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The Rise and Fall of the Comic Book Movie?

written by Jake Draper September 6, 2015

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There’s this small-time independent filmmaker named Steven Spielberg who’s been making a few waves in the tabloids lately because of some comments he made referring to comic book movies and their eventual decline. He compared them to old Western movies that, like most other pop culture staples, faded away, possibly or possibly not to return some day to the mainstream. His point was, comic movies are a finite moment in our world and they will, inevitably fade away and give rise to something else. Whether he’s right or wrong has surely caused a nice little uproar from the keyboard warriors out there.

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The real debate here is, is he right? Are comic book movies merely a bubble that’s getting ready to burst? Much like the theory of the expanding universe that, much like a rubber band, eventually will stop growing and begin to come crashing down, thus resulting in cataclysmic destruction and the death of everything and everyone in existence? I fear, even if he is right, that it will be far less dramatic than all that, but let’s just head back to the beginning.

*flashback rippling transition*

It’s safe to say that the seeds of the comic book explosion were really planted back in the 70’s, with Christopher Reeve donning the red and blue for Superman. Or you could go so far as to say that they were planted in 1989 when Michael Keaton laced up his bat boots for Tim Burton’s Batman, which is absolutely the movie that got me, personally, into geek culture at the ripe old age of like four. (Seriously, I had a full bat suit that I wore EVERYWHERE, much to the embarrassment of my older sister.) Or maybe it was in 2000 with the release of X-Men. Yet, I’m going to go ahead and say the true comic movie renaissance started as recently as 2005. Sure, all of those films before it really led to some major eye-opening moments for studio execs, but it was 2005 where all that had been learned of comic book movies really started to take form as Christopher Nolan released the first Batman film since THAT WHICH SHALL NOT BE NAMED. Batman Begins was a moderate success as far as box office numbers, but really it was the critical response to it that mattered most. Millions of people saying, “This is a deep, thought-provoking film about a real human being who may or may not be utterly insane but I still feel I can relate with him.”

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Looking back, I referred to it as the “seed” of the renaissance because it’s not really where things exploded. I would say that was in the year 2008, when Nolan continued the dark story of his caped crusader with The Dark Knight, which was met with even better reviews and a massive box office return of just over a billion dollars. Also, in this same year, came a movie called Iron Man, which subtly introduced the concept of a shared universe helmed by one single studio. It was ludicrous. It couldn’t be done. “BLASPHEMY!” the people yelled as they grabbed their torches and prepared to burn the witches at Marvel Studios…but then we were given Thor and we were blessed with Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger and things started becoming very, very real, culminating in 2012 as both the final entry in Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises hit the scene AND the result of years of belief in what they were doing as Marvel released the dream film, The Avengers.

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Since then it’s been a wild ride, hasn’t it? We’ve had sequels to all of those Marvel movies and even a few new additions, like Guardians of the Galaxy, which I will argue is actually the best Marvel film to date. The box office returns have been strong, and, maybe just as importantly, the response to them has been unbelievably strong. In fact, not one single film that’s come from Marvel has gotten a “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and, considering how many films they’ve made, that’s pretty damn impressive. Sure, there have been some misfires, but I can’t really cite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because, despite the massively awful response it received, we are primed for a sequel next year because it made all the money it needed.

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Now we come to the present. This year we had the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man, both of which…well…maybe didn’t quite connect in the way they were intended. Age of Ultron was good, no? I mean, it was good, but was it GREAT? Did it recapture the original film’s charm and magic? Sort of. It’s rare to find someone who hated it, while it’s also rare to find someone who really, really loved it. It’s just sorta…there. Considering the immense hype and success of the first film, it’s just odd that, coming into the weeks that led to its release, I just wasn’t as excited as I should have been. The looming shadow of Star Wars: Episode VII just really sucked the hype away from what comic movies we were given, and, truthfully, Mad Max: Fury Road was just so damn good that action movies for the rest of the year had unreasonably high standards coming out of that film. Sure, Age of Ultron made some serious cash, but the response wasn’t anywhere near the response of the first, and, again, the overwhelming critical success of Mad Max was a sign that the action genre was maybe in need of something more than super heroes?

