I mentioned in a Game Recap how nerdy I am about comic books movies and I thought I would provide a comic book movie primer for those interested. Most of these items can be gleaned online from your favorite entertainment source, but it may be helpful to put it all together in one place as a handy reference. I’ll talk mainly about movies in this article, and will touch upon live TV series where relevant. I’ll eschew animated features/television unless it contains some useful trivia. I’ve decided to break this into two parts. Part I will cover everything except Fox / Marvel projects. Part II will cover only those.
Additionally, I find the business side fascinating as studios are scrambling to hold on to their intellectual property ("IP") and to what degree that affects artistic output. I will also sprinkle my own theories about everything throughout, sometimes in direct contradiction to a quote by a studio executive, based on what I know of the source material and the leading theories on the transition from comic book to screen. Also, a lot of the corporate structure for all this mess gets twisted and turned, and if one is so inclined, one can find such material on the Internet. I’ll try and keep it streamlined for expository purposes and to assist in surveying the current landscape.
For a long time, comic book movies were grossly mislabeled. Most heroes in a comic book movie were pulled mainly from comic strips, not comic books as we know them today. Outside a select few (Superman and Batman mainly), characters like Dick Tracy, the Phantom, Blondie, Flash Gordon, Red Ryder, and Joe Palooka constituted the canon of comic book movies. But these characters mainly appeared in syndicated newspaper strips and rarely had anything other than an anthology published in book form. As a result, characters from comic books (superheroes, mainly) suffered as they were crammed into movies produced in the style of strip characters, ignoring the elements that made them a more three-dimensional two-dimensional character.
I may include spoilers for most all movies listed here, so take this as your warning now: If there is any movie involving DC or Marvel movie characters that you are avoiding spoilers for, avast ye mateys now. I’ll only really discuss DC and Marvel in detail here, with maybe some side references to other comics as needed.
Detective Comics ("DC") started in 1934 (as National Allied Publications). They have grown throughout the years and through many corporate exchanges are now a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, in the AOL/Time Warner family. Due to its early success and the financial backing of its corporate owners since 1989, it has retained IP rights to all of its publications throughout its history with no challenge, with one notable exception.
Before X-Men debuted in 2000 for Fox Studios, comic book movies were a commercial and critical disaster for movie studios except for two characters – Superman and Batman. Superman’s first silver screen debut was in 1951 in Superman and the Mole Men. Starring George Reeves as the title character, it actually wasn’t an origin story as we would know it today, but just a movie-length pilot for the Adventures of Superman. Both products launched George Reeves to stardom, but only as Superman, and he struggled to break-out of the typecast role (for a great look into his life and mysterious death, I highly recommend Hollywoodland – underrated performances by Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck). There were some other Superman movies, but these were serials and weren’t as popular.
Everything kind of changed in 1978 with Richard Donner’s Superman. A special effects breakthrough at the time, for many this stands as dynamic shift in evolution of comic book/superhero movies. It is an out and out origin story, starting with Kal-El’s exodus from Krypton and his reveal to the people of Earth. It was followed up by Superman II, the comedy flop Superman III, and Christopher Reeve’s directorial debut and all-around terrible Superman IV: The Quest for More Money, er Peace. Superman then returned to television for two series – "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and "Smallville." Lois and Clark refocused the overarching narrative on the relationship between the titular characters and was packaged more as a rom-com than anything else. Mostly minus the com. Smallville reimagined the origin story, focusing on how Clark Kent dealt with emerging superpowers during puberty, then transforming into a CW show that had good parts and bad. It was notable (and enjoyable) for its nod’s to the Donner movies with guest appearances by many actors from the original including Christopher Reeve as Dr. Swann (who reveals Clark’s origins), Terence Stamp as Jor-El’s voice (General Zod from Superman II), Annette O’Toole as Martha Kent (Lana Lang from Superman III), Helen Slater as Lara, Kal-El’s mom (Supergirl in Supergirl), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the movies), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen in the movies and Supergirl), Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher (actors of Lois & Clark), and used parts of the John Williams score.
