Every year, industry wags, entertainment magazines and film bloggers ask some variation on the question, “Is the comic book film dying?” FilmBuffOnline has been one of them. But the fact that these types of articles appear every year is a sure sign the question might be slightly less than valid.
This year, however, asking if the reign of the comic book film might be over takes on a bit more relevance. It appears to be a bad year for comic book films, with no breakout, smash, The Dark Knight-esque hits to come down the pike this year. With this disappointing factoid–no monster hits, it might seem like the comic book film has lost some of its luster.
Well, maybe. But comic book films are still making money at the box office. Thor has already made it’s $150 million production budget back domestically, and when you add in its foreign grosses, its tripled it. Captain America: The First Avenger has only been out two weeks but has already made almost 90% of its $140 million production back, and has well exceeded it with its foreign grosses. The domestic grosses for X-Men: First Class ($144,876,038) appear disappointing against it’s $160 million budget, but the $203,805,671 it made overseas more than makes it a hit. It’s too soon to say how Cowboys & Aliens and The Smurfs will do in the upcoming weeks, but the two films were neck and neck for #1 last weekend at the box office in their first week of release. And as for Green Lantern, well, Green Lantern is a flop. But its still getting a sequel, which, well, is a good sign for the continuation of the comic book film.
All of this appears to be lost on Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman, wrote an essay for the July 29, 2011 issue of the magazine (an essay that doesn’t appear on EW.com so I can’t link to it for you) saying that the “disappointing” performance comic book films this year is a result of the supply of comic book films exceeding demand for them as a result of a “Superhero Fatigue” in audiences.
Entertainment Weekly has had a love/hate with the comic book film in recent years. They’ll always put a comic book film on their cover, and usually jump on running exclusive photos from the set of these films while they are still in production, they show their distain for the genre by terming the San Diego Comic Con a nerd prom, calling comic fans geeks, and running opinion pieces such as these and the one I spoke on here. It makes you think that they view comic book films as weeds, taking away attention from other films the could be covering, and wish the genre would go away.
Now, this is an exaggeration, but not that far of a leap. Gleiberman does make some salient points (I think the lack of a “wow factor” in Green Lantern because they rehashed what we’ve seen before doomed that film), he suffers from the same kind of tunnel vision in the fact that his specific criticisms about comic book films in particular are not exclusive to the genre. They stand for films in general.
Gleiberman lists four reasons he believes is causing the “Superhero Fatigue.” To prove my point, I’ll go through each one and, where applicable, tell you where I think Gleiberman is wrong or misguided.
POINT #1: THE RERUN FACTOR
“The tropes and backstories and concepts that power superhero fantasies are becoming seriously repetitive and innocuous. We seem to be watching the same three or four stories over and over again…”
Granted, both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are millionaires with parental issues who use their fortunes and gadgets created by the corporations to fight crime. But if you think that Iron Man and The Dark Knight are essentially the same film, then you haven’t really been paying attention. Their motivations are far different, their support systems are different, and the way they approach to their tasks are different. It is unfair to lump one franchise as a rerun of the other just because if some vague similarities in their concept. These are not, as Gleiberman puts it “eternal variations on the same theme.”
And the fact that a film critic with Gleiberman’s experience believes that this is a problem with comic book films exclusively is beyond belief. Horrible Bosses explores the same themes as Strangers On a Train and Throw Momma From the Train and this week’s The Change-Up is a body-switch comedy, a concept that has been explored on film at least six times before. Where is the “Jason Bateman-in-the-lead Fatigue”?
POINT #2: THE FRANCHISE FACTOR
“The sheer numbing frequency of sequels, prequels, and reboots has created an atmosphere of comic book overkill.”
The Harry Potter franchise has had eight installments over ten years, including a film in each of the last three years. And Entertainment Weekly devoted an entire issue to mourn its ending. The James Bond franchise has had 22 installments, has been rebooted at least five times (if you count each time they changed actors a reboot, more if you count the two times Sean Connery came back), and will have its 23 installment next year on the 50th anniversary of the film franchise. And that installment is highly anticipated. This should contradict the fact that sequels and reboots equal overkill. So, if Gleiberman is feeling this, he is probably in the minority.
