In the last ten to fifteen years, comic book movies have been dominating the big screen. Seven major films adapting comic book characters debuted in theaters in 2017. Numerous television shows returned for another season or aired their first pilot.

Marvel has a film slate that goes well into the 2020s and is now in the process of realizing a film duology ten years in the making. WONDER WOMAN finally got her own amazing solo movie. Comic book fans everywhere are delighted. Superhero movie fatigue, who? But what is it about comic book adaptations that have them taking over the world?

Never Ending Potential

Here’s the obvious reason: comic books are serial. The principle here is the same one that drives film adaptations of popular book series if they hit the sweet spot of three or more installments. A serial property can grow forever and reboot whenever it suits a production company’s needs — the SPIDER-MAN films, anyone?

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The only true issue that crops up here is that actors aren’t immortal, no matter how much I wish Robert Downey, Jr. could play Tony Stark forever. When it comes to live-action films, this presents the opportunity to essentially keep introducing new characters.

The current MCU appears to be working on this as the original AVENGERS cast contracts start running out. In addition to comic book movies, the potential for live-action and animated television series are overwhelming. Marvel has their budding Netflix franchise and the occasional endeavor popping up on Hulu and Freeform. The Arrowverse is large and sprawling and successful, creating their own cross-over events.

SUPERMAN: The Start of Everything

In 1978, SUPERMAN arrived on the scene as the first big-budget comic book movie. At the time, the film’s budget of 55 million dollars was unparalleled. Christopher Reeve brought Clark Kent to life with an endearing timidness and his Superman alter-ego with a quiet humor and swelling confidence. Anyone remember the scene when Clark was about to tell Lois he was Superman?

SUPERMAN was a critical and commercial success, setting the stage for more superhero and comic book movies in a new age obsessed with sci-fi and fantastical elements. It proved people cared about admittedly goofy-looking characters dressed up in glorified underwear. After all, STAR WARS came to the big screen just before SUPERMAN.

However, the late ’80s and most of the ’90s would produce only moderately successful films that were pretty universally panned by critics. Marvel’s first true venture in the genre began with HOWARD THE DUCK in 1986 and nearly ended there. The film failed miserably. The immense success of BLADE in 1998 became part of the shift in the late ’90s heralding darker, more serious comic book movies and reviving the dead superhero genre.

Blade comic book movie
Blade. Image Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

It was especially good timing for Marvel, who spent most of this era frantically selling the rights to their properties in order to avoid bankruptcy. DC and Warner Brothers, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in any hero that wasn’t the 1986 BATMAN. The catastrophic failure of SUPERMAN IV: QUEST FOR PEACE had sufficiently scared production companies from trying out the superhero genre.

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The 2000s and the Recent Boom

There are more than a few reasons why the 2000s marked a crazy boom in comic book movies. The first, of course, is the new technology for special effects. Of the major sci-fi and superhero films we got in the ‘70s and ‘80s, few can overcome being dated by a modern audience’s expectation of technology.

SPIDER-MAN and the X-MEN movies were at the beginning of the 2000s comic book movie boom. SPIDER-MAN, in particular, had an effects budget of 100 million dollars — many of the web-slinging antics had to be carefully choreographed and then computer-generated. As the recent years have progressed, technology has only improved.

spider-man swinging on webs. comic book movies
So, how much of this computer-generated?

X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN got the ball rolling and reinvigorated the movie industry. In 2005, Christopher Nolan debuted a new dark and gritty BATMAN BEGINS. The trilogy’s second installment, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, won the late Heath Ledger an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the Joker.

Beyond being great adaptations, these were great movies. The success of these franchises motivated Paramount pictures to distribute Marvel’s self-financed film IRON MAN in 2008. The release of IRON MAN effectively changed the superhero movie game forever.

How Hard Is It to Make Comic Book Movies?

Short answer: pretty hard.

Adapting a comic book into a live-action movie is more than just recreating the individual panels. Characters most likely to get a film are usually the staple juggernauts like Superman, Batman, or Spider-man. However, the sheer volume of stories those characters are in can be overwhelming. The key to a great comic book film is to tell a story where the titular hero is true to their core values no matter the adventure.

Often times, the issue with a bad comic book movie is that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Films spend years in development hell before seeing the light of day. In 1992, Wesley Snipes pitched a BLACK PANTHER movie, but the project stalled again and again until the 2018 theatrical release. The DCEU’s film slate lists dozens of possible adaptations, half of which will never be made. 

The god-awful 2011 GREEN LANTERN movie lost the true essence of Hal Jordan’s loveable asshole space cop due to far-removed executives chopping everything away. When it finally hit theaters, it was boring. Now that we’ve seen Ryan Reynolds as DEADPOOL, it’s almost criminal how unfunny GREEN LANTERN was.

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The creation of the cinematic universe has the added safety net of, eventually, becoming established. The reason Marvel was able to take risks with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (whoever thought that movie would do as well as it did?) and ANT-MAN is that they’ve hammered out a relatively foolproof formula for a comic book movie adaptation.

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Fostering a New Generation

Hundreds of fans spring into existence with the release of every new comic book movie. The original SUPERMAN movie’s beloved by a generation of fans who grew up with Christopher Reeve. The MCU has been around long enough to see children grow into teenagers and young adults — much like the current iteration of Peter Parker. The SPIDER-MAN movies are a defining part of my childhood, as are the JUSTICE LEAGUE  and TEEN TITANS animated cartoons.

The greatest squad of all time.

BLACK PANTHER experienced a crazy amount of success because an entire demographic saw themselves on screen in ways they hadn’t before. WONDER WOMAN gave us a story fueled by hope and love to contrast the grimdark atmosphere of superpowered crime-fighting. Comic book movies are being cranked out like no tomorrow because people want them.

Plus, they’re a total cash cow.

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