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Golden Age of Superhero Movies 1938 - 1988

Before there was IMAX or 3D, before Zack Snyder's visionary style and before Marvel knew what they were doing, there was the Golden Age of Superhero Movies.

By Patricia SarkarPublished 7 years ago 6 min read

There are more than the few and the proud as the genre is born with a KA-POW! Adam West's Batman's warm smile and the soaring theme of Christopher Reeve's Superman followed by a barrage of sequels were part of the birth of The Golden Age of Superhero Movies from 1938 to 1988.

The Spider's Web

Director: James W. Horne, Ray Taylor

Cast: Warren Hull, Iris Meredith, Richard Fiske

Released: 22 October, 1938

Description: Released just as Green Hornet hit the radio and Superman hit the newsstands, The Spider's Web may be a stock masked gangbuster (albeit a faintly sinister one) but his debut serial opened the door for superheroes on the flickering canvas.

Rating: 3/5

Director: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor

Cast: Gordon Jones, Wade Boteler, Keye Luke

Released: 9 January, 1940

Description: Following up on the character's radio success, this 13-parter is a pretty standard fisticuffs mystery, most remarkable for starring a young Keye Luke (Kung Fu's Master Po) as Kato.

Rating: 2/5

Director: John English, William Witney

Cast: Eduardo Ciannelli, Robert Wilcox, William Newell

Released: 13 December, 1940

Description: What a name for a villain, eh? No wonder square-jawed do-gooder The Copperhead barely gets a look-in as Eduardo Ciannelli wallows scenery in this game-changing serial from Republic—the moment the cowboy became the caped crusader.

Rating: 3/5

Director: John English, William Witney

Cast: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr, William 'Billy' Benedict

Released: 28 March, 1941

Description: Beating his arch-rival Superman to the big screen by seven years, this 12-part movie serial—each one with a doozy of a cliffhanger—is a classic wide-eyed adventure with a superb visual effects and camp melodrama.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish

Released: 16 July, 1943

Description: The Caped Crusader is a pistol-packing government spy-catcher dispensing racist barbs as he cold-clocks Tojo's henchmen, but despite its wartime jingoism and farcical production, this 15-part serial's influence on Batman lore is surprising.

Rating: 2/5

Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet

Cast: Wiliam Forrest, Louise Currie, Johnny Arthur

Released: 6 November, 1943

Description: Gloriously short mixture of pulp detective/secret agent and masked mystery man, The Masked Marvel gets the most out of its hero's secret identity—preserving the mystery until the final reel.

Rating: 4/5

Director: B. Reeves Eason

Cast: Tom Tyler, Jeanne Bates, Ernie Adams

Released: 24 December, 1943

Description: Captain Marvel star Tom Tyler embodies the Ghost Who Walks. While not as wildly over the top, The Phantom is deeply enjoyable—even his canine sidekick Devil can't seem to stop wagging his tail at inopportune moments.

Rating: 2/5

Director: Elmer Clifton, John English

Cast: Dick Purcell, Lorna Gray, Lionel Atwill

Released: 5 February, 1944

Description: Marvel's first big screen outing turns the Sentinel of Liberty into a chubby district attorney with a nary a shield in sight, but as if to prove those things don't really matter—it's one of Republic's best action/adventure serials.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Thomas Carr

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond

Released: 15 July, 1948

Description: Substituting difficult FX sequences for animation is the masterstroke that gives Superman a distinct identity amid the explosion in superhero serials.

Rating: 3/5

Director: Spencer Gordon Bennett

Cast: Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams

Released: 26 May, 1949

Description: The end of the war saps the Yellow Peril bigotry from the Dark Knight, but the crappiness and the plot-holes remain. What Batman '66 did with a smirk, Batman and Robin does with bullish sincerity.

Rating: 1/5

Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet

Cast: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Lyle Talbot

Released: 20 July, 1950

Description: Cheap and gimmicky, Atom Man Vs Superman leaps from low budget set-piece to low budget set-piece, while Ed Wood-grade flying saucers bob around lazily.

Rating: 1/5

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether

Released: 30 July, 1966

Description: With Batmania exploding like a lava lamp at altitude, Batman: The Movie transposed the stylish snigger-fest to the big screen, bringing together the show's most iconic villains for an endlessly quotable and surprisingly smart triumph.

Rating: 5/5

Director: Richard Donner

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder

Released: 10 December, 1978

Description: The superhero arrives with all the sense of wonder transposed from the page to the screen. Christoper Reeve is perfect, his physical transformation from Clark to Kal so convincing that we'll take the lame disguise and contrived disappearances.

Rating: 5/5

Director: Richard Lester

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder

Released: 4 December, 1980

Description: While the Richard Donner cut has a well-deserved reputation for greatness, the film that made it into the cinemas is no strength-sapping Kryptonite. It's a jaw-agape epic, with Terence Stamp's granite General Zod raising the stakes significantly.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast:Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera

Released: 2 July, 1981

Description: Half-spyfi and half-meta superhero deconstruction, Condorman underarms the unlikeliest possible lead—Michael 'Frank Spencer' Crawford—into a world of Bond babes, shifty Russkis and globetrotting adventure. It's not clever, but it's just as much fun as it sounds.

Rating: 3/5

Director: Richard Lester

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor

Released: 16 June, 1983

Description: Fully deserving of its lackluster reputation, pretty much the only thing that's not been reheated from the first two movie is Richard Pryor—it's up to you which of those things is the worst.

Rating: 3/5

Director: Jeannot Szwarc

Cast: Faye Dunaway, Helen Slater, Peter O'Toole

Released: 19 July, 1984

Description: Not quite the birth of the DC Cinematic Universe, the overlooked Supergirl is a far warmer offering than history remembers and it's strangely satisfying to see Jimmy Olsen reduced to damsel in distress.

Rating: 2/5

Director: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

Cast: Andree Maranda, Mitch Cohen, Jennifer Babtist

Released: 11 April, 1986

Description: Splatter master Lloyd Kaufman enters the superhero arena with pitiable geek turned vengeful freak in this endlessly rewatchable ecological exploitation flick.

Rating: 4/5

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Cast: Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder

Released: 25 November, 1987

Description: Compromised in every possible way—budget (ran out), locations (Milton Keynes), plot (Superman develops entirely new powers on the hoof), and casting (nobody really cares anymore).

Rating: 1/5

Director: Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz

Cast: Ron Fazio, Phoebe Legere, John Altamura

Released: 24 February, 1989

Description: Moving that action to Tokyo for no real reason, The Toxic Avenger's second outing lacks any real surprise but there's enough guilty laughs and oozing gross-out moments to keep you watching.

Rating: 3/5

Director:Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz

Cast: Ron Fazio, Phoebe Legere, John Altamura

Released: 10 November, 1989

Description: More cartoonish and more crass than its predecessors, even the environmental subtext has folded in on itself as The Toxic Avenger series starts to cater for only the troma faithful.

Rating: 1/5

Director: Mark Goldblatt

Cast: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Jeroen Krabbé

Released: 1 June, 1989

Description: Had it been released after Batman, this grimy and effective revenge actioner would perhaps have worn the skull on its chest more proudly, but then it perhaps wouldn't be such an overlooked gem.

Rating: 3/5

moviesuperheroesvintagepop culture

About the Creator

Patricia Sarkar

Raised on a steady diet of makeup and games. Eager to share my experiences with the world and make a difference, article by article! :)

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