here’s nothing Hollywood does better than discovering a trend, milking it, and eventually riding it into the ground. Over the years, every genre or subgenre imaginable has had its time in the sun, some more gloriously than others. Disaster films... prison movies... blood-soaked urban revenge fantasies... Tarantino ripoffs... hell, for a (mercifully) brief time in the late 1970s, even trucker exploitation films reigned supreme until audiences suddenly snapped out of their collective comas and realized that they were fetishizing CB radios, of all things. The point is, movie producers are nothing if not unapologetic bandwagon-jumpers. You could put together a pretty good parlor game of guessing which bizarre genre phenomenon will crop up next at your local multiplex (easier said than done– to figure out Hollywood’s next angle, it helps enormously to be a gifted market researcher or a total acid casualty, and possibly both).
Predicting film’s upcoming thematic trends is difficult, but predicting how each trend will live out its lifespan is not. The rules for a genre’s rise and fall are reliable enough to set your watch by, and they play out as follows. First, one original film will come out of nowhere to reap major (and unexpected) profits, making one studio look visionary for greenlighting it in the first place. Second, rival producers, afraid of being beaten to the Next Big Thing if they don’t move quickly, respond by authorizing every moderately viable project that bears some similarity to the initial film. If this happens often enough (and it usually does), suddenly a new genre or subgenre has emerged and your average filmgoer finds him/herself staring blankly up at their local theater’s marquee, baffled by the sudden plethora of disaster movies, or buddy-cop movies, or whatever Hollywood has decided the new trend is going to be.
It’s no secret which phenomenon has dominated the movie marketplace in 2002 and 2003– the comic book film. The summer movie season is suddenly overrun with web-slinging heroes, green-skinned rageaholics, and teams of super-powered mutants guided by the sure hand of Captain Picard. It seems like every other “tentpole” studio release is based on a comic book character, with studios cranking out adaptations as fast as they can acquire the licensing rights. Moreover, the trend shows no sign of abating any time soon—expect to see comic book adaptations featured as major studio releases at least through the summer of 2004, and possibly beyond.
Given that the comic book film phenomenon is one of the strongest and most successful examples of a new genre’s rise to prominence, it’s worth examining how it started, what its prospects are, and how the current releases are different from previous iterations of the genre. We’re here to help explain the meteoric rise of the comic book movie– after all, we’re fanboys ourselves.
[Stylus at the Movies]
The first truly successful comic book-based movie for the big screen hit was Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, featuring a then-unknown Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, and a ridiculously overpaid Marlon Brando. The franchise continued along over the next few years with another three films of varying quality and levels of success, the best of the bunch being the epic Superman II. But the comic book-movie story didn’t really start there. While DC Comics’ biggest property was clearly Superman, the company tested the waters a few years earlier with their successful television series featuring Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. The fact that the show was a primetime success (albeit not a huge one) paved the way for Big Blue to make his way to the big screen.
Strangely enough, though, the success of the first Superman feature (well, the first one in a number of years anyway) didn’t lead to Hollywood greenlighting a bunch of other comic book flicks. In fact, despite the boffo bucks that Supes hauled in, comic book movies took a step backwards and returned in force to the small screen. CBS, who had led the way with Wonder Woman, went with DC’s competition next, running series on Marvel Comics mainstays The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, beginning in 1977 and 1978 respectively, as well as a couple of made-for-TV movies featuring Captain America (1979) and Dr. Strange (1978). But nothing really took off. Sure, The Incredible Hulk ran for a few years, but the rest of them sank without a trace. Probably because for the most part, they stunk (well, Dr. Strange really wasn’t so bad, but it was no Emmy winner either). Properties languished in development limbo for years, and scarcely any ever materialized. It would seem that for whatever reason, Marvel and DC were both too scared to pull the trigger on another big-screen franchise, despite the success of Superman. A wasted opportunity, especially for Marvel, who at the time had tons of youth cachet with their hipper-than-DC heroes (many comic book buying kids around this time had come to see DC’s classic roster of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. as outdated and lame) and could have capitalized big-time with a well-done franchise.
