The First Cinematic Superheroes

Way before Batman begins....

Tracing back the origins of today’s popular superhero films, we find traits of the sub-genre in unexpected places. Join us as we explore some examples of what could be considered the first cinematic super heroes.

Today it seems like almost every other major movie release features characters with superhuman powers saving the world. However, relative to the history of cinema, superhero movies are a relatively new type of film. Comic books have been popular for more than half as long as cinema has existed. But even then, it took awhile for both movie studios and movie audiences to comprehend their appeal. Whether it is due to the advancement of special effects in cinema, or the current business of studios heavily betting on tent pole franchises, the superhero movies have come of age.

But, looking back, the superhero movie landscape has not been as barren as one might have been led to believe. Action movies have existed for nearly as long as the technology of motion pictures. Audiences have always cheered on strong protagonists who have fought the evil and corrupt happenings associated with the human condition. Putting these two ideas together, we at least have the foundations for what could be considered a superhero movie.

This is a look at those films which may not be credited for starting the superhero movie genre, but exhibit many of the same traits we see in those films today. Their heroes may not have superhuman powers, they aren’t all based on comic books, and the film’s action may be very tame by today’s standards. Nonetheless these films should be considered the ancestors of today’s most popular style of film.

“The Judge” Arrives

Starting with Thomas Edison’s 1912 short film entitled “What Happened to Mary?”, American cinema invented what would become known as the Serial. These were short films which shared a common storyline. Studios released Serials in segments to get audiences to keep coming back for more. They employed devious tricks such as exciting action stunts, promotional tie-ins, and cliffhanger endings. In many ways, the early serials were the more basic version of today’s mega-franchises like the MCU. By the middle of the decade, nearly every studio produced their own serials. The popularity of these films made them very profitable.

However, while adventurous and action-packed, these early serials tended to focus on misadventure and melodrama. Their protagonists were at the heart of a series of unfortunate events. Exciting, yes, but not the same as what I would consider the motivator behind a superhero film. Even those which focused on revenge, they did so from a place of selfish human emotional response. In a superhero film, our protagonists are mostly unselfish. They take action for the greater good. Early serials didn’t have this type of narration. At least not until 1916’s Judex.

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Judex was the creation of Louis Feuillade, a french filmmaker who had created several successful serials. His success had come from focusing on devilishly evil main characters. For Judex he decided to flip the script. In this serial, the lead character becomes a masked vigilante who fights for the lives of innocent people in peril. Judex had twelve parts, including an origin story for the first episode. He is first motivated to revenge the death of his family at the hands of an evil banker. Gradually he evolves his knack for mischief into a full-on crime fighter. Like Batman he used special gadgets and had a secret lair. There was even a love interest he had to save from mortal peril.  

The character of Judex would go on to star in a sequel serial. Then a French feature-length film in the 1930’s, followed by a remake in the 60’s. The original serial was actually created in 1914, but its release had been delayed due to war. By 1916, other serials had been released with similar ideas, but they weren’t as consistent with today’s superhero films as this one. Judex was ahead of its time. But even though it was fairly successful, it didn’t really change the landscape as much as another film which we’ll get to next.

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It is interesting to see the first cinematic hero came from Europe. This type of film would eventually catch on in America and become most closely associated with Hollywood. Indeed, Judex’s production may have been just a matter of bad timing. With the destruction in Europe after the war, the American filmmakers really took control of the industry. Their approach helped to channel it into a more consistent format – a more expensive format, but also much more commercially appealing.  

The Curse of Capistrano

As the second decade of the twentieth century came to a close, so did the first era of serial films. Combined with the impact of WWI, the market became oversaturated with serial films. Small companies trying to attract audiences could no longer compete with the more established players. This was true especially when the films they produced ended up being very similar.

The 1920’s brought the next evolution of the action film to theaters. This wave traded the gimmicky serial format for something more substantial. Starting with 1920’s The Mask of Zorro, audiences were introduced to a more adventurous and glamorous movie watching experience. The emergence of the feature length format allowed more in-depth story-lines. More importantly, they also allowed more screen time to explore exotic locales and stage action on a grander scale.

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Many people consider the character of Zorro to be the prototype for the American comic book hero, and Batman is again the best correlation. Much like Judex, Zorro was a masked vigilante. He was a skilled sword fighter who fought for the rights of indigenous people against the corruption and incompetence of their Spanish rulers. Zorro is actually Don Diego Vega, a man who hailed from a rich family. He used his wealth as a disguise for his more adventurous alter ego. He lives in a large mansion and organizes his crime-fighting out of a secret cave.

