A Look at CBMs, Studios and Producers
By Ian Wilson
11 June 2009 — Theoretically, both movies and comic books are amongst many creative mediums that value artistic expression, and where the imaginations of visionary storytellers are allowed to flourish before they are shared with the open-minded general public. Sadly, that world is very different from the one in which we live, where money dictates creativity and ugly phrases like "box office drop" exist. But who are the people that point at the film adaptation of Watchmen and lament how something that grossed over $180 million is underperforming?
Comic book movies are now over 10 years into their Blade-inspired resurrection, and have been a big part of the summer blockbuster season ever since. Their marketing appeal is obvious to studios and producers, as there is already a subculture out there to mine by making films about long-established characters — be they household names like Superman or Spider-Man, or, well, Blade. The top five CBMs of all time have all grossed over $300 million in America alone, and last year's highest grossing film, The Dark Knight, has surpassed $1 billion worldwide — making it only slightly less successful than James Cameron's Titanic. No wonder then that studios and producers are looking at tapping this reservoir dry. Whilst their intent may not be exactly noble, a lack of investment may have meant that there would be no X2, Iron Man, The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2.
Of the big two comic book companies, Marvel has taken the more active step of embracing the CBM. Having released twice as many films featuring their own properties as DC has since 1998, last year saw the release of Iron Man. Notable not only as an excellent film in its own right, Iron Man was also the first release from Marvel Studios, the movie arm of the Marvel brand. It was with this film that saw the beginning of Marvel recreating its comic book universe on celluloid, as Tony Stark's post-credits meeting with Nick Fury marked the start of a planned continuity within its future releases. This was seen to be true following the credits of The Incredible Hulk, and is set to continue into the forthcoming Thor and Captain America films. This will culminate in an Avengers film in 2012, with time alone telling how successful this strategy is. It is certainly an interesting route to take and adds layers of continuity that would be creatively useful for teaming up these characters, most of which haven't been as marketable or well-known as their Marvel movie forbears — none of which will appear in this film arc.
The more prominent Marvel characters that have had their own films made prior to the foundation of Marvel Studios have been farmed out. Spider-Man went to Sony, The Punisher to Lionsgate, Ghost Rider to Columbia and Blade to New Line. Plus, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and the X-Men were snatched up by 20th Century Fox, and the Hulk by Universal. With regard to the latter property, it was a part-distribution deal with Marvel Studios and the supposed failure of the original Hulk film that lead to last year's "requel." Whilst Marvel can still exercise a good deal of creative control within these movies — case in point, Venom being shoehorned into Spider-Man 3 — the Marvel Universe is never going to be fully realized on screen unless the external studios lose interest in their properties or strike a deal with Marvel Studios. The reason we're now seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the upcoming Spider-Man 4 is because the studios are not eager to lose their cash cows. To not produce a film within a certain number of years would see the rights revert back to Marvel, and this is pretty much unthinkable to the bigger studios — particularly Sony, which grossed over $1 billion in America thanks to all three Spider-Man movies. Since most Marvel franchises are generally very profitable, Marvel wants a bigger slice of the profits.
DC properties do not have this specific problem. Due to the comic company being part of the Time Warner media conglomerate, the entirety of the DC Universe could theoretically be seen up on film, as all of the properties would be released through Warner Bros. Their main drawback, however, is also precisely this fact; WB's track record with the DC Universe is decidedly rocky, to put it mildly. As the almighty dollar takes precedence over creativity, the studio has done its best to exert control over the creative process with some disastrous results. Not so much with regard to the initial Superman franchise, but the only pre-renaissance Batman film they went easy on was Batman Returns. But after Returns revealed that Tim Burton was more fascinated in the macabre than Happy Meal tie-ins, Warner Bros. restored their mandate on Batman Forever. New director, new lead, new direction and generally new responses from critics. But because it made more money than Returns, the WB pressed even harder with marketing-led flair of Forever, and in one move, killed CBMs stone dead with Batman & Robin — the most lethal thing to hit the world since the Black Death of 1347. Since then, and with the general success of Marvel-based properties, Warner Bros. has retained their trademark idiocy. Why else would you cast Keanu Reeves as John Constantine and set Hellblazer in Los Angeles? Why else would you push ahead with Catwoman, a spin-off that's completely unrelated to the source material and have it star Halle Berry and Sharon Stone? Because they're the WB and they're idiots. In fact, if it weren't for Christopher Nolan making a requirement of him restarting the Batman franchise that the studio wouldn't interfere, the studio would still be going the way of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Smallville; even then, we very nearly got The Graysons last year.
