The Rise of the Superhero …film

With the release of Kick-Ass, Conor Barry takes a spandex-wearing trip down superhero memory lane

If the 2000s proved anything it’s that, in the hallowed words of Huey Lewis and the News, it’s hip to be square. Yes, the noughties (and it makes me literally vomit up my dignity to use that term) was very much the decade of the nerd – be it that computer games actually started to be taken seriously by mainstream press, the rise of the internet as a legitimate way to socialise, or that whole Judd Apatow revolution thing opening the floodgates for lovable nerd to fill our screens. But what started it all was Hollywood realising that superheroes were not something to be scoffed at; not something purely that gave geeks something to do on a Saturday night. No, superhero films meant money – a lot of money.

It all started with X-Men which, much to the surprise of those crazy Hollywood execs, was shockingly profitable. And why wouldn’t it be? It was cool, a little bit sexy, and it had frickin’ Patrick Stewart as Xavier. Also, Hugh Jackman was literally born and bred to play Wolverine, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if those claws are genuinely his own. Hollywood, though, still remained sceptical, curious to see how this whole superhero thing would pan out. Then came along Spiderman, a rip-roaring, web-slinging classic that cemented the genre as something real and not just a passing fad. Spiderman proved that superheroes were most definitely here to stay, and the world went superhero crazy with studios buying up the rights to every comic book imaginable.

Unfortunately, the whole idea of what made these films in any way successful seemed to get lost in the process. Simply walking into a comic book shop, picking a hero at random and throwing a couple million dollars at it does not equal a successful film, as many terrible examples have shown. Fantastic Four suffered a pretty abysmal transition, replacing all the main characters with unlikable pricks. Shoving Ben Affleck into the title role of Daredevil sounds like a nice idea for a parody, but unfortunately it was a sincere attempt. Then Fantastic Four raised its arrogant head once again, because apparently one adventure with this team of knobs wasn’t enough. But, in fairness, the Silver Surfer was kind of slick.

Also, nerds were getting a bit uppity about having their favourite superheroes literally raped (not literally) through their leap from page to screen. This was a new dilemma that Hollywood had never really encountered before: the fury of the nerds. They had to walk a tightrope of satisfying the die-hard fans while still making it appealing enough for people who had never heard or couldn’t care less about the likes of The Hulk. Watchmen, the holy grail of “mature” comic books – sorry, graphic novels – in particular was going to be destroyed by fans regardless of how good an adaptation it was. Similarly, each Spiderman, Iron Man, and X-Men film has been closely monitored by on overly dedicated following to make sure the filmmakers don’t mess with the minor details, such as the style of the heroes’ costumes, who is cast as the villain, and so on. This huge number of fan demands lead most adaptations to almost ignore them entirely and instead turned into crowd-pleasing mindless action blockbusters that made nerds cry.

Having said that, anyone who strayed from the whole “cool action bits with cheesy dialogue formula” was generally shunned as not getting the point of superhero films. For example Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis, was a fantastically interesting take on what it would be like to be a superhero in a realistic world and is rarely given much credit. Similarly, the original Hulk film had more emotions than explosions so failed to garner much critical acclaim. It wasn’t until Mr Nolan came along and showed everyone how it’s done with Batman Begins, followed by the undeniably spectacular Dark Knight, that people sat up and took notice. Superhero films were, and hopefully will be, taken seriously.

The whole thing seems to on track at this stage with the majority of superhero films actually being pretty damn good. The likes of Iron Man provide the perfect mix of action and Robert Downey Jr charm, the new Nolan Batman films giving a sort of legitimacy to the genre. The whole superhero thing is roaring on, looking like it’ll be here for a bit, with studios lining up all their franchises and slowly interlinking them with the hopes of cashing in on a huge collaborative film. Next in line are the likes of The Green Lantern, Green Hornet, Green Arrow (noticing a trend here, superheroes?) to mention a few. And now, with the release of Kick-Ass, superhero films have gotten all fancy and post-modern.

It looks like the superhero genre is going to be our generation’s Western – hugely popular for our time, but future generations will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. Except instead of cowboys we have flying robots and heroic spiders. Checkmate, Westerns.