Rise of the Comic Book Movie

We continue our look back at the cinematic decade that has just passed with a look at what has become the fastest growing genre of film, the comic book adaptation.

As the 1990s came to a close, things looked grim for the comic book movie. The Batman franchise had been hammered into the ground under the campy hand of Joel Schumacher. The Superman franchise was a distant memory. A successful comic book adaptation was few and far between, usually properties that did fit the typical superhero style, like the morbid revenge fantasy, The Crow, the sci-fi/ comedy, Men in Black, and the horror/ action film Blade. However, two long in development comic properties made their debut in the next decade and would change the world of comic book movies in particular and films in general forever.

Marvel first sold the rights to X-Men and Spider-Man to film studios in the 1980s. Their time spent in development hell is the stuff of legend. A literal who’s who of Hollywood were connected to either film at one time or another. As a matter of fact, Avatar’s James Cameron was attached to both at various points of their planning. Each made it far into the development pipeline. Each had their studios declare bankruptcy and fall apart right underneath them. But it took the new millennium to actually bring them to the screen.

X-Men came first and comic fans waited for it with breathlessly. They greeted each casting announcement with joy (Patrick Stewart is perfect for Professor X!) and trepidation (Russell Crowe doesn’t want to do Wolverine? They lost that Dougray Scott guy? Who is this Hugh Jackman? An actor known mostly for his performance in stage musicals? Ugh!). The characters were not all that well known amongst the general public as Batman and Superman were, but they were enormously popular with the comic fans. The stakes were high.

A character who was well known by the general public was Spider-Man. He was one of the few characters to come close to becoming part of Americana. He had a long history of cartoons, TV shows, toys and merchandise in its history. There was many a person who never held a comic book in their life who could recite the story of how Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. The stakes were high.

Both movies pleased the hard core fans. They weren’t slavishly faithful to the original books, but they were faithful to the spirit. They were done by creators with histories of quality film work who treated the subject matter with respect. They applied such outlandish concepts as symbolism and metaphor to the films. They were great films that could be enjoyed by all audiences.  But, most importantly, they were resounding financial successes. They showed the studios that comic book movies could be an untapped goldmine for their studios.

This cause an explosion of comic book adaptations to made each year. Before this decade, if you had four comic book films in any given year, you had a lot. Now, if there are only four, it’s a light year for comic book adaptations. They have replaced the sci-fi set pieces and explosion filled action films as the new summer blockbuster. 2009 was the first year since 2001 to not feature a comic book film as one of the Top 10 Highest Grossing Films of the year (X-Men Origins: Wolverine ranked at #11). 

The increased attention to graphic novels and comic books as source material exposed the diversity of medium as an art form. Not every film adapted had spandex-clad superheroes beating the crap out of each other. Independent comics such as Ghost World and American Splendor made their way to the screen. Thought provoking dramas like History of Violence and Road to Perdition got their start as graphic novels. Many non-comic savvy are shocked when they find out these films came from funny books.

Comic book films went from movies that actors such as Russell Crowe would refuse because they feared acting in one would hurt their careers to actors like Heath Ledger acting his heart out on the screen, giving his all to make a comic book villain live and breathe on the screen–and winning an Oscar for it.

But as the comic book film has gotten respect from those that make films, it is another story from some members of the media. Much like the way comic books are viewed as some how being substandard to the rest of printed matter, comic book films are treated as being inferior to other forms of cinema. It is a case of not seeing the trees for the forest. The broad grouping of comic book movies has caused some critics to not view each film on its merits, but instead treat the entire genre with a blanket condemnation.

I have seen a number of “Enough with the comic book movies” statements in magazines and on websites over the last few years. I am puzzled by this attitude. Do they really find The Dark Knight to be totally devoid of value? Are they really unimpressed by Sin City’s visual style? Does the fact that Road to Perdition came from a graphic novel completely invalidate its excellent acting and directing? Granted, there have been a lot of bad comic book movies in the last ten years. But there has also been a lot of bad non-comic book movies as well. If you are going to condemn comic book films by the worst they have to offer, then you’ll have to invalidate film making as a whole due to the simple fact that Meet the Spartans got made.

But if you consider the last ten years of comic book movie dominance to be a horrible phase the film industry has gone through, I hate to disappoint you. There are over 20 comic book film in various stages of development, with films planned to hit theaters well into 2012. The decade of the comic book movie is going to last for at least another two years. Deal with it.

Avatar für Bill Gatevackes
About Bill Gatevackes 2029 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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January 16, 2010 10:05 pm

“Comic book films went from movies that actors such as Russell Crowe would refuse because they feared acting in one would hurt their careers”…..
There’s no evidence that Crowe has ever turned down a comic book film for this reason at all.