Ah, the superhero movie. Where would we be without it? They dominate the modern Box Office, with Marvel releasing two to three blockbusters a year. And while DC’s attempts haven’t been as successful, they’re still ardently preparing their multiverse to take over theaters. A genre that was once the pawn of cinema now sits upon its throne.
Here, we explore the ten most important entries in the high evolution of Box Office superhero movies. What movies revolutionized this popular genre? The movies chosen here changed the game in at least one way or another…
10) Black Panther (2018)
Behind the visuals, Black Panther follows the same storytelling formula written in the MCU Bible. But there are enough new elements in place to make it special. Now, since this film came out, we’ve been treated to Shang-Chi and The Eternals as the fulfillment of Feige’s promise to promote inclusion in the MCU. However, Black Panther led the charge as the first superhero film to explore the black experience in Africa and America.
At the time of BP’s release, many internet reactionaries mocked the milestone as superficial and virtue-signaling. But once you raise your head above the internet’s petty squabbles, you realize the impactful nature of its success. The movie’s pre-ticket sales were selling like hotcakes, the film eventually earning $1.348 billion worldwide on a $2 million budget. Given the movie’s admirable depiction of African culture, featuring an all-black cast, this is truly a high evolutionary step for Box Office superhero movies.
9) Deadpool (2016)
“Is Deadpool revolutionary”, you ask? Yes – and not because it proved to be an effective vehicle for Ryan Reynolds to launch into bigger facets of stardom. Rather, it’s the film’s ‘meta’ nature, deconstruction of the superhero movie, and its refusal to take itself too seriously that made it impactful for the genre. Then, of course, there’s its R rating, one of the few comic book movies to have one.
It’s impressive given that previous R-rated superhero films (i.e Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and 300) suffered disappointing Box Office returns. Deadpool reined in a worldwide total of $782.6 million on a $50 million budget, defeating this curse-like trend. And when you see the movie’s clever ribbing of Reynolds’ previous superhero works X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern, you can see why. It’s adult, it’s highly fun and witty, bringing something a little different to superhero movies and the Box Office in general.
8) The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers is an achievement in superhero cinema. After four solo Marvel movies, the 2012 film brought together the cast from those features in a tightly-paced action team-up. Given the intimidating number of characters, there was plenty of potential for failure. Luckily, this wasn’t the case.
Not only is The Avengers an achievement in how it allows its ensemble cast to shine equally as bright as each other, but it also stands as the first sign that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was working. The films before it worked up to this one and proved that the MCU could execute effective storytelling over multiple installments while keeping its fans invested in between. It’s a feat other studios have attempted to emulate including Warner Bros.’ DCEU and MonsterVerse, not to mention Universal’s Dark Universe. Their attempted replication of Feige’s success is a testament to The Avengers‘ influence. However, none have managed to produce the love, care, and attention that is so evident in the MCU.
7) Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t revolutionary because of its content necessarily (although it is a good movie – and far outranks Joss Whedon’s theatrical version). However, it’s more anomalous due to the way it originated. The movie got going because of internet-wide fan outcry for the ‘Snyder Cut’.
Backed by his extraordinarily dedicated fanbase, Zack Snyder pitched the idea to Warner Bros. And when the project was released as a 4-hour feature online, it proved a sobering reminder of the relevance of superhero movies in the modern age. Its enormous hype also helped HBO Max gain a huge rating winner – truly a big step in the evolution of superhero movies.
6) Blade (1998)
Blade was always something of a risk. Firstly, the movie revolved around an obscure comic book character unknown to general audiences. The antihero’s previous appearance was in the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon helmed by John Semper Jr. Semper believes that Marvel producer Avi Arad was inspired to do the film because of the character’s inclusion in Spider-Man.
Yet, as risky as the venture was, Blade was successful and spawned two sequels. Also of note, it was a high-profile superhero film starring a black lead. When it comes to quality, it pales somewhat to the others on this list, but it remains revolutionary for having a black lead head a franchise movie and sowing the seeds for the superhero films that followed.
5) Spider-Man (2002)
Spider-Man may be able to do whatever a spider can, and that’s all well and cool. However, the character’s most ardent fans know that it’s his heart that makes him so appealing. Luckily, Sam Raimi, who was known mainly for Evil Dead at the time of Spider-Man‘s release, realized this and used it to create one of the most influential superhero movies ever. Of course, it helped that the indie director was a fan who grew up reading the comics in the ’70s.
