by Dallin Curtis
I'm a huge fan of superhero films. I love watching them, finding their deeper meanings, learning how they were made, but most of all, researching what impact they had on audiences when released.
Believe it or not, numerous superhero films have earned this adjective because they all did the same thing: they kicked off the modern trend of superhero films. In many of my studies, this particular adjective attached to many superhero films, such as Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie," Tim Burton's "Batman," Bryan Singer's "X-Men" and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" to name a few. How are so many superhero films groundbreaking, if the word means that you accomplished something that no other has?
Due to such confusion, I've decided to create a list of groundbreaking superhero films. For this list, I've decided to narrow the number down to just five, and these five selections all passed certain criteria that I created to help diversify the reasons for what made each of them significant. Without further delay, here it is my list of the five groundbreaking superhero films.
5. Iron Man
Beginning this list is the original "Iron Man." Yes, the one that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the one that gave way to several big screen interpretations of then-B-list superheroes is my number five choice.
In today's world, many will choose to say that Marvel Studios took little-to-no risks on its path to greatness when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. With it's more popular characters owned by other major studios, Marvel itself took every risk imaginable as they practically willed "Iron Man" into existence. They separated themselves from the Marvel productions that were released at the time, taking the money that they had and financing this film themselves. When Jon Favreau came aboard to direct, his intention was to make an independent film, but also one full of ambitious decisions.
One can definitely see that approach when looking at the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. The actor was cast not just because he was a fan of the character, but also because his particular past made him perfect for the part. There was a lot riding on "Iron Man" already. Casting RDJ in the lead role only made the film even riskier than it was already. To the knowledge of no one, except for the studio of course, Downey was in the right role, one that's allowed him show his talents as an actor. Joining him is a cast that includes the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Shaun Toub. Throughout the film, Downey is clearly having fun playing off humorous and heartfelt banter with each of them. As for Jeff Bridges, you already know my feelings about the MCU's so-called "villain problem." I won't say that all their villains are perfect, but most of them, Bridges, in particular, are criminally overlooked. Bridges provides an unprecedented amount of depth to the themes and overall story of the film. His character's fight with Tony in the climax is more than just glorious eye-candy. It's completing one of the deeper themes the movie was setting up throughout the film.
The origin story is well-trod ground these days, but "Iron Man" was and still is one of the prime examples of how to do a proper origin story in a superhero film. Favreau's bold choices for the characters helped create one inspiring story about one man overcoming his inner demons to become a selfless and thoughtful beacon of hope to all. It's made better with the assist of eye-popping action set pieces that don't interrupt the story at hand. The filmmakers keep it real with a potent mix of practical effects and CGI. While Ramin Djawadi's score is one of the greats within superhero films, it does add excitement and heart to a film that's already exciting and heartwarming.
I actually love "Iron Man" more than some of the films that will follow it on this list. The only reason why it's not higher is that it's not the most groundbreaking. I do believe that four other superhero films made more of an impact on the genre. However, I'll be darned if I say that spawning the most beloved superhero franchise, as well as the most financially successful franchise, doesn't count for something.
Here more thoughts on Iron Man here
4. Wonder Woman
In my personal list of my five favorite superhero films, "Wonder Woman" might not crack it, but if I'm listing what the five groundbreaking superhero films are, this film definitely deserves a spot.
Let's start with the evident impact the film left on the rest of the genre: the proof that female-led superhero films could be successful. We've had female-led superhero films before. Granted, there aren't as many female-led superhero films as there are male-led ones, though. However, when filmmakers chose to put female characters like Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra on the big screen, the results were disastrous, making the idea of a female-led superhero film that was actually good unbelievable.
Beyond that, Wonder Woman, as a character, has been counted among DC's biggest heroes for decades, along with Batman and Superman. Unlike those two heroes who seemed to receive multiple big screen incarnations, Wonder Woman didn't even get a single theatrical outing. The character did have several TV shows and appeared in many animated, direct-to-DVD movies, but a live-action, theatrical film always remained a stranger to her. That is until DC started its own cinematic universe and committed to making a Wonder Woman film. Gal Gadot was cast and she made her big debut in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." That film had a polarized reception, yet it was unanimous that Wonder Woman was one of the best things about it. So next year, when "Wonder Woman" hit, people went wild.
