Dominance of superheroes in mainstream entertainment

by Alamgir Khan (Jamil)

011Avengers: Age of Ultron (Avengers 2) is released world-wide this month, with high expectations of this making US $2 Billion. This kind of expectation is not something new. For many years most of the anticipated hits for the movies have come from the comic books, mainly superheroes. Some people complain that these movies hog all the attention and ‘real’ movies do not stand a chance to shine. At the same time there are many who disagree. They cannot have enough. Sometimes it makes you wonder, why is Hollywood and apparently the rest of the world so obsessed with Super heroes? What is their secret to success?
Avengers (2012) is the third highest grossing movie world wide of all time. Iron Man 3 also made the Top 10. There are two Batman movies and two Spider-man movies in that all-time Top 50 as well. When new releases from Marvel and DC do not make $100 million in the US market, it is considered a flop. Star Cineplex in Dhaka has also enjoyed brisk business when they released movies like Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America, Thor and the Spider-man movies.
Nowadays superheroes are not content just ruling the big screens, they seem to be making steps towards more exposure on TV as well. Flash is a big hit. Marvel has seen tremendous response in its cult hero Daredevil on Netflix. Arrow has been going strong, into its third season. Although Gotham, SHIELD and Constantine could not hold up to their promise, the mojo for the Comics-related shows are getting stronger and stronger making this the Age of the Geeks and the Nerds, as far as TV and movies are concerned.
Things were not always like this. There was a time comics fans would be ashamed to admit to their fanboy passion. They would keep it in the closet, not disclosing unless a fellow fanboy showed up.
012The first big success for Superheroes in the mass media probably was the Superman Radio shows in the 40s. But for most, the most prominent exposure was the Adam West starred fun TV show of the 60’s Batman. With loud sound effects (Biff! Pow!) and silly fight scenes and preaching dialogues, it was entertaining and was a pop culture phenomenon. Of course, the silly Batman image stayed with a lot of people. This image was very strong. It did not allow comics ideas to be taken seriously in the mainstream for a long time. Batman probably did not help any comic fan speak publicly about their interest, I imagine.
Another superhero, the first one, Superman, shattered all doubts about an epic superhero movie in 1978, with a stellar cast and production team. It made about $400 million in today’s money (adjusted) and remains the harbinger of the superhero movies movement. DC and Warner produced 3 more Superman movies, with each faring poorer than the previous one. Superman 4 was a disappointment. There were also a few low budget Marvel projects, including Captain America and Fantastic Four. All of them failed. The Comics were enjoying a good time by themselves in the print medium. Sales were good. Back issues were in demand. It was slowly getting to a position of respect in terms of popular literature.
Then, in 1989, Tim Burton would change the game with his very personal and dark (for that era) portrayal of the Batman, starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The movie grossed a massive $500 million plus (inflation adjusted). The phenomenon that movie is reflected in last year’s Oscar winner Birdman starring the same leading star.
Superman was an iconic movie. Made on scales difficult to attempt with another superhero. But the Batman success inspired significant follow up projects. Comic projects received boosts when lesser known characters fared remarkably well – Crow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spawn soon after. But the real dominance had to wait until the year 2000 release of X-men and then in 2002 the first Spider-man movie. Spider-man grossed over $550 million (inflation adjusted). It had an astounding first day figures of $114 million (2002) for the weekend. The figures may seem redundant to some, but trust me, in any business, including the show business, money matters.
The first decade of the 21st century has been a golden era for Superhero movies, with titles as versatile as Hulk, Hellboy, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil (a rare disappointment at the box office), Constantine and Superman returns – among many others. Since Spider-man it has been almost customary that the biggest anticipated summer blockbuster would be a superhero. And almost every time the comics movies have delivered. The latest conquest has come from an unlikely product called ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’, a lesser known comics title, with not a strong cast. It ended up making $333 million in the US market as well as over $700 m globally.
What is so special about the superhero universe? Well, for my money it is a creative talent of the comics medium. Comics are still mostly a cheap art form. Ranging from $2.99 to $3.99, it is easy to make (unlike the softwares or games which require huge funds), easy to buy. It attracts a lot of young talent, as well as veterans who want to express themselves. Just as a common rule for a popular art form, most of the content is ordinary. But since there are so many experiments, and passion in making a comic book, sometimes we see sparks of magic. Weird ideas are common place. Hilarious plot twists are a regular occurrence. With some iconic characters having decades and decades of storylines behind them, creative writers and artists sometimes come up with ingenious plots and stories.
Comics are a breeding ground for new ideas and creativity. Hollywood has picked up on that. And it is true that success breeds success. With each big hit from the superhero world, movie makers are interested to make more. Sure, we will have some disappointments along the line. But in most cases, those movies are doing well commercially and making a lot of fans happy.
The best thing about this ‘movement’ or phase is the producers realise that the same old crocodile will become old and boring soon. So they are trying to make things more interesting. This summer will also see the release of Ant-Man, the pint-size hero starring Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. It has a unique story, bit different from the traditional superhero mythos. But remembering how well the aforementioned GOTG fared with another unique story approach, only time will tell if we are about to witness growth in the storytelling of these genre.
We the Comics fans are ready to experiment in the movies – there are no strings on us.

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron well be released in Star Cineplex on May 2
The author is the owner of ‘Jamil’s Comics and Collectables’ store in Banani

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