STATE OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The Downward Slide

Image collage via Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon and free use

When I started doing these yearly reviews of the year in comic book films, way back in 2012, I meant the articles to be a detailing of highs and lows of the year in comic book movies. But as the years went on, a recurring feature of these recaps was my defending the genre from film journalists and film makers who were wishfully predicting doom for the comic book film.

As much as it pains me to do so, I am going to have to jump over to the other side. Not because I hate comic book films and want them to go away, like those other critics did. But because I can see the writing on the wall. 2023 was the worst year for comic book film, both in terms of box office receipts and in overall quality. And unless something is done to right the ship, the comic book film genre is set up for a long, painful and protracted death knell.

I guess we should start with the elephant in the room. Marvel Studios and their meteoric decline. Marvel was once the gold standard in comic book films. It was a studio that seemingly could not miss. Now it seems like their output is missing more often than it is hitting. I have spoken on this again, again and again. I’m not going to rehash those articles–you can click through and read what I had to say–but to sum up, the quality of the Marvel Studios output has gone down, and it looks like the box office grosses have finally caught up to them in decline.

Images via Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios

Let’s start with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, since it was the first Marvel film of the year. Although, calling it a film might be a bit too generous. Rich Drees saw the film and gave it a somewhat positive review.  I have to say I disagree with him.

This was less a film than an advertisement for the big bad for the next several phases of the MCU – Kang. You get the feeling that it is only an Ant-Man film because it was his spot in the rotation. Quantumania is so different from the first two Ant-man films that it seems like it was in a different franchise. Scott (Paul Rudd) doesn’t really have a story arc in the film. Sure, they try to fool us by adding a subplot about his relationship with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), but they don’t devote enough time to it for it to have any impact.

Most of the supporting cast from the first two films are missing in action. The ones that do make it through are barely given anything to do. You can take Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp out of the film entirely and not have any detrimental effect. Bill Murray makes his MCU debut in a one-scene part that is basically an exposition dump.

Everything in the movie is only there to serve one purpose – set up Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) as the badass villain the Marvel heroes will be fighting for the next several years. And in that regard, the film succeeds. Majors made Kang out to be a serious threat, dripping with menace and perhaps a better villain that even Thanos was.

Of course, that is not going to happen. On December 18, 2023, Majors was found guilty of one misdemeanor assault charge and one harassment violation stemming from his March confrontation with then-girlfriend Grace Jabbari. Marvel fired Majors from his role as Kang later that same day, according to spokeswoman Angela Shaw.

Marvel should have seen this coming. As a matter of fact, that New York Times piece points out that screenwriter Michael Waldron has been hired to write a new script for Avengers: Kang Dynasty, and the article hints that it was because of the Majors situation. This was announced via other outlets back in November without mention of any potential Majors ouster, so they might have planned to get rid of Majors for a while and were just waiting to the end of the trial. Or Waldron is just doing normal screenwriting duties on the film. Or something else entirely.

Regardless, this puts Marvel Studios in an awkward position. Wheels have already been put into motion with Kang as the villain for the next several phases of the MCU. The easy, most obvious tact would be to recast the role. But with who? And why would Waldron have to rewrite the entire film if they were simply going to recast. Could that mean that they big bad for the next couple phases will be Doctor Doom as was rumored? There is a lot of uncertainty in the MCU’s future, uncertainty that they might be ill prepared to handle.

Images via Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios

The one bright spot in Marvel Studios’ year was a bittersweet one. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 was the only film of Marvel’s three films that was a success at the box office and with the critics. Of course, it was an ending of sorts as it appears that the film will be the last featuring these characters sharing the screen together, and likely will be the last Marvel film directed by James Gunn. As we’ll be talking about later, Gunn has been tapped to do a revamp of Warner Brothers Discovery’s DC Comics film slate. WBD’s gain is definitely Marvel’s loss, because Gunn’s Guardians was the only sure thing Marvel had left.

A new and different version of the Guardians made its debut at the end of the film, but what we most likely will be getting is a solo Starlord series, as Marvel made a point of saying that Starlord, and Starlord alone, would be returning in the film’s end credits. I’m not sure I’d even want a Starlord film written and directed by Gunn, let alone one without any involvement from him at all.

Image Via Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios

Then we come to The Marvels, Sigh. Marvel Studios first true flop.  Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was named a disappointment but it at least it doubled its budget back. The Marvels fell far short of even earning its budget back, and there is zero hope of it doing so.

I had some ideas on why the film failed. Disney CEO Bob Iger had a different reason for its failure – -lack of supervision. That the poor quality of the film was because due to the pandemic there weren’t Disney executives on set to keep an eye on things. I don’t want to interfere with Iger trying to get bigger bonuses for himself and his fellow executives, but that’s bullshit. If only for the reason that The Marvels wasn’t really a bad movie. I liked it, Rich liked it, a majority of the people on my social media liked it. It wasn’t the best Marvel film, it definitely had flaws, but it was far better than Quantumania and that made a lot more money. So, quality wasn’t an issue in its not getting an audience.

Iger also mentioned that Disney might have saturated the market with Marvel content between its films and Disney+ shows, and that’s why The Marvels didn’t do well.  They shouldn’t have that problem next year as due to release date reshuffling, they will have only one film out next yea – the eagerly awaited Deadpool 3. It that film tanks, then all hope is lost for the comic book film as we know it. That film should be like printing money for Disney.

But from there, who knows? A lot will depend on how the studio deals with the Kang situation and if the executives Iger chooses to keep an eye on Marvel knows anything about comics or not. They have six more films confirmed in the pipeline, so if their quality and grosses do not improve, their death will be long and drawn out.

