Superheroes fly in to save the day for studios
The blockbuster season is almost upon us, and as you look down the summer release list the thing that strikes you is the preponderence of superhero films. In 2011 we will be confronted with at least five big-budget superhero yarns laden with the kind of fancy effects and spectacular action sequences we've come to expect as the norm.
The fun begins later this month with Thor, a Kenneth Branagh film based on a classic Marvel comic about a Norse god who falls to earth.
In May, Kerry's own Michael Fassbender will star in X-Men: First Class, the fifth film in a surprisingly profitable franchise that, to date, has made over $1.5bn (€1.06bn).
Green Lantern, which comes out in mid-June, could be one of the biggest films of the summer: at least that's what Warner Brothers will be hoping, because they've invested $150m in it. Ryan Reynolds stars as an air force pilot who joins an elite force of intergalactic peacekeepers.
Green Lantern's big rival could be Captain America: The First Avenger. That film, which stars Chris Evans and is based (yet again) on a Marvel comic, also boasts a massive budget ($140m) and is out in late July. And in August, beefy Hawaiian model Jason Momoa stars in a remake of Conan the Barbarian.
While the appeal of these films might elude some of you, the studios love them, for the following reasons. First, they're almost always based on popular comic books, which gives them that vital audience recognition factor that makes the films less of a financial risk.
Secondly, their subject matter has instant caché with teenage boys, who go to the movies more often than anyone else. And if you get a superhero film right, you could end up with a multimillion-dollar franchise on your hands.
Although they have their origins in the classic comic and radio serials of the 1930s, superhero movies are a relatively recent phenomenon. For years the primitive state of film special effects made them too difficult and expensive to contemplate, and the genre didn't really establish itself until the late 1970s.
Superheroes first appeared on American movie screens during World War Two, when the practice of showing cliffhanger serial dramas on Saturday matinee screens was at its height. Batman, Captain America and Superman all appeared in Saturday morning serials, but they were B-movie affairs aimed exclusively at a target audience of undiscerning small boys.
The first full-length superhero movie was the original Batman, in 1966, but it bore little relation to the grandly gothic Batman films that would follow it. Shot in five weeks on a tight budget, the movie was mainly intended to promote the Batman TV series which had just started. Adam West played the caped crusader in a camp parody with a knowingly silly storyline.
It was Richard Donner who first demonstrated the commercial potential of the genre. His Superman (1978) was a landmark film in many respects, and spawned a hugely successful franchise. The idea of a Superman film had been batted around for years before Donner got involved: actors as ridiculously inappropriate as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman had been suggested for the lead role, but Donner decided that unknown newcomer Christopher Reeve was right for the part.
In a time before CGI, tremendous ingenuity was needed in the creation of special effects. Early bluescreen techniques were used for some of the film's famous flying sequences, but so were crash-test dummies shot from cannons, and huge scale models of the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were built for the spectacular earthquake scenes. Crucially, Donner's film had a sense of humour too, and most of the jokes came from Gene Hackman's magnificently deranged Lex Luthor, who became a prototype for the screen super-villain.
Superman spawned three sequels and made over $300m at the box office, but its success did not inspire a rash of imitations. Its huge budget put other studios off similar projects, and the few superhero films that did appear during the 1980s were ropey, B-movies, like the original Conan the Barbarian (1982). In fact the first worthy rival to Donner's Superman didn't emerge until 1989, when Tim Burton released Batman.
Drawing heavily on the Dark Knight graphic novels that had re-imagined Batman as a slightly deranged vigilante, Burton designed his film in a typically gothic style, and attracted a great deal of flack for casting Michael Keaton, a man then mainly known for wacky comedy, in the lead role. Keaton turned out to be very good as Batman, but was totally upstaged by Jack Nicholson's gleefully demented Joker. The film made over $400m worldwide.
Though the Batman franchise was almost fatally damaged by a series of dodgy sequels, Burton's film led to a rise of interest in superhero films that reached its zenith at the end of the 1990s.
Bryan Singer's X-Men was a surprise hit in 2000, and spawned a hugely successful franchise that's still going strong. The Spider-Man franchise made almost a billion dollars with its first film alone -- a Spider-Man reboot is currently in production, and will be released next year.
The massive success of X-Men and Spider-Man inspired a host of imitations, and the back catalogues of DC Comics and Marvel were plundered in search of new screen heroes. The Hulk, Catwoman, Hellboy, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four have all appeared in summer blockbusters, with mixed results, and as we've seen the superhero craze shows no sign of abating.
There's a new Superman film in the works, directed by Zach Snyder and due for a 2012 release. More excitingly, Christopher Nolan is planning a final instalment in his Batman series. Nolan's The Dark Knight, which was released in 2008, represents the high point thus far of a genre that tends to miss the mark more often than it hits it.
Christian Bale played Batman, and Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his genuinely disturbing portrayal of the Joker. But more importantly, The Dark Knight was a visually stunning film that looked as good as anything released that year, and showed the true potential of the superhero movie.
I'll be amazed if any of this summer's releases are half as good as it was.