Heroes, Villains, and Superpowers: How Comic-book Characters Work in Film


[Editor’s Note: This is another very lengthy paper I wrote my Sophomore year that details the history and trend of Superheros in film.  As with some of the other papers here, I have chosen not to edit it down for the blog, but have kept it in its entirety.  Feel free to skim.  If you were looking for the post that addresses a single scene in Superman Returns, here]

What causes a cinematic trend?  How many similarly styled movies must be successful before it is considered a marketable genre?  Superhero movies have had a unique balance of successes and failures, but economic prospects for the possibilities of endless sequels and spinoffs lead movie studios to continually greenlight new movies based on comic book source material.

The potential for real success in the Superhero genre was first demonstrated with Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), which showed critics that all a comic-based film needed, was a heartfelt script and quality actors to legitimize its transition into a so-called higher art form.  But after the film’s third sequel, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) failed to capture either critical or box-office success, it was thought that superhero movies were done.  The next two decades would prove something else entirely. (Burns)

In 1989, producers Peter Guber and John Peters finally convinced Warner Brothers to greenlight Batman for $40 million helmed by a then semi-unknown director named Tim Burton.  Burton’s unique vision turned colorful characters and a ridiculous plot into a blockbuster that was well received by audiences and critics alike.  In similar fashion to the Superman franchise, the Batman series lost its audience ten years later with Joel Shumacher’s Batman and Robin.  But once again, superheroes were revived on film with Marvel’s X-Men and Spiderman franchises.  (Shadows of the Bat) (Making the Amazing)

The advent of photo-realistic computer-generated effects has also been influential in the recent success of the superhero genre.  When one compares Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk as portrayed in Ang Lee’s The Hulk (2003) or Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008) to the television show of the 1980’s, one can easily determine which is more believable.  This is only one of many examples in which modern visual effects have made possible for cinematic storytelling purposes the ‘superpowers’ of comic-book heroes.

For instance, in Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003), the original intention was to use as many practical effects as possible, utilizing a sense of onscreen reality.  However, the crew quickly found that there are some stunts, such as diving 80 feet from one tall building to another smaller one, that simply look fake if performed with a real stuntman on wires.  Ironically, the final version of that shot as seen in the movie looks more realistic, despite being completely computer-generated.

But there is no established standard of what makes some superhero films successful, while others (which appear to use the same adaptation tactics) will be box-office flops.  Why is it that audiences and critics alike will so whole-heartedly accept some superhero films, while dismissing some others entirely?  And why is it that one film can make a significant amount of money, and be considered a box-office failure, while other films can make significantly less money and warrant multiple sequels?  The prime comparison here is between Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Superman Returns. In the year 2000, X-Men made $300 million worldwide, and has since spawned two sequels, one prequel, and at least three more spin-offs in development at Twentieth Century Fox.  But Singer’s Superman film was considered a failure, despite having made nearly $400 million dollars worldwide; over ninety million more than X-Men.  (Box Office Mojo)  And while it is true that audience reaction to Superman Returns was generally more negative than toward X-Men, it is also true that critical reaction to Superman Returns was more positive than toward X-Men. On the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted rating scale for movies, X-Men received a 7.4 out of 10, whereas, Superman Returns only received a score of 6.6 out of 10.  (IMDB)  Whereas in Rotten Tomatoes’ compilation of top critic’s reviews for the two films, X-Men received a 61% and Superman Returns received a 73%.  (Rotten Tomatoes)  Even a peer of Singer’s, director Quentin Tarantino, is a huge fan of Superman Returns.  He has told the New York Times that he is twenty-pages into a review of the film, and still isn’t done. (New York Times)

But unfortunately, as with other genres, the studios that finance comic-based movies are primarily concerned with the economic bankability of certain characters, and only slightly concerned with producing quality films.  In the case of X-Men, the prospects of a sequel were quite good.  When it came out in the year 2000, the market was fairly open, and audiences were paying to see almost any adaptation of a superhero-type character.  But by 2006, Superman Returns was only one of many comic-based movies for audiences to choose from.  And given that the movie resolved all internal conflict and character arcs by the end of its third act, there was very little business motivation in producing a sequel.

