The Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking began in 2000 when Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) dragged superheroes to the centre of popular culture. Today superpowered protagonists are as familiar to cinemagoers as sticky floors and popcorn.
Somewhere between the mash-ups and redundant reboots, more interesting work has started to emerge. The comic book adaptation, like all good teenagers, is demonstrating new-found maturity. So let us take a look back at the trends and triumphs of this year in superheroes.
Over the past 12 months a female hero, Laura Kinney, took over as Wolverine, Korean-American Amadeus Cho became the Hulk’s alter-ego, and the Marvel universe welcomed biracial Spider-Man Miles Morales.
Mainstream audiences might have missed these changes as they took place in the pages of the comics rather than on-screen, yet after years in which every superhero seemed to be played by a white guy named Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt), 2015 finally ushered in some diversity.
The year began with Captain America’s love-interest Peggy Cater getting her own television series, Agent Carter (2015-). Led by a game Haley Atwell, the Cold War series managed to be fun and stylish without shying away from the misogyny of the era, with the British secret agent tackling workplace sexism as often as international spies.
Up next was a Supergirl (2015-) television series, which drew early online criticism from viewers wondering why the last daughter of Krypton was Super “girl” rather than Super “woman”, an issue the family-friendly show sought to diffuse in its pilot by having media guru Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) argue:
What do you think is so bad about “Girl?”. I’m a girl, and your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?
The most interesting of these female-led superhero shows, Jessica Jones (2015-), was an end-of-year treat from Marvel’s increasingly fertile partnership with Netflix. The series centred on a failed superhero turned hard-drinking private eye played with punk-like tenacity by Breaking Bad alumnus Krysten Ritter.
In focusing on the everyday consequences of superpowers Jessica Jones was in keeping with the more realistic tone set by 2015’s earlier Netflix-Marvel collaboration Daredevil (2015-).
The show’s villain Killgrave, played by one-time Doctor Who David Tennant, has the generic ability of mind control, yet the series used this tired trope to engage with larger debates around rape, trauma, and consent – topics unlikely to be addressed in Iron Man 4.
While one might argue that these shows are merely picking up on hashtag-friendly issues to provide their high-concept shows with a veneer of socio-political relevance, their engagement with contemporary concerns seems more honest.
Jessica Jones showrunner Melissa Rosenberg began working on the series for broadcast network ABC in 2010, long before these issues were on the international agenda. The move to Netflix allowed her to engage more directly with the demons faced by a character suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Risk-averse Hollywood filmmakers are slowly joining comics and television by offering more demanding roles for women. Next year’s Batman V Superman features Wonder Woman in a supporting role ahead of a solo film in 2017, while Marvel has slated a 2019 release for its intergalactic heroine Captain Marvel.
As Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne noted upon receiving her own supersuit in the post-credit coda of this year’s Ant-Man, “It’s about damn time”.
It’s also about damn time superhero movies stepped up in terms of racial diversity. In a year in which the multicultural cast of Furious 7 (2015) propelled the roadworthy franchise to new box office highs it is surprising to see so little imagination in the casting of the next Hollywood heroes.
In comic books, the current Avengers roster includes an African-American Captain America and a Muslim Ms Marvel. Jessica Jones’ love-interest, the Blaxploitation-inspired hero Luke Cage, will receive his own Netflix series next year, but in 2015 the cinematic Avengers remained stubbornly homogeneous.
This may be partially explained by the misplaced fan criticism that followed the casting of Fruitvale Station star Michael B Jordan in Fantastic Four as an African-American version of the traditionally white Human Torch.
Filmmakers have been slow to match the diversity of comics and TV in their US$100 million tentpole films.
Comics are increasingly treated as the research and development branch of larger entertainment companies. Television, in turn, might be considered the prototype phase, as studios test new ideas before their wider (and more expensive) implementation in feature films.
Thus, next year African-American sidekicks War Machine and Falcon will finally be elevated to the Avengers for Captain America: Civil War (2016), which also introduces African hero The Black Panther to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The easy migration of intellectual property from comics to film and TV demonstrates how larger conglomerates such as The Walt Disney Company and Time Warner are taking advantage of transmedia paradigms.
In 2015 Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter not only headlined her eponymous show, but also made cameo appearances in sister series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013-) and feature films Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.
Hit superhero show Arrow (2012-) was also expanded into a transmedia universe (informally termed the “Arrowverse”) that includes fellow CW show The Flash (2014-), the animated webseries Vixen (2015-), and comic books that fill in the narrative gaps between episodes.
Inspired by the universe-building of superhero franchises, a number of Hollywood studios are trying to get in on the lucrative transmedia game with cross-platform worlds planned for Transformers, Fast & Furious, and Universal’s Monsters.
We will have to wait until next year to see whether these shared narratives find consumers enthusiastically relaying from one platform to the next, or whether the stories become too dense for all but the most ardent fans.
Since 2000, cinema has formed the hub of these superhero franchises, but 2015 saw the scales tipping in favour of television. The Flash managed to pack a 23-episode season with high-velocity action, world-ending spectacle, and even a talking gorilla, visual set pieces once considered impossible on a television budget.
Streaming shows such as Daredevil, Powers, and Jessica Jones demonstrated how the relaxed censorship of non-broadcast television can take heroes to darker territory than they will find in the multiplex.
The expanding Arrowverse suggests that episodic television is more suited to chronicling the never-ending quests of superheroes than a 100-minute movie every two years.
In 2015 the now familiar superhero story started to come of age, exploring new topics with different heroes on a wider variety of formats. Next year will reveal where that renewed purpose takes these timeless icons.