As Hollywood maps out a future almost entirely reliant on superhero movies – the soft opening of Marvel’s ANT-MAN notwithstanding – it’s important to remember that comic books were not always on Hollywood’s A-list.
In their first live-action screen incarnations in the 1940s, superstars like Batman and Superman were relegated to low-budget, Saturday morning adventure serials produced by Columbia Pictures and marketed primarily to children. The often unintentionally hilarious cliffhangers found our heroes battling low-rent, contemporary bad guys – Batman fights a Japanese scientist played by J. Carroll Naish in yellowface in his 1943 debut – and, while they’re fun to watch ironically today, they bear little resemblance to what was to come.
It took the ratings success of ABC’s twice-weekly TV series to bring the Caped Crusader back to movie screens (courtesy of 20th Century Fox) in BATMAN (1966), but that was more campy comedy than action-adventure. And after George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman defined the character for a generation of TV viewers (first during its 1952-58 run, then in two decades of syndicated reruns), Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978) finally brought the last son of Kypton to feature films (from Warner Bros., corporate cousin of DC comics since 1989).
But what if that wasn’t the case? What if superheroes had been as integral to classic film as they are to today’s movies?
Joe Phillips has an idea of what that might have looked like. The San Diego-based artist, a veteran of comic book titles like Wonder Woman and Superboy, has drawn a series of stunningly gorgeous posters recasting Studio Era stars as comic book icons. He calls the work Silver Screen Heroes, and it’s the stuff classic Hollywood dreams are made of.
“I am a huge classic film fan,” Phillips told me via Facebook message. “It certainly influenced my work and how I craft stories with pictures.”
Imagine Cary Grant as Batman, Gregory Peck as Superman, James Cagney as the Hulk, Buster Crabbe as Aquaman, Marilyn Monroe as Power Girl, Clark Gable as Iron Man, and Humphrey Bogart as Hellboy. The mind reels. Then thrown in a rogues’ gallery of villains, including Katharine Hepburn as a whip-wielding Catwoman, Yul Brynner as Lex Luthor, Danny Kaye as the Joker, and Shirley MacLaine as wise-cracking Harley Quinn.
While all of this is unfortunately entirely fictional, Phillips does a great job of retro casting, matching frequent co-stars in era-appropriate vehicles. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland co-star in TEEN TITANS, the most action-packed 1930s musical MGM never made. Real-life husband and wife William Powell and Carole Lombard team up in a spooky, sexy Pre-Code production of DOCTOR STRANGE. And Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman join forces for a Eisenhower era WONDER WOMAN – quite a departure from their 1958 co-starring vehicle CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.
I’ll admit to losing patience with the ponderous, violent epics that superhero movies have become, particularly in the DC universe. But imagine Cary Grant vs. Gregory Peck in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN with a cameo by Elizabeth Taylor? Somebody please invent a time machine.
Phillips is offering limited edition 11×17″ signed prints of the Silver Screen Heroes series for sale. Only 10 of each are available. Visit his eBay page for more info. And a big hat tip to Andrew Wheeler of Comics Alliance, where I first learned of this project.