By Ian Wilson
06 September 2007 — It's no secret that Hollywood is not at its creative zenith right now. Original ideas are about as rare as honest politicians, which has led to the movie industry placing a greater and greater reliance on comic books for their next blockbusters. But the exact term of "comic book movie" is not as easy to define as you might think.
A recent list posted by Rotten Tomatoes ranked everything that they believed to be comic adaptations and ranked them accordingly. My problem with this list was twofold. Firstly, I did not regard films such as Annie, Barbarella or manga films as the kind of films I would review in my segment. Secondly, I certainly didn't agree with how some films were ranked, such as X2 finishing behind the first two Spider-Man films. But the latter is down to personal preference; it is the former point that got me wondering what a comic book movie actually boiled down to, and whether there's a specific constant that runs through all the films referred to in this way.
Is a comic book movie reliant upon superheroes?
Certainly the first thing that comes to mind when asked about such films is Christopher Reeve as Superman, Michael Keaton as Batman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and the X-Men ensemble cast. But it is far too narrow to think that all CBMs involve the biggest and brightest names in the Marvel and DC rosters. For example, the recent hit 300 was the big screen translation of Frank Miller's imaging of the 480BC Battle of Thermopylae — an actual historical event. The film was successful, despite relying on lesser names such as Gerard Butler and Dominic West and the original Dark Horse graphic novel stories not being as prominent in the public's consciousness as the origins of Spider-Man or Batman. Whilst they were not wholly in the diplomatic right, the heroic three hundred Spartans sacrificed themselves to defend an ideal. But the central protagonist to a CBM does not have to be overtly heroic. V for Vendetta, the 2006 adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's 1980s comic series, was a movie based around a terrorist. Yes, a charming, cultured terrorist working against a clearly oppressive government, but a man driven to kill top governmental agents and blowing up the Houses of Parliament.
These characters exist in the world of graphic novels, miniseries and trade paperbacks, and may be able to be grouped roughly into the Superman / Spider-Man bracket of superheroes because of connections with known comic companies. Films like The Addams Family and Annie came from traditional comic strips rather than comic books. Are they the same thing? It's debatable, although you cannot deny that they are films with a textual basis. But legitimate comic books can be similarly ignored as their legitimate film adaptations flourished outside of the CBM renaissance. Cult gothic film The Crow was based upon the comic series put out by Caliber Comics. Jean-Claude Van Damme's Timecop meanwhile came from Dark Horse comics, as did The Mask and Virus. None of these are films immediately associated with the comic book industry, due to their source material coming from companies other than Marvel and DC. It is clear, then, that CBM protagonists do not have to be Captain America figures, and the immediate lack of a mainstream name to market does not mean that the film will fail.
Is a comic book movie reliant on action then?
If a CBM protagonist isn't necessarily costumed, then what is to say that John McClane or Indiana Jones don't figure into this genre? Clearly there needs to be something that distinguishes an action film from a BANG! KAPOW! CBM. And the dividing line in this case is the aforementioned textual basis. Take the original Blade film, released in 1998. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was merely a typical action flick, given its very familiar linear structure: introduce the cool protagonist, the slimy villain, the girl, chuck in some semblance of story, something bad happens and leads to a final showdown where the bad guy is demolished and the hero stands tall. Even Marvel was reluctant to claim ownership over the film, due to the lull in the market — right before the film proved to be a success. But the film had 25 years of character input and storylines to draw upon, extracting the most suitable elements of Blade's universe to convey his origins intelligently (done expertly by David S. Goyer, I should add). As such, action with a textual basis is often the staple of the genre, with the amount of action changing from film to film.
But textual basis is not always a requirement for a CBM; indeed, some film merely take certain aspects of the source material (such as character names) and make a wholly different film. The resulting film can be called a comic book movie, but comic purists normally respond negatively to any film that isn't generally faithful to the strengths of the comics. Take Catwoman. In fact, take it and just keep walking. A notable Batman character was taken and reworked drastically. No longer was it Selina Kyle, a debonair cat thief in Gotham City, but Patience Price, a shy and timid woman who was brought back to life by a cat and gains feline superpowers. Not only is this completely outside the Batman universe, the bad guy is Sharon Stone as a cosmetics boss. But not all films that are liberal with their comic origins are bad. The Mask was never as comedic and lighthearted as its film counterpart, which was originally intended to be a dark comedic / horror film before Jim Carrey was cast as Stanley Ipkiss. The film was a critical and commercial success — the exact opposite to Catwoman. So a movie does not have to tip its hat to its origins to be a success, as long as it has the makings of a good film to it. Therefore, a nod to the few people who would know the origins of the film's story is not necessarily required. This suggests that the producers that make CBMs know that they have to market their movie to be as inclusive to as many people as possible, and so the amount of references thrown in to please comic readers will vary from picture to picture.
Should a comic book movie be for kids?
