Back in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made an observation that the number of transistors was doubling every year, thereby doubling the power of computers. Moore’s Law as it came to be known would prove even more accurate than he imagined. Since Moore’s observation, computing power continues to grow at an incredible rate. All this growing technology directly lead to the effects of Star Wars, Terminator 2, and the CG-heavy comic book movies of today.
No other genre benefits from computing power quite like superhero movies. Every year, Disney and Warner Brothers unleash a new effects-heavy, punch-fest starring a beloved character from comic book lore. The superhero trend went into overdrive in 2008 with Iron Man, but before that, Raimi’s Spider-Man conquered box offices with dazzling use of CG; before that Singer’s first two X-Men movies were on top. However, things get a little murkier before the arrival of X1 in 2000, and that’s where the debate begins.
Some in geekdom believe Blade is the father of modern comic book movies; others argue it’s Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989; still, others look back at Superman: The Movie. I’m here to say that they’re all wrong … and right! I’ll explain.
The Dark Ages
Comic books were a pulp mainstay for decades. But up through the 1970s, there were only two movies to mention.
Superman and the Mole Men – 1951
There wasn’t going to be anyone else who broke the mold first. Superman was the most popular comic book of the time and already had a hit TV show. Superman and the Mole Men was an extension of the show, featuring George Reeves as the last son of Krypton.
Batman: The Movie – 1966
In the 60s, campy Batman was all the rage. Adam West filled the cape and cowl and through the course of three seasons fought the greatest hits of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. In 1966, much like the Superman movie of the 50s, Producers wisely created a feature length episode. In it, Penguin and the “United Underworld” are turning people into cubes.
Dawn of Justice, if you will.
Superman: The Movie – 1978
You will believe a man can fly. If I had to pick an actual starting point for comic book movies as mainstream money-makers, it would undoubtedly be here. Richard Donner’s Superman was a mega-hit at the box office. The effects look dated now (40 years, hello!) but the innovations pioneered by Star Wars just a year before helped Donner create a dazzling comic book movie like never before.
In the 70s, anti-heroes like Batman and Wolverine weren’t as big a thing as today. Heroes were still meant to be the best of us, not psychologically disturbed or ferocious. Superman was still king of the comic book mountain in the minds of the masses, and there was no one else who could lift the weight of the comic book universe into the mainstream like the Man of Steel.
Total Number of Comic Book Movies Up Until December 31st, 1979: 3
The 80s were slow-going for comic book films. Superman carried the torch with three sequels, each drastically worse than the one before it. But two movies made an impact. One film served as a subtle nudge, while the other became the standard bearer.
Swamp Thing – 1982
Not a hit by any stretch of the imagination, Swamp Thing from director Wes Craven holds an important place in comic book movie history. Craven, a master of horror films, even while trying to win the mainstream hearts of Hollywood execs and keep away from his usual style, still added his signature to Swamp Thing. That macabre touch created a distinction from what was the norm and played into the growing popularity of anti-heroes.
Batman – 1989
Tim Burton’s Batman was a smash box office success, rocketing into the top earners of all time. Donner’s Superman knocked down the door into the mainstream. But Burton’s Batman went in and beat the crap out of everyone. Batman was a hype phenomenon in the days before the Internet and sites like Monkeys Fighting Robots existed. Warner Brothers unleashed a torrent of marketing that consisted of an entire magazine devoted to the film before release. Similar to “leaked photos” the magazine highlighted all things about the movie.
Number of Comic Book Feature Films: 9
It’s in the 1990s when things take a radical leap. After the success of Batman, Hollywood was gearing up to turn every comic book they could get their hands on into a movie. There were four more Batman films, Dolph Lungren played The Punisher, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continued their transition from dark comic book to a lighthearted multimedia franchise. Again, two films set the stage for things to come.
The Crow – 1994
Many viewers had no idea that The Crow was a graphic novel by James O’Barr. Today, most remember the movie as the final film of Brandon Lee. The Crow is all 90s grunge-goth action movie awesome that holds up well today. Director Alex Proyas, who later created the sci-fi noir film Dark City, bathed The Crow in rain and darkness, with the dark atmospheres lifting when it serves the story. The Crow continued to lengthen the path of the anti-hero.
Blade – 1998
By the late 90s, comic book movies were either Batman movies or obscure comics and graphic novels made on an average budget. Like The Crow, only the most ardent geeks even knew Blade was a comic book, but the Wesley Snipes action movie was a sleeper hit that sliced and diced its way to a strong box office performance. Blade softened the goth style of The Crow and made it sleek with fitted leather armor and killer electronica soundtrack. Blade’s slick look, attitude, and sense of humor is something that continues to grow and involve in the majority of mainstream comic book movies.
Number of Comic Book Feature Films: 22
The 21st Century
The first X-Men movie released in 2000 and Bryan Singer’s origin story for Marvel’s super-team was a wild success, breaking box office records like Burton’s Batman 11 years earlier. It’s here where I believe two things happened. Comic book movies as we knew them ended and comic book movies as we will come to know them began.
X-Men ended the era of practical comic book movies, as in, practical effects. Blade used CG to accent practical effects, while X-Men was a mix of practical and CG. And that use of CG, plus the way Singer presented the material, evolved into Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2003. Spidey, the next big hit was a CG-heavy, joke-filled popcorn flick. Sound familiar? The borderline campy attitude of Sony’s first Spider-Man created a new standard for comic book movies. Just five years later, Marvel would begin its reign at the box office with a CG-heavy, joke-filled Iron Man who is arguably also an anti-hero.
Number of Comic Book Feature Films the 2000s: 33
Number of Comic Book Feature Films in the 2010s: 44, so far …
A New Law
Like Moore’s Law and transistors, the number of comic book movies we can fit into a year has increased. It’s leveled some, but continues to grow, and the comic book movie trend sees no end in site. Now consider that we’ve only talked about American comic book movies. Ghost in the Shell, a Japanese Manga (aka comic book) and Valerian, a French comic book, are on the way to the big screen. Oh, also don’t forget that there’s TV, but that’s another article for another time. Moore’s Law will hold steady for technology. Maybe for comic book movies we can call it, Lee’s Law.