If we are going to talk about the state of the comic book film in 2018, we have to start with Marvel. Because some news that hit about two weeks ago makes them the lead story.
Disney has bought a great deal of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including the rights it held to the X-Men and the distribution rights to the Fantastic Four. This means that combined with the deal Disney made with Sony to share the Spider-Man rights a couple years ago, Marvel Studios will have all of their major characters either in house or under the company’ guiding influence.
This has been the moment that many Marvel fans have been waiting for. But the reality is that it will be a long while, if ever, before we see Wolverine joining the Avengers or Spider-Man hanging out with the Fantastic Four. First, the deal has to be approved by the U.S. Government. There really shouldn’t be that much hold up, considering President Trump has friends in both companies. But even after the deal goes through, we have to go through the films each company has in production or development before we see any shared universe action. Will the new films be done in Marvel House style? With the Fox continuity be kept or thrown out? Will all the films be rebooted at once of in dribs and drabs. All will be revealed in the distant future.
What we do know is that Fox’s penchant for R-Rated Marvel films will not be hampered by the move to Disney. That’s good news, because the freedom of the R-rating has allowed the studios explore aspects of their licensed characters. Case in point: Logan. The film allowed the Clawed Canuck to drop the F-bomb every six minutes and let the blood and gore gush whenever Logan stabbed someone with his claws. It also let them pursue the plot of an aging cowboy coming to the end of his run, a storyline seldom seen in comic book adaptations. Audiences responded and the film earned more than six times its budget back.
For Marvel Studios proper, we saw a turn to comedy. It started with Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which continued the comedy-action film with a heart trend that the original started. Then, in November, the studio gave us Thor: Ragnarok, which took the rather dull step-child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and played the MCU’s most pompous up for laughs. Both made over $840 million at the international box office, quadrupling their budgets.
Sandwiched between those two was Marvel Studios’ first cooperative effort with Sony: Spider-Man: Homecoming. What did Marvel add to the Spider-Man character? A complete lack of experience, a bunch of scenes with Tony Stark, and a better villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture than many in-house MCU heroes get. The film made over $880 million worldwide, more than the last Spidey film before the partnership but less than the $1 billion Sony expects every Spider-Man film to make.
Marvel actually had its first failure at the box office, albeit with a lot of caveats. That failure was The Inhumans, the two-hour television pilot that was released to IMAX theaters before the season premiered on ABC. It made a lot less than expected due to what Richard L. Gelfond, the chief executive of IMAX blamed on “misalignment of customer expectations,” because fans were looking forward to “a production akin to a mega-budget blockbuster movie, rather than pilots for a television show.” I’m sure the wooden acting by the miscast actors, the confusing direction, and the plot holes you can fly a C-130 through might have also had something to do with that as well.
But what about Marvel’s arch-enemy, DC Comics? Well, there were signs that the fortunes of the DC Extended Universe were about to change with the release of Wonder Woman. Not only was the film the best movie of the DCEU up to that point, it was one of the best films of year, period. It gave hope to DC Comics fans that finally they would have a shared cinematic universe to match Marvel’s.
Those hopes were dashed later in the year with the release of Justice League. A tumultuous production schedule and a budget rumored to be in the $400 million range made it nigh impossible for the film to make a profit in the first place, but lackluster reviews pretty much did it in. The film wasn’t as bad as some reviewers said, but it was a major step down from Wonder Woman.
As for films adapted from companies outside the Big Two, well, we saw what it takes to make a hit. If you are going to stray off reservation into rather unknown territory, keep it cheap and keep it relatable. That was the blueprint Atomic Blonde used. Based on the Oni Press graphic novel, The Coldest Winter, the film cast Charlize Theron as a Cold War spy working a case in a divided Berlin. The film was stylish, action-packed and made for around $30 dollars. It tripled that budget worldwide.
It also helps if you are going to make a cult foreign comic book into a film, you don’t overestimate or underestimate the audience for the book. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets may have been a labor of love for writer/director Luc Besson, but it was a hard sell to a world almost completely unfamiliar with the original book. And Ghost in the Shell thought that the legions of fans of the Manga series wouldn’t mind its Asian protagonist being replaced by Scarlet Johansson. They did and they stayed away from the film in droves. Both films were box office disappointments.
Marvel’s dominance at the box office looks to continue in 2018 with the eagerly awaited Avengers: Infinity War. They also have Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp coming out, joined by Fox’s Deadpool 2, X-Men: Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants, with Venom and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse coming from Sony. The DCEU hopes to bounce back with Aquaman and indies and foreign comics are represented by The Empty Man and Accident Man respectively.