The Marvel/DC Film Future, Part I

(Note: This is part one of a two-part entry. Part two appears Monday right here.)

With both traditional, old school comic book houses deeply entrenched in the bowels of big corporate media now (not that they weren’t big corporate media before, however, they got swallowed by even bigger corporate media, which is saying something), it’s time to take a look at what’s on our horizon, specifically in the motion picture department.

By all accounts, when Disney bought Marvel, Disney chased motion picture dollars first. After this deal, when one boils this thing to its essence, Marvel Comics becomes a high-powered brainstorming, script writing and storyboarding department (which should make for some interesting contract changes for writers and artists). The books are still fantastic. The book line should be unchanged (except the usual dogs and pigs that get slaughtered). However, there’s less to do when moving from drafting a comic book script to clipping in the first reel of a Marvel motion picture.

To help make my point, famed comic artist Robert Liefeld offered interesting numbers Thursday via Twitter. Let’s peek at those, based on Mr. Liefeld’s musings:

For Marvel, there are Four X-Men, three Spider-Man, two Fantastic Four, two Hulk, and three Blade films. According to iMDB.com, the Spider-Man films grossed better than $1.2 billion (thus, a Spider-Man 4 is on the way). The X-Men films did about $800 million. The others all came out on the upside thanks to quality choices in direction, good scripts (for the most part) and, of course, fantastic production. Even X-Men Origins; Wolverine banked $365 million and was met lukewarm across the board by fans and critics.  (Note: There are other Marvel films – Daredevil, Elektra, a pair of Punisher films and others. Toss in Ghost Rider and some false starts before Marvel became “Marvel Entertainment,” and well, that’s a big library). Mr. Liefeld, however, is on track by saying most of the most-recent films made money – big money.

For DC, it’s all about dogs and waiting. Mr. Liefeld notes that since Warner Brothers bought DC, there’s been moderate success. Most notable to me, Superman Returns. The film grossed $389 million but cost $209 million to make, according to iMDB. That was supposed to Superman’s “relaunch,” with a script that passed from the hands of Tim Burton to Kevin Smith to Michael Dougherty, Bryan Singer and Dan Harris. Based on “Conversations with Kevin Smith,” the script floundered for better than a decade before being made. And what we saw was the end product. Supposedly there’s another reboot coming, however, it’s in the hands of producer Jon Peters. If you believe what Mr. Smith said about Mr. Peters in the same “Conversations” DVD, then it could be sometime before we see a quality Superman sequel. Sure, $189 million is nothing to sneeze at, but based on reports, not up to expectations, esp. with a relaunched Superman franchise.

Now, I’m not ignoring the elephant in the room, The Dark Knight ($185 million budget; $1 billion worldwide box office). But, as Mr. Liefeld notes, and rightly so, TDK had pathos on its side (the death of Heath Ledger) and shouldn’t measured with the same yard stick of success as, say, Iron Man ($571 million worldwide). TDK is a very good film, but its edged close to catching Titanic as tops in box office on the pathos merits. And no one in Hollywood really cares how the money got into the coffers; they just care that it keeps being dumped into the coffers.

Batman Begins had similar success ($150 million budget; $352 worldwide box office) and is a better film than TDK. After that, there’s Halle Berry as Catwoman – voted by many as one of the worst films of all time — and not much else. For better or worse, Watchmen flopped (I enjoyed it). So, the move from “DC Comics” to “DC Entertainment” shows a paradigm shift for DC that merits consideration going forward into the next decade — it has to keep up with Marvel’s box office dominance.

As many of you and I noted in an earlier post, Disney acquiring Marvel meant three things: first, an opportunity to capture teenage male minds (as well as the first and second generation of adult fanboys dressing up at conventions, playing in LAN parties and so on).

Second, now that computer graphics rendering technology has become almost lifelike, an opportunity to make a superhero movie that’s not loose fitting tights, campy bravado and bad dialogue — one that better emulates real life — is here. Superman Returns tried this and failed about 30 minutes in. Batman Begins nailed it. Daredevil went too far and took its genre to a fetish. In any case, superhero movies will look and feel more like our real lives from now on, and can be made using tried and true formulas because producers can control more than they ever did before.

Third, and most important, the purchase of Marvel bought Disney a mountain of intellectual property. It bought them some of the most popular characters in pop culture. It gave them an entire library of opportunity to market, exploit and generate new dollars from. More importantly, the content will seed its upcoming films.

Now, there’s plenty of periphery animation that runs movie length. For instance, I recently watched an Avengers film on pay-per-view with my daughter. It cost $2.99. While it is certainly a viable revenue stream, I don’t count that film or others until Marvel/DC material starts getting Pixar-like treatment. Until then, it’s a lower form of generating money and doesn’t count in this discussion of Marvel/DC movies

What fanboys will dislike about this deal (and maybe what has already infected DC Entertainment) is this: there will be nothing new under the sun. Internal policy, previous contracted limitations and going-forward ideas based on what made money before. Further, as we’ve seen with the Superman properties, Hollywood producers’ notions of how superheroes should be seen on screen and what draws people to the box office differ from what comic book fans want to see on screen. They always have. Finally, there’s the threadbare argument of “book’s better than the movie.” There will always be separation between the plotlines of the comic books and the characters, motifs and situations portrayed on the screen.

All that said, we’ve entered the era where comic book movies match the visions we have in our heads. Those movies will continue to get made. But what characters will see the silver screen? What teams? What characters and teams should be kept off?

 That’s where Part II of this post will take us.

On Monday, I’ll look at five characters Marvel and DC WILL put in motion pictures, five characters they SHOULD make, give you two super teams that they should give celluloid treatment, and give you three characters they should NOT put on screen. I’ll offer facts and opinions on every selection and why they should or should not stay off the big screen.

(Jason Tudor is a writer, illustrator and contributer to lordshaper.com. His web site is http://www.jasontudor.com)

One Response to “The Marvel/DC Film Future, Part I”

  1. […] part I, I outlined the stakes of superhero movie making. Computer technology has finally come of age and […]