Hollywood has found a successful formula in comic-book adaptations. They’re the sole bankable genre in an era of consumers opting to stay home rather than venture to the cinema. What’s more, most occupy that rare territory of the most ubiquitous mainstream media that also garners almost universally positive critiques.
Portrayals of groups historically marginalized in pop culture, like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, are applauded as trend-setters for all of entertainment. Critics and fans alike pontificate on these films’ thematic elements of morality and society with the same gravity a lit professor tackles the work of Dickens.
Funny enough, comic books are inherently children’s entertainment.
That might be an oversimplification; the medium is so vast and has so much to offer that consumers of all ages can find material targeted to them. Plenty of comic series are very adult in tone, and the wave of superhero films, while aiming for the largest audience possible, are geared more toward adults than kids.
In the history of the artform, however, the transition to adult audiences is relatively recent.
Comics were marketed to and written for children almost exclusively from the early 20th century until the 1980s, when a wave of very adult stories gained critical success.
The popularity of unconventional stories like Swamp Thing and The Watchmen influenced more mainstream characters. Batman got a retooling, ditching gray-and-blue for a more emo look and going dark in both Year One and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
And, by the 1990s, the shift seeped into other avenues of the genre with both positive and negative effects. On the negative side, a LOT of edgelord garbage came to life in the ’90s. More positively, storytelling grew more complex — including in those categories still ostensibly meant for children; case-in-point, cartoons.
Superhero cartoons of eras before the 1990s were often campy. While the 1960s version of Spider-Man lives on today, fondly remembered in its meme form, I watched the series DVD release in 2004 and it’s pretty silly.
Likewise, Cartoon Network aired episodes of the Hanna-Barbera Challenge of the Superfriends cartoons from the 1970s during my childhood. Even as a kid in the ’90s, Superfriends struck me as hopelessly campy.
I was also comparing Superfriends to the newer cartoons of my era, which can be best described as evaluating game film of the Bob Cousy Celtics against highlights of the current Golden State Warriors.
Comic-book adapted animated series became en vogue in the 1990s, with FOX Kids airing Spider-Man: The Animated Series and X-Men on Saturday mornings, Batman: The Animated Series on weekdays, and later in the decade, WB running Superman: TAS and Batman Beyond on weekdays.
Dare I say without these cartoons, we might not have the superhero blockbusters of today.
Spider-Man hit theaters in 2002, when I was a freshman in college and right in the film’s demographic sweet spot. Seven years earlier, I made certain I was in front of the TV for Peter Parker’s animated every Saturday morning.
How well the FOX Kids Spider-Man holds up, I can’t say, but I loved it in my youth — in part because the storytelling didn’t occur in a vacuum. Past adventures were referenced, and some semblance of character development was woven into the Villain Du Jour action standard for children’s cartoons.
X-Men followed long-term arcs even more effectively; as effectively as some adult television. The animated X-Men also remained more faithful to its source material than any incarnation of the mutants that followed, which meant touching on some very mature themes.
The story of the X-Men is one inherently based around elements of discrimination, bigotry and fascism. The animated series never shied away from such topics.
My favorite of the ’90s comic-book cartoons, and the one I contend is the most influential on today’s filmmaking, is Batman: The Animated Series.
The cartoon followed on the heels of Tim Burton’s second movie. I was too young to remember 1989’s Batman or the ahead-of-its-time marketing blitz that preceded it. I do, however, remember the many advertisements for Batman Returns.
“The Bat. The Cat. The Penguin.”
My parents forbid me from seeing Batman Returns initially due to its PG-13 rating, Catwoman’s overt sexualization in trailers, and the Penguin’s terrifying appearance. So imagine my excitement when that same year, a cartoon arrived with a styling similar to Burton’s movies but more accessible for my age.
Batman: The Animated Series combined beautiful art, smart storytelling, awesome action, Mark Hamill killing it as The Joker and MUSIC BY DANNY FREAKIN’ ELFMAN.
Batman was revolutionary in a way in 1992 that holds up in 2018. And in 2005 — after a couple of Joel Schumacher-helmed films parallel to The Animated Series‘ that deviated drastically in tone — Batman Begins presented a live-action version of the Dark Knight that mirrored the Kevin Conroy-voiced version.
Batman Begins rebooted the marquee DC Comics franchise in theaters five years after the first X-Men film (and two after the outstanding X2), and three years following Spider-Man. I don’t think it’s coincidence those three titles essentially sparked the ongoing superhero cinema craze, after having successfully transformed the genre on the small screen just a few years prior.