Superman returned to the big screen in 2006, in Bryan Singer’s film Superman Returns. It served as a direct sequel to Superman II, and starred Brandon Routh as the hero. With the permission of the Salkinds (producers of the Donner movies), Singer used old footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El and other items from the original two movies, including the famous John Williams score. Despite a decent cast and director devoted to the source material, this movie was not well-received by comic book fans or anyone with a brain.
As a result of ongoing legal issues, Superman Returns looked like it was going to be the last movie of the Last Son of Krypton for quite some time. As fans of the Indians, we should feel a special affinity for Superman, as his creators are Cleveland natives. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were high school students in Cleveland when they created Superman and they sold the character to Detective Comics (DC) in 1938. DC published Superman in Action Comics and bought the rights from Siegel and Shuster for $130 and contract to supply DC with material. They also got a salary. In 1947, the creators sued for the contract to be made void and tried to re-establish ownership of the IP. By now, Superman had spawned into a national icon and had generated IP related spin-offs (Superboy, animated shorts, serial movies, etc.). A New York court in 1948 ruled the original contract effective; however, it awarded IP rights to Siegel for Superboy. As a compromise, the two sides agreed on a settlement (the actual identities of the two parties gets a little convoluted, so see Wikipedia for a more detailed breakdown).
Siegel and Shuster restarted the suit in 1973 claiming the copyright ownership granted in 1938 was only for the original term and was not renewed upon expiration, and that it had reverted back to them. They again lost this law suit, but were granted financial compensation in the forms of pensions and health benefits. The copyright act was amended and DC then extended the copyright for 19 years in 1975 (up until 1994). There was, however, a change to federal copyright law as a direct result of all the litigation Siegel and Shuster filed over the years. It effectively allowed Superman copyright to be reclaimed from 1994 to 1999. Siegel died in 1996, and his wife and daughter filed copyright termination in 1999. Shuster died in 1992 and no termination claim was ever filed.
In 1998, copyright law was changed again and the term of copyright was pushed to 95 years with another window for reclamation. In 2004, Mark Peary, the legal heir to Shuster, filed an intent to reclaim, termination effective 2013. Now, we have this huge legal battle based on the past seventy-odd years of ongoing copyright battles. Warner Brothers (just understand that Superman IP has been sort of passed through corporate affiliates from DC in 1938) and the Siegels entered into negotiations, but the Siegels filed suit in 2004. So in 2004, descendants of both Siegel and Shuster have filed suit against WB for Superman IP. In 2008, the judge ruled that Siegel’s estate was entitled to a share of the IP. Different pieces of the case were on-going and threatened any further production, which is why Singer’s movie was effectively an end – WB couldn’t risk making a movie because it might revert to the creators’ estate. Ultimately, in 2009, it was ruled that WB had the rights and owed nothing further, but they had to start a new Superman film by 2011, otherwise the family could sue to recover damages. Magically, WB approved Man of Steel, written by David Goyer and produced by Christopher Nolan. In 2013, we likely have seen the end of the litigation, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal s ruled that DC owns the sole copyright to Superman.
Man of Steel released last year and starred Henry Cavil as the newest actor to take on the role of Kal-El. It was a rebooted origin story met with mixed reviews. Part of the issues lay with the director, Zak Snyder, and part with the script, written by Goyer. Up until its release, and for quite a bit of time afterward, it was alleged that Man of Steel would serve as the basis for a new shared movie universe of DC characters much how Iron Man jump started the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was confirmed recently with the sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, will serve as a lead-in to a Justice League movie. I enjoyed the movie somewhat (I have a soft spot for Supes), but feel like it was hurt by two things: 1)the attempt to build the basis for a common universe of superheroes, and 2)the somewhat rush to production caused by the 2009 court ruling. While they started production in 2010, compliant with the ruling, they couldn’t let it languish in pre-production forever, they had to act in good faith (unknown if explicitly, but it would open them up for further liability if they didn’t actually try and make a movie). As such, everything should be clear going forward to produce Superman on the big screen until the copyright gets close to expiring again and whoever has a claim to the creators’ estates files a new suit, because why not.
