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Running Low on Heroes?


With Batman wrapping up and an army of reboots being planned, have comic book films already seen their peak?

Comic Book Heroes

In the early years of the American Revolution, the fledgling nation known as the United States appeared to be participating in what could only be described as a lost cause. The Continental Army was routinely harried by the superior-trained British Regulars, supplies were short, food stores were dwindling, and the outlook was, to put it mildly, dangerously grim. The country's tottering economy was so weak and inflation so high that, in the exasperated words of General George Washington, it took "a wagonful of money to buy a wagonful of hay".

"Wait a minute," you ask. "I thought we were talking about comic book films here." That we are. But give me just one more moment. Washington's frustration at the worthlessness of his nation's currency was due to an overload in product. A million-dollar-bill certainly seems like it would be worth a fortune, especially so if it was the only one in existence. If you were to go print a billion of those bills, would each one still be worth a million dollars? Basic economic theory's short answer is 'no'. An item's worth is attributed to not only the level of its craftsmanship, but its scarcity. That is why the Federal Reserve cannot just print bank notes at its leisure. The more notes that are in the system, the more diluted each bill's value becomes, until a point is reached when a single note is literally worthless.

And so we come to one of Hollywood's favorite children of late - the comic book movie. Not exactly a proponent of the 'less is more' theory of artistry, big budget studios are ever on the prowl for the latest product with which the public develops an affection, the most recent of which being the somewhat-ridiculous 3D craze. The comic book film has been kept strong and viable for over a decade through a glut of studio money, a surprisingly long time given the fact that Hollywood thumbed its nose at comics for the better part of a century.

"If you are a fan and you hated the last Batman/Superman/Fill-in-the-blank film, you're being asked to just pretend that it never happened."

As the 3D fad has waxed and waned throughout the history of moving pictures, so has the popularity of comic book cinema. DC Comics has historically been more successful, but has laid its fair share of eggs. Richard Donner's 1978 adaptation of Superman is generally considered to be the first wide-release "comic book movie", followed by the enjoyable Superman II. The franchise quickly tanked afterward, however, with Superman III and Superman IV widely considered to be abysmal. DC's comic fortunes returned in 1989 with the first big-screen adaptation of the Batman mythos, helmed by Tim Burton. As with Superman, the first two Batman movies did well, before devolving into slapstick and one-liners.

But if Hollywood studios understand one thing, it's that if there is potential for a payday, films can always be tried again from a "different angle", as it were. In the past five years, both the Superman and Batman franchises have been "rebooted", with characters in each portrayal acting under the rule that some, if not all, of the previous incarnations just never happened. It's a brilliant coup on the part of filmmakers and studios alike. If you are a fan and you hated the last Batman/Superman/Fill-in-the-blank film, you're being asked to just pretend that it never happened. Don't worry...this one will be better. Promise.

As far as DC's main competitor goes, Marvel fans have had to wait a bit longer to see their favorite heroes done properly on the silver screen. The first decently-received Marvel adaptation didn't come until 1998, when Wesley Snipes' Blade opened to respectable critical acclaim (I will go out on a limb and opine that Red Sonja, Howard the Duck, and the Dolph Lundgren version of the Punisher weren't cinematic achievements for the ages). However, in the past 12 years, Marvel has undertaken the cinematic equivalent of Blitzkreig in flooding the theaters with comic adaptations. Since 1998, there have been three Spider-Man films, three X-Men films (plus a pseudo-X-Men film focused on Wolverine), three Blade films, two Fantastic Four films, a Hulk film, a reboot of the Hulk film, two Iron Man films, a Daredevil film, an Elektra film, a Ghost Rider film, a Punisher film, and another reboot of the Punisher film.

"The problem with making comic book films is nearly unique to the genre - there are only so many comic book heroes."

Need help catching your breath? Sorry, it gets better/worse.

In the next three years, planned Marvel films include a Ghost Rider sequel, a Thor film, a Captain America film, another X-Men film, another Iron Man sequel, a reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, and an Avengers film. Also, to further confuse the uninitiated, Marvel Studios is tying comic storylines together, much as they do in the actual comic books. So the Iron Man, Avengers, Captain America, and Thor films, at the very LEAST, are all being planned to intertwine with one another. In short, events will most likely happen in one movie that will make little sense to you unless you've seen the other movies. Such a move has remarkable marketing potential. It also has the potential to flood the market with so many comic book films and plots that casual moviegoers will have little to no clue what it is they're seeing. Is my earlier inflation story beginning to make a little more sense now?

