Yep. I sure did. The only reason you’re not seeing my review of it is that four other people have already tackled the material, and what’s left to say? It’s cheesier than Wisconsin, cornier than Nebraska and squarer than a diced cube – and oh, is it glorious. It’s a great big explosion of Technicolor ham, and I had me a darn good time while watching it.
And yet, even while a great big grin was plastered across my face, a tiny part of my brain was going ‘man, this would never have gotten made today.’ Not in any particularly critical way, mind you, but still, the thought did flash across my mind. Not long afterwards, so did the obvious follow-up – ‘why not?’
That, as is frequently the case, got me thinking – and that, as is also frequently the case, got me writing. And here we are now. And here I am about to delve into comic book movies across the ages, and how, as the title indicates, they have changed, and why. Join me, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare.
First, let’s establish some guidelines here. When we say ‘comic book movie’, what exactly do we mean? Let us say that, for the purpose of this list, we mean a movie using characters that either come from a comic book or have been featured prominently in comic books, such as the Shadow, Flash Gordon and the Green Hornet. (We will ignore ones made substantially before the creation of comic books, such as the old Fantomas silent films.) That will do for a basic definition.
Now, there have, of course, been hundreds of such movies made, and I’m not so suicidally pedantic as to try and analyze each and every one of them, or even a broad cross-section. My brain would pop. No, instead we’ll be looking at them in a more general sense, a sweeping shot of the crowd, as it were, as opposed to a series of man-in-the-street interviews.
Looked at this way, there are, as best I can tell, five basic ‘eras’ of comic book film. First, we have the serial era, which lasted roughly from the early ‘30’s to the mid-‘50’s. Next we have the Age of Camp, stretching from the ‘60’s to roughly the early ‘80’s. After that came, for lack of a better term, the Burtonian Era, which went from the mid-‘80’s to the late ’90’s, followed by what I’ll call the Age of X and finally, the Dark Knight Age – what we’re in now.
Let’s just dive right in, shall we?
To start with, the serials. These represent the genre of comic book film in its infancy, even as comics (at least, what we would think of today as comics) were still clutching their metaphorical baby rattles. They featured the first screen appearances of some of the Big Names, Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Shadow, as well as lower-tier ones such as Spy Smasher and the Vigilante.
Of course, it would be folly to suggest that all, or even most, of the serials of the time were comics-based; a great deal of them weren’t. But that, in a sense, was all for the better, since all serials, comic-based or no, used the same basic format, and when comics did enter the adaptational arena, they started to emulate that format. This was where the genre took its first tentative steps towards decompressed storytelling, subplots that stretched over multiple issues, etc., etc. In short, serials affected comics just as much as the other way ‘round, if not more so – without the non-stop action and breathless cliffhangers of the serials, comics as we now know them would probably be quite different. (Mind you, radio also played a part – quite a large one; that’s where narrative captions first came in – but to my mind the serials really codified things, as two visual mediums can’t help but have more to do with one another than one visual and one invisible.)
On to the Age of Camp. This was, of course, kicked off by the ’66 Batman series (and, for our purposes, its movie adaptation).
I talked a little bit about the show in my ‘Batman Movies: An Examination’ article, so I won’t say too much about it here. Suffice it to say that it affected the cinematic depiction of comics for the next several decades in ways that are not always immediately evident.
As implied by my choice of era-title (and by common knowledge), the main influential aspect of Batman was that, yes, it was campy – but what exactly does that mean? A lot of people tend to interpret the term as ‘silly and over the top’, but its actual definition is something like ‘absurdity played straight, generally in a very colorful and flamboyant manner’.
Now, that can mean ‘silly’, and certainly it often played out that way, but – and this is the important part – by no means always. One of my favorite comic book movies, Danger: Diabolik, is completely ridiculous if looked at with a critical eye, yet it’s all carried out with an air of deadly earnestness that works perfectly, the seriousness and the goofiness only serving to accentuate each other. Similarly, the first two Superman movies work as well as they do because they’re not afraid to play the sillier aspects of the hero they’re representing absolutely straight, and leave it to us, the viewers, to determine whether they’re corny or awesome – and judging from the fan-following they have, I’m guessing most choose awesome.