The character first came to life in a 1919 magazine serial titled The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, which would later be published as a novel. It was common for the era to have films based on serialized novels, but Zorro struck a chord with audiences. The success of the 1920 film adaptation convinced McCulley to write more adventures. In 1925  a sequel cashed in on the character’s expanding popularity. A 1940 remake further embedded the character into American pop culture. Zorro starred in countless sequels, remakes, and side adventures during the proceeding five decades.

What makes the first Zorro films important as an early ancestor to the modern superhero movie is how the film struck a nerve with contemporary audiences. The film was able to successfully combine two genres which were popular at the time; the action movie, and the romance. Together, these aspects of the film played off of each other. The romance gave the action more context, and the action added to the excitement of the romance. It took stunt-heavy action and made it more cinematic with lavish sets and a comedic staging. Later films would have increased budgets with even more outrageous swashbuckling.

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At the center of it all was a character who had incredible universal appeal. Smart, good-looking, funny, and capable – Zorro was everything we wanted to be. But more importantly, Zorro wanted to make a difference. He had all of the qualities necessary to be able to do this. Every man can recognize the problems with the world around them. A superhero is someone who has the strength and the fortitude far exceeding a normal person which allows them do something about it. This ideology was something that surely influenced the creators of the earliest superhero comic books the following decade. 

The Comics Come to Life

The common superhero trope is a plot where our protagonist has to save the world. In 1936’s Flash Gordon, that’s exactly what happens. Flash Gordon was on the forefront of a second wave of serials, often considered “The Golden Age of Serials”.  These new serials had comparatively higher production values compared to what had come before. They also had lasting impressions on countless young minds growing up during the Great Depression and into WWII.

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Improved special effects, an audience hungry for escapism, and the proliferation of comic books provided the inspiration for this new era of exciting serials. 1936’s Flash Gordon became the footprint for others to follow. As the first era of serials took stories from printed magazines, the second era of serials looked towards comics. The inspiration for Flash Gordon came from a Sunday newspaper cartoon, drawn by Alex Raymond and first appearing in 1934. The titular character is just a normal man. But fighting against Ming the Merciless to save the Earth from destruction, he becomes something else. Although this protagonist still doesn’t have any actual superpowers, he acts valiantly like his predecessors.

Flash Gordon was a huge success for Universal studios and single-handedly revitalized a failing aspect of cinema. The most lasting impact of this serial was its science fiction setting. This is a film that would go on to inspire George Lucas’ Star Wars. Before that it found competition in Buck Rogers and later helped to inspire the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950’s. In the context of our retrospective, it put two things together that most modern superhero films utilize. One. an action-hero storyline and, two, the possibilities afforded by science fiction. The last step towards our modern interpretation of a superhero film was having a hero who actually had superhuman abilities.

The Caped Crusaders

Action Comics #1 introduced the world to Superman in 1938. The character became so popular that the Action Comics anthology series eventually became dedicated solely to the Man of Steel. The following year, Superman starred in his own newspaper comic, and after that he had his own radio show. The next logical progression was to see Superman in live action, but it didn’t happen, at least not right away.

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National Periodical Publications (the precursor to DC Comics) owned the rights to Superman. Due to the popularity of the character, a bidding war resulted for the film rights. Paramount outbid Republic, but decided to create an anthology of animated shorts to be released in theaters rather than a live action serial. That animated series would go on to become a major influence for all animated superhero movies/shows moving forward. But it also inspired something else. Republic Pictures was licking its wounds after not securing the rights to Superman. Instead of giving up on the idea of a superhero serial altogether, they went to his rival.

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The result was The Adventures of Captain Marvel, a twelve-part serial released in 1941. Captain Marvel competed in the comic business with Superman, and the character was popular enough to make this serial a success. National Periodical Publications even tried to take legal action against the release of the serial, but was unsuccessful. Republic re-purposed a lot of the same special effects they were developing for their Superman serial. Granted mysterious powers by the wizard known as Shizam, The Adventures of Captain Marvel became the first true live-action superhero. Shortly afterwards, Paramount would release their own Superman live-action serial, and the foundation was set for the cinematic superhero.