From Avengers to X-Men: A Brief History of Superhero Movies

From early serials to the Marvel Cinematic Universe era, here's how the men-in-capes movie evolved

When Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out on May 1st, it signals the beginning of a nearly unprecedented era of superhero films: This sequel to 2012 blockbuster is the first of some 29 movies based on either a Marvel or DC property that's currently scheduled to hit the multiplex between now and 2020. But the superhero movie is nothing new; in fact, men-in-cape flicks have been with us almost since Superman made his debut in the pages of Action Comics way back in in 1938. What started with pulpy serials in the 1940s has evolved over the decades into the current deluge of dark knights, caped crusaders, galactic guardians and all-star team-ups that show's no sign of slowing down.

So as everything from a brand-new version of Batman to deep-cut superheroes like Black Panther and Deadpool getting their own big-screen outings in the next five years, here's a look back at where it all started, how it's changed over the years and when it started to became the dominant form of blockbuster storytelling with audiences worldwide. Let's turn back the clock…

The Beginning (1941 – 1950)
The first true superhero movie arrived in 1941, in the shape of a 12-chapter serial from Republic Pictures: Adventures of Captain Marvel. Based on a Fawcett Comics hero who later ended up as part of the DC Comics roster, it focused on a young man named Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) who transforms into a godlike good guy (played by Tom Tyler) and battles a supervillain called the Scorpion. This crude attempt to bring comic heroes to the big screen suffers from the usual stop-start cliffhanger-itis of the episodic form, but the foundations of the genre — an origin story, a secret identity, a costume and an arch-nemesis — were all cemented into place.

Next came a 15-chapter Batman serial in 1943, which marked the first filmed appearance of the legendary Caped Crusader (Lewis Wilson) and his sidekick Robin (Douglas Croft), as well as introducing trademarks like the Batcave (called "the Bat's Cave" here), Wayne Manor and Alfred the butler. The Phantom made his big-screen entrance in 1943 as well, while the first Marvel Comics (then known as Timely Comics) character to make it to the screen, Captain America, showed up in 1944.

It was inevitable that the former Krypton resident who started the men-in-tights craze would turn up at the movies too, and sure enough, Superman got his own multi-chapter saga in 1948, starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel and Noel Neill — who'd later reprise the role on TV — as Lois Lane. But the end of the decade, the entire notion of tune-in-next-week shorts in theaters were quickly becoming outdated; the last of the superhero serials, Batman and Robin (1949) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) closed out the decade.

Man of Steel, Man of Bats (1978 – 1989)
With the exception of Batman: The Movie, a quick cash-in from the campy 1966 TV series starring Adam West, it would be nearly three decades before a single comic-book superhero made a big-screen dent. It was DC's most iconic character that broke the dry spell, when Richard Donner's Superman (1978) blasted onto screens as one of the most expensive productions of its time. Using New York City as a barely disguised stand-in for Metropolis gave the movie a contemporary feel that the comics and TV show had lacked, while Christopher Reeve's embodiment of the Man of Steel was earnest, charismatic and just self-aware enough to make him a truly heroic figure without being overly saintly.

The success of Donner's experiment spawned an equally popular sequel — Superman II (1981) — before the quality and box office pull of the series dipped drastically from diminishing returns (Superman III, an odd attempt to meld superhero movie and buddy comedy by pairing Reeve with Richard Pryor) to dreadful (the spin-off movie Supergirl) to virtually unwatchable (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). The franchise practically drove a Kryptonite stake though the genre's heart before it could even get going.

Thankfully, there was another well-known character waiting to pick up the mantle. After years of false starts, Tim Burton's take on Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the titular hero and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was released in 1989 and quickly became a pop-culture juggernaut. Following the lead of groundbreaking comics of the time like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the blockbuster portrayed the Caped Crusader's mythology in a much grimmer, grittier manner and virtually erased memories of the candy-colored TV show overnight. The fact that a mass audience accepted its tortured, morally conflicted protagonist had not gone unnoticed.

Meanwhile, DC's main competition on newsstands couldn't get out of the starting gate. Despite the fact that Marvel could boast of an equally well-known roster of superheroes and had managed to score a hit on TV with The Incredible Hulk series in the late Seventies, the company (under its corporate name, Marvel Entertainment) went through a turbulent period in which its ownership changed hands several times, with each new regime attempting to license Marvel Comics characters for the screen. Yet only Howard the Duck (1986), The Punisher (1989) and an early stab at the story of Captain America (1990) emerged during this period, each more horrid than the last.

Implosion (1990 – 1997)
Batman resonated so well with the public that Warner Bros. proceeded to wring every last cent it could out of the franchise, releasing three more films in the next eight years. Batman Returns (1992) found Burton and Keaton coming back for a freakier sequel that, despite sticking to the Dark Knight-style template, didn't quite repeat its predecessor's box-office haul. Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer then replaced the director and star for Batman Forever (1995), mandated by Warner Bros. to be more kid-friendly — in other words, a bit more like the old TV show. By the time a visibly embarrassed George Clooney showed up in a nippled Batsuit in Batman & Robin (1997), the "savior" of superhero movies had also worn out its welcome.

The rest of this period was marked by an uneven run of lesser-known adaptations. The original 1990 adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, based on Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's parody series for Mirage Studios, was a surprising hit; other off-brand comic titles such as The Mask (which helped propel Jim Carrey to stardom) and The Crow struck a chord with their subversive anti-hero protagonists – a sign of what was to come.

