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Superhero movies: 30 defining moments

From camp crusaders to buffed-up blockbusters, superhero movies have come a long way in the last century. Here’s our look at the films that sent shares in Lycra sky-rocketing

Superheroes. They can fly, outrun bullets and shatter global box-office records – and they’ve been around longer than you might think. As Marvel movies titans the Avengers once again sit on top of the box-office charts, slinging popcorn down at all challengers, we look at a movie genre that has gone from kiddie footnote to mainstream phenomenon via animated smashes, Bollywood classics and a significant number of terrible costumes, and chart how it rose to its current heights.

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1920: ‘The Mark of Zorro’
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1920: ‘The Mark of Zorro’

Arguably the first superhero movie, this silent film launched leading man Douglas Fairbanks on a new phase of his career as a romantic hero and swashbuckler. Like a proto-Batman, Zorro dons a half-mask and plenty of black to fight corruption in his home town, while maintaining a cover identity as a rich and feckless playboy. Unlike the Caped Crusader, who requires a utility belt and half a police station’s worth of Kevlar before leaving the mansion, Zorro manages it all with a few yards of black silk and a fancy bit of sword play. Score one to the fox.

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1930-1941: the superhero is born
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1930-1941: the superhero is born

There are no superhero movies without superheroes. Arguably the first super-hero was Ōgon Bat, a Japanese character with a golden skull for a head and Superman-like powers, who first appeared in comic form in 1930. Sadly, the whole skull-for-a-head thing didn’t take off in the rest of the world.

In the US, the comic-book superhero emerged in 1928 when Superman appeared, followed by Batman in 1939. Captain America then debuted in March 1941 and Wonder Woman that December. Still known as the Golden Age, this era gave us those giants – but many of the current screen favourites actually date back to the 1960s Silver Age (including X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk and Iron Man).

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1940-1951: the age of the serials
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1940-1951: the age of the serials

Marvel wasn’t the first to serialise their characters’ adventures across multiple screen outings. In 1940 pulp-fiction hero The Shadow started a fashion for 15-part, black-and-white serial stories that were screened at movie matinees. These films sometimes introduced new elements that became canon: the Batcave, for example, derived from 1943’s ‘Batman’ serial.

They haven’t all aged brilliantly, however. Their heroes were pudgy by modern standards, and there are frequent incidents of racism and sexism. Also, despite having a huge budget for its time and impressive effects, 1944’s ‘Captain America’ serial saw a super-villain attempting to acquire a ‘dynamic vibrator’, which is… unfortunate.

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1966: ‘Batman: The Movie’
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1966: ‘Batman: The Movie’

Superheroes had been absent from the big screen for over a decade when the small-screen success of Adam West’s Batman brought them briefly back. This 1966 film, starring West, saw the Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman all team up against the Dynamic Duo, prompting the deployment of Bat-Shark Repellent and an elaborate process to turn fiendishly created dust back into members of the United World Organisation’s Security Council. It’s silly, fun and filled with more POWs and WHAMs than you can shake the Riddler’s stick at. Holy superlatives, Batman!

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1978: ‘Superman: The Movie’
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1978: ‘Superman: The Movie’

‘You’ll believe a man can fly!’ promised the posters – and for the first time, we did. In a post-‘Star Wars’ world, the effects had finally reached a level where they could match the comic book’s depiction of powers, and so Superman flew, and sped, and even turned the Earth backwards and reversed time (physicists should please ignore that bit). A perfectly cast Christopher Reeve gave heart to Superman and just the right amount of geeky charm to Clark Kent. Aided by a still-iconic John Williams score, it became the sixth-highest grossing film of all time and almost immediately spawned the even-better ‘Superman II’.

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1983: ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’
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1983: ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’

Objectively terrible but still held in immense affection in some quarters, this Australian flop should be on every superhero fan’s watch list. Just look at the cast! It stars Alan Arkin as the washed-up hero who has lost his powers (pre-dating ‘The Incredibles’ by a good couple of decades) and Christopher Lee as the super-villain who forces him back into action. Oh, and it’s a musical. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite, take a look at the trailer and please note that the late, great Terry Pratchett was a fan, so it must have some redeeming merit.

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1986: ‘Howard the Duck’
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1986: ‘Howard the Duck’

A film so bad it became a punchline, this George Lucas-produced effort is as big a stain on his resume as Jar-Jar Binks. Originally pitched as animation, what we got instead was a live-action effort with a dude (Ed Gale) in a duck suit as our hero, displaced from Duckworld and stranded in Cleveland, Ohio.

