Before Capes Were Cool #0: An Introduction to Pre-2000 Superhero Cinema and Television

I had a dream when I was a kid, probably around 1993 or 1994, which would have made me nine or ten at the time. I say “dream,” but it was more like a movie trailer. We open on a close-up of a grimy brick wall at night, illuminated by yellowish street lights; not unlike the urban cinematography of Netflix’s current Daredevil series. Suddenly, lightning fast, a series of figures streaks by the “camera”: Wolverine, in his then-contemporary yellow/blue costume with mask; Iceman on an Amazing Friends-style ice slide, but looking a lot less friendly; Gambit, wearing a trenchcoat over whatever that black-and-pink bodysuit was supposed to be; Cyclops with the many pouch belts he wore at the time. The classic X-Men logo slowly appears in black on the brick wall…

And then I wake up. And the nine-or-ten-year-old Great Boos Up of 1993 or 1994, who has been reading comics since before he was actually able to read, is beside himself: he has just tasted a world where an X-Men movie exists, only to have it ripped away.

This is what it was like, in the ’90s. There had promises that we’d get an X-Men movie one day, just like we were told James Cameron was seriously trying really hard you guys to make a Spider-Man movie, but these projects never seemed to happen. They used to talk about Tom Cruise as Iron Man as well. If I could send a message back in time to 1994-me, he would be astounded that 2017-me lives in a world where there have been 10 (!) X-Men and X-Men-related movies; he would be even more astounded that 2017-me has only seen eight of them, because 2017-me is so spoiled for choice that I can afford to skip the ones that don’t look very good.*

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Before X-Men was released in 2000, I felt like I couldn’t really afford to miss any superhero movies or TV shows, because they were so few. I hungered for superhero adaptations; I wanted to see characters from the comic book come to life, to be real in three dimensions. Of course, they never gave me quite the translation I wanted. The costume would be different, or maybe there wouldn’t really be a costume at all. The names might be changed. Sometimes Hollywood would decide none of the villains from the comics would work on the screen, and they’d just slot in some more conventional evil businessman or mobster. But I’d watch every one, whether it was going to see Spawn in the theater or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace on TV or the Matt Salinger Captain America at the video store. I would even seek out movies that merely mentioned superheroes, like Crimson Tide’s Tarantino-scripted Silver Surfer digressions and all of Mallrats.** Because every once in a while, I would be rewarded by a superhero movie that actually delivered what I wanted.

I saw Tim Burton’s Batman in theaters in 1989. I think I went as many as four times in its theatrical run; I kept asking my dad to take me, and he always would, if time would allow. It sounds like the most obnoxious geek hyperbole, but I don’t care: one of the transformative moments of my life was seeing Michael Keaton in full costume grab a mugger, pull him in, and say with absolute conviction: “I’m Batman.”

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Batman set the tone for superhero movies for the next decade. Almost every ’90s superhero movie or TV show owed something to Burton’s vision. And yet, nothing hit the same commercial heights. The formula did not seem to be repeatable; all that seemed to work was Batman. And yet, because it was the only real superhero hit since the Superman franchise, Hollywood kept plugging away, fruitlessly trying to cram round pegs into square holes.

Until X-Men. Bryan Singer’s adaptation took some cues from Batman as well—most prominently, subtracting the color from the costumes in favor of shiny black protective gear—but introduced its own rules. Most prominently, it showed that CGI had finally progressed to the point that you could consistently pull off superpowers on the screen. Part of the reason Batman had been a practical character to adapt was that he didn’t need to fly or lift cars. That didn’t matter anymore: now Magneto could levitate inside a magnetic field and Mystique could shapeshift and Storm could summon lightning. And because the effects were plausible enough, and the actors were good, the audience was okay with letting down their defenses. A guy called Cyclops could fight a guy called Sabretooth, and the audience wouldn’t dismiss it as dorky camp. This was just a good movie.

I think of X-Men as the first “modern” superhero movie,*** the progenitor of the superhero bubble we’re in now: the success of X-Men begat Spider-Man, which renewed interest in the then-dormant Batman franchise, which led to Iron Man, which led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which prompted DC to push back with…well, with whatever it is they’re doing now.

Making a superhero movie is easy these days. I mean, it’s still really really hard, but there are rules of the road that you can always fall back on, and general audiences are primed and accepting in a way they never were before. We all like to have a laugh about Marvel movies and how the good guy (often kind of a cocky asshole) needs to fight through a CGI army to get the glowing thing back from the underdeveloped villain, but I’m not going to knock it; they found a formula, and using it as a reliable narrative spine allowed them to sell, among other things, a psychotic raccoon and his talking tree sidekick to middle America. Almost nobody really liked Batman v Superman, but a whole lot of people went to see it anyway.

Now that we live in this world where you can sometimes get two decent-to-good superhero movies released within the same month, and each week brings new hours of superhero action both to conventional networks and on your newfangled streaming services, I wanted to take a look back at that time before X-Men: a more experimental time, back when every single superhero-related project had to win over skeptical studios, dismissive critics, and baffled audiences.

I’m not going to just do capsule reviews, and I don’t intend to turn this into, “Let’s shit on John Wesley Shipp and his goofy-looking Flash costume.” What I want to do is look at superhero movies and TV from before 2000 and examine them both in the context of their day and from our current position as futurepeople with access to so much superhero media, we can’t even find enough hours in the day to watch them all. What worked? What didn’t? Would they have done it differently today? Would they not have even bothered?

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I’m going to be “grading” these on a sort of scale:

  • Hero: These are the ones that still hold up in the era of Peak Superhero.
  • Zero: These are the ones that sucked then and suck now.
  • Sidekick: These are the ones that are okay. Not worth much praise, but not worth much scorn, either. These got watched because we had few better options.
  • Antihero: These are the interesting failures, the ones hampered by the limitations of their time, the ones that are full of problems, but you can still get the occasional glimmer of charm and ambition.

NEXT WEEK: We’ll start with the late-1970s Amazing Spider-Man TV show, because the universe is harsh and cruel and so am I.


  • 11/27: Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79)
  • 12/4: Superman: The Movie (1978)
  • 12/11: The Fantastic Four (1994)
  • 12/18: The Rocketeer (1991)


Still learning this posting thing, please bear with me if this is all messed up in some way I did not anticipate.

* – I’ve never heard a convincing argument that I should watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine or X-Men: Apocalypse.

** – Kevin Smith movies might not hold up today for all sorts of reasons, but a big one that often goes unmentioned is that Smith was giving us geeks something we couldn’t get anywhere else: validation. He was our champion, I suppose, bringing our point of view to Hollywood. But in 2017, the most popular sitcom on TV is about nerds who talk about comic books; all of popular culture is now Kevin Smith, thus making Kevin Smith obsolete. Mallrats got teenage-me excited because someone was talking about Wolverine in a movie; this is perhaps less special now that an actor has actually portrayed Wolverine in nine different blockbuster movies.

*** – Some people consider 1998’s Blade to be the dawn of the modern age of superhero movies, but while we probably wouldn’t have gotten X-Men without its success, I would argue it was purposefully designed and marketed to not be a “superhero movie.” This is open to debate in the comments.