The creative affair between Hollywood studios and comic books has been, for the most part, a match made in hell. But are they finally getting the respect they deserve?
While the first comic book adaptation of the modern age, Superman (1978), was both a critical and box office smash, it could have turned out to be an epic disaster. Many of those calling the shots at Warner Bros then still viewed comics as something for kids, while in reality their readership was becoming increasingly adult and sophisticated. At the behest of producers, early Superman scripts were very much tongue-in-cheek – think the campy Batman TV series from the 1960s. But when director Richard Donner came on board, he insisted the material should be taken more seriously, and asked his writer friend Tom Mankiewicz to revise the script.
Warner Bros fired Donner from Superman II (1980) after they clashed about how the material should be handled. That left Supes at the mercy of the studio in an era when cash-in sequels became standard practice. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) was a miserable last hurrah for a franchise that had promised so much.
DC Comics’ most recognisable hero wasn’t alone in being exploited. During the same period, low-budget turkeys were made from his DC stablemates Swamp Thing (1982) and Supergirl (1984). Tim Burton’s 1989 interpretation of Batman was a hit, although even it wasn’t without its critics – the choice of Michael Keaton to play the Caped Crusader was controversial to say the least.
DC’s main competitor, Marvel Comics, wasn’t faring much better. It had some success with TV adaptations of The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man in the 1970s, but the movie version of The Punisher (1989) – starring none other than Dolph Lundgren – set a low bar for the 90s, and things only got worse. In 1990, 21st Century released an embarrassing Captain America movie that most people don’t even know exists. Then a few years later, 20th Century Fox – at risk of losing the rights to The Fantastic Four if it didn’t start production – had B-grade director Roger Corman slap together a quickie version that Fox never intended to release.
That was the final insult for Marvel, which established its own studio in 1996 under Avi Arad. “When you get into business with a big studio, they are developing a hundred or 500 projects; you get totally lost,” Arad told the New York Times. “That isn’t working for us. We’re just not going to do it anymore.”
It’s no coincidence that the first project to emerge from Marvel Studios became the benchmark for comic book movies. Blade (1998), starring Wesley Snipes as a superhuman vampire hunter, was generally well received by critics and made $70 million at the US box office alone – delivering Marvel a healthy profit on its $45 million investment. Money talks, especially in Hollywood, and other studios began to pay attention.
While subsequent comic book adaptations haven’t always hit the mark (Ang Lee forgot to put action in his Hulk movie; Catwoman won a Razzie for worst film of 2004; Sam Raimi’s hubris wrought the infamous Spider-Man 3), the ratio of trash to treasure has become far more acceptable than it was in the ‘Crud Age’ that ran from the early 1980s until the mid-1990s. The most successful franchises – the first two X-Men films, Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers – all had one thing in common: they understood and respected the source material.
You know, like Richard Donner did 30 years earlier.