A decade of superhero domination, from Nolan's Batman trilogy to expansion of Marvel cinematic universe

Vinay Viswanath

Dec 22, 2019 13:12:42 IST

Looking back on the last decade of film, at least from the perspective of major international releases, it would be hard for anyone to deny that the 2010s have been dominated by the comic book superhero genre. Whether you love ‘em, hate ‘em, few genres have dominated the pop culture zeitgeist as long or as successfully. 

So with the end of the decade now almost upon us, today we’re going to take a look back at some of the key moments that defined the meteoric rise of this once campy, niche genre

In 2002-2008 |The comic book movie renaissance delivered us from camp

 A decade of superhero domination, from Nolans Batman trilogy to expansion of Marvel cinematic universe

Unfortunately, Stark isn’t easily impressed by card tricks| Warner Brothers / Marvel Studios

Although DC properties like Superman and Batman have existed on the big screen since the 70s and 80s respectively, let’s just say that there wasn’t a great deal of faith or money behind those franchises at the time. Although Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was actually pretty good, at least for the time.

By the 90s Marvel had also had joined the party with a pair of really bad Captain America films. A few more Batman films, each worse than the last, would turn the Dark Knight into a campy, smarmy, goon on the big screen seemingly taking a lot of its notes from the 1960s live-action show

While the film’s budgets were getting bigger and also able to attract major talent of the time like George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, Uma Thurman and Danny DeVito, the films would only be remembered for how terrible they were, joining a rare pantheon of films that are “So bad they’re good.”

Thankfully, by the 2000s the camp aesthetic had mostly run its course and new entrants into the Superhero film genre like Fox’s X-Men and Sony Pictures with Spider-Man met with significant success taking the title of most successful comic book movie ever, a title it would hold for 6 years. 

Batman too would see a successful return to film under the direction of Christopher Nolan. But it would only be in 2008 that the comic book genre really took off with the release of Nolan’s second film, The Dark Knight, which was both a major commercial success and also gained near-universal praise. Of particular note was Heath Ledger’s character-defining portrayal of The Joker, a role that earned him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor in 2009. 

Still the second-best on my list behind Mark-Hamill | Warner Brothers

 2008 also marked the release of Marvel’s first official foray onto the big screen with Iron Man. With the film rights of many of Marvel’s ‘crown jewels’ sold off to other studios, the story of the self-centred genius billionaire turned crime-fighter/terrorist hunter was a big swing from a fledgeling studio that didn’t have a lot of runway if this film flopped. But writing now, eleven years in the future, I don’t need to tell you that Feige’s big bet certainly paid off. 

In 2012 | The end of the beginning

It doesn’t matter who they are, what matters are their plans | Marvel Studios / Warner Bros

It’s now 2012 and the Nolan Batman trilogy has come to an end with a film that most fans and critics agree is good but flawed.  The Dark Knight Rises admittedly falls quite short compared to its predecessor. Despite some early efforts to get Christopher Nolan to work on their other premiere comic book character, Superman, control of that new franchise passes instead, to Zack Snyder although Nolan would stay on as a producer.

In the meantime, Marvel has gone from being a plucky studio with its back to the wall, to a little powerhouse with five successful films of…variable quality, under its belt. Now owned by Disney since the end of 2009, they had the resources to develop what is now being called, the MCU or Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

This year would mark the release of The Avengers (aka Marvel’s Avengers), a bold effort to bring the concept of a comic book crossover event to films. And while traditional logic predicted that this film would prove a bridge too far Marvel, director Joss Whedon not only delivered on all that was promised but managed to set a new gold standard in comic book films. 

Avengers theme intensifies | Marvel Studios

And you know that it made waves in Hollywood too since, after Avengers became a stunning success for Marvel, suddenly every studio wanted needed their own cinematic universe, it didn’t matter if it felt too rushed, was something anyone wanted or made any sense for their film properties. A lot of good money was thrown after bad figuring out that clumping film properties together without a plan wasn’t the best approach, but at least consumers got a few laughs at the expense of these misguided studios.

Speaking of throwing good money after bad… The Amazing Spider-Man, another attempt at a comic book cinematic universe also released this year. It was actually okay overall, although the sequel would be so bad that it made the original worse by association.

In 2016 | Heroes fought heroes

Watching almost-strangers try to kill each other not for you? Try watching old friends try to kill each other | Warner Bros / Marvel Studios

So here we are in 2016 and we’ve come to a point that I think will define how the competition between DC and Marvel would play out for at least the rest of the decade. 

For the MCU, the release of Captain America: Civil War marks a major turning point for the Avengers, with ideological differences, international pressure and subtle manipulation resulting in a schism between the previously united group of heroes. The villain took on an almost passive role in the film, setting things in motion, but then sitting back and allowing the Avengers to tear themselves apart from the inside. 

