Superheroes have been swashbuckling across our screens for almost 100 years now, starting with the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro. Their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, and much like noir or the western before it, it's unlikely that the current glut of costumes characters are going to shatter the very fabric of cinema like some critics are arguing. In fact, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, not only have "superhero movies" expanded to incorporate elements of many other genres, but the general trend of what the public looks for in superhero cinema has consistently evolved, from literal translations like Superman: The Movie to art-deco redesigns like Batman and grounded realism like The Dark Knight.
Of course, as is the case with any genre or medium, 100 years is a mighty long time. Society has evolved massively in just the last 20 years, let alone the last 100 (seriously, go back and rewatch some of those "classic" 1999 movies celebrating their anniversary this year and see how they've aged). Though we're still making superhero movies a century later, there are plenty of moments throughout comic book movie history that "you could never do today." So before you tug your collar at an off-color scene you completely forgot about, we're here to tell you which films still hold up, and which would launch a thousand thinkpieces today.
15 DOESN’T HOLD UP: MASK OF ZORRO (1998)
Almost 80 years after Douglas Fairbanks first donned the mask of Zorro in 1920, American cinema finally got a Latino Zorro in the form of Antonio Banderas in Martin Campbell's acclaimed reimagining of the iconic character. Feels like a good course correction, right?
Well, about that... Banderas, while donning the mantle of Zorro, did so as the character Alejandro Murrieta, a protege to the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, played by... Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins. Considering the backlash only two years ago when English actor Charlie Hunnam was cast as Mexican drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal, it's hard to believe anybody would be cool with casting an old white dude as the most famous Mexican hero in history.
14 DOES HOLD UP: BLADE II (2002)
While Blade still lays dormant in an ever expanding MCU, you may be wondering if the original Blade franchise holds up. Whelp, Blade Trinity is still the dumpster fire you remember (even if it contains proto-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds), and while the first film is still quite the banger, the visual effects are akin to a PS1 game.
But what about the middle film? Well, we're happy to report that Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro's first superhero film is still as riveting and visionary as it was in 2002. Especially in a post-MCU era, it's amazing to see a Marvel movie be so distinct in its visual style.
13 DOESN’T HOLD UP: METEOR MAN (1993)
There will be plenty of readers entirely unfamiliar with 1993's Meteor Man, but for those in the know, this one stings. For '90s kids, this was a VHS classic, tackling the pressing issues of the '90s in the most '90s way possible. But there was something admirable about Robert Townsend's attempt to make an indie superhero movie about urban crisis in the shadow of Batman '89.
But even if you look past all the dated elements of the film, there's one element that's almost impossible to look past: the presence of the now infamous Bill Cosby. It's hard not to tug your collar any time Cosby's Marvin shows up on screen.
12 DOES HOLD UP: THE CROW (1994)
Better known these days for its tragic behind the scenes story than the film itself, The Crow made a huge impact in its day for its bold, Gothic style. Over time, that style became the subject of ridicule after a series of not-so-great sequels and far too many "cool" Halloween costumes.
But setting all the outside elements aside, all the Hot Topic merch, the backstage tragedies, is The Crow worth a revisit? We dare say time has in fact been kind to The Crow. Not only does it feel like a time capsule without often feeling "dated," but eagle-eyed viewers can catch elements that would later appear in works like Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy first appear in this oft-forgotten film.
11 DOESN’T HOLD UP: THE SHADOW (1994)
Two things can be said about Hollywood: 1) When a film is a huge, game-changing hit, Hollywood will always try and replicate it, and 2) When a film is a huge, game-changing hit, Hollywood will always learn the wrong lesson. In the '90s, studios looked at the success of Tim Burton's Batman and took that to mean people were craving old-timey pulp heroes.
While none of those attempts (Dick Tracy, The Phantom) made much of a splash, few have aged as poorly as The Shadow, in no small part because of its star. Nowadays, Alec Baldwin is better known as a comedic performer than an action star, and his introductory yellowface appearance as Yin-Ko now feels like an off-color 30 Rock skit.
10 DOES HOLD UP: HULK (2003)
Ok, before you send the angry emails, give us a chance to explain. While many still write off Ang Lee's ambitious adaptation of the iconic comic book behemoth as a total failure, a quiet critical reevaluation has taken place, everywhere from RogerEbert.com to Blank Check with Griffin and David.
Writer James Schamus famously said that after he saw Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, he knew their film would flop, as it didn't "fit the formula." But now, when critics lament how formulaic modern superhero cinema has gotten, Ang Lee's Greek tragedy on steroids is a breath of fresh air. The wild, panel hopping visuals, the over-the-top performances and Lee's personal motion-capture as the Hulk make it well worth a revisit.
9 DOESN’T HOLD UP: ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE (1981)
The 1940 Mark of Zorro had a rich legacy in the popular culture. It was the most famous role of the late Tyrone Power, it was deemed culturally significant enough to be entered into the National Film Registry, and is (according to several storylines) the film a young Bruce Wayne saw with his parents before they died.
The self-described sequel, Zorro, The Gay Blade is...yeesh. Honestly, that's all one can say is...yeesh. Well received when released in 1981 (the '80s were a different time), this outright ignorant romp revolved around a case of mistaken identity between Don Diego de la Vega and his twin brother, the offensively limp-wristed Bunny Wigglesworth.
