Although recent years have seen the release of numerous comic book genre films of high quality, a stigma remains attached to the genre in the minds of many people. Also, despite widespread attendance at and enjoyment of these films, overall perceptions of the source material print comic books has not changed beyond the negative stereotypes of the medium, not to mention the negative stereotypes of comic book readers.
Let's consider first where the bias and stereotype regarding comic books comes from. Part of the problem is due to the historical fact that comic book readers have mostly tended to be young. While it's true that in recent decades, the average age of a comic book reader has risen, and comic books are now marketed more toward young-adults rather than readers in their earlier teens and younger, the fact is that for most of the history of comic books in the U.S., readership tended to be on the younger end of the spectrum. The earlier decades are also the time when so many of the most popular existing characters and comics were in fact invented.
The association in the public mind between young readers and superhero comics created the broader cultural impression that these were books for immature readers. Despite my appreciation for earlier comics, and the fact that there were indeed plenty that were very good in quality and that appealed to mature readers as well as to kids, the truth is that most of the earlier comics (and again, I'm really speaking in broad terms primarily about superhero comics that became the publicly perceived "face" of the medium) lacked the same degree of sophistication and appeal to older sensibilities that arose in later decades.
That this was largely due to the industry rationally seeking to appeal to their biggest segment of readers is quite understandable, and it's unfair to label something "unsophisticated" simply because its appeal is designed toward youths. However, these books were created by adults with the same bias and preconceptions about kids sensibilities that society as a whole held about kids and comic books.
The themes and stories declined in originality and sophistication to an extent, driven by the attempt to sanitize the medium and to directly appeal to much younger readers based on adult biases about those readers' sophistication. This overtook much of the best earlier work in superhero comics, and helped reinforce the public bias against the medium. And of course, readership eventually started a serious decline. By the time of the revival of the medium with much more serious, dramatic fare in the 1960's and 1970's, it was too late public bias and stereotypes had sank in and grown roots.
The industry and fans had no options for seriously contesting the misperceptions that lead to this dismissive attitude. And sadly, the early history of comic book films did nothing much to help alleviate the stigma, and in fact largely reinforced it up until the arrival of the 21st Century. Only a few films from the 1970's through the 1990's ever stood out as exceptions to the norm, with each one or two good films usually surrounded by a flood of lower quality fare that typically lacked the same degree of seriousness, respect, and appeal to more mature audiences. Let's turn now to the role the comic book film genre has played in all of this.
The history of comic book films has been mixed. After beginning with short serials in the earliest years, the first feature-length comic book film was 1951's SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN. The next attempt was 15 years later, when the BATMAN television show was adapted to the big screen. Whatever lack of seriousness and commitment to dramatic storytelling existed in these earliest films was at least partly due to the fact that the comic books of this time (the 1950s and 1960s) often refused to treat the characters with the same degree of respect and seriousness that existed in previous and subsequent years.
The modern era of comic book films was kicked off with 1978's SUPERMAN. The epic scale, large budget, and overall high quality of the film introduced Hollywood to the reality that these films could be very profitable, and that the comics represented a potentially lucrative source of material from which to draw upon. Sadly, after the first two Superman films, the quality took a nose-dive in terms of both quality and profitability. Other early and mid-80s attempts to bring other comic books to the screen likewise failed, due to poor quality and a lack of respect for the material. The 1989 film BATMAN revived the hopes of comic book fans, with the introduction of a serious, darker-themed film that convincingly erased the memory of the campy 1960s TV show and established Batman as a modern pop-culture icon.
The subsequent BATMAN sequels at first still retained most of the more positive lessons, but unfortunately suffered some hiccups. 1992's BATMAN RETURNS was a more macabre film than the first movie, and while still successful at the box office it didn't meet expectations. The studio then sought to lighten the franchise. This lead to BATMAN FOREVER, which was indeed more family-friendly and a sometimes slightly campy portrayal, but still overall faithful to the source material and one of the more profitable and popular Batman films. So the studio moved toward even lighter fare and additional camp in 1997's BATMAN & ROBIN. The film was modestly profitable and certainly still had roots in certain eras in the comic book's history, but it was a critical failure and not profitable enough to give anyone faith in further film attempts at that time.
Having seen two of the biggest, most popular and recognizable comic book heroes sink after a few films, the lesson might have been taken away that comic book films simply could not sustain either quality or audiences. The 1990s also saw a few other entries that further enhanced this theory about the unreliability of the comic book genre, a recurrence of what happened in the 1980s. Hollywood had the impression that comic book films were a fad, so they treated them as a fad, attempting to cash in quickly by tossing out a number of low-quality productions.
A few films helped keep alive the sense among some in Hollywood that the right application of quality and production values could still produce comic book films capable of being both critically and monetarily successful. 1994's THE CROW and 1999's BLADE were in the best traditions of 1989's BATMAN, in their dark and brooding feel and even in some production values. And notice again that this is another aspect of the 1980s phenomenon reoccurring toward the end of the decade comes a film (or films) that rise above the otherwise increasingly bad quality