Does the most important year for superhero movies belong to The Dark Knight or Iron Man?

Midway through Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie The Dark Knight, the Joker gets himself arrested so that he can then break out of his holding cell and continue his grand experiment in human darkness. While he’s locked up, he’s placed in the custody of the Major Crimes Unit, the police force that’s supposedly been…

Superman returns, but he forgot to bring the action and the fun back with him

If Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was the first movie to really take superheroes seriously, then maybe Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, released the following year, was the first movie to take superheroes too seriously. Singer even took the non-serious parts of his story too seriously. In retrospect, it’s hard to…

Christopher Nolan dragged Batman (and superhero cinema) into a more serious “real” world

Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are as revered as any franchise of summer blockbusters can really be in this day and age. But when people make fun of them, they always seem to settle on one thing in particular: the Batman voice. When he’s in his Batman suit, Christian Bale doesn’t have too many long conversations,…

The Incredibles didn't need comic-book source material (or origin stories) to do superheroes right

Nobody starts with the origin stories. At least when I first fell in love with comic books, the lure wasn’t the story arcs of these individual heroes. It was in finding out about this whole world full of outsized characters, many of whom had decades worth of interconnecting storylines. When I’d pick up individual…

Sam Raimi’s bright, fun Spider-Man doubled as a valentine to a post-9/11 New York

Sony Pictures could’ve owned the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it could’ve owned it for cheap. The rights to the Spider-Man character had been bouncing around Hollywood for more than a decade before Sony finally got ahold of them in 1998. (The studio had to trade away to MGM its rights to make an alternate…

Mystery Men clumsily spoofed superhero movies before the genre even really took flight

For whatever reason, a lot of the early superhero movies were also superhero-movie parodies. Before the genre was fully formed—before it was even close to fully formed—movies were using it as grist for jokes. The idea, I think, was that the superhero was a ridiculous and outdated form of American cultural lore, the…

Blade paved the way for the Marvel blockbusters of the new millennium

Stan Lee always wanted to make movies. In the ’60s and ’70s, the comic book writer helped to create dozens of characters, and he also laid the groundwork for hundreds more to come into existence. He’d always had the idea that these characters belonged in movies. By 1981, he’d moved away from Marvel’s New York offices…

Batman & Robin is the silliest superhero blockbuster, but is it really the worst?

One of the first things we see in Batman & Robin, the movie that was supposed to be the big tentpole release for Warner Bros. in the summer of 1997, is Batman’s ass. It’s encased in black form-fitting rubber, and it completely fills the screen. This is part of an opening scene that plays out like a goth fetish-club…

The Phantom paid tongue-in-cheek homage to old-timey do-gooders but never got its due

They kept trying it. All through the 1990s, movie executives were greenlighting big summer movies based on mostly forgotten ’30s-vintage pulp superheroes. Clearly, people placed high within Hollywood’s largest studios thought that the teenagers of the ’90s, kids who had grown up buying gold-embossed collectors’…

What the hell were any of us thinking making the terrible Batman Forever a huge hit?

You can see how it happened. The executives at Warner Bros. didn’t set out to destroy the Batman mythos or to make unwatchably shitty Batman movies that would put both the character and the superhero movie genre at large into a state of prolonged stasis. They just wanted a hit. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, from 1992,…

Tragically and fashionably, The Crow turned superhero cinema into a death dance

The Crow is so weighed down with eerie, tragic coincidence that it’s almost hard to look at it as a real movie, rather than some mystic totem. Here we have a movie whose star, Brandon Lee, was killed in a freak on-set accident while filming his own character’s death. Lee’s father was, of course, Bruce Lee, a screen…

25 years before Black Panther, a box-office bomb broke ground for black superheroes

A superhero movie comes out, but it doesn’t look like other superhero movies. The hero is black. So is the villain. So are almost all of the supporting characters. The movie touches on the main superhero-movie beats that we expect: the origin story, the demonstration of powers, the final battle with the equally…

Batman Returns is a relic of an age when disgusting monsters only ran for office in the movies

It seemed ridiculous in 1992: the idea of a misshapen, braying lunatic running for higher office while barely bothering to disguise his own painfully obvious-bordering-on-theatrical creepiness. These days, would anyone blink? In fact, the biggest difference between Batman Returns and our own impossible present-day…

’90s kids didn’t give a damn about the peerless movie-serial nostalgia of The Rocketeer

Rocketeers exist. There aren’t many of them, but they’re real. A few years ago, at an action movie festival in North Carolina, I met one. His name is Dan Schlund, and he’s a stunt performer who flies a gleaming silver rocket pack that doesn’t look too different from the one in the 1991 movie The Rocketeer. It doesn’t…

Long before Spider-Man, Sam Raimi cast Liam Neeson as a wilder, grosser superhero

Sam Raimi wanted to make a superhero movie. After gifting the world with his absurdist 1987 horror-comedy masterpiece Evil Dead II, Raimi chased the rights to make movies out of both Batman and The Shadow. Both times, he failed. So he invented his own superhero—one who was really more of a deranged and revenge-crazed…

Tim Burton played fast and loose with the caped crusader in his visionary blockbuster Batman

For a little while there, people were shaving the Batman insignia into their hair. That’s the level of cultural dominance that Tim Burton’s Batman had going for it in the summer of 1989. Batman made a ton of money—over $400 million globally, in 1989 dollars—but that’s really only the half of it.

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