want the next Superman movie to go back to the amnesia-kissing, Earth-reversing, Tower of Pisa-trolling version, but a little bit a dumb fun here and there wouldn't hurt. In short: c'mon, let him throw the cellophane S again, even if it's only once per movie.
Top image: Warner Bros. Pictures