In most tellings, the current age of superhero movies began in earnest in 2000, with Bryan Singer’s X-Men. That relatively modest film, built around a pair of classically trained Brits and an Australian actor with a background in musical theater, proved that audiences would turn out for reasonably faithful adaptations of classic comic book stories. And it set in motion a new wave of superhero films — from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy to Marvel's ever-expanding catalog of Avengers and Avengers-adjacent blockbusters, not to mention a host of less-successful efforts.
Of course, while that history of the modern superhero movie isn’t wrong, it largely ignores the role of comic books themselves, which over the years have served as a sort of testing ground for the types of storytelling devices and thematic questions that now dominate both the box office and the public’s pop-culture conversation.
In particular, it glosses over a strain that emerged in the late 1990s that became known as "widescreen comics." Widescreen comics were a reaction to the talky, cartoony superhero comics of the 1990s, many of which were mired in a kind of second-rate '70s revivalism, and which often had more in common with soap operas and professional wrestling than with epic Hollywood tentpoles.
They were drawn to mimic big-screen visuals, with wide panels that looked like movie-theater screens. The essential idea was to emphasize grand spectacle and visual storytelling, to insist that comic book creators should take advantage of their "unlimited budgets" — as afforded by the fact that comic book action was illustrated on the page, not CGI'd on the screen — to create show-stopping action that Hollywood, due to the limitations of finances and effects technology, could never afford to produce.
One of the first widescreen comics, The Authority, laid the track for the superhero films we know today
The touchstone for this movement was the DC Comics series The Authority, by writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch. The pair had previously worked together on Stormwatch, which served as a predecessor to The Authority, converting the series from a run-of-the-mill superhero team story into something edgier and bloodier — an unapologetically violent, intensely political series that questioned the morality of the entire business of being a superhero, asking whether superheroes, as traditionally imagined, were really doing any good at all, or just serving powerful interests.
The heroes of Stormwatch ripped off people’s arms and engaged in sexually explicit banter, and the series finale involved a standoff between the titular superheroes and the president of the United States over the acquisition of alien weapons technology — then closed with the team losing its sanction as the United Nations pulled its funding. It wasn't exactly realistic, but it was attuned to world affairs, and it grappled with the cultural questions of power and politics that the existence of superheroes in our own world would inevitably raise.
Launched in May of 1999, The Authority expanded on Stormwatch’s ideas, building its stories around massive destruction and tough questions about superhero ethics. In an interview that coincided with the release of the first issue, writer Ellis described the series’ ambitions to journalist Matt Springer:
Property destruction on a massive scale. It's a superhero book gone widescreen, it's $200 million just on the special effects, it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production with script by Sylvester Stallone, Cecil B DeMille and Timothy Leary. It's as big and mad and beautiful as Bryan Hitch and I can make it. If teenagers need superhero comics, then this is what they should be like — pure bloody adrenaline, strange days, and big things blowing up. And why not?"
In that short quote, you can identify the seeds of the modern superhero movie, and in the 12-issue run that Ellis and Hitch went on to produce, it’s even more apparent: The action is intense, the destruction is epic, the conflicts larger than life.
Hitch’s artwork is far more realistic than the exaggerated, often goofy style that dominated comics in the early 1990s, with a greater sense of drama. Page layouts are simpler; many feature just a handful of panels that stretch all the way across the page, in roughly the same aspect ratio as a movie theater screen. Hitch makes frequent use of a technique known as "decompression," in which the story is conveyed largely through visuals, without much dialogue, and brief moments are spread out across multiple pages of art. The result was a sweeping, grandiose, inherently cinematic comic — just as Ellis had promised.
At the same time, Ellis’s story continued to engage with cultural and political affairs, often by upending the tropes of comics themselves. Two of The Authority's male heroes, Apollo and Midnighter — who were essentially stand-ins for Superman and Batman — were lovers, and the book was built on the question of where its heroes would derive their authority from in the absence of a UN mandate. In many ways, The Authority was a critique of the entire genre of superhero comics.
After a dozen issues, Ellis and Hitch turned The Authority over to a new creative team, writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely, who proceeded to further amp up the book’s political commentary, pitting its heroes against dictators and governments, even leading to a handful of instances in which panels were altered by the publisher, over Millar’s objections, because they depicted unflattering images of George W. Bush.
The movement's signature story elements included large-scale destruction, self-parody, and pointed political commentary
Millar’s run on The Authority proved as influential as it was controversial, and he quickly became one of the comic book industry’s stars. He jumped ship from DC to Marvel to launch the "Ultimate Universe," an alternate Marvel timeline unbound from the main comic's continuity that was intended to give new readers a starting point.
His main project was The Ultimates — essentially an alternate-timeline series that updated the Captain America-led Avengers with a more modern sensibility, including reimagining Nick Fury as a black man who looked suspiciously like Samuel L. Jackson, long before the actor was cast in the role. Joining Millar on The Ultimates was former Authority artist Hitch, who once again contributed a cinematic look whose visual identity was defined by realistic characters, widescreen page layouts, and large-scale destruction.
As in The Authority, there were also elements of satire and self-awareness, with the various Avengers recast as over-the-top versions of themselves, and present-day politics on the mind.
In what is probably The Ultimates' most famous moment, Captain America beats the snot out of a villain and points to the A on his forehead while bellowing, "You think this letter on my head stands for France?" It was both an exaggerated joke about Captain America’s unfailing patriotism and a winking nod toward the American political discourse in the wake of the Iraq War, when congressional cafeterias briefly started referring to French fries as "Freedom fries."
After The Ultimates, Millar moved into Marvel’s primary universe. In 2006, he took the lead on the comic book version of Civil War, which, as in the recent movie, pitted a team of heroes led by Captain America against a team of heroes led by Iron Man over a question of political oversight following a superhero-related catastrophe
Civil War was another widescreen epic concerned with both politics and superhero ethics, and it served as a sort of culmination of all the ideas that had started in The Authority. It was an action-packed spectacle about superheroes and their relationship to the government, one that dealt with the challenges and tradeoffs inherent in their self-imposed mission to do good and protect the innocent.
In these comics, you can see the foundation of the modern superhero blockbuster; the gigantic scale, the intensity of the drama, the emphasis on visual storytelling, and epic conflict are the most obvious points of influence.
And more recent superhero films illustrate how the sort of self-questioning and self-parody that loomed over widescreen comic stories has crept into superhero movies as well: This year’s surprise hit Deadpool was a hyperviolent, fourth-wall breaking, comically over-the-top semi-parody of the superhero film. Batman v Superman dealt with question about superhero morality, especially with regard to the collateral damage caused by superhero action. Civil War tackles some of the same ethical questions, and makes global oversight central to its conflict.
Ellis, Millar, and Hitch, in other words, helped define what it means for a comic book to be cinematic, and in the process, helped pave the way for comic books to make the leap to the big screen.
There is a distinction, however, between their visions and the ones that now rule Hollywood. What Ellis, Millar, and Hitch were doing was also a form of criticism — not only of superheroes and their blind spots, but of comics and their fans. Ellis, who started work on Stormwatch after the market for comics bottomed out in the mid-1990s, posed The Authority as a kind of corrective to the entire industry and its devotees, showing them not only what superheroes could be, but the cold and sometimes monstrous truth about what, in his view, they really were.
That sort of grim self-criticism has yet to take hold in the world of superhero movies, which hasn't experienced an extended bust cycle. But if the continued influence of widescreen comics so far is any indication of the future, it won’t take too long.