Of course, this is all less fact-based than what it should be. The numbers are what matters, and $1.4 billion ain’t no chump change and still a huge home run for any film. Still, it didn’t need to be an amazing movie. In fact, all it needed to do was set up more movies in the future. Which is where we will head now.

2016 is looking magnificent. We have Captain America: Civil War AND the official launch of the DC shared Universe with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Those are just the heavy hitters, because I’m probably more amped up for Deadpool, which, honestly, only has to be a moderate success and be GOOD in order to be considered a true success considering its hard R-rating and low budget. Not to mention X-Men: Age of Apocalypse and another Guardians of the Galaxy movie AND Suicide Squad, which promises an entirely different look at the genre. Awesome. Great. It’s going to be a splendid time, right?

What comes next though?

Somewhere down the line, 2015 lost its edge. After being defeated by both Jurassic World (which is ironic considering Spielberg is the one who helped make that a reality) AND the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious, and then being lauded as inferior to some of the immense action spectacles of the year, such as Mad Max and Pixels (lol kidding), Age of Ultron, in the retrospect of a comic movie fan, wasn’t what it should have been. And, let’s not kid ourselves, The Force Awakens is absolutely going to drop it down even one more peg. Is this possibly a sign that moviegoers are ready for something new? Possibly. Perhaps Spielberg, who has continued to predict box office trends for over 40 years, knows what he’s talking about. It’s not like comic movies are going anywhere any time soon, but is he onto something? Is there a kink in the red and gold armor here?

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The fact is, 2016 is going to be a monumental success for both Marvel and DC. There’s no denying the fever pitch that comes with both of their juggernaut franchises about to release. They are some great films that are sure to smash a few more records. Plus the addition of new and interesting movies like Dr. Strange are going to keep the genre strong. That’s just how it is. 2017? We get a new Wolverine movie, reportedly based on Old Man Logan, which is some good news, and a new Spider-Man, and the first Justice League movie. Then 2018 we get the first part of the Infinity Wars…then 2019 we get…Shazaam and Inhumans. 2020 has…Cyborg? Are you seeing the decline? Sure, absolutely we will get some Batman and Superman sequels and most likely a whole slew of others, but there’s something substantially less…huge feeling about the future. Remember that feeling of seeing the first Avengers movie? Could anything top how awesome it felt to witness that?

2012 was like Christmas. It doesn’t always come, so when it does it’s special. We got a spectacular year for comic movies and we were so excited that Hollywood said, “GIVE THEM MORE!” We loved it. Hell, we still do…but that feeling has faded because now Christmas is, well, all the time. It’s like the magic fades because we see the magic constantly now. Ironically, back to a Spielberg-related film, Jurassic World touched on the concept that everything has to keep getting grander and more explody and more expensive or we are going to lose interest. Which ties into the idea of The Avengers: Infinity Wars, in which the Avengers have now overcome the destruction of a city, then the destruction of the world, and now they will fight for the safety of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. What next? What is even bigger than that? And do we really WANT to see it? The concept of our entire Universe being in peril is just…disconnecting to some of us. There’s a certain relatable charm with a movie like Die Hard where everything is in one building and we have a small cast of characters that we adore and root for, and, seemingly, that’s being faded out in exchange for “LET’S HAVE THANOS KILL EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING AND BE GOD.” Cool, and I’m sure it will be a success…

…but where do we go after that? By that point Christmas has come constantly every month for years and years in a row, and it’s gotten more and more grand each time. Are we going to simply stop caring? Do you go to bed when you’re in your teens, 20’s, or 30’s and hardly be able to sleep because you’re so excited on December 24th? Doubtful.

In closing, to Marvel and DC and especially Disney, who now looks to flood the market with their other massive franchise, Star Wars, is it possible that they are going to give us too much of a good thing? Where are we going to go once the stakes have been raised so much that literally all the stakes are at stake? Will we become so jaded by these films that we actually start to lose interest? Surely you have a great amount of thought to add, and surely you will begin all of your comments with, “Yes I do, and don’t call me Shirley.” Let’s hear what you have to say. Make yourself known in the comments and speak out against me and my apocalyptic mad ramblings of a world that’s going to decay, or tell my why you can’t help but think maybe the superhero movie is on its way out the door.

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