It's a fair point, if we're establishing that CBMs are not exclusive to those that read the source material. Should the producers work in reverse and ignore all of the subtler nuances of the characters involved to sell toys and bring in revenue? It would seem that this isn't quite the case, for two reasons. Firstly, most CBMs come with PG-13 ratings which, theoretically at least, bar the youngest potential audience from watching the more mature aspects of the genre (namely violence, which can sometimes be fatal). Secondly, pandering to a young crowd can be creatively disastrous, as the Batman franchise found out in the 1990s. After Tim Burton's incredibly dark reboot of the franchise — which saw deaths left, right and centre — Warner Bros. specifically stated that they wanted a more "family fun" kind of Batman movie; this somewhat retarded viewpoint has been disputed, with some claiming that the WB were bracing themselves for a fall — with hindsight, they were only one film out! Anyway, Burton and Keaton left the project, heralding the arrival of one Joel Schumacher, who introduced crotch shots, suited nipples, ear studs and Batman smiling at a disrobed Nicole Kidman. Whereas Batman Forever tends to split people, most all people are united in their utter contempt of the follow-up, Batman & Robin. Camper than Richard Simmons and nonsensical at best, Batman & Robin led to the franchise tanking and marking the nadir of CBM releases. I will save full vitriol for that particular film for another time.
So that's what happens when you overdo your commercial tinkering. Producers can, of course, be more subtle about the crowd-pleasing game than casting George Clooney or Alicia Silverstone. Like... casting Chris Evans and Jessica Alba! Eye candy may be a cheap tactic, but combine it with some better (if not great) dialogue and a better (if flawed) story that works in cool "Xtreme" sports and you get a summer blockbuster in the shape of Fantastic Four. Following on the success of the first film, the recent sequel took the unusual step of acquiring a PG rating so that children could indeed help swell the film's box office intake. But that's not to say that CBMs all go out of their way to get children into the local cinemas, because some films just aren't designed to appeal to all types of people. The 2004 version of The Punisher, for example. Frank Castle is a man who has his entire family taken from him and takes it upon himself to kill anyone in cold blood who would commit a similar crime, or less. For the reason that Thomas Jane spends the movie killing and watching people being killed meant that it wasn't nearly as watchable as Spider-Man. That and the fact that The Punisher isn't that good a film. Really, Ghost Rider is more watchable. Regardless, a commercial take upon the niche of comic books walks a fine line. It can be a very successful tactic when done right, but producers that are too concerned with trying to please everyone at once run the risk of forsaking the film's inherent artistic sensibilities. After all, these are characters who have decades of backstories.
So should a comic book movie aim to be a critically regarded success?
Whilst it is theoretically hard to convince film critics that comic books and the themes that exist within them can be equated to an art form, a good critical response is something that all producers hope to achieve in some way. Fans of summer blockbusters, the Fantastic Four and Jessica Alba were always going to combine to give Tim Story's film a good box office gross, but people who go to theatres unsure of what to watch can base their decisions upon movie criticism, which could theoretically add on an extra million dollars or so to the film's takings. Does this then mean that producers need to add all sorts of highbrow elements into their films to appease middle-aged, cultured journalists in the print media? Not necessarily, as criticism takes more than one form. Fans of the source material, even if they aren't the specific demographic that producers tailor the films to, are still potential customers that need to be mobilized in a positive way. This can be seen when comic companies roll up to conventions and show off footage to excited geeks at panels, or implore fans to take part in a flashmob set of activities whilst wearing ghoulish facepaint. Word of mouth can make a film (e.g. 300) or severely affect its momentum (e.g. Daredevil), which means it is important to make sure that your film isn't completely brainless.
The lessons of Batman & Robin (the completely brainless film in question) were learnt with great effect when 2005 saw the release of Batman Begins, which rebooted the entire franchise into a more realistic setting. Directed by acclaimed director Christopher Nolan and consisting of a cast to die for (well, maim for if you count Katie Holmes), Batman Begins successfully recounted the caped crusader's origins in a faithful manner, with an end sequence that made millions of Batman fanboys giddy. But an acclaimed director, a strong leading performance and a few Oscar winners in the cast does not a great film make. Two years before Batman Begins saw the big screen arrival of one of Marvel's most recognizable icons: the Hulk. But 2003's Hulk didn't get it quite right. Reviews were mixed, and box office numbers dropped by nearly 70% between the first two weekends. It did not flop exactly — it recouped its budget with the worldwide gross — but coming a year after Spider-Man, which remains the most successful CBM, it disappointed the producers and work has only just now started on a reboot rather than a sequel. Some blame the direction of Ang Lee, who incorporated comic-esque panel framing throughout the movie, which brings us onto our next point to consider. Does Ang Lee just not get comics in general?
Are comic book movies merely an American phenomenon?
By their very definition, a CBM is a movie that has a textual basis in something other than novels. In that case, the world of manga, which provides the basis for most all Japanese anime, would definitely count. So why is it that some people don't equate them to be on the same level as Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins? That both types of film are taken from comic books as their sources of reference mean that they should be fundamentally the same. But they aren't the same; mainly for reasons of cultural perception. A feature-length anime that is based upon a manga, or a live action adaptation is technically what counts here; films by Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away) are purely excellent animation. A handful of such films have reached the public consciousness of the West, primarily Oldboy, with a larger number having a cult following, such as Akira, Heavy Metal, Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell.
