STATE OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM 2019: Cinema Of The Highest Order

 

Unless you have been living under a rock, or this is the first one of these year-end wrap ups that you are reading, you will remember how I typically opened these articles. I basically complained about how the mainstream media has been predicting the death of the comic book movie for years. This year, the narrative has changed. The media is now talking about whether or not comic book films count as cinema.

Yes, legends ranging from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppolla to young upstarts ranging from Robert Downey, Jr to James Gunn have argued the merits of each side. My take? I’m not pro- or anti-cinema. I’m pro good films and anti-bad films. And I’m also happy that the public narrative has changed to this instead of wishing for the genre’s doom outright.

We’ll start this year’s review like we usually do–with Marvel. 2019 was a momentous year for the studio, as it celebrated its tenth year in operation. It had the feel of a pivotal year for the company, as it faces a somewhat uncertain future.

First up, in March, was Captain Marvel. The good captain faced off against the most nefarious villain to ever plague the Marvel Cinematic Universe–a bunch of anonymous, butt-hurt misogynists who were apoplectic that Marvel would ever dare have a female hero in a starring role. Especially one played by such a vocal feminist as Brie Larson.

The group started a campaign against the film, with the main example of it being an assault on Rotten Tomatoes “Want To See It” function, review bombing the feature so it showed only 28% wanting to see it. It was obviously an attempt to sway the unsuspecting site visitor from seeing the film.

The result? Captain Marvel bombed and bombed badly, making only $2 million at theaters against an estimated $175 million budget. It became not only first flop of the MCU, but one of the biggest flops in movie history. The failure of the film caused Larson to go into a self-imposed exile and led Kevin Feige to hold a press conference where he tearfully promised never to put out any girl movies ever again.

Kidding! That’s not what happened! The film was a big success, making over $1 billion worldwide and establishing Captain Marvel as a vital part of the MCU. Let this be a lesson to you. You might not like the march of progress, but there is little that you can do to stop it from happening.

April brought us Avengers: Endgame and it was everything that we could ask for and more. It was less a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War than a culmination of the ten years of Marvel films up to that point, wrapping up plot points that began as far back as 2008’s Iron Man. The film made almost $3 billion worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in that demographic (it’s $858 million domestic gross was only good for number two all time in that area).

I don’t know about you, but there was a definite “end of an era” vibe for me when I left the film. I know. that should have been a feeling. It’s clear that we will not be getting any more Iron Man or Captain America films in the future (and if that spoils anything for you at this late date, shame on you) so we are sailing into uncharted waters. A legend has risen about Marvel’s ability to turn B-listers like Cap and Shellhead into billion dollar grossers. However, we have now made it to the C-list (to put it in perspective, Captain America and Iron Man have starred in comic books that ran for decades. Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Eternals? Not so much). Will Marvel Studios have the same success with these new characters? There are many questions yet to be answered.

One thing that is not in question is that the partnership between Sony and Marvel Studios over the film life of Spider-Man will continue for at least two more movies. In August, it looked like the marriage between the two companies was at an end, as the studios could not come to an agreement over how they would share expenses and profits. Luckily, this separation only lasted a month, and the pair agreed to work together on the sequel to Spider-Man: Far From Home and one other movie.

This bodes well because Spider-Man: Far From Home ended on such a cliffhanger that it would be tragic if anything jeopardized the continuation of that. The sequel is set up to be one of the most intriguing and exciting yet, and the probable premise would be an excellent way to introduce Kraven the Hunter, one of the last of Spidey’s classic villains to be adapted to the big screen, into Spidey’s film universe.

However, the limited nature of the deal is still disturbing. I’m not a Hollywood executive, but Sony finally has a Spider-Man that works on the big screen. Why jeopardize that haggling over percentages with Disney? Because there is little chance Disney would allow all the MCU elements to stay with Sony if they break up. Which means another reboot, the fourth for the character in less than 20 years. Let’s keep the marriage together for the sake of the kid.

One big, unanswered question is when Disney will be doing something with the Marvel properties they reacquired when they bought Fox. Marvel Studios presentation at San Diego Comic Con gave us a whole bunch of tasty new films and Disney Plus streaming shows, but all with IP the studio already owned. There was no Fantastic Four or X-Men property listed. So, when will we start seeing films with these characters from Marvel Studios?

The answer, based on Fox’s last X-Men effort, Dark Phoenix, is not a moment too soon. I reviewed that film back in June, and found it a complete mess, with the writing battling it out with the directing (both done by Simon Kinberg) to see what was worst.  The terrifying part of the film was that it was the one of two oft delayed X-Films Fox thought was good enough to release. New Mutants was still stuck in development hell during the merger, and some Disney-mandated reshoots were made in order to have it polished up enough to hit theaters next year. Maybe.

The film made only $252 million worldwide against a $200 million budget. Rumor has it that the film lost Fox around $120 million after advertising was added in. I hope those reshoots on New Mutants as good ones, because they are going to have to be.

Now, let’s move over to Warner Brothers and their slate of DC Comics films. This year showed us two paths the studio can take in its post-Zack Snyder era.

