There is a debate going on, arguing about whether superheroes on film are here to stay or whether they are a fad that will soon burn itself out. In order to answer this question, it is important to look at the current state of superhero cinema. How did it get here and why does it seem to be working better now than it ever has before?
The reason can be boiled down to Marvel Studios – the film production wing of the comic book company which originated so many classic characters. It’s been a long road for Marvel, as they attempted time and again to realize their dreams of seeing their heroes on the silver screen. And here, I will chronicle the lengthy history of Marvel Studios. There is a simple reason of why so many of these comic book films work, why others don’t and why some just won’t get the hint.
It may surprise many of our younger readers that there was a time when comic book films were not taken seriously. Comic books in general were seen as the exclusive territory of children, and believe it or not, Hollywood didn’t start throwing most of its money at children until the mid-1970s/early 1980s. The only place superheroes could catch any kind of break was on television. Whether it be prime time shows like BATMAN and WONDER WOMAN or Saturday morning shows like SUPERFRIENDS. Pf course, the Saturday morning shows were made for the kiddies and featured rushed stories, sometimes two or more per episode. As for the prime time shows, the budgets allotted for television were tiny. Hence, the storylines were more reality-based than in the comics. Oftentimes, heroes would go against bank robbers or act more like private detectives.
All of this seemed like it might change with an unprecedented big-budget film from Warner Bros. SUPERMAN. Seeing a superhero in a production of this size was so foreign to American audiences that the film was publicized as SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to really sell this new kind of spectacle. SUPERMAN and its sequel were huge hits. So, this genre of films should have been big. Except they weren’t. There was no onslaught of films like we would expect today. Instead, we got a few independent films like SWAMP THING. But where was the grand new age of superhero films?
The answer is nowhere, or network television, which at that time was the same thing. We saw more short-lived television series and failed pilots. The release of SUPERMAN did little to convince studios to get behind their heroes.
Things did start to change when Warner rolled the dice once again with BATMAN. Again, younger readers might be surprised that BATMAN was considered a very risky proposition. While longtime comic fans knew better, the standard public perception of Batman was shaped from the Adam West TV series and multiple Saturday morning cartoons. The guy in the director’s chair was Tim Burton, a kid by Hollywood standards, who had only helmed two comedies beforehand. The Joker was being played by Jack Nicholson, the biggest actor around but in a part that many still wrongly associated with a much more lighthearted approach. And in the batsuit? It was Michael Keaton, an actor who had been in a couple critically acclaimed dramas that did little box office. Primarily, he was seen as a comedic actor, and the idea of Keaton in the lead would be like casting Will Ferrell in a similar role today. In order to offset potential damage, Kim Basinger was thrown in for sex appeal and Prince supplied songs for the movie and an album tie-in.
Warner put all their might behind BATMAN, in a brilliant marketing push still unrivaled by today’s standards. It all paid off. BATMAN was a game-changer. It was a film that showed comic books and the heroes that inhabit them could be taken seriously. It was a tremendous success and finally, Hollywood came knocking.
But all of that was DC Comics. Where in this was Marvel?
Well, to relate the multitude of mishaps and missteps that plagued Marvel Comics in the 1980s and 1990s would fill a book. In fact, it has – Sean Howe’s book MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY is an exhaustive and bittersweet chronicle of the comic empire.
Needless to say that Marvel was still stuck on television during much of this time. They had been trying to get their heroes on screen for much longer than anyone else would have bothered. Marvel probably thought they were in good hands when in 1986, the troubled company was bought by New World Pictures. The company, founded by Roger Corman but since sold to other investors, was ramping up an ambitious slate of motion picture and television properties. Every month in Marvel Comics, Stan Lee would recount the exciting new films in the works. Fans clamored for these films. What they got was a lot of disappointment. It isn’t that New World didn’t do anything with Marvel, it’s that they didn’t know what to do with it. Films would be announced and then scrapped. The most notable movement was in a trilogy of TV movies based upon the 1970s television series, THE INCREDIBLE HULK. In two out of these three films, Thor and Daredevil made appearances, the movies serving as backdoor pilots to shows that never happened. Even here, there was a clue as to why they couldn’t make these things work. Thor saw his origin story drastically rewritten whereas Daredevil was unrecognizable in a cat burglar outfit. There was also a film based on THE PUNISHER, but it never made it to U.S. Theatres. Instead being released on video after New World Pictures ran into trouble. Once again, the best examples of Marvel superheroes in other media was on Saturday morning television.
