Comic book adaptations and superhero epics are the big thing right now and for the next few years as all the major studios have these 5+ year plans for things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like them or not, they’re going to be around for awhile and there is just too much money invested in these things for them to just abandon with a shift in public opinion. Not a day goes by, it seems, without some breaking news about who is playing what super hero or what famous villain will appear in the next movie or what’s getting a sequel and another familiar property that’s getting a reboot. It is ALWAYS a topic that will generate conversation from fans and haters alike. Look up a trailer for The Avengers: Age of Ultron on YouTube and scroll through the comments; find the comment where someone expresses a casual disinterest in the movie and the 150+ replies to that comment crucifying that person. Hardcore fans that feel the new cinematic universes are destroying the continuity of the characters they love, other fans that feel these movies are the greatest thing to happen to the world since a caveman invented the wheel, cinema purists that feel these empty-minded popcorn movies are destroying the quality of cinema. These are NOT new debates – only in this age of the internet every voice is louder than it was before. It’s much easier these days for any producer to immediately capture the public’s pulse.
These studios, however, are playing a vicarious and risky game with their ambitions plans for their superhero epics. There is SO much they’ve invested in to this and all it’s gong to take is one horrible flop like Batman and Robin and it will all come crashing down. So let’s take a look at the history of comic book movies and the direction they’re headed in to see if these studios are making the wise decision.
EARLY COMIC BOOK MOVIES
So when did Hollywood finally get the comic book film “right”? There were a few adaptations of comic strips throughout the 30s and 40s and the successful The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves. There was the Batman television series from the 1960s which is known for being overly campy and ridiculous but was actually not that far off from the Batman of the silver age of comics which were safe and campy – Batman wasn’t always the brooding and dark ‘I’m the goddamned Batman” we know so well, that aesthetic mostly came along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Rises and Batman: Year One.
There was Superman in 1978 which was a success and, along with Superman II are classic films. But then we had Superman III and IV which are just downright terrible and embarrassing. There were several different attempts to make film versions of Spider-Man including a 1977 TV Movie and series which a lot of fans (including creator Stan Lee) found to be disappointing. In the 70s CBS was labeled as the “superhero network” airing comic book content which included The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Captain America and Doctor Strange. A major problem with these series that irked fans was that there were no real supervillains; The Hulk wandered from one random encounter to the next every week, Wonder Woman fought random criminals; there was no overarching story beyond stopping a series of nameless thugs week . Oh the cartoons for Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four had the costumed villains the fans of the comics loved so much and for Hollywood film and television producers that’s where these goofballs were going to stay.
The one where Hollywood got it right, the movie that gave us the template for the comic book adaptations and superhero epics we have today is Batman from 1989. It was a HUGE success not just at the box office but through marketing toys and Diet Coke and video games and all kinds of licensed products. This kind of merchandising only works if the movie is well-loved, and Warner Bros did a fantastic job in 1989 of making the public forget about that Adam West Batman and accept this new one as a cinematic idol.
What made Batman work was Warner Brothers’ acknowledgment that people liked the Batman in the comics, that they had a certain expectation of the character in line with the comics as opposed to be a character from a kids’ show. This wasn’t the campy Batman the general public knew – this was going to be the grittier version that the fans loved from best-selling books such as The Dark Knight Rises and The Killing Joke. A suitably dark director, Tim Burton, was brought on board and Warner Bros spared no expense in making this film. It has issues, yes, but what movie doesn’t? The franchise failed when they steered away from this dark Batman and director Joel Schumacher camped it up, believing that it was Star Power and spectacle that made the films work which, as we see, was never the case. Steering away from what fans liked of their Batman and instead focusing on what big names they could get for the soundtrack is what soured this franchise.
On the other hand, the trend of comic book movies that came from there were embarrassing and usually appear on lists of “what the hell were they thinking?” kind of worst-ever lists (Steel, Barb Wire, Tank Girl). Before Batman comic book properties were considered barely profitable children’s fare and some moderately successful cartoons came from them (the fondly remembered X-men from 1992 is a good example). When it came to film adaptations of these properties however, most studios were hesitant to commit enough resources or had difficulty finding a balance between what was a successful formula for blockbusters versus fan expectations for a comic book adaptation. Given the failure of most comic book adaptations and superhero movies throughout the 90s, publishers were apprehensive about selling the rights to their beloved properties to a studio that would make a low-budget and messy adaptation of it.
With no studio able to repeat what Warner Brothers did the comic book fad died away. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer’s X-men in 2000 that comic book movies found life.