We are going through an undeniable Superhero Renaissance at the moment. You basically can’t buy a movie ticket without seeing a super hero do something. This is not the first time that’s been the case. In the late 1970s there was a run of super-hero themed TV shows -Wonder Woman (1975), Spiderman (1977) and the Incredible Hulk (1978), culminating in the Superman movie. The big thing about a TV series is that you can’t rely on a single gimmick in a single story to power the whole show. The pilots of the TV shows told the origin story as economically as possible, and the rest of the show had to be about something else.
Superman tried to bridge these two situations. The first half of the movie, not starring Christopher Reeve, is a rather listless and clumsy tale of disaster and family that explains what every single person seeing the film already knew since the early 1940s. In 1978, it was already too late to explain to anyone who Superman was, how he got here, anything. It’s done, it’s told, it’s not something you need to make a movie about.
I think that compulsion to do so arises from a lack of confidence in the material. Nobody needed the first 20 minutes of The Maltese Falcon to show Sam Spade setting up a PI business: there was a confidence that the audience could join those dots themselves, if they even needed to. Spade’s just one in a sequence of detectives: a template that the mainstream can be comfortable with. Superman, as a superhero, was not accorded that status of universality and commonality by the film-makers themselves.
This is something that Tim Burton almost understood when he restarted the worldwide interest in super heroes in 1989 with “Batman”. He picked the definitive Batman villain for his feature: the Joker. But he re-wrote the relationship to be completely symbiotic: one creating the other in turn. However, the movie remains about that conflict and relationship, it is not primarily about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. The story knits mostly organically, with the nod to the origin sealing the edges of the story.
But the wave of movies and TV shows which followed fell back into the same quagmire as the original Superman did: re-telling the origin story. Who is this masked hero? How did he become so? The only surprises there were to small children, with the rest of the audience groaning along, trying to find some kind of enthusiasm in the game of “how’re they going to fit the canon in”. Again the leading lights were televisual, with shows like The Flash compressing then moving past the origin story, and telling us superhero stories most of the time.
Again and again, film makers go first and best to that origin story. Perhaps they see it as the most compelling part of the narrative – but if so, why must they always try also to tell the first adventure? Some stories handle this most economically – like Raimi’s Spiderman. Most, like the Fantastic Four, labour over a whole film to try and make their heroes plausible heroes, to try and explain the mystery of how they became so. This is one reason why, by-and-large, sequels are better than the originals. An original story, with established characters, is always going be inherently more vivid and energetic, than something deliberately starting tabula rasa.
It seems to me that the makers of super hero films have historically been deeply insecure in their end product. They are not fans, they are not believers: they are drafted in to give life to a project that will exist separately from the rest of their oeuvre. A superhero film is something they make reluctantly. Film-makers who make Westerns, or Spy Thrillers, or murder mysteries, or Shakespeare, return again and again to the genre that fascinates them. When Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven, it was the latest and last word on a genre he had been intimately involved with for 30 years. When Richard Donner made Superman, he’d never done anything other than TV dramas, and he never returned to the superhero genre again.
I think that the lack of immersion in their subject matter, combined with the relative paucity of historical special effects, has been unkind to superhero movies. Watching any of the 1970s outings is frankly embarrassing now. And even from the 80s and 90s, I think that only Burton’s Batman escapes seeming frankly camp.
The current crop of super hero directors have been a little better off. Raimi is clearly a fan; becoming overly indulgent even. Bryan Singer’s X-Men, however, really set the standard for the current generation to follow. There are nods to the origin of things, but I think he is more generally comfortable with picking up a story already in progress. He weaves together disparate threads, but makes no claim to a definitive origin story: he actually categorically does not explain many of the questions of history that are raised in the film. And when he was co-opted to revive Superman, he picked up in media res, instead of going back again to the dry well of a star-born child growing up on a farm.
I think that some of these superhero films will age better than their predecessors for those reasons. The special effect technology is more integral, the directors are more integral, only this lingering insecurity over the origin story remains to stunt the development of the genre film into the deeper and stronger genre as other genres have done.