Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., July 16, 17 or 18
Time flies, and it’s time to wonder. “The Amazing Spider-Man” reboot this month opened to great box office, and “The Dark Knight Rises” is set to open this week, so it’s a good time to wonder about the ties between successful films featuring superheroes and the loyal comic book/graphic novel audience that supports their print versions.
Such comic book movies in recent years consistently made more headlines and more money than their print origins, according to a literature professor whose research includes comics and graphic novels.
“During the last five years, Hollywood studios have released 21 films adapted from comic books,” said Amanda Berry of American University. “While all but four of the films generated a profit, the amount of money made by extremely successful comic book movies vastly outweighs the small losses by a margin of 8 to 1.”
What’s made such motion pictures popular?
“Studios are putting more money into the movies,” says Bob Gordon, who owns Acme Books and Comics in Peoria. “– better directors, writers, actors and so on. In the past, they were sort of sidebars to studios’ main activities, or tongue-in-cheek, corny productions, like pretty much everything prior to the [Christopher Reeve] ‘Superman’ movies or [director Tim Burton’s] 1989 ‘Batman’.
“Also, the books themselves are more mainstream, with less of a stigma than before,” Gordon adds. “Comics are not longer seen as ‘evil,’ something to ‘rot your mind’.”
Paul Astrouski, owner of Journey Comics in Macomb, agrees that the films’ higher quality has made a difference.
“With computers, filmmakers can do almost anything now,” he says. “Print can describe or show action, but until CGI, it couldn’t be filmed, at least credibly.”
In Galesburg, Alternate Realities owner Brad Price says the characters’ familiarity helps.
“The heroes are iconic and people have grown up with their adventures in cartoons, TV, games and other pop-culture references,” he says. “It’s good action and you don’t have to think too deeply.”
Comics’ fans help support studios’ investment, too.
“Comic books have generated – and continue to generate – a unique fan base,” said Berry. “This fan base is intensely loyal and seriously engaged in the very particularizing serial culture of comic books.
“These fans are uniquely capable of generating excitement about comic book films among themselves and others because their own investment in the world of the comic book is so intense,” she continued.
Gordon sees an informal R&D relationship.
“Today, comic books are a proving ground for future movies or TV shows,” he says. “It’s a cheap test market. If a Batman sells 100,000 copies and each one is read by six or seven people, that’s 700,000 possible moviegoers. You figure $8 admission prices and that more than $5 million almost guaranteed.”
In lousy economic times, fans of the characters want to escape unpleasant realities of joblessness and social discord, too. Astrouski, in Macomb, says comic superhero movies offer escape and a positive outcome.
“It’s definitely true that people seek escape,” he says. “We’re in an age when heroes are important again.”
Indeed, Berry’s research shows that the adventure films also include timely and troubling social issues beyond crime and violence: home foreclosures, drug abuse, sexism, the death of loved ones, and income inequality.
She speculates that the superhero films’ popularity also could stem from basic good vs. evil plots with good prevailing; the appeal of high-tech, visually-dazzling special effects; audiences identifying with an “everyman” with a secret identity as an unerring savior; or even people’s wish that they, too, could fly, lift buildings, and possess superhuman powers.
Besides profitable box office and video business internationally, comic book movies also can spin off into merchandise from clothing to toys, but there’s not much increased traffic to the source material: comics.
“Actually, it doesn’t work as much with the big superhero movies as with other, smaller productions,” Astrouski says. “I get customers coming in to buy ‘Walking Dead’ or ‘Road to Perdition’ graphic novels after seeing a video or TV show.”
Price, in Galesburg, agrees, saying, “There’s not a big reciprocal effect. We’ll get a few people come in a week or two after a big film opening, but a lot of people still think comics are just for kids. It’s still not like Europe or Japan, where everybody reads comics, which are seen as a storytelling art form.”
Time-wise, it’s just 11 months until Superman’s re-boot, “Man of Steel,” is scheduled to open on June 4, 2013. Henry Cavill stars as Supes, with Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Kevin Costner as Pa Kent, Diane Lane as Ma Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Laurence Fishburne as Perry White (plus possible glimpses of characters Lex Luthor and Wonder Woman). Time crawls.