Back to the drawing board and instead, Marvel turned to producer Menahem Golan. Not a great idea as Golan had also not read any of the books. Cannon films promised a big-budget SPIDER-MAN film, but there seemed to be little understanding over who Spider-man was. At one point, it was to be an actual half-man/half-spider with eight legs who considered suicide rather than going on living as a freak. This film never happened. There was finally a CAPTAIN AMERICA film. But like THE PUNISHER, it never made it to theatres, despite posters and trailers being released. It’s also regarded as one of the worst and most wrong-headed comic adaptations ever.
Many stops and starts followed over the years, with many of Marvel’s heroes in limbo, thanks to complicated legal issues in which the ownership rights of many Marvel characters was in doubt. Then, finally, Marvel got its groove back. In the mid-1990s, they set up a wing dedicated to getting their films on the big screen. The person who gets the most credit is Avi Arad and towards the beginning, the results were miraculous.
Two of the first projects to get made were X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN. Fans had been awaiting both films for decades. Arad secured studio deals and then saw them assigned to class act directors Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, respectively. Could Marvel’s golden age in film finally be here? You could be forgiven for thinking so. Unfortunately, Arad started selling off the rights to Marvel properties more and more as demand grew. It’s important to note that Marvel did not have an actual hand in making these films, the idea of a comic company entering film production was still foreign. Soon, we saw the third X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN films disappoint as the studios behind them took more and more control of the projects. Also, we got disappointments like GHOST RIDER, DAREDEVIL and FANTASTIC FOUR, all of which were financially successful and none of which really took a major interest in nurturing the characters that originated in the pages of Marvel Comics. Suddenly, “I can’t wait for the next Marvel film” became, “I’ll see it and maybe this film won’t be one of the terrible ones.”
After Arad left, Marvel got smart and did something no one else had thought to do before. Because of a renewed interest in comics and the success of the previously mentioned films, Marvel decided to take charge. Marvel stopped being a name to be sold off to other entities. Instead, they became Marvel Studios. They would oversee every aspect of production themselves. They would get the scripts written, they would hire the cast and crew, they would produce the film, allowing the studio to bankroll the film, distribute it and reap some of the profits. The idea was simple. After decades of trying to get their characters on the screen, they finally saw the results. But while the films put money in the company’s pocket, the characters they saw on screen bore little resemblance to the ones they had originated. They had a say in the development of these films of course, but not the final say. And why not? Who better to oversee production than the same people who had already been overseeing every stage of the characters’ evolution for the last fifty years?
This is how we got IRON MAN. While Iron Man was known to comic fans, and while he did have a couple of cartoons over the years, he wasn’t exactly as well known as the Hulk or Spider-man. In the lead, they cast Robert Downey, Jr., who at that time had just been recovering from years of drug addiction and embarrassing public debacles. He was well-known, an Oscar nominee, but he was not a major above-the-title star at that point. Marvel had faith. They knew Downey would make an excellent Tony Stark.
And here is where the true Golden Age begins. Because IRON MAN got everything right. And they weren’t done there. Marvel next tackled THE INCREDIBLE HULK (both a sequel and reboot of the failed Ang Lee film from a few years prior), THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA. These are some of the best superhero films ever made and every single one of them came directly from the Marvel offices. This also allowed them to do what they do in the comics, not just telling separate stories but giving audiences an interconnected universe in which all these characters exist and sometimes cross paths. The events of one story, while not necessarily connected, leaves ripples that are felt in the others. The greatest realization of this of course came last year with the monumental AVENGERS film.
What Marvel Studios does right is overseeing everything themselves. No one knows these characters like they do. If there need to be changes made in their transition to the big screen (and there have been), they can make the necessary tweaks without losing sight of the characters and their personalities. Marvel has consistently installed the right people both in front of and behind the camera. They aren’t always the biggest names, but they are some of the best.