The problem with making comic book films is nearly unique to the genre - there are only so many comic book heroes. Original story ideas for actions or dramas or romances are out there, floating in the ether, to be grabbed by anyone. But there is only one Batman, one Superman, one Spider-Man; only so many top-tier characters that are recognized by a large portion of the general public.

Once those choices are exhausted, studios have only two available courses of action: either move down to the next tier or "reboot". Choosing the first option has so far given us mediocre comic-book-to-celluloid products like The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, and so on. Nearly all of those have been abject failures. So what then? Back up to the first tier for a third or fourth "reboot" or dig deeper into the catalog in hopes that a viable character can be found buried beneath bigger names.

You can perhaps see now why we are most likely moving inexorably through the final stages of this generation's comic book film craze. Today's technology has finally made it possible to transport larger-than-life characters like Superman, Thor, or Captain America to the big screen without making them look laughable and foolish in the process. But no amount of technology can protect Hollywood from itself, its own impatience, and its immediate desire for box office receipts. No matter how big of a fan you are of the Batman films, how many times will you tolerate being told that the newest version of the Caped Crusader is "brand new" and that this newest version of Gotham operates on the notion that the previous films "never happened"? Christopher Nolan will be wrapping up his Batman trilogy in 2012, with Christian Bale as his Batman. Bale is the fourth actor to play the Caped Crusader in the seven Batman films since 1989. How many more versions will fans be willing to go pay $12 a ticket for? Is this what comic book cinema has become? Fans arguing whether the 1989, 2004, or 2008 Punisher film was best of the lot?

"Comic books are currently Hollywood's 'gift that keeps on giving', but they are not a bottomless pool of pre-created storylines. The well will eventually run dry."

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was only one name that came to mind when the question of who the 'real' Superman was - Christopher Reeve. Fast forward to the 2000s, where Bryan Singer's reboot of the Superman franchise lasted a single film until his view of Metropolis was finally scrapped before Superman Returns' sequel ever got off the ground. Superman is the most famous comic book character in history, bar none, and yet Kal-el's story has spent more time in development hell than General Zod spent in the Phantom Zone. Contemporary scriptwriters don't know how to write him and so scripts are written and then rejected, actors are cast and then told that the project has been written off, rumors are circulated and then proven false.

So when Hollywood studios are faced with such a difficult prospect, what do they do? They go further and further down until they're scraping the bottom of the barrel. Comic books are currently Hollywood's 'gift that keeps on giving', but they are not a bottomless pool of pre-created storylines. The well will eventually run dry.

Granted, all semi-popular comic characters have their own rabid fan bases, but a Ghost Rider film will never make as much as a Batman film. Once you probe the depths beneath the half-dozen A-list heroes, the ever-important detail of name recognition drops dramatically. Not a problem as far as the studios are concerned, though. They may not hit upon the next huge character, but they'll earn a minimum of 80 or 100 million dollars a picture until the well finally IS dry. And then they will move on to the next golden egg, be it period pieces, mindless action, or generic epics. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are popular because their personalities and storylines are the deepest and fullest. The less-popular characters are generally less-popular for a reason. You can't make something from nothing, and so a weaker comic will translate as such to the cinema. With Hollywood's proclivity to redo popular stories because it's just easier that way, the high-water mark may easily have already passed us by without us knowing it. One thing's for sure though - the end of the comic book salad days are almost certainly coming soon. Enjoy them now while they last.

See also:

Will the real geek please stand up?

Is Superman dead?

David Slade trades fangs for fights with Daredevil

Five comics that deserve a movie

Top 10 most mishandled comic book characters in film

The phenomenology of revisiting movies


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#1 How About Pixar? suzyq 2010-11-18 19:05
I agree, you only have a limited supply of comic book favorites and then you go down to the lesser known ones. Flooding the market with B movies just brings down their value, like you said. There are hopefully some new, creative adventures they can come up with for the popular characters, not just a rehashing of the old stories.
I really liked the originality of Pixar's The Incredibles and hope they come up with a sequel for that. If they do knowing Pixar, it will be good! You don't always have to use the same old superheroes to make a good movie.
#2 Great article! Richard Cosgrove 2010-12-07 14:44
I'm a long time big fan of comics and you've hit the nail squarely on the head here Gabriel. As much as I loves me some Spidey, I think even I will quickly tire of the same old stories and villains appearing again and again with a slightly different spin (take the reboot - OK we've got the Lizard for the first movie, but the addition of the man who will become the 'Proto-Goblin' means that despite having been a presence in two of the three Raimi movies, the Green Goblin (whether Norman or Harry) will once more be back. I'm not complaining as such, but it'd be nice to see some of Spidey's other rogues gallery, of which there are many.

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