Superman is one of my favorites for many reasons, which I won’t go into here. One of my dislikes, however, is with the evolution of the character in his growth in power. He started as Moses and he’s turned into Jesus, even before MOS. An inevitable result of being one of the first superheroes and the genre archetype, I enjoyed Superman more when he had a struggle. As that struggle gets eliminated by his ever-growing abilities, he loses what makes him appealing.
Trivia: Superman originally could only jump. But in the original animated series, it wasted animators’ time to show him running and jumping from place to place. It was much easier to show a single cel of Superman flying. So, Boom: Superman now flies.
Comic to read: All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely .
Batman: The Movie first debuted on the screen in 1966, due to the success of the "Batman" television series, starring Adam West. It was as campy and 60’s as the show and was enjoyable if not out and out silly. The Caped Crusader took a long break and returned to the screen in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. At the time, Burton’s vision was lauded as dark and, in contrast to the upright and noble Superman, provided a different take on comic book movies. Burton’s Batman was a box office smash and was well-received by fans. It was due to the success of this movie, that the early 90’s started studio heads race to grab IP rights for movies from comic publishers. I remember at the time (I was in 3rd grade, so grain of salt) that it was originally supposed to be a six-picture deal. However, due to the commercial and/or critical failures of Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin, this line of films ended in 1997 with one of the worst movies of all time. That I saw in the theaters. Yeah.
Batman lived on television for most of the time, through cartoons (pretty decent ones IMO). In 2005, he returned to the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. A new part of a trilogy, this took the "dark" version of Batman from Tim Burton and brought him into the 21st Century. By this point, Batman had experienced cultural superstardom through movies and video games, but this reinserted the hero into mainstream media due to the well-crafted story and grittiness of the character. A sequel, The Dark Knight, was released in 2008 and is notable both for its performances (good luck to the next guy to play the Joker) and that it is the direct cause for how the Academy Awards changed its method for selecting Best Movie. In the latest of how Hollywood is crazy and obsessed with telling the audience what art is, it was left off the 2008 slate for Best Pictures, to considerable uproar. Afterwards, more movies are now allowed to be considered for Best Picture.
The trilogy wrapped up with The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. This completed Nolan’s vision of the message and character journey he wanted to tell. Nolan is a pretty gifted movie-maker and there have been rivers of Internet ink over what the movies mean, which I’ll skip here. All in all, the Nolan trilogy now stands as the benchmark of the character. Past interpretations look silly or not dark enough in retrospect, and the moral ambiguity of Nolan’s Batman now rules the day. As concerned as he is for justice, he is not as committed to the means as Superman may be, but typically is as devoted to the ends. Batman will be returning to the big screen in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and will be played by Ben Affleck. Here is an interesting graphic to look at – fan reactions to Heath Ledger casting news as the Joker.
As much as people bemoan the Affleck casting, Batman is a good example of my argument that a superhero is defined by two things: Alter Ego and Enemies. When casting for Batman, you are not casting Batman – you are casting Bruce Wayne. Any idiot can put on a cape and a mask and do karate. To give the character depth, you need to show the trials and tribulations the alter ego faces without being able to do battle as his hero identity. Likewise, any hero will be bolstered by a likable relatable villain. Batman probably has the best Rogue’s Gallery of the entire superhero universe across all boards. The Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, Penguin, even Mr. Freeze, are pretty popular and enjoyable to watch. Superman suffered because he originally fought corporate corruption and Al Capone-inspired petty thieves and street crime. Then, as his powers grew, his villians grew into crazier and crazier super-powered psychopaths where the whole thing has become kind of silly. Also, for some reason, Superman’s enemies all seem to stem from Krypton, which is interesting, since he is supposed to be the only survivor.
Anyway, Affleck will benefit or suffer from how Bruce Wayne is portrayed and what villain is in DOJ. I think he can pull of the Wayne part, the rest remains to be seen. Batman will also be getting new life in Fox’s "Gotham," premiering this fall. It will follow the young days of Commissioner Gordon, before Commissioner, and will deal with characters in the Batman universe. It looks promising.
Trivia: Batman was the first movie to make $100 MM in its first ten days.