The tragedy is that the comics were some of the coolest and funniest around, but it’s hard to get anyone to believe that after they see this hot mess. Still, if you sat through the credits in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, you’ll know that Howard might one day return.

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1989: ‘Batman’
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1989: ‘Batman’

Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ first demonstrated the value of non-conventional casting, with comedian Michael Keaton establishing definitively that he is Batman (he remains secure in that knowledge). It also gave us Jack Nicholson as an effective and genuinely scary Joker, what with all the acid use and slow poisons. While they get a bad rap in this post-Christopher Nolan era, the two Burton films – the superior ‘Batman Returns’ followed in 1991 – deserve a reassessment: they’re moody but not morose, immensely stylish and close to their comic-book roots. Audiences agreed: this made $400 million worldwide.

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1990: ‘Darkman’
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1990: ‘Darkman’

There are people who will tell you that this is Sam Raimi’s best superhero film, ‘Spider-Man’ and its sequel notwithstanding, and they might be right. Long before ‘Taken’, Liam Neeson proved that he was at home with vengeance in this story of a scientist mutilated by mobsters. He returns with an artificial face that allows him to mimic others, and severed nerves that make him impervious to pain. The effects haven’t all aged brilliantly, but as a twisted take on heroes like The Shadow or Batman, this still stands up.

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1990: ‘Captain America’
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1990: ‘Captain America’

It may surprise you to learn that 2011’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was not, in fact, the first big-screen outing for this Avenger. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of low-budget, straight-to-video movies based on Marvel characters, including a Dolph Lundgren-starring ‘The Punisher’ and a 1994 ‘The Fantastic Four’ made for about 50p. This one has a little more to it, with RoboCop’s Ronny Cox as the US President that Matt Salinger’s Steve Rogers has to protect, but it neatly shows that, until recently, these characters weren’t exactly box-office behemoths. They were more video-rental runts.

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1995: ‘Judge Dredd’
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1995: ‘Judge Dredd’

Based on the great fascist hero of British comics house 2000AD, this offered an early example of How To Piss Off Your Hardcore Fans. The moment that Sylvester Stallone took off Dredd’s trademark helmet and showed his face, its reputation among geeks was doomed. Otherwise, it’s cartoonish and broad but not terrible: many of the basic ideas are taken from the comics, after all. Still, there’s no comparison to 2012’s far superior ‘Dredd’ if you’re after a gritty adaptation of the source material. In that, Karl Urban left his hat on.

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1998: ‘Blade’
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1998: ‘Blade’

This Wesley Snipes action hit is notable for two reasons. First of all, it was the first film licenced out by Marvel Studios, and therefore the great-great-grandfather of the studio’s current success. A big hit despite disastrous early test screenings, that’s partly thanks to Snipes’s moody hero and partly because of all those oh-so-’90s rave-loving vampires.

The second notable reason is, of course, the baffling but immortal line, ‘Some motherfuckers are always tryin’ to ice-skate uphill.’ Last we checked, no one in history had ever tried that, but we appreciate Blade’s verbal flair nevertheless.

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2000: ‘X-Men’
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2000: ‘X-Men’

Often hailed as the true start of the modern superhero era, this established a few counter-intuitive procedures for filmmakers to follow. There was, in Bryan Singer, a director with dramatic rather than action credentials. Then, Singer recruited a cast of serious actors, including Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, instead of choosing muscle-bound dudes or sports stars.

For the one muscleman he did need, he turned a star of musical theatre (Hugh Jackman) into the world’s angriest, hairiest mutant. Finally, Singer went heavier on the psychodrama than the action, keeping the costs down and the political analogies up. As was already traditional, his follow-up ‘X2’ was even better.

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2000: ‘Unbreakable’
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2000: ‘Unbreakable’

This M Night Shyamalan film is a superhero movie for people who don’t like superhero movies, a sneaky deconstruction of the typical origin story. It’s so stealthy it doesn’t even show its hand until the final ten minutes, when Samuel L Jackson’s fragile Elijah reveals that he engineered huge disasters to find Bruce Willis, the superhero he believed must exist to reflect his own weakness. Shyamalan’s best film, both cleverer and less twist-dependent than ‘The Sixth Sense’, if there were any justice more people would make effects-free superhero stories like this one, and then even snooty critics could admit to liking them.

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2002: ‘Spider-Man’
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2002: ‘Spider-Man’

If Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ suggested that comic-book movies could be big, ‘Spider-Man’ gave us an idea just how big. It was the first film ever to make $100 million in its opening weekend, benefiting from a welcome sense of brightness for a still-traumatised post-9/11 audience.