Images via Marvel Comics and Sony Pictures

Let’s move on from Marvel over to Marvel-adjacent. Sony came out with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which turned out to be the best comic book film of the year. I know, I know, the bar was low for that honor. But it would have been the best comic book film in just about any year.

One of the reasons why I hope my doomsaying about the future of the comic book film is inaccurate is because if I am right, it will deny me the chance to see films like this one. Once again, the film is inventive in its visuals, but with a lot of heart and soul in its story. These films are quickly becoming a masterclass on how to make a movie, not just a animated movie or a comic book movie but any kind of movie.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, and there will be a sequel but unfortunately, we will have to wait until 2025 to see it.  Instead, next year, Sony will be going back to their live action Spider-Verse with three films–Madame WebKraven the Hunter and the third as yet untitled Venom movie. Trailers of the first two movies are out, and I can’t say that I am whelmed by them. If the rest of the world isn’t into them either, it could be another nail in the comic book film’s coffin.

Images via Nickelodeon

However, there is one positive thing to come out of Sony’s Spider-Verse is that other inventive creators to use animation to bring comic book properties to life. Which brings us to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. 

The Turtles are an evergreen property that is constantly cycling into other media. They have constantly been in movies or on TV, live action or animation for decades.  And this installment might be one of the best in the series.

Directed by Jeff Rowe the director of 2021’s excellent The Mitchells vs. the Machines and written by Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, Mutant Mayhem gives us a fresh look at the franchise while capturing what makes the characters great. The voice cast is excellent, and the animation style is eclectic and unique, which often reminded me of MTV’s Liquid Television. It was a fun movie and one with a lot of heart. It made more than twice its budget back, which nowadays isn’t great, but might be good enough to give us the sequel that was hinted at in the post-credit scenes.

Images via DC Comics and Warner Brothers Discovery

And then we come to Warner Brothers Discovery’s DC Comic films. It was a year of good news and bad news for the DC films. The good news is that James Gunn has been tapped to do a top to bottom revamp of the DC shared universe. The bad news is that the revamp will not take place until 2024-2025, and since the announcement of Gunn’s takeover was made in November 2022, all the 2023 DC films instantaneously became lame duck films.

That was a lame-brained decision on WBD, part one of many. I mean, seriously, you have four films you have invested over $600 million in and you make a big announcement that those films no longer matter. That they will all be erased, and you are going to start over. And you actually expect fans to support that product? That you expect them to by hyped by teases in the post-credit scenes that will never happen? And you expect them to become invested in characters they will never see again?

The regime change announcement wasn’t the only reason people stayed away from DCEU films this year, WBD has built up a lot of bad will with the franchise over the last decade. But announcing Gunn’s take over was essentially WBD saying that fans didn’t need to see their four DCEU films. So, they didn’t.

Which really isn’t fair, because this was one of the better years for DC Comics films. Shazam! Fury of the Gods got lambasted by the critics, but I didn’t find it worthy of damnation. It wasn’t a bad movie, it wasn’t a great movie, but it was a pleasant diversion. The only major flaw I could see in the film was that it didn’t pay off on the promise of a Silvana/Mr. Mind team up promised in the post-credits of the last film. It was teased once again in this film, but that became just a cruel reminder that we are now never going to see that at all.

Image via DC Comics and Warner Brothers Discovery

And then there’s The Flash.

Back in August, I stated my feelings about the film. I stand by what I said back then. I thought there was a lot of good things about the film, but I couldn’t get into it because of its star, Ezra Miller. They have been accused of many scuzzy things in their private life, many of which I documented here, I just couldn’t buy into them as the hero of the film.

But the film did have more problems than just Miller. By now you might have heard about the legendary problems they had with CGI. Let me tell you, it’s true. The plastic looking babies, weird looking Nicolas Cage as Superman. All of it. It’s all true. And that, considering the film cost $220 million to make, is inexcusable.

Image via DC Comics and Warner Brother Discovery

One of the sad things about the lame-duck period of DC Comics films is that we got a truly great DC film and not enough people saw it. Blue Beetle was that movie.

The film was a step above the typical comic book fare. Yes, it dwells in the conventions of the genre–hero gets powers, learns to use his powers, fights a villain with similar powers, etc.–but what makes Blue Beetle great is its focus on family and, to a lesser extent, community. This gives the movie its heart. And that makes the jokes funnier, the tragedies sadder and the peril more dangerous. It is a well-made, excellently constructed film.

James Gunn has confirmed that Blue Beetle star Xolo Maridueña will be his Blue Beetle in his DCU film, but I don’t just want him. I want his whole family from the film brought over. I hope Gunn feels the same way.

Images via DC Comics and Warner Brothers Discovery

DC/WBD closes out the year in comic book films with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. As of this writing, I have yet to see the film, but Rich Drees did. This is what he said on social media about it:

Well, saw AQUAMAN AND THE LOST KINGDOM last night and this is how this version of the DC Comics film universe ends – Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a joke about a guy eating a bug. Sigh.

That says all that needs to be said about it, but I will add that the film has tanked with the critics and looks like another bomb in a series of bombs to close out the DCEU.

Like I said, James Gunn’s DCU won’t begin in theaters until Superman: Legacy hits on July 11, 2025. However, it will start next year on streaming with the TV series Creature Commandos and Waller. WBD will be releasing Joker: Folie a Deux in theaters in October of 2024, which is under their DC Elseworlds shingle, which means it doesn’t tie into regular continuity. I wasn’t a fan of the first film, so I am not looking forward to the sequel, even with its addition of Lady Gaga.

2024 seems to be a weak year for comic book films, with only five films on the docket. It is an uncertain year, with no sure-fire hits other than Deadpool 3 coming out. The inevitable decline might be sped along in 2024. If it is, at least this column will be shorter next year.

Avatar für William Gatevackes
About William Gatevackes 2022 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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