Comic Books Unbound premiered on CNBS Thursday April 5, chronicling the rise of comic book movies to box office prominence. This 2008 documentary was one hour long and featured a short history of comic book movies from the serial era of the 1940s to about the release of Iron Man. Commentary featured interviews with comic book and Hollywood insiders, including Stan Lee, Avi Arad, Carmine Infantino, Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Bob Layton, Roger Corman (who generously appeared despite the show’s panning of his Fantastic Four adaptation), Richard Donner, Brian Singer, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Uslan, Edward Norton, Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ron Perlman.
I thought it was a good documentary, but not a great documentary. The insider interviews were excellent. The historical treatment lacked depth, in my opinion.
Coverage of the serial era portrayed DC as the leading force in the industry, omitting the fact that Captain Marvel was outselling Superman and made the leap to live action before Superman. Wertham was blamed for the superhero film genre allegedly disappearing in the 1950s, which had me thinking “what about the Superman TV show. . .?”–and of course then they were obligated to mention the Superman TV show next, underscoring my point. My contention is that if we want to understand the decline of the superhero genre in the 1950s and how that related to developments in film, we have to look at factors like Fawcett’s exit from the market in the wake of DC’s lawsuit against them, DC’s failure to innovate, Marvel’s shift away from the superhero genre to other market trends, and pop culture’s shift of interest from film to TV, along with economic factors like wartime paper rationing and distribution changes in the mid-50s. The fact is the superhero comic genre was in decline by the end of World War II, well before the Comics Code came along. I think historians’ focus on the Comics Code has obscured this fact, and it’s reflected in this documentary.
The 1966 Batman film was portrayed as a black mark on the genre. I don’t think this does justice to the role the Batman TV series and film played in reviving the superhero genre and expanding it into other media. The initial success of the Batman TV show inspired both DC and Marvel to expand into the cartoon market and to cultivate Hollywood. The resulting cartoon adaptations continued into the 1970s and formed a bridge to the live-action adaptations that began then. Older audiences may have found the TV Batman campy, but kids loved it. The kids who were watching the Batman TV show in syndication and the movie in reruns, along with descended animated treatements like Super Friends, were there to tune into the early live-action shows like Shazam!, Wonder Woman, and The Incredible Hulk and to drag their parents to the theater for the 1978 Superman movie. The documentary missed many important developments here by dismissing the significance of the 1966 Batman film.
There was then a divergence into underground comix and Fritz the Cat. Later in the show Hellboy and Frank Miller’s movies were mentioned. This seemed to mainly serve the purpose of saying, “See comics are for grown-ups, they’re not just about superheroes.” But then of course the rest of the show was about superhero movies, which are the only comic book adaptations that have ever dominated the box office, with the exception of 300. Most audiences want to see superhero movies. I want to see superhero movies. I like superheroes. I’m not ashamed of liking superheroes. I don’t understand the need some fans seem to have to distance comics from superheroes. I found that aspect of this documentary annoying and a digression from the historical trend under discussion.
When the documentary got to the 1978 Superman they did a good job. There were some excellent interviews with Richard Donner and industry observers. With respect to the sequels, one commentator quipped something to the effect of, “Kryptonite may not have killed Superman, but Richard Pryor sure did.” Can’t argue with that.
From here they jumped forward to the 1989 Batman film, after conveying the impression that nothing else happened in the genre in the 1970s and 1980s other than Howard the Duck. There are some big pieces of the story missing here.
For one thing, they forgot Conan–who it is unwise to forget, unless one craves a taste of cold Hyrkanian steel. And there are a few other film and TV adaptations from the 80s that could be mentioned. None of them were box office smashes, but they were there.
But probably more important for the history of the genre is the alliance that Marvel had formed with Lucasfilm to promote Star Wars in the late 70s and early 80s. This overlapped with a trend that probably dates back to Marvel’s adaptation of Planet of the Apes. Planet of the Apes was the first time a pop culture film franchise made a full multimedia assault on the market, encompassing everything from comics to action figures to Halloween costumes. The Star Wars franchise borrowed this marketing model and took it to unprecedented levels.
