What is the future of Comic Book Movies?

What is the future of Comic Book Movies?

The next few summers promise a glut of comic book based films. Could this mark the beginning of a glorious new age in cinema or the beginning of the end of our beloved favorite genre? What needs to change in order to see that CBMs live long and prosper?

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By NERO - 9/19/2010

PhotobucketIn the past I have made comparisons between the modern day CBM and the western genre of old. The comparison is based on the fact that in their heyday the western was the one breed of film that was guaranteed to put butts in the seats at theaters, just as modern CBMs do, but one day the movie going public simply said enough was enough. What was it that killed the western as the king of the box office? Could this same fate be waiting in the near future for comic book movies?

There were several reasons westerns died, the major factor was simply oversaturation. For every great film released there were ten hack jobs. Second there was the fact that the films became formulaic, each film was basically a rehashing of the one before it. This can be credited to the good old Hollywood idiom of unoriginality. If one story makes money you can safely bet that ten more will be made just like it. This gives the chance for the market to be flooded with mediocre films simply because they follow the same general guidelines as other better films, yet are delivered in a mass produced and roughshod fashion. Those films that may look on the subject matter with fresh eyes are simply cast aside in favor of the tried and true plots and themes that made money for the studios the year before. The result: creative stagnation. The third, and most difficult to define, factor is the change in American culture and how it can affect the audience.


The western had a long run as America’s cinematic indulgence of choice. It reigned from the earliest silent films all the way to the early seventies when it simply sputtered out of the theaters, returning only occasionally in the form of homage films and truly unique reimaginings of the genre. This era spanned sixty years. Can the CBM last so long?

PhotobucketThe key to this level of longevity will depend on Hollywood heeding the factors listed above. One built in defense comics have in regards to becoming formulaic is the wide variety of hero archetypes. The white knights such as Superman, the dark avengers like Batman, the comic jesters such as Spider-Man, the social crusaders like the X-Men, the science fiction adventurers like Green Lantern, the supernatural protectors like Doctor Strange, and the antiheroes like Wolverine and the Punisher. Because CBMs can pull from this pool of subgenres it makes it more hopeful that they may last the duration, but as Hollywood has already put out one, if not several, of each of these films we can already see that at their deepest core they all have a common end. The good guy always wins. This was a problem shared with the western and the sameness of the triumphant hero riding off into the sunset became an American icon. The problem, however, with icons is that with that iconic status comes a status quo. When the audience gets tired of the same outcome they will walk away.

The cultural factor is key as well. America goes through phases. Sometimes we truly need a hero. Sometimes the hero simply comes to represent authority and every thirty years or so America seems to rebel against authority. The idea of the upstanding citizen standing up for truth justice and the American way fails to enthrall an audience that has come to see such aspects of self as hokey. I think when times are good we love our heroes. When times are bad we turn on them. Whether this paradigm shift is here yet I will leave to you to decide. I simply hold up the shift in culture that we saw here in the late sixties and early seventies and its effect on the western and cinema in general as a benchmark. The culture became economically pressed, the loss of trust in its leaders, crime rates soared, and in general the people became more jaded. In response to this the films became grittier, more realistic, and more pessimistic. There was no more room for heroes. In some cases in films such as the Godfather the villain was the main character.

PhotobucketI think in the end the cultural changes could be the hardest thing for any genre to survive.

How can CBMs avoid this fate of irrelevance, formulaic stagnation, and oversaturation? Mix things up; allow more diverse characters to come to life for one. This too can be tricky as we have seen certain films which have tried this have either failed or underperformed at the box office. Watchmen and Kick-Ass were under performers and Scott Pilgrim was a downright bomb by Hollywood standards even though all of them were solid films. This may the result of poor marketing or simply show that the public isn’t ready to see CBMs in a form that breaks the formula they are comfortable with. This circular logic and fickle nature on the part of the audience may simply be an unavoidable aspect of our nature that may doom the CBM. Hollywood will only make films that they can make a profit from and if “different” doesn’t sell; “different” won’t be made.

One thing that may prove interesting is a look through the eyes of an established villain. A Doctor Doom film, or Magneto movie. Another is the mixing if genres like SciFi and CBM; Green Lantern is a prime example of this opportunity. The novelty of team films could prolong things a while, but if the element of real danger is shown by actually killing off a hero or two, that may further extend the success of certain films

Above all the CBM must be adaptive. As the times change so too must the CBM. This can be accomplished in a few ways. Bring in characters that fit the zeitgeist, or attempt to adjust the existing character for the times. The latter option is the least favorable and most dangerous as some characters have become iconic in and of themselves simply cannot be altered too much without severe backlash from not only the core fanboy community, but the American public as a whole. Characters like Superman fall into this category. Characters like Spider-Man can be made edgier by simply making a few films based around storylines that made the character himself edgier, say three films with him linked to the symbiote each taking him progressively more toward the darkside. Other characters like Batman can remain the same while simply surrounding them with darker storylines and rogues.

