Thursday, January 29, 2015

Speculating the Comic Book Movie Bust


It's a great time to be a comic book fan. Besides what the big two are doing, smaller publishers like Image Comics, Dark Horse, IDW and BOOM! Studios are consistently putting out quality titles on a weekly basis. Other publishers such as Dynamite, Aspen Comics and Zenescope are climbing the ladder as well. And there's also Comixology and Comixology Submit, giving non-affiliated creators their own chance to get their book in front of as many eyes as possible. The barriers to entry in writing and illustrating a comic have been shattered and now anyone with the motivation to contribute their talents to a book can do so.

The success of indies (in addition to Marvel and DC) has ushered in a Golden Age of comics on film. The First Era featured major titles such as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Dark Knight and Spider-man trilogies, among others. There were also a few X-Men films and a bunch of other properties from smaller publishers, such as Hellboy, Wanted, Road to Perdition and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The quality of those movies is by and large phenomenal, speaking to a renewed dedication and focus on doing quality adaptations. The First Era was punctuated by The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, both of which seemed to cap off a phenomenal ten years or so of great comic book films.

Since 2012, it feels as if the number of films based on comic book properties have skyrocketed. Marvel is digging deep into their character reserves, planning films for Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther. DC has four shows on television in Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Constantine and a Supergirl show planned as the fifth. And other publishers are also getting into the action, with films like B.P.R.D., 2 Guns and Oblivion getting the big-screen treatment. There's a growing sentiment among new creators now that the path to success is create a great comic, sell a lot of copies and then get a call from Hollywood about adapting the comic into a film. Basically, anything and everything do with comics is all the rage, causing publishers and creators to put out as many comics as possible for success. If this formula sounds a little familiar, then chances are you were a comic book fan in the 90s when the speculator bubble popped and the bottom of the industry fell out.

In order to understand where the comic book film industry may be going, it might be worthwhile for a little history lesson, seeing as history does have a tendency of repeating itself. Between 1985 and 1993, Marvel and DC spurred comic book speculation through a series of maximum events. It started with books such as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Secret Wars. Secret Wars actually turned out to be an elaborate plan by then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter to sell Mattel toys as well as comics. 1989 was probably the first year that Hollywood took notice for real, as Tim Burton's Batman mixed Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and a lot of Prince to do a pretty solid (albeit campy at times) big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader. Publishers saw the rising success and began catering specifically to collectors, offering variant covers (glow-in-the-dark, hologram-enhanced, die-cut, embossing, foil stamped or foil-embossed covers), polybagged books and bonus add-ons for certain issues.

Marvel and DC as publishers weren't the only ones guilty of inflating the value of the comic book market. In July 1991, Wizard Magazine debuted, throwing logs on the rapidly burning speculator's fire. The periodical featured columns such as the "Wizard Top 10," "Marked Watch" and "Comic Watch," all of which looked at comics from a value standpoint. In essence, Wizard Magazine wanted you, the reader, to know which comics were worth the most money. The magazine wasn't without its detractors though, highlighted especially by Frank Miller's famous destruction of a copy of the magazine in his keynote speech at the 2001 Harvey Awards. Wizard spun the books from the big two as profitable for readers, but tons of smaller publishers also made a play for a piece of the monetary pie, offering up blatant ripoffs of familiar characters for a fast buck.

Remarkably, despite the ascension of comics as a valuable medium, getting those properties adapted into movies proved extremely difficult. Marvel and DC especially had a stable of characters with rich histories behind them, but not very much savvy in the way of licensing them for movies. Couple that with the prehistoric state of filmmaking (from a CGI perspective) and a general apathy towards comics outside of the books' perceived value and you're left with a lot of characters and no one in Hollywood wanting to go near them. Sure, the Batman movies featured an established character (and only the Tim Burton ones are worth talking about here), but other than that the movies were a lot less recognizable from a name brand perspective. Films like The Crow, Blade, Tank Girl, Barb Wire and Spawn were all lesser known properties that some studios took a chance on. By and large though, comics just didn't translate to movies.

Fast forward to now, where Disney owns Marvel (and LucasFilms). DC has been reshuffled and is a bigger part of Warner Bros. now. And studios like Lionsgate are tripping over themselves to grab the "next big thing" and get it made as a movie. Everyone wants a piece of the comic book on film action, which was great during the First Era of movies. Now that the newness has worn off, it's quickly being replaced with familiarity. Sony is on the verge of rebooting Spider-man for the third time in a decade. DC is already moving onto the next Batman after Christopher Nolan offered the most definitive look at the character in a very long time. Disney/Marvel just released Guardians of the Galaxy to much acclaim (deservedly so), but has plans to keep going to their character well and churn out even more movies about lesser-known characters.

In recent weeks, trailers for both Ant-Man and Fantastic Four were released. Now, it's a little unfair to say that Fantastic Four is an unknown entity, considering they're more or less one of the "founding families" of Marvel and have had quite a few go-rounds on the big screen. Ant-Man is a largely unknown commodity and Marvel is hoping to infuse him (as a character) with the same level of wow factor that came with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. The problem is that both trailers feel a little underwhelming. There's neither that sense of amazement nor the sense that we--as the comic book industry--have "made it" so to speak. Both films fit into a larger comic book tapestry that Marvel is weaving in film, but how long before the on-screen continuity mirrors comics?

Marvel is rumored to be moving towards a Civil War movie, pitting Iron Man against Captain America. Those who have read the story know that things don't work out so well for Cap. Does this mean Bucky Barnes becomes Captain America on-screen, much like the comics? What about Sam Wilson? And--again--sticking with Marvel here since they're the 800-pound gorilla in the theater, if they get the Spider-man rights back, they're reportedly looking for the third actor to play Spider-man. How many times will fans pay to see Spidey's origin story in theaters as the studio's "vision" of his life requires the "gritty origins" of his tale shown? Robert Downey, Jr., isn't playing Tony Stark forever. Scarlett Johansson will find a point where she no longer wants to play Black Widow. Chris Hemsworth might tire of the rigors involved in maintaining the Thor physique.

The thing is that it's fantastic to have so many movies out based on comics. Big Hero Six has gotten rave reviews. Kingsman: The Secret Service looks pretty fresh and exciting. Dawn of Justice looks like it's all over the map, but it could turn out to be alright. Still, there's a pretty extensive list of films set to come out in the next five years that go so far as giving Cyborg his own movie. Cyborg! How much more can you add to that list before you're rebooting characters and/or dedicating upwards of two hours or so to a character such as Cyborg? Nothing against Cyborg, but he doesn't really strike me as DC's A-list. And that's where the spectre of a comic book movie bust is looming large. Comic book movies now are being released with the frequency of foil/hologram covers in the 90s. They were used as marketing gimmicks to fuel the speculation of collecting comics fire even further, prompting readers to want to collect them all. A movie can be considered the ultimate foil for a comic property, but not every comic deserves a foil cover. And not every movie will be seen.

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