Film Adaptations of Comic Book Movies:
The literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was once quoted as saying “Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.” It is certain the 18th century writer had no idea just how true this idea would hold to the 21st century film industry; or for that fact what a film is. The North American film industry generated a whopping $10.8 billion (USD) in box office sales in 2012. With such a large revenue stream it’s no wonder that film studios are looking to the past to determine what films will bring them the largest chunk of those sales. One of the most popular choices in the early 21st century has been adapting comic books into hugely successful big budget movies. Knowing that comic book movies are so successful, why is it that film studios choose to focus only on a handful of comic book series, rehashing the same stories time after time?
Film adaptations of comic books are far from a 21st century idea. The first North American comic book movie was Superman and the Mole Men, which debuted in 1951. It’s worth noting that this movie, like the comic book before it, spurred an international trend of comic book movies focusing almost exclusively on super heroes. In fact every decade since has seen as least one major comic book film release, nearly all of which feature super heroes. With over a half century spent making comic book films, it seems it would be hard to make a comic book movie that hasn’t been done already. However there are far more than enough comic books and super heroes available to be adapted to film for a new, unique, movie to have been released every year since 1951. However film producers are only interested in the most popular characters and stories. Those of particularly interest are those that have already had success as a film adaptation, see the 15 Superman movies that have been made since 1951. The practice of making a repeat production of a comic book has come to be known as a reboot. While many studios have successfully rebooted comic book movies there must first be an original, and often horrific, adaptation.
Most would consider the first successful comic book movie reboot to be Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. The only prior Batman movie, 1966’s Batman starting Adam West, opted to take a goofy rather than serious tone. The stark contrast between the goofy 1966 and dark 1989 Batman’s (Batmen?) expertly demonstrated how careful changes in the tone and setting allowed for whole characters and ideas to be reused in an entirely separate story and be highly successful. It would seem everyone but film studios took noticed of the excellence displayed in 1989’s Batman. Despite its great success in comic and movie circles alike, the foundation set down by the film would be left untouched for over a decade.
The 1990’s saw over 31 comic book movies. Around 25 of those movies ranged from bad to “oh god why!” with a few decent gems in Batman Returns, Blade, and Men in Black. Although none of these movies could reach the mark set by the 1989 Batman, they showed the importance of preserving the basic character traits that are so crucial to a successful comic book (unless you’re Superman for some reason). Comic books saw an enormous jump in sales at the start of the 1990’s and film studios sought to capitalize on that trend. Most comic book movies of the time were made utilizing little more than the character names from the original comics, leaving behind many of the traits that made the characters so compelling. The expectation was these movies would at least break even based off the fandom around comic books alone. Film studios failed to realize that many of the comic book sales were going to individuals who didn’t even read, or care about, the content of the comic books. People were collecting big name comics hoping their appreciation in value over the years would allow for an early retirement. What we were left with were subpar movie adaptations of comic books directed at a deceivingly large target audience. It was at the cost of almost completely losing the entire comic book industry, well and probably millions of dollars as well, that film studios nearly destroyed any hope a successful comic book movie. Fortunately for comic book fans everywhere one movie, near single handedly, ushered in a golden age of comic book movie reboots in the 2000’s.
The year 2000 saw a heated presidential race, relief from Y2K scares, and Brain Singer’s excellent film adaptation of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men. Building from the foundation set by 1989’s Batman, this X-Men movie took on the task of recreating a host of characters and settings after the disaster of 1996’s Generation X. While comic book fans criticize X-Men for its portrayal of the character Rogue, they did an excellent job of clearly defining each other member of the X-Men’s unique defining character traits. The success of X-Men sparked a rush for film studios to recreate movie adaptations of famous comic books. While the comic book film industry constantly threated to fall back into the horrors of the 1990’s, this time it firmly separated itself from past failures with consistently excellent films such as V for Vendetta, Sin City, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen. These heavily character driven stories reaffirmed that comic book movies could be highly successful and compelling ventures. This encouraged film studios to invest more time and money into comic books than ever before.
As it stands in mid-2013, comic book movies have never been more popular. Film studios are not only producing excellent comic book movies but many of these films are excellent movies alone. Rebooted film adaptations of comic books hold the record for highest grossing opening weekend (Marvel’s The Avengers) and nearly half of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide (Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and The Dark Knight Rises). Nearly every comic book movie released today has been made before in the time since 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. Film studios have become specialized at taking known popular comic series and putting slightly modified characters in new settings to create an entirely new experience for viewers. Anyone that has compared movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man to the disasters that are Daredevil or Green Lantern should easily be able to identify why film studios often choose to reboot a comic book film rather than venture into a never before adapted comic series. Simply put, as Puff Daddy once said, “It’s All About the Benjamins.”