PART 2 OF A 4 PART SERIES–Click here for -> Part 1
Superman had proven to audiences and critics that it was possible to believably dramatize a comic book superhero. Since much of the sequel was filmed jointly with the first movie, Superman II seemed slated for success. Hurdles in making a superhero movie believable became a little more noticeable on this second go. Some ambitious special effects in Superman II relied on overlaying animation on film. The storyline wasn’t as tight, not that everything made logical or scientific sense in the first movie, but the sequel had some odd plot resolutions. Still, Superman II came out in 1980 and started the decade off decent enough. But lightning would not strike a third time for the conductive man of steel. Before Superman’s fall, at least Hollywood producers seemed inspired enough to try other superheroes.
Which famous hero would Hollywood bring to the big screen next: Spider-man, Wonder Woman, Thor? Nope. In 1980, people got Mr. Three’s Company, John Ritter in spandex. The parody was back and spreading like a fungus in a locker room. Hero at Large didn’t lead the charge though. Neither did Condorman or Puma Man. (I admit I’m confused as to whether Puma Man was parody. The name is stupid enough. During fights, Puma Man seems to bounce around on a trampoline while his Native American sidekick does all the work.) The parody had first made a comeback on TV. Wonder Woman was cancelled in the late 70s. The Incredible Hulk series lasted into the early 80s. This left room for The Greatest American Hero to swoop in. The show went for extreme campiness. Popular at first, the show seemed to have little ground to stand on aside from an amazing theme song.
With superheroes vanishing from live-action TV, what audiences needed was another big superhero movie. Superman III was not this movie. The third sequel features extremely awkward comic-relief. The criminals were pretty uninteresting as villains. Critics gave extremely poor reviews, and it’s surprising a fourth movie ever got made. By the time Superman IV came out, it skimmed in and out of theaters with little interest from the public. Superman IV did have a nice message of hope. It even introduced a cool physical rival, even if fights looked faker than a world wrestling match. The Superman series would not be complete without mention of 1984’s Supergirl. Yup. This one flopped too.
Hollywood production companies continued their hesitance to embrace real superheroes. Though, there was one more exception: Swamp Thing came out in ’82. Wes Craven wrote/directed the movie on a budget far smaller than any of the Superman films. The movie has a dark atmosphere, and in fact, feels more like a horror/monster movie. The movie was good, but used to get grouped into the horror genre, so it didn’t revolutionize any opinions on superhero movies. When a sequel came out seven years later, the second left the darker roots and went for campiness. Ugh…and there’s still more toxic superhero waste to mention.
The Toxic Avenger was released in 1984. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and was another superhero parody. I don’t even know what to say about this one. If you liked superheroes back in the 80s, this is what you were stuck with—kind of like wanting a bike for Christmas and opening a huge box to find crusty underwear. The movie was vulgar, with stupid dialogue, random nudity, and a story that does, I admit, have some charm. Toxie gained enough cult status to spurn sequels, and later, a cartoon aimed at children.
Again, something to take in consideration was that perhaps Hollywood saw little need to invest in expensive superhero movies. In the early 80s, audiences had Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, E.T., Red Sonja, Willow, Kyle Reese, Teen Wolf. Fantasy and science fiction seemed like a more viable option for special effects. This climate of science fiction was probably partly why Marvel Comics agreed to the development of what would be the adaption of their first theatrical movie. And we got…Howard the Duck.
Never heard of this superhero—you’re lucky if not. None of the blame really deserves to fall on Marvel’s shoulders though. Instead, thank George Lucas. Lucas had been interested in adapting a Howard the Duck movie in the early 70s. Thank goodness he instead developed his own little sci-fi trilogy. After Star Wars, and the creation of his own special effects studios, Lucas again turned attention to Howard. Lucas was credited as executive producer and made some major development decisions for the film. Howard the Duck had some really talented people working on it. It had a big budget and good actors, and the world would have been no worse off were this movie never made. Quasi superhero/sci-fi/existential parody, critical reception and ticket sales were awful.
Bookended with Superman II, the 80s had one more superhero movie that skews the decade back to some decency. The character that helped revitalize interest in the superhero genre for the 90s, was one that had been partly responsible for the parodies: Batman.
Throughout the 80s, comic-book writers and artists brought Batman back to his darker roots. Fans of the comic seemed happy with this trend, and the 1989 movie seems born of this movement. The Joker is a crazy killer. Batman is a well-trained and brooding hero, even if played by Mr. Mom. Actually, Michael Keaton is great as Batman. Jack Nicholson is great as Joker, and Tim Burton directing made for a very visually enjoyable movie.
Batman had high-production standards, with great music, good fights, and a story old and new fans could enjoy. Unfortunately, sometimes this movie seems forgotten when compared to the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale trilogy of the 2000s. The ‘89 Batman movie has its own unique charm. It captures a comic book sort of feel and helped spur a rekindling of interest from Hollywood in superheroes. Uncannily enough, Batman and the subsequent movies would almost follow the same downward trend as Superman, with Batman plunging like his batwing’s just been shot down by an oversized Joker pistol.
Come back next time to see how superheroes were in the spotlight during the 90s, just in many cases, audiences got heroes no one was even asking to see in movies.