Comic book films generally start as feature adaptations that spawn at least two sequels. One of those sequels often sets up a spinoff feature film for a particular character or team featured in the original movie. An emerging trend seems to be that if a comic book film is made less than a decade ago chances are good it will be “rebooted” (e.g. Superman Returns and the Spider-Man series), and the process will start all over again.
Comic book films must deal with a unique dichotomy – hold true to the original works on which they are based to live up to the expectations of comic book fans and be adaptations that appeal to moviegoers who don’t read comics.
Perhaps the more popular and mainstream the comic book character, the more successful a feature film based on that character is likely to be. The enduring, pop culture phenoms like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman are well known to many whether fans of the comics or not. These characters have been on the small screen in live action and animated form, as well as on the big screen in several adaptations over many decades. They are familiar and their stories are well known, and maybe that’s why movies like The Dark Knight, Spider-Man and Superman, starring the late Christopher Reeve, garnered great success and are considered good comic book films. Movies about lesser known superheroes like Daredevil, Scott Pilgrim and Jonah Hex suffered dismal showings and recorded disappointing numbers in comparison. On the flip side, Iron Man isn’t considered a well-known superhero, yet Iron Man is among the highest grossing comic book adaptations made thus far. In the case of Iron Man, all of the pieces came together and did so very, very well.
Selling a movie is about far more than capitalizing on popularity and familiarity, of course. So much goes into building buzz and movie studios must be diligent on the business side in order for films to be successful. Good casting, a strong script and great special effects are the ultimate culmination of the entire enterprise. Before the payoff, attention must be paid to delivering strong marketing campaigns that will generate appeal both in domestic and foreign markets to prop up lesser known brands. Last week, the latest comic book movie – Green Lantern – opened to mediocre numbers grossing a mere $53.2 million, a modest start for a movie about a lesser known superhero that cost nearly $300 million to make. Preceding Green Lantern were Thor and X-Men: First Class, which earned decent numbers, but combined have earned less than what Iron Man grossed at the same time three years ago.
Popularity and familiarity might be one reason certain comic book films gross more than other films of the same genre, and perhaps another cause of the mediocrity of certain films is the over saturation of superhero films today. There are just too many comic book film adaptations and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make films that pack as big a punch as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Those huge successes have fueled the drive in production of comic book cinematic fare to the point of overcrowding the market. It’s the old adage: strike while the iron is hot. Yet, flooding the industry with comic book adaptations has resulted in unremarkable movies falling short and losing face against some of their juggernaut heavy hitting counterparts.