My first superhero movie was Batman in 1966. I was six years old, a huge fan of the twice-a-week televised adventures of Batman and Robin, so it was quite the big deal to see my Caped Crusaders crusade on the big screen against the combined nefarious might of The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman. I couldn't quite understand why I was sssshed from shouting out the POW!s and BIFF!s that accompanied the climactic fight scene--I was always able to do that when watching at home--but nothing could dilute the thrill of seeing superheroes at the movies.
It would be a long, long time before I would have another chance to do that.
In today's world of cinematic superhero plenty, a time before blockbuster Marvel and DC films at the cineplex seems long ago and far away. But the success of the Batman TV series in '66 did not translate into boffo box office in theaters, nor did it inspire any feature-film imitations in Hollywood. Unless you count Barbarella in 1968 or even Modesty Blaise in '66--and you shouldn't really count either as part of this specific discussion--there wasn't anything else that could be called a mass-market comic-book or superhero film until Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze in 1975. I was a fan of the Doc Savage pulp novels and Marvel's comic-book adaptation, but I'm not aware of the movie ever playing in Syracuse. (I finally had a chance to see it on either cable or home video many years later, but I have yet to make it through the whole film; it's pretty bad.)
In the interim, I had discovered superhero movie serials from the '40s. Not quite the same thing, sure, but I was happy to have 'em. My introduction to these quaint artifacts was Super 8 home movies, specifically silent, abridged versions of two chapters apiece from 1941's The Adventures Of Captain Marvel and 1943's Batman. I then saw the Captain Marvel serial in its entirety in a looooong evening screening at The Syracuse Cinephile Society. I also saw the 1936 Flash Gordon serial, split over the course of two different weekend screenings at The Hollywood Theater, the same Mattydale, NY movie house where I'd seen the '66 Batman. In the mid '70s, the popularity of the late actor Bruce Lee (who had played the role of Kato in the 1967 TV series The Green Hornet) prompted a theatrical release for Kato And The Green Hornet; this was an ineptly-edited compilation of three episodes of the TV series, but I saw it in a movie theater, so I guess it counts as a superhero movie.
In the mid '70s, there were rumors of new superhero films on the horizon, particularly a proposed big-budget version of Superman. Rumor had it that the Man of Steel would be played by Robert Redford! Or not. The role eventually went to an unknown actor named Christopher Reeve. He was...um, he was pretty damned good in the role. There were also rumors of a Batman film, a Vampirella film (which had cast actress and model Barbara Leigh in the role, but which was never made), a Silver Surfer film. But even the successes of Star Wars and Superman couldn't get any of these films out of development limbo. The closest thing was an awful Flash Gordon movie in 1980.
I had mixed feelings about the Superman movies. Reeve was just flawless in the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman, and Margot Kidder was likewise a terrific Lois Lane. But the overall tone wasn't quite...right. In the first film, released in 1978, the opening sequence had an epic feel that felt nothing short of awe-inspiring. The early scenes on the planet Krypton, with Marlon Brando as Superman's daddy Jor-El, had an undeniable gravitas. The Smallville scenes, with young Clark Kent learning his moral code from adoptive father Jonathan Kent (expertly played by Glenn Ford), were affecting and heartbreaking. But the tone changed abruptly when the narrative switched to present-day Metropolis, and the audience was introduced to Lex Luthor's oafish henchman Otis (Ned Beatty). Gene Hackman's Luthor projected murderous intent, but always seemed a pratfall away from a descent into camp humor. I got the feeling that the filmmakers, including director Richard Donner, weren't so much reluctant to take a superhero film seriously as they were simply unable to fathom the idea of taking a superhero film seriously. Superman II, directed by Richard Lester, had a lot going for it, but Lester was even less--far less!--interested in straight superheroics than Donner had been. I don't mean to quibble, then or now, because I loved those first two Superman movies, their flaws notwithstanding; I still wish those flaws weren't there, though.
There was no real relief in sight for superhero film fans in the '80s. Reeve made two more Superman movies, each one a waste of his talents (though he shoulders some of the blame for the final entry, 1987's Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which he helped brainstorm). There was a lackluster Supergirl movie. There were rumors of Marvel superhero movies. And, in 1989, there was Michael Keaton in Batman, arguably the first superhero film to play it straight. It was a blockbuster hit, and I loved it. That franchise went south real fast, but the '89 film proved that a straight superhero film could be done.
It took a while for that lesson to take hold. With the first X-Men film in 2000, the first Spider-Man film in 2002, Batman Begins in 2005, and the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man in 2008, the current era of successful superhero movies began in earnest, and it shows no sign of ceasing. This year's fantastic Wonder Woman may be the greatest superhero film I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of them!
I don't see every superhero movie that comes along, but I do see most of them. I'm one of the relatively few folks who liked 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Tonight, my sister and I are going to see its new sequel, Justice League. It's a long way from when we saw Adam West in Batman more than five decades ago. But I'll still cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and exult in the spectacle of comic-book superheroes coming to life before my widened eyes. It's a sense of wonder I don't ever intend to relinquish.
I'll exult quietly, though. Don't want anyone to haveta ssssh me for yellin' out the POW!s and BIFF!s.
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