Marvel and DC: Comics as Cinematic R&D

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?

comics marvel dc The AvengersMarvel 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.

comics marvel dc sin cityFrom 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.

comics marvel dc Cowboys vs aliensThe 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.



Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at

9 thoughts on “Marvel and DC: Comics as Cinematic R&D

  1. You have touched on a crucial problem in the competition amongst different forms of Mass Media. When one form becomes subservient to another, how can it be true to its own audience and its own set of codes and conventions? Each medium has its own codes and conventions. A radio drama is not a television drama. Neither of them are movies or stage plays.

    The key word is adaptation from one medium to another. You can not treat a medium simply as a R&D departments and expect the medium to survive. Novelists compose novels not movie scripts. Sequential art writers and illustrators compose comic books or graphic novels. Note that these two forms are also separate forms of media. They do not have identical codes and conventions. That is why attempts to story arcs in monthly comic books so they can sell better as hardcover/large format trades actual hurt the narrative flow of the monthlies. It is as if you structured a weekly television series so with the intention of releasing it as a wide distribution movie. Half horse, half rabbit was my grandfather’s expression for such a situation.

    Finally, the critics, general audience and the movies companies fail to recognize that the “lowly super-hero comic book” is a genre within the comic books medium. It is not the whole medium, the same way Film Noir is a genre within cinema. Note that Road to Perdition was adapted from a graphic novel as was Stardust ( Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess ). Neither work can be considered superhero comic books. Their structure may be presented in a serialized form, but the full intent was conceived and intended as sequential art narrative.

    Unfortunately. movie produces & their companies see sequential art narratives purely as a type of storyboard for presenting movie concepts.

    • I largely agree with you, especially the point about the danger of making one medium subservient to another. And of course the adaptation of comic books isn’t just about superheroes – there are films such as Ghost World, and I believe Boom! comics, whose output is a mixture of superheroes and other action fare, have recently set up an office in Hollywood to seek adaptations (it’s either Boom! or Dynamite, both of whom do similar work).

      For me, the silver lining of all this is the possibility that reliable funding from films might free up Marvel and DC to take more risks with their comics. It’s probably a forlorn hope, but it’s something.

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  3. I was a comic reader as a youngster. Marvel and DC,as well as English paper comics.
    To be honest, I don’t care for the film adaptations at all, as watching the super heroes on screen takes a lot, if not all of the imagination away, at least for me.
    As for writing comics just to become films, I have suspected this for a long time now, and your article confirms my fears. If the literature/graphics are good enough to get an audience, then it is inevitable that a film will follow. I think I can see the industry turning on its head though, and you have summed it up succinctly and intelligently as always Andrew.
    Best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

    • Your fears are well-founded Pete. After this article was published a friend reminded me that Boom! Studios, one of the second tier American comics publishers, has set up an office in Hollywood specifically to promote their comics as film properties. It’s a crazy mixed-up world of adaptation and questionable demand.

      Personally I really enjoy a well-executed superhero film, but adaptation is no guarantee of excellence, and I can see how many people would prefer the originals, just as you do.

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  5. This is very helpful for someone like me who never really was into comic books. I am pretty overwhelmed by all the adaptations that are coming out. I know a lot of literature lovers have lamented the effect that bigger and bigger film budgets have had on literature. Novelists attempting to cash in on film money seem to be turning out film treatments instead of novels. It sounds like something similar is happening in comics. I only regret that a movie about comics — an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay — has been trapped for many years in development hell. Thanks for an informative piece, Andrew.

    • I’m not surprised to hear that that there’s a similar problem with the book industry. Films have such a high profile at the moment, the potential payoffs are so huge, and adaptations are a safe bet for film executives. It makes for a really warped situation.

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