From the earliest animated efforts to the modern, big budget, special effects-driven blockbusters, comic characters have always been an important part of cinema history. What was once exclusively kid’s stuff, though, now seems to hold the key to box office success.
The Early Years
Although they are not actual films based on comic properties, early animation is considered to be a cornerstone of both early film and the future of animated features. One of the first attempts at bringing illustrations to life in motion pictures came in the form of Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914.
Most famous for his work as a creator and illustrator on such numerous long-lived comic strips as Tales of the Jungle Imp by Felix Fiddle, Little Sammy Sneeze, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, A Pilgrim’s Progress, Little Nemo in Slumberland and Poor Jake, McCay’s groundbreaking animation of Gertie is noted by many historians of film to be the first animated film to star a character that displayed a unique personality, which was not matched again until the Disney films of the 1930s.
Following the success of Gertie the Dinosaur, McCay created a film titled The Sinking of the Lusitania, which told the story of the attack on the British maritime ship and was designed to inspire America to join World War I.
Toward the end of the decade, Walt Disney, a man whose name has become synonymous with the animated feature film, created a character for Universal Pictures which skyrocketed to instant success. Oswald the Rabbit (sometimes Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) appeared in Trolley Troubles, the first of 26 Oswald cartoons supervised by Disney and released in 1927-1928. Conflicts over the ownership of the character led to Disney’s departure and his creation of Mickey Mouse.
The Movie Serials
One of the earliest forays into adapting comic books, comic strip and pulp magazine characters to the silver screen came in the form of movie serials, short films shown in chapters generally appearing before or after the main features at local cinemas. Usually told in 12 to 15 installments, theaters would most often show a new chapter each week. The action almost always ended in a cliffhanger except for the final chapter. Interested audiences – generally kids – would then have to return the next week to find out if the hero or heroine would escape to fight another day.
Many different genres including westerns, science fiction and action-adventure were represented, but superheroes in particular serials offered the first chance for live interpretations of leading characters. Studios such as Columbia, Republic and Universal all produced movie serials as early as 1912, but popularity soared to amazing heights when they began to utilize comic characters.
Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Blackhawk, Congo Bill, Captain America, Brick Bradford, Spy Smasher, The Green Hornet, Dick Tracy and others leaped into live-action adventures, as did Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and The Spider. Terry and the Pirates, Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom and Brenda Starr, Reporter also took their bows on the silver screen.
Some of the most celebrated comic character serials of this era, noted as the Golden Age of Serials, included Flash Gordon (1936), Dick Tracy (1937), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), The Lone Ranger (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), Mandrake the Magician (1939), The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), The Green Hornet (1940), The Shadow (1940), Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Batman (1943), The Phantom (1943), Captain America (1944), Zorro’s Black Whip (1944), Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950).
Animated shorts and features also grew during this period, with Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons leading the way. They, like their live action counterparts, were considered children’s fare.
By the mid- to late-1950s, most studios had halted their production of movie serials to focus on bigger budget films. Audiences began to get their short stories fill from television and expected more when they left the house for movie theaters. This early era which brought the beloved characters from the four-color page to the big screen had ended, only to be revived decades later in a renaissance of creativity and revisited with the advent of DVD technology.
The Small Screen
When discussing the place of comics on the big screen, it’s hard to ignore the role of the small screen in their development. Television became a haven for superheroes in the 1950s. The Adventures of Superman ran from 1952 through 1958 with George Reeves as Clark Kent/Superman, Phyllis Coates (Season 1) and original film “Lois” Noel Neill (Seasons 2-6) as Lois Lane, Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, and John Hamilton as Perry White. While there were some lighthearted moments, the action was played serious.
Not so for Batman, which ran from 1966 to 1969 and inspired a short-lived but widely noted Bat-craze. The show starred Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, Alan Napier as Alfred Pennyworth, and Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon. Superstar guests villains included Cesar Romero as The Joker, Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman, among many others. The series also spawned a feature film in 1966.
Wonder Woman appeared as a pilot film which aired on ABC in 1974 and starred Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Another, more faithful take, launched in 1976 with The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (called The New Original Wonder Woman in its first season). It starred Lynda Carter as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman and Lyle Waggoner is Steve Trevor. It ran for 55 episodes from 1976-1979.
Spider-Man came to live-action TV in 1977 in The Amazing Spider-Man, a one-hour, made-for-television movie starring Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Thirteen episodes followed, but the show was soon cancelled.
