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The Evolution of the Comic Book Movie

Comic book movies have become a familiar staple at our local theaters these days. The multitude of heroes is now commonplace, they jump storylines like it was no big deal, and they can be found across all parts of our lives, from apps on our phone to roller coasters in our theme parks.

Although the scale and widespread popularity is more of a recent phenomenon, comic book movies have actually existed for over half a century now. And just because the technology wasn’t there back then to show the Incredible Hulk riding up a 40 story building with Iron Man as his snowboard doesn’t mean some filmmakers didn’t try to evoke a similar sense of awe at the graphic novel demi-gods.

Without going into a very deep dive into each individual film, I’m going to look at some of the big shifts in the style, reception, successes and failures of comic book movies throughout the past century.

Keep to reading to see how far we’ve come.

1940’s: The Superhero Ventures Onto Film

Evolution comic book movie: Lewis Wilson as Batman

Might as well start the story off from the very beginning, right?

Technically, the first comic hero adapted to the silver screen was Mandrake the Magician, a hero based on a newspaper comic strip of the same name. This was in 1939, but comic books were quickly adapted in the following years, including Captain Marvel, The Phantom, Batman, Captain America, and Superman.

These were all created for children as serials: short, 30 minute stories that released every Saturday at the local movie house. Despite the shorter length, you could make the case that these were the first comic book movie sequels. So blame your ancestors next time you’re wondering why some sequels get made.

Early on, the film and comic book storylines began to depart and influence each other. The earliest appearance of Batman (played by Lewis Wilson, shown above, who critics thought was a bit chunky for the role) in the 1943 serial was responsible for slimming down Alfred (he was drawn as a fatter man in the comics) and creating the bat cave.

This positive influence was mostly an anomaly amongst adaptations. More often than not, there were other departures that were left out in the future. The Batmobile, partially due to budget reasons, was substituted for a black Cadillac limosine that was driven by Alfred (imagine what the Dark Knight Returns would have looked like if that had stuck). Probably most blasphemously, in a Captain America adaptation, the title hero is given a gun in replacement of his iconic shield.

Evolution comic book movie: Captain America Dick Purcell
Captain America played by Dick Purcell

Luckily, nobody liked it, there were likely firings after that decision was made, and we’re now back to the Cap’s starred and striped shield we all know and love.

1950’s and 60’s: The Dead Zone

Evolution comic book movie: Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency
Photo via Bettmann/CORBIS

In what is now seen as an infamously large waste of time and money, the US Senate established the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1953 in order to investigate the rise in delinquency that was supposedly brought about by the rise in the inappropriate content children were exposed to, centered mostly around comic books.

Because of this, there was a huge disruption in comic book content creation and publication, but we did get a couple adaptations on the big screen.

The most notable heroes that came to the theater were the legendary portrayals of Batman and Robin by Adam West and Burt Ward, who adapted their TV roles from the television series for the movie version Batman in 1966. If you haven’t seen this one, it’s a classic. Check out the clip below if you’re skeptical.

This was the first full length adaptation of the DC Comic hero on to the theater screen, and like other hero depictions of the decade, this movie took a distinctly humorous slant after the government actions effectively put the brakes on any darker directions for the comic.

Despite the cleaner content, the movie was received fairly well, but it wouldn’t be until the later decades that comics were brought back to their original glory on screen.

Superman Swoops Into the 70’s

Evolution comic book movie: Superman Christopher Reeve
Photo via Warner Bros.

Other than a horror adaptation for Tales of the Crypt and some TV movies that centered on the Incredible Hulk, Captain America (making his first appearance since those early serials), Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange, the early 70s were mostly devoid of comic book heroes gracing the big screen.

That is, until Superman broke through in 1978.

Played by Christopher Reeve, who gave us arguably the best portrayal of the all-American hero, and supported by acting legends like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, the big budget hero movie (the most expensive in history at the time) renewed the interest in the potential of comic book lore. Setting the tone for sequel building tactics used today, the bulk of Superman and Superman II were shot at the same time.

Evolution comic book movie: Superman Christopher Reeve in space
Photo via Warner Bros.

The film also began the move towards expanding the scope as a more dramatic backdrop. Use of giant sets and blue screen effects to simulate Superman flying over cityscapes gave the stakes a new gravitas that was not as present with some of the sound-stage centered precursors. Early Superman depictions needed to have animated flying scenes because the technical capabilities had not developed yet.

The investment paid off for Warner Bros: it was a critical success, earning Academy Award nominations, a place on Roger Ebert’s top 10 films of the year, and financial success with a $300.2M box office cumulative worldwide.

The Wild West of the 80’s/90’s

Evolution comic book movie: The Crow
Photo via Miramax Films

Emboldened by the success of Superman, filmmakers began to explore other comic book properties both known and lesser known with varying levels of critical and financial success. Over the course of the 80’s, movies released included comic book heroes such as Batman, Supergirl, Flash Gordon (strip, not a book), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to name a few.

