I’ve written at length about the over-saturation of the superhero genre, so I needn’t dedicate an entire post to such subjects. I would just like to say that, just as Rome before it, the Marvel empire will fall and pave the way for potentially better things. For now, we live in a cinematic world that is subject to the gravitational pull of Marvel (and kinda DC). Every new trailer that drops is treated as if it’s the release of a new Apple product. The pomp and circumstance is over the top. I mean, now the trailer even has a trailer. Really? Before we know it, they’re going to have countdown clocks to these trailers down to the millisecond. Where does the pre-hype end? It continues long through the films release, where marketing has completely invaded your brain and forced your passive thoughts to remind you that Avengers: Infinity War Part I comes out April 2018, filming has just finished and still they are deep into their promotional activities. To be fair, they’re masters at marketing. Even their biggest flops have come out alright thanks to solid marketing. By now, they’ve set a standard. Marvel movies are good movies. You can go to any one and get the same or similar feeling from watching the film and know that it’s good good enough writing, good enough action, good enough plot substance to keep you feeling validated in your decision to watch. DC…well the same can’t always be said for DC. But hey, they’re trying! Since both of the big comic book studios are beginning to form their generic cookie molds (and working on their assorted packs), is the whole genre just a mess? Are comic book films just thick air in an already stuffy room? I don’t think so.
I once knew a girl whose favorite film was Hellboy. She loved it so much that she watched it weekly. When people would ask her why, she would tell them that ‘it’s a different kind of superhero movie’. Hellboy is one of those movies that you don’t really think about often (even in the Superhero genre), but also a film that didn’t make a lot of waves after it’s initial release. Sure, it got a sequel. And sure, it took number one at the box office it’s opening weekend. But if you’re willing to wind back the clocks with me to April of 2004, you’ll see that the other “big hits” that month included Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and The Whole Ten Yards. And we complain about the movies of today! The superhero genre was in it’s early stages and about to hit it’s stride when Hellboy came out. There wasn’t really good precedent for releasing a comic book character without a lot of name recognition. Some might argue Spawn, but that didn’t even make number one the weekend it came out. Even Ghost Rider was able to make that happen. But for a film like Hellboy to come out to some success, from a respectable director who was about to hit his stride, meant a coming change for the comic book film genre. The character of Hellboy wasn’t really a household name (especially if you grew up in a church-going household). Not like Superman is. Not like Batman is. Not like Spider-Man is. Marvel and DC (and at the time, Sony) were the only cooks in the kitchen crafting the recipe for what would be your staple superhero movies. Then we have a film like Hellboy coming from the aptly named Dark Horse Comics and voila, the oligarchy adds another lane. The genre wasn’t reinvented, but had shown signs of evolution. Del Toro’s Hellboy was a shade of gray in a sea of black and white.
But Marvel and DC continued their expansion plan. They continued to develop this formulaic approach to hero origin stories which would become a staple in the industry and the go-to when crafting a story. DC had a varied approach. They relied on making their heavy hitters (Batman and Superman) have drastically different styles, mostly because they felt it appealed to different audiences. The problem with that approach is that people saw one as too serious (maybe in a good way) with Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and they saw….whatever this is… with Bryan Singer’s plasticky attempt at a Superman film. They were drastically different and they represented a design dichotomy that has plagued them still to this day. Light-hearted, approachable? Like the old comic books? Or serious and topical? Relevant to today? They’re still trying to complete that project while still filling any holes with bullets and Zack Snyder lens flare. Marvel on the other hand, was methodical. They recognized the appeal of a franchise. They knew that the more layered they could make their films, they better it would be for them in the long run. Thus, we get the beginnings of the ubiquitous acronym MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for those less superhero-inclined). Starting with Iron Man, they would stick to a style guide, a brand that would help define their greater body of work. Each film would be different in theme and in approach. They would hire directors from a variety of cinematic backgrounds and writers who were versatile enough to create tension from expected drama, while still injecting random flashes of awkward humor. But the one thing that they planned on was creating an undercurrent which would tie all the films together. They wanted to create something that would turn their brand into an (appropriated) adjective. That’s so Marvel.
For a while it worked. Phase one saw the introduction of some simple, relatable superheroes who people were excited to see come alive on the big screen for the first time. They got Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America their screen time so that they were able to wrap them all together in one tight, expensive package called The Avengers. That was met with a resounding applause from the entertainment movie world. They loved it. After clunky superhero movies like X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3, they loved seeing the polish that Marvel offered them. But that was only the beginning. You remember how that was phase one? Well once they had audiences hooked, they had the liberty to do kind of whatever projects suited them. They could incorporate fringe characters like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange and give them their own films, despite their lack of recognition, because audiences had already been drinking the Kool-Aid. They were able to turn a little, style-driven start-up into a full blown manufacturing facility. Phase two not only allowed them to roll out sequels, but incorporate new characters and even a TV show. Phase three allowed them to really saturate the TV market and even bridge the gaps across media. Soon, the TV shows referenced the movies, the movies referenced the TV shows, the characters from one universe met in another and it all ended up funneling downward into this singularity of onanism with everything inside of it’s event horizon being pulled with maximum gravitational force into this cavalcade of popcorn cinema, consumerist wet dreams, and lots and lots of poppy, tonal colors! And by the way, phase four is absolutely in the works.
