The newly released Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is the latest smash hit superhero movie to hit the cinema, reaffirming the status of this genre as the single biggest thing in modern day media. Although the superhero film has been part of Hollywood since the 1970s, when the first Superman film launched it, it is not until the last twenty years or so that its popularity really mushroomed.

This genre appeared to be dead in the water during the late 1990s, following a series of flops like Batman and Robin; it enjoyed a creative rebirth from 2000 onwards. The film that really kick-started this process was X-Men, which was released during that year and which centred on one of the less well-known comic book stories. X-Men was a favourite of hardcore comic book fans and Bryan Singer’s film managed to satisfy their demands while also captivating the wider public – leading to a smash hit. It made a star of the unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman and was followed a couple of years later by Spider-Man – which was directed by Sam Raimi and starred Tobey Maguire. As with X-Men, Raimi’s Spider-Man was a film that captured the flavour of the original stories enough to please comic book geeks, but also provided the action, comedy and romance needed to bring in more mainstream film fans. These two films established Marvel on the cinematic map and spawned successful franchises – although some of the superhero properties launched during this period, like Hulk, Ghost Rider and Daredevil proved less successful.

The middle part of that decade saw DC successfully re-launch Batman into cinemas with the acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy written and directed by Christopher Nolan, but they have struggled to replicate this success with the likes of Superman. Marvel went from strength to strength with the release of smash hit films centred on Iron Man, Captain America and Thor – all of which they owned the rights to. The 2008 film Iron Man, which became the most successful superhero film of all time when released, marked the debut of the ambitious interlinked Marvel Cinematic Universe. This saw the genre hit peak popularity, culminating in the monster hit Avengers – which featured all of the main Marvel characters – in 2012 and follow up Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015. There is some debate now about how long this popularity can last and whether the superhero genre will go the way of the western, but with it having expanded into hit television shows, theatre and even themed online casino games, it doesn’t seem likely at the moment.

The superhero boom isn’t going anywhere soon, with big films like Thor: Ragnarok on the way and the television spin-offs dominating Netflix.

[Written by Ian Sanders]
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