Error Has Occurred Please Reboot

The literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was once quoted as saying “Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.”0 It is certain the 18th century writer had no idea just how true this idea would hold to the 21st century film industry; or for that fact what a motion picture is. The North American film industry generated a whopping $10.36 billion (USD)1 in box office sales in 2014. With such a large revenue stream it’s no wonder that film studios are looking to the past to determine which films will bring them the largest chunk of those sales. One of the most popular choices in the early 21st century has been adapting comic books into hugely successful big budget movies. There’s also an enormous number of existing comic books to choose as source material. However even with the immense number of comic books to choose from why is it that film studios choose to focus only on a handful of comic book series?

Film adaptations of comic books are far from a 21st century idea. The first North American comic book movie (excluding film serials) was Superman and the Mole Men, which debuted in 19512. It’s worth noting that this standalone movie, like the Superman comic book before it, spurred an international trend of standalone comic book movies focusing almost exclusively on super hero comics. In fact every decade since 1950 has seen as least one major comic book film release3. It’s also worth noting that nearly all of these films are based on super hero comics. With over a half century spent making comic book films, you would think it would be hard to make a comic book movie that hasn’t been done already. However there are far more than enough comic books and super heroes available to be adapted to film for a new, unique, movie to have been released every year since 1951. Film producers only seem interested in the top few characters and stories though. Comics of particularly interest are those that have already had success as a film or television adaptation; see the 15 Superman movies that have been made since 19514. Often these films go back to the start of a comic’s story. This is typically referred to as a reboot in the modern lexicon. While many of these comic book movie reboots have been great movies to watch there almost always was an original, and often horrific, first adaptation.

 

Many would consider the first hugely successful comic book movie reboot to be Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. The only prior comic book movie reboot was 20th Century Fox’s 1966 Batman starting Adam West. Batman notably opted to take a goofy rather than serious tone. The stark contrast between the goofy 1966 Batman and more serious 1978 Superman expertly demonstrated how careful changes in the tone allowed for much deeper characters and story while maintaining a highly successful movie. Richard Donner’s Superman was wildly successful, raking in over $134.2 million (USD) in gross domestic sales5. It had been 27 years since a Superman movie had been made4 but by definition the movie was still a reboot. One would think after such success film studios would be looking for other comic book super heroes to reboot with this new modern tone. However it seemed everyone but the film studios took notice of the excellence displayed in Richard Donner’s Superman reboot. Despite its huge success in comic and movie circles alike, the path paved by Superman wouldn’t see any other superhero’s for over a decade. After 11 years of Superman, director Tim Burton finally broke the cycle with his 1989 adaptation of Batman. Burton’s Batman in many ways was an even greater success than Donner’s Superman. We finally had proof that the Superman reboot wasn’t just a fluke. Other super hero comics could have movie reboots and still be a success. The stage was set for the 1990’s to be the decade of great comic book movies, but film studios had other ideas.

 

The 1990’s saw over 31 comic book movies3. Most of those movies ranged from bad to “oh god why!” Only a few decent gems can be found in Batman Returns, Blade, and Men in Black. None of these three movies lived up to the standard set by the 1989 Batman. They did however show the importance of preserving the basic character traits that are so crucial to a successful comic book. At the same time comic books saw an enormous jump in sales. At the start of the 1990’s film studios sought to capitalize on that trend. Unfortunately most comic book movies of the time were made utilizing little more than the character names from the original comics. They left behind many of the traits that made the characters so compelling. The idea was to produce fast and cheap movies that would at least break even from the fandom surrounding comic books. Film studios failed to realize that many of the enormous early 90’s comic book sales were going to individuals who didn’t even read, or care about, the content of the comic books. People in the speculator market were collecting big name comics hoping their appreciation in value over the years would allow for an early retirement6. What we were left with were subpar movie adaptations of comic books directed at a deceivingly large target audience. These terrible movies only added insult to injury when the comic book industry crashed in 1993, after over-saturation flooded the market with terrible comics6. A struggling comic book industry and movies that made no money dashed any hope of another great comic book movie in the future. Fortunately for comic book fans everywhere one movie, near single-handedly, ushered in a golden age of comic book movie reboots in the 2000’s.

 

The year 2000 saw a heated presidential race, relief from Y2K scares, and Brain Singer’s excellent film adaptation of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men. Building from the foundation set by Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, X-Men took on the task of recreating a host of characters and settings after the disaster of 1996’s Generation X. While comic book fans criticize X-Men for its portrayal of the character Rogue, Singer did an excellent job of clearly defining each other member of the X-Men’s unique defining character traits. The success of X-Men sparked a new rush for film studios to recreate movie adaptations of famous comic books. While the comic book film industry constantly threatened to fall back to the horrors of the 1990’s, it firmly separated itself from past failures with consistently excellent films such as V for Vendetta, Sin City, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and The Avengers. These heavily character driven stories reaffirmed that comic book movies could be highly successful and compelling ventures for film studios. More time and money were being funneled into creating great comic books and their movies than ever before. Never forgetting the past though film studios were quick to reboot heroes allowing them to build off the success of failures of previous movies.

 

As it stands in late-2015, comic book movies have never been more popular. Film studios are not only producing excellent comic book movies but many of these films are excellent movies in their own right. Rebooted film adaptations of comic books hold the records for 3 of the 5 highest grossing opening weekends in movie history7. Nearly half of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide are also rebooted comic book movies8. Nearly every comic book movie released today has been made before in the time since 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. Film studios have become specialized at taking known popular comic series and putting slightly modified characters in new settings to create an entirely new experience for viewers. Anyone that has compared movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises to the disasters that are 2003’s Daredevil or 2011’s Green Lantern should easily be able to identify why film studios often choose to reboot a comic book film rather than venture into a never before adapted comic series. At the end of the day film studios are around to make money and if there’s a low risk way to make millions of dollars, they’ll take it.

Sources:

  1. Urmetzer, Peter. “Marx, Globalization, and Modernity: What Is Old Becomes New Again.” In Globalization Unplugged Sovereignty and the Canadian State in the Twenty-first Century. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
  2. “North American Box Office Revenue 1980-2014 | Statistic.” Statista. 2015. Accessed October 11, 2015.
  3. Grossman, Gary H. Superman: Serial to Cereal. New York, New York: Popular Library, 1977.
  4. “List of Films Based on English-language Comics.” Wikipedia. October 7, 2015. Accessed October 11, 2015.
  5. “Superman in Film.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 11, 2015.
  6. “Superman (1978).” Box Office Mojo. Accessed October 11, 2015.
  7. Miller, John. “The 1900s: The Century in Comics.” CBGXtra. December 12, 2005. Accessed October 12, 2015.
  8. “Biggest Opening Weekends at the Box Office.” Box Office Mojo. Accessed October 12, 2015.
  9. “All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses.” Box Office Mojo. Accessed October 12, 2015.