DC Comics: A Cinema Retrospective

We take a look back at DC Comics' various cinema outings, including Superman and The Dark Knight.

Man of Steel is finally in cinemas and is already off to a flying start with a record breaking $125.1 million weekend. Man of Steel is a success but over the years what other DC Comic book adaptations made it to the big screen and how well did they do? We take a look at the DC Comics-influenced output of cinema and assess the highs, lows and pits of that output. By the way, it is worth mentioning that this feature considers only the cinematic releases, thus DVD films and TV series are not listed. So don’t be annoyed at the exclusion of Arrow, Smallville and Batman: Sub-Zero, among others.  Also a future article will be looking at films like RED and The Losers, which are adaptations of DC Imprints, so keep an eye out for that.


Superman and the Mole Man (1951)

The first Superman film and theoretically released DC adaptation, this film was a precursor to the 1952-1958 TV series, The Adventures of Superman. It starred classic Superman George Reeves and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, dealing with the invasion of a mole person race that lived underground but were disturbed by a drilling team for an oil well. The film is not the very first Superman (it was proceeded by two live-action serials) but is often considered a more adult take on the hero. The themes are often considered similar to those of sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, with a reactionary theme to the McCarthyism or “Red Scare” of Post WWII.


Batman: The Movie (1966)

This is the first feature length Batman adaptation could not be more different to the Batman many people know and love today. The film is based on the 60s TV series and stars series regulars as the villains Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Cesar Romero as The Joker and Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. Obviously Adam West and Burt Ward also reprise their roles as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson /Robin respectively. The film sees Batman and Robin challenged by the supercriminal team of The Penguin, The Riddler, The Joker and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) as they attempt to take the UN Hostage. Batman: The Movie, like the series, was camp before Joel Schumacher (more on that later) ever touched the character, having Batman socialise at discos, or drop lines like “Hand me the shark repellent batspray”. Over the years the film has amassed a beloved following and the older it gets the more favourable the reviews. Batman: The Movie is of its time.


Superman (1978)

Many would recognise this as the first real Superman movie, starring Christopher Reeve as the man of steel. To this day many state that this (and its sequel) are the best incarnations of DC’s iconic alien hero. From John Williams’s spot-on score to the impressive scope (that even today gets the blood going), Superman is a blockbuster. The film sees an alien orphan sent to earth to avoid death on his homeworld where he grows up to discover whom he is and become Earth’s hero. Starring the likes of Gene Hackman as criminal mastermind Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando as Jor-El (Superman’s real father), this film had the battles, the romance (with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane) and the feel of heroism down to a tee.


Superman II (1980) (Richard Donner Cut (2006)

After the decision to film the first film and this sequel simultaneously was made, tensions arose between studios and director Richard Donner, leading to him being replaced for the sequel by Richard Lester (despite having finished 75% of the film). Long story short in 2006 The Richard Donner Cut of the same film was released. Superman II was another success, with praise going to Reeve again as the hero but many fondly recall Terence Stamp’s portrayal of major villain General Zod. This sequel also raised the romantic stakes between Lois Lane and Superman.


Swamp Thing (1982)

Wes Craven’s offering of the material highlighted a bit of a departure from the usual caped crusaders seen thus far. Swamp Thing sees a freak accident turn scientist Dr. Allec Holland (Ray Wise) into The Swamp Thing. Considered by many to be one of Craven’s good early films, this is a bit of a different film in his catalogue, focusing more on action than meaning. More of cult appeal than mainstream recognition.


Superman III (1983)

Richard Lester’s return to Superman in many ways was the beginning of the end for the character onscreen. The film’s plot had carbonite laced with tobacco tar turn the hero into two personalities: one good, one bad. Less financially successful than the past two films and receiving unfavourable reviews, Superman III is considered a missable instalment. It has its fans but the turn to campiness and the influx of comedy, thanks to Richard Pryor’s character, made it less appealing than others.


