Triumph fanboys of the
The super- sized success of superhero movies lies in their ability to transform adults into adolescents and vice versa, writes Lynden Barber
WHEN Hollywood studio Warner Bros announced recently it was planning to make fewer movies, it added an all-important proviso: of those it did make, a bigger proportion would be based on comic book characters. Which raises the question among those not yet won over to the essentially teenage appeal of superheroes: What exactly is it about movies about men in face masks and tight underpants that has Hollywood salivating?
Money by the truckload is one obvious answer. After this year’s ascension to the box-office heavens of the latest Batman movie vehicle, The Dark Knight , the quest is on to produce the next global money-spinner. Warner, the studio behind that mega-hit, and its rivals are determined to have a hefty slice of the action.
The first attempt is nearly upon us. On January 8, independent studio Lionsgate will launch The Spirit , directed and written by Frank Miller, something of a superhero himself to comic book fans because of his reinvention of the Batman comic-book character in the 1980s and his noir-ish Sin City comic books ( plus the 2005 movie, which he co-directed). Starring newcomer Gabriel Macht alongside Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson, the visually stylised film concerns a dead cop who comes back to life to fight crime.
Meanwhile, Paramount has been heavily promoting a movie based on the ’ 80s cult Watchmen characters, although it is not due until March. The film’s director, Zack Snyder — who directed the comic book-based historical adventure 300 — gave a presentation of uncompleted clips to journalists in Sydney last month. And thanks to a deal with the film production division set up by DC’s traditional rival, Marvel Comics, it has a slew of other titles in the pipeline, including Captain America and Thor movies.
The scale of The Dark Knight ’ s success underlines just how huge the rewards of a successful superhero movie have become. Arriving on the back of the successful series re-launch that was 2005’ s Batman Begins , it was always expected to be a big hit. Heath Ledger’s creepy performance as the villainous Joker virtually guaranteed it. What no one expected was how enormous it would be.
Globally, the film has raked in nearly $ US1 billion ($ 1.4 billion), $ 45.5 million of that in Australia, making it the second biggest earner after Titanic . Even bearing in mind that Gone with the Wind is the biggest earner once figures are adjusted for inflation, the numbers are sobering.
This ( southern) winter saw a superhero tale opening almost every week. They included the first titles from Marvel’s film production division: The Incredible Hulk ( a second attempt at the character after the 2003 Ang Lee flop, Hulk ) and Iron Man, a sizeable hit for Paramount. Add to them Wanted , Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Speed Racer ( based on a Japanese animation, itself based on a comic book) and the Will Smith vehicle Hancock , a superhero story, though unusually one not based on a comic book.
These titles follow the X-Men and Spider-Man hit series, two Fantastic Four movies, Superman Returns , flops such as Daredevil and Catwoman , superhero comedies Mystery Men, The Incred- ibles and My Super Ex-Girlfriend , and various films based on non-superhero comic books and graphic novels ( comic books published in book form), including A History of Violence, Sin City , The Road to Perdition and Ghost World .
But the influence on Hollywood spreads further when you consider the way that blockbusters such as Transformers , based on a popular toy, employ a comic book aesthetic, and that action and science fiction movies have started to ape superhero genre conventions. In the Matrix films, Keanu Reeves’s hero, Neo, could fly. In Die Hard 4.0 , Bruce Willis’s John McClane drove into a concrete pillar but, instead of crumpling, his vehicle flew into the air and knocked a helicopter from the sky.
Even James Bond has displayed superheroic feats, such as his beating the laws of physics in GoldenEye by diving off a cliff in pursuit of a plummeting aeroplane and catching up with it.
Cinematic superheroes are hardly new, of course; Christopher Reeve was in four Superman films made between 1978 and 1987, but then they were an occasional event. Today they form a central plank of studio output. They are to the 2000s what westerns were to the ’ 50s and following the huge success of The Dark Knight ( now routinely shortened to TDK), they’re not about to go away.
By 2011, Warner Bros aims to be releasing as many as eight such movies a year. With DC Comics ( publisher of characters including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) a part of the Warner Bros Entertainment stable since 1969, it’s a natural fit.
A key part of the corporation’s reasoning is not only the box-office success of its films to date ( its 2006 Superman Returns , starring newcomer Brandon Routh, was a box-office disappointment) but the global revenues from sales of spinoff products such as toys and games.
The phenomenon has led to the rise to power and influence of a new breed of Hollywood player: the invariably male fan of comic books and the movies based on them. Habitually referred to as ‘‘ fanboys’’, they range in age from the early teens upward to the odd sexagenarian, though the median age is 28 according to Mal Briggs, co-owner of Canberra retailer Impact Comics, which imports a half tonne of comic books and graphic novels a week from the US.
The fanboys are increasingly being courted by the studios, the belief being that whatever movie is pleasing them is likely to cross over to wider popularity. A sign of the importance of superhero movies to Hollywood is the huge influence of an annual convention held in San Diego in July known as Comic Con. Initially devoted to the comic book trade but now also encompassing movies, it draws fanboys in their thousands along with an increasingly large media contingent.
Channelling the zeitgeist: Superheroes for the digital age, from left, Christian Bale as Batman; Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man