There are a few events every year that mark the beginning of seasons to me. This means winter. This means fall. This just sounds like the trees blooming and the coming thaw of spring. And increasingly summer sounds something like this. Or this. Or this. Since 2000, the summer movie docket has been populated – perhaps overpopulated – with superhero films based on comic book characters. In each year of the new millennium, a superhero film has finished as one of the top ten grossing films in the country – from 2000’s X-Men to 2007’s Spider-Man 3. The future Hollywood landscape looks similar – Iron Man makes his silver screen debut in May. The purple jeans-clad Hulk gets a much needed – albeit not highly demanded – re-visitation after Ang Lee’s tedious attempt earlier this decade. And a certain young man is almost beside himself waiting for The Dark Knight. 2009 will see the release of a Wolverine origin story starring Hugh Jackman, a Captain America pic, and G.I. Joe (I am hoping it starts like this). The success of these films comes at a time when the mainstream popularity of comic books has dropped significantly over the past two decades. But the heroes who once found themselves published only in the marginalized mediums of comic books have captured wide and loyal viewing audiences.
Why have these films found traction? Why can’t Hollywood get enough of them? And why are even more coming down the pipeline? A few thoughts.
The incredible number of characters and stories
Hollywood loves to take an idea or story formula and beat it into the ground until there is nothing but the tired shell of the original idea. Think of what they did to television game shows in the late 1990s and how they spawned bastardized off-spring of shows like Friends, The X-Files, and Sex and the City to see this pattern. Comic book films are a similar phenomenon. One studio sees another score a huge hit with a comic book adaptation and they want their own. Fortunately, the comic book canon is enormous, both in the number of characters and their rich, numerous story lines. These characters have been created and recreated countless times and are available to be reinterpreted on film again. Studios can delve deep into the character’s cannon to pull the most compelling stories to adapt onto the big screen. The material and storyline often times just needs to be found, not created. The incredible depth not only provides a single story arc, but a number of compelling plots and angles for a single character, making sequels that much more viable and attractive.
Batman is a great example of this. Warner Brothers released four Batman films between 1989 and 1997 with the final installment – Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin – essentially killing the franchises’ momentum. After waiting almost a decade, Warner Brothers revived Batman by fusing three of the character’s best graphic novel stories into a film, relying heavily on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. The resulting film – Batman Begins – stayed true to the character’s roots, scrapping the previous image of the Batman from the 1990s films and in doing so found greater success at the box office than any of the other previous Batman movies.
Special effects and compelling stories merge
Much of the film’s appeal to an audience much wider than core comic book readers stems from the reemphasis on the compelling characters and narrative structure rather than relying solely on special effects to sell the film. Since audiences have come to take awesome and intricate special effects for granted, studios can no longer rely solely on special effects to sell a film, a la Twister. The novelty of special effects has worn off, resulting in audiences now expecting some dimension and complexity to the characters and a certain narrative quality in addition to the visual fireworks. Comic books are uniquely ripe for this type of adaptation. Comic book films allow for the film makers to uniquely structure a compelling story arc – a vast canvas with complex characters, flawed figures, and intricate emotions – within the traditional blockbuster blueprint whose foundation is in special effects.
Emphasis on the story means emphasis on the alter ego
Because the character’s emotional component is on the forefront of the story, this means that the superheroes’ alter-ego is an important component in connecting with the audience. Audiences are unable to relate to Spider-man’s graceful swings down New York City’s concrete canyons, but they can emphasize with Peter Parker’s rent problems and his overriding concern for his Aunt May. A movie-goer might not be able to share Wolverine physical make-up, but most in the audience can connect with the character’s status as marginalized and misunderstood. The X-Men series does a particularly deft job at balancing their protagonists’ super powers with their emotional baggage. There is a judicial display of their superpowers throughout the films in order to not dilute the human element of the story. The script even calls for the X-Men to call themselves by their given names (Logan, Scott, Eric), not their mutant names (Wolverine, Cyclops, and Magneto, respectively). These psychologically complex characters with obvious emotional concerns provide these films their ethos, making it easier for the director to communicate the story to the audience.
This also impacts the casting of these characters. The casting decisions take into account both the superhero and the alter-ego. Tobey Maguire might not seem like he would be a natural pick for Spider-Man, but he is spot on as Peter Parker, showing that both sides of the character were considered when casting the role. The other component is that most of these leads in the superhero films since 2000 have been relative unknowns; Maguire as Spider-Man, Christian Bale as Batman, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Brandon Roth as Superman. This makes it easier for the director to communicate with the audience because they are not distracted by seeing a well-known actor in the role, but rather the physical representation of an iconic image.
Another advantage to comic book adaptations is the way in which comic books are written. They are essentially story boards to the directors, a graphic organizer of illustrations that are displayed in sequence for the explicit purpose of visualizing motion sequences. Comic strips in the 1930s and 40s are now generally considered to be the video tape of its day. The advancements in special effects has allowed for directors to create a world where the action of the character can be convincingly and believably shown on screen, whereas before the movement of a Spider-man or Magneto could only be imagined by the reader in the static pages of the comic book. Special effects in motion pictures filled in the imagined action only implied in the two-dimensional, static world of comic books.
It is fun to watch
This may be obscenely simple, but superhero movies – on the whole – are fun to watch. Most of these characters are unrealized heroes and boys of all ages like things that fly, explode, and have capes. As long as it is treated seriously, then it is tough to go wrong. That means stay away from these clowns.