Just as the Superman franchise was dying a slow, painful death with its awful fourth installment in 1987, and with their only other big-screen release being the camped-up Swamp Thing, DC (who, it should be noted, are part of Time Warner, and therefore much closer to movie studios than Marvel) unleashed what has been their most successful franchise to date with Tim Burton’s Batman, which hit screens in 1989 with a huge opening draw and kept right on rolling. Burton made a lukewarm follow up, 1992’s Batman Returns, then fled the scene. Apparently, Burton took all the good ideas with him, as the next three films in the series just get progressively worse (though they did continue to rake in big dollars somehow.) While DC hasn’t returned to big-screen moviemaking since then (they’ve instead chosen to roll with their successful line of cartoons, including Superman, Batman, Justice League, and now Teen Titans), they have had new launches of both the Batman and Superman franchises in the works for a few years now, with big names from Kevin Smith to Christopher Nolan to Nicolas Cage attached to the projects at various points. Clearly moviegoers have not seen the last of those masked men.
Marvel, in the meantime, has capitalized on DC’s inactivity with new franchises of their own: X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, and many more to come. And lest we forget, their first big hit was the obscure black vampire killer (Shaft Van Helsing, anyone?) Blade—not exactly a major comic figure, either before or after his celluloid debut, but he got the Marvel movie ball rolling again. All of these films have done big business, and even if they haven’t always pleased comic book fans or critics per se, have at least kept the turnstiles moving. But are they really responsible for this comic book resurrection on the big screen?
In a word, no. While DC was making crappy fourth and fifth films of their iconic heroes, and Marvel was languishing in development hell (not helped a bit by bankruptcy, takeovers, and the like), films based on independent publishing works filled the gap and cleared the way for the Big Two (well, Marvel anyway) to return to celluloid.
The biggest movie hits are concepts that initially flew under the radar, because they were published by independent publishing companies without major distribution or mainstream crossover appeal. The huge cottage industry that was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for instance, began life as a cheaply produced black-and-white parody of Marvel’s own Daredevil, and went on to become one of the most lucrative franchises in history (when you factor in the merchandise, at least). Other successful films that began in the small press before they hit the big time? Try these on for size: Time Cop, The Crow, The Mask, and Men In Black. To be fair, not everything took off; witness the debacle that was Mystery Men, for instance. But it would seem that while the giants were either sleeping or resting on established formulae, someone in Hollywood recognized that there were some good stories to be told in small press comics. This trend has continued through the recent big-budget boom with From Hell, Ghost World, and the utterly crap League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
And while the industry itself has changed, its prototypical heroes have evolved, as well. In the years since the spit-curled, dimpled icon of Superman debuted on the big screen, fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way, comic heroes on the screen have gotten simultaneously darker and more complex. While Superman's biggest problems—well, outside of saving the world, that is—were all about how to keep Lois Lane (and others) seeing through his brilliant eyeglasses-and-different-hair disguise to maintain his secret life as mild-mannered Clark Kent, the modern wave of tights-wearers seem much more human and real. Batman had to deal with the Joker, revealed to be the villain responsible for the death of his beloved parents. The X-Men deal with the conundrum that they must work to save people who would just as soon lynch them for being different. Daredevil is blind; Spider Man, already an orphan, has to deal with the knowledge that he is responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. And don't even get me started on the Hulk's problems with pants. If Donner's Superman was basically a boy scout who could fly and bend metal with his bare hands, Burton's Batman was Travis Bickle with a billion in the bank. Everything has become darker, sleeker, faster, sexier, and yet, somehow, more human as well. And that identification with the audience and the very real problems facing them has brought them in droves. It's one thing to believe that a man can fly; it's quite another to believe that it could be you up there on top of the building, clad in spandex and leather.
So while your average man on the street might not have realized it, comic book movies have really continued basically uninterrupted since that first installment of the Superman series, even if audiences had no idea of the source material involved. And it’s a fairly sure bet that even if Marvel’s current boom in moviemaking sputters out in the near future, the world of comics has proven itself to be a fertile ground for Hollywood ideas, and as long as there’s money to be made, that trend looks sure to continue.