Naturally you would expect the most notable producers on each side to have had long careers with their respective comic companies, bringing their wealth of knowledge to help translate comic books to movies. And again, you'd be wrong. The man Warner Bros. entrusted for many years was Barbara Streisand's hairdresser: Jon Peters. Whilst the big producer of Marvel films was an embittered toy line boss whose poor quality merchandise for the 1989 Batman saw him lose the contract for further films. Which begs the question: was Avi Arad the inspiration for the origin of The Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series? Whether he was or not, Arad became a prominent figure within Marvel from the beginning of the 1990s, although he'd have to wait the best part of the decade until 1998 gave Marvel a surprise hit with Blade. The legacy of Peters will be far removed from such success, as it begins with him adding in scenes specifically for Kim Basinger, his then-girlfriend, in Batman and ends with Superman Returns. And however underwhelming that movie was, we have Kevin Smith to thank in revealing how far Peters would have gone. It's ironic that it was the WB's convoluted system of pre-production that saved us from a film where Superman didn't fly, wore a "less faggy" costume and had to face off against a giant mechanical spider. In fairness, though, DC staff members are increasingly advising on films that utilize their properties, although the studio / director mandate remains the driving force.
Now this is all very well and good, but most of what has been written will not exactly be new to regular readers of a geek culture website. So with the background laid down, what do the two models promise for the continuation of the CBM renaissance? What are the options on the table?
As mentioned previously, the various Avengers will all be introduced in their own movies before a team-up movie comes to fruition. It's certainly the best approach towards a team-up movie, as was proved by the aborted WB response of rushing out a Justice League of America movie before giving these heroes their own movies. The emphasis appears to be geared towards continuity, with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury being the supposed lynchpin. However, this very nearly didn't happen as Marvel Studios somewhat low-balled the man they wanted to tie the films into a continuity, with Jackson publically stating that they weren't offering what he thought he should be offered. Whilst this could come off as petulance, Iron Man 2's Whiplash, Mickey Rourke, was first offered $250,000 before he signed on. Even Jon Favreau had to battle Marvel Studios current head, David Maisel, for a salary bump. It's an odd undercurrent that Marvel would want to risk the continuity of their master plan, especially given the unclear circumstances that led to Terrance Howard being dropped as James Rhodes and replaced by Don Cheadle. Franchise roles being recast aren't unheard of — especially with regards to Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes in the most recent Batman films — but with continuity being the current byword of the on-screen Marvel Universe, one would expect the studios to avoid recasting roles whenever they can help it.
Another means of keeping CBMs in production is by devising spin-offs. With continual production being what keeps separate franchise rights in the hands of non-Marvel studios, the onus is on producers to keep a film franchise going. Sony is choosing to extend the Spider-Man franchise with a fourth film, whilst Fox is making spin-offs of the original X-Men trilogy. Whilst this undoubtedly extends the life of the franchises without resorting to reboots / requels, it raises the possible issue of over-saturating the market. Comic book movies are typically blockbusters that compete with other blockbusters, making it a challenge to ground out the hundreds of millions that they're expected to recoup. In some way, DC films have the bigger battle on their hands as their next scheduled projects are Jonah Hex and Green Lantern. Neither title character is a huge name, and GL won't be released until the summer of 2011 — which means it has to compete with Spider-Man 4, Thor, Captain America, Star Trek 2, Cars 2, Terminator 5 and Harry Potter. Scheduling should be a real concern to the WB, especially considering how badly Superman Returns fared against the second installment of The Pirates of the Caribbean. Then again, whether films can afford to be released outside of the summer season — given how Lionsgate's Punisher: War Zone and The Spirit fared — is another matter.