PhotobucketOne thing that may be supremely beneficial to the longevity of CBMs is to do away with the notion of trilogies. I and others here have always been of the mind that CBMs should be treated more like Bond films than Star Wars. This means each film can have its own director and feel depending on the story arch to be tackled. Sure, you may have liked the Raimi Spider-Man films, but imagine a film directed by David Fincher with Venom as the antagonist or Batman against Black Mask. Michael Mann helming a Punisher flick, JJ finally getting his shot at Superman, or Spielberg’s take on The Avengers, or Peter Jackson directing a JLA film. Imagine the story dictating the director; rather than one director being able to turn one character into his own personal fiefdom for a decade. I think the infusion of creativity could be beneficial to keeping the CBM a viable genre for several more decades. Each film dictated tonally by the story it attempts to tell rather than the whim of a single creative force. One essential change, I think, is that the properties all be handled by a single studio as Marvel is attempting to do or DC’s exclusive agreement with WB. Also, a moratorium needs to be implemented on the needless slaughter of villains in CBMs. An entire rogues gallery can be culled within the span of three or four films, so to allow each film to climax with the death of a supervillain, though satisfying, is simply a poor choice for serial storytelling.

Can the CBM survive the Hollywood system or the fickle nature of the general public? Can it survive itself and its own limitations? One day we will wake and find that the era of the CBM has passed, but take heart in that if there is one thing we have proven to be a universal fact: everyone needs a hero. Even if one day they fade away, take heart in the fact that they will return again when the need arises to be inspired, to be awed, to know that the good guys can win, to know that we need heroes, and we rediscover the need to believe that a man can fly.
Paulley - 9/20/2010, 1:14 AM
Great article. In regards to the hero always walking off into the sunset bit.. comic movies have alot of chances to deviate from this with there larger arcs spead across movies but for the most part it isnt the material that stops them from ending this way but the studios.

For example Kick-Ass in the comic the lead character barely survives and is quickly rejected by his love intrest. Yet the studio decided they couldnt have the stories hero or the movie end on a sad note so they went with the guy gets the girl ending they have stuck with since the dawn of cinema.
TheDarqueOne - 9/20/2010, 6:00 AM
Very well written article. Kudos!

I think we can count on Hollywood churning out CBMs as fast as possible. Like the efficient little leeches they are they will suck every drop of blood they can before the cash cow dies.

Nobody is Hollywood is thinking about how to extend the run of CBMs. However we do now have the film divisions of both Marvel and DC who will take the long view. Their problem is going to be surviving the deluge of crap that will be made by the other Studios.

You made a lot of excellent points and most of them I agree with. But I have been waiting my whole life for a large number of SuperVillains to finally get what they deserve. Unlike many the endless cycle dictated by the monthly nature of the comics has always been a source of great annoyance to me. I want to see Villains die.
spider1489 - 9/20/2010, 10:38 AM
sorry i dont care give me reboots, sequels or whatever as long as i get to see everything on the big screen!
Aguaman - 9/20/2010, 12:22 PM
I like to view this subject from a realistic and unbiased point of view. That being said, i give the comic book movie SUBGENRE (ive been told its not its own genre yet, whatever that means) another 10 years if that. The more popular heroes will get a remake or two (superman, batman, x men, spiderman) we will get a few random lesser heroes (black panther, doc strange, dead pool) but they wont get much love because the studios only want the stuff that sells seats so they will play safe.

We comic book fans might want these movies to never end but the truth is the studios will milk these movies dry, people will stop going to see them in the theaters, and the SUBGENRE will go away and be marked in history as a fad. Sure we might get one or two big name superhero movies every few years like we used to but they arent going to sell forever.

NERO - 9/20/2010, 1:23 PM
One thing I wonder is where will the majority of the subpar films come from? Do you think it will be those characters that were outsourced to other studios like FOX, Sony, and Paramount? Or will it be the big two's private studios Marvel/Disney, DC/WB simply becoming lazy after a time and putting out lower quality films?

IMO, I think the greatest damage in terms of the audience shrinking so far comes from not wanting to waste their cash on a half assed CBM, which have primarily come from the outsourced properties. Though in general I'm not a huge fan of Singer's take on X-Men he did make two decent films at Fox. When you consider how many CBMs have actually been good compared to bad, it’s not a very good ratio.

