A superhero film, superhero movie or superhero motion picture is a film that is focused on the actions of one or more superheroes: individuals who usually possess superhuman abilities relative to a normal person and are dedicated to protecting the public. These films typically feature action, adventure, fantasy or science fiction elements, with the first film of a particular character often including a focus on the origin of their special powers and their first confrontation with their most famous supervillain or archenemy.
Most superhero films are based on superhero comics. By contrast, several films such as the RoboCop series, The Meteor Man, Unbreakable film series, The Incredibles, Hancock and They Call Me Jeeg are original for the screen, while The Green Hornet is based primarily on the original radio series and its 1960s television adaptation, both Underdog and The Powerpuff Girls are based on animated television series, and Japanese tokusatsu and anime superhero films are based on manga and television shows.
After a long series of flops, since the 2000s the film genre reversed its fortunes and grew to become a dominant mainstream film genre worldwide. The most notable and successful superhero films since the year 2000 are 20th Century Fox's X-Men franchise, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, Pixar's The Incredibles series, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy, the films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starting with Iron Man and the films set in the DC Extended Universe starting with Man of Steel. This commercial dominance has largely been accompanied by generally enthusiastic critical support for many of these films, which includes major Academy Awards. Reflecting the fantasy subgenre's noted narrative flexibility in its original comic book publishing format, the film subgenre has been commercially successful in a wide variety of genres such as action, horror, fantasy, comedy etc.
Almost immediately after superheroes rose to prominence in comic books, they were adapted into Saturday film serials aimed at children, starting with Mandrake the Magician (1939). Serials such as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), The Phantom (1943), Captain America (1944), and Superman (1948) followed.
In the following decades, the decline of Saturday serials and turmoil in the comic book industry put an end to superhero motion pictures, with the exception of Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves, which was a trial balloon for the television series Adventures of Superman, compilations of episodes of that same series released theatrically, and Batman (1966) a big-screen extension of the Batman television series starring Adam West.
In 1957 Japan, Shintoho produced the first film serial featuring the tokusatsu superhero character Super Giant, signaling a shift in Japanese popular culture towards tokusatsu masked superheroes over kaiju giant monsters. Along with Astro Boy, the Super Giant film serials had a profound effect on the Japanese tokusatsu superhero genre. Another early superhero film was Ōgon Bat (1966), a Japanese film starring Sonny Chiba based on the 1930 Kamishibai superhero Ōgon Bat.
Original superhero characters emerged in other, more comedy oriented films such as the French political satire film Mr. Freedom (1969) and the American B movies Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966) and The Wild World of Batwoman (1966).
Riding a wave of a new interest in fantasy and science fiction films with the success of Star Wars, Richard Donner's Superman (1978), the first major big-budget superhero feature film, proved a critical and commercial success. Other successful entries emerged throughout the 1980s, from Richard Lester's Superman II (1980) and Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987) to Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Other films were released during the 1980s and 1990s including Flash Gordon (1980), Swamp Thing (1982), Superman III (1983), Supergirl (1984), The Toxic Avenger (1985), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), Bollywood's Mr. India (1987), The Punisher (1989), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) and two sequels, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), Batman Returns (1992), the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The Shadow (1994), Batman Forever (1995), Tank Girl (1995), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) on Sky Movies and a sequel, The Phantom (1996), Steel (1997), and Mystery Men (1999). Marvel Comics' Captain America (1991) did not have a theatrical release and Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four (1994) was released neither theatrically nor on home video.
Alex Proyas' The Crow (1994) became the first independent comics superhero film that established a franchise. As Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (1997) was critically panned for being too jokey and tongue-in-cheek, The Crow brought in a new realm of violence absent in previous popular superhero films targeted at younger audiences and bridging a gap to the more modern action film. The success of The Crow catalyzed the release of a film version of Spawn (1997), Image Comics' leading character. The success of the "darker" Image Comics characters shifted the direction of comic book movies. Marvel soon released their films to become franchises, Men in Black (1997) and Blade (1998). After Marvel bought Malibu Comics (The company owned "Men in Black"), Marvel and Columbia Pictures released the Men in Black film and comics in 1997. The film became the first Marvel property to win an Oscar and the then highest-grossing comic book adaptation until the release of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Blade was also a mix of a more traditional action film as well as darker superhero film with the title character having vampire powers as well as carrying an arsenal of weaponry. The success of Blade began Marvel's film success (which debuted in Marvel Comics) and set the stage for further comic book film adaptations.