Now what about over comic book companies such as Dark Horse? Films based on their comics gave prominence to Hellboy, The Mask, Sin City and 300. You can't accuse any of the above of being too closely identified to Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, due partially to the fact that the above-listed properties are very different in tone — and perhaps that's what studios should be looking at. A movie with a different tone can distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. This isn't to say that greatness can't come from a fairly standard studio-led formula, but an approach from outside the box can often make for the most interesting of the genre. One of the future CBMs I'm most interested in is Thor, for the sheer fact that Marvel roped in the Shakespearean auteur Kenneth Branagh to direct. And whilst we're speaking of art-house directors, it is impossible to omit Christopher Nolan. Whilst Batman Begins was not an all-conquering financial success — despite passing the $200 million mark domestically — the film was a critical triumph, bringing the character back from the excesses of the 1990s. The follow-up, last year's The Dark Knight, both built upon the origins and moved past them, setting Batman against The Joker in a film that was almost unrecognizable as a CBM to the takings of $1 billion. The days of the Warner Bros. marketing department calling the shots should well and truly be over, although I'm not optimistic.
However, just as Christopher Nolan can be a success within the CBM sub-genre, another art house director, Ang Lee, proved to be less successful with his iteration of Hulk in 2003. Now I like this film a lot and so do many others, but Avi Arad and pals thought that the financial return had not been worth the gamble, which brings us to another element: risk. Comic book movies aside, making any film involves an element of risk, as studios live for profits and can't stand to make losses. Take The Mask, which was made for $18 million and collected over $340 million worldwide, whilst the piss-poor sequel Son of the Mask was made for $84 million and collected $57 million worldwide. New Line cinema took a loss by being greedy and thinking The Mask could turn a profit over a decade later and without Jim Carrey — which is why studios need to exercise judgment and focus upon the factors that turn a profit. Going back to our old friends Warner Bros., I titled this article after Watchmen for a reason. The film hasn't been a huge financial success, as it has had to rely on the overseas grossing to take it over its $150 million budget. As such, it's been seen as doing disappointing business. However, this may not be a bad thing. Now WB will be less tempted to make a sequel / prequel.
Perhaps the answer is bringing the production costs back down and using more CGI, if not for the relative ease of translating some of the harder characters to pull off via a live action film (see 2007's TMNT), then for the location-substitution element. After all, Zack Snyder got the Watchmen directorial gig after handing in an adaptation that made over $450 million. That's to say nothing of how well Miller's Sin City went down, with some of Hollywood's finest lining up to play pulpy characters in a noir-ish CGI-scape, and remains one of the most admired, if not exactly commercially successful, films within the sub-genre. However, it should be pointed out that this isn't a style that suits every comic book property out there, and that's why it is a shame no one saw fit to point it out accordingly to Frank Miller when he decided to have a crack at The Spirit. Now whilst his own properties have been successfully realized through this new technology, Miller at least had Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino co-helming it with him on Sin City. The Spirit mixed partially unsuitable effects with uncertain direction and bombed accordingly. This is not to say that a new visual style cannot work — indeed, Warner Bros. is making good ground with its direct-to-DVD animated adaptations of classic DC stories — but it helps if they are anchored by someone who knows what the hell they're doing.
The lifespan of the comic book movie renaissance is ultimately dependant on two parties, and those are not Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. It is between the studios and moviegoers, as both feed off the other. If the punters stop going to see these movies, the production of such films will slow — to what extent depends on the severity of the drop-off. But if the studios make bad CBMs or ones that are only average at best, punters will be justified in ignoring what's put out for consumption. Even a preexisting fanbase is no guarantee of an audience, because just as a Batman fan might flock to see their favorite character in a film, a poor character interpretation or an unrealistic plotline could dissuade such a fan from seeing the film — especially considering the Internet. What with the addition of leaked versions of films and script reviews, those within geek culture circles can make their minds up about a CBM months before its release. As a result, studios need to continually remain abreast of the sentiment of the fanboys that they're trying to attract whilst not losing sight of the budgeting and elements of mainstream appeal to keep their films commercially viable. In fairness to these insanely rich and powerful people, this cannot be an easy balance to maintain, and it must remain true that it is in no one's interest when a CBM flops, no matter which fanboy cap you fashion.