This week Neil Calloway looks at why comic book adaptations have been so popular recently…
Earlier this week, Flickering Myth reported on a infographic that showed the highest grossing Marvel films. There were some surprises; the original Spider-Man trilogy beats not only the Amazing Spider-Man films, despite being released ten years earlier, but also Guardians of the Galaxy. Iron Man 3 comes second only to the first Avengers film, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming up fast behind it.
Soon though, it seems the whole of the all time global box office will be made up of comic book movies. The first Avengers movie is at three in the all time box office chart, Age of Ultron is at 6, with Iron Man 3 at number 8. The Dark Knight Rises is the highest grossing movie based on DC Comic material, having earned just over a billion dollars and sitting at number 13 in the charts.
Why are comic book movies so popular, why do they keep getting made? A simple answer would say that they get made because it’s easy to market a movie that we already know the origin story for; they don’t have to work hard to sell us a familiar story. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are before we’ve even walked into the cinema. There’s surely something in that – what might be termed the “Hollywood has run out of ideas” hypothesis.
It doesn’t work for all comic book movies, though. If you’d have said “Hawkeye” to someone before The Avengers, unless they were the most ardent comic book geek, they’d have probably thought you were talking about Alan Alda’s character in M*A*S*H. Even Iron Man was pretty obscure to the general public before 2008. He was certainly not like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent; names you could mention and people who had never picked up a comic would recognise.
There might be a clue too the popularity in events outside the film industry. The current wave of comic book movies – what might be termed the Golden Age of comic adaptations – began with the release of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film in early 2002; shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Since then America has constantly been involved in military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iraq again, with no sign of an ending. We like to think that somewhere there are superheroes protecting us from existential threats. What is Batman Begins if it’s not a story of an Eastern cult attacking a major American city using a popular method of transport? I’m not saying Ra’s al Ghul is Osama bin Laden, but Ra’s al Ghul is Osama bin Laden. Tony Stark’s transformation to Iron Man was updated to take place in Afghanistan; they’re using familiar characters to say important things about the modern world.
Batman and Superman both made their comic book debuts in 1939; during the Great Depression and just as Europe was plunging into totalitarian darkness. Iron Man and Spider-Man both first appeared at the height of the Cold War – Spider-Man just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. When events appear to be able to destroy life as we know it, we turn to superheroes to comfort us; we like to believe someone invincible is out there protecting us, even if that isn’t actually the case.
Simon Pegg’s recent comment that elites distract us from real world issues with comic book fantasies were wrong; they aren’t being imposed on us (nobody is forcing you to see the latest Marvel movie), rather we want them to comfort us in times of great crisis.
The 1990s – a relatively peaceful time globally speaking – gave us largely bad comic book adaptations. The 21st Century – with terrorists atrocities in major cities around the globe, live on TV, and executions broadcast on the internet, and endless war – has given us good ones. World peace might be good for you, but if it ever comes, it’ll be bad for the comic book movie.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future installments.