Onward to the Burtonian Era. Although the name, as you may have guessed, does refer to the Tim Burton Batman films, it’s not because the era in question started with them; in fact, I’m not completely sure when it started (apart from after Superman 3 and 4, which were the last – or some of the last – entries in the Age of Camp). Rather it’s that they were indicative of the era’s overall style, and their success sparked off a number of others that were to follow.
The interesting thing about this period is that, while its films are very much influenced by the previous decades’ style, they are also very determinedly exploring new ground. Batman was – and I believe this has been stated, although I can’t locate the exact quote – a conscious attempt to break free of the campy atmosphere that was then still overwhelmingly associated with comics and comic book film. Certainly it and its first sequel are much, much darker in tone and overall feel that any superhero spin-off media had been up to that point. At the same time, however, Burton’s vision for the two films is basically the camp stylings held up to a funhouse mirror – where they are bright and colorful, his is dark and brooding, but both approaches veer into visual spectacularities that have less to do with realism than with capturing the feel of a comic book. Therefore, all the subsequent movies trying to piggyback off their success were really still very much influenced by the previous era – just an evolved version of it with a bit of a different identity.
That, however, all petered out somewhere around Batman and Robin, and things were quiet for a few years. Then dawned the Age of X, brought into being with the first X-Men movie, and things changed dramatically.
Comic book movies were not only big again, they were huge. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a year since then that hasn’t featured at least one. But recently, things have shifted yet again, and quite radically, too.
As with the one before it, the Age of X ended with a flop – in its case, Superman Returns. The Dark Knight came along not long afterwards, and, well, do I really need to tell you the rest? Nope. Welcome to the present, ladies and gentlemen.
Which brings us, of course, to the stated questions of this little article – how have comic book movies changed, and why?
To answer the first, let’s just skim back over what we’ve covered already. Don’t worry, it won’t take as long.
Up until just a few years ago, comic book movies had a very definite evolution of style that could be tracked with relative ease. You had the purely unsophisticated slam-bang action of the serials, followed by the still silly yet somewhat more sophisticated time when camp ruled. This was then repurposed into the ‘80’s/’90’s version of things, which then transitioned into the 2000s with the influences of the previous decades still well on their sleeves.
And then Dark Knight came along, and suddenly we were in a far, far different place than we were before.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick gander at Superman Returns, the last, as I just defined it, of the previous era.
I happen to be one of the people who didn’t actually think SR was all that bad – I could see what people were griping about, but it just wasn’t as big of a deal for me. One thing that did bug me at the time? The change in Superman’s outfit. I remember thinking that they’d darkened the colors too much, and griping to myself about how it didn’t look right; Superman should be brightly-colored, darn it; they were pandering to the darker-is-better crowd, blah blah blah.
I mean, of course we know more or less what happened – the Dark Knight trilogy was monumentally successful, and for that reason, Man of Steel had its director as part of the creative team involved in the new Superman franchise, blah blah blah. We know this, I say, but if you were to somehow be reading this article from the relatively recent past (and if by some chance you are, greetings from the future!), I’m guessing your reaction would be just the same as above – ‘What happened?’, or, more succinctly, ‘WHAT?!’
You would never have been able to get away with something like that just a few short years ago. You would never have been able to get past the planning stages. Superman – Superman, the most iconically primary-colored hero in all of comics, the guy they named Superman Ice Cream (which I will try someday) after – looking like that? Inconceivable!
Now, of course there is considerably more to a movie than the outfit its hero wears, and while I personally didn’t much care for Man of Steel (and I’m not alone), there are certainly people who do. Neither am I going off on an ‘oh, all the movies are all dark now’ or ‘dark = bad’ rant; in the case of the first, a number of them (The Avengers, for instance) are nothing of the sort, and in the case of the second, I actually have no problem with dark comic book films when that darkness is appropriate to the characters and source material. I’m a big fan of the V for Vendetta movie, for instance, and few would argue that it’s too dark – it’s just as dark as it needs to be.
However, I am saying that movies in MoS‘s vein show an extreme disconnect from the longstanding commonly-held views as to how certain characters should be depicted – a lighter tone is sometimes not only advisable, but essential. They are also somewhat distressing in that they seem to herald a growing trend, one that may ultimately threaten to paint all comic book films with the same brush. ‘This was successful, and so was this, so let’s make all of them that way.’
