The big news a couple of weeks back was Disney buying Marvel Comics for $4 billion. “So what?”... you say? Well, in a nutshell, this deal probably has more potential to impact on Hollywood film making over the coming decade than any deals inked at TIFF or Cannes this, or any other year. The comic book adaptation has arrived at the epicenter of mediocrity.... Disney Corp. What was once a source for fringe, low budget Sci-Fi throwaways, has landed with a giant-annual-sized thud at the corner of Main Street U.S.A. and Donald Duck Drive and the repercussions will be significant.
I thought it worth the effort to put together a quick summary of how the lowly comic book morphed into Hollywood's N.B.T. and make a case for why that might not be such a good thing for the average cinephile. There's always been an odd connection between comic books and the movies. They were both born around the same time, grew up together and have a shared history. As the first comic strips were making their newspaper debuts, the Lumiere brothers were filming trains pulling into stations. Their paths then diverged with movies exploding in popularity through the '20s and '30s as comic strips (and subsequently, comic books) grew at a relatively slower pace. Comic books (as opposed to comic strips) began in the early 30s, and in 1934 Flash Gordon became one of the first comic books to capture the public's imagination. Universal, then one of the smaller studios, turned Flash Gordon into a movie in 1936. Although there are a few comic-based films that predate Flash, this is one of the first movies based on a comic book rather than a strip. For the next 40 years movies based on comics were either low budget cheapies or even lower budget serials.
All that changed in 1978 when producers Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler looked at the huge success enjoyed by Star Wars the year before and realized that the marriage of pulp and state of the art special effects had the potential for huge returns. The first Superman made a mint, but more importantly paved the way for future comic book adaptations by making them respectable. It could be argued that Superman (and not Star Wars, as many have opined) changed everything. One look at Hollywood's mainstream output since 2000 is a pretty convincing argument in support of this contention. After a turn back to the banal (Howard the Duck, anyone?), it took another ten years before Tim Burton's Batman reignited the comic book flick and ushered in another wave of films adapted from from the worlds of DC and Marvel. Ten years after that, the modern comic book movie arrived with Bryan Singer's X-Men, arguably the defining and most influential mainstream Hollywood film of the past decade. As the quality and seamlessness of CGI has grown during the last decade, the comic hero has become more and more visually believable to film audiences and a new cinematic form has taken hold.
Films based on comic books have grossed nearly $8,000,000,000 since Superman flew onto screens in 1978 and 3/4's of that has come in just the past 8 years. In addition to being the surest bet in the Hollywood green light district, comic book adaptations have also influenced other films that would likely not have been made without them paving the way. One could easily lump Harry Potter, Pirates, Shrek and a host of other huge franchises with the Marvel and DC onslaught of the past decade. They are all cut from the same cloth. But what is that cloth and why is it so prolific? Successful script adaptations are all about familiarity these days. The built-in name recognition that comic books have offer some guarantee of a return on investment, an elemental part of the blockbuster equation. With a typical action film now costing over a hundred million to make, Disney coughing up $4 billion to get a toe-hold in a demographic they don't currently hold much sway with (drooling, 18 to 26 year-old man-children) starts to make some sense. Novels used to be the chief source of cinematic adaptations, but they are filled with pitfalls for filmmakers. With a novel, the film needs to recreate the story. With comic books, filmmakers can get away with recreating a storyline. It's a subtle, but significant difference. Comics have fast, easy to follow plots and pre-story-boarded visuals, are much easier to adapt to the big screen than novels with all their inner dialogue and reliance on pesky (and oh-so-last-century) “words” and are easier to market. Our society is moving away from words toward images and icons and the comic-book-adapted-movie dovetails with that cultural devolution phenomena nicely. Movies can't be adapted from literary sources partly because we can't (or choose not to) read anymore. That may not come as a revelation to any of you but it has fundamentally changed movies (and a myriad of other, far more important things) during our lifetimes. In the not-too-distant-past, filmmakers aspired to be storytellers, and although few would care to admit it, those days are long-gone. Any film that tries to make a point risks alienating potential audience members, and the business that is Hollywood simply can't afford to offend anyone with $25 and spare two hours. As a result, movies (particularly their mainstream incarnations) are becoming an increasingly simplistic art form, and the audience's ability to understand the language of cinema has faded with it. Creating more easily digestible stories is a way to combat the many entertainment alternatives vying for the same dollar out there. Comic books offer just that kind of fare.
So, should we care? I think so. There are those that would argue that it “twas ever thus” and that cinema has always pandered to the lowest common denominator but I believe that popular film can be about something other than superheros and video game escapism and still resonate with audiences. The problem with perpetually chasing after the same 18 to 26 year-old male demographic is the diminishing artistic and intellectual returns one can expect from a target audience that a) doesn't read, b) has little real life experience and c) is mostly ignorant as a result. Film cycles in the past have raised the cultural bar but we seem destined to keep lowering our sights these days. We use to celebrate the daring and challenging works of international film makers like Kurosawa, Bergman, Kubrick, Godard, Powell, Bunuel, Bertulucci, Fassbinder and Fellini and revel in the auteur glow of American film makers such as Penn, Sturges, Wilder, Wellman, Peckinpah, Welles and Zinnemann. Their modern equivalents are often making the same kinds of films that the Hollywood dream factory keeps churning out, ceasing to be an alternative to bland American escapist fare. There are exceptions to every broad statement like that to be sure, but the singular focus on man-child movies has undermined the potential for great film in recent years. As a result, we haven't had any.
This endless fascination with the comic book movie also perpetuates strange stereotypes as well. Never has a genre so single-mindedly offered up more counterproductive and backward perspectives on matters as varied as race, first-world-centric geography, gender and body image. Impossibly ridiculous super-bodies are augmented with CGI-enhanced skills and “actors” cease to exist in any real way. Fetishistic imagery pervades the form and an entire generation of movie goers have grown up on a steady diet of pop-cultural candy floss. I hate to burst the bubble here (actually that's not entirely true, but you knew that) but The Dark Knight and The Watchmen just aren't examples of great cinema. They're spectacular and accomplished but that's where it ends.
I'd bet that most of you haven't seen more than a handful of the following 25 films....
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Best Years of Our Lives, Network, The Gold Rush, The Deer Hunter, 12 Angry Men, Sullivan's Travels, Sunset Boulevard, Bridge on the River Kwai, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maltese Falcon, Sunrise, Patton, An American in Paris, High Noon, Double Indemnity, Trouble in Paradise, Five Easy Pieces, Paths of Glory, Gun Crazy, The Third Man, In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront or From Here to Eternity.
These films all share interchangeable positions on nearly every greatest American film list and they are all literary adaptations on one sort or another. Nobody flies, has ludicrous muscles, giant rock-hard tits or battles super-villains by night (except Gary Cooper in High Noon, but he does it at lunchtime) but by any measurement, they are all “great” films that have stood the test of time and subsequent revisiting by other generations of cinephiles. I don't know how - or if - we can get back to this style of film making but the comic book era we live in now seems slight, insignificant and dare I say it, a little “last decade” by comparison. I'm hoping Tarantino does a straight up drama next time. He's one of the few directors with an ear for dialogue (aka “words” for those 45% of university students who will never read another book after graduation – true statistic) these days.