The Superhero Film: A Guide for Superfans


From tights and onesies to bikini briefs and masks, superheroes have captured our hearts since they first stepped onto the big screen.

Ah, the superhero film. That blockbuster hallmark that brings fans out of the heat (or the cold) for an oversized bucket of popcorn and a $20 soda. You get origin stories, extraordinary powers, epic battles of good versus evil, briefs, tights, and butt poses. You name it. What’s not to love?

Well, plenty (superhero films have, quite possibly, the pickiest fans of all cinephilia), but we’ll get to that. We can’t let the haters define the genre after all.

The superhero comes from a long tradition of larger-than-life heroes, and it achieved its final form during some of the most interesting (and tumultuous) days of the modern era. Even better for we film folk, though, is that the superhero film developed more or less right alongside its eponymous namesake.

Usually, we need to trace the roots of our favorite filmic genres through generations of print (or handwritten) and oral tradition before we can really fill out the family tree. Not so much with the superhero film. We went from comics to screen and back (and back, and back, and . . . back) pretty quickly. (We’ll touch on the recursive nature of the genre and its many media later on.)

The Avengers assembled a moment before battle begins
Tight clothes, mean mugs, and often the best effects Hollywood has to offer—the superhero film will throw the kitchen sink at its audiences, and they usually love it. (Image via Disney.)

So, grab your leotard and boots, and let’s rewind to the early days of the beloved superhero film.

When Tights Became Cool

Here’s what we know about superhero history . . .

First off, superheroes have existed for a long time—we just didn’t call them superheroes. The forbears of the modern superhero include the larger-than-life figures of antiquity. We’re talking David (of “and Goliath” fame), Odysseus, Gilgamesh (from “The Epic of . . . “), and all the Greek demigods—basically anyone who was capable of bigger/better/stronger-than-normal feats. The heroes in these stories come mostly from oral tradition and some ancient texts, but this is where we got the idea that these superhumans could walk among us.

That’s not too hard to believe. But when did these heroes start wearing uniforms and branding themselves? We can go as far back as the stories of Robin Hood for a caped hero (13th-14th century), or we can look to France, circa 1909, for the winged adventures of L’Oiselle, who relied on her super suit (essentially) for her powers of flight. But, what really drove the idea home in the United States was the tail-end of the era of vigilante justice (see here for the Western-Superhero crossover episode).

Errol Flynn in the famous green costume in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood, seen here portrayed by Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, is an early example of a costumed (uniformed?) hero with something of a branded identity running around and righting wrongs. (Image via Warner Bros.)

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, fascination with the lawless “frontier” of the American West was becoming the stuff of nostalgia, fantasy, and escapism. A lot of this territory had been gobbled up by the expansion of the U.S., most of its native inhabitants had been murdered or forcefully relocated, and there was increasingly less need for fascinating groups like the “Bald Knobbers,” (I can’t make this stuff up) a group of vigilante heroes who fought and killed outlaws from roughly 1885-1889. What’s so important about these guys with their goofy crime-fighting name? They did all of this wearing black masks with horns.

You know . . . costumes.

Kirk Alyn in the black-and-white 1948 Superman
Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in live-action for the 1948 film serial Superman. Fun fact: we largely have Superman to thank for the superhero’s tights-and-a-cape fit. Creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel found inspiration for their hero in the costumes of circus strongmen. (Image via Columbia Pictures.)

So while the need for these roving gangs of do-gooders was drawing to a close, the idea behind the hero in the mask, helping folks not on the frontier, but in their very towns and cities, took hold.

The final detail that sealed the deal for the superhero we know and love is probably The Scarlet Pimpernel (and its spinoffs), a 1903 British play that took up the mantle of the masked hero and slapped on the idea of a secret identity.


Once this cat was out of its proverbial bag, superfans everywhere were suddenly awash in heroes. The Gray Seal, Zorro, Buck Rogers, The Shadow, Flash Gordon, The Phantom—even Popeye. These guys all showed up between 1913 and 1936, just in time for the Golden Age of Comic Books and, importantly for us, the rise of the superhero film.