The Incredible Hulk debuted as a pilot film in 1978 and a series quickly followed. The show starred Bill Bixby as David Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk, transforming the tale of the title character into a version of The Fugitive. The show ran for four seasons and spawned three made-for-television movies.
There were other attempts at live action (including two Captain America tele-films and a Doctor Strange pilot), but other than these notable shows, success was largely confined to the world of animation.
The Justice League of America appeared on The Superfriends. Aquaman, Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Iron Man and others were featured on cartoons for years with varying degrees of success. Superman and Batman particularly had a healthy number of long runs in animated form. Still, Hollywood craves the splash of the feature film.
Return to the Big Screen
While the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s offered superheroes on television, it wasn’t until Superman returned to the movie theaters in 1978 with Superman: The Movie that the genre began to enjoy the type of box office success now expected of it. The film starred Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Marlon Brando as Jor-El.
The film told the origin story of the last son of Krypton, his arrival on Earth, his upbringing in Kansas, and arrival on the scene in Metropolis. It brought a modern take to the character, which was then 40 years old. With the tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” filmmakers used then-cutting-edge special effects to make that belief possible.
Warner Brothers had from the beginning seen the potential for Superman to be a film franchise. As producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had done with their earlier Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers, they filmed a substantial amount of the sequel during production of the first film. However, tensions lead to Donner being replaced by director Richard Lester, and much of Superman II was re-shot (in 2006, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut was released and offered the film much as Donner had intended). Regardless of the intrigue, it was another hit.
Further films in the series, Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, are generally considered to have lost their way. It would be 20 years before Superman Returns was made as an unofficial sequel to the first two, dismissing them.
Warner Brothers was not without its superhero hits, though. Tim Burton directed Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).
Batman starred Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker. Batman Returns saw Keaton return with Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin. Both did big business, but Burton did not return for the next sequel, Batman Forever (1995).
Director Joel Schumacher’s film included Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson/Robin, Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and Jim Carrey as Edward Nygma/The Riddler.
Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997) with Batman again re-cast, this time with George Clooney, also featured Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, and the returning O’Donnell was generally viewed as a franchise-killer and kept the Caped Crusader off the big screen until Batman Begins revived things in 2005.
During the early days of this period, Marvel’s luck with feature films wasn’t that great. In fact, it was just about all bad.
New World Entertainment released The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren in 1989. It went nowhere. Next up was Captain America (1990), which mercifully never made it to theaters. It featured the Red Skull as an Italian instead of a German, and starred Matt Salinger, son of author J.D Salinger, as Steve Rogers/Captain America. It eventually escaped on video.
The Fantastic Four (1994) was their next film that wasn’t. According to several different sources, apparently the film was never intended for release and was just being made to keep the film rights secured for its studio. It was never released theatrically.
Stepping outside the realm of DC Comics and Marvel Comics characters, other comic book characters began to see screen time, including: Dick Tracy (1990) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), which was part of a huge franchise including comic books, collected editions, cartoons, action figures and more.
Walt Disney Pictures released The Rocketeer in 1991. The character has first appeared on the comic scene as a back-up story in 1982’s Starslayer #2 from Pacific Comics and was a tribute to the pulp adventure characters of the 1930s and ’40s. It starred Bill Campbell as Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer, Jennifer Connelly as his love interest, Jenny Blake (based on real life pin-up queen Bettie Page in the comic book version), and Timothy Dalton as the actor/Nazi spy, Neville Sinclair. It was a modest success at the time and was issued last year on a 20th anniversary Blu-ray disc.
Other comic book films included such hits and misses as The Crow (1994), The Shadow (1994), The Mask (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), Tank Girl (1995), The Phantom (1996), and Barb Wire (1996).
In 1998, Marvel’s first box office hit came from a property that few in the general public knew was based on a comic book. New Line released Blade, with a vampire hunting title character spun out of the pages of Tomb of Dracula and played by Wesley Snipes. Two sequels and a short-lived TV series would eventually follow.
Twentieth Century Fox released the first X-Men movie in 2000. Directed by Bryan Singer, it starred Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Sir Ian McKellan as Magneto, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Famke Jannsen as Jean Grey, James Marsden at Cyclops, and HalleBerry as Storm. Its theatrical release brought in almost $300 million world wide and it spawned four sequels, X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and X-Men: First Class (2011). Wolverine will return in a sequel and a First Class sequel is also in the works.