The interesting thing about the X-Men/Superman Returns conflict is that between X-Men: The Last Stand, and Superman Returns, there was actually a swap of directors behind the scenes.  Bryan Singer had originally promised to direct the third X-Men film for Fox, but when Warner Bros. disapproved of Brett Ratner’s approach to the Superman character, and offered Singer the chance to direct; he saw it as an opportunity that he could not miss.  Then, since Fox had no director for X-Men 3, and Brett Ratner had nothing to direct, the two paired up to make X-Men: The Last Stand. (Entertainment Weekly)

It is worthy of note to observe that even if a movie based on a certain character does poorly at the box-office, the studio behind the film will still produce more movies based on the character, and simply alter styles.  For instance, Ang Lee’s The Hulk (2003) and Jonathon Hensleigh’s The Punisher (2004) both underperformed compared to the respective studios’ expectations, and both characters’ franchises were rebooted in 2008.  What this proves is that audiences are not selective of the characters they pay to see, but of the types of movies in which these characters appear in.

There is much question as to why superheroes currently have such resonance in our culture.  Since cgi explosions and fantastic fight scenes are as common on film as unblemished faces in a teenage magazine, there must be something else about the genre that attracts such a variety of moviegoers.  In my opinion, a very strong case can be made for the wide reach of a superhero’s psychological motivation.  One of the chief goals in any film is to have a character’s external struggles mirror their internal ones.  In the case of nearly every superhero, this trait is a default.

The character of Batman, for instance, bases his entire motivation for dressing up in an animal costume and beating up criminals on the fact that his parents were murdered in front of him while he was a young boy.  In the comics, the murderer was never identified.  Thus, his whole crime-fighting career is based on catching, ‘the one that got away.”  In Tim Burton’s 1989 re-envisioning of the character, it is the Joker who murders Bruce Wayne’s parents.  This means that in the climax of the film, when Batman is fighting the Joker on top of a Cathedral, the internal struggle and external struggle find mutual conclusion.

In the case of Sam Raimi’s first Spiderman film, Peter Parker’s internal struggle is always closely related to an external struggle in recent history.  For instance, in an early scene, Peter is shown to be a somewhat bullied, totally awkward high school student.  But while he is on a field trip, he is bitten by a genetically mutated spider, and finds that he suddenly has enhanced strength and agility.  This gives him an edge over a bully and also a chance to finally impress the girl of his dreams, Mary Jane.  But other external situations put him at unique points where his internal decision is crucial.  When Peter’s uncle Ben is murdered, he chooses to chase down the killer immediately.  When the two are face-to-face, Peter’s internal desires would lead him to kill the man out of revenge, but right as he gets his chance, the man falls out a window to his death.  This is the start of Peter’s understanding of the concept of responsibility.  At the end of the movie, he is in the position to kill again.  The villain Green Goblin has murdered many people by any pragmatic standard deserves death.  But Spiderman stands back and waits.  In a last-ditch effort to defeat Spiderman, the Green Goblin attempts a surprise attack that ultimately results in his own demise.  What is being said throughout the movie is that objective realities affect subjective thinking, which affects external decision-making.  The objective reality of Spiderman being in a position to kill the Green Goblin affects Spiderman’s decision to relent his attack, as well as the Green Goblin’s decision to attempt an attack from behind.  What this demonstrates economically is that audiences connect with superhero films largely because their connection to the characters can manifest itself both internally as well externally.

This also can help to explain why Superman Returns failed to capture audiences’ imaginations in the same way.  By his very nature, the character of Superman has almost no external struggle.  It is true that he has moments where he is fighting on behalf of others, but it very rarely comes from a deep internal turmoil.  Also, the strongest threat to Superman’s external security is a space-rock called Kryptonite.  The psychological struggle of simply not knowing what can and cannot trouble him is played out very well in a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke called ‘Superman: Kryptonite,’ but none of the movies has this possessed this character dilemma.  From this we can plainly see why audiences feel a stronger connection to some films then others.  The characters themselves have practically no relation to the success of the films.  It rests entirely in the hands of the filmmakers.

In the cases of Hensleigh’s The Punisher and Lee’s The Hulk, each of these movies presented the characters struggles in a way that contradicted what audiences expected from the movie.  While the stereotype of the Punisher as presented in Marvel comics is a one-dimensional gangster-murdering vigilante, the 2004 movie presented him in a way that was much more inspired by a Sergio Leone western film; something that modern audiences expressed little interest in.  The Hulk contradicted expectations by presenting the character in a way that seemed immature and childish to most viewers.  The character of the Hulk should be a prime example of an instance in which internal struggles are externalized, but in Ang Lee’s vision of the character, all internal darkness and struggle is undermined by bright colors and comic-themed scene transitions.  Whereas in their respective 2008 reboots, Punisher: War Zone and The Incredible Hulk, the characters represent much more of what audiences were expecting to see in the first place. 