Superheroes on the Big Screen

We tend to draw distinctions between televisual and cinematic when we’re talking about, well, watchable content (let’s not bring the internet into this just yet). But the two media were closer bedfellows back in the day.

The superhero “film” (just . . . indulge me the term, all right?) emerged almost immediately following the advent of the superhero comic book. (This is where we’ll get into the reciprocity of superhero media—and how they have created perpetual motion feedback loops when it comes to canonicity.) A lot of this has to do with how studios marketed their early superhero content, especially in the beginning before it was really fit for the moniker of “superhero film.”

The internet makes all kinds of different claims regarding The First Superhero FilmTM, so you can kind of grab whichever one suits you best (google Judex to get started). For our criteria, however, everything mostly begins with Zorro. Arguably, the first superhero film (as we’re defining it) was The Mark of Zorro (1920), followed by Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925).

These first two films were silent, but in 1936, we got The Bold Caballero—Zorro again, but this time a talking picture, in color! (Because it was so expensive, Republic Pictures Corporation would not produce another color film until 1949.) In 1936, we got the film serial Flash Gordon—and this is where we need to get a little soft with the edges of our media.

Douglas Fairbanks from the 1920 black-and-white Zorro film
The Mark of Zorro (1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks, is a silent film billed around the internet as follows: “A seemingly idiotic fop is really the courageous vigilante Zorro, who seeks to protect the oppressed.” Be that as it may, this forebear of the superhero film launched Fairbanks’s career, and it would later influence the development of such anti-foppish heroes as Batman. (Image via United Artists.)

The film serial was sort of like coming to the theater to watch your favorite television show. It was a progression of short productions, usually episodic, that came out in theaters weekly. Flash Gordon here was a bit of an outlier. Typically, these serials were inexpensive, so they lent themselves well to Westerns and superhero stories that appealed to younger viewers already familiar with comic books. Old Flash, however, was a major production of its time, and it elevated the format.

So, even though Zorro had been making his mark on the screen for sixteen years by this point, the convergence of affordable cinematic storytelling, with inclinations toward adventure tales and superhero stories, led to the rise of the film serial. Over the next decade or so, fans would see the rise of serials Mandrake the Magician (1939), The Shadow (1940), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), The Phantom (1943), Captain America (1944), and Superman (1948).

Screen capture from Flash Gordon (1936)
Flash Gordon (1936) really changed the film serial game. The next twelve years would see serializations of some of the most famous names in superhero film history. (Image via Universal Pictures.)

In the late ’50s, the film serial lost popularity, but by then, the superhero genre was raging, especially in comic books. With no shortage of plot lines to film and plenty of eager young fans willing to cough up for tickets, the superhero film pulled on its Big Boy tights and made the transition into feature-length superhero films.

Of course, it didn’t thumb its nose at television either. So, TV shows, movies, books, comics, and (after a while) video games formed a swarming whirlwind of super-content that would give rise to the Knights Canonical, whose mandate from God was to police the fun of superhero audiences everywhere, lest some heresy slip through the cracks and spoil the purity of the storylines. (Truly, few other content families have this multi-modal rule over their fanbases, much to the dismay of stiff-lipped cinephiles in aging theaters.)

So, what happened next? Well, pretty much everything you’ve come to know as a superhero film.

How Did We Get Here?

Superhero films, like any other genre films, are the products of what came before them. They’re layered, like strata, with ideas and motifs that proved successful. Not dissimilar to natural selection, the aspects of superhero films that resonate best with audiences survive to show up in other films. Those that don’t are lost to the ages.

A lot happened in the world between, oh, 1930 and . . . now. Some world wars, a great depression, the rise of neoliberalism—there’s a dissertation in there about how global politics influenced the rise of the super person, but we shan’t go into that much detail. Instead, let’s briefly tour how the modern superhero film got its wings.

The Early Years

Enter the Great Depression.

If you haven’t already heard the stories of the financial cataclysm that would define the twentieth century, go have a quick read. It changed everything, from how we lived to how we earned money to how we farmed. Virtually no one went unaffected by this market apocalypse that simply swallowed everyone’s money with nary a polite belch.

