The Marvel-Netflix deal to adapt a quartet of second-tier characters as series highlights the super-sized challenge these companies face when it comes to mining their libraries — something DC has learned, at times the hard way.
Or, put another way, if you can’t name your favorite Luke Cage-Iron Fist story — or don’t even know they once teamed up in the same comic — it might take a little bit of salesmanship to convince you to give a damn about their migration to the screen, TV, computer or otherwise.
In a sense, the original “Iron Man” was something of a fluke — a visually arresting character enhanced by the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. Since then, however, there have been plenty of cautionary tales, including big-screen adaptations of “Green Lantern” and “Jonah Hex” on the DC side of the ledger, or before that Marvel’s multiple stabs over the last quarter-century at trying to make “The Punisher” (starring Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson) pop as a feature.
As I wrote back in 2011, when “Green Lantern” had failed to light up the box-office, the devoted comic-book audience is still relatively narrow in terms of supporting $200-million theatrical blockbusters. Moreover, there’s always the danger audiences will start giggling in the wrong places once you get past the signature names — Superman, Batman, Spider-Man — and begin trying to make a mountain out of Ant-Man or other less-well-known titles.
Frankly, TV and digital seem like the right place to attempt exploiting some of these properties, as CW has done with success by its modest standards on “Arrow” (minus the Green) and now is contemplating with “Hourman,” a pretty good character, really, but hardly a household name. (At least they won’t have to explain why the show runs, er, 60 minutes.)
For anyone weaned on comic books, this is an exciting time, as both DC and Marvel — and their respective studios Warner Bros. and Disney — rifle through their catalogues looking for ways to adapt characters who have entertained audiences for decades, albeit in a two-dimensional format.
On the plus side, filmmakers and producers are now taking these projects seriously, which should spare us David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Yet as the disappointing “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” has demonstrated, just slapping the “Marvel” moniker on a series isn’t going to be enough to bring back “The Avengers”-type returns — and at a certain point, risks diluting the pool. There’s also the real possibility that enough failures will start making studio accounting departments shy away from some of these adaptations, which is why the pressure is always on to get them right.
That said, it’s been demonstrated time and again that the leap from page to screen can be a perilous one, perhaps especially for someone who wears a cape and cowl. And in Hollywood terms, whoever has the powers necessary to manage this delicate metamorphosis and create viable screen stars will determine who the real heroes are.