In the midst of all this growth over the last decade, a few films have come out of the woodworks which offer a different take on the genre. In 2005, the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) produced a film called V for Vendetta, a visceral political powerhouse film about a post-apocalyptic London and a masked vigilante who aims to bring justice to the corrupt world. The film was met with critical acclaim and seen as a cinematically beautiful piece of work for that time. It had all the action of your standard comic book movie, but with something untethered, something unexpected. That’s because it was a graphic novel, just not apart of a big franchise. It came from the same world as other comics, but embodied a soul all its own. A few years later (the same year as the original Iron Man) a beautiful film called Persepolis was released. It followed the life of a young woman during the Iranian revolution in the late seventies as she was shipped off to Europe and struggled to understand her rapidly changing world. It was an animated film which was mostly in black and white, stylistically paying homage to it’s source material: the graphic novel. And even later, the well known Watchmen came out in 2009 and, while not the spectacle everyone had hoped, it certainly did offer a nuanced look into the world of superheroes without all of the expected tropes audiences were used to. Granted, these films aren’t necessarily a “dark horse” in the way that Hellboy was. V for Vendetta was a DC comic originally! That being said, it was not a DC production. And that’s key to note. I mean to imagine the company that had produced Brandon Routh’s ken doll-esque Superman would turn around and create something so…original? Unthinkable. These films all came from the same medium, all were developed by studios independent of their comic book counterparts and perhaps, most importantly of all: they were stories with a foreseeable end. The literature on them only went so far. With Marvel and DC characters, the options are endless. There’s a million Batman stories and a million and a half Avengers stories for you to chew on. That means a ton of possible adaptions and all the more room for situations like this.
With these rogue, lesser-known comic books (and franchises), we have the ability to introduce some fresh air into a rather stuffy room. These aren’t your eternal, chameleonic heroes like Batman and Superman, but they utilize the best attributes of the genre and use it to articulate something more concise and profound. Think of the medium. Comic books and graphic novels are stories that rely on an element of viscerally-oriented action to anchor audience to cause. They use illustration as stylistic aid to give distinct flavor to a story. The most successful of these turn into an endless array of books building on an expanding mythology. They aim to inflate the subject. But, those that don’t need an empire-style mythology and opt for a more traditional approach to the genre, have the ability to use it as a platform for an idea. Because if there’s seven thousand Spider-Man comics, you’re working with a universe that is on a Star Wars level. But when you’re limited to a single graphic novel, you can boil down your work to it’s essence: work with character and story – all while giving people the eyeball popcorn they expect from a visually-bound medium. It’s a powerful thing, concision.
Powerhouse comic book studios like Marvel have positioned themselves as the Whole Foods of the action world, providing an assurance of quality and ubiquitousness that people enjoy. You go to any Whole Foods and you can expect to find a lot of the same merchandise, and if you go to any Marvel movie, it’s a similar turnout. Quality and brand are key in both scenarios (which makes DC like Trader Joe’s). But every once in a while, you just want a mom and pop shop experience. Sometimes you’re sick of looking at the same mochi freezer and you want some nice homemade ice cream. Within the comic book world, these rogue adaptions are critical in the same capacity. Because at a time where people are kind of sick of the same old song and dance, variety has become paramount. ‘Fresh takes’ can sometimes pay off for a studio in big ways. The Kingsman from a few years ago is a perfect example. It was a comic book adaption that had fairly little recognition when it was released. Not a lot of people were aware Icon Comics (a Marvel subsidiary) even existed. But then this film comes out and people love it. It’s visceral, funny, heartwarming, and self-loathing in the kind of way that meta-hatred is very “in” nowadays. It brought everything people loved about superhero films without defaulting to the typical superhero cliches. That’s all people really want from their action films.
The Kingsman sequel was released and (mind you, I haven’t seen it yet) it looks like it might not live up to the originality of the first film. But, regardless of performance, what The Kingsman has done for the genre is really symptomatic of what all these rogue comic book films can do for their genre: tackle bigger issues on a smaller scale, without the fears of under-developing your greek god-like characters. It provides you some closure. When we live in an era where everyone waits after the credits to see if there indeed is more, it’s kind of refreshing to have a group of films satiating that thirst for visual delight, while providing closure and an opportunity to escape the black hole of comic book lore. If we could have more of these, that would be Marvel-less.