Is every reboot and sequel necessary? No. But as long as a large audience is interested in continuing the story, more will come.
POINT #3: THE ANTIHERO FACTOR
Referring to Michael Keaton as Batman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass:”…the cumulative effect of all these anti-macho brainiacs has been to make it seem as if a superhero could be anyone. When Seth Rogen mugged and posed his way through the flaky idiot whimsy of The Green Hornet, it was like, Why are we watching this guy?”
This point is the easiest to refute, not because it is so egregiously wrong or because the Green Hornet came from a radio program, not comic books, but because Gleiberman refutes it himself two paragraphs later: “When comic book movies really work, it’s because our connection to those heroes is intensely personal. They’re the rebels/mutants/geeks who transform themselves and triumph.” See what he did there? He said the fact that superheroes could be anyone is bad, but that anyone should be able to relate to them. See how those two ideas are in conflict?
You don’t have to be a brawny, macho Hercules to wear a suit of armor that flies. And if you are playing nebbishy Peter Parker, those qualities would actually be a detriment. The audience should see themselves in the character. Which is why the trend of going with solid actors over Adonis-like bruisers is a good thing. If you can get both, awesome, but getting a “brainiac” would be better. Someone who is suave and muscular actor might be someone the audience might wish to aspire to, but an actor that can portray all the quirks and qualities of a human being yet overcomes them to do something heroic is something audiences can relate to and aspire to.
POINT #4: THE SECOND-TIER FACTOR
“By the time they got to be movie heroes, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man had a mythical place in global culture. Simply by showing up they were cool. Now we’re on to more derivative and less exalted heroes, such as Thor and Captain America. I’m not dissing them (Thor, for my money, was high formulaic fun), but as characters they lean a bit more toward the generic. There’s a feeling that Hollywood has now begun scraping the Marvel/DC barrel.”
Oh, where to begin.
Of course, as a lifelong fan of Captain America, I have to mention while he might not have the same “mythical place in global culture” as Superman or Spider-Man, he was A) used as the name of a character in Easy Rider and B) name checked in the Guns ‘n’ Roses song “Paradise City.” That’s a pretty sizable dent in the cultural landscape if you ask me.
On to the meat of Gleiberman point. There is a saying in the performance arts that there are no small parts only small actors. Which mean, even the smallest characters can be spectacular if performed right. Same holds true for comic book characters. A comic book character doesn’t have to be a household name to be a success as a film. It just has to be done right and in such a way that it resonates with the audience.
Here’s a question for you: when the the “Marvel era” of comic book films begin? With Spider-Man in 2002? With X-Men in 2000?
Nope, it was Blade back in 1998. Blade was a Marvel comic book character who, at the time his first movie hit theaters, had all of one, ten-issue series to his name. He was mostly a supporting character in other books. If Captain America was scraping the barrel, Blade was shaving wood chips off the bottom of it.
In other words, there were probably comic book fans who were reading comics all their lives and THEY didn’t know about Blade. Yet, the character made it to the big screen and the film was profitable enough to spawn two sequels. Why? Because he was done right and in a way that resonated with audiences.
Gleiberman sarcastically asks at the end of this point, after the characters in The Avengers, who is next? A lot. Even if the make a feature film out of everyone who has ever been an Avenger in the comic books, Marvel has thousands of characters to choose from. And DC still has yet to scratch the surface of their intellectual properties. And, in the right hands, all of the characters could be turned into halfway decent films.
What I don’t understand about this is why is it that comic book films are always analyzed this way? Where are the “Judd Apatow: How He Ruined Summer Movies” or the “How Many Vampires Is Too Many?” articles? Granted, Gleiberman is entitled to his opinion. But his opinion is just that, his opinion. His ideas about the supposed “Superhero Fatigue” have more holes in it than Swiss cheese. The superhero film is not in as bad shape as he says it is, and will continue on for years to come. Sorry Entertainment Weekly, you’re going to have to keep on covering them.