While the X-Men films were significant successes, Marvel’s partnership with Sony/Columbia for Spider-Man was the lynchpin in the company’s own Hollywood dreams. Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first film of which Marvel owned a sizable chunk. Starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, James Franco as Harry Osborn, Rosemary Harris as May Parker, J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, Cliff Robertson as Ben Parker, William Dafoe as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, its $114,844,116 opening weekend in the U.S. and $821,708,551 world wide box office (both according to BoxOfficeMojo.com) were record-breakers and dominated theaters in 2002, as did its sequels in 2004 and 2007.
Not all of Marvel’s characters have successfully made the transition from comic to film. In 2003, Marvel Studios released Daredevil, which starred Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jennifer Garner as Elektra Natchios, Colin Farrell as Bullseye and Michael Clark Duncan as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk. Its totals were respectable, but its instant sequel, Elektra, bombed. That same year, director Ang Lee’s Hulk met with poor reviews from fans and critics alike. Despite underperforming, it did well enough to entice Marvel to try again in just five years.
It was also becoming clear that the term “comic book movie” didn’t have to equate to “superhero movie” all of the time.
From Hell, written in comic book form by Alan Moore, was released by 20th Century Fox in 2001. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the comic book series from DC’s America’s Best Comics (ABC) imprint and Moore, was released by Fox in 2003. The author’s V For Vendetta was released by Warner Brothers in 2005 and his Watchmen was released in 2009, all without his involvement.
Other notable comic films, ranging from modest indy films to big budget spectaculars, and representing publishers including Dark Horse Comics, IDW Publishing, and Fantagraphics, include Ghost World (2001), American Splendor (2003), Bulletproof Monk (2003), Hellboy (2004), Sin City (2005), Art School Confidential (2006), 30 Days of Night (2007), 300 (2007), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).
While Marvel experienced its share of successes, Warner Brothers had problems getting either of its Superman or Batman franchises up and running again, at least as far as films went (television was another matter, with a seemingly uninterrupted string of successful Batman cartoons and the long-running, live action Smallville going strong). The release of Catwoman in 2004 did little to help this image.
It is not, however, that other DC properties weren’t making the grade. In addition to the aforementioned V For Vendetta and Watchmen, critical and financial successes were enjoyed by adaptations of Road to Perdition (2002), A History of Violence (2005) and Constantine (2005).
Proving how it’s sometimes not very far from worst to first, Batman Begins in 2005 put the Bat-franchise back in high gear. Director Christopher Nolan cast Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. He took this serious cast, treated the material seriously, and struck paydirt.
Superman Returns, with director Bryan Singer moving over from the X-Men franchise in 2006, brought back the feel of the earlier Richard Donner efforts. He cast Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor. Though it was not the success the studio hoped for, it is a film that seems to stand up pretty well over time.
The Dark Knight, the 2008 sequel to Batman Begins, returned director Nolan and the key players from the 2005 cast and added a critically praised (and sadly final) performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker. Almost nothing could have prepared audiences or theater owners for the results. With U.S. and international box office totals that surpassed $1 billion, The Dark Knight quickly became not only the most successful superhero film ever, but the second highest grossing film in American box office history.
This summer's The Dark Knight Rises, which adds Catwoman and the villain Bane to the mix, will be Nolan's last Batman film, but he is also playing godfather to The Man of Steel, Warner Bros.' reboot of the Superman franchise, due out next year.
While Marvel certainly couldn’t match the frenetic enthusiasm fans held for The Dark Knight in 2008, they reached a milestone as they released their first two self-financed films. Jon Favreau had portrayed Foggy Nelson in Daredevil, but now he might be best known as the director of Iron Man, which was a smash hit. Favreau also directed the sequel.
Robert Downey, Jr., who played Tony Stark/Iron Man, also made a cameo in character in their second film of the year, director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, which starred Edward Norton. In addition to the financial success, it is important to note that beginning with Iron Man and continuing through Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the Marvel films were clearly building a universe, just as early Marvel had in comic books. The blockbuster success of Marvel's The Avengers owes a great deal to this approach, as well as to the ability of director Joss Whedon to balance the established characters and keep them in tune with what viewers had seen in their individual movies while making them mesh together as an on-screen team.
As long as the successes continue, there are more movies to come. Comic characters have had a rich and long lasting journey from the four-color page to the silver screen. From movie serials to summer blockbusters, these characters and their stories have provided years of entertainment for fans of all ages. The future looks bright for comic book fans as more and more properties are optioned by movie studios and even brighter for these characters that will never fade to black, even after the credits roll.