A superhero film (or superhero movie) is a film that focuses on the actions of superheroes: individuals who usually possess extraordinary – generally superhuman – abilities 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, the 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.
The most notable and successful superhero film franchises since 1998 are New Line Cinema's Blade, 20th Century Fox's X-Men, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, Marc Webb's Amazing Spider-Man duology, Pixar's The Incredibles, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Since the rise of the MCU in the late 2000s, the superhero film has become a dominant form of popular cinema worldwide. This commercial dominance has largely been accompanied by positive critical notice for many of these films, which includes Academy Award recognition. Superhero films have been commercially successful in a wide variety of genres such as action, horror, fantasy, comedy etc. Production of superhero films has also begun outside Hollywood since the 21st century, such as the American English-language Spanish Faust: Love of the Damned, the Italian The Invisible Boy (and its sequel), the Finnish Rendel: Dark Vengeance (and its upcoming sequel), and the Russian Guardians.
1939–1978: Early years
Almost immediately after superheroes rose to prominence in comic books (see List of DC Comics Characters and List of Marvel Comics characters), they were adapted into Saturday film serials aimed at children, starting with Mandrake the Magician (1939). Serials such as The Shadow (1940), 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 Japanese tokusatsu superhero films. Another early superhero film was Ōgon Bat (1966), a Japanese film starring Sonny Chiba based on the 1931 Kamishibai superhero Ōgon Bat.
The kaiju monster Godzilla, originally a villain, began being portrayed as a superhero in the Godzilla films. He has been described as "the original radioactive superhero" due to his nuclear origin story predating Spider-Man (1962 debut), although Godzilla did not become a hero until Ghidorah (1964). By the 1970s, Godzilla came to be viewed as a superhero, with the magazine King of the Monsters in 1977 describing Godzilla as "Superhero of the '70s." Godzilla was "the most universally popular superhero of 1977" according to Donald F. Glut.
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).
1978–1998: Donner's Superman and Burton's Batman
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) and Batman Returns (1992). Other superhero 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) 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. It 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. After Marvel bought Malibu Comics (the company that owned The Men in Black comic series), Marvel and Columbia Pictures released the Men in Black film 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. While a box office success, Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (1997) was critically panned for its campiness and it having strayed too far from the darker style of the series' first two Tim Burton films. As a result, it has sometimes been credited with nearly killing the superhero movie genre.
1998–2008: Blade, Raimi's Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Dark Knight Trilogy
In 1998, Marvel released Blade, a mix of a more traditional action film as well as darker superhero film, with the title character (who previously debuted in Marvel Comics) having vampire powers as well as carrying an arsenal of weaponry. The success of Blade began Marvel's film success and set the stage for further comic book film adaptations. The Matrix (1999) also had an impact on superhero films. Influenced by comic books, cyberpunk fiction, Japanese anime, and Hong Kong action films, The Matrix effectively "reinvented" the superhero film, according to Adam Sternbergh of Vulture.com, crediting The Matrix with setting the template for modern superhero blockbusters and inspiring the superhero renaissance in the early 21st century. John Kenneth Muir in The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television called the film a "revolutionary" reimagination of movie visuals, paving the way for the visuals of later superhero films, and credits it with helping to "make comic-book superheroes hip" and its bullet time effect effectively demonstrating the concept of "faster than a speeding bullet" on-screen.
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 superhero films and some of their most profitable 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 naturalism. 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 Blade II (2002), Daredevil (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Hulk (2003), X2: X-Men United (2003), Blade: Trinity (2004), Catwoman (2004), Hellboy (2004), The Punisher (2004), the semi-animated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Batman Begins (2005), Elektra (2005), Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Ghost Rider (2007), Spider-Man 3 (2007), TMNT (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Watchmen (2009), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).
Non-Hollywood superhero films were also released, including the American English/Spanish production Faust: Love of the Damned (2000), Japan's tokusatsu films Ultraman (2004), Casshern (2004) and Gatchaman (2013), Chile's Mirageman (2007), 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 superhero and family film, My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) a combination of superhero and romantic comedy.
Some series from the current and previous decades were 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 eight nominations with two wins for Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker.