Such things are hardly a rarity in Hollywood. Look, for example, at the gigantic explosion of sexy thrillers after films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were hits. Look, too, at the seemingly never-ending progression of Die Hard clones that still hasn’t completely fizzled out yet. Brainless copycatting is a distressingly large part of how the system works.
Sure, right now we’ve got Avengers and Iron Man and the like to show producers that a lighter, more dynamic approach can work, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision a near-future where a few more grimdark blockbusters have convinced them otherwise. Hence, we start getting all kinds of movies that we’ve been looking forward to – and they’re all dark. Plastic Man? Dark. Metal Men (a very real possibility, I might add)? Dark. Wonder Woman? Dark and uninspiring, thereby completely missing the point.
So the shadows lengthen, and all color and liveliness and humor are washed away by a tide of grim grayness, thereby inevitably driving the market for such movies into the ground, because while they may be critical darlings, they’re just so damn depressing.
Don’t tell me this couldn’t happen. You know it could – which doesn’t mean it will, of course, but it could, very easily. The signs of the gathering storm are all around us. The question, therefore, is how and why have we embarked upon this teetering stroll along the edge of the abyss, and is there anything that can be done to stop it?
Well, hopefully, yes.
Let’s snoop around elsewhere for a minute. Farther afield, one might say.
You see, the focus of this article has so far has been on American movies – naturally enough, since they tend to be the major players when it comes to entertainment. But there are other markets and other producers for comic books and comic book films – Europe, for instance. Let us hop across the pond and see how they’re doing. Dark and gritty? Gray and gloomy?
Let’s look at some of their output lately, shall we? Five live-action Asterix films since ’99 with a sixth on the way next year, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, a turn-of-the-century adventure story with dinosaurs and mummies, two Mortadelo y Filemon films (based on a wacky espionage comedy series), two Werner films (based on a slice-of-life comedy series), George the Hedgehog, an anarchic comedy animated flick, Titeuf, a kid’s film – gosh! Refreshing, ain’t it?
Now, to be fair, I am cherry-picking a bit here; there are certainly a number of darker films that have also been coming out of Europe, but that’s still an impressive amount of more light-hearted material. And if you look back a bit, you’ll see that they’ve been doing just that sort of thing for a long time, with an impressive list of comedy and adventure films (a number of which, if I may indulge in grumpiness for a moment, have yet to be released over here. There are live-action Tintin flicks, people! Two of them! American Tintin fans wail for a US release!).
Still, you might say, perhaps this is a localized thing. Perhaps it’s something unique to the European character. Fair enough. Let us journey instead to Japan, where I have three words for you: Manga-inspired Anime.
I’m not even going to try to number all the Manga-adapted Anime the Japanese have created. The list is staggeringly long, even when restricted solely to films and leaving out the endless parade of TV series and OVAs. I’m also not going to try analyzing them in the way I did above, because it’s pointless – just about everyone reading this has already had a number of lighter, frothier Anime titles spring instantly to mind. There’s zillions of ‘em, and while, of course, there are just as many darker titles (some of them really, really dark, in ways that most American filmmakers haven’t dared even conceive of), zillions are still zillions.
I could continue this little round-the-world trip if I wanted, but you get the point. Suffice it to say that, while we Americans dominate the genre of comic book cinema with our gigantic super-mega-blockbusters, there are puh-len-ty of other such films being made, and they show far greater breadth of tone than ours, in recent years, have tended to. Light-hearted funnybook movies are alive and well and living in Paris, Tokyo, and Acapulco.
So how to explain it? What means this unexpected contrast?
Well, I could go into any number of different arguments here. I could point out that the Age of Camp was embraced with great zest in Europe, and perhaps left a greater and deeper mark on their cinematic stylings than on ours. I could talk about how Americans tend to take for granted that of course our big stuff is everybody’s big stuff, whereas in reality only some of it is, and that heavily influenced by pre-existing regional tastes, so it’s unreasonable to think that our current movie trends are reflected globally. I could analyze said regional tastes in great detail, and lay out a sort of comic book movie preference map, and come to a scientific conclusion that way.
I could do all of those things. But I’m not going to, because A: I don’t feel like writing a book about this, and B: I believe that ultimately a far simpler explanation is behind it all.
