There’s no avoiding comic book movies. Though they are most obvious in the big screen superhero blockbusters, comic adaptations now cross all genres. There are historical epics like 300 (2007), horror films like 30 Days of Night (2007), crime dramas like Sin City (2005) and Road to Perdition (2002), even quirky comedies like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010).
Marvel’s superhero comics in particular are being turned into films at an unprecedented rate, including The Avengers (2012) and its related films, the recent Amazing Spiderman (2012) reboot, the X-men franchise and plans to revive The Fantastic Four. The relationship between comics and films is changing. So what does that mean for both mediums?
Marvel and DC – big players in a bigger pond
To understand the relationship between comics and the modern movie industry we need to start by looking at two companies – Marvel and DC.
Marvel and DC are by far the largest players in the American comic book market. For decades they have dominated the industry in market share, profits, readers and public profile. Their characters have a large fan-base and are iconic enough to be widely recognised outside of the comic reading community.
But the comics industry is a very small one in comparison with most other mass media. Once a popular source of entertainment, comic sales have been in steady decline for decades. Marvel and DC may dominate this market, but they are tiny companies by the standards of the movie business.
More importantly for their current position, both are owned by far larger corporations. DC has been owned by Warner and its predecessors since 1967, while Marvel was bought by Disney in 2009. Both Marvel and DC possess a rich assortment of intellectual property built up over the decades, with an established fan-base and in some cases a high public profile. It’s the treatment of these two companies that defines the current crop of comic book adaptations.
From publishing powerhouses to R&D departments
Both Marvel and DC continue to be powerhouses within the comics business. But to their parent companies they are something more – rich sources of ideas and intellectual property that could be profitably used elsewhere.
So now they are being used in a similar way to research and design (R&D) departments in other businesses. They are farmed for their ideas so that these can be used as a source of movies. As long as these ideas keep coming then they are safe, but their profitability for the parent companies does not lie in their core business.
This has some positive consequences for comic creators, if they have the courage to seize the opportunity. The parent companies will keep them going even as the comics make less and less money, because the characters are so potent at the box office. They can experiment, try new directions, develop new ideas. If they fail they’ll still keep going. If they succeed they’ll see their names blazed in lights across the Hollywood skyline.
Sadly the comics companies are still playing it safe, fighting for their corner of the shrinking comics market, but perhaps with time that will change as they understand their place in something bigger.
For films the outlook is less positive. Though comic book adaptations have created some great films they are also a sign of the cautious film-making in which Hollywood is stuck. Why take a risk on something new when you can take a known property and turn it into a blockbuster? Even if you fail no-one can blame you, because on paper it was a guaranteed success.
Of course, if comics become more daring then the films based on them will too. And Disney’s decision to put Joss Whedon in charge of the Marvel films has resulted in surprisingly varied and entertaining results. But for now, using established characters is just one more way to avoid taking risks.
The flaw in the system – Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
If they were paying attention the film companies would know that this approach is not as safe as it seems. Cowboys & Aliens was based on a supposedly best-selling comic book. But in fact the comic had been created just to sell the idea of the film, and its creators had gamed the system to make it look more popular than it was. It worked for them and they got their film, though it was not the box office smash the film makers hoped, making only $174 million on a $163 million budget. But the lesson is there to see – cautious use of existing comics properties does not guarantee huge success.
For better or for worse, the film and comic industries are now deeply intertwined. We can only hope that the results are more creativity in comics and not an endless stream of movie making caution.