After the comic book boom and the success of several comic book adaptation films (including superhero films) in the 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century brought increased interest in the genre and some of the most profitable superhero franchises, many from Marvel Enterprises. The success of the X-Men TV series had made 20th Century Fox license the film rights in 1994. After the success of Men in Black in 1997, Columbia Pictures licensed the film rights of Spider-Man in 1999. 20th Century Fox's X-Men (2000) became a film franchise by its surprise hit, and M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000) also succeeded and added an element of more urban realism to the genre. Later, one of the largest blockbusters of all time was released with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002). With high ticket and DVD sales, several new superhero films were released every year in the 2000s, including Daredevil (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Hulk (2003), Catwoman (2004), Hellboy (2004), The Punisher (2004), the semi-animated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Fantastic Four (2005), Ghost Rider (2007), Transformers (2007), Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), and Watchmen (2009).
Some media commentators have attributed the increased popularity of superhero franchises in the new millennium to the social and political climate in Western society since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, although others have argued advances in special effects technology have played a more significant role. Others have postulated that its box office dominance is in part that it takes advantage of the genre's flexibility originally encouraged in its original comic book publishing history to present an appealing variety of stories for audiences. For example, with the common element being that they all feature heroes with extraordinary abilities and typically in a distinctive costume, many successful superhero films have used a plethora of genres such as horror (Blade), thriller (Unbreakable), period drama (Captain America: The First Avenger), space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), family film (The Incredibles), teen film (Spider-Man: Homecoming), heist film (Ant-Man), fantasy (Doctor Strange), neo-noir (The Dark Knight), political drama (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and Western (Logan).
Many sequels and spin-offs were also released throughout the decade, including Blade II (2002), X2: X-Men United (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Blade: Trinity (2004), Elektra (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), TMNT (2007), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), The Dark Knight (2008), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
Non-Hollywood superhero films were also released, including the American/Spanish production Faust: Love of the Damned (2001), Japan's tokusatsu films Ultraman (2004), Casshern (2004) and Gatchaman (2013), Malaysia's Cicak Man (2006), India's Krrish (2006), Drona (2008), Ra.One (2011), Krrish 3 (2013), and Thailand's Mercury Man (2006). Several non-action film oriented superhero films were released in the 2000s with varying ranges of success. Brad Bird's The Incredibles (2004) for Pixar was a critically acclaimed computer-animated superhero film aimed towards families. Other hybrids include Sky High (2005) and Zoom (2006) which were fusions of the superhero and family film genres, My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) a combination of superhero film and a romantic comedy.
Some series from the current and previous decades were also re-released, such as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006). Other series discarded the continuities of previously released films and began a reboot, most notably Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) as well as Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Lexi Alexander's Punisher: War Zone (2008). Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) is unique due to the fact that it is a sequel to the first two Superman films, yet also a reboot to the third and fourth films. The Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight (2008) is the most nominated superhero film in Academy Award history with 8 nominations with two wins for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker.
The 2010s has generally continued the box-office success of superhero films seen in the previous decade. In 2010, Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Kick-Ass was released, followed by Iron Man 2 a month later. 2011 releases included The Green Hornet (2011), Green Lantern (2011), and X-Men: First Class (2011). Following references to the "Avengers Initiative" in the Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel released Thor on May 6, 2011, followed by Captain America: The First Avenger on July 22, 2011.
Although the film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released on February 17, 2012, to little audience interest, the superhero genre dominated that year's lucrative summer film market with three superhero films occupying the top three positions of the box office chart. This includes the May 2012 release of Marvel's The Avengers, which broke the box office record as the highest-grossing superhero film of all time. The next Batman film from Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises, is the sequel to Christopher Nolan's film The Dark Knight, and was released on July 20, 2012 in the second position while the third was occupied by reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb and produced for Columbia Pictures.
