“Wonder Woman” hits theaters this weekend and could become the first truly successful female-led superhero film in American cinema. That got me thinking about superhero films that started trends within the genre. While we’ve had a few films in the past with female hero leads, this is the first big-budget production that could be a real critical and financial hit. Many superhero themed movies have ushered in new approaches to the genre as a whole, changing the game and steering Hollywood in a direction where the superhero film has become one of the biggest cash grab in the industry today. With “Wonder Woman” set to continue that trend I looked at ten other superhero movies that changed the game.
For this list I took a look at any property that was a superhero-themed film, whether that be a comic book property or an original hero or team, and examined those that could specifically be called a “game changer” in the genre. These are the films that incorporated an approach, themes, or details that had seldom been utilized before or, if they were previously explored, were unsuccessful prior to the films on this list. These can be related to actors, settings, or a much bigger picture as long as these films represented a leap forward in some way for the superhero film. I did not include film serials in this list so many films before the 1970s were not considered.
If you’d like to witness your own superhero history, “Wonder Woman” hopes to become the first quality female hero film when it hits the big screen this weekend. Look for my review of the film this weekend as well.
Here we go.
10: “Power Rangers” (2017), the first LGBT superhero
While the reboot film of the popular “Power Rangers” franchise still has a ways to go to really earn its place in superhero film history, the movie gained quite a bit of attention this year for featuring the first ever confirmed cinematic lesbian superhero. Trini, the yellow ranger portrayed by Becky G., was confirmed to be a member of the LGBT community, which is revealed in a not-so-subtle exchange between herself and the pink ranger Kimberly. While this is not heavily explored in the film, it’s a big enough step forward for the genre to earn its place on this list especially seeing as many heroes, regardless of how gritty they are, tend to conform to the most basic of social norms in American society, many likely in an attempt to benefit from international markets without stirring controversy from religious groups or the laws of different countries and nations. To give the film even more credit it also featured the first superhero on the autism spectrum with blue ranger Billy, although some argue that Drax in “Guardians of the Galaxy” holds that title even though his quirky nature is a result of his species. Still, it’s a neat detail the filmmakers chose to add in to one of this year’s more divisive superhero movies.
9: “Batman V. Superman”, the hero versus hero battle
Alright so this is a concept explored heavily in the comics and is nothing new to comic book fans, but for those who don’t read comics and depend on the big screen for all their superhero hype this was a big deal. The year 2016 brought two films to the table that pitted hero against hero, “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War”, but it was “Batman V. Superman” that came first and got much of the hype as it was a film meant to follow up “Man of Steel” and truly kick the DC Extended Universe into high gear. Fans flocked to the theater anxious to see two of DC’s most iconic properties take each other on in a format that some thought was a risk as it seemingly defeated the heroic nature of these characters and made them more human. In fact it was that exact truth that helped this approach succeed, as “Batman V. Superman” would become a box office hit and “Civil War” only drove home just how effective this approach to inter-hero relationships can be if given the chance when it reached over a billion dollars at the box office. While “Civil War” did it better, “Batman V. Superman” did it first and was by far the more anticipated showdown of the two going into 2016.
8: “Superman Returns”, the in-universe reboot
Reboots of popular franchises are a curse of Hollywood these days with properties being remade and redone almost yearly at this point. Back in 2006 Warner Bros. and DC tried something different. For the first time they attempted to reboot a franchise from within its own universe instead of starting over from scratch. “Superman Returns” was a continuation of the original “Superman” film series that was put on hiatus in 1987 after the failure of “Quest for Peace”. Considered more of an “homage sequel” the film is set in the same universe as the previous films and was intended to reboot the franchise and continue the original Superman’s story. While it failed to achieve the later with success, it was a mild box hit and critical darling at the time of its release and the concept of an in-universe reboot was later explored by the “X-Men” films where “X-Men: First Class” took a page from the book of “Superman Returns” and created a successful prequel series that is still going strong today.
