Link to the Past: Have Comic Book Movies Lost Their Luster?

after reviewing Captain America, logan j. fowler wonders … have comic book movies lost their luster?

In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was released. I remember watching it on home video a year later and loving it. My 7-year-old self wasn’t turned off by the creepy images or the maniacal Joker. Instead, I remember watching it on repeat, over and over again, especially during the ending fight between Batman and Joker, which ended with the Joker plummeting to his demise.

For over 20 years, I have seen comic book property after property become live action based. What started in 1989 was a slow trickle of superheroes, villains, one-liners, camp, capes, tights and alter egos begging to invade the silver screen and our televisions. Wedged in between those elements were the “not run of the mill comic book movie,” where men and women aren’t wearing costumes but they aren’t your everyday typical human beings either.

Has Hollywood gone too far? There used to be a day where a comic book movie was released, and if it did well, it would get a sequel. Now, not only are sequels to popular initial comic book films being green lit right off the bat with the ideas of a franchise behind them, but the market is being flooded with reboots of franchises that began to lose steam in later entries (Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four have all met this characteristic of the comic book film). There are even reboots being made of movies that failed in their initial outing (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Superman*, The Incredible Hulk). Going one further, now Marvel Comics has been churning out origin film after origin film for their big mega movie, The Avengers, which is due next summer, alongside The Amazing Spider-Man and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises. Just mentioning all these films makes my geek head spin. But we are not done yet.

Then, there are the comic book films that don’t have the big name superheroes attached to them. Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Scott-Pilgrim vs. The World, and Sin City are just a few examples that Hollywood will leave no stone unturned when it comes to graphic novels. While Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim flopped at the box office, Kick-Ass did so well on DVD that a sequel is in the works, and many people who saw Scott Pilgrim loved it and the DVD sales skyrocketed as well. Sin City was in line to have a sequel, but there were casting issues and was placed on the shelf. Watchmen, based upon one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, was either too complex for some viewers, or not true enough to the source for others, and then had some fans who loved the hell out of it. Regardless of all of this, the comic book property, if strong enough, will get a film made.

So what’s to make of it all? Is the market being flooded too fast? On another note, is the creative process for directors and screenwriters being thrown out the window to rush a sequel to theaters? Take Iron Man 2, for example. When Jon Favreau heard the news that the sequel to Iron Man must be out in 2009, Favreau himself was shocked. While not a bad film by any means, Iron Man 2 failed to match the surprise that was the original Iron Man. The rush to theaters may have damaged the franchise. Favreau has since then left the property, and is currently working a lesser-known comic book into a film, Cowboys And Aliens, which has gained really positive buzz thus far.

On a related note, Spider-Man 3, which was a severe disappointment for moviegoers, included a character that Sam Raimi did not want to use, Eddie Brock/Venom. Raimi preferred the classic villains of Spider-Man, but producer Avi Arad pushed and pushed to include him in the film for the fans. Raimi finally gave in, but Venom’s transition from page to screen was not pleasant. Once Brock became Venom, he had maybe almost 10 minutes of screen time, and then was killed off. Arad got his wish, but the fans were not happy. It is just another demonstration of the Hollywood machine destroying fan boys’ and girls’ hearts.

Between these two major factors, one must not be a rocket scientist to understand the driving power behind comic book films — it’s the color of Hulk’s skin, and it’s pretty mighty-the dollar. Comic book films are a surefire bet that butts will be in the seats come time to watch. The things about comic books are the escapism is always there: worlds of fantasy will always be provided, the battles will always be larger than life, the heroes will always be buff, the women will always be beautiful, and good will most likely triumph over evil. They can appeal to men, women, and children, as long as the content allows, so therefore movie makers would find it kind of dumb to not push superhero saga after superhero saga.

But will audiences tire of the same characters over and over again? How many times can one sit through a Batman origin story? An awkward high school Peter Parker? Mutants just trying to live openly without fear? Superman and kryptonite? These ideas were fresh once, and in the reboot’s defense, Batman Begins was a great return to form for the caped crusader after Batman and Robin, which was eight years prior. However, there has been five, yes, five X-Men films in the past 10 years. X3 formed a trilogy, one was a really bad origin story (Wolverine), and the newest film is a prequel to the trilogy. This film is currently in theaters along two other Marvel character’s films (Thor, Captain America) and something from DC (Green Lantern).

And as a big Spider-Man fan (he IS my favorite superhero), in 2007 the trilogy came to a horrible conclusion. Then talk of the reboot happened, which made me cringe. Yes, Spider-Man 3 was bad but did we really need a new origin movie so soon? While my fears are being put to rest on the reboot (the casting is better, they seem to be doing the source justice), will a new Spider-Man film really interest those who either A. were turned off by the trilogy, or B. don’t care for another Spider-Man movie so soon?

These all are important factors to consider. If the comic book movie is to survive, I truly believe the content must be fresh (Thor’s context, for example, was a nice change of pace from all the other stuff that has come out recently. Also, it was good). The reboots may interest fans, but at the same time, do not insult your audience, general or fan. In order for it to work, slapping a familiar name on it must make the case of something truly fun, epic, and worth your money, since everything is now in 3-D or IMAX, which most of these films don’t need.

In short, while there is no stopping the power train that is the comic book movie, the movies need to have substance and heart, and really give the movie going public a good time at the cinema. If not provided on a general basis, the theme will really start to fail and people will lose interest rather quick.

Just think back to that 7-year-old Logan who got lost in the world of Batman. If you can recreate that every single time I see a comic book film, then I’ll gladly go. But as a wise word to the powers that be in the movie making business. If you lose sight of what can make a movie good and instead go for the green, then the power of the comic book movie is truly dead and therefore so is the inner child who would enjoy them.

* The Superman reboot is supposed to wipe the slate clean in the aftermath of the so-so reception that was Superman Returns.