Avengers: Endgame arrived with an ominous thud in cinemas everywhere yesterday. Three hours long, and coming down with A-list stars, it spectacularly rounds off the superhero cycle that began 11 years and 21 movies ago with Iron Man. Watching it, the thing that struck me was the fiendishly clever formula that allows it and all the other Marvel movies to function so seamlessly as cinematic entertainments.

A hero, or in this case lots of them, discovers great powers they must learn to master and merit before taking on a grandiose villain intent on destroying (a) our hero, (b) the planet or (c) the entire universe. Mythic moments must be counterbalanced by humour, hints of romance are permissible but not too much, and the whole must build towards an action-packed climax.

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It works in Endgame as it did in all this franchise’s sleek and focused products, but the underlying formula wasn’t dreamt up by Marvel, nor by Christopher Nolan’s darkly splendid mid-2000s Batman trilogy, nor even by Tim Burton’s playfully cartoonish 1990s Batmans. No, the magic formula was concocted way back in the 1970s, when the whole idea of superheroes must have seemed risibly unfashionable.

American cinema then was all about gritty realism, and salty antidotes to the heady nonsense of the late 1960s. The era’s great films explored political corruption (All The President’s Men, The Parallax View), societal collapse (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Dirty Harry), the grim legacy of the Vietnam War (Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now). Even the era’s horror classics, such as Jaws or The Exorcist, were filmed where possible in grounded, realistic styles, and after Steven Spielberg and his friend George Lucas broke through in the mid-1970s, science fiction became the predominant fantasy genre of the age.

The idea that grown-ups would pay to watch films about men in tights seemed not so much far-fetched as impossible. The superhero genre, which had its roots in the classic American comic books of the 1930s and 1940s, was at that point indelibly associated with trashy B-movies and low-budget TV shows – throwaway Saturday morning entertainments that were impossible to take seriously. When Fox released a 1966 Batman movie based on a TV show, it was mired in high camp and made little impact at the box office.

The omens, then, were not good when Ilya Salkind first suggested making a big-budget Superman movie in 1973. Ilya, son of the legendary producer Alexander Salkind, had grown up in the movie business – an early photo shows him, aged one, being bobbed on Zsa Zsa Gabor’s knee. Dreaming big came naturally to Ilya, but not everyone was convinced by his big ideas for Superman.

His father was initially dubious and once he’d been won over, the Salkinds faced the onerous task of persuading DC Comics to let them buy the movie rights. After an age, they agreed, and at Cannes in 1974, Ilya flew Superman banners trailed behind planes. But he was still without a script, director or cast, and then there was the small issue of how to make Superman fly. Special effects were still in their infancy: it was only a couple of decades since the great Ray Harryhausen had used stop-motion clay models to create movie monsters, and as the Salkinds got to work on Superman, poor Spielberg was being driven mad by a malfunctioning robotic shark.

With no digital effects at their disposal, director Richard Donner and his team resorted to good old fashioned ingenuity. After firing crash test dummies out of canons proved ineffective, a system of thin wires and pulleys were used to suspend Superman as high as 50ft above the ground. Giant models of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam were made in order to create realistic-looking scale. Because all this was so costly, Superman and a sequel were shot back-to-back to bring the combined budget down: but this also doubled the producers’ risk.

An initial script by Mario Puzo was so long that Donner got Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman to cut it right back and make it less silly.

Before the decision was taken to cast the unknown, but physically perfect, Christopher Reeve as Superman, virtually every big-name actor in Hollywood was considered. The idea of Dustin Hoffman, who aspires to 5ft 6in, playing the Man of Steel might seem ludicrous, but at one point, he was the favourite, before wisely saying no. So, too, did Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Reeve had to seriously bulk up to become a convincing Superman, but had the light touch required to play his bumbling alter ego Clark Kent, whom he based on Cary Grant’s performance in Bringing Up Baby. He made the film work, but so too did Gene Hackman, a heavyweight film actor in his prime who accepted a hefty salary to play Lex Luthor, a hilariously touchy villain who loudly berates his entourage of idiot associates.

Marlon Brando was paid more than everyone else combined for his brief and mumbling portrayal of Superman’s dad, Jor-El. He refused to learn his lines and was his usual truculent self, but even he couldn’t spoil the party, because when Superman was released in December of 1978, it was instantly clear that Donner and the Salkinds had got their film exactly right.

Thrilling, funny, moving, romantic (Margot Kidder was well cast as Lois Lane), Superman did huge business at the box office, and set in train a five-film franchise that would last till the mid-1980s.

That idea was also new, sequels having previously been associated only with B-movies and horror films. But then everything about Superman was bold and original, and its producers had taken huge risks in trying something new and untested. Little did they realise that their formula was about to be repeated – ad nauseum.

Marvel-lous creations: the studio’s three best

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Apparently, it was Chris Hemsworth who announced that he was “a bit bored” with old Thor, and that the formula needed shaking up. Enter Taika Waititi, the New Zealand writer and director who turned the balance of this sequel firmly towards humour. When Thor is attacked by his demented half-sister and sent tumbling through space, he arrives on a grimy junk planet where he’s forced to become a gladiator. The funniest film of 2017, and my favourite Marvel movie of them all.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Weird and hippyish, and thoroughly entertaining, Scott Derrickson’s 2016 blockbuster starred Benedict Cumberbatch (above) as Stephen Strange, a supercilious brain surgeon who must reimagine his life when his precious hands are damaged in a car crash. Sporting Buddhist garb and a shaved head, Tilda Swinton looked like a talking egg playing the guru who guides Strange towards psychic enlightenment, and she and Cumberbatch made a winning comic double act.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

While it could have been cogently argued that the last thing the world needed was yet another Spider-Man movie reboot, this thoroughly winning Marvel/Columbia co-production got the balance between action and humour exactly right. Spot on, too, was the casting of English actor Tom Holland as Peter Parker, the kid from Queens who becomes an unlikely superhero after being bitten by a genetically modified spider. It’s the best Spidey film of the lot.

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