Friday, January 18, 2013

Second time's the charm part 01: When X-Men, not Batman, spawned a golden age of comic book movies.

This is one of three pieces that delve into something that has frankly puzzled me over the years.  In brief, we've seen occasions where a massively, seemingly influential blockbuster that completely failed to spawn successful imitators.  Yet some years later, another somewhat similar film would end up unleashing a wave of proverbial copycats.  What is it about the second successful at-bat that spurred the studios (and of course paying audiences) in a way the first time did not?  The first of these three pieces will deal with the comic book film in the aftermath of Batman. Remember all of those smash-hit comic book adaptations brought on by the success of Tim Burton's Batman back in June of 1989?  Oh right, there weren't any.  Yes, I will always argue that Batman changed the movie industry and basically kick-started the whole idea of shaping various non-traditional properties for big-screen adaptations (something I'll touch upon yet again in a later essay), but it did not usher in a new golden age of comic book films.  

The first major comic book film, released a mere nine months later (which means it was in pre-production by the time Batman was released in theaters), was New Line Cinema's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  That film was of course a massive hit, grossing $130 million in the US off a huge $25 million opening weekend (a figure that was in the top ten debuts of all time, if not the top five).  But after that and the disappointment-in relation-to cost Dick Tracy (which opened to $21 million and slowly crawled to $100 million in June 1990), pretty much every other major comic book adaptation aside from the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel ($88 million in 1991) and the various Batman sequels all tanked.

The only real smash comic book adaptation post TMNT was Men In Black, which was sold on its concept and the star power of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones rather than its origins as a cult comic book that no one had heard of.  That was July 1997 and the next big would-be comic book hit was Blade in August 1998.  While the film was surely the first time a Marvel Comics film hit it big, and it was arguably the start of the current modern-day comic book film sub-genre, it was arguably sold simply as a 'watch Wesley Snipes fight vampires' action thriller as opposed to, again, an adaptation of a comic book that most general audiences hadn't heard of.  The film that truly kicked off the comic book movie trend, eleven years after Batman, was of course Bryan Singer's X-Men.  In its footsteps followed Spider-Man, Batman Begins, Iron Man and the less impressive but still profitable likes of Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider.

Of course, the failure of Batman to bring about a wave of new Spider-Man or Green Lantern movies isn't just a case of perhaps the technology not quite being there or legal rights being tangled up in proverbial webs.  If you go back and watch Tim Burton's Batman, you'll notice something very interesting about it.  It's basically a 1940's period piece.  Oh sure there are bits and pieces of 'modern technology', most of it possessed by Bruce Wayne himself.  But the color scheme, the costume designs (trench coats and fedoras), the weapons (pistols and Tommy-guns), plus the hard-boiled narrative all point to an old-school film noir that just happens to have a man in a giant bat suit and a mobster who gets turned into a homicidal clown.  Yes, especially in its first third, Batman basically plays like a 1930s/1940s Warner Bros. gangster picture.  It arguably gets more modern as it progresses (Carl Grissom's henchmen go from wearing suits and trench coats to wearing leather jackets when working for The Joker), but the film has a sensibility that doesn't so much render it timeless (save for the three Prince songs that play during the film) but a rather authentic adaptation of the first three years or so of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger 'The Bat-Man" comic book stories.

Why this is important is that it explains the kind of comic book/superhero films that we did see after Batman.  With the noted exception of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pretty much every would-be 'next Batman' was a 1930s or 1940s-set period adventure film. Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom all followed in Burton's footsteps, and all were financially disappointing, if not outright bombs.  The other comic book adaptations we saw were explicitly futuristic and/or post-apocalyptic in nature, but they too (Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Barbed Wire, etc.) also met unfortunate box office ends.  Ironically one of the first bursts of light in the genre came from Spawn, which was among the rare post-Batman comic book adaptations which depended on fans of the source material which also actually took place in the relative present-tense.  It was also one of the first major post-Batman comic book films that actually had fans of the source material actually clamoring for a movie version.  If you clearly look at the films that followed Batman and the films that followed Blade and X-Men, you see a quite literal shift in time.

Following the second and much more successful run of comic book films from 2000 up to the present, so consistent was the whole time period issue that it was a genuine shock when we had two period piece comic book adaptations not just being released but being released over the same summer (2011, with X-Men: First Class and Captain America).  Even the eventual Batman reboot was based firmly in the present day, which was arguably a big part of its appeal. What you also saw were film adaptations of comic books that audiences actually had token knowledge of.  It took us over a decade, but we spent the 2000's and beyond finally getting the big-budget film versions of the comic books we actually cared about (Spider-Man, X-Men, Superman, Green Lantern, etc.).  Batman led to a wave of minor-league characters (or long-forgotten icons) getting the big-screen treatment while the few attempts at A-level characters went straight-to-VHS (The Punisher, Captain America) or to episodic television (CBS's The Flash).  Eleven years after BatmanX-Men led the charge of seeing comic book movies for the major leagues, the ones that audiences actually wanted to see in movie-form.

