If you told a 1992 comic book fan that the top movie of 2022 would be a Dr. Strange sequel, they'd be like, "No way, dude! Also, I assume nothing dramatic has happened in your entire decade, or you wouldn't be wasting your time travel message on this." The second highest-grossing movie of 2022 so far is a Batman film and the (second) third Spider-Man film that we all assumed had made all of the money last year, but nope, it turns out even more money exists. Oh, and we still have big movies about Thor, Black Panther, Miles Morales Spider-Man, Black Adam, and Shazam (you know, White Black Adam?) to go before the year is over. 

Superheroes won. What was once a niche genre relegated to utterly baffling B-movies and low-budget TV specials is now, well, the only genre (or at least it feels that way at times). But the path to superhero media domination was far weirder than you might remember. For starters ...

Blade Was A Bigger Deal Than Most People Realize

 

Quick, what was the movie that kick-started Marvel's cinematic success? Iron Man? Spider-Man? X-Men? Nope, it was an even earlier film starring an iconic badass who is as deadly as he is sexually irresistible to human women: Howard the Duck

Just kidding, of course, we're talking about Blade

Blade the Duck (combination of Marvel's Blade and Howard the Duck).

Marvel Comics

Though Marvel would be even bigger today if they'd started with Blade the Duck

Blade is often neglected when discussing superhero films, probably because a lot of people see it as a horror movie or, according to Wesley "Call Me Blade" Snipes, a biographical film. And yeah, there's some horror in there, but this is unmistakably a superhero movie, with its bonkers action sequences, impossible physics, and the fact that every other phrase spoken by the protagonist is a one-liner. 

In fact, the movie was originally supposed to include three Marvel Studios staples: a sequel-baiting post-credits scene (featuring the director morbin' it up as Morbius the Living Vampire), a CGI-heavy final battle, and a Stan Lee cameo (as a cop, though now we can't help imagining him as a dancer in the blood-soaked vampire rave at the start).  

Those scenes were cut, so we can't go as far as to say that the MCU has just been aping Blade for the past 14 years, but this movie's influence on the budding superhero movie industry seriously can't be understated. For one thing, it made a crapload of money: $131 million on a $45 million budget, knocking Saving Private Ryan out of the top of the box office after five weeks. The public at large may not have seen that as a victory for superhero movies, but Hollywood producers sure took notice of the interesting fact that you could make a profitable movie based on a comic book character no one had heard of. 

As for Marvel itself, perhaps the most influential part of Blade for them was the fact that they only made $25,000 out of those $131 million. And that's because ... 

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Marvel's Poor Financial Decisions Led To A Superhero Movie Arms Race Between Studios

 

For decades, Marvel's approach to movies was "Eh, let's sell the rights for quick cash and let someone else figure them out." And in their defense, that was a pretty good deal for a while -- back in the '80s, Marvel got paid $225,000 for a Spider-Man movie that never even happened. Some characters, like Iron Man, got punted from studio to studio for so long that the rights eventually reverted to Marvel, which could then re-sell them to some other suckers. They were basically getting money for nothing, and on the off chance that a studio actually managed to get a superhero movie off the ground one day, it would serve as a huge ad for their comics and toys. Because everyone knows the real money is in stuff like Dr. Doom's hamster wheel here: 

Marvel's eagerness to sell off its children to whoever would take them only grew in the '90s when the company ran into serious financial troubles. It got to the point that they once offered Sony the rights to like 90% of their characters for a mere $25 million (Sony passed on the lot but took Spider-Man and his 899 amazing friends). 

As a result, by the early 2000s, most major studios had a Marvel character or two ... and suddenly, they were all eager to show them off. It started with the X-Men movies at 20th Century Fox, which also made two Fantastic Four films and co-produced Daredevil and Elektra with Regency Pictures. Columbia Pictures/Sony got in on the action with Spider-Man and later Ghost Rider, while New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. churned out two more Blade flicks. Universal went, "Hey, we have a guy too!" with Ang Lee's Hulk and Lionsgate Films asked, "Does this count as a superhero?" with its two Punisher ones. Not sure about the first, but the second one definitely counts.

So, other than Blade's success, what changed that inspired studios to stop sitting on superhero IP and finally start making the damn movies? Well ... 

Movie Special Effects Finally Caught Up To The Comics In The 2000s

 

Remember the CGI-heavy original finale for the first Blade movie that we mentioned? Why did such an epic scene get cut? Because by the time they stopped working on it, it looked like this: 

Yeah, superhero movie special effects weren't quite there yet in the '90s. There's a reason why Batman was the most prolific cinematic superhero of that decade: he's the most famous one who doesn't shoot stuff from his hands or have a sci-fi suit or anything that might look completely stupid with pre-2000s special effects. Here's an idea of what a 1997 Iron Man movie might have looked like: 

And what if X-Men had been made just a few years earlier? It could have ended up like Marvel's spectacularly crappy Generation X (1996) TV movie. The blurriness of the clips below actually makes the effects look better

Meanwhile, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998) asked us to believe that this creepy David Hasselhoff robo-sex doll could pass for a real human being: 

Even the well-regarded Superman movies suffered because of the state of special effects technology in the '70s. The silly "reversing the rotation of the Earth" scene, for instance, wasn't actually in the script -- it was created because the filmmakers were extremely limited on how they could depict Superman traveling back in time. And let's not forget that the first movie asked a lot of its audience by expecting them to accept that this was a spaceship: 

Star-shaped Kryptonian spaceship from Superman (1978).

Warner Bros. Pictures

“You will believe a … uh, whatever that is can fly.”

It's not a coincidence that superhero movies as a whole only took off in the decade where CGI technology finally reached the point where it didn't look totally embarrassing on a giant screen. At last, movie special effects had caught up to the imagination of a bunch of '60s comic book artists. In fact, a big part of the appeal of comics back when they were an actual form of mass media was that you could see the sort of wild scenarios that could never be in a movie, but that role has gradually diminished over the decades. And that sorta leads us to our last point ... 

We Needed (Okay, Need) The Dumb Escapism

 

It's crazy to think that the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie came out so long ago that the marketing campaign revolved around two buildings that no longer exist. The Twin Towers could be seen reflected off Spidey's eyes on the poster, and they even shot a special teaser where he uses them to catch some criminals on a giant web (before presumably eating them). 

Of course, Sony had to scramble to remove all references to the Towers in the marketing material, and the movie itself after the 9/11 attacks violently changed New York City's skyline. They also added a couple of patriotic moments, but that wasn't really necessary -- the movie already offered the sort of fun escapist experience that was sorely needed at that point in time. And, as it turned out, for the next two decades too, at least. 

The Iraq War, the financial crisis, mass shootings, worsening climate disasters, Nazis making a comeback, more shootings, the pandemic, more shootings, more shootings ... there have definitely been more depressing periods in human history, but the difference is that back in the Middle Ages, people didn't have every awful thing going on in the world directly beamed into a little gizmo in their pockets. Is it any wonder that we've all collectively decided to escape into the bright and colorful world of superheroes for at least a few hours a month? Hell, even the "dark" and “gritty” ones offer the sort of simplistic morality we wish applied to the real world.  

Superheroes are comfort food for tired, jaded brains. They may be dumb sometimes, or even all of the time, but frankly, it's a kind of dumb that we've earned by now. Now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to watch Baby Groot dance to "Mr. Blue Sky" on a loop for an hour before gathering the courage to look at the news. 

Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com. 

Top image: New Line Cinema, Sony Pictures Releasing 

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