Let’s face it America, we’re superhero crazy. Superhero films are the most talked about form of entertainment today. It’s the most paid for specter. The superhero films since Robert Downey Jr’s “Iron Man” (2008) are collectively the closest things to a manifestation of zeitgeist as we have.
Going to see a superhero movie is now at the level of what horse racing or baseball used to be. Pretty much everyone has seen the latest DC or Marvel film, and tons of millennials have chosen a superhero Netflix show to follow. We’re just obsessed.
Ages ago (it was really on 2014) I read an article by then “Grantland” (RIP) Editor in Chief, Bill Simmons—now founder and EOC of “The Ringer”—who wrote “The Action Hero Championship Belt”. The article compared actors in action-films as if there was a championship belt to be assigned. In wrestling, if you win a championship belt, you keep it until you lose it.
In the article Simmons assigns which actor won the belt in what year, and how long they kept it for. For example, Steve McQueen started off the era of action-film championship holders from 1968-1973 before Clint Eastwood overtook him until 1980.
I often find myself thinking in terms of who owns the Championship Belt—whether it’s Oscar hosts, rap albums, Disneyland rides, and of course, Superhero movies.
Saying who owns the Championship Belt is different that ranking which Superhero films are best. Ranking means looking into the substance of the film alone, taking stock at the narrative, the cast, the payout of the film. Saying who has the championship belt for superhero films entails a different way of viewing the movies, so I created a couple of rules.
1) The Movie has to own America, be hyped and live up to the hype.
The Championship Belt has got to go to a movie that gets people out of their seats at home to go watch it. Box office numbers are not the only measurement though, it’s got to be well received by fans and critics alike. We’re (as in the committee of one) is not gonna give away the belt to “Iron Man 3” just because a lot of people saw it in theater, it’s gotta earn it from the previous holder. This is the MOST IMPORTANT RULE
2) I have to buy the notion that our Superhero(s) may fail.
The movie can’t be your old run of the mill three act movie where we all see the victory of the hero coming. For example, in Tobey Maguire's “Spiderman 3” the victory over Sandman and Venom is easily sniffed out. While the mystery of how they’ll win is there (barely) the question of whether or not Peter Parker will be victorious is never really asked.
3) The villain (or obstacle) has to be compelling.
This is storytelling 101. If the “overcoming” portion of the story doesn’t draw the audience’s attention, then the movie is doomed to fail. We can’t be just sitting around, bored with
4) I’ve got to know that the main hero(s) are extraordinary, that they are smarter, stronger, better than the everyday citizen, and that not just anyone could be them if given their powers or tools.
As a viewer, you’ve got to see why these people became heros, why they want to continue the fight, and how they can muster the effort to finish the battle. We can’t just be forced fed “well they’re the hero, that’s why.”
5) It can’t be a rip off of another superhero movie.
In other words, it’s got a be a trailblazer in some fashion.
Establishing the Era
Darling America, let’s be real. The Superhero movies of the 1950s and 60s just aren’t in contention. While the golden and silver era of comics was owning the eyes of adolescents, kindly yet racist family sitcoms, and revolution of science fiction films ruled the decades.
The first superhero film that really ruled America, and that was the great-great grandfather of the current superhero movies: “Superman” (1978), the film that started the Christopher Reeves led franchise. And while “Superman” was extremely popular, it’s hard to assign it the championship belt, especially when it didn’t really have competition. It’s like saying the NBA championships of the late 40’s and early 50’s really count, when we all know the NBA didn’t really get going until the late 50s. Likewise, Superman failed to garner the appreciation that movies like “The Godfather II”, “Star Wars”, or even “Grease” did.
No, the modern era of championship belt didn’t start until Tim Burton got in the mix.
Batman: Belt Holder 1989—2001
Tim Burton’s “Batman” was hypnotizing. It introduced the dark superhero movie (of course today it would considered middle of the road). Michael Keaton’s Batman was a mix of cunning and charming, bringing a well-rounded approach to both his Batman, and his Bruce Wayne. Burton also introduced a Joker that the mainstream fan hadn’t seen before—a joker that reflected the mood of the time. Jack Nicholson provided a villain that preyed upon Cold War fears—infiltrating everyday products like shampoo, and silently killing the everyday Joe. This movie truly was the grandfather of the current superhero movie craze.
It’s dominance of 13 years as belt holder is due to a) being a true trailblazer with an iconic cast and original screenplay, and b) a decade of failure on the behalf of other superhero movies.
The 90s was full of attempts to create other franchises. “Captain America” flopped in 1990. A new Superman film starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Tim Burton never got off the ground. “The Fantastic Four” in 1994 was never released. The only real competition for the belt in the 90s came from Michael Keaton’s second Batman movie, starring Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as the anti-hero Catwoman. The sequel wasn’t as good as the original though, and the next two Batman iterations couldn’t hold par with Burton’s first creation (especially the George Clooney film).
