Comic-Con offers glimpse into genre's future

APPARENTLY FED UP about spending his summer with men in tights and armor, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott peevishly weighed in against comicbook movies, expressing “a hunch, and perhaps a hope” that the genre has not only peaked but is in “the beginning of a decline.”

Odds are that most of the movie-industry leaders who could make Scott’s wish a reality missed that particular column, having dutifully trekked down to San Diego last week to present various caped dogs and ponies before the colorfully clad Comic-Con faithful. Talk about a bad week to be a snob, during that annual window when “the geek elite” flex their puny, couch-bound muscles and assume control over the entire pop-culture universe.

Given the unbridled success of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” as well as “Iron Man’s” turbo-charged kickoff to the summer, Scott likely faces more gloomy trips to the multiplex. Yet he did stumble onto a crumb of truth — caution flags when it comes to keeping the spigot (or giant glowing green battery, if you prefer) of comic-to-screen adaptations flowing.

The studios naturally went first to the most recognizable characters, meaning DC’s Superman and Batman and Marvel’s Spider-Man and the X-Men. Going forward, however, will require expanding the genre’s reach to secondary (and by definition, less well known) heroes, such as Iron Man — where the potential for success surely remains great but the prospects of epic, “Speed Racer”-style flops are also magnified.

The 1978 movie version of “Superman” featured the memorable one-sheet line “You will believe a man can fly.” But will those who have never read the comics believe a Norse deity can soar across the modern skyline with his indestructible hammer Mjolnir, or a human-looking alien from the planet Thanagar can whiz around in a hawk-headed costume? (If you didn’t immediately say, “Oh, Thor and Hawkman,” immediately go to the end of the line to enter Comic-Con’s massive Hall H. On the plus side, you have probably had a boyfriend or girlfriend who isn’t imaginary.)

It’s in regard to these more obscure properties that responses from the Comic-Con crowd become less representative of the wider public. Warner Bros. will have some serious educating to do, for example, before unleashing “Watchmen” — which artist-turned-filmmaker Frank Miller once called “the Moby Dick of comics” — despite an enticing trailer that director-geek mascot Kevin Smith likened to a religious experience.

During a Comic-Con panel with other directors, Smith definitively stated that superhero movies are “here to stay,” in part because the technology has caught up with the fantastical images. Besides, he asked, “Why not mine some of the most creative material ever written?”

Yet when these movies misfire, they can do so spectacularly — at a price that triggers the studio equivalent of human sacrifices. The more outlandish the character, moreover, the greater the risk of moments when the uninitiated portion of the audience giggles in the wrong places — an instant kiss of death.

The stakes also are high in television, where presold titles can flop faster than you can say “Bionic Woman.” And while “Heroes” and “Lost” have done wonders to mainstream heavily serialized fantasy series, the ratings arc for both has drifted downward, with less committed viewers — precisely those needed to lift a project toward “Dark Knight”-type euphoria — gradually dropping out as the mythology becomes more arcane and dense.

The good news is the environment appears far more hospitable than when CBS’ 1990 series “The Flash” suffered an undeserved blink-and-you-missed-it cancellation. If such series or films are produced at a reasonable cost, as DC and Marvel are doing with direct-to-video animation, there also are loyal niches that will hungrily (and profitably) lap up titles possessing more limited appeal.

The bottom line is that the next generation of movies about men and women of steel are going to require balls of brass, along with execs willing to gamble by trusting the filmmakers and source material — especially after one or two conspicuously crash and burn.

So while Scott’s piece was headlined “How Many Superheroes Does it Take to Tire a Genre?,” the question should really be, “How many failures will it take to make second-tier superheroes radioactive?”

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