8 DOES HOLD UP: SPIDER-MAN (2002)
The mess that was Spider-Man 3 cast a pallor upon the original trilogy, and the subsequent reboots and reimaginings were received as more "comics accurate" interpretations of the character. But with the "Raimi suit" added to the newest Spider-Man game, people have begun to wonder if their nostalgia for the original entry is justified.
Despite almost containing the most poorly-timed action sequence in history (the original poster and trailer heavily featured the World Trade Center), the original Raimi film has aged remarkably well. Even more than a decade later, it's hard not to feel a rush during the memorable Green Goblin entrance or swoon at the upside down kiss.
7 DOESN’T HOLD UP: THE LONE RANGER (2013)
Arguably, it's not fair to suggest that The Lone Ranger "doesn't hold up" since many would say it never "held up" to begin with, insofar as the film was an infamous flop. Yet, the film had its defenders, ranging from Quentin Tarantino to writers on this very site.
The problem with The Lone Ranger is that, while there is a lot of good in there, there's a little speed bump that prevents it from ever achieving a "cult classic" status. Well, less a small speed bump and more a large but frail man often sporting a scarf. Even if Johnny Depp hadn't gained infamy for his misconduct, his casting as the notably Native American Tonto doesn't do the film any favors.
6 DOES HOLD UP: ROBOCOP (1987)
Paul Verhoeven's films have always been graphic, always provocative, and almost always a scandal even in their own time. "Problematic" isn't just a term applied to works like Elle or Showgirls, but indeed the very genre they belong to.
And yet, somehow, the original Robocop not only holds up, but its nightmarish satire feels as fresh today as it first did in 1987. While its recent remake already shows signs of age, the cold, metallic vision of Verhoeven, taking aim at everything from late-stage capitalism to the "end of history" mentality of contemporary America, not only holds up but arguably feels even more relevant today.
5 DOESN’T HOLD UP: CITIZEN TOXIE: THE TOXIC AVENGER IV
In fairness, one could ask the same question of any Troma movie. One of the most infamous independent film studios in America, Lloyd Kaufman and co. have been provocateurs extraordinaire for decades, blending satire with an almost nihilistic dadaism, spitting in the face of the "good taste" Moral Majority that prevailed in the early days of the Toxic Avenger.
Of course, like a lot of important shock art of its era, when the conventional attitudes they're combating do change, the work tends to suffer in retrospect. Though Citizen Toxie sought to demystify the boogie-men of the '90s and ridicule the pearl-clutching capitalists who feared them, now it just feels like a crude movie mocking school shootings and the disabled.
4 DOES HOLD UP: SUPERMAN THE MOVIE (1978)
This one may be hard for some to believe. We get that. In the era of dark and gritty, where the demand for action keeps getting greater and greater, it's hard not to believe there has to be some wear and tear on a film whose biggest boast is "You'll Believe A Man Can Fly."
Zack Snyder, Bryan Singer and countless others have tried to recreate the magic of the original Reeves Superman "for our time" but failed to realize one key thing. It's not as though the bright colors, humble heart and vibrant optimism of Superman: The Movie was "of the time" for 1978. Rather, it was in defiance of it, offering hope in a time of turmoil, which is why it still holds up today.
3 DOESN’T HOLD UP: IRON MAN (2008)
Many of us revisited the rich history of the MCU in anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War. Some of the films weren't as riveting as we remembered, others were pleasant surprises. But only one made some of us tilt our heads and go "Um..."
Some have criticized the original Iron Man for its underwhelming third act, but that's not what would spark outrage today. Instead, in a testament to how far we've come in just a decade, the treatment of women within the original Iron Man, both on the part of Tony Stark and even Pepper Potts is downright surprising by today's standards. If people got up in arms about the prima nocta joke in Avengers: Age of Ultron, they'd best keep away from this one.
2 DOES HOLD UP: BATMAN (1989)
In the wake of the Nolan trilogy, the DCEU and several well-regarded animated series, it still all comes back to a wildly ambitious vision on the part of the guy who gave us Peewee's Big Adventure. So much of not only the contemporary aesthetic of Batman, but arguably of the contemporary blockbuster still to this day owes a debt to Batman '89.
The Oscar-winning art deco design, the dark, moody atmosphere, the stirring Danny Elfman score; all of it is so distinct, and yet emerged so fully formed from first frame, that it never feels dated. Rather, Batman is like nothing before, and even when compared to its sequels, like nothing since.
1 DOESN’T HOLD UP: DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
Adapting Doctor Strange was a difficult proposition. Alongside Iron Fist and The Mandarin, the character is the most susceptible to accusations of "orientalism" and "white savior" narratives. And while Scott Derrickson deserves all the credit for how he brought the world of Doctor Strange to life, there were certainly some missteps along the way.
We understand the danger of dabbling in the Tibetan conflict, and wanting to avoid accusations of "orientalism," but by sidestepping the assumed outrage, they stumbled right into accusations of whitewashing by casting Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One. Now, looking back, one can't help but believe there had to have been a better solution to the problem.