Are Comic Book Movies Prime for a Downfall or Have We Only Seen the Beginning?

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My first time covering the San Diego Comic Con was in 2006. I would then cover it for the next three years as it went from a major comic book convention with a taste of Hollywood to a minor comic book convention and a major Hollywood production. However, this year I wasn’t going to spend the money to cover it.

Covering the now world famous convention isn’t worth the time, money and effort that goes into it, especially considering what it’s really all about. Marketing. You aren’t watching movies, you’re essentially spending money to watch commercials for movies that won’t be out for six-to-eighteen months.

Studios have fans and movie bloggers in the palm of their hands when it comes to this stuff. Comic Con is a candy convention at which studios give attendees a taste of the newest Jolly Rancher, ask for it back before they get too familiar with it and expect them to go forth and spread the good word. And it works. It really is astonishing when you sit back and take a closer look at it and realize just how important so many believe it to be. And when enough people believe it’s important, it becomes important.

How important is it? Important enough for a guy to stab someone in the eye with a pen over a seating dispute in a 6,500-seat convention hall. That would seem to imply it’s pretty damned important.

I mention all of this because it’s clear comic book related movies have reached a major high. Movie studios realize the value in these properties and are doing their absolute best to milk them for everything they can and the growing trend in movie blogging means the studio message can reach millions… for free. Advertising has never been so cheap and the search for content has never been so easy. After all, studios need stories and there is an endless history of comics to cull from and legions of fans to build the buzz. Like Westerns, comic book movies establish the code of a hero or anti-hero and pit him/her against the odds. Essentially these movies are the western of a new age, take Jonah Hex or the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens as rather literal examples. However, can this momentum be sustained or will comics follow the path of the Western?

Westerns were huge from the ’40s on through the late ’70s. However, moving into the ’80s, the Western was all but dead as a “go to” genre. Part of the reason for the decline is certainly the passing of iconic Western pioneers such as John Ford, John Wayne and Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood was moving into other directions. Yet, the fact remains.

Certainly a few films come out every now and again, reminding us of how much fun and how great the Western can be. Films such as Young Guns (1988), Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993), The Proposition (2005), Appaloosa (2008) and even this year the Coen brothers will bring a remake of True Grit to the big screen (don’t call it a comeback). Unfortunately, the traditional Western isn’t watched the way it once was, and when people aren’t showing up to see ’em, studios aren’t interested in making ’em. That is, unless they have a sci-fi tinge to them such as Star Wars, but even the sci-fi western Serenity wasn’t able to drum up audience support, despite strong critical support.

Into town rides the comic book movement, on a bright white horse… with wings and/or Gatling guns.

Looking at the comic book genre and its relation to feature films I’d say there are a couple of major moments in film history to pay particular attention to that got us to where we are today. The first was probably Superman in 1978. It was a hit, spawned three sequels, was nominated for three Oscars and even featured the likes of Marlon Brando. However, a movement had not yet started, though there was a shift in the winds.

The next moment was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. With this release things were beginning to cook and the marketing prospects stepped up. Three sequels in this franchise would also made, up until the franchise fall in 1997. And despite the failure of Batman and Robin, the comic book movement was just around the corner. In 2000 Fox released X-Men, in 2002 Sony released Spider-Man and by X2: X-Men United in 2003 there was no stopping the ball from rolling as 2008 proved with the overwhelming success of Iron Man and then The Dark Knight. The genre was full steam ahead.

So here we are, the ball is rolling and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s destined to hit a wall or break right through it?

A comment on my round-up of the Marvel Studios panel at Comic Con is what got me thinking about this subject. Written by “ddurden33” it said, “I say enough is enough with the comic book movies, they’re on thin ice, I think Hollywood could really use some creativity and originality instead of taking the easy route. Am I the only one feeling the franchise fatigue here?”

He certainly has a point as franchises continue to be rebooted from Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, a much talked about attempt at another Superman movie, a Spider-Man reboot, an X-Men prequel and so forth. However, the trouble I have with that comment is that comics are Hollywood’s solution to creativity and originality.