So why can I not bring myself to include them in the CBM category? Is it merely because manga-based films come from the other side of the world? It isn't quite that simple, although the fact that there is a stylistic cultural difference does set these films apart from their American cousins. I was going to go on like an ignorant whelp about how the differences where primarily in the differing languages and how annoying it was to read subtitles. Then, after sitting back, thinking on it and asking for some cultured input (many thanks to James Deaux for that; muchly appreciated, my friend) I came to realize I was looking at it from the wrong angle. A manga-based film isn't a niche in the Western CBM canon; it is more the fact that American CBMs are a niche in Eastern geek culture. In the grand scheme of things, six comic-based films come out a year from America, a small percentage of the vast number of films that the movie industry churns out (which isn't even counting the direct-to-DVD bilge that still gets made). They're usually highly publicized when released, but they do compete in the shuffle with other films, be they remakes, sequels or movies based on theme park rides — the latter can even demolish the box office momentum of an icon like Superman. Therefore, it can't be argued that CBMs are hugely culturally significant in the USA, which is why the Western world shouldn't be marginalizing Japanese films.
Though they may be a different beast, there's a reason why manga-based films should be treated separately. Manga in Japan, unlike comic books in the US, is widely regarded as a serious art form. A lot of care and a lot of money goes into the country's animation; the aforementioned Spirited Away is Japan's highest grossing movie of all time. Such films predate the Superman movie franchise and have hit the screens thicker and faster than their American equivalents. As such, the characters and films are well-known to most all of the population. Ask a member of the general public of Britain to name a non-Batman supervillan, and I guarantee you that they'd either struggle in giving me an answer and / or look at me with disdain for being able to reel off about 10 from either major universe. The success of Japanese culture can be shown in how it is infiltrating the Western markets, ranging from anime clubs in Canada to stylized interpretations of Western comic book characters (Teen Titans being the most obvious example). Add to the fact that 60% of the Western audience reading mangas are female and you can compare and contrast the readership to the readership of Marvel and DC. So if a film of Eastern comic origin passes by my columns, the reason is this. Without taking the time to familiarize myself with the culture surrounding the story and it's textual origins, I'd be completely unqualified to talk about this, let alone compare it to something like Hellboy. If you want into that world, seek out the work of James Deaux or Kellen Scrivens. My CBM domain does not extend that far; the best way I would define this would be thus. A CBM, in my opinion, specifically markets itself to a Western audience.
So you're saying that a comic book movie is an American license to print money?
If there's one film a CBM usually is, it's an earner. No matter what the critical response or how bad you find the individual film in question, the likelihood is that it made a domestic profit at the box office. Sure, if you scrape the bottom of the CBM barrel, you'll find exceptions (e.g. Josie and the Pussycats, Tank Girl, Steel, Bulletproof Monk), but every major film you think of has turned a profit. And that's why you shouldn't be surprised at CBMs generating multiple sequels and spin-offs, as franchises all generate big bucks. Before the modern day renaissance of the comic book movie, franchise revenue either varied from film to film (e.g. the original Batman films) or declined (e.g. the Superman and Turtles franchises). Nowadays, the trend tends to move upwards. Each X-Men film grossed more and more with each sequel, and even if the Spider-Man films went in precisely the opposite direction, they're the top three highest grossing CBMs, beating out Batman and Men In Black to round out the top five.
Of course, the excuse of much of this box office gross can be anticipation over the actual quality of the film. With certain exceptions, most origins stories don't quite do as well as their sequels because the anticipation is higher. Spider-Man 2 and X2 were better films than both the preceding and successive films in their trilogies; the reason Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand grossed highly was precisely because everyone had seen their cinematic forbears and loved them. As has been mentioned earlier, reviews and word of mouth can affect decision making, but if you're a Spider-Man fan and you know Venom's going to be in the third film, chances are you're going to want to see it. Big franchises can get away with mistakes however (e.g. scripts that are found lacking, miscasting certain characters); films that don't do all that well can be blamed on particular aspects. They could have an obviously miniscule budget (e.g. 1994's Fantastic Four), they could have miscast the lead roles (e.g. Daredevil), they could have turned in a terrible script (e.g. Batman & Robin) or the direction could have been found severely lacking (I had a different example, but for the hell of it, let's say Batman & Robin again). CBMs are therefore not a guarantee of being a money-spinner solely because their characters are lifted from comic books or strips. However, in a day and age where Ghost Rider can make nearly $230 million worldwide, it would take a particularly inept production staff to mess up a film adaptation of a known character in comic book fiction.
So what is a comic book movie then? At its most fundamental level, it is a film with its roots based in comic books. From there on in, there are tons of variables which can affect what a moviegoer looks for in these kinds of films. If they want cheesy, they can see US flags being placed in the background of the scene. If they want intelligence, they can follow a lengthy take on the underlying themes of Batman comics. If they want action they have Hugh Jackman. If they want fanboy moments, they look to Ian McKellen. If they want eye candy, they have Jessica Alba. Some will be good, some will disappoint and some will suck terribly. But one thing is for sure: in an industry bereft of ideas, comic book movies are here to stay for the foreseeable future.