In less than a month, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron will hit cinema screens across the globe (24th April in India, a week before the U.S release. In case, anyone’s wondering). Starring a top-notch cast which includes Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo (who did a surprisingly better job as The Hulk than Ed Norton) and Scarlett Johansson (who makes the case for a standalone Black Widow film more compelling with each feature), among others, the film, a sequel to the previous Avengers film that released way back in 2012 has had fans awaiting eagerly for its release ever since its first trailer ‘leaked’ way back in Diwali. Fellow comic-book fanboy Joss Whedon, the master creator behind nerd entertainment like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly returns to the director’s chair and even as fans despair at a possible no end credits sequence for the movie (the last one did wonders for local shawarma sales), expectations go through the roof with every passing day. However, as much as it is anticipated across the world, Avengers is merely lighting the way to the release of the comic book films that follow (Fantastic Four, Ant-man).
And, that’s not all. In fact, over the course of the next 5 years, there is a speculation of over 35 superhero/fantasy movies going into production. With superheroes like Deadpool, Aquaman, Flash and the Black Panther set to get films of their own, it would seem that Marvel and DC have found a fairly chronic way of breathing life into comic book characters. What was a once-in-a-year modest indulgence from the days of Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton, has now mutated into a year-long extravaganza with a major superhero film every quarter.
And the geeks shall inherit the Earth…
Anyone who has grown up with dozens load of comic books will tell you that their fantasies always had something to do with seeing their favourite superheroes come to life. To see the colour and action on page translate to flash and bang on screen was a dream come true for many. And yet, the perception as it was years ago remains, that comic books remain an element of the ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ culture. For many of us, the world of fantastical superheroes became our alternate reality, and escape from the real world. And it so began that this small, niche group of fanboys stoked the inspiration for screen adaptations, from the campy (Adam West’s Batman), to the awful (The Zorro Series).
Box Office records show that comic book movies are doing significantly better than their conventional brethren, a trend that has only encouraged the studios to make more. So metaphorically, if not literally, the geeks are truly inheriting the earth. But, what defines the success behind these adaptations is perhaps the accessibility of modern-day movies to the non-comic book reading audience. The contributions of auteurs like Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer who treated the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises with respect and Christopher Nolan, who translated a comic book film into art only made the fandom more expansive. And then there is Joss Whedon, a man who is to sci-fi geek culture what Andy Serkis is to motion animation, a true genius who brought comic books and nerd culture to our TV sets. Furthermore, it has been a sheer delight to watch the progression of visual and special effects on screen, an achievement which has further blurred the line between fact and the geeky ‘alternate reality.’
Jumping the Shark?
There are times of course when the movie-going audience does feel disillusioned. Every broadcast of Ben Affleck’s Daredevil on HBO reflects that even superhero films, unlike their protagonists have all the frailties of their generic counterparts. And unlike perhaps the fans of other genres, fans of comic book movies have a long memory (As is established by the death threats received by Joel Schumacher for his part in ‘Batman and Robin,’ an abomination that killed the Batman franchise until Nolan revived it). There is also the certain fact that often, comic book movies are pushed unnecessarily (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) for commercial purposes, which is why too many such movies come with the same generic plot all over again. And perhaps, there is some good sense in looking out for commercial success, but it is also slowly killing not only the entertainment medium, but also the superhero it is based on (Elektra).
Standing firm with comic filmdom
As a comic-book fanboy myself (In the cinematic sense, if not truly the comic-book sense), I find the criticism directed at the superhero/fantastical genre to be exaggerated, if not misguided. True, not all comic book movies are good and perhaps, a case can be made for it being a genre with more misses than hits but, critics often forget that unlike other genres, it remains a fairly modern genre. Its bubble, as most critics suspect should not burst anytime soon because it still has loads of time to evolve. And if recent history is any reference, the genre still has millions of non-comic book fans to convert.
Secondly, the superhero genre despite being a genre older than say, science-fiction hadn’t evolved over the years at the same pace, both plot and budget-wise. Therefore, while on one end millions of bucks were put in after the successes of Science-fiction sagas like Star Wars and E.T, hardly a fraction was put into the superhero genre, with fine films like Tim Burton’s Batman barely scrapping by.
The difference between a good and a bad superhero movie depends essentially on two factors. Firstly, the very quality of the story, acting and the production. Every fine movie, whether in the superhero genre or outside it has fine contributions in the field of acting, writing or production designs. So was the case with the initial attempts at superhero movies, partly because at that time, superheroes still remain well under the ‘geek’ culture or something for kids, which is why no one ever took it too seriously. However, the same perception has changed with the talents of Bryan Singer (X-Men) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), bringing the best of the comic-book world to the larger audience.
Secondly, I believe a lot of the success of such screen adaptations owes itself to how much is stays true to its comic-book ego. An adaptation can only replicate the success and essence of the comic-book to the extent to which such an adaptation has chosen to breathe life to the character on its transition from page to screen, an art which I must say Marvel has perfected considering their wonderfully etched characters across the Marvel cinematic universe. It is therefore a tribute to their own success that whenever I think of Iron Man, I think of a wise-cracking Robert Downey Jr. in a metal suit.
Stan Lee once said that a kid lived within the soul of every adult, and that the purpose behind his characters was to make these kids jump in glee and delight. Movies based on such characters have made this all the more a gleeful pleasure. Comic-book movies may have its failings and commercial distractions but it is also one of the few genres created purely to entertain. Comic book movies may be ‘junk food’ entertainment, but they’re certainly not trash. The genre may have its Green Lantern and Ghost Rider, but it also has its Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (Yes, that’s how good Nolan’s trilogy is). Give it time and hopefully, the genre will pan out into something more liberating, an experience only cinema can provide. And who knows, with the frequency of such releases, the day may come sooner rather than later, and win many more converts to the cause.