These days Tobey Maguire gets a bad rap, but at the time his bemused, gleeful Spider-Man was exactly the Cinderella story that the world needed. Still, Raimi hadn’t entirely abandoned his horror roots; this was the film that prompted a ratings controversy and a new 12A certificate.

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2004: ‘Catwoman’
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2004: ‘Catwoman’

You know why we have no Black Widow movie? Because ‘Catwoman’ sucked. In fairness, so did ‘Elektra’, released the following year, but ‘Catwoman’ was significantly worse. From the deconstructed costume to the lame plot, this doesn’t work on any level except high camp.

Halle Berry is gorgeous, obviously, but the movie gets so caught up watching her slink around and get high on catnip that it forgets to actually give her any purpose in life or any character. Sharon Stone’s baddie, meanwhile, works in cosmetics because, uh, women like make-up? The filmmakers seem to have given up and gone home early on in this process.

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2004: ‘The Incredibles’
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2004: ‘The Incredibles’

Watching superhero films, you probably find yourself wondering how they get away with causing so much damage to life and limb. With ‘The Incredibles’, Pixar and Brad Bird had the answer: they don’t. Instead, its superheroes get sent into witness protection, raising a super-family under cover of normality.

Madcap and heartfelt, this adventure is probably closest to ‘X-Men’ in its portrayal of mixed powers and family dynamics, but it also does what few other films dare and shows us where superheroes get those nifty and surprisingly durable costumes. Remember: no capes, daaaahlings.

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2005: ‘Batman Begins’
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2005: ‘Batman Begins’

Batman was finished. George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger had killed him stone-dead in 1997’s ‘Batman & Robin’. The solution was to completely restart the series, and hire a director, Christopher Nolan, who would give the film enough gravity to make us forget its predecessor and use great actors like Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson to seal the deal.

Yes, there’s still a dude who calls himself Batman, but he does it in such a growly voice that no-one dares laugh at him. Bale’s intense hero managed to make Batman cool again, helped by a car like a tank and absolutely, positively no nipples on the Batsuit.

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2006: ‘Krrish’
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2006: ‘Krrish’

‘Krrish’ was not the first Indian superhero film. There were a raft of 1980s ‘Superman’ copycats (one of which even used effects footage from Richard Donner’s film), and the film itself is a sequel to 2003’s ‘Koi... Mil Gaya’. However, the ‘Krrish’ series is approaching its fourth instalment this year, and is by far the biggest non-American superhero franchise.

Hrithik Roshan stars as the man who inherits superpowers from his father – who was granted them by an alien – and uses them to fight evil and rescue people from danger. Cue big effects and the familiar lengthy running times of Indian films.

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2008: ‘Iron Man’
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2008: ‘Iron Man’

As the first brick in what is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe, much depended on ‘Iron Man’. Luckily the gamble paid off. Robert Downey Jr proved to be spectacular casting in the title role, director Jon Favreau managed to make the origin story fresh by giving us a form of feckless genius we hadn’t seen before, and Downey’s bickering with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Paul Bettany’s Jarvis and a mute robot arm made people fall in love with the whole crazy lot of them. By the time the final action set-piece slightly underwhelmed everyone, we were already on board for Phase One, and not even 2008’s ‘The Incredible Hulk’ could derail the train.

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2008: ‘The Dark Knight’
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2008: ‘The Dark Knight’

The tragic death of Heath Ledger in post-production meant that curious gawkers turned out in droves to this sequel, driving it to over $1 billion worldwide. But it was his performance as The Joker that kept them rooted to their seats in stunned silence through the film, from the opening bank-heist throat-grabber to his final upside-down dangle from of a 30-storey tower block.

Often dubbed – not without cause – the best superhero film yet, this is so brimming with great characters – oh, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s boring Rachel Dawes – that you can almost overlook the plot holes (like why exactly does Gordon fake his own death?).

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2009: ‘Watchmen’
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2009: ‘Watchmen’

‘Watchmen’ is more notable for the book it’s adapted from than the film it became. The book is a classic; a look at what might happen if costumed vigilantes really roamed the streets, or if a true Superman appeared.

When Paul Greengrass’s mooted adaptation of the Alan Moore classic stalled in 2005 or so, Zack Snyder got his chance and the truth is, he didn’t do a bad job. But the film inevitably loses context and nuance, and events are speeded up so that a lot of its peculiar flavour is lost. You’re left with little more than an unusual action film where a bloke wears an ink-blot mask, another dresses as an owl and a third has a blue penis.