The first path is shown by Shazam!, which follows in the Aquaman mold from last year of a charming, solid if somewhat less than ambitious approach to their comic book adaptation. This is not meant as an insult. I’d much prefer a film that is less flashy yet still entertaining than an auteur who swings for the fences only to strike out.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the Joker. The film was a darling to many film fans (including FBOL Head Honcho Rich Drees) but I found it to be a film that was several scenes away from being a really great film, with one particular nonsensical plot point that took me way out of the narrative.

So, which path will Warners go down with its future DC Comics films? Well, Shazam! made $364 million against a $100 budget, while Joker took in over $1 billion against a $70 million dollar budget. You do the math. Warners is notorious for its unnuanced view on its films, simplifying it down to a film’s tone being the key to its success (why was Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman so grimdark? Because The Dark Knight made so much money at the box office). It might take a while, but expect more dark deconstructions of the DC characters by unlikely cinematic masters. Ready for Paul Feig’s provocative take on Mr. Mxyzptlk? Maybe Judd Apatow’s gritty approach to Gorilla Grodd? That is the direction Warners is likely to go in for their future films.

DC Comics imprint Vertigo also had a film adaptation in 2019, but you can’t be faulted in not knowing that. The Kitchen, based on a Vertigo graphic novel by Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, was released in theaters in August and left them not long after. The film only made $15 million worldwide against a $38 million budget, which makes it a rather big flop.

This seems hard to believe as it stars Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, two of the most buzzworthy comediennes working in film today, aided by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Elizabeth Moss. However, it was a crime drama and not a comedy, and had was released after Widows, a similar and better reviewed film. That might have teamed up to spell its doom.

Let’s move on from films from the big two comic book companies and cover films from independent publishers. There were two reimaginings for this area that came out this year. Let’s start with the Hellboy reboot.

You get the sense Hellboy creator Mike Mignola saw the way comic book films exploded since 2008’s Hellboy: The Golden Army and thought that it was just leaving money on the table to not come up with a third film in the franchise. But Guillermo del Toro was too busy earning Oscars and inspiring the next generation of film makers to move the sequel off his back burner. So Mike Mignola decided to write a third sequel in 2014 with writer Andrew Crosby. del Toro, not interested in being involved in the film he didn’t write, walked away, and star Ron Perlman walked away with him. The sequel then became a reboot. Neil Marshall, who had proven his horror chops with 2005’s The Descent, was brought on to direct and David Harbour,  and actor with sci-fi cred for his work on Stranger Things and acting chops honed from years on the stage, coming in to replace Perlman in the lead role.

The film would be a darker, R-rated film that hewed closer to the comic books. Mignola thought losing del Toro wouldn’t hurt at all, because the legions of Hellboy fans would flock to the film to see a truer version of the character. He was catastrophically wrong.

The reboot earned only $44.6 million worldwide, less than its incredibly modest $50 million budget.

What went wrong? Well, first you must realize that the Hellboy franchise was never a huge money maker in the first place. The first film earned only $99 million against a $66 million budget and The Golden Army came short of doubling its $85 million budget.

But they were both well reviewed films, and that was mostly due to writer/director del Toro. This reboot? Not so much. It only got 17% fresh from critics at Rotten Tomatoes, which pales in comparison to the 81% and 86% the first two films logged in.

The result? Well, no need to call the coroner, we can call this franchise dead, dead, dead ourselves. Hellboy film franchise 2004-2019. May it rest in peace.

Finally, we come to the latest attempt by Sony to make a successful franchise from a property that they don’t have to work with Marvel to make successful: Men In Black: International.

The film follows the formula they used for 2016’s Ghostbusters: hire new leads, change the locations, amp up the special effects, and cast Chris Hemsworth in one of the roles.

There are differences. This film got worst reviews than Ghostbusters, but because it had Hemsworth being manly and doing manly things it was spared it the wrath of the he-man woman haters club that attacked that film.

The film was a modest success, making $26 million internationally above its $230 breakeven point.  Not bad considering people were calling it a bomb due to its lackluster domestic opening weekend. Is the profit enough to spurn a franchise? Maybe or maybe not.

Oh, and remember that snarky comment I made about the Sony/Marvel partnership? Technically, this is a Marvel property too. The original Men in Black comic book was published by a small, independent publisher called Aircel. Aircel was then bought out by Malibu Comics, and Marvel then bought Malibu. Sony just can’t escape the grasp of Marvel Comics!

Looking forward, Marvel Studios begins a brave new era in 2020 with a long awaited Black Widow solo film and the obscure Eternals bought to the big screen. We might also see the first Marvel Studios mutant movie or last Fox mutant movie (depending on which studio wants to take credit or blame) if the long-delayed, often-reshot New Mutants finally gets released. Sony hopes that it has a Venom-like success with Morbius, another film centered on a classic Spider-Man villain. Warners will present two of its breakout female DC characters in new films next year: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and Wonder Woman 1984. Valiant Comics enters the comic book movie business with Bloodshot, adapting their nanite-enhanced mercenary to film in the person of Vin Diesel.

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About William Gatevackes 1937 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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