So, what did Raimi’s inaugural Spider-flick do to change superhero cinema? That is, aside from the unbelievably awesome suit and Danny Elfman’s brilliant soundtrack? Well, it put characters first. Raimi makes Peter Parker effortlessly relatable and makes us care deeply for the character beneath the mask. Even Norman Osborn/Green Goblin possesses human motivations despite the powers granted to him via superhuman serum. The character’s personalities and relationships are so lovingly realized, we care about them through the CGI action set-pieces and beyond. Spidey’s first Hollywood outing raised a high bar for superhero movies in the Box Office.
4) X-Men (2000)
Let’s set the scene. By the year 2000, the audience’s most recent reference point for superhero films were the disappointing Batman Forever and the laughable Batman & Robin. The latter was such a failure at the Box Office that it almost killed its franchise. So, you can imagine the relief comic book lovers felt when X-Men hit the screen.
Unlike the aforementioned Batman movies, Director Bryan Singer didn’t patronize his audience. X-Men took the thought-provoking themes of its source material (mutant discrimination) and adapted it on-screen. Happily, the film succeeded, featuring well-developed characters behind the superpowers and themes of discrimination that are humanly relatable. Like its titular team, X-Men was a unique and important superhero evolution, albeit one that impacted the genre forever.
3) Batman (1989)
If Richard Donner’s Superman revolutionized the light-hearted superhero movie, then Tim Burton’s Batman is surely its darker counterpart. To appreciate how Burton’s 1989 flick changed things, you have to realize the context in which it was produced. Before its release, the biggest Batman cultural phenomenon was the campy Adam West TV Series. Indeed, Batman co-producer Michael Uslan recalled being “both thrilled and horrified” by the show as a child. He loved the car and the costume but the fact the world was laughing at Batman “kind of killed [him].”
Later, as a twentysomething, Uslan was determined to “show the world what the dark and serious Batman was”. After purchasing the film rights and eventually getting Burton on board, that goal was eventually realized. Batman is a revolutionary superhero film because it isn’t afraid to get dark and explore humanity’s conflicted side. Michael Keaton’s psychologically tortured Bruce Wayne and the maniacal morally-lacking Joker explored the dark side of comics long before Nolan aced it. However, its most unique milestone is how it made Gotham as much of a character as its human cast.
2) Superman (1978)
When Superman hit theaters in 1978, it took the superhero movie genre up, up, and away. There are many reasons for this, but let’s start with the most superficial. You see, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, who owned the Superman film rights, cast Hollywood A-Listers to lend their film a sense of legitimacy in the Box Office. Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were cast as Jor-El and Lex Luthor respectively (they needed some monetary coaxing, though – Brando earned $3.7 million upfront, plus 11.75% of the gross profits from the film, while Hackman received $2 million).
But while big names helped market the film to wider audiences, it was the movie’s soul that resonated with people and revolutionized superhero cinema. Its then-jaw-dropping special effects were impressive enough – but the way Richard Donner humanized Superman and the supporting cast while delivering an inspirational story is arguably even more groundbreaking. Heck, it even made a young Kevin Feige “believe that comic characters could be brought to life on the big screen with heart, humor, humanity, and verisimilitude”. As we know, Feige would go on to kickstart the evolution of the superhero movie universe and cement its home in the Box Office.
1) The Dark Knight (2008)
“When The Dark Knight came out, it was a stepping stone to something greater for [Director Christopher Nolan],” writes Atlantic culture scribe David Sims, “Now the superhero movie has become Hollywood’s apex.” And boy, is he right. The Dark Knight signaled to critics, fans, and movie studios that superhero movies weren’t just kid’s fodder. Rather, if done right, they could become mature, thought-provoking blockbusters.
Indeed, as Skyfall director Sam Mendes pointed out, Nolan’s Batman adaptation proved that “you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in”. And through Heath Ledger’s captivating performance as the maniacal Joker, the story’s analysis of anarchy, and questioning of its title hero’s vigilantism within a grounded setting, TDK certainly did that and then some. For better or worse, it turbo-charged the evolution of superhero movies forever.
Alas, that’s just our take. What do you think are the flicks that fuelled the evolution of superhero movies forever? Wondering what must-see superhero movies you need to watch? Check out our Top 10 Greatest Superhero Movies articles Part 1 and 2!