If you mentioned that you liked comics back in 2000, people would assume one of two things: a) you’re a small child, or b) you’re probably a bit of a social pariah and that you should probably avoid a). Then a movie came along that changed everything: X-Men. It featured a relatively unknown cast of actors, spare a couple of big names such as Captain Picard and Gandalf (before he was Gandalf), and told the tale of a group of genetic mutants who had fantastic powers. And boy did it resonate with audiences. Sure, there was the brilliant Blade in 1998, which could be argued as the “first” big movie, but it wasn’t that much of a hit! The success of X-Men and Spider-Man two years later opened the floodgates to a slew of superhero movies from major and minor characters alike, culminating this year in the juggernauts of the box office that are Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises. But now the question is: what next? And more importantly, how much longer can Hollywood’s latest fetish survive before it implodes? Too big to fail you say? Now where have we heard that before…?
Undoubtedly, we’re right now riding the wave that is the Golden Age of comic book adaptations. Marvel Studios’ success with their tales of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk and Thor, and Warner / DC’s success with Nolan‘s Batman universe have cumulatively brought in over $5,400,000,000 (you need the noughts just to realise how many McDonald’s cheeseburgers that could buy you), with the split being $3.7 billion to Marvel and $1.7 billion to Warner (so far; the Bat is still flying). But crikey Batman, how the golly did we get to such jeeperiffic figures? They’re just comics!
The secret to their success, I believe, is two-fold. On one hand you have a collection of stories that are on-the-whole believable, or at least plausible for the most part, which is something I’ll come to later. And on the other hand you can’t help but notice that they’re somewhat a symptom of the times: gloom. It’s the same perfect storm that results in fast food sales soaring during times of economic hardship; this manifests in the need for escapism and heroes at the box office. Sure, some of the first big hits came pre-2008 meltdown, but all the gargantuan films: the Dark Knights and Iron Man(s) came post-2008. Hell, if you were being really analytical, you could even say the threat of global terrorism following 2001 also fed the public’s need for heroes. That’s a controversial point, but I think it’s valid. So… so long as the world is still at risk of going bankrupt or blowing itself up, the superhero can do no wrong right? I mean, the public tolerated Nic Cage‘s antics as Ghost Rider (twice!), Superman‘s lacklustre return and watched the Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men franchises tie themselves in knots; yet all was forgiven when the latter two returned recently. Not sure we’re going to see Wesley Snipes stopping people “ice skating up a hill” any time soon though. Unless the IRS lets him… Or Twilight takes a hard left turn in its final bow later this year.
But can the studios sustain this enormous momentum, or is something looming on the horizon that could bring the whole house of cards crashing down?
There’s a Storm Coming…
As I mentioned in my round-up of Comic-Con 2012, Marvel made some peculiar announcements this year, namely by choosing The Guardians of the Galaxy as a flagship film franchise. For those unfamiliar with this group, they’re essentially a cosmic group of heroes who fly around in space, preventing intergalactic tyranny. Sounds like a typical sci-fi film right? And there-in lies the problem. The most successful comic book movies have more-or-less had some semblance of reality, whether its being bitten by a spider, having genetic mutations, or building a high-tech suit of armour. Thor, who for all intents and purposes is classed as a “God” was explained through comparing magic and science and saying they’re the same thing (hokey, but it worked). So he’s essentially just a scientific freak who wears chainmail. And is ripped. But I haven’t got to the outworldy part yet… is the public willing to accept a living tree, some aliens and a talking raccoon (cumulatively known as The Guardians of the Galaxy) as superheroes? I know Disney are involved nowadays, but a talking raccoon and tree? Last I remember, the TV series The Raccoons ended in 1991… maybe that’ll have a resurgence? God I hope not.
And in the non-Marvel Studios stable, we hear rumblings that Warner is looking to open Pandora’s box and unleash all manner of oddities on the cinema-going public, now that their baby bat has flown the nest. The Metal Men? Lobo? Really? It’s a case of a studio reaching the “terrible 2’s”, seeing what Marvel has and saying “I want, I want”. Add this to the in-production reboots of failed franchises such as Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Green Lantern and you’re risking meltdown with the public, being the fickle beings they are, not caring any more.
What’s my opinion? Hell, I love the comic book genre, and was one of those little kids that read about Spider-Man and X-Men and religiously watched the cartoons on Saturday mornings. And I’ll no doubt watch every movie that comes out, even the Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance‘s, Elektra‘s and The Punisher‘s of this world. The only fear I have is that we’ll return to that pre-2000 mindset, where only us nostalgic fans remain… in our rooms… talking of the now mythical Golden Age of comic book movies. But then again, people have been predicting this bubble will burst for years now, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Possibly a tree that isn’t a superhero.
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