Another aspect of the ‘Superhero’ trend is the amount of films based on specific graphic novels, which may or may not even have superheroes in them.  While a normal adaptation uses the whole breadth of comic storylines as inspiration, there are some movies that are based on a specific story by a specific author.  Some of the more obvious ones are Watchmen, Sin City, and 300. In these instances, the accuracy to the source material can be seen merely by the fact that the original artwork panels from the comic were used as storyboards for the film.  But what many filmgoers may not realize is that Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, Wanted, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, A History of Violence and the recent Kate Bekinsale film, Whiteout are all based on graphic novels.  John August is currently adapting the Garth Ennis series, Preacher into a film.  (John August)

From a filmmaking point of view, adapting a graphic novel is easier than adapting from any other medium (besides an earlier film).  The reason is that comics bear more similarities to film than any other medium.  Both are primarily visual forms of storytelling.  Both can vary in length, but have strict concepts of how to pace the story.  Both often follow one character through one character arc (although there are several notable exceptions within each medium).

What is very intriguing about the success of comic-based movies is, is that there has not been an incredible increase in actual comic books.  Comics featuring a certain character will often sell big numbers shortly after their movie adaptation, but there has not been any significant increase in comic sales over the past decade.  In fact, comic sales are at an all-time low.  (Gold)

The evolution of audience reaction toward comic-based films closely mirrors that of comic books themselves.  Originally movies that featured Superheroes were considered to be only appropriate for children, a prime example of this is the Adam West version of Batman in the 1966.  The only socially acceptable reason for adults to watch the show was to laugh at its campiness.  But in 1989, the image of Batman changed.  Adults found that they could enjoy a darker version of the character along with their children.  But when Batman Returns was released in 1992, audiences felt that it had gone too far into the realm of maturity.  Warner Bros. then hired Joel Schumacher to produce another reinvention of the character, which became Batman Forever, which was initially well-received by audiences, but has in more recent years been remembered with some animosity.

The truth is, that in many circles there is still a feeling that superheroes and comic books are for kids.  And although some films, like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, earn big revenues while maintaining a more serious tone, other films, like Watchmen, are criticized for being too dark and violent.  Yet, if one looks at the superhero-themed cinema of 2007, there can be found some criticism of the second Fantastic Four due to its own lack of adult-friendly subject matter.  It appears that the audiences who attend these types of movies tend to expect something that reaches the broadest audience possible, rather than just kids or just adults.

In conclusion, the cinematic trend of comic-based films has, although resulted in many flops, flourished in the light of digital effects and a widespread cultural fascination the internal angst that many Superhero characters suffer from.  The changes in expectations of what a Superhero film should be have greatly affected the ups and downs of this particular trend’s financial take.  But with these types of movies consistently finding success either in the box-office or on DVD, the trend is not likely to let up anytime soon.

Works Cited

August, John. “Preacher.” John August Blog. 21 Jan. 2009. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://johnaugust.com/archives/2009/preacher&gt;.

Gold, Mike. “Why Comic Book Sales Suck.” Comc Mix. 7 July 2008. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/07/07/why-comic-book-sales-suck-by-mike-gold/&gt;.

Hirschberg, Lynn. “The Call Back.” New York Times. New York Times. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2009/05/03/style/t/index.html#pagewanted=1&pageName=03taranw&&gt;.

Look Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman. Dir. Kevin Burns. Perf. Kevin Spacey (Narrator), Bryan Singer, Dean Cain, Dan Didio, Brandon Routh, Richard Donner, Mark Hamill, Jon Peters. Warner Bros., 2006. DVD.

Making the Amazing. Dir. Charles De Lauzrika. Perf. Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire, Avi Arad, Stan Lee. Columbia/Tri-Star, 2004. DVD.

Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight. Perf. Tim Burton, Joel Shumacher, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney. Warner Bros., 2005. DVD.

“Superman Returns.” Box Office Mojo. 2 Nov. 2006. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=superman06.htm&gt;.

“Superman Returns.” IMDB. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0348150/&gt;.

“Superman Returns.” Rotten Tomatoes. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/superman_returns/?critic=creamcrop&gt;.

Susman, Gary. “Superhero Switch.” Entertainment Weekly. 6 June 2005. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1069174,00.html>.

“X-Men.” Box Office Mojo. 2000. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=xmen.htm&gt;.

“X-Men.” IMDB. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120903/&gt;.

“X-Men.” Rotten Tomatoes. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/xmen/?critic=creamcrop&gt;.

“X-Men: The Last Stand.” Box Office Mojo. 28 Sept. 2006. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=x3.htm&gt;.

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