With 3 superhero movies in the top 12 right now in North America and a lot more to come, there’s no better time to look back at the long history of this genre. Now keep in mind, to qualify as a superhero movies, well, a movie has to feature some sort of hero that is in a way (or more) super, comic book or not. In other words, while Scott Pilgrim, a comic book character, won’t make the cut, the likes of Hancock will. It has to be a hero that fights against something, be it good or bad and as the image on top suggests, we start with the men of steel.
On the big screen, it all started with one of the grandfathers of the genre, Superman, back in 1978. This was arguably one of the most ambitious projects back then and it took a lot of guts for Warner Bros. to spend $55 million (around $190 million now adjusted for inflation) on what was, at the time, an unproven genre. Now accurate box office data for North America before 1980 is very hard to come find but what we do know is Superman opened with $7.4 million (about $25 million adjusted today) back in December 15th 1978. It went on to gross $134.2 million or $450 million today. Obviously the risk payed off big time with over $300 million worldwide (unadjusted) and from that point on the door was opened for other similar movies to come out.
In February 1980, MGM released the superhero comedy Hero at Large where a young John Ritter plays an actor that finds himself stopping a robbery while wearing the costume of Captain Avenger, a superhero character in a movie he was supposed to promote. From then on you can guess what happens, if not good luck trying to nab this one. Suffice to say, not based on any popular character this wasn’t exactly a hit but it did gross $15.9 million or about $50 million today, not to mention that since it was a comedy, Hero at Large was cheap to produce.
To try and counter Warner and their Superman, Universal released Flash Gordon on December 5th 1980. Unfortunately for everyone (because come on, we needed something more other then Superman) Flash Gordon disappointed after opening with $3.9 million and finishing with $27.1 million or about $86 million or so adjusted for today. The thing is, this cost an awful lot back then, $35 million that would translate to about $100 million today.
A year later it was time for Superman to show everyone how things are supposed to be done in Superman II, released on June 19th 1981. Opening twice as high as the first one with $14.1 million, it went on to gross $108.1 million, slightly less then Superman but still enough to make it the 3rd highest grossing movie of 1981, showing that if done right, superhero movies can be very popular.
Two years later Superman III came and with it the downfall. That mess of a movie almost killed the superhero movie genre before it even properly started on the big screen. Opening with $13.3 million on June 17th 1983 and finishing with only $59.9 million (12th spot in 1983), Superman III made a lot of studio execs think again about bringing superheroes from the small screen TV (where they were still popular) to the big and much more expensive big screen.
So what exactly did Hollywood do to try and save genre? Well they turned to superheroines with the likes of Supergirl and Sheena, both in 1984, both equally bad and very disappointing at the box office. I don’t think I have to insist on just how much this plan failed.
In part 2 of Superheroes at the Box Office you’ll see how a certain man dressed as a bat managed to breath life in a genre on life support at the time.
Finally, because this has to be done and he deserves it, rest in peace Christopher Reeve, you were Superman (1952-2004).