Comic to read: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller or Batman: Year One by Frank Miller
Dawn of Justice is reporting a heavy cast of DC heroes. Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and Green Lantern are all tied either through confirmation and rumor. Some have had their own stabs at movies (Green Lantern was forgettable; Wonder Woman has been in pre-production/casting hell) or famous television series (Lynda Carter!). Other DC movies involve unrelated characters like Jonah Hex or Steel (sort of Superman related). DC primarily rules on TV as the Flash is returning to TV and had a short-lived early 90’s version. Likewise, "Smallville" and "Arrow" were/are highly regarded by fans and critics. Animated-wise, DC has a lot to offer. Most every DC animated movie has been enjoyable. I’d recommend Justice League: Doom and Under the Red Hood.
DC is a sort of prime example of the 80/20 rule. Outside of Batman and Superman, there isn’t a lot to boast. But those two franchises account for more than 75% of box office dollars from comic book movies. Those two characters also account for much of non-movie products and revenue. All signs point to a Batman v. Superman box office record, if only DC could market like Marvel. Outside of those two, however, you have very slim niche pickings. Dawn of Justice has the unenviable task of bringing Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Flash into mainstream revenue generating movies. Given the current state of comic book movies, there will have to be a delicate balance between the lightheartedness of Superman et al and the grittiness of Batman. WB has decided Zak Snyder is the man for the job.
Marvel Comics started in 1939 (originally as Timely) and has somewhat of a different history than DC. It got new-life in the early 1960’s when Stan Lee started creating popular superheroes left and right, spawning such favorites as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, and bringing back Captain America. He also helped launch the X-Men.
Facing bankruptcy in late 90’s, Marvel decided to sell off movie rights to most of its characters to keep the company solvent. These deals kept the company in business, but had an interesting catch: the studios acquiring the movie rights had to produce a new movie every so many years or the rights would revert back to Marvel. This will serve as a key reason for the movies we’ve seen in the past six years based on Marvel characters. For those characters not sold by Marvel, they remain with the publisher. In 1993, Marvel created Marvel Films, which provided support for some terrible movies, and sold most of the rights. In 1996, Marvel created Marvel Studios, which expanded the support and slowly began to assimilate the production responsibilities. In 2008, Iron Man debuted as the first time a publisher has produced movies based on its own IP with no experienced studio assisting. Eventually, Marvel as a whole was acquired by Disney, including Marvel Studios. The movie company, however, retains its independence in operating from Disney and is left more or less to itself.
Regarding the rights of characters sold off, it breaks down as such:
Spider-Man – Sony
X-Men – Fox
Fantastic Four – Fox
Daredevil – Fox (reverted to Marvel)
Hulk - Universal Pictures (with Marvel Enterprises support, rights go to Marvel Studios now)
Blade – New Line Cinema (Marvel Enterprises); rights are presumably with Marvel Studios now.
The Punisher – Artisan Entertainment, then Lionsgate/Marvel Knights (precursor sort of to Marvel Studios).
All other characters remain with Marvel Studios. In 2008, Marvel launched Iron Man and since then, all live-action Marvel Studios movies exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU"). As part of the deal, both heroes and villians, and sometimes terms (like mutant) all go with the character. So X-Men involves Magneto, Wolverine, the word mutant, Sentinels, etc.
Surprisingly, Blade was the first Marvel property to be a major release and also enjoy commercial and critical success. Starring Wesley Snipes, Blade IP spawned a trilogy and short-lived TV series. The first two movies are quite good (Blade 2 is a pretty good movie), while the third is pretty terrible. They were released by New Line Cinema which is now defunct (merged with WB in 2008) and were as such not nearly as wide a release as would be given to most movies now. After the folding of New Line into WB, it is unclear where the Blade rights are now, but I imagine they reverted to Marvel as the last Blade movie was 2004, and the TV series was in 2007. This Blade trilogy was one of the first (if not the first) reimaginings of vampires as a modern sub-culture of euro-trash. You can see remants of the Blade influence in many of the modern interpretations of vampire mythology on television and other media.
Trivia: Wesley Snipes choreographed the fights in Blade and Blade II.
Comic to read: Blade is an oddity in that the best interpretation of the character is probably the first two movies. If you absolutely must read something, I guess go with Blade: Undead Again, but it’s kinda meh.