On a side note, Civil War marks the first instance of a superhero crossover spilling into the real world with Sony Pictures agreeing to a deal that would allow Spiderman to re-join his fellow heroes in the Marvel Universe.

Tom Holland

To the delight of everyone except Andrew Garfield | Marvel Studios

Civil War isn’t unique or highbrow material, but it’s well-executed and you do feel something watching these former friends turn on each other. Personal stakes aside, Captain America and Iron Man make excellent points in favour and against government oversight, so much so that I recall nodding in agreement upon hearing both sides’ arguments. However, I’ve since thought about it and realised that Stark is entirely right (Sorry all you Team Cap people out there). 

But even before Iron Man and Cap attempted to settle their ideological differences, there was another pair of vigilantes that weren’t seeing eye to eye. Earlier in 2016, DC’s film universe, sometimes referred to as the Snyder-verse, released its second entry, Batman V Superman. 

It posed some interesting philosophical questions about the mandate of those with the power to affect change and whether they have a right to exercise that power how they see fit. These Nietzschean ideas regarding the supposedly superior morality of the ‘übermensch’ is set delicately aside in favour of a regular man in powered armour and a superman without armour attempting to beat each other up for the amusement of the worst Lex Luthor ever portrayed in any medium.

Also, Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman was there but somehow doesn’t make it into the title or some of the posters, despite being the best part of the film (and having the best theme music) because of…. I really don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.

BS plus WW

Honestly, they’re lucky she showed up before they both got killed by Doomsday | Warner Brothers

Snyder borrows heavily from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns but even Miller’s seminal work is not enough to Snyder’s dour, dark and gritty formula of film-making. The film was critically panned, but audience reactions were far more forgiving and commercially the film was quite successful even if it did not meet Warner Brothers’ lofty expectations for it

2016 also saw villains fighting villains in the ill-fated…but looking back, aptly named, Suicide Squad, a film that, despite the best efforts of Will Smith and Margot Robbie, failed. It was so insipid that the next Suicide Squad is planned as a reboot instead of a sequel.

Meanwhile, in other mutant news, Deadpool also came out this year, becoming an unexpected runaway success and the highest-grossing A-rated film in history (at the time at least)

Don’t mind him, he’s just overwhelmed with happiness | Fox

In 2017 | DC made their big move (but then suddenly threw in the towel)

In 2017 DC and Warner Brothers, rushing to catch up to Marvel after making a late start on their own cinematic universe, play their hand with the release of Wonder Woman and Justice League.

JL and WW-min

If Warner Bros had taken their time with the DCEU, the Marvel comparison could easily have been very different | Warner Bros

Despite muted expectations following BvS being critically panned…or perhaps because of it, Wonder Woman was quite well received. The film and its director Patty Jenkins would receive a good deal of praise and be particularly notable for being the first female-led superhero film since to be critically and commercially successful (sorry Elektra). Wonder Woman renewed hopes that after a shaky and rushed start, the DCEU had found its feet and fans were again optimistic about Justice League. However, Patty Jenkins’ work ultimately did not indicate a wider change in approach for other DC films some were hoping for.

Later that year, Justice League, DC’s major hero team-up, would arrive to mixed reviews and modest commercial success. Most movie-goers were able to agree that it felt a little backwards that most of the new cast had been rushed into a team-up before they could get their own origin films. Despite this, the cast of heroes, proved the strongest part of the film, with the main villain and plot drawing the most criticism, primarily for being extraordinarily dull both in concept and execution. 

Apparently, Zack Snyder prefers his villains generic and has a mortal fear of terraforming technology | Warner Brothers

Despite Zack Snyder stepping away from the franchise due to a tragedy within the family, several weeks of extensive and expensive reshoots by Joss Whedon, who was brought in to finish the project, was unable to save this film.

Sadly by this point, it appears that what really killed the DCEU wasn’t box office performance or critical reception, but the fact that its two leading men, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, were both eyeing the exit by the time Justice League was in theatres. 

Batman longing

That is the face of a desperate man who can’t keep that costume on for much longer | Warner Brothers

While the films planned for the DCEU were not cancelled, it appears that soon after losing both their Batman and Superman due to creative differences Warner Brothers quietly pulled the plug on vast interconnected cinematic universes. Was it a rash decision made in haste? I thought so; but the fact is the only DC release since indicates that it was probably the right call to make (more on that later)

In 2018 | Marvel won by losing?

No place to die-min

It’s called tempting faith | Marvel Studios

Yes, they did. At least when it comes to winning at the box office. In 2018 the third Avengers film in the MCU saw a massively expanded cast take on Thanos, one of Marvel’s most relentless villains and a threat that has been slowly moving to the foreground over the course of just under seven years. 

Avengers: Infinity War took the bold move to end with many of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes either dead (forever), dead (temporarily) or stuck living in a nightmare scenario after suffering a catastrophic defeat. It’s not every day that a film ends with an evil (or perhaps just misguided) alien accomplishing all of his goals in pursuit of a limited universal genocide before retiring to enjoy a peaceful retirement on a farm.

