We’ve sure come a long way from those movie serial days when people had to wait for their weekly installment of some masked vigilante fighting some other masked vigilante. Oh, wait, that’s just television now? Incredible. Here’s a look at how superhero movies went from being a concept to the multi-billion industry it is today.

Which Came First: The Hero Or The Villain?

Judex first superhero movie

Gallica Digital Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Although not everyone agrees, the main consensus seems to be that the very first superhero movie was the 1916 French (of course) film, Judex. Judex was a pulp magazine masked vigilante-type character who fought him some bad guys, but filmmaker Louis Feuillade originally created him as an opposite to his criminal character in the 1913 serial, Fantômas.

Fantomas

Gaumont

So, we guess that answers that. These first movies were serials, meaning that each film was divided into chapters, with the public watching the film one weekly chapter at a time. As with all superhero movies, however, Judex was different in that all its chapters were released at the same time. People loved the movie so much that it immediately spawned a sequel.

The “Super” In Superhero

Captain Marvel

Republic Pictures

While Judex and even Zorro (another caped crusader who hit the screens in 1920) are regarded as the first cinematic heroes who paved the way for more caped men to come, the first American masked vigilante serial film was the 1939 Mandrake, the Magician:

Mandrake The Magician superhero movies

Columbia Pictures

… followed by 1940’s The Shadow — another pulp magazine superhero character:

The Shadow superhero movie

Columbia Pictures

The first “true” superhero serial in the U.S. — that adds the “super” part — was Republic Pictures’ 1941 Adventures of Captain Marvel. It was adapted from the original Captain Marvel (Shazam) comic book from Fawcett Comics. The character is now owned by DC Comics.

The First Captain America (Was Way Different)

Captain America

Republic Pictures

The origins of the onscreen character — based on the one from Timely Comics (now Marvel Comics) that would later be made super famous by Chris Evans’ butt — was a 1944 serial from Republic Pictures that saw Dick Purcell play a district attorney named Grant Gardner who was also, you know, Captain America.

Purcell collapsed and passed away shortly after filming was complete. Many believed the part was physically too straining on him.

The End Of Serials Brought On A Superhero Movie Hiatus

Batman movie Adam West shark

20th Century Fox 

By the end of the ‘50s, serials were losing their popularity and, more importantly, and most unfortunately, their profitability. For almost three decades there were no masked crusaders (of their kind) on the silver screen. That is, except for Batman: The Movie, the 1966 cash-in of the Adam West TV show that gave us the gloriously absurd shark repellent scene:

From TV Back To The Big Screen

Superman Christopher Reeves

Warner Bros.

Superman made his return to the talkies in 1978 with the inspired title Superman: The Movie. Directed by Richard Donner and costing a whopping $55 million — it was the most expensive movie of the ‘70s and starred both Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando — it featured some groundbreaking visuals and introduced the world to Christopher Reeve as Superman.

The film brought in $300 million at the box office. It’s one of the highest-rated superhero movies on Rotten Tomatoes with a current score of 94%.

Enter The Batman (Again)

Batman Tim Burton Jack Nicholson

Warner Bros. Pictures

As the Superman series started fading in success throughout the ‘80s, Batman stepped in to save the day (sort of). Michael Keaton as Man About Bats and Jack Nicholson as the Joker made Tim Burton’s 1989 superhero movie the blockbuster to beat.

But the Batman movies seem to follow in the footsteps of Sups and friends, losing favor as they kept on coming, and spectacularly crashing out with Batman and Robin in 1997. Just like the Superman movies, it would take years for Batman to have his onscreen revival again. 

Marvel’s Slow And Struggling Start

The Punisher

Live Entertainment

While Sups and Bats battled it out respectively at the box office during the ‘80s and ‘90s, Marvel produced … well, some stuff. Between 1944 and 1997, four of their superheroes made it to the big screen, and one of them was a duck.

Dolph Lundgren was the Punisher in 1989, but the film didn’t get a wide release in the United States, Sweden, or South Africa. A Captain America movie was also produced but never released in theaters, as was the now infamous 1994 Fantastic Four — a movie that, apparently, was purely made to keep the rights of the characters, and one that you can totally watch in full on YouTube.

The Slow And Steady Rise Of The Subversive Anti-Hero

Tank Girl

MGM

While not everyone ended up seeing 1989’s The Punisher, many people did get to see some lesser-known comic hero characters thought of as more subversive anti-hero types hit the movies and hit them well. The Mask (from Dark Horse Comics) was a ‘90s hit, and The Crow gained an instant cult following. A year later in 1995, Tank Girl and her kangaroo boys arrived to wreak havoc, and in 1998 Blade bamboozled everyone by becoming a surprise hit and officially putting Marvel on the Movie Map. 

And Then There Were The X-Men

X-Men

20th Century Fox

Just like the animated Batman series, Professor Xavier and his school of gnarly outcasts saw their initial success in television. The arrival of Wolverine and the gang at the movies in the year 2000 was, thus, an epic one. The film ushered in the Era of Marvel Movies, and its original trilogy success subsequently gave us the Wolverine trilogy, the four prequel films that span from X-Men: First Class to Dark Phoenix, and the Deadpool movies.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man

Spider-Man

Sony Pictures

Two years after X-Men made comic and TV nerds jump with joy, Spider-Man swung its way onto our movie screens, and we really don’t need to tell you how that’s all been going.

The Return Of The Man About Bats/Joker

Joker Heath Ledger

Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins came at us in 2005 and honestly, no one’s ever been the same since. Not only did it revive the character and his gadgets, but Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of Joker ignited a haunting new interest in one of the greatest fictional villains of all times — resulting in an exponential growth of both film and TV adaptations to follow.

Of course, Superman would soon make his return, too — to various degrees of success and popularity.

Those Avengers And The Birth Of The MCU

Avengers MCU

Walt Disney Pictures

In 2006, Marvel managed to acquire the rights to their comic book characters again, because licensing is a different kind of hell. Iron Man was the first to come out with his own movie, paving the way not only for the Avengers but also the Marvel Cinematic Universe to kick off and cement superhero movies as a central part of the filmmaking industry.

Welcome To The Multiverse

Spider-Man Inside The Spiderverse

Sony Pictures

Not only are we in both Marvel and DC’s multiverse phase, but we’re also whiplashing from theater screens to our TV screens to catch all the superhero titles being produced as we speak. Not many thought we’d ever be here like this. Thank/blame pulp magazines (and the French).

Zanandi is on social media here and also here.

Thumbnail: Warner Bros., New Line Cinema

Join the Cracked Movie Club

Expand your movie and TV brain--get the weekly Cracked Movie Club newsletter!

Tags

Forgot Password?