Here it is: the reason why comic book films are so different overseas is because their comics are different overseas. And that is due to how the comics reach people in the first place.
Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, there has always been a great variety in comic book genre/format/etc., even though certain books do tend to dominate the market. You’ve got your superheroes, of course, but you’ve also got the more alternative stuff, adventure comics, horror comics, westerns, humor, ‘funny animal’ books like the Disney comics, etc., etc. Such is the case worldwide.
But! But but but. They are not distributed in the same way worldwide. At any rate, they’re distributed very differently in the States than in most other places.
For years, you see, the main way US comics were marketed was through the venerable spinner rack. You walk into your local grocery store or what have you, and there were the comics, all just waiting for your perusal and for some cranky person to inform you that this wasn’t a library.
You wouldn’t, of course, find the cutting edge of challenging, gritty graphic storytelling in such a place. There’d be copies of Batman and Superman and Spider-Man and such, the various Archie books, the Harvey comics like Richie Rich, and, if you were lucky, the Disney stuff, Donald Duck or Uncle Scrooge or Walt Disney Comics and Stories. Ah, me… memories…
Er, hemm – ‘scuse me. As I was saying, for a broader range you went to the comic book store, which, theoretically, had everything. So there went the seasoned fans for their graphic novels and TPBs, and the casual reader would go to the spinner rack, or an aisle in the supermarket, or any of a number of other places where comics were sold.
Then something happened. I’m not exactly sure what; maybe distributors decided that comic book stores were simply more efficient. The point is, the comics disappeared from spinner racks and supermarkets – or at least, they have in my neck of the woods; maybe there are still a few outliers in some parts of the country, but in the majority of the US of A, from what I’ve gathered, it’s comic book stores or nothing.
Now, before making my next point, I’d just like to emphasize that I have nothing whatsoever against comic book stores. I’ve spent many a happy hour browsing through one or another, and they do serve a definite purpose. The problem is that… well. Let’s get a bit deeper into all this.
The US comic book industries’ major concern has always been how to satisfy old readers while bringing in new ones – and for a while there it seemed to be doing a pretty good job. But for a number of years now, readership has been on a downturn. From a medium that used to sell millions of copies as a matter of course, they now call a book a best-seller if it sells in the mid-to-high thousands.
Why? Simple – they’re depending on a cadre of loyal fans who have been buying their products for years, and will likely keep buying them no matter what. But these fans aren’t getting any younger, and meanwhile, the age that people start getting into comics is creeping upward. This is, quite frankly, a supposition on my part; I have no actual data to quote, but it does seem like most of the people talking about how they ‘just got into comics’ are in their teens and/or twenties. So, naturally enough, books are aimed more and more at this age-group and those above it, with the result that less and less of them are written for those below it. Hence comics get darker and darker, and their readership gets more and more select, and all the while they’re scrambling to find ways to attract a youth demographic that just doesn’t seem to be attracted. The big money, finally looping things back around to the main topic, is in movies and spin-off media, and since said movies are expected to reflect the source material – ta-da! They get darker and darker.
Here’s my answer. Comic book stores only really came into their own after it had been established that there was a sufficiently large and mature enough fanbase for comics that the publishers could take a chance on selling books specifically for them. And to a fairly large degree, they have remained this way – the stores are largely places run by fans who order based on the tastes of other fans. As such, they clearly cater to fans, that is to say, people who are already connoisseurs of the material as opposed to casual readers – and when you start out, everyone is a casual reader.
Think about it. By cutting off comics as an easily-available product sold most everywhere, publishers have also cut off a major source of revenue – beginners, which usually means kids, as in little kids. Gone are the days when an eight-year old tagging along with his mom to the grocery store can beg her to buy him a comic book; now you’ve got to go to the comic book store for such a thing, and there is less and less there for this hypothetical eight-year old, unless you count spin-off comics from TV shows. Kids certainly frequent comic book stores (although mainly, from what I’ve seen, to purchase Yu-gi-oh cards and the like), but they are an increasingly intimidating place for the very young. Hence, they don’t go there; hence, since they have few other places to get comics, the chances of them getting into comics before their teenage years set in become slimmer and slimmer. (Unless you count Manga, which does seem to be pretty popular among younger readers, but we’re talking American comics here.) Hence their (or their parents’) dollar doesn’t really factor into sales anymore, hence lower sales of all-ages stuff, hence the continued, shrinking focus on the older demographic, hence dark dark dark, which results in movies of the same stripe. Are we all on the same page here? Right-o.