In terms of when we may see the end of the multiple CBM summers; I think the apex will be 2012. After that I think we will begin to see fewer and fewer summers dominated by CBMs. I think the studios and CBM will be much better served if they begin using some CBMs as winter tent poles in much the same way they do with the Potter films. I don't know what the rule is that says a CBM MUST come out in the spring and summer, I know summer is the largest money making time, but one would think a CBM could possibly make more money if it wasn’t released on the heels of one CBM and then followed by the release of another the following Friday. CBMs are really expected to make their majority profits on their first weekend, if they weren’t released so close together perhaps they could earn at a steadier and longer time frame. Spreading them out a bit will also help the nonfanboy audience not feel so saturated by CBMs that they tire of seeing them as well.

How long in general does the CBM have as the dominant box office draw? I'd give it 10-15 years, max. I think TDK will remain the top money maker for CBMs, and I think even after the 10-15 year point we will still see CBMs, they just won't be as frequent.

I am actually concerned that the over abundance of CBMs scheduled for summer 2012 may really make an anti-CBM sentiment rise in the average movie going public. They really aren't going to have a lot else to watch that summer and I think when the audience realizes that there is going to be a backlash of sorts. If the American people resent anything, it’s the lack of choice.
AverageCitizen99 - 9/20/2010, 1:29 PM
Fantastic article! As Sooner09 pointed out this is more of a subgenre possibly because there are so many ways to incorporate this 'super' element into various stories like action, drama, comedy, or whatever.

And as he stated, there is a liklihood that this might not last forever. Things and trends always come to an end sadly. If it were to come to an end I'd be very grateful to have grown up in this era. The first CBMs I had seen were X-Men and Spider-Man when I was around 8 years old.

A way to continue this would be too try and venture into different territories like different tones and different directors and etc. A Marc Webb Spider-Man could differ with what Raimi brought us as with what Nolan did compared to both Burton and Schumacher.

The whole trilogy thing is starting to feel overused because there is always a beginning, middle, and ending with them when these types of stories in comics go on forever. It will feel bothersome to have to look back at the past films to understand what is going on in the specific film.

Introducing new and complex characters like the Punisher (count him as a much needed reintroduction) in MARVEL or going into VERTIGO's Sandman could really reinvigorate the genre. Showing that there is much more than what is in the formula could attract more people. But then again films that you mentioned that tried to be different failed. Likely because they were misinterpreted by both their studios and the general audience. They didn't no what to say about them and couldn't handle something so different.

With Green Lantern and the Avengers coming out things could change for the genre. But until the ending era comes I am going to sit back and enjoy the stories that were worth it.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 1:51 PM
@ACitizen: I think this more Bond-like episodic story telling will catch on faster if done with characters like Batman and Spider-Man to establish the feel with the general audiences, but I think these are the films that are most rooted in the "Trilogy thinking." I think it will be harder for the studios to adjust to seeing those major tentpole characters in an episodic standpoint than some others.

To be honest, directors are egotists in many ways; Nolan, as great a story teller as he is, demonstrates this the most due to his unwillingness to allow "his" version of Batman and possibly Superman to mingle with characters brought to life by other directors. The major change needed to fulfill the episodic treatment is for directors to see it as their film, and not their character. The superhero belongs to the comic company and the fans, not the director. That will need to be made clear to any director coming on board if the episodic idea is to work.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 2:02 PM
I think it needs to be up to the DC and Marvel film divisions to establish that THIS is the world the characters inhabit, there are other heroes, there are relationships between those heroes, and the director may operate within the confines of the established world, but may not radically alter it. Marvel is doing a good job of this so far, they need to work on the balance a bit so as not to steal screen time from the film's hero, but they're getting there.

In a way this takes much of the power from the director, that will be unpopular, and it hands that power over to the writer and producer who will work directly with the Marvel/DC film divisions to create the stories and scripts. Whereas the director will be brought in as the penciler to provide the visuals for the established tale, in this way the film process becomes more like the production of the comics themselves. Directors would be scouted by asking would you like to direct this script, and any changes they wish to pitch would have to be cleared through the film divisions as correct or incorrect for the established world and character. This will allow the director free reign on visual style, but would keep them from "raping" a character.

Think of what Steven Sommers did to GI Joe or what Singer did in Superman Returns as an example of when these controls might have been exorcised.
TheDarqueOne - 9/20/2010, 2:08 PM
I think Marvel is a great Studio but the idea of taking creative control away from the Director bothers me a lot. I see the idea and it has merit but I fear it would just mean more formula and less creativity.