When Marvel Studios was bought by Disney, there was reason to suspect that things might go downhill. But Disney has wisely kept out of things and allowed Marvel to be Marvel. The success of THE AVENGERS was a sign that the studio is willing to give the creative people final say in the matter. That there is no Disney logo at the beginning of AVENGERS or IRON MAN 3 is a good faith gesture that one hopes will continue to pay off in the future.
And this is why nobody else will do what Marvel is doing. Studios invest a lot in their films, especially major summer tentpoles like IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS. So, when you ask them to continue paying for them while relinquishing control to a comic company that just says “trust me,” many of them balk. Studios don’t want to relinquish their control. They spend much of their time and money trying to figure out what sells. What Marvel Studios does is tell the studios to forget about all that and give them the keys to the Camaro.
This is why DC will never have the success Marvel has experienced as of late. Yes, Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy rewrote some of the rules on comic book films and who knows, maybe MAN OF STEEL will do the same. But these were aberrations where the artist retained primary control and those artist instincts happened to be correct. Also, anyone who has read the comics will tell you that the Batman in Nolan’s films bears little resemblance to the Batman on the page. What else has DC tried to get moving lately? GREEN LANTERN and JONAH HEX are two of the biggest examples. Both of these films failed, both critically and financially. The reasons are obvious. They were flashy and completely devoid of substance. They had little understanding of the characters. They seemed like they were aping what they hoped audiences would want rather than trying to cultivate anything of originality.
Most importantly, DC was not in control. A telling moment comes in the end credits of GREEN LANTERN where Geoff Johns is credited as “script consultant” This is after audiences have sat through a thoroughly disappointing film experience. If that audience is familiar with the comics, they would know that Johns is responsible for revitalizing the Green Lantern brand, penning some of the most emotional, exciting, complex stories in the history of the franchise. Johns shouldn’t have merely consulted on the finished script. He should have written the damn thing.
The best place to see DC heroes? Once again, it’s animation. Syndicated shows like JUSTICE LEAGUE have raised the bar and the straight-to-video animated films, such as SUPERMAN-BATMAN: APOCALYPSE and BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD have been better than any DC film seen on the big screen in years. These are the properties that DC is able to oversee personally. They are not allowed to do this when there are hundreds of millions of big screen dollars at stake.
And let’s not forget that Marvel Studios doesn’t have a final say in everything it does. Studios are still holding onto old Marvel properties, unwilling to give them up to Marvel Studios and these says, Disney. Other studios are putting films into production for the sole purpose of holding onto the rights for a little while longer. This is why we got GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, which managed the unenviable feat of being even worse than its predecessor. We also got the dark, broody AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (a character who is neither dark nor broody), featuring a Peter Parker with perfect bedhead and an iPhone addiciton. All of this because the studios did not want to give up control to the original creators, the entire philosophy behind Marvel Studios. This year, we get two X-men films – X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and THE WOLVERINE. Both of these have potential since they are based upon actual stories from the mythology. However, both are also sequels to films that were made because the studios didn’t want the rights to revert back to Marvel. 20th Century Fox, who deals with the X-MEN franchise, has already lost rights to future DAREDEVIL and FANTASTIC FOUR films because the rights expired before they could get something in production.
Now that Marvel Phase 2 is beginning, this will be the big test. The sequels to IRON MAN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS should all be great. DOCTOR STRANGE doesn’t seem like much of a stretch either. However, Marvel is also prepping a few properties unfamiliar to all but the most ardent comic fans. Edgar Wright’s ANT MAN has been in the works for a very long time and may finally be happening. But while Henry Pym is an important figure in the Marvel universe, few outside of the comic shops know who he is. And if you think that’s obscure, just wait until James Gunn unleashes the incredibly strange GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. I personally have little worry that these will both be quality films. If the trend of Marvel Studios continues, I have faith that these will make wonderfully strange and entertaining additions to the roster. But how receptive will audiences be? We’re getting into a rocky area here where there is very little name recognition and both the plots and characters are getting wackier.
Nevertheless, superheroes will continue, whether the ANT MAN or GUARDIANS films are a success or not. There may be a dry period if audiences don’t line up for them, but the genre will continue. Superheroes have become a sub-genre of fantasy film just like the western became a sub-genre of the action picture. Hopefully, Marvel will be able to continue with the freedom they have enjoyed through it all. These superhero films have been made for decades now. But it’s only been for the last few years, that a group of people have continued to make them right.