2008–2019: Ubiquity with the MCU and DCEU
In 2008, Iron Man was released, setting the stage for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2010s generally continued the box-office success of superhero films seen in the previous decade, and this decade took the genre's success and ubiquity to new heights. 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, superhero films 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 from Marvel included 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 in November 2013, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier 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 poorly received 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 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 scheduled 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-figure 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, also released. Warner Bros. released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in March, which is the first film to feature both Batman and Superman, also released. This film performed moderately well at the box office but received poor reviews. 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, in May released Captain America: Civil War, 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. The first Finnish superhero film, Rendel: Dark Vengeance, was released in September 2017 and it won the Best Action Movie award at the Feratum Film Festival in Mexico. Power Rangers, a movie reboot of the TV series, was released in March, with Lionsgate planning a seven-film franchise, but was a commercial disappointment. By contrast, the film Logan, which was Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart's last appearances as their characters in the X-Men film series, proved to be a major critical and commercial success. This film was the first ever canon X-Men movie to be rated R as normally they were PG-13 and became the first superhero movie received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In the summer movie season, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming confirmed the superhero film dominance of the mainstream movie market. That dominance continued into the fall with the success of Thor: Ragnarok, but Warner Bros.' attempt to consummate its attempt to have its own shared universe media franchise, the DC Extended Universe, with Justice League as it was critical and financial disappointment.
In 2018, Marvel Studios released Black Panther on February 16 featuring the solo film adaptation of the first mainstream African-American 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 filmgoing interest is traditionally at its weakest no less. Furthermore, it became the first superhero film 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 and receive universal acclaim.
This MCU project was soon followed up by the successful Avengers: Infinity War, released on April 27, 2018, which earned both critical acclaim and worldwide financial success earning an 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 acclaim 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 massive box-office success. In December 2018 Warner Bros. released Aquaman, a film about the DC Comics superhero of the same name, which became the DCEU's most successful film as it made $1 billion at the box office.
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 ended the Infinity Saga with widespread acclaim and broke numerous box office records and became the fastest film to exceed $1 billion worldwide, doing so in five days. This film became the fastest to hit $1 billion and was later re-released again in theaters with extra scenes for the first time in an MCU film. The re-release made Avengers: Endgame become the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing James Cameron's Avatar.
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 Marvel Studios producer, Kevin Feige, along with the Fantastic Four, for integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise in due time considering Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox. In July 2019, Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was concluded with the Sony film, Spider-Man: Far From Home which was released to critical and commercial success.
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 due to its flexibility, a shared trait from its original publishing origins. Namely, the editorial realities of comic book publishing, which can have series running for decades, encouraged writers to resort to a variety of story situations so diverse from the fantastic to the relatively realistic, for so long and so often that it has become an expected element of the genre to have such adaptability. 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).
2019–present: MCU expansion to television and introduction of the BCU
Kevin Feige announced the line-up of the MCU's Phase 4 in July 2019 releases which include both films and television series produced for Disney+. The first release was in Phase Four was supposed to be a Black Widow standalone film in May 2020, but it was delayed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, premiered on the streaming platform Disney+ in January 2021 to critical acclaim.
In August 2019, Joko Anwar's Gundala was released in Indonesia. It was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival later in September and is set to be the first entry in the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe (BCU) film series based on characters of comic books published by Bumilangit. The second and third films in the series, Sri Asih and Patriot Taruna: Virgo and the Sparklings, were announced for a 2020 release but were pushed back to 2021 as production was significantly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The production company's strategy of announcing films in volumes with a team-up film as the climax has led to the media dubbing it the "Indonesian equivalent to the MCU and DCEU".
In March 2021, the long-anticipated director's cut of DC's Justice League, by the originally-intended director Zack Snyder, was released. The theatrical version of the film had been finished by Joss Whedon, after Snyder quit as a result of his daughter having committed suicide earlier during production. The director's cut was titled Zack Snyder's Justice League and was released exclusively on the premium streaming service, HBO Max. The Snyder Cut was released to better critical reception than that of the theatrical cut.
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 there are a countless number of these films creating different events in them from the “normal” ones as seen on the big screen. These animated films think outside the box with these superheroes where these as live-action films could cost too much money to make with little to no benefit from making a more narrow audience to see these films. 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.
- 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.
Box office reception
- List of American superhero films
- List of films based on comics
- List of films based on Dark Horse Comics
- List of films based on DC Comics
- List of films based on Marvel Comics
- Superhero fiction
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