Thursday, December 17, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Comic Book Movie - Part One

The coming of the comic book summer blockbuster to Hollywood in the aughts can't be emphasized enough. No other phenomenon has so changed and shaped the landscape of popular cinema in the past ten years, and one need only look at box office numbers and the number of contracts being inked to get more characters onto the silver screen as quickly as possible. In a way, this is genius: by using a big, recognizable character in a big, well-promoted movie, studios can fill the seats of cool, air-conditioned theaters with gusto during the summer months and beyond.

But it was not always this way; prior to the waning days of the Clinton years, comic book adaptations were something akin to box office poison. Superman and Batman had achieved well-regarded successes in the early post-Jaws/Star Wars years when the blockbuster as we know it was born. Conversely, the World's Finest's home of DC Comic's arch-rival Marvel had its characters languish in a cinematic purgatory with a number of stillbirths and abortions, some never reaching theaters. For some reason, if a comic book movie didn't feature the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight, it wasn't going to get off the ground. However, as time went on, even DC's flagship characters produced their share of flops and misfires and the superhero movie faded from memory for a brief time.

This all changed with Blade.

I, a lifelong disciple of the House of Ideas, did not even know who or what Blade was when he got his own movie in 1998. Within the vast Marvel Universe, he is a minor character among minor characters; never having his own series for more than a year or so at a time and only resurfacing when Spider-Man fights Morbius the Living Vampire every few years. Nevertheless, Blade went on to be a box office success, something of a small miracle for an R-rated movie based on a comic book character no one's ever heard of, not to mention a black one at that. Blade's success can be chalked up to the fact that no one knew they were seeing a comic book movie (besides, it's just a sweet movie. My love for Blade is well-documented). Regardless of Blade's recognition among comic book fans, Marvel now had an idea of the kind of bank their properties could make at the box office.

The second phase of the comic book takeover of movie theaters was spearheaded by the "all new, all different" X-Men. Marvel had been pussyfooting with Blade, if it bombed no one would care because the failure of an R-rated vampire movie with little known affiliation with the Marvel name wouldn't do too much damage to the brand. 2000's X-Men represented the big guns being brought out. With an ensemble cast made up of unknowns, Shakespeareans, and Star Trek alumni, and a successful director of some renown, X-Men was a gamble to be sure, but it was a gamble that paid off in spades. Audiences and critics loved it, and fanboys applauded its fidelity to the characters, story, and tone of the original comics. It proved that a comic book movie that was true to its comic roots could resonate with the public and not alienate them with geekiness. Believe you me, it was bordering on the surreal when comic book characters were finding widespread acceptance amongst the mainstream of pop culture. Being able to speak the name Magneto and have 90% of people know who you're talking about was nigh inconceivable back in the 1990's.

If the X-Men were the bug guns, Spider-Man was the goddamn atomic bomb. Essentially the company mascot and the poster boy of the Silver Age, Spider-Man was easily the most recognizable character in the Marvel Comics arsenal. A successful 60's cartoon had ingrained his name and theme song in the American psyche, but was Joe Popcorn really ready for the tragic story of Peter Parker? Like Batman before him, Spidey was a character whose origins and identity had been partially tarnished by high 60's camp. Tim Burton successfully returned Batman to his roots with his films (only to have the series re-camp and cannibalize itself with the non-Burton-directed entries in the series) and with the success of X-Men, Marvel saw that audiences were ready for faithful adaptations of its characters. Spider-Man, the most human and relatable of all superheroes, was the one to canonize the superhero movie as an honest-to-God film genre. Under the direction of genre veteran Sam Raimi, himself a great fan of the comics, Spider-Man destroyed box office records and went on to become of the great summer popcorn flicks, all the while sacrificing nothing of what made the days of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko great. With Spider-Man the formula for the superhero movie was codified: origin story + love interest + villain = boffo box office.

DC could only sit back and watch in horror as their competition spent years cleaning up at the box office and laughing in their faces all the way to the bank. They now knew that they had to get into the game, but how? Their two greatest properties had been squandered by crappy sequels. Everything seemed to be working against the comics publisher formerly known as Detective. Releasing a Green Lantern movie was a ridiculous idea back in the mid-aughts - they would have to use one of their more recognizable properties, both of which were languishing in movie infamy. The solution? The now-famous reboot.

Batman Begins' resetting of the Batman continuity, going back to tell the origins of Bruce Wayne's transformation from billionaire playboy to Caped Crusader, was an almost inconceivable notion when it was announced. "You're asking audiences to just ignore the four other Batman movies out there?" was the common refrain. "Uh, yeah." was the response from DC. Fortunately, once Batman Begins was released in 2005, most people didn't even need to try and forget about the horrors of Batman and Robin, Christopher Nolan's movie just exploded that part of their brain with its sheer awesomeness. Focusing on Bruce Wayne's training as a fucking ninja and featuring rogues gallery also-rans Ra's-al-Ghul and Scarecrow, Batman Begins had every reason to fail but because it was an exceedingly well made and true to the character, it was an unimaginable success and brought the concept of rebooting failed franchises (like James Bond, which had also camped itself up to the point of irrelevance) into the minds of screenwriters and studio execs.

And I don't think I need to discuss the sheer amazingness of the Dark Knight, a film which elevated comic books on film to high art and generated Oscar buzz (and a win for the late Heath Ledger for his Joker), something that would have sounded completely insane ten years earlier.

Coming soon: a discussion of non-superhero (or at least non-Marvel/DC characters) comic book films and the latter days of diminishing returns and failures in the genre.