The real argument for “Batman” being unseated before 2002 is the release of “X-Men” in 2000. “X-Men” was the Marvel film (though of course not a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie) everyone wanted. Truly a unique film, “X-Men” introduced Hugh Jackman to the world, and gave us the best acted hero villain duo in superhero film history in Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen (Professor X and Magneto). But while “X-Men” checks four out of the five boxes, it never ruled America like “Batman” did. That’s mostly because it was an underrated movie, but also because an ensemble film is usually not as successful as a solo film.
Spider-Man: Belt Holder 2002
The first Sam Raimi’s Spiderman film rocked the world. “Pleasantville” actor Tobey Maguire brought a loveable innocence to the teenage superhero in an age where “dark” superheroes like Keaton’s Batman reigned. Peter Parker’s origin in “Spider-Man” was masterfully handled, being a key part to a movie that wasn’t about learning to become the hero. The movie hinges on the battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe, as Peter Parker figures out how to keep his secret and get the girl.
While Tobey Maguire’s performance is excellent, Willem Dafoe split personality monologue in front of a mirror is perhaps one of the all-time villain performances in a superhero movie. “Spider-Man” is one of the all-time superhero films, but it’s time as championship belt holder didn’t last very long.
X2: X-Men United: Belt Holder 2003—2007
“X2” followed up “Spider-Man” as an all-time great superhero movie. “X2” delves even deeper into Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) past, giving us a villain who we can all relate to, in a strange and dark way. “X2” gives us even more of the wonderfully eloquent old man couple of Stewart and McKellen, while complicating the love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Gray and Cyclops. This movie, more than most gives the real impression that our band of heroes might actually fail. It humanizes the enemy of the first film, and shows us the danger of what mutants can do, all while destroying the sense that our x-men are invincible with the (spoilers) death of one of mutants. Oh, that also manages to break our hearts.
“X2” was the first ensemble superhero film to get such commercial and critical success, and the first superhero sequel to be better than it’s original. The idea of Wolverine more as a reluctant hero meets dastardly straight-out-of-WWII villain and creator of Wolverine, provided a movie that to this day moves the hearts of superhero fans.
Over the next five years saw a ramping up superhero films. “Hulk”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Elektra”, “Batman Begins”, “Fantastic Four”, “X-Men: Last Stand”, “Superman Returns”, “Ghost Rider”, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “Spider-Man 3” were all big hits—though not all good movies.
The real competition for taking the Championship Belt from “X2” lay with two movies: “Spider-Man 2” and “Batman Begins”. “Spider-Man 2” was almost as good as the first. Peter Parker struggles with feeling responsible to be Spiderman while living a normal life and keeping his superhero identity a secret from Mary Jane. But it didn’t own America like it’s predecessor did, or as “X2” did.
“Batman Begins” also flew in under the radar. The Christian Bale and Liam Neeson reboot of the caped crusader was well received, but “Batman Begins” never conveyed that Bruce Wayne/Batman could fail in the (for this franchise) debut film (not to mention some rather serious plot holes).
Iron Man: Belt Holder two months of 2008
If “Iron Man” doesn’t do well, or Robert Downey Jr. bombs as Tony Stark, it’s entirely possible that the Marvel Universe doesn’t kick off, and Marvel either scraps the project or starts over. But as we learned with “Iron Man”, Robert Downey Jr. is perfect for the part, for the script, and a phenomenal actor to lead the Marvel band of brothers.
The plot of “Iron Man” was rather basic, but the comedy in the movie, which became Marvel’s signature move, and the special effects created a storm of talk. “Iron Man” ruled the entertainment world. The redemption story or Robert Downey Jr., the cathartic tale of Tony Stark turning from war toy maker to peace builder resonated with an audience tired of being at war in the Middle East.
Of course, two months later it got unseated.
The Dark Knight: Belt Holder 2008—2011
“The Dark Knight” touted out perhaps the most compelling villain in superhero film history. Emboldened by the death of Heath Ledger, who played the Joker in the movie, fans witnessed one of the most critically acclaimed superhero movies ever, and that lead to Dark Knight owning America for years. Ledger won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor postmortem.
“The Dark Knight” is one of the structured superhero films in existence. A classic three-act film that manages to mix in a message of “sometimes the world is just crazy” and “true justice is hard to find” without hitting you over the head with it. Also, you get to witness as realistic a superhero movie as you ever get to see. “Dark Knight’s” failure to get a Oscar nomination for Best Picture is what lead the Academy to move to 10 nominations for Best Picture instead of five.
The big hitters after “Dark Knight” include “Watchmen”, X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “Iron Man 2”, “The Green Hornet”, “Thor”, “X-Men: First Class”, and “Captain America: The First Avenger”. The other Marvel movies never reached the status “Dark Knight” did, and neither of the X-Men movies were that good. “Watchmen” may have been just as good as “Dark Knight”, but it’s fan base was too small to have the impact a Batman film could get. “Dark Knight” couldn’t be touched.