Murder half the universe. Check. Now to enjoy this sunset | Marvel Studios

While Deadpool 2, Aquaman would also release in 2018 and were both enjoyable, by now there was really only one film that comic book fans in general and MCU fans, in particular, were waiting for. Ant-Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel would also release in the interim but were treated almost like homework by fans eager to glean any hints they could about what the next Avengers film, would bring to the table.

In 2019 | Marvel pulled off the hardest trick in the book

Iron man snap-min

If you’ve got to go, going out saving the universe while wielding unlimited power is a pretty good way to do it IMHO| Marvel Studios

Earlier in 2019, prior to the fourth Avengers film releasing, there was a sense that it was going to be a once-in-a-generation movie. People took time off work, theatres refurbished their interiors and in fact, the first time I watched Endgame, it was in a theatre near my house that had never screened an English film before, and I still only managed to get a single ticket off to the side for the 6:15 am showing on a Friday morning. 

With all the hype surrounding Avengers: Endgame and so many years and films invested into getting us as an audience to this point, it seemed almost impossible that we could possibly get an ending that would be both suitably epic and comprehensive to satisfy the fans. It has often proven to be the hardest trick in the book, even for franchises just over a tenth of the size. 

But I believe they did it. Against the odds and to the delight of most fans, the Russo brothers delivered a finale that gave us the closure and catharsis that fans craved. 

And while history will probably remember it for being the highest-grossing film of all time (after Disney sneakily re-released the film to goose those numbers just a little bit), I’ll remember it for being a great example of a multi-film plotline concluding in a way that lived up to or even exceeded the high expectations of its most ardent supporters.

In 2017-2019 | There was an unexpected end-of-decade resurgence

Misseg gems title-min

It’s like not chasing unrealistic goals gave them room to innovate. Crazy right? |Sony Picture, Fox & Warner Brothers

While we’ve focused most of our attention on the clash between the major cinematic universes, the fact is that some of the very best comic book movies of the decade — and also ever — came from the closing years of the decade.

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse: While I’m a big MCU fan, my pick for best comic book film is actually this one right here. It’s well-paced, well written, with an amazing cast, plenty of humour and it looks absolutely phenomenal, like every-single-frame-is-a-work-of-art-beautiful. Also, it featured both a multi-verse and time-travel before Endgame’s time heist…just saying.

I haven’t wanted to see Nicholas Cage in a movie for a while, but his VO work is solid | Sony Pictures

Joker: Honestly, I didn’t expect this film to be any good at all when I first heard of it. Consider the last time we got an origin story that no one asked for from a major film franchise *cough* Solo *cough*. Also, remember the last time we saw the Joker in a movie? Yeah.

I wasn’t the only one expressing early trepidation of course, but it turns out my fears were misplaced. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was inspired and I’d be surprised if the accolades don’t roll in come awards season for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck. 


Pictured: Joaquin realizing even his performance can’t change Jared Leto’s. | Warner Brothers

Unfortunately, no success comes without drawbacks, the massive success of Joker (it surpassed Deadpool to become the highest-grossing A-rated film of all time and the only one to gross more than $1 Billion) could mean that we see more of Arthur, with this movie that was intended as a one-off possibly being turned into a series by Warner Brothers who are hungry for major hits now that their DCEU has apparently begun to unravel or is already dead entirely.

Logan: Adapting the Old Man Logan storyline for the big screen was a gamble but Fox and Warner Brothers have apparently managed to find a lucrative little niche for themselves, being more comfortable with making darker and more adult-oriented comic book films than Disney, which has so far proved highly allergic to A-ratings. It’s bleak, it’s well-made and while it may sound pretentious, the black and white cut is at least in my opinion, the superior of the two versions.

Logan and Daf-min

Like father, like dangerous, prototype clone/daughter | Fox / Disney

In 2020 | What will the future bring?

With the Infinity Saga complete and many old-timers from the MCU moving on, Marvel is practically starting all over again for the next phase of their grand cinematic universe. But with the Fantastic 4 and the X-Men returning to the fold at Marvel studios following Disney’s acquisition of the Fox network, there are likely many more stories that Marvel finally has a chance to tell now that they have regained these cherished, long lost franchises.

Whatever happened to that Flash stand-alone film anyway? | Marvel / Warner Brothers

We’ll have to wait at least until Wonder Woman 1984 to determine what exactly DC plans to do with its existing entries in the former DCEU. It’s possible that DC may take a hybrid approach to its future films allowing for a loosely connected cinematic universe, at least among existing properties, that also leaves room for outlier one-off films or an independent series.

I wonder if my 2029 round-up of the next decade in comic book movies will be as positive as this one. There’s only one way to know for sure, I’ll let you know in ten years.

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 13:15:01 IST