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, fantasy and/or science fiction elements, with the first film of a particular character often includes a focus on the origin of the special powers including the first fight against the character's most famous supervillain, or archenemy.
Most superhero movies are based on comic books. By contrast, several films such as the RoboCop series, The Meteor Man, Unbreakable, The Incredibles, and Hancock are original for the screen, while The Green Hornet is based primarily on the original radio series and its 1960s television adaptation, and both Underdog and The Powerpuff Girls are based on an animated television series.
Almost immediately after superheroes rose to prominence in comic books, they were adapted into Saturday movie serials aimed at children, starting with Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Serials such as 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 episodes of the television series Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, which had been compiled for theatrical release, and Batman (1966) a big-screen extension of the Batman television series starring Adam West. 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 science-fiction/fantasy 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 Robocop (1987) to Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Other films were released during the 1980s and 1990s including 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, The Rocketeer (1991), Batman Returns (1992), the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The Shadow (1994), Batman Forever (1995), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) 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 first film to become a franchise, Blade (1998). Blade was also a mix of a more traditional action film as well as darker superhero film with the title character having superpowers as well as carrying an arsenal of weaponry.
The first decade of the 21st century brought renewed interest in the genre and some of the most profitable superhero franchises, many from Marvel Enterprises. It began with the surprise hit of 20th Century Fox and Marvel's X-Men film series (2000 onward) which became a film franchise, and M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000) which added an element of 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), 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.
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), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).
Non-Hollywood superhero films also were released, including the American/Spanish production Faust: Love of the Damned (2001), Japan's tokusatsu films Ultraman (2004) and Casshern (2004), Malaysia's Cicak Man (2006), India's Krrish (2006), Drona and Ra.One (2011), 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 digitally-animated family oriented superhero film. 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 adaption 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 "Avenger 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 The Avengers. The Avengers 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. A film about the character Venom is in development for an unknown date. 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 an Ant-Man film is 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, becoming the lowest grossing aswell as the lowest rated film ever made in the Spider-man film series.
An Avengers sequel, titled Avengers: Age of Ultron is in development and is planned to be released in the summer of 2015. Following the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rivals DC Comics are also planning to make and produce their own connected movieverse which is set to begin with the release of the upcoming 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
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 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 will release an adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero team Big Hero 6.
- 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 Comic Book: The Movie, about a comic book fan and a film adaptation of his favorite character, 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.
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