Suddenly, DC, who had struggled to produce a well-received film since the Christopher Nolan era, found itself back in the superhero game. Patty Jenkins created a female-led superhero film that appealed to everyone. Not just fans of the character or female audiences exclusively, but everyone. The film contained terrific acting from its talented cast, exhilarating action scenes, and a memorable score. Most importantly, it had a hero with a perspective not seen in any other superhero film.
You see, when superheroes started, they were seen as icons that inspired everyone who looked up to them. They performed righteous acts because it was the right thing. Soon, that wasn't enough for people. Because of that, superheroes took on a more personal route, transforming themselves into flawed revolutionaries than pitch-perfect leaders. In actuality, it was the right move. People who read and watched the stories being told started to relate to their heroes more. Superheroes were full of angst and felt more human than ever before. When Wonder Woman stepped into No Man's Land in the most famous scene of this movie, something rather fascinating was being done. She wasn't someone who had a tragic backstory, which would make her feel compelled to do it. The only reason she stepped into the line of fire, was so that she could help people, and it's not her powers that made her want to, it was just who she was. This is a type of hero we haven't seen much of. Don't get me wrong, we needed the more personal angle of our heroes. We still do. Despite that, we often forget that we also need the type of hero that "Wonder Woman" gave us: a warrior who walks onto the battlefield because it's the best he or she can do. We've seen some of this material before, but never to this degree.
Now recently, I've seen many individuals turn their back on "Wonder Woman." Many of them have denied the film's highest praises and instead, have deemed it overrated or too new to be counted among the very best superhero films. Though I still take issue with the CGI as well as the more familiar plot choices, Patty Jenkins and company made a film that deserves respect and one that is unquestionably groundbreaking.
Here more thought on Wonder Woman here
3. Black Panther
The same way that "Wonder Woman" proved that female-led superhero films could be wildly entertaining, "Black Panther" proved that a superhero film with such a diverse cast could translate to everybody loving it. Similar to female-led superhero films, there have been many superhero films with diverse leads. The only disappointing fact is that none of them are good. As previously stated, Marvel Studios had been no stranger to risk-taking, but this was one of their biggest in recent years.
With so much going against it, "Black Panther" succeeded, proving that superhero films with diverse leads could not only be financially-profitable, but insanely-profitable. Minus the two "Avengers" films, "Black Panther" exceeded the box office totals of all the MCU films. Sure, "Avengers: Infinity War" followed "Black Panther" and exceeded all the other eighteen, but one could argue that Black Panther's inclusion in "Infinity War," helped boost it to the two-billion-dollar club. On its own, "Black Panther" is still one of the biggest domestic earners of all time, making it one of the few instances where foreign audiences don't almost entirely power a film to box office heaven.
More than making bank and increasing the likelihood for more diverse superhero films, "Black Panther" is groundbreaking because it blurred to the line between fiction and reality, which is rare for the MCU. Other than the Captain America films, "The Winter Soldier" and "Civil War," "Black Panther" had a world that felt real, a world that felt like it could exist today, perhaps more so than those two aforementioned films. It layers in the history of race-relations without being over-bearing. Add to it themes like family bonds and a clear presence of culture, and you have a superhero film like no other.
The characters, some of them at least, are rich and full of personality and emotion. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordon are the prime examples and their performances are truly remarkable. The script allows the two men to have quite the moral debate, one that manages to be more engaging than the physical fight that they have on the screen. For all the villains that Marvel Studios supposedly screw up, Michael B. Jordon's N'Jadaka/Erik "Killmonger" Stevens is one for the superhero film villain history books.
I haven't seen a superhero film get so much of an Academy Awards to push since a "The Dark Knight." Even if it doesn't get major nods, "Black Panther" still has got it all. It's received acclaim from critics, adoration from several fans, and a mountain of well-deserved cash. For this film, it couldn't have been more groundbreaking.