Super Girl (1984)

Despite some ties to the Superman films, this film has a lingering reputation as one of the worst. The film sees Superman’s cousin Kara (Helen Slater) come to earth to retrieve a lost orb. The film bombed at the Box Office costing $35 million to make and taking only $14 million and reviews were extremely unflattering. In fact Faye Dunaway and Peter O’Toole were nominated for Golden Raspberry awards for their performances and Supergirl is vastly considered a mistake.


Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)

Ironic that DC’s worst adaptation yet (at that point) is also of one of its most successful heroes. The film sees Lex Luthor create Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) to oppose Superman. The plot is widely ripped to shreds as being inane and stupid and critics mauled the film. A franchise killer in most ways, The Quest For Peace was criticised for having terrible effects, badly delivered action sequences and a cast that clearly had no interest in the film. The film bottomed out in all respects, even failing to attain its $17 million budget at the Box Office. Series killing in many respects, the film is considered a sadly disappointing place to end Christopher Reeve’s Superman series.


The Return of Swamp Thing (1987)

A sequel that emphasised a more humorous tone over Craven’s adaptation of the material. Regardless the film was not met with particularly great reviews, although the film has since been called “campy fun” by some and despite a Golden Raspberry win for actress Heather Locklear, the film still preceded the TV series of Swamp Thing (1989-1993).


Batman (1989)

This is the point when Batman became dark; Tim Burton’s film is a far cry from the 60s and brings Bob Kane’s iconic character thundering into his own gothic world. For many, this and Burton’s 1992 sequel are the best versions of Batman on the big screen, although at the time many were mixed on the change. The film sees Batman (Michael Keaton) go face-to-face with psychotic gangster The Joker (Jack Nicholson), as he attempts to overthrow Gotham. Keaton makes a brilliant brooding hero and Nicholson’s Joker is one of the best versions of the character. Stylistically brilliant, beautifully scored and really quite violent, Batman was a financial hit and is a film that grows more accepted with age.


Batman Returns (1992)

Following directly from the last Batman film, this Christmas-set Batman is quite possibly the most violent Batman film ever made. The film sees the dark knight battle again for Gotham, as Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny Devito) looks to ascend the political table and the leather-clad Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) is intent on playing games with him. A great trio of performances and a director given full-reign creative control gave great results. The film was met with critical acceptance and good financial gross. Even if Danny Devito was bafflingly nominated for a Golden Raspberry.


Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (1993)

An expansion of the Emmy-Award Winning Batman: The Animated Series TV show; this animated film is among the most well received Batman films. Critics praised the very sophisticated storytelling, superb animation and excellent scoring by the late Shirley Walker. Kevin Conroy returns to voice Batman, as does Mark Hamill to voice The Joker. It flopped somewhat in cinemas thanks to major competition but the film still holds a place in the hearts of many fans.


Batman Forever (1995)

Considered fair nowadays but at the time Joel Schumacher’s first Batman film left many feeling a bit put out. Taking the Burton Gothicism and turning much of it into camp. That said Batman Forever is vibrant fun and despite Val Kilmer not being scripturally allowed to flex as Batman. Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and especially Jim Carrey as The Ridller make this worth your time.


Batman & Robin (1997)

Well we had to get here sometime; Joel Schumacher’s last Batman film will never ever be forgotten, for all the wrong reasons. It made money but is arguably one of comic-to-film’s biggest franchise killers. Where did it all go wrong? Starring George Clooney as Batman, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, the film was star-packed. Yet it amounted to a pool of ice puns, clichés and unintentional hilarity from a hammy cast. One of the most audience panned blockbusters of all time.


Steel (1997)

Directly off Batman & Robin, came this anomaly of a film, starring former basketball player Shaquille O’ Neil. The film flopped carrying a guise of a TV/straight-to-video actioner and was heavily roasted for the limited acting ability of Shaq in the lead, as John Henry Irons (from The Superman comics), unfaithfulness to the material and the dreary dullness of the film overall.