In 2008, there were reports that DC Comics planned to release Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max. Other intended releases include several new X-Men films, Silver Surfer, Ant-Man, and movies based on DC superheroes such as Wonder Woman and the Flash.
At the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel confirmed that an Ant-Man film was in development, as well as a film based on 2008 comic series Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released in August 2014. Iron Man 3 was released in May 2013, Thor: The Dark World was released in November 2013, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released in April 2014. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the 2012 reboot was also released in May 2014, which became the lowest grossing and poorest critically rated film in the Spider-Man film series. In 2013, a sequel to the 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, titled The Wolverine was released. In 2014, X-Men: Days of Future Past was released to critical acclaim and financial success; the film became the highest-grossing film in the X-Men series, and effectively rebooted the franchise.
In 2014, Italian filmmaker Gabriele Salvatores directed a superhero-fantasy film titled Il ragazzo invisibile, or The Invisible Boy, which won the Young Audience Award at the 2015 European Film Awards.
An Avengers sequel, titled Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in May 2015. Following the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rival DC Comics also planned to make and produce their own shared film universe called the DC Extended Universe which began with the release of Man of Steel; a sequel titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was schedule for release in May 2016, though it was later moved up to March 2016. Nickelodeon's 2015 film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water features the main characters transform into superheroes. 20th Century Fox rebooted the Fantastic Four series and released Fantastic Four in August 2015.
On March 9, 2015, publishing house Valiant Comics reached an unprecedented nine-figures deal with Chinese company DMG Entertainment to produce their own series of superhero movies, set in their own cinematic universe. The series will be co-produced by Sony Pictures and will start with a movie adaptation of Bloodshot for a 2016 release, followed by Harbinger, both movies receiving a sequel and ending in a crossover movie based on the Harbinger Wars arc from the comic books.
In 2015, Italian filmmaker Gabrielle Mainetti directed a superhero film, titled They Call Me Jeeg starring Claudio Santamaria. Its original title is Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot, from the Italian name of the anime and manga series Steel Jeeg. It was released in Italy on February 25, 2016.
In 2016, the eighth installment in the X-Men series Deadpool was released in February, which went on to become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time when unadjusted for inflation, and the highest-grossing film of the series. The ninth installment, X-Men: Apocalypse was also released. Warner Bros. released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in March, which is the first film to feature both Batman and Superman, and also released Suicide Squad in August, which features a team of anti-hero/supervillains, both of which take place in the DC Extended Universe. Marvel Studios, meanwhile, released Captain America: Civil War in May, in which the Avengers splits into two opposing factions, and Doctor Strange, which recounts the superheroic origin of Stephen Strange, in November, both of which take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In October, based on the eponymous toy line by Mattel, Max Steel was released.
January 2017 saw the release of M. Night Shyamalan's Split, which served as a standalone sequel to Unbreakable. Power Rangers, a movie reboot of the TV series, was released in March, with Lionsgate planning a 7-film franchise, but proved a commercial disappointment. By contrast, the film Logan, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart's last appearances as their characters in the X-Men film series, proved a major critical and commercial success. In the summer movie season, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming confirmed the film genre's dominance of the mainstream film market, as they to be proved the predominate major successful films of the period. That dominance continued into the fall with the success of Thor: Ragnarok, but Warner Brothers' attempt to consummate its attempt to have its own shared universe media franchise, the DC Extended Universe, with Justice League proved a critical and financial disappointment.
In 2018, Marvel Studios released Black Panther on February 16 featuring the solo film adaptation of the first mainstream African superhero, the Black Panther. It proved a spectacular artistic and commercial success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, especially considering its predominately African-American cast and creative crew which many in Hollywood considered ill-suited for popular success and during a time of year when North American flimgoing interest is traditionally at its weakest no less. Furthermore, the film became the first one of the sub-genre to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. While no other Marvel Studios' movies have been nominated for any such award, they continuously break records at the box office.