Meanwhile Marvel and DC’s parent Warner were tapping into the same trend from the comic book side of the equation, seeking to expand from comics into action figures, toys, and other markets. Following the success of its Star Wars adapation, Marvel produced other comics with TV/film and toy tie-ins in the late 70s and early 80s, including Godzilla in 1977, Battlestar Galactica in 1978, The Micronauts and The Shogun Warriors and Rom Spaceknight in 1979, G.I. Joe in 1982, and The Transformers in 1984 (the last two both in partnership with Hasbro).
DC followed suit. Inspired by the success of Mattel’s He-Man TV/toy tie-ins, DC gave licensing rights to former Star Wars toy producer Kenner in 1984, resulting in the Super Powers line of action figures, which tied into DC’s Super Friends cartoons.
To compete, Mattel went to Marvel and did the market research that inspired the Secret Wars mini-series. As Jim Shooter recalled, “Mattel thought that kids responded well to the word ‘secret,’ so after a couple of working names bit the dust, we called the story ‘Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars’.”
This foundation had already been laid by the time the 1989 Batman film came along. Warner sought to capitalize on the film with a multimedia marketing blitz featuring all types of licensing tie-ins, from toys to cereal boxes. The licensing bonanza Marvel is experiencing today under Disney’s aegis is an outgrowth of this trend.
More could be said about that, but I’ll close with one other point where I disagreed with the presentation. At one point the question was raised as to why Marvel’s film adaptations weren’t able to compete with DC’s until Blade. Stan Lee suggested the problem was that special effects technology presented more of a challenge for Marvel characters like Spider-Man than Superman or Batman, and the narrator concurred.
As someone who vividly remembers my disappointment at the early Marvel TV adaptations, I disagree. The special effects were a challenge, but that wasn’t the main problem with the original Spider-Man TV show. The problem was that the show stripped Spider-Man of his character and his villains. Spidey didn’t talk on the show, eliminating the wisecracking dialogue that colored the original. Peter Parker’s problems didn’t carry over into Spidey’s life, but it was like they were two separate characters. Spidey had no apparent powers other than his climbing ability, and was reduced to fighting ordinary criminals with no superpowers. There was no Green Goblin, no Doc Ock, not even characters like the Kingpin who posed no special effects difficulties. The problem was not missing special effects, it was missing characters. Likewise the TV Hulk could be injured by ordinary bullets and fought no supervillains. The TV Captain America didn’t face the Red Skull (although he did fight Christopher Lee, which was probably the highlight of the show).
In short, the problem with the early Marvel live-action adaptations was primarily the writing, not the special effects. The writing did not stick to the original material. By departing from the original–most likely in a misguided effort to generate more “mainstream” appeal, as Hollywood conceived what “mainstream” audiences want–the adaptations both left the fan base behind and removed the very elements that could have attracted a mainstream audience.
And I submit that this has generally been the case when a superhero adaptation has failed to live up to its commercial potential. Conversely, when Marvel and DC have stuck faithfully to their original material, their films have done well. A case study is the Spider-Man films. The first two films cleverly updated some of the most powerful storylines from the original series, and combined this with cutting-edge special effects. The third film was if anything an improvement in the special effects department, but the storyline mixed some of the worst elements from the post-Shooter era of Spider-Man into an incoherent combination of a diluted Sandman, Venom, and the Harry Osborn Green Goblin instead of tapping into the original Lee-Ditko formula. Some of the X-Men sequels made similar mistakes, as did the most recent Superman movie. The last two Batman movies have been better, returning to the roots of the character. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America stuck to character and conquered the box office. Green Lantern didn’t, despite excellent special effects. The lesson to be learned: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And don’t blame the special effects if you do.