Comic book films didn’t emerge for the first time when Tobey Maguire donned the Spidey suit—as pointed out earlier, Superman I goes all the way back to the Carter administration. The difference over the last few years, however, is the meteoric rise of an entire genre and the new willingness of studios to greenlight even relatively “niche” franchises. Superman and Batman, after all, aren’t just comic book heroes– they’re cultural touchstones. But Dr. Strange? The Punisher? Ten years ago the prospects of getting those characters up on the big screen and backed by major Hollywood studios were deemed realistic only in the fevered imaginations of the most dedicated Comic-Con attendees. So what is the source of this new comic book dominance in Hollywood? What happened to spark this conflagration?
Quite simply, The Matrix happened.
At first glance, this suggestion seems farfetched at best, and ludicrous at worst. There is, first of all, the not-unimportant reality that The Matrix was not a comic book film. It wasn’t based on a comic book, graphic novel, or television show. Indeed, part of its popularity was based, I suspect, on the fact that the Wachowski Brothers had created their own world, backstory, and epic quest out of nothing more than their own fertile imaginations. The film wasn’t based on anything most Americans had ever seen before, hence the mind-blowing effect it had on so many people back in the spring and summer of 1999.
But a closer look in fact reveals the great similarities between The Matrix and the subsequent comic book films. For one thing, the success of The Matrix demonstrated once and for all that “realism” in action movies was not a prerequisite. In fact, compared to the gravity-defying kung fu battles and “bullet time” gunfights that the Wachowski Brothers introduced to the Hollywood mainstream, your standard cop movies featuring straightforward fisticuffs and heroes who, for all their badassery, remained firmly rooted to the ground, suddenly looked tired and behind the times. There was, however, one genre that was perfectly placed to respond to this paradigm shift—you guessed it. Heroes and villians had for years been fighting out their highly stylized and hyperreal action sequences in the pages of comic books and graphic novels, and now fell under the restless gaze of movie producers. Hollywood was finally ready for back-flipping blind guys, tank-hurling Hulks, wall-crawling teenagers, and telekinetic mutants zipping around in invisible planes. All it took was the sight of a black-clad Ted “Theodore” Logan moving faster than (ahem) a speeding bullet, which led to enormous gate receipts and an explosion in the emerging world of DVD sales.
Speaking of which, it’s worth taking a look at those Matrix profits, because you can be sure that Hollywood did. By mid-September 1999, the total gross in the US alone was over $170 million. Even discounting the sizable portion that probably went up Joel Silver’s nose, that’s a hell of a lot of money for the good folks at Warner Bros. Toss in well over $100 million in US rental profits, and producers all over El Lay were sent scrambling for properties that would touch the same audience nerve that The Matrix had so successfully discovered (or perhaps created).
The release dates for the more traditional comic book films more or less bear this theory out. X-Men began filming in late September 1999, well after the enormous popularity, and profitability, of The Matrix had been established. Even granting that the X-Men project had been in development for a long period of time, the overall trend of comic book movies being greenlit and released a year (or two or three) after The Matrix is difficult to ignore. Even more difficult to ignore is how at ease studios suddenly were with certain comic book “tropes” that The Matrix had been the first to introduce to a crossover audience. In addition to the stylized action sequences discussed earlier, the new action movies were featuring strong female characters who both kicked ass and showed skin, often while clad in form-fitting leather ensembles. What Carrie-Anne Moss had started, Jennifer Garner, Famke Janssen, and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos were more than willing to continue. This gave female comics fans an opportunity to indulge in some feminist empowerment, while giving male comics fans opportunity upon opportunity to flee the theater and head straight for the stalls of the men’s room to engage in some five-knuckled TLC. Wash those hands before buying popcorn, boys!
