In the modern era, two massive dueling empires plot their conquests decades in advance. Marvel and DC, the same titans that dominate the comic book industry hold their film adaptations in their hands. It’s been this way for so long that it’s hard to remember an earlier era, but it’s fun to look back and see the weird decisions creators made when they had a bit more freedom.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe properly began with the release of Iron Man in 2008. The DC Extended Universe began with Man of Steel in 2013 and is now in the process of starting over. While some unrelated superhero movies manage to be released, it’s mostly a two-horse race today. Just fifteen years ago, the field was overcrowded with competitors.
Superhero movies are almost as old as the concept of movies. Film serials about Batman and Captain America entertained audiences during World War II. By 1978, Superman became a beloved instant classic, catapulting comic book superheroes into even greater fame. Throughout the 80s and 90s, a huge percentage of the most popular blockbusters focused on superheroes. By the 2000s, just about every notable comic book hero was getting a chance at the spotlight. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy defined a generation. The X-Men movies tangled with the genre’s public perception while adapting the ever-popular mutants. Auteur filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro put their spin on characters like Blade and Hellboy. Superheroes were more ubiquitous than ever, but no one complained about their omnipresence. It was the perfect era for experimentation, and people got pretty weird with it.
Within the same few years, multiple big franchises reached unsatisfying ends, unusual auteurs took control of beloved characters, and studios with no connection to the comics made their own superheroes. Within the same one-year period, two movies about family interactions in a world of superheroes hit the screen. Disney’s Sky High likely couldn’t have been made today without some attached IP. Peter Hewitt’s Zoom unquestionably couldn’t be made today at all. These two films alone demonstrate the absurd differences in the genre over the last fifteen years. If someone had the same basic idea, regardless of the studio, they’d be working with some obscure cast of Marvel characters. Today, everything has to connect to everything else. Nothing can exist without being a tie-in advertisement for a hundred other shows. Previous generations didn’t concern themselves with that idea.
Even established franchises were getting weird in the mid-2000s. Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand were cataclysmic endings to otherwise beloved superhero trilogies. Both films suffered the harsh fate of studio meddling, arguably acting as a warning for the problems that the genre would face down the road. Characters’ making their first appearance, including Constantine, Elektra, Daredevil, The Punisher, and Ghost Rider, all had weird introductions. Very few newcomers to the big screen had a graceful debut. Most have since been revamped in other mediums, but all of them need a second chance. Studios were willing to try just about anything, for better or for worse.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan was best known for the psychological thriller film Memento. His 2002 film Insomnia marked his transition from independent to studio filmmaking. In 2003, a very different Warner Bros. heard his pitch for a new Batman origin story. Nolan wanted to ground Bruce Wayne in the real modern world. Far from the gothic fantasy of Tim Burton’s imagination or the toyetic camp of Joel Schumacher’s ideals, Nolan wanted a Batman that could make headlines today. It’s hard to imagine this happening today. Not because these films aren’t getting made anymore. Not because good filmmakers aren’t making them. Not even because they aren’t grounded anymore. Just because more and more filmmakers see superhero media as a lower form of art than other cinema.
Superhero media is barely more ubiquitous than it was fifteen years ago, but people are finally sick of it. How did the 2000s avoid the superhero fatigue conversation? The real reason might be its reckless creativity. Sure, the studios were still ruining creative work, but at least a bunch of companies had their hands in the pie. Sure, people were still butchering source material, but at least it was all new. Sure, a lot of these films are truly terrible, but they’re terrible in an interesting way. In the modern era of Marvel-brand hegemony, even failure is less interesting than it used to be. The mid-2000s were the wild west, and the modern system could learn a thing or two from the past.
Wouldn’t superhero fatigue be a bit less common if every superhero movie was a wildly different experience? Wouldn’t we be happier seeing dozens of filmmakers try their spin on weird genre blends like Sky High? Wouldn’t the industry be healthier if unique filmmaking talents saw superhero movies as a genuine world of expression, rather than a passionless rite of passage? Learn from the things that paved the way for the modern era. Remember the good times, even when they were bad.