On one end of the scale we have the Comics which rarely kill anybody and almost nobody stays dead. On the other end we have the CBMs where people die on a regular basis. I don't think comics should match the movies but I think leaning in that direction would be a vast improvement. And I think it the comics do not evolve to be closer to the movies they will never reap the rewards from having all this film attention.

I just think it would be good if this Era of CBMs was also a new golden time for the comics.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 3:52 PM
@Darque: The director would still have creative control of the film itself and be able to put his spin on the story. The film division would only impede his creative process if he wanted to do something extremely drastic that could possibly drift too far from who the character is. So they would come in and stop the director from having Batman kill, Punisher be overly emotional, or (to use Superman Returns as an example)having Superman father a child and abandon Earth for five years.

It would have to be a major issue for them to say "Sorry, you can't do that."

TheDarqueOne - 9/20/2010, 4:11 PM
I am not against the idea per say. It is just that traditionally the people in the Studios are as creative as rocks. So whenever they make ANY decisions at all they are generally not in the best interests of the movie.

I do love the idea of a series of Marvel Movies as you suggest. They make the first one to establish the entire Marvel Multiverse and then can tell stories as they wish. Problem is that this would be a total bitch to create. How do you create a setting that is both open and specific to the comics?

As people have pointed out the Tone needed for different Heros can vary by quite a bit. But I think there can be variations over a fairly wide range. I think more than anything else, the stories, the art, all of it, the biggest power of the comics is the history. These worlds are dense and filled with a seemingly endless supply of stories. As Fantasy Worlds they are creations unmatched in human history.

Oh sure Tolkien did a lot of work to create Lord of the Rings. Massive amounts of lore were created, new languages came into being, it is a stunning achivement that I absolutely love. But compared to the Marvel MultiVerse LOTR is just a few details and a couple of nice characters.

And yet what do we get as CBMs? Almost exclusively solo Heros in a world that has never known them before. It is the same freaking story with different names and events. With Avengers the new Marvel Studios is trying to chart a new path but it is just a first step.

The immense history of the comics is their biggest problem when it comes to gaining new readers. But at the same time it is one of the things that people who read Comics really love about them. If someone can find a way to get that history working in Films they will really have something.

AverageCitizen99 - 9/20/2010, 6:15 PM
Thanks for the response. MARVEL is doing a good job at this but I do feel that having a strict grip on their characters would repel filmmakers. But Jon (Iron Man), Louis (The Incredible Hulk), and now Kenneth (Thor), Joe (Captain America), and Joss (The Avengers) seem to be okay with the universe that MARVEL seems to have in mind. And directors can be pretty egotistical. I'm not sure if it was Chris but I think I remember hearing him in an interview say that all filmmakers have a "God complex" and he is true about that. Usually the directors are responsible for what goes on in front of the camera and what gets on to the final film. He has his own opinions as to handling Superman and Batman that does threaten the notion of seeing the two come together for a Justice League flick. But to be honestly truthful I wouldn't care if they crossed over or not.

I can see why MARVEL has been doing Iron Man and the films that have followed because they had probably envisioned it all leading up to the Avengers film. Each character was just another piece to the puzzle. But the DC universe is something that most general audiences aren't familiar with. Outside of Batman and Superman, no one has seen any of the other characters in a film of their own and I think each character needs to be fleshed out independently so we know what discerns them from one another besides their powers. I'd be okay with the idea of Spider-Man or some of the other characters staying where they are so long as they are put into good films that are nothing short of great. Unless there is trouble in paradise I'm okay with where they are.

I hope this episodic-style goes noticed so that way the genre could stay alive. And another thing I believe could lead the genre down under could be the fact that so many are thrown out into theatres so quickly. Same thing that happened with Westerns and slashers. As much as I would like to see another comic book film I think I could deal with a cooling off period so I could get excited for another one. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 8:02 PM
@Citizen & Darque: I think it just comes down to finding the right sort of Director (like Jon, Kenneth, et al) who are willing to work as part of a creative team along with the communal producers like Arad and Feige and representatives from the comics arena like Joe Q and to develop the Marvel Film Universe. I would love to see them bring in a core group of comic writers like Bendis and a few others in as well to act as reference and guides for the screenwriters. I think they've got the right idea on how to do this.

DC seems to be getting it together with Johns in the Joe Q and writer’s reference role for their film universe. I think Nolan's Batman should be left alone to end its trilogy, but I really hope Nolan relents as to keeping Superman a separate entity from the DC Film U they are beginning with Green Lantern. I think they need Kal El.