OK, I’m going to have to quantify my next statement because I’ve never actually bought comics outside of the US before, so if anyone knows better, please correct me and I’ll refute it. However. It is my impression, based on various bits of research, that the rest of the world has not done away with the humble spinner rack/supermarket/what have you method of comics distribution. In most, if not all, other countries where comics are at all popular, you can get ‘em all over the place, maaaaaan.
This is not to say that comic book stores do not exist outside of the US – they certainly do, and there are a wide variety of more mature books ready and waiting to fill them. But there are also lots and lots of kid-friendly comics, and those you can find just about anywhere. Europe and Scandinavia, for instance, are hooked on their Disney comics, as are such varied countries as Brazil, Egypt and India – and while I’m not enough of a Manga expert to go into a list of more family-friendly titles out there, a quick check shows that there are plenty.
And so the entire spectrum is covered in profuse splendor, whereas in the US we focus more and more on one end of the color wheel to the detriment of the other three-quarters. So our comic book movies grow darker and greyer and dingier while our books wither away and are ravaged by stupid attention-grabbing storylines that wreck our favorite characters, while overseas the populace enjoys both dark and bright, and their comics flourish and are well-respected as a part of their cultural heritage.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t this way, up until comparatively recently. True, America has always held divergent views from the rest of the world regarding how much respect comic books deserve, but go back and look at that little potted history I gave at the beginning. Our comics and comic book movies were as variegated as anybody’s for a long damn time, and we’ve produced more than our fair share of respectable classics in both areas. For crying out loud, comics as we know them are an American invention, and while I’m not 100% certain that the same applies to filmic adaptation of them, I’d be willing to bet that it does. It is absolutely shameful that we have lagged so far behind.
So how to stop this, on and offscreen? How to avoid being buried beneath an avalanche of grim and bleak, and restore color and liveliness to the characters that truly need them?
Well, so far as the exact specifics, I do not know. But basically, what we need is a return to the spinner rack. We need better access across the board – certainly darker, more mature comics are an important part of the medium, but while we prove that comics are indeed not just for kids (which is something we’ve been far too insecure about for a good long while, if you ask me), we need to acknowledge that kids must be part of the medium’s future if it is to survive. We do have many regular bookstores that stock all-ages comics; that’s a good start, and they need encouragement, but it’s not enough. It’s a drop of water in the bucketful that we’ll need to scrub away the grime.
The only way that this is going to work is if it’s a grassroots movement, a vote-with-your-wallets sort of thing. After all, the publishers are responding to us; so long as we keep buying crap, they’ll keep making crap. Insist on quality and variety; drop the books that offend such standards like a hot potato, and support ones that do. Furthermore, don’t just buy from comic book stores (or digital comics, which are largely put out for the same market) if you have an option – if there is a market or grocery store that by some miracle is still selling comics, get them there when you can, and maybe others will pay attention and start doing the same. Seek out the good stuff for purchase online. Sign petitions – I don’t know.
I’m no organizer, folks, but I do know that such things can be turned around if enough people raise their voices. We had a vibrant, thriving comic book industry in this country once; we can have it again. It’s not just a matter of keeping the big boys in cash, either; it’s a matter of keeping the medium that we love in good shape so that it may be there for our children and their children after that, so that it may truly be for everybody. And that’s in the long run; in the short run it will also insure that we get A: good comics and B: good movies, and cartoons, and TV shows, and generally good spin-off media from those comics. We’ve had some good ones, but they can be better. It’s up to us to make them better.
So… yeah. That’s the article, otherwise known as ‘when Deneb starts thinking, it’s sometimes difficult for him to stop’. But anyway. Look to the future, people. Maybe someday you’ll walk out of your local theater with a beaming grin on your face, and run into a friend with a comic under his arm and a beaming grin on his face, and, in unison, both of you will pop your thumbs skyward and exclaim ‘BEST… EVER!’
And you’ll both be right.