Here more thoughts on Black Panther here
2. Batman Begins
Batman is arguably the most popular and well-known superhero out there. He's had several iterations on the big screen as he has on the page. On the page and screen, the character has endured the good times along with the bad times. After "Batman Forever" and especially "Batman & Robin" though, the character's esteem was at an all-time low. When it came to big-screen adaptations, nobody was willing to make another Batman film. Sure, Warner Brothers tried to, but all failed to come to fruition, which was for the best because if I had to see Nicholas Cage as the Scarecrow, I wouldn't have been able to keep myself from laughing throughout the film's entire runtime. It wasn't until Christopher Nolan was offered the directing job that another Batman film started to see the light of day.
With only three pictures that performed modestly, the director was a relative unknown and quite unfamiliar with Batman, though he did love the character. Due to this, he hired David S. Goyer, a die-hard Batman fan, to help him write the screenplay for what would become "Batman Begins." The screenplay is one of my favorite things about this film. Nolan and Goyer's goal for this take on Batman was to create a grounded world, not unlike our own. They took time to explain the elements key to the Batman character, which does lead to some exposition, but exposition that carries interest. Whenever I watch this film, I'll always be fascinated with the history given to the Batmobile (called the Tumbler in this iteration), the Batcave, and how Bruce Wayne gets the materials to make his Batman suit. The duo clearly went the extra mile, even going as far as to make a detailed origin story of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
I mentioned earlier how "Iron Man" is one perfect example of how to do a superhero origin story. Well, "Batman Begins" is THE perfect example of how to do a superhero origin story. Every time I decide to watch this film, I immediately get sucked into it. I'll get about ten minutes into it, pause it, and realize that it's only been ten minutes, yet so much has happened already. So much happens in "Begins" and it still has a nimble pace, which it maintains throughout without fail. Bruce Wayne's origin story in this film is the definitive origin story. Prior to its release, his origin had been touched on, but not to this degree. "Begins" creates its own mythos, relying on the comics only for reference points. It manages to all manifest itself as a wholly original affair, able to connect with comic book fans and general moviegoers.
Christian Bale is the best Bruce Wayne/Batman. The other actors that have played the character over the years have either had the ability to do one side of the character, or none at all if you're Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Bale is the complete package. He perfectly embodies all the three sides of the character: the billionaire playboy, the sentimental and wounded individual, and the rage-filled creature of the night. Each of them are completely different from one another, only connected by Bale's touch that he provides as an actor. Everything that he does in this role separates this interpretation from the previous ones and works a hundred percent. Yes, even the voice. I still don't understand the endless amount of ridicule that some people seem to give Batman's voice. For me, it's a major part of what makes this Batman far better than any other Batman out there. This is the only time where I actually believed that Batman isn't Bruce Wayne dressing up in a Batman costume.
Nolan's first Batman film created the best interpretations of beloved supporting characters in the Batman world. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman are the best versions of their characters. What makes these interpretations the best is how they are portrayed in contrast to the other iterations. Gordon, Alfred, and Fox have had minor parts in other Batman material. Their involvement in this trilogy remains the only time where they have had a lot of depth to them, which enabled Oldman, Caine, and Freeman to show their incredible range as actors. Rachael Dawes was a character created exclusively for this trilogy. While Maggie Gyllenhaal proved to be an adequate replacement, I wish Katie Holmes returned for the sequel. Her acting abilities in this film allow the relationship between Bruce and Rachael to seem more believable. I bought the romance more because Holmes allowed Rachael to feel more in-love with Bruce, but also strong-willed at the same time. With Gyllenhaal, every time I saw Bruce and Rachael together, she felt distant. Her words indicated that she wanted to have a real relationship with Bruce, but her expressions and body language indicated otherwise.
The villains, Ra's al Ghul, and Scarecrow were the perfect villains for this first installment. Everyone goes on and on about how Heath Ledger's Joker was light-years ahead of any other superhero film villain, and while I somewhat agree with that overview, Ra's and Scarecrow are just as good in my opinion. I mean, who can forget Scarecrow's introduction, because I certainly can't? I remember watching the "Would you like to see my mask?" scene for the first time and being terrified of the villain. As for Ra's, he is one of those villains who you just simply look at, and instinctively decide that you do not want to interact with him. In the end, both were incredible villains for this origin story.
