Days of Future Past: A Look at Comic Book Films

4 Jul

Originally published on B Channel News in the Summer of 2011 by Ed Sum. This article is reprinted here for archival purposes and revised to revisit the films introduced in 2013.

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Comic book films are very often a tough sell in a mass market that’s picky about what they like seeing. While Hollywood sees the medium as a readymade—a product that comic book readers are familiar with—to attract new converts requires a product that has to be easily accessible, if not understandable.

“For example, Walking Dead, flies off the shelves like bats looking for human flesh,” says Steven Saunders, a comic book writer and columnist for the industry for five years, “and Robert Kirkman takes concepts that’s been overdone and he makes it interesting.”

But with the box office these days, originality only goes so far. Saunders used to write for All The Rage, a gossip column about the comic book industry on Comics Bulletin and he would rather go watch the movie than to follow 40 years of comic book continuity.

Gareth Gaudin, the creator of his own comic, Perogy Cat, and owner of Legends Comics, believes that a good film should be delivered through a very rigorous series of well-considered choices. “There should be an awareness of what comic books have actually become, than that hackneyed mentality of the medium. That stopped in 1966 with the bam, boom, pow of [Adam West’s] Batman,” says Gaudin.

Comic books have been around since the mid 40′s, but to compress it all down to a few hours, or a series of movies, depends on the popularity of the character and just how engrained that hero is to the public conscious. Gaudin also notes that some of the bigger successes tend to be from the most obscure sources. 300, Sin City and Hellboy all came out of the relative ‘underground’ years of Dark Horse Comics.

Skewed and Reviewed movie and videogame critic Gareth Von Kallenbach points out that, “so-called” fan boys have an attitude with studios of talking a big game, but not laying down the money to support a film. He also had a studio person tell him once that the notion that they have passion for a film is good. “But getting butts in the movie theatre seat is the goal,” says Kallenbach, “and the thought is that while some will pay the money, the demographic is too select and too volatile. [These fan-boys] will flame it online if it is not the be all and end all of films.”

“Outside of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man many comics appeal to a select group. This can limit their box office in North America to about 125-150 million tops,” continues Kallenbach, “When you go for big budgets, your margins are thin as films like Green Lantern will have to wait to DVD to turn a profit.”

With this year’s crop of films, where this film genre will succeed will depend on what the fans want.

“But it’s more about cross promotion and the product can be enjoyed more by spinning it in new directions,” says Saunders.

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Saunders is referring to the changes that’s often done in the cinematic version of the comic book and he freely admits to enjoying director Ang Lee’s version of The Hulk. “There is a lot of pathos in it, and there wasn’t a very complex origin story for Banner and the Hulk,” says Saunders.

Gaudin’s list of favourites tends not to include origin stories but even he admits that they’re a required staple for any first film of a series. He’s more concerned about the industry machine churning out a decent story. When asked about Ang Lee’s Hulk, he thinks that the majority of these failures will be overlooked.

“That is, until some powerful tastemaker tells the Internet that it’s okay to like that product after all,” surmises Gaudin.

Kallenbach thought Hulk was doomed because of a terrible script. “Also the success of the TV show was hard to follow as they did such a good job with the duality of Banner and The Hulk. It was hard not to compare it to the series,” continues this critic, ”By contrast Ed Norton’s version had stronger characters, a better bad guy, better effects, and much better storyline.”

But when people start scratching their heads, especially with heroes like Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, and the unsung heroes from Cowboys and Aliens gracing the silver screen in 2011, at least these three industry insiders agree that the story is important. And if the origin story is complicated and convoluted; it’s a good idea to shorten it. Advance to 2013, Iron Man, Thor and Wolverine are slated to return. Now that the origins are explained, writers can get to penning a good story. So far, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel has delivered.

The appeal of these movies really depends on how well it’s written. And with Saunders and Gaudin both being a writers themselves, they can certainly understand that the transition from comic book to film is difficult.

“I think this is why so many of Stan Lee’s characters have become so legendary,” says Kallenbach, “He is not afraid to show their flaws so despite their powers; people relate to them easier than D.C. boy scouts.”

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