So, you know, media audiences were in a mood, we could say. What did that mean for our burgeoning film genre?

A black-and-white photo of a woman and two children living in poverty during the Great Depression
This photo by the legendary photojournalist Dorothea Lange depicts a destitute American family in 1936, living in a shanty. This was a common experience during the Great Depression. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

These were the early days of the on-screen genre. Depending on how you look at it, filmmakers had been taking steps in this direction for the last couple of decades, and there are some shining moments in cinematic history there that are worth your time. But for the most part, this is where the superhero starts to take a somewhat uniform. . . ah . . . form. Morality is clear, conflict is straightforward, and the world has seriously bad taste for inequality (see the Great Depression above).

Mandrake, the Magician, showcases many of the motifs and themes that would come to dominate the superhero film genre.

These motifs shape the adventures of our nascent superheroes and help explain why these characters stand out so starkly. Costumes are coming from the circus world, and people are looking for the fantastic in their escapism. Simple masks and white-collar crimes are all well and good, but they don’t have quite the draw as a social weirdo doing, essentially, circus things out in the real world where everything sucks.

World War II and Beyond

And then there was World War II. If anyone ever tries to tell you that comic books (and thus, their superheroes) were never political back in the “good old days,” tell them to go troll somebody else.

Black-and-white photo of American troops approaching Omaha Beach
The outbreak of World War II would eventually touch nearly every nation in the world, and its atrocities would have lasting effects on the post-war zeitgeist—including superheroes and their enemies. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Superheroes were a huge part of politics. Baltimore Lauren, writing for Bleeding Cool, crunched some numbers to determine that “roughly 5,500 American comic books were published during the World War II era, and quick scan of that output gives us roughly 3,500 superhero comics during that time.” As Lauren goes on to note, many of the men creating superheroes and comic books during the era were Jewish, and we can credit them with the motif of the superhero knocking out racist Nazis.

Superheroes like Superman and Captain America were knocking the crap out of the Axis long before the Allies actually were. Hitler’s supporters even got big mad about it and threatened superhero luminaries like Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (creators of Captain America)—so, they knew they were doing something right.

Scene from Godzilla showing the eventual anti-hero tearing down a city building
Godzilla (1954) began his career as a monster created by American experimentation with nuclear weapons, but by the ’70s, he became the first radioactive superhero (anti-hero, technically), since he appeared before Spider-Man (1962). The texture of Godzilla’s skin was intended to represent the keloid scars on the skin of the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. (Image via Toho Co.)

World War II shaped the superhero genre with ideas of American exceptionalism, patriotism, fairness, justice, and (not too subtly) revenge. Elsewhere, the detonation of the atomic bomb (and its incredible human cost) would give rise to and ultimately shape the future of atomic monsters-come-heroes like Godzilla. (For the Apocalypse-Superhero crossover episode, see this article).

Roughly 50,000,000 people died in World War II, under some of the most horrific and dehumanizing circumstances the world has ever seen. The effects on human consciousness were so massive, they influenced everything, and we still see the echoes of it in superhero film culture today.

The Great Proliferation

Fast-forward a few decades, Star Wars comes out, and fantasy and science fiction are in the air. Superman drops in 1978, and then we’re really off to the races. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the modern superhero film explodes, and audiences just can’t get enough. Here are just a few to make the point . . .

The variety of heroes, superheroes, anti-heroes, ensembles, and everyone else that emerges during this period of superhero film history is legion. The genre established its primary motifs, conflicts, and interests during its politically tumultuous early years—this largely meant emphases on power and strength over nuance and intellectualism, a sort of grassroots fantasy that, in an interesting cinematic reversal, appealed to the everyman rather than featuring him.

Image of Brandon Lee as The Crow from the eponymous movie.
The tragedy of Brandon Lee‘s death during the production of The Crow (1994) has never lifted from what is arguably one of the most iconic of all ’90s films. (Image via Miramax.)

This narrative superstructure then supported the rising counter-culture of the ’80s and ’90s. Heroes, plot lines, and characters may have become complex and morally ambiguous during this period, but they still largely followed the formula. Once the Age of Terror began, this would change.