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2010: ‘Kick-Ass’
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2010: ‘Kick-Ass’

Alongside the family-friendly Marvel films of the last few years has been a more twisted series of comic-book films, mostly based on Mark Millar comics. There was ‘Wanted’, and recently ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’, but Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Kick-Ass’ perhaps best sums up the author’s willingness to poke holes in genres and stick a grenade in to see what happens.

This plays with the basic craziness of putting on a costume to fight criminals, but also offers us the always-amusing sight of a small girl (Chlöe Moretz) beating up grown men and swearing like a pro, all in fluorescent colours so the blood shows up better. Nutso, violent and highly entertaining.

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2011: ‘Thor’
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2011: ‘Thor’

Since ‘Batman Begins’, the emphasis in superhero filmmaking had been on realism, or at least ‘realism’. So how do you tackle a character like Thor, a godlike alien who wears a red cloak and swings a hammer?

Turns out the key was actor-turned-director Kenneth Branagh, who created a visually gorgeous sci-fi fantasy home for his hero, and then exiled him to Earth where everyone basically snickered at him. But Chris Hemsworth’s Thor took himself seriously, and gradually the enormous hunk won us all over to his point of view. With that piece in place, the way was open for Marvel to conquer space, which they soon set about doing…

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2011: ‘X-Men: First Class’
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2011: ‘X-Men: First Class’

The last ‘X-Men’ ensemble film, 2006’s ‘The Last Stand’, had stunned the franchise into silence after killing off several important characters and losing the goodwill of fans. ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ hadn’t quite connected either. Something needed to be done, and that something was an injection of ’60s spy-movie flair and a look at backstories we hadn’t seen before.

Weaving in the real history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and lots of groovy go-go boots, this tale of friendships torn apart and so-hot-right-now young stars reinvigorated the franchise and set the scene for last year’s barnstorming ‘Days of Future Past’ and the upcoming ‘Apocalypse’. As James McAvoy’s Professor X might say, a very groovy mutation indeed.

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2012: ‘Chronicle’
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2012: ‘Chronicle’

Who says you need £250 million to make a compelling superhero movie? ‘Chronicle’ managed it on a twentieth of that amount, using a found-footage approach to tell the story of three friends who discover a crashed meteor and develop superpowers. It helps that director Josh Trank had an eye for talent – in Dane DeHaan and Michael B Jordan he found a future Green Goblin and Human Torch – but this also felt like a genuinely fresh way of going about it, and a darker and more tragic approach than most. It’s amazing that more people aren’t making indie superhero films, James Gunn’s ‘Super’ (2010) aside.

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2012: ‘Avengers Assemble’
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2012: ‘Avengers Assemble’

This was, if you think about it, an experimental film. It assembled (sorry) the stars – including Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth – of four separate franchises into one film that could make or break any of them.

Written and directed by Joss Whedon, a geek god best known for cancelled TV shows, and boasting a little-known English dude (Tom Hiddleston) as its villain, on paper it was not a slam-dunk. But a $200 million opening weekend and $1.5 billion worldwide gross soon made it clear that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, emphatically declaring Marvel’s strategy a success and pushing all the MCU films that followed it to greater success than their predecessors.

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2012: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’
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2012: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’

How soon is too soon to reboot a franchise? Barely five years after the disappointing but not disastrous ‘Spider-Man 3’, the wall-crawler was back: fractionally younger and with a more complicated origin story that hinted at genetic manipulation, parental secrets and mechanical webslingers.

The resulting plot was so concerned with setting up the next three or four films that it sometimes forgot to make this one awesome. Happily, there was the killer combination of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone to hold our interest, a pairing as adorable as a basketful of puppies dressed as pandas.

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2013: ‘Man of Steel’
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2013: ‘Man of Steel’

This was a Superman film that felt like a Batman film – perhaps thanks to the involvement of Christopher Nolan as producer. Dark, gritty and as grounded as you can be when you feature Russell Crowe riding a dragon to work, this was a subdued Superman and not the big blue boy scout we’ve seen before.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the sequel mutated, within a couple of months, into ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (note who gets top billing) as Warner Bros and DC geared up their all-star challenge to the Avengers.

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2014: ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’
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2014: ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’

Everyone kept calling this Marvel’s big gamble, as if it’s somehow risky to build a film around a gun-toting racoon and a walking tree. The doubters needn’t have worried. Arguably the studio’s funniest film, this gave Hollywood a much-needed new male hero in the increasingly shapely shape of Chris Pratt, further established the outer space bits of the Marvel universe, and allowed Benicio del Toro to dress as a space Liberace. It also made nearly $800 million worldwide and became an instant favourite with kids. Your move, Ant-Man!

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