This MCU project was soon followed up by the successful Avengers: Infinity War, released on April 27, 2018 which earned both critical praise and worldwide financial success earning in excess of $2 billion. Soon after, 20th Century Fox released Deadpool 2 on May 18, 2018 which proved a major success in both regards itself. In addition, Incredibles 2, the long awaited sequel for the Academy Award-winning animated film The Incredibles, had its wide release on June 15, 2018 met with considerable critical praise and earned $182.68 million on its premiere weekend. The next superhero film in the Marvel Universe Ant-Man and the Wasp was released on July 6, with competing studios declining to release major films on American Independence Day in the face of the reliably popular film franchise.
The anti-hero film Venom based on the comic book character was released on October 5, 2018 to poor reviews, but healthy box-office success. In December of 2018 Warner Bros. released Aquaman, a film about the DC Comics superhero of the same name, which became the DCEU's most successful film.
2019 began with M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, the culmination of Unbreakable and Split, in January. In March, the MCU's Captain Marvel overcame online hostility, in part because of star Brie Larson's comments about lack of diversity in the film and film criticism industries, to become the next film in the franchise to earn over $1 billion worldwide amid largely positive reviews. Later in April, the DCEU's Shazam!, featuring the lead character who was previously known as Captain Marvel himself, opened to wide acclaim and decent box office success for its relatively low budget, which has been seen as further evidence of the revitalization of the Warner Bros. media franchise. That same month, Avengers: Endgame broke numerous box office records and became the fastest film to exceed $1 billion worldwide, doing so in five days.
By contrast, the June X-Men film Dark Phoenix performed poorly upon release due in part to poor critical reception. In addition, it was observed that there was noticeable fan indifference for a concluding film series of a property that would be put in the complete control of the respected Marvel Studios producer, Kevin Feige, along with the Fantastic Four, for integration into the critically hailed Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise in due time considering Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
Outside of live action, animated superhero films have also achieved critical and financial success. Nearly all animated superhero films are direct-to-video (Marvel Animation films, DC Universe Animated Original Movies, others) though the 1993 film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released theatrically and was a critical success (though a box-office failure). In 1968 was released VIP my Brother Superman directed by Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto; it is a parody of superheroes and enjoyed great success. In 2004, Pixar released The Incredibles, about a retired superhero couple and their children, which did extremely well both critically and financially and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In 2010 DreamWorks Animation released Megamind to middling success. In 2014, Walt Disney Animation Studios released an adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero team Big Hero 6. The same year, Warner Bros. released The Lego Movie, which had Batman and other DC Comics superheroes in major and supporting roles. A significant box-office success, it was followed in 2017 by The Lego Batman Movie, as well as DreamWorks Animation's Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.
In 2018, three theatrical animated superhero films were released to considerable critical and commercial success: Pixar's Incredibles 2, Warner Bros.'s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, and Sony Pictures Animation's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Furthermore, the latter of the three swept that year's major film awards for animated features, including the Academy Award.
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- Kinka Usher's 1999 film Mystery Men features a group of inept amateur superheroes.
- Kevin Smith's 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, parodies film companies' seemingly compulsive purchase of comic book film rights with "Bluntman and Chronic". In the film, the character Brodie Bruce (played by Jason Lee) describes the process: "After X-Men hit at the box office, the movie companies started buying out every comic property they could get their dirty little hands on".
- Mark Hamill's 2004 parody film Comic Book: The Movie, was about a comic book fan and a film adaptation of his favorite character, and was released direct-to-video and achieved mild success, garnering a cult following among comic book readers.
- Craig Mazin directed the more direct parody Superhero Movie, released in 2008.
- Another comedic play on superheroes is The Specials, a film in which the title team is more concerned with their public image than actually being superheroes.
- Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar-winning 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) satirizes Hollywood's reliance on superhero and blockbuster films. In the film, Michael Keaton portrays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the superhero Birdman in blockbuster movies decades earlier. He is tormented by the voice of Birdman, which mocks and criticizes him, and he sees himself performing feats of levitation and telekinesis.
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