The Millennium and Beyond

For many reading this, there is no before 9-11. If you were born on that day in 2001, you can celebrate your birthday this year by buying yourself a drink. If you were the ripe, old age of, say, ten, then you might have a mortgage and some kids by now, but you probably don’t remember much about how the world “worked” before that catastrophe.

But, if, like your humble author, you had a few more years under your belt, you do remember the beforetimes. Life changed everywhere on post-9-11 Earth, mostly not for the better, and mostly not in the name of peace and prosperity. Existential dread became somewhat individualized. Whereas, before, our terrors were directed more at entire swathes of people (like “communists,” if you grew up in the U.S. during the Cold War), the dawning of the Age of Terror had people in Heartland, U.S.A. terrified of suicide bombs at the Dairy Queen. Unexpected and horrifying death was suddenly everywhere, and privacy and bodily autonomy became sacrificial lambs at the altar of “safety.”

Surveillance in The Dark Knight: Screen grab showing dozens of CTV screens behind The Batman
Surveillance and privacy were central issues in 2008’s The Dark Knight. (Image via Warner Bros.)

It was not a logical reaction, to be sure. And what followed, on a policy-making scale, was even worse. A great many atrocities would occur around the world in the name of fighting terrorists, and most of them didn’t make people any safer.

Superhero films were adapted as well. The superstructure of what makes a hero and what they do during the course of their films (and why) was up for interpretation. Many heroes became militarized (or institutionalized) metaphors for force and international statecraft. We mixed and matched them and darkened their pasts so that they, too, were living broken in a world that had once been different. The need for heroes to make sense of the struggle between good and evil hadn’t been this acute since WWII.

Screenshot from WandaVision showing affectionate moment between Vision and Wanda
WandaVision kicked off Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, revealing that any conversation about superhero films that restricts itself solely to superhero films is the wrong conversation. (Image via Disney.)

This was all good for business. Advances in special effects technology were making our superhero films more and more magnificent. The Marvel Cinematic Universe unfolded before our very eyes like a never-ending lotus blossom. (Sorry DC Extended Universe — we know you’re trying, too!) The hallmarks of the superhero film were now fair game. Why are they all wearing leotards? Why do they all stand with their butts like that? Why are they all mostly white people? The Knights Canonical dragged themselves to their keyboards in their basements and began the thankless work of trying to slow the social development of the genre.

So what does all this mean to a filmmaker working in 2022?

The New World Order

We’re in uncharted waters now. Special effects and production values are no longer the purview of production companies with gobs of money. You can make a good-looking film with your cell phone, and even a neophyte special effects artist need only browse this blog for tips on everything from replacing skies to creating bursts of magic. We’ve talked elsewhere about developing your stories, your characters, even your marketing. We’ve laid out how to create dialog that doesn’t suck. So what’s left?

Asking the right questions. Superhero films (and shows, games, and comics) are increasingly inclusive. Heroes aren’t just for one kind of people—they save everyone. That’s the point. And everyone is capable of saving everyone else. That’s the grand message that often gets trampled in the mosh pit of the comments section. That means heroes come from all of us. Otherwise, if they only come from one type of “us,” then they aren’t heroes: they’re overlords.

Close-up Photo of a Ms. Marvel cosplayer at an event
Superheroes are at their best when they demonstrate how everyone can save everyone else. And that means heroes of all backgrounds. Few superhero shows are asking questions as compelling as Ms. Marvel. Any aspiring superhero storyteller will benefit from watching the show. (Image via Disney.)

So, when thinking about your own film (or show), ask those questions. Who is your hero saving, and why? What is it about the world, the genre, and even the work itself that needs a new answer? Maybe we’ve done anti-heroes to death; heck, perhaps we’ve done superhero films to death. Plenty of people would argue both of those points.

Fandom, canonicity, and multi-media narratives have created a perfect storm of narrative specificity, historical accuracy, and (often) flat characterization that does not change over time. However, the world changes around superheroes, and that’s the takeaway for the superhero filmmaker in 2022 . . .

. . . what’s changed? And how can you change with it?

Feature image via Disney.

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