I've gone on and on about "Batman Begins," so let me briefly go over the technical aspects of the film. The practical effects lessened the need for CGI. What CGI there is, you can tell it's there, but it doesn't take you out of the film. People have a problem with the shaky-cam approach for the action sequences, and while it clearly works in some areas, they didn't need to have that mentality for the whole of the film. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard created the best score of any superhero film. Listen to the Superhero MovieCast episode titled "Our Favorite Superhero Movie Scores" for more details. I was a guest on that episode.
If there is any reason as to why Batman is as prevalent as he is today, it is because of "Batman Begins" which rescued the character after the unbelievably damaging sins of the past. If that's not reason enough to give this film the second spot on this list, read this entire segment once again.
1. Superman (1978)
Technically, "Superman" wasn't the first superhero movie, but it definitely is the one that started the trend of making more and more of them, a trend that's continued to live on for almost forty years. Would we have superhero films if this movie weren't made? While I wouldn't say that we wouldn't have superhero films if this weren't made, I think that we would have superhero films if this weren't made, just not ones with a high standard as the one that "Superman" set.
It is actually hard to believe that in the beginning, this was a troubled production. Getting the rights to produce this film is a whole, another story itself. Then you get to the part where they had to hire someone to write the script. William Goldman, of "Princess Bride" fame, was approached to write "Superman," but also Leigh Brackett, who later wrote "The Empire Strikes Back," was also considered. Ilya Salkind, who bought film rights for Superman from DC Comics, initially hired Alfred Bester to write a script, until lily Salkind's father, Alexander Salkind, decided Bester was not that well-known. Paid to write the script for $600,000, Mario Puzo, who wrote both the novel "The Godfather" and helped to adapt his book to the silver screen, ended up writing the script for "Superman."
It was just as tricky trying to assemble a cast as it was trying to get a writer. While most actors who were approached turned the film down, Marlin Brando did not. He was the first actor to sign on to the film. As we already know, he played Jor-El, but during production, Brando had the intention of dramatically changing the part. Through persuasion from director Richard Donner, Brando kept the part as originally set for him, though requesting a hefty sum of the film's profits. It didn't matter in the long term because mere days after Marlin Brando signed on to the film, Gene Hackman agreed to play Lex Luthor, and everything was relatively well from then on.
Christopher Reeve is still Superman to many people. Those of you that have read my piece on the DCEU know that Henry Cavil is my personal favorite Superman, but whenever I picture the character himself, Christopher Reeve wearing the red, blue, and yellow suit is the first thing that comes to my mind. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. In fact, for many, Christopher Reeve is the most iconic superhero portrayal ever. That's quite a title; especially for an actor that was hired for this very part because he was not that famous. Reeve's interpretation of Clark Kent/Superman practically invented a character that would later be redone by other actors who later portrayed superheroes imitated to great success. That is, the nerdy and timid underling secretly being a powerful and inspirational hero for all type of superhero.
Now, pair that guy with a critical and astute journalist named Lois Lane, and you have one of the greatest romances in film, not just superhero film. Margot Kidder was perfect for the role of Lois Lane. Many actresses have later been cast in the part, but no one will be able to do what she did. Kidder portrayed a Lois full of spunk, sass, and managed to be relatable, despite her character flaws like not knowing how to spell well or the fact that her co-worker/admirer is secretly an alien from another planet.
There are a few problems with the plot, but they mainly are nitpicks. They do not have an effect on how I see this film. "Superman" has everything a superhero film fan could possibly want. It features a conniving villain, an easily-recognizable score, and special effects that make you believe a man could fly. This may not be superhero filmmaking at its best, but it is a superhero film that is the epitome of groundbreaking.
Here more thoughts on Superman here
That concludes my list of "The Five Groundbreaking Superhero Films." I appreciate you taking the time to read this article. I am curious to hear what you think. What do you consider to be the five groundbreaking superhero films? What did you think of my list? I'd be happy to hear from you. You can contact me from the comment section or on Instagram (@dallinthefilmfanatic) and Twitter (@DThefilmfanatic). You can also find more of my reviews and articles at dallinthefilmfanatic.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading, I'm Dallin, the Film Fanatic, and until next time, bye-bye.