Catwoman (2004)

In many ways this film is the Supergirl of the noughties. In fact it was probably worse. The film was infamously showered with disdain by fans and critics alike and failed to achieve its $100 million at the Box Office. The film went against the comics and with a new character Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) taking the Catwoman guise. The film was like one big advert for skin cream and featured some bad acting, plotting and direction. The film was a big hit at the Golden Raspberries, winning four of them. Infamously Berry went and accepted her award in person (with her Oscar) and thanked Warner Brothers for casting her in a “piece of shit, god-awful movie”.


Batman Begins (2005)

The point when Batman broke back into cinemas, the beloved DC Hero lied dormant ever since 1997 but with a new direction from Christopher Nolan, Batman returned (again!). The film took a more realistic approach to the material attempting to ground the story in feasibility. Christian Bale took the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in this origin story that brought in comic book favourites like Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). This was a brooding makeover that chimed with audiences and critics and made a great showing at the box office. Batman Begins indeed.


Superman Returns (2006)

The first attempt to reboot Superman since the much-derided The Quest for Peace is a strange film in a strange situation. Bryan Singer’s film is grand and colourful but upon release and with a mecha-budget production of $204 million, the film failed to live up to Warner Brothers expectations taking just short of $400 million worldwide. Despite a positive critical response and some love, the film seems to, with each passing year, attain a more negative reaction. Superman Returns is a strange beast, which acts as a kind of pseudo-sequel to Superman and Superman II but is also a failed attempt at a reboot, despite a well-received turn from Brandon Routh. Odd.


The Dark Knight (2008)

The granddaddy of the DC Films, The Dark Knight is not only their most esteemed onscreen adaptation but considered the Citizen Kane of comic book/superhero films. Christopher Nolan’s sequel brings in Batman’s most famous nemesis, The Joker (Heath Ledger) and revamps him as a sociopathic terrorist. Ledger’s last full film was also perhaps his best performance, as he sadly died before the film’s release and posthumously received an Oscar for his portrayal. Ideologically deep and balancing out a strong story with grand action, this film was beloved by critics and audiences. The film was also the first DC film, in fact it was the first comic book film, to break the $1 billion mark worldwide at the Box Office.


Watchmen (2009)

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen left many ready to unleash their fury. However upon release many were surprised at how loyal this adaptation was, many claim it to be the most faithful adaptation around. The film looked spot-on but it was at a cost, the subject matter was heavy and thus the film struggled to gross the staggering totals needed to surpass its $130 million budget by a great distance. That said the film drew some positive reviews, a mixed press from critics but fans admired the film and since, Watchmen has gained a mighty impressive following and appreciation.


Jonah Hex (2010)

Another attempt to kick-start a comic franchise, which in this case led to disaster. Jonah Hex is one of the lesser-known antiheroes, a scared bounty hunter, around but this film from Pixar animator Jimmy Hayward drew intense critical negativity upon release. Even at 81 minutes, the film was cited as messy and a disastrously written western/action film. Josh Brolin was praised as a faithful looking Hex but the film, despite not having the biggest budget flopped hard and was forgotten come year’s end.


Green Lantern (2011)

After the bad performance of Jonah Hex, this effects-filled film came along looking to bring Hal Jordan’s story to the big screen. Sadly, this was another disappointment. The film cast Ryan Reynolds in the part and had a good go at going through the character’s mythology but unimpressed critics and thanks to re-shoots had a ballooned budget of over $200 million, which left this adaptation with an unhealthy performance at the box office and the clearly marked sequel in serious jeopardy.


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The most controversial of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not merely for a less great reception than the prior film but for some of the changes to characters like Bane (Tom Hardy) and the plot progression, yet it was still another success. The film drew some very good reviews overall and audiences flocked to cinemas to make this epic film a fitting conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy. The film broke the $1 billion mark and despite a few dissenting voices is considered one of the best DC comic book adaptations.


So after all that lets get to the present again. Man of Steel is out now and is the second attempt at re-vitalising Superman onscreen. Have you seen it? How did it work out? Tell us in the comments section below and you can see what Roobla thought of the film, with our review right here.

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