Wolverine Origins makes 2009 the 8th year in the last ten to see a Marvel Comics movie. (Exceptions were 99 and 01). In fact, this year is also only the third of those 8 years that we’ve only with only one Marvel movie. 2002 had two, and the rest had three. So far there have been three successful film trilogies about Marvel characters, Blade, X-men, and Spiderman. The Spidey trilogy alone made literally over 2 and a half billion dollars. In addition to those trilogies we’ve already had 2 Hulk movies, 2 Fantastic Four movies, 2 Punishers, Iron Man, Daredevil, Elektra, and Ghost Rider. That’s a total of 20 movies, all of which, except the last Punisher, turned a profit at the global box office. (There’s also Man-Thing, which was intended to have a theatrical release but instead was shown on the Sci-fi channel.).
What a difference a decade makes. 10-15 years ago, Marvel was the poster child of bad movies, with low budget versions of The Punisher, Captain America, and a Roger Corman directed Fantastic Four film that was so bad it was never released. In the late 90s Marvel went bankrupt, and the comic industry itself was in a downward spiral. Meanwhile DC was rolling with the Batman film franchise, until that was run into the ground with the infamously hated Batman and Robin.
Flash forward to today. How many DC movies have been released in the last 10 years? (Meaning DC Universe Characters, not counting Watchmen and The Spirit) There’s been 5. One of them was Superman Returns, starring Superman as a deadbeat dad. (????) Another was Catwoman. Catwoman, sounds cool right, except it was not at all based on the comic character, was completely unrecognizable to comic fans, and left non-fans with absolutely no bridge to get to the comics. Then there was Constantine, which wasn’t bad. Although the hardcore fans didn’t like it, it was a moderate success. Last is the new Batman series, including the juggernaut that is The Dark Knight. Batman seems to be the one thing DC does right. One would think that being owned by a major movie studio would be to DC’s advantage, but Warner Brothers has to make other kinds of movies besides superheroes. Sometimes, as Marvel has shown us, smaller is better. (In fact, a lot of average/non-geeky folk think Marvel publishes Batman and Superman.)
What Marvel was able to do in the last ten years, is license out different properties to different studios, allowing multiple franchises to be developed at once. This is why many years had not one but three Marvel movies. Fox did X-men and Fantastic Four, Sony did Spiderman, Lionsgate did Punisher, Universal did Hulk, New Line did Blade (Interestingly enough, New Line is owned by Warner Brothers, which in turn owns