Daredevil IP is responsible for two movies: Daredevil and Elektra. Released in 2003 and 2005, the films were a result of cramming actors into superhero movies based on the success of X-Men. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner starred as the heroes but the movies did not fare well. As a result, Fox allowed the rights to both characters to revert to Marvel. Marvel will be re-launching the franchise with a Netflix series, starring Charlie Cox (Stardust/Boardwalk Empire) as the hero.
Trivia: Daredevil actually appeared on a TV Movie – the "Trial of the Incredible Hulk." It was not good.
Comic to read: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (but if you don’t want a very Batmanish Daredevil, then Daredevil Ultimate Collection by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev)
Punisher IP has been a long drama of failed movies. Despite being one of the most popular characters in Marvel comics, Frank Castle just can’t find resonance on the big screen. He originally appeared in a 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren. They then tried again in 2004 with Thomas Jane and again in 2008 with Ray Stevenson. Each movie failed in one way or another in starting a franchise and the character has been left in limbo. I am sure Marvel will try again to capitalize on his popularity, but I have a hard time seeing his grittiness and violence translate to the general feel of the MCU. In a world with SHIELD, it doesn’t seem like a vigilante like the Punisher would last for long.
Trivia: I maintain the Steven Seagal movie Hard to Kill is based on the Punisher. Despite Marvel not returning my phone calls fishing for lawsuits, I will be willing to offer my expert opinion on such matters.
Comic to read: Punisher:Born by Garth Ennis.
Spider-Man had been rumored to be making it to the big screen since 1991. Apparently, James Cameron had the rights at one time, but it was stuck in development hell. Sam Raimi and Sony finally got the franchise off the ground with 2002’s boss office smash Spider-Man. Starring Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man started giving serious support to the commercial viability of comic book movies as it was the next movie since 2000’s X-Men and it enjoyed much more box office success. Additionally, it was nominated for two academy awards. It was followed by two more Maguire movies, one of which was good (Spider-Man 2, the best of all Spider-Man movies, IMO) and a terrible one (Spider-Man 3, released in 2007). Faced with the threat of the only successful movie franchise in Sony returning to Marvel, Sony decided on pushing forward a hasty reboot of the hero rather than giving in to Maguire’s demands on a return for a fourth appearance. In 2012, Andrew Garfield took up the role in Amazing Spider-Man, and a sequel was released recently titled Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 steals a page from the MCU by attempting to set the stage for a long-run of shared universe movies, albeit a very small universe. Sinister Six is a recurring Spider-Man storyline involving six Spider-Man villains. If you saw ASM2, then this isn’t news to you. What may be news is that the Sinister Six are possibly going to be their own movie in the Garfield universe. A Venom movie is likely coming, too. This will allow Sony to get some mileage after its more recent reboot without running Andrew Garfield out there every time. Another possibility will be that Sony will pick up the Miles Morales storyline. Morales becomes Spider-Man in the Ultimates universe after the death of Peter Parker. I’m not a huge Spider-Man fan, but Morales is actually pretty enjoyable as Spidey. It would be nice, too, as it provides Sony a reboot within the same universe. Neither side has explicitly said where the Morales IP is, however, and if still with Marvel, then it could allow them to introduce Spidey to Avengers.
It’s worth noting that the executive producer on all the Spider-Man movies is Avi Arad. Arad used to be the head of Marvel Studios. He’s continually stated that Sony will not be giving up Spider-Man rights or crossing over with the MCU. However, outside of the SM franchise, Sony movies are all-around terrible (I think they had Skyfall and 21 Jump Steet, but other than that…). So while they are desparate to hold on to it, they are desparate to expand their portfolio. I’m not sure exactly how bad the blood is between Arad and Kevin Feige, so it might be something that never happens.
Trivia: Spider-Man has been a part of the Fantastic Four (kind of twice) and the Avengers.
Comic to read: I’d actually recommend the Marvel Masterpieces Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1. It’s a reprint of original Spider-man stories by Stan Lee and they are actually pretty good. I’m a little biased, as I’ve never been a huge Spider-man fan.