Sure, it’s an “easy route” but even someone like myself, who’s read maybe three comic books before, can recognize the vast levels of creativity in the medium. Certainly, all stories can be traced back to being influenced from one story to another, but for the most part I’d say comics are pretty damned original. Trouble springs up when care isn’t taken for the story and comics are looked at merely as a visual medium, such as Ghost Rider. Or story is abandoned for the idea of bigger is better, such as Spider-Man 3. Of course, it’s also been proven fans of these comic franchises are willing to give the majority of them a chance no matter how good or bad they look.

Ghost Rider is not considered a good film, yet it made $115.8 million at the domestic box-office. Spider-Man 3 killed a franchise that is now getting a reboot, yet it made $336.5 million domestically, $890 million worldwide, won the 2007 box-office crown and holds the record for the highest May opening weekend.

(from the left) Robert Downey Jr., Clark Gregg, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige

There is certainly potential for over-saturation and fatigue, which is what I would assume prompted ddurden33’s comment. But I don’t know when fatigue will begin playing a larger role. If it does, I’d guess it will happen with superhero movies before it happens with comic book movies in general.

Just consider, once again, this past weekend’s Comic Con. The major high for the majority of the people in attendance came when Marvel ushered out Robert Downey Jr., Clark Gregg, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo as the cast of The Avengers. The 6,500 in attendance went berserk, and this is a movie that isn’t coming out until May 4, 2012. Alex Billington was covering the convention for his website FirstShowing.net and on Twitter posted, “Did anyone ever think that one day we’d ever actually see The Avengers line-up like this on the Comic-Con? Can’t. Wait. For. 2012!!!!!!” There’s a passion this fanbase shares and all it takes is eight people standing on stage along with director Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios’ President of Production Kevin Feige to cause all out pandemonium. Yet, not even a single frame of film has been shot.

You’d be hard-pressed to drum up 6,500 people to get excited over the cast of the next Sofia Coppola movie, or have people stabbing one another in the eye to get a glimpse of five minutes of raw footage from Wes Anderson’s next film. However, I do see this upcoming Marvel team up as a major test for the superhero side of the comic book genre. If Whedon manages to pull it off I see no reason why superheroes won’t continue to dominate the summer cinema and eclipse that 40-year run of the Western with ease.

If you ask me if there’s a shelf-life to comic book movies, I’d say there isn’t one in the foreseeable future. 2012 already has The Avengers, Batman 3 and the Untitled Spider-Man Reboot on the docket. Not to mention the expectation for such genre fare as the next Star Trek movie, Battleship and Men in Black III. These are all films aimed at the same audience and all films that will be featured at the 2011 Comic Con. And they’re films general audiences will be lining up to see.

The only thing I see standing in the way of the comic book movie is television. Westerns didn’t die out on their own, they were competing against television shows broadcasting similar material. Shows such as “Bonanza,” “Maverick,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Zorro” and even David Carradine’s “Kung Fu.” Certainly, superheroes can be seen on television with shows such as “Smallville” but is anyone going to confuse that with one of today’s blockbuster movies? “Buffy,” “Angel” and “Charmed” offered a little something by comparison, and most recently “Heroes” came close to proving you could do on TV what was going on in the movies, but wow did that turn sour overnight.

If you ask me, until television can duplicate the big budget effects you see on the big screen on an episode-by-episode basis the comic book movie will remain intact. And I don’t say this with a sour face, I just thought it was an interesting subject.

Certainly, I look forward to more Oscar and film festival-related films each year, but without these giant comic book blockbusters a certain level of enjoyment and entertainment would be lacking from theaters. I don’t ever want to see that go away. Comic book movies, for the most part, are the current spectacle of the cinema, that’s just the fact of the matter and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

I’m sure I’ve left some details out or you have an opinion on what I’ve said. Are you suffering from comic book fatigue or do you just want more, more, more? Share your thoughts in the comments below!