A movie like the Crow, released in 1994 and rated R, gained critical acclaim for its unique visual style and made over $50M at the box office when it released, roughly double the production budget. This paved the way for movies like Spawn and then subsequently Blade, both violent and dark movies that saw success when they released.

Blade Evolution comic book movie: Spawn

On the other hand, one better known hero was taken in a different direction. After Tim Burton’s shot at the Batman series, which was received warmly by audiences and broke a handful of box office records, the Dark Knight began to divert from the comics (reminiscent of the early serial days) with Joel Schumacher at the helm. Although critics were split and box office receipts were high for Batman: Forever, critics were not as kind towards the sequel Batman and Robin. George Clooney took over for Val Kilmer, which did not turn out well, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s freezer-based one-liners didn’t land, and the movie failed to gross more than its $125M production budget.

Evolution comic book movie: Batman and Robin
Photo via Warner Bros

By way of explanation, Schumacher later explained that he was under a lot of pressure from the studio to make the movie more “family friendly” and “less torture.”

Sounds familiar, right? Pressure from the powers that be do not seem to be conducive to quality content, but artists and filmmakers have known this since the beginning of time. When it comes down to it, it’s always the audience that suffers. Go figure.

Heroes Multiply: the Rise of Marvel

Evolution comic book movie: Marvel Cinematic Universe

With the mega successes of X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in the early 2000’s, studios started becoming obsessed with the comic book blockbuster. Studios like 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, and Universal started reaching into the comic vault that Stan Lee built to collect as many heroes as they could.

The Marvel properties that were tapped included the X-Men, Spider-Man, Hulk, Blade (continuing sequels), the Punisher, Daredevil, Elektra, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four. Looking at that list, it’s hard to believe that Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

While Marvel was making up for lost time, DC Comics, owned entirely by Warner Bros, was resting on its Batman and Superman laurels, mostly being left to play catch up. During the same year time period, DC only made movies using 4 of their heroes vs 8 different heroes from Marvel.

Even more noteworthy: none of the Marvel movies made during this time made less at the box office than their production budget (yes, even Elektra). While Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot trilogy was wildly successful, both financially and critically, Catwoman brought in $20M less than it’s $100M production budget. A 25% failure rate is not too promising.

Evolution comic book movie: Robert Downey Jr Iron Man Comic Con
Photo via Marvel Studios/Disney

By the way, some final food for thought: during this 2000-2009 period, the attendance for Comic-Con International, the Mecca for all things comic related, nearly TRIPLED from 48,500 to 126,000! That tells you something about the huge increase in accessibility of comic book heroes, likely brought about by the presence of comic book lore at the cineplex.

The Playing Field Begins to Level

Evolution comic book movie: Marvel VS DC

So here we are, in the mostly present-day age of comic book heroes on the big screen. They’re now a mainstay of the summer, and we’ve come to expect big announcements about releases years down the line and heated discussions about who should play which villain and what could be revealed next in a sprawling universe of godlike beings. We’re used to spinoffs and sequels and reboots, and we still line up for them time and again.

Similar to the resurgence of unusual comic book characters and darker themes in the 80’s and 90’s after the “clean” period post-Senate Subcommittee hearings, studios are starting to reach out to more unusual properties and focus on pleasing the comic book fan rather than the casual moviegoer.

Evolution comic book movie: Deadpool movie
Photo via 20th Century Fox

A great example is the huge outpouring of support for a Deadpool movie that is authentic to the comics, an R-rated, violent, and crass anti-hero: the exact opposite of the clean cut heroes of the Avengers team that swept the country only a few years ago (and still persist). The more offbeat heroes are also seeing success: take Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, both widely thought of as potentially risky heroes with not much broad appeal that ended up finding a solid audience and getting the sequel greenlight.

DC is now (finally) branching out while realizing they need to stick to their guns with darker themed adaptations. Hiring David Ayer (Fury, Training Day) to direct Suicide Squad and bringing in Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) to helm Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice indicates a distinct move away from the cleaner Marvel movies of the 2000’s and its misstep with the Batman and Robin disaster.

The trend in both cases is that the studios are now listening to their audiences more than ever (at least for comic book movies). They’re giving the diehards what they want because they know that they show up and buy the tickets at the end of the day.

It’s been a hard road to get to this point, but my worry is that the lineups are now planned out like an superhero assembly line. These may create inflexibility and force movies out that shouldn’t be or need more time. As we know, this is hardly ever conducive to great movies.

HOWEVER, there is still plenty of room for creativity and I hope that the envelope will continue to be pushed. At the end of the day, we as the audience will benefit the most.

Tell us what you think about comic book movies these days in the comments below!


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