Having established where this phenomenon came from and what it looks like, it bears asking if the comic book movie will fade away or show real longevity. One good test of a truly lasting genre is whether any sub-genres are developed within its rubric. So far, the evidence is inconclusive with superhero films, but some does exist. At the moment, the genre is made up mostly of straightforward good vs. evil tales, usually fought in an urban setting with stakes reaching as high as world domination. But not all comic book movies can be fit into this straightjacket. Although it didn’t dominate at the box office, Ang Lee’s Hulk for the most part played like a sensitive art film, complete with id-superego internal battles and a bizarre father-son relationship. Next summer’s The Punisher, expected to be one of 2004's major studio releases, might also depart from the formula. The comic is a straight-ahead revenge fantasy, with the goal of the hero being less the safety of the world and more punishing the people who murdered his family. Moreover, The Punisher himself has no super powers, merely some advanced military training and a shitload of automatic weapons. If Hollywood was truly original (and I’m not holding my breath on this one), it would even allow some darker themes to creep into the film, perhaps by showing The Punisher as more of a vigilante anti-hero than a clean-cut savior who happens to tote an Uzi. This is a project at least worth keeping an eye on.
And, of course, we wouldn’t have a phenomenon on our hands if Hollywood didn’t show itself capable of enormous excess in dealing with it. If more movies like Daredevil and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen keep getting made, it won’t matter how many leather-clad supermodels or spectacular martial arts battles there are, because the product will suck. Not that this has ever stopped the movie industry before, but lack of attention to story and character development will rob the comic book films of their unique qualities and ultimately alienate the legions of fanboys/girls who are the core audience in the first place. Will this eventually happen? Probably. But in the meantime, it’s worth appreciating the fact that an enormous underground passion/lifestyle has bubbled up over the years and suddenly emerged as the Hot New Thing in mass entertainment. Even if you’re not part of that lifestyle or don’t understand that passion, it’s fun watching Hollywood grapple with an art form it doesn’t entirely understand, and as a result allow some unexpected sparks of originality to burst through. Appreciate what you’re seeing, because given the track record of these guys, it ain’t gonna last forever. At the moment, though, the fanboy reigns supreme.
TH: A noble stab at the concept of man-versus-self, but bogged down by too much CGI and too little editing. It also committed the cardinal sin of fucking with the character’s origins a bit. All in all, a decent flick though.
JM: The best comic book adaptation yet released, and one of the best films of 2003. A fascinating art drama with Freudian undertones until about three-quarters of the way through, when Ang Lee finally unleashes the titular beast. Over-the-top action greatness ensues.
TH: The best of the recent wave thus far, even if Willem Dafoe brought new meaning to the term “overacting.” Stayed fairly true to the comic as well, which scores big-time geek points.
JM: Not bad, but not great either. At its strongest when explaining Spidey’s origins, and at its worst when venturing into some truly maudlin dialogue toward the end. An appealing central performance from Tobey Maguire makes this one worth seeing.
TH: Jesus, does anyone really even like Ben Affleck? In anything? Ever? Not me. Could have been great, but ended up just this side of tolerable, and that’s really only because Jennifer Garner is smoking.
JM: An utter mediocrity of a movie. Jennifer Garner does her best Carrie-Anne Moss impression, to good effect, while Ben Affleck does his best emotionless block of wood impression. There was apparently a script involved, too, but the film shows no actual proof of this.
TH: Both have been good, entertaining films, mixing the cerebral with action rather deftly. But a little more character development might not hurt future installments. Too many mutants spoil the broth.
JM: The first one had its moments, but was ultimately dragged down by its need to introduce all the characters. By the time we knew who the main players were, the film was practically over. The second movie gave its characters more room to breathe and featured some terrific action scenes. There’s high hope for this franchise.
The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
TH: From the mind of the greatest writer in comics today, Alan Moore, this should have been fantastic--an intelligent concept that was executed perfectly on the printed page. Instead, Hollywood made it into an action flick that starred a bad toupee. Typical.
JM: I didn’t see this one, and don’t intend to unless heavy tranquilizers are involved. Even the trailer looked incomprehensible, never a good sign.
By: Todd Hutlock and Jay Millikan
Published on: 2003-11-10