7: “Batman (1989)”, risky actor choices
Before the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989 many fans were furious that Michael Keaton was chosen as the star of the show. While it could be said that Adam West was surely a risky choice for the first “Batman” movie that tied into the campy television show, it wasn’t until after “Superman” became a cinema hit that fans really started to care who would portray their favorite heroes on the big screen. Keaton was far from the spitting image of what many felt Bruce Wayne should look like and fans doubted that he could capture the Dark Knight’s persona effectively. In the end however, as we all know now, Keaton proved everyone wrong and for the first time the fan community had to admit it had made a mistake judging a book by its cover. Keaton was praised for his ability to make Batman a memorable and brooding character while still capturing the suave nature of Bruce Wayne. Since then the fan community has been a bit less critical of more obscure choices for comic book heroes and villains and many times those strange casting decisions have worked out. Heath Ledger turned in a magnificent performance a the Joker in “The Dark Knight” and James McAvoy was able to capture fans hearts as a young Charles Xavier despite each of them receiving mixed responses from fans at first. Today fans are a bit more trusting of directors, but occasionally we do see the dangers of unique casting choices like the entire cast of “Fant4stic” in 2015 and Nicholas Cage in “Ghost Rider”.
6: “X-Men”, the dawn of the superhero boom
Before the year 2000 superhero films were massive success stories in their own right. Superman, Batman, Blade, and others all received franchises before what many would consider the beginning of the superhero boom. However it was the first “X-Men” film that created universal relevancy for the genre when it was released to massive success in the year 2000. When “X-Men” came along it created a new, more modern look for superheroes, introduced the world to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and incorporated more socially relevant themes into the story. It was the first comic book film since “Batman & Robin” to gross over $200 million and legitimized the genre as a guaranteed bankable addition to the yearly movie lineup. In fact the following year, 2001, would be the last year since the release of “X-Men” to not feature a comic book-themed movie. “X-Men”, along with “Spider-Man” two years later, helped usher in a new era of popularity and relevancy for a dying genre and without it we may not have the yearly dose of superhero action we have today, or the extended universes and more obscure products that have given us some of the best action films of the past 17 years.
5. “The Crow”, “Deadpool”, and “Blade”, violence and an R rating
I’m going to cheat on this entry a bit and include three in one here because “The Crow”, “Blade”, and “Deadpool” were all responsible for showing studios that R rated comic-book properties can, and do, work. In 1994 “The Crow” became significant not just because of its inclusion of excessive violence and its R rating, but also because it was an independent property that found success at the box office. A few years later “Blade” started off a trilogy of films with a blood-soaked tale of a vampire hunter taking on his own kind. In 2016, long after the previously mentioned superhero boom that “X-Men” ushered in, “Deadpool” reignited the call for R rated superhero properties, especially after the antihero was done wrong by his adaptation in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. These three films together helped studios understand that while super heroes and comics may, mostly, be a great film target for kids, some properties would not and cannot work without a R rating and the language, violence, and gratuitous blood and nasty humor that makes the heroes so charming to their fans. “Deadpool” may have finally justified the R rating for good as it became the highest grossing R rated film of all time and inspired 20th Century Fox to embrace the R rating for it’s third Wolverine solo film, “Logan”, which also received massive fan and critical praise when it was released earlier this year.
