With the Avengers:Age of Ultron easily becoming the first big hit of the summer, Ant-Man on the way, and at least 40 comic book movies coming out in the next 5 years, it’s easy to say that comic book movies are kind of a big deal. That being said, now is as good of time as any to say that I am totally cool with this. I love comic books and I may even love their live action counterparts just a little bit more. There are many, though, who do not share my sentiment. Many would argue that the rise in comic book movies are a byproduct of an uninspired film industry, an industry focused merely on box office numbers and brand recognition, resulting in a plague of reboots, sequels and adaptations. They wouldn’t be wrong. The industry is in a bit of a creative drought, but the rise of comic book movies is actually one of the few positive side effects of this pandemic.
Good movies are surprisingly hard to make. We seem to think that if studios simply picked the right director and actors things should just fall into place. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple, add to that what you may define as a good movie is very different in the eyes of a studio. For studios the only real priority is profit. It’s an unfortunate reality, but movies are expensive and studios need to do whatever they can to minimize the risk of failure. That’s why there are so many remakes, sequels and adaptations. Simply put, it’s a lot less risky to make a movie about something people already know and like, than to make something new and original. Comic books fit into this business model just perfectly. The source material is already there, they already have legions of fans and tons of characters with countless franchise possibilities, expanded universes, toys, t-shirts and cartoon shows. The possibilities are endless! So what if you feel a little exploited?
If it weren’t for comic book movies’ insane ability to make money we wouldn’t be getting an R-rated Deadpool, or movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad. As a fan, a nerd, I can’t help but be excited, and so should you. “Comic book movies” is a pretty broad term and actually a bit misleading. There is a such a surprising array of “comic book” stories and characters, that I think its almost a disservice to lump them all under one moniker. It’s not what it used to be, and its not just silly stories about men in tights that kids read. Comic books have reached a whole new level, spanning countless genres and styles, from coming of age stories of heart break like Craig Thompson’s Blankets, to the epic superhero masterpiece that is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. If Hollywood is really starved for new ideas at least they are tapping into a genre that can offer some variety.
“Yeah, but comic books aren’t original, and Hollywood should support originality!” Okay , maybe, but original movies can be terrible too, Jupiter Ascending, ahem, cough. The truth is, storytelling itself is not original. Pretty much all traditional movies and stories follow the same pattern; a hero, a villain, a goal, a struggle, rising action, climax, falling action etc. Sure, some break the mold, but dig deep enough and you’ll find the remnants of classic storytelling. So if you need a hero and villain you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anything better then Batman vs. The Joker.
Ask anyone about The Magnificent Seven and they’d have to say its an incredible movie. The cast alone is something to behold, and it is arguably one of the greatest Westerns of all time. It took all the most badass people of the time (and probably still today) and put them in an amazing team up action film. It’s like The Expendables but actually good! It may be a classic film, and it may be a great film, but one thing it ain’t is original. Nope. It’s actually a remake of the Akira Kurosowa classic Seven Samurai (I’m sure all you cinephiles already knew this).
The truth is, your source is irrelevant as long as you do something good with it. Mad Max:Fury Road is a return to old ground but has unbridled creativity, amazing action and excitement. Dredd although a reboot, and based on a comic, is also incredibly creative and exciting. Both are linear in their storytelling, and both use unrelenting action to keep the narrative moving. Again though, neither the subject nor the structures are original, they’re just simple stories. Simple can be good, complicated can be good, but they have to make sense. Tarantino has made his entire career borrowing elements from genre films of the past and reusing it in his own unique way. His upcoming The Hateful Eight is his homage to… you guessed it, The Magnificent Seven. Tarantino’s films work because he understands the importance of good storytelling, and they make sense. As unique as Tarantino’s brand of cinema may see, it’s not wholly original. Movies are a lot like jokes, they’re only as good as the person telling them. Not surprisingly Tarantino is actually a great joke teller, as proven by his cameo in Desperado.
The problem with a lot of films really comes down to what should be the most important element of any movie, the story. That’s the biggest issue I can see with all these remakes and sequels. Because the audience already knows the characters, often what you get is a series of set pieces, but no real character depth or natural storytelling. Often it’s a case of “Oh I know Superman is the good guy, because Superman is a good guy”, instead of “Superman is a good guy based on his actions and the decisions he makes presented in the film”. To quote Batman Begins “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you”, the same can be, or should be said of good storytelling. A character is only as good or as bad as the actions or things he says in the movie. But more often than not, big budget movies get lazy and rely on the audience’s preconceived notions of character instead of actually letting a character come to life on screen.
The blame can’t simply be put on lazy studio heads just banging out movies for a buck. They aren’t extracting the money against our will; we continue to hand it over gladly. We as audience members are just as guilty for the decline in quality and originality as the studios. We need to start demanding more, we need to stop giving up our ticket money so easily. A ticket is like a vote, if we don’t want lazy storytelling and cheap thrills to continue to run the box office then we need to stop voting for it. If shit movies stop making money, then studios will stop making shit movies, (probably). In the meantime I’m going to put on my Batman t-shirt and try enjoy this history-making moment, when nerds rule the box office.
By Ryan Schuurman Hess