Only one Marvel-based movie, Fantastic Four (1994), was made during this period, and it was never even released, because – depending on who tells the story – producer Bernd Eichinger made it solely to hold onto the rights or Marvel did not want the low-budget film to ruin the market for a major studio version. (Regardless, a peek at the film on YouTube will confirm that its M.I.A. status was indeed a sign a blessing.) But a change in fortune for Marvel was just around the corner.

Make Mine Marvel (1998 – 2007)
In 1998, New Line Cinema released Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a human/vampire hybrid who hunts bloodsuckers by night. Based on a third-tier Marvel character introduced in the 1970s, the film was an unexpected hit — the first for the comics giant, which had reorganized its film division as Marvel Studios and began licensing characters to Hollywood again. The company decided to test its new strategy with a trapped in-development-hell project that had been picked up by 20th Century Fox: a film based on the beloved fan-favorite series X-Men. Rather than try to up the camp or urban expressionism, the movie's director, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), took a much more realistic approach to the story of a gifted band of "mutants" who defend their Homo sapien brethren while fighting prejudice against their kind. Although a modest production by today's standards, it proved that even superheroes that were wildly popular with comic geeks, if not Joe Q. Public, had mainstream appeal. X-Men made a star out of Hugh Jackman thanks to his portrayal of the metal-clawed brawler Wolverine (enough to earn two stand-alone movies) and, with its unexpected $157 million haul at the box office, paved the way for the onslaught to come.

Two years later, another Marvel property also finally untangled itself from a web of legal limbo: Spider-Man. The company's single most recognizable — and arguably most important — character had seen its film rights had passed from B-movie factory Cannon Films to production company Carolco Pictures to MGM, which eventually traded them to Sony Pictures for certain James Bond rights. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, a tremendous Spidey fan (and no stranger to superhero movies; see Darkman), captured the colorful, light-hearted flavor of the books and kept the focus on the webslinger's humanity; Tobey Maguire made for a winning, if slightly older, Peter Parker. The film made $400 million in the U.S. alone; if X-Men was a decent-sized hit, Spider-Man was an unquestionable home run.

This was exactly what Marvel Studios was hoping for: back-to-back triumphs that made its characters marquee-friendly. Hollywood, never known for its independent thinking, suddenly began grabbing at the company's properties left and right, and the results ran the gamut from superior sequels (X2, Spider-Man 2) to so-so entries (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, an emo Hulk). They weren't infallible — the long-awaited, half-hearted blockbuster version of a Fantastic Four movie and its sequel proved that — but Marvel was now officially a major player. And with Warner Bros. handing the keys to the Batcave to Christopher Nolan, and the result, Batman Begins (2005), rebooted and revitalized the dormant series. Superhero films were bigger than ever before — and something even more galaxy-shaking was on the horizon.

Welcome to the Multi-Verse! (2008 – )
In 2006, Marvel Entertainment established a $525 million line of credit with Merrill Lynch, with the idea of making its own movies and then licensing them to distributors. Granted, the company did not own the rights to flagship characters like Spider-Man (whose was franchise was getting the 2.0 treatment, now with Andrew Garfield in the webslinger's suit) and the X-Men — but it did own Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, as well as literally hundreds of others.

So what Marvel Studios did next, under the leadership of President of Production Kevin Feige, was nothing short of visionary. Starting with Iron Man in 2008, it launched an interconnected series of films in which characters starred in standalone stories linked to a grander overall narrative. Plot threads planted in one film were picked up and expanded in the next — in other words, exactly what comics had been doing for decades. Two Iron Man films, a Thor movie, a revamped Incredible Hulk joint and Captain America: The First Avenger all set the stage for a superhero magnum opus: The Avengers. After a $1.5 billion box-office gross, we were officially in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even an obscure comic book title such as Guardians of the Galaxy could become fodder for a monster hit.

As for DC Entertainment, they were riding high off of Nolan's next two Batman films, 2008's The Dark Knight and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises (the former earning Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for his definitive, psychotic portrayal of the Joker). After adapting Alan Moore's totemic metacommentary Watchmen (2009) and a few attempts at establishing their own cinematic mix-and-match strategy via second-tier characters (2011's Green Lantern) and heavy hitters (2013's revisionist take on Superman, Man of Steel), the brand started forging ahead with its own mapped-out movie multiverse. Next March will see the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which will beget big-screen takes on the Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and even Shazam, all of which is adding up to massive two-part Justice League movie.

And this is where we find ourselves now: Looking at summer-film lineups that resemble comic-book store shelves. More X-Men films and spin-offs are on the way, as is an Ant-Man movie and a "darker" redo of the Fantastic Four story (the third time is the charm). A whole "Phase Three" slate of Marvel titles, which will introduce old stalwarts like Dr. Strange and the Black Panther — as well as a third, newly MCU-compatible incarnation of Spider-Man — into the mix for future stand-alone ventures and Avengers stories, is scheduled to roll out over the next few years. Even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are enjoying a cinematic resurgence. Every studio now wants its own shared universe of characters and stories. Comic books have been called our modern mythology; Oscar-caliber actors clamber to put on spandex and masks, and writers who once slaved over dialogue bubbles in panels are currently put in charge of project development. What seemed unimaginable to the producers of those 1940s serials is now coming to every theater near you for the foreseeable future.