Summer 2012 is shaping up to be the summer of the super-blockbuster. Marvel’s The Avengers already made its expenses after the opening weekend and is seeing people returning multiple times. Why are superhero movies becoming popular of late?
As always with adaptations, the main reason for using an existing property is that the work is already known to the general public. Superheroes have been around since the 1930s, with the creation of Superman, and pulp heroes go back even further. The current crop of superhero movies isn’t a new idea; Batman was featured in several serials in the 1940s and Superman had his own radio show. Cartoons featuring the supers since the 1960s also help with brand recognition. But getting people into theatre seats the first week is just part of the puzzle. As seen many times here at Lost in Translation, success doesn’t come from simply adapting and hoping for the best.
A Geek Renaissance
Along the way, geeks infiltrated Hollywood. People who grew up on the serials of the 40s, the B-movies of the 50s, the exploitation films of the 70s, found jobs within the studios. These geek insiders worked to get their ideas into production. And, unlike earlier eras, these insiders wanted to make sure that the characters they grew up with were treated properly. Again, that there “respect” thing. Still, there were some misses. Daredevil and Elektra didn’t perform as well as hoped at the box office. Changes of tone hurt Batman & Robin. But that didn’t stop more adaptations from being made. Marvel, now owned by Disney, had a plan for The Avengers.
Even in the late 90s, if you asked the average person, as opposed to a comics fan, to name five superheroes, the answer would probably include Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and either the X-Men* or the Incredible Hulk. Each of those heroes have had a number of animated and live-action adaptations throughout their history. The Avengers, though, were a group of A-list supers that were well-known to comic fans but not so much outside fandom.** Marvel’s plan was to introduce each of the Avengers in their own movie, beginning with Iron Man.
The plan worked.
Marvel’s approach was new. Instead of just introducing the Avengers and possibly getting bogged down in every character’s origin, the studio gave each character a spotlight, whetting the appetites of audiences. The lead-up films weren’t treated as filler but were major releases. In the meantime, Marvel also kept working on the X-Men franchise, releasing origin movies for the main team and for popular character Wolverine.
Over at DC, the Batman franchise was rebooted. Christopher Nolan was given three movies to develop featuring the World’s Greatest Detective. Once again, the product produced was of high quality. Meanwhile, a new television adaptation of Superman, this time as he grew up in Smallville, was well received and lasted ten seasons. A similar series is in the works for the Green Arrow, simply titled Arrow.
The biggest reason the new super-movies are doing well is the backing of the studios. None of the Avengers-line of movies were cheap. The Dark Knight trilogy of movies showed an eye for detail. Instead of just assuming that only children will want to go to these films, the studios ensured that both fans and non-fans will enjoy what’s on screen.
There’s still room for a movie to bomb at the box office. Indeed, a series of poorly attended movies may spell the end to the current adaptation craze. But, for this to happen, the studios would have to completely miss the point of the characters, something that both Marvel and DC’s studios have so far avoided.
Next week, something will be here.
* Yes, the X-Men are a group of heroes.
** The exception being the Hulk, who remained with the team for the couple of issues before leaving.