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Comic Book Movies: Reboots Vs. Continuity

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.


Superman-1978_Believe-ReeveSo 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.

Wonder Woman (série tv)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.

Batman-1989-batman-confronts-the-jokerWhat 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.

steel-posterOn 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.

About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.
  • April 21, 2015 at 2:59 am

    Ahem, some things:

    “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.”

    DC and their movies? Yes. MCU? Nope. They could have a shit flop and people would just step over it and droolingly await the next one. For example, Thor was not received as well as the other Marvel movies, but it still is going to have 3 movies. If Marvel wasn’t raking in the dough like a 24/7, constantly wet, never get tired hooker, they would have stop making Thor movies, just like they stopped after the Incredible Hulk. The reason they didn’t is because Incredible Hulk and Iron Man came out the same year, so the “not even close to making what Iron Man made” Hulk film stopped after one movie. Thor got to continue you on because the year before it came out in 2011, Iron Man 2 was out, scooped up more money. So when Thor wasn’t as big a hit, it was ok, because the year following in 2012, The Avengers released and over the top dollars were made. Then Thor The Dark World came out in 2013, better than the first film, imo, but still not a big hit. Buuuut, that’s ok because in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy came out, and more money was piled on top the now amazingly giant pile MCU has. So, even if they had a shit movie, and they would have to try REALLY hard to get a shit movie, I mean, where they actually lost money, they have so much in the back from their giant successes, that they can afford it. I mean, shit, Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect example of MCU’s confidence. They took not widely comic book heroes, put it in a movie, and made a gajillion dollars. They did this with the confidence that even if it failed, they had so much money in the bank that it didn’t matter and they could risk it. DC on the other hand, yes. I see them one shit flick away from firing everyone in their movie department, waiting a few years, then trying to start over. Seriously, the DC movies have been mostly shit.

    “Though the success of The Incredible Hulk so soon after the failure of Hulk taught us that, when it comes to these superhero epics, you can try again and again and the audience can be pretty forgiving.”

    Um, The Incredible Hulk was not a success. Compared to the Hulk movie before it, yes, but The Incredible Hulk lost Marvel money, they didn’t break even. I mean, I personally liked it, but it didn’t help MCU except to have a Hulk movie to reintroduce him for The Avengers movie. So, you can literally say, it took years of planning and a 16 million dollar loss just to make sure everyone knows who the Hulk is for a different movie.

    “Marvel introduced “Ultimate Marvel” in 2000 starting with “Ultimate Spider-Man” and “Ultimate X-Men” which gave all the familiar characters a fresh new reboot and fresh new ways to introduce beloved faces in a new universe that was parallel to the current continuity. The current Marvel Cinematic Universe is greatly based upon this Marvel Ultimate Universe.”

    Just a side note I feel should be pointed out which is another example of Marvel doing something smarter than DC. DC has too many reboots. Marvel wanted something fresh but did not want to rot away it’s core fanbase that wanted the current storylines to continue. So, Marvel launched the Ultimate universe, BUT kept their original storylines going. The Ultimate universe was it’s own thing and not a reboot but a reimagining and Marvel did it without starting EVERYTHING over, like dumb ass DC did with the stupid, idiotic, why was if ever made, New 52.

    “So I say just go with the flow – let these comic book movies come out, watch the ones that interest you and have your opinion on them. They’re not going away anytime soon, so it’s best to learn to live with them because the stuff you enjoy is always there and available to you at anytime whether it’s found in a comic book movie or not.”

    Was this written with the thoughts of super biased comic book fans in minds? I have to say, at least from the MCU side, I don’t think too many people are complaining. I’m huge into comic books and I’ve liked most of the MCU movies. A lot of the comic book folks I know feel the same way. It’s the DC ones that piss me off, but not even because of some comic disloyalty, but because they completely suck as films. There are always going to be haters, but I don’t think we’re at the point where a large majority of these movies are pissing on our childhoods. I mean, you get the random obvious blasphemies like the X-Men movies(not the first class movies) and Fantastic Four, but that’s bound to happen. And to be honest, I think those two franchises will have their day back into the glory they deserve. I mean, Sony go together with Marvel to get Spider-Man some MCU cred. Maybe FOX will follow suit? Who knows?

    • April 21, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Oh this was very much written with biased fans in mind. What inspired the article initially were two things. First, a comment thread below a trailer for The Avengers 2 on YouTube which was nothing but argument between comic book fans. A fan of the comics would say “I don’t like MCU because they cahnged…..” and then a fan of the movies would say “Oh fuck you, these movies are awesome,” and fights escalated from there. The other thing was this article published on Esquire’s website (I can’t post links in comments so hit me up on twitter if you want the link to it) by Kevin Mahr which was this hipster douchebag rant about how all these comic book movies are destroying cinema and people need to stop watching them and that anyone who wants to see The Avengers 2 is stupid.

      Perhaps I should have phrased The Incredible Hulk as being a “critical success” as it was liked by critics and embraced by fans and the stinger where Tony Stark says “we’re putting together a team” (totally retconned by Stark’s hesitance to do anything SHIELD wants in Iron Man 2 and the first parts of The Avengers). Yeah, it lost money, but fans liked it enough to let Disney/Marvel know they were on the right track and to keep moving forward.

      Oh the DC ones are going to be the most talked about critical failures. Batman V Superman is going to have the same problems that Man of Steel had where a bunch of people hate it but all the diehards love it and there will be so much fighting. I’m with you on the fact that the DC movies suck and they are trying WAY too hard to copy MCU. While MCU took its time, let things develop over a course of many years to get people used to the characters, the different directors of each hero’s films, etc, the DC films are trying to rush everything all at once. We’ve had no individual films other than that one nasty Man of Steel. They’re rebooting Batman within a Superman movie and without his own flick and introducing a lot of the other characters within the same film. MCU gave each character time to shine, time for the public to get familiar with them, and plenty of different movies to pick from, before The Avengers. Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor – all completely different characters in movies so different from each other. You can hate Thor or you can ONLY like Iron Man, and that’s okay because the aspects of this universe you do like are all present in the big feature, The Avengers. DC isn’t giving people that option, we’re going from Man of Steel to Batman V Superman to Justice League – each a sequel to the previous, just one linear franchise with no options for variety. DC is doing it wrong.

      I like Ultimate Spiderman way more than the pre-exsisting continuity but that was the only one. The Ultimates for all the other properties could not replace what I already liked so I’m totally with you on the fact that Marvel got it right and DC fucked up.

  • ArmymanZ
    April 21, 2015 at 5:48 am

    Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns not Dark Knight Rises.

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