The Avengers: Belt Holder 2012—2014
“The Avengers”, in true Marvel style, took the belt from a DC movie due to how light it was, providing some high-class Marvel comedy—much as “Spider-Man” took the belt from Burton’s “Batman.” While the joining together of The Avengers over the death of beloved SHIELD agent was a bit cheesy, the plot was so compelling, and the audience yearned for this band of ill matched misfits to succeed.
The most unheralded part of “The Avengers” is Tom Hiddleston’s acting as “Thor” villain Loki. His charming, cocky, and deviant behavior, ending with a pounding from Hulk, is one of the best parts of the film. Plus, Robert Downey Jr. is at his apex as Tony Stark.
“The Avengers” broke the box office. It was all anyone could talk about (overstated but not by much), and it signaled that America was in for years of Superhero galore.
Over the next two years “The Amazing Spider-Man” (people not that enthused about a new Spiderman), “Dark Knight Rises” (ensemble film masquerading as a batman film), “Iron man 3” (tried to be too deep), “Man of Steel” (more building bashing, than story substance), “The Wolverine” (too predictable), “Thor: The Dark World” (not bad, but just another cog moving towards the Infinity Wars), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (really good, but didn’t create the buzz “The Avengers” did) all premiered.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Belt Holder 2014—2015
This is perhaps the most surprising belt holder. Guardians of the Galaxy caught most people off guard. Many casual fans had no idea what a talking tree and genetically engineered talking raccoon had to do with each other. What stole the championship belt away from Avengers?
Of all things, “Parks and Recreation”, leading man, Chris Pratt, who played Star Lord, became a fan favorite for viewers of the show—becoming a sort of lovable dough boy. Of course, Pratt dramatically changed his body, and posted a photo of his newly found six-pack on instagram, creating a huge buzz about the film.
The film became a classic, filled with a rock n roll, edgier humor than Marvel previously displayed, and a rare opportunity to share a storyline that most fans wouldn’t know (as opposed to Superman or Batman).
The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie was abysmal. “Avengers: Age of Ultron’s” villain had more charisma than the whole cast put together.” “Ant-Man” was way too predictable, the “Fantastic Four” reboot joined the ranks of failed reboots, and at this point America was starting to grow weary of superhero films.
Deadpool: Belt Holder 2016
Deadpool was both what the fans needed, and what they deserved. After years of watching superhero films take themselves too seriously, the public got a film that made fun of itself, breaking the fourth wall with some rather raunchy moments. It was the opposite of the kid-friendly, villain busting ,movies we’d been getting.
Ryan Reynolds brought a character ready to bust our balls, mixed with all the cliché’s of a Marvel movie, but with the humility and humor to point out all the idiotic moments, and poor symbolism. The movie was met with high praise, and a certain feeling of naughtiness from fans who weren’t prepared for such crude film.
With such a let's-make-fun-of-ourselves premiering just a month before it came out, there was really no chance for a serious movie, filled with plot holes and melodramatic scenes to be well received. But “Batman vs. Superman” came out anyways, continuing the rather lackluster start of DC’s cinematic universe.
“Captain America: Civil War” had a shot to take the belt, but while it was excellent, it rode the coattails of other Marvel films too much to really be considered unique, or a trail blazer. The second teenage mutant ninja turtles film only proved why Michael Bay should stop directing. “Suicide Squad” failed to live up to expectations. “Doctor Strange” was fine, but again, was too much of a “Marvel film.”
Logan: Belt Holder for a couple months in 2017
”Logan” is a strange case study for taking the belt. It wasn’t a positive, family friendly movie, it didn’t get people murmuring about it like “Dark Knight” or “Iron Man.” It was mainly a movie for X-Men fans and serious superhero fans. And it was also the perfect sendoff for Hugh Jackman.
“Logan” is a well-written film, and while it checks the boxes for a compelling overcoming story, possibility of failure, understanding of what makes the hero the hero, and not being a rip-off, it barely checks the mark for owning America. In fact, if it wasn’t Hugh Jackman’s last film, it probably doesn’t take the belt.
Wonder Woman: 2017 so far
Wonder Woman has gotten a ton of press, garnered a ton of talk. Only “The Avengers”, “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” gathered this much buzz. Wonder Woman owns America right now, and rightly so. It’s a true trailblazer for a female superhero movie. Wonder Woman doesn’t just try and sell of off sexuality, but it truly empowers the character, who is compassionate and good, but also a warrior.
There has been so much talk of little boys and girls pretending to be Wonder Woman, inspired by the good deeds of the superhero. “Wonder Woman” truly owns 2017, and though it’s not as well-written as “Logan”, it’s successful in creating a character that you’re invested in. How big “Wonder Woman” is makes up for the less than compelling villain, Ares, who just sort of pops up. The movie raked in at the box office and got a very high rating on rotten tomatoes.
(Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was good, but too much of a rip off of it’s previous movie).
J. Sam Williams is the Creator and Editor in Chief of immix. He's been published in The Sporting Bay, The Sportster, Sidelines Mag, the Principia Pilot, Lunch Ticket and immix. He received his BA in Sociology from Principia Pilot, and his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University of Los Angeles. He currently lives in Sacramento with his Wife and two cats.