About the volume of films coming out; I think Marvel and DC should just focus on two films every other year each. A summer tent pole flick and a second set released around the holiday season. That way the market wouldn't be saturated so heavily. The secondary companies like Sony and Fox usually put out one summer film every three years with Spider-Man and every three or so with X-Men, so as long as they keep the release years staggered there may not be so much over saturation. Ideally I think two, max three CBMs a year staggered from spring to Christmas would be about right. When they cram them all into the summer movie season its just too much.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 8:10 PM
@Darque: That's a really good point about the expansiveness and history of the CBMs multiverses. It is a place so layered doing it justice on screen would be near impossible and to rebuild it on screen would take a lifetime. Maybe a happy medium could be reached somehow. As to how... That'll take someone more inventive than me.
NERO - 9/20/2010, 9:26 PM
@Brazilian: True, I think the lesser known characters and graphic novels could slip under the radar fairly successfully and possibly not even register as CBMs to the movie going public.

As for reboots, I'm hoping for one more round; that round being the eventual return of properties like FF, X-Men, DD, and all the earlier films that were sold to other studioes to the control of Marvel Studios. I know this will be years, if not decades away. I just hope we get to see these films before the momentum fades on CBMs.
TheDarqueOne - 9/21/2010, 6:07 AM
What they could do to support the Marvel Universe movies is start up comic books lines to match. Same tone and balances basically.

Imagine a new Ultimates-style line that included absolutely everybody. One that tried to retain as much of the original flavor/details as possible while still totally updating and revamping what needs to be. A new look at some basics that date to the kiddie times. Outfits that work in live action the whole deal.

Then you make the first movie which is a direct plotline intended for the comics. Comics publish the story as the movie comes out. The story continues in the comics because the next Marvel U movie will be about somebody else.

The history of this comics line would not be that huge. This approach requires a recognition of how much information can be communicated to the audience before they see a movie. Every movie has a web-site that potential viewers visit. There are 'making of' specials that can give the required info. None of these things will match reading the comics which is kinda the point.

But the movie does not live or die based on the info from the outside sources. The comic connection adds to the movie and increases the depth of the story which is again the whole point.

TheDarqueOne - 9/22/2010, 2:55 PM
Surprised nobody responded to that idea. Especially considering the danger it could pose to traditional comics. A sucessful book today is 250,000 copies. With a movie-connected book it could be much higher. People worried that the Ultimate universe would replace the originals but this idea would really have the potential to do so.

If you looked at the entire history of say Iron Man you could condense it down. Remove the pointless filler stuff and keep the actual Story Arcs that had some sort of impact. From that you could plot the life of the new Iron Man for a very long time. There would be plenty of room for new stuff but revisiting 'Demon in a Bottle' with a modern slant would be powerful. The original Story was supposed to be about coke not just booze and this time it could be done properly.

NERO - 9/24/2010, 4:41 AM
Darque, sorry it took me a while to post back, things have been a little busy.

I think you have a good point about a separate cinematic marvel universe for the comics, but I have to wonder how practical it would be. Since we only have a CBM of each character every few years, how do they fill the interim time and will the movie be forced to follow the ongoing plot lines established by their comic counterparts? There is also the problem presented by this being the third ongoing Marvel continuity alongside 616 and the Ultimates universes, it could all get a bit jumbled. Third, the Ultimates line started very hot and has since fizzled in favor of 616 again. I don't know if Marvel will take a walk down the alternate universe path again for a while. Still and all, it’s not a bad idea though.
NERO - 9/25/2010, 12:22 AM
Thanks fangz, I'm glad you've liked the article and discussion. Darque seems like a guy with some really good ideas and points; it has been a privilege to go back and forth with all of you guys. This reminds me of the old days of CBM when there was this level of free flow of ideas and opinions and not so much jabbering. I’ve really enjoyed it and hope you all have as well.
TheDarqueOne - 9/28/2010, 2:09 PM
Since this has dropped down the list a bit now I don't really expect any more replies but I want to finish up anyway.

On my shared Comic Book Universe...

The idea would be to build a continuity that matched with the movies so that both could feed off the other. Any new movies would be planned to match with the comics. Once the movie was out the comics would continue the experience. But yes they would have to fit together cleanly for the whole thing to work.

I agree that this would pose a potential problem and one that would be solved by the reduction of other comic lines. That is kinda why I expected some die-hard comics fans to hurl some stuff at me when I suggested it. But with the amount of money potentially involved this could produce a new golden age of comics beating the previous sales numbers by a whole order of magnitude.

On this discussion...

Perhaps a new form of Article could be done. One labeled RoundTable perhaps? Not a quicky thread but once based on a substantial article. The reason for the new catagory would be to tell everyone 'This is a place to put some thought into your replies.' Those that do not enjoy such things could then easily avoid them.

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