Other than merely acknowledging this oddity, I have to wonder just what happened.  Was it merely a case of certain characters being tied up in legal rights issues?  Was it the subliminal suggestion that audiences who flocked to Batman wanted more superhero movies that look and felt like they took places in the 1930's or 1940's, film versions of the characters that their parents and grandparents grew up on as opposed to big-budget versions of the modern day comic legends?  I don't know and I don't want to speculate too much.  But it is indeed an oddity that Batman didn't usher in a golden age of comic book cinema despite its record-breaking box office success.  The legacy of Tim Burton's Batman is a strange and complicated one, but it is merely one example of a massive box office success that did not inspire the kind of successful imitation that one might expect in its wake.   

Scott Mendelson


John Osberger said...

I would argue that Batman itself barely qualifies as a "comic book adaptation." I think by the time the movie was released, Batman had a larger foundation in pop culture with the 60's TV show and Super Friends (I was 15/16 in 1989 and the comic books were low on the list when I thought of the character). While Burton's intention was to make a comic book adaption, the public's perception was likely different.

Brandon Peters said...

If you're going to argue by that logic...then Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Captain America and one could argue X-Men don't qualify as "comic book adaptations" either

Janie Clayton-Hasz said...

I was growing up at that point in time and most of my knowledge of comic books came from cartoons that were created in the early 90's (Batman the Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, etc...).

I personally believe that Batman spawned an interest in exploring the universe, but no one wanted to commit to doing a movie and so the comics were adapted into the less prestigious and less costly medium of children's cartoons. Then, when those children grew up and because film consumers, there was a market for X-Men, Spider-Man, and a decent Batman reboot.

PB210 said...

(To make it clear, the producer of the '60's TV show, William Dozier, did not do this out of any love for comic books-he found them silly and childish, I guess due to the aforementioned boy sidekick in pixie shoes and shaved legs. However, the station told him to adapt a comic book and he followed orders. The reason Dozier went easy on the Green Hornet had to do with the Green Hornet starting as a radio show and generally having mundane adventures thereon.)

PB210 said...

I would guess that as some of the films that followed Batman did not have the huge marketing push that that film received. To put it bluntly, that shoddily written, shoddily directed film received the brute force of WB's marketing effort. (I saw it prior to the age of nine and it did not win me over.)

"The film has a sensibility that doesn't so much render it timeless (save for the three Prince songs that play during the film) but a rather authentic adaptation of the first three years or so of the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger 'The Bat-Man" comic book stories".

No, it did not. He did not wear armor in the early tales, he had a boy sidekick in pixie shoes and shaved legs after one year, he spewed off silly puns, had little angst, etc. Bob Kane later stated that he felt Val Kilmer embodied the role closer to his vision than Keaton, as a sort of suave Don Diego Vega (Zorro), not a neurotic recluse.

Over some other points:

The Shadow started as a pulp or radio show property. That deserves another essay; to compare how the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Tarzan, Conan, the Lone Ranger, etc. have done in more recent decades compared to the indigenous comic book properties. (Of the pulp and radio show heroes, only Zorro, as I recall, has had a film which did not incur a loss on its domestic theatrical release; The Mask of Zorro had budget of about $60 and grossed $94 million domestically.) Disney ought to have read such an essay before spending so much money on its recent Lone Ranger adaptation.

Dick Tracy and the Phantom started as, and remain newspaper comic strip properties. That deserves an article-why have recent adaptations of comic strips such as Flash Gordon (1980) generally not kept pace with comic book adaptations? Flash Gordon already had a pornographic homage in the 1970's (Flesh Gordon), long prior to the X-Men or The Avengers receiving one. (I do not recommend watching such films, of course.)

Incidentally, that Box Office Mojo list of comic book adaptations you link to elsewhere annoying lists (or used to list) several properties that started in other media such as radio/pulps. I find that odd, since how come they do not include Star Wars? Star Wars has several comic books, and some parts of Star Wars (Princess Leia's pastry shaped hair buns, the Ewoks, Jar-Jar Binks, etc.) look as silly as Robin's pixie shoes and shaved legs. (I wondered why Star Wars did not discourage the more 'real people in real cities with real guns' variation that were once considered the "A" pictures style of adventure film you refer to elsewhere. Stallone now blames Keaton for ruining his style of adventure film-why does he not blame Mark Hammill?)

PB210 said...

Of course, if one includes Flash Gordon as within the ambit of "comic book films" then one might as well include Star Wars, which derives from Flash Gordon.

PB210 said...

Perhaps the success of Indiana Jones and to a lesser degree the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman (whose first season took place during World War II) inspired period piece approach for the Phantom (whose strip updates itself, having run without interruption since 1936 to present) in the 1996 film and Dick Tracy in the 1990 film (same situation, from 1931 to present). (Of course, the Shadow has largely not had new prose adventures since the 1960's tales by Dennis Lynds.)

Someone observed this to compare and contrast the reception of those period piece adventure films:

There's another difference between RAIDERS and these other films (besides the
fact that it's just a better film, I mean)... TEN YEARS. Seriously, those ten
years make a big difference; in the early 1980's, your average moviegoer under
25 would have been exposed to the old movies,and to a lesser degree, the pulp
fiction, that inspired RAIDERS (remember, there was a bit of a nostalgia craze
in the 1970's, and although it was focused on the Fifties, there was also some
renewed interest in the Thirties, with films like THE STING and reprints of guys
like Robert E. Howard). By the 1990's, reruns of black-and-white movies were
almost non-existant, and the whole CONCEPT of "nostalgia" had been co-opted.

Later comic book based films seem to emphasize modern slang and music, which obviously a period piece film set in the 1930's or 1940's would less obviously do.


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