Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Decade in Review: Conquering Hollywood

Welcome to the latest in our occasional series looking back at the themes, events and personalities that shaped the last decade in comics. Last time we discussed the rise of the event book as the primary mover within the mainstream comic book (and specifically superhero) industry. Today we take a look at a development that has far larger cultural and fiscal ramifications for comics: the conquering of Hollywood.

Movies based on comics books are nothing new, of course; starting in the late 70's, the Superman films remained popular for over a decade. And just when that franchise was wrapping up, the Batman films kicked off. During the 90's, as the Batman line devolved into kitsch, films began mining comics for lesser known properties such as Men in Black. But while comic films were a viable part of the Hollywood strategy, they were just one minor aspect of the industry, barely more than a cultural footnote. Something was missing.

That something, as it turned out, was Marvel. Just as they revolutionized the comic industry in the early 1960's, Marvel helped lead an overhaul not just of the comic adaptation ghetto but of the movie industry in general and pop culture as a whole. Beginning with 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man, Marvel properties pushed the boundaries of what was possible with comic movies (teams, for instance, rather than just solo heroes) while also redefining the box office; the $403 million brought in by Spider-man was at the time the fifth highest gross in movie history.

Where there's that kind of money, of course, imitators will follow. And while not every comic book movie has been a critical or commercial success (see: Catwoman, Elektra, et al), studios have turned more and more to comics for both big budget superhero franchises as well as smaller budget action adaptations (Wanted, for example).

As the appeal of comic films has broadened, so too has the influence of comic fans increased. Nowhere is this better seen than with the ascension of the San Diego Comic Con, which over the past decade has evolved form a mid-sized gathering of comic fans into the premiere movie event of the year, with studios falling over each other to present bigger and splashier previews of their upcoming sci-fi films and TV shows. If osmehting is a hit at Comic Con, it's likely going to make money at the box office; and if it is a flop, then, lookout below. And with the advent of instant feedback social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, the buzz from Comic Con spreads across the globe instantaneously: two of the biggest hits of the decade, 2008's The Dark Knight and Iron Man, rode massive Comic Con buzz to box office history.

Which makes one aspect of the rise of comic movies somewhat difficult to understand: while the characters and films are more popular than ever, the comic books themselves are selling at an unprecedentedly low rate, with sales continuing to hemorrhage even as potential buyers flock to the megaplex for the latest blockbuster. For whatever reason, widespread popularity and cultural influence have not yet translated into a rise in sales, something that publishers will need to figure out sooner rather than later.

For the time, though, it now seems as though the value of comic books to the publishers lies not in the comics themselves, but rather in the potential marketing opportunities those comics create. Because of this, the popularity of comic book movies has had the strange side effect of actually devaluing the comics themselves and potentially handcuffing creators of properties in development (though this is not always the case; Marvel, for example, allowed Iron Man to be portrayed as a fascist wing-nut in the comics at the same time production on the Iron Man feature film was progressing).

But perhaps because of this dichotomy, publishers are being forced to take drastic measures to protect their new primary source of income, and again, it's Marvel leading the way. The creation of Marvel Studios was one of the biggest gambles in recent Hollywood memory, with Marvel borrowing some $500 million to produce their own films in-house, a move necessitated by the fact that under their old deals for the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises, they were receiving only a small flat fee and a tiny percentage of earnings, while the studios raked in the money off of their properties (and yes, this can be seen as ironic considering those characters in turn were created on a work for hire basis for Marvel by creators who weren't seeing a dime from Marvel in return). But with their comics sagging, Marvel had few other options, as they needed the revenue streams their characters were generating to stay in house.

In turn, of course, the popularity of Marvel's films convinced Disney that, again, the characters (and not the actual comic books) were now iconic and popular enough to warrant a buyout. It has been widely speculated that Disney's purchase of Marvel won't affect the publishing arm and why should it: after all, in the grand scheme of things, the comics are now little more than an afterthought, a petri dish for the next actionable ideas to come from. What Disney was getting was access to those ideas -- a huge backlog of characters, concepts and properties that, if the last decade is any indicator, may well provide Hollywood with the next massive pop culture hits and worldwide blockbusters. The next big test is coming up in 2012, when The Avengers is scheduled to hit theaters. And if that experiment -- bringing a comic-style shared universe onto the big screen for the first time in movie history -- turns out to be a success, then comic movies and Marvel may just manage to change the way people think of movies and what kinds of stories can be told in film.

And if that happens, then the amazing successes of the last decade will be little more than a prologue to the real show. We hope you like comic movies, because we have a feeling you'll be getting a lot more for a long time to come.

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