4: “Batman Begins”, a more grounded approach
Batman was known as a campy superhero back in the day. Few are oblivious to the over the top portrayal of Adam West that made the hero a television sensation. Then when Superman was featured in his own movie we saw and over-the-top visions of peace and perfection. When Batman returned to the big screen he was presented as a dark and brooding character in a very animated and artistic setting and later films eventually returned him to his campy ways. As the years progressed more and more heroes were presented in films with amazing powers and unique personalities and abilities to defy every obstacle. Few were represented in a more human light or in a more grounded world. That was until “Batman Begins”, the first in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise that presented the Dark Knight, and the city of Gotham, as not a star-struck city of angels and demons, or a more animated city of unique sights and sounds. Gotham became a more grounded and down-to-earth city and Batman, as portrayed by Christian Bale, became a more relatable and human hero with flaws that he didn’t overcome, but rather he embraced. This gritty approach was questioned by many as the film drew closer to its release. Some questioned how a hero film in part made for kids could attract youngsters to the theater if it was more grounded in realism and others felt it would make the material dry and boring. They were wrong. “Batman Begins” was praised for its ability to take the Batman hero and give him believable human emotion with a focus on his suffering after tragedy. It wasn’t a big leap for the genre, but it was an important one that has since been incorporated into almost every hero film since, with heroes become more and more “human” in their adaptations, and it led to one of the darkest and most celebrated superhero series and overall film trilogies of all time.
3: “The Dark Knight”, the first billion-dollar superhero movie
The follow up to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins”, “The Dark Knight” was one of the most talked about films of its time before and after it hit theaters. Word of mouth spread like wildfire with fans and critics praising the film’s dark tone and the standout, and now iconic, performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. After the film’s initial release it earned an IMAX re-release which put its theater gross at $1.004 billion, the first ever super hero film to reach that peak. Since “The Dark Knight” found success it’s own sequel has topped it with “The Dark Knight Rises” grossing $1.084 billion. In addition “Captain America: Civil War”, “Iron Man 3”, “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and “The Avengers” have all grossed over a billion dollars since “The Dark Knight” set the standard. While it appears Marvel now has a firm grasp on that coveted billion dollar-plus status, we can’t forget that DC’s greatest movie to date was the one who hit the mark first and proved that super hero films were not only great cash grabs, they were MASSIVE money makers that could dominate the summer box office with record numbers.
2: “Iron Man”, the dawn of the extended universe
No chance this could be left off this list. “Iron Man” itself may not have been responsible for the complete evolution of the film industry, but Marvel as a company was when it installed an end-credit scene in “Iron Man” that ushered in a truly transformative film-making plan that today spreads beyond the superhero genre and has become a staple of the industry, the shared universe. “Iron Man” was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which today contains some of the most profitable and critically successful films of the genre and of all time all based in the same world and connected through intertwining characters and story arcs. Each hero has their own series, for the most part, but each movie ties into the larger picture in a complex, but fascinating way. DC has even tried to follow suit with the DC Extended Universe, which is off to a rocky start, and several other film universes are being built including the Legendary Monster-verse and Universal’s Dark Universe. The MCU is not only a trendsetter, but also a truly transformative force for the industry that completely changed the concept of a franchise. It also helped popularize the after-credit scene, although that concept had been explored long before the MCU worked it into their marketing and made it a relevant way to tease a future film.
1: “Superman”, the first major big-budget superhero film
This is THE trendsetter. While Marvel may have a lot of credit for helping popularize the superhero film for a new generation, it was DC’s iconic Big Blue Boy Scout that started it all. While superhero films like “Superman and the Mole Men” and “Batman: The Movie” had introduced the theater-going public to the concept of the superhero on the big screen, 1978’s “Superman” is credited as the first big-budget film for a major comic book hero. At the time it was the most expensive movie ever made, with a $55 million budget, and earned $300 million at the box office as rave reviews from critics and fans who turned out to believe that a man could fly. It was also the first superhero film to be nominated for an Academy Award and contained what were considered at the time to be groundbreaking special effects. It was the first time Hollywood had a true superhero hit on their hands as the public embraced this new style of film with open arms. Today, “Superman” is considered a legendary picture, as well as it’s immediate sequel “Superman II”. Without it superhero films as we know them today may not have even been conceived. This is the granddaddy of the genre that was more than a trendsetter and a bar-raiser. It is the project that all superhero films since are compared to for its ability to grip an audience and create a likable and believable hero while announcing the dawn of a new era where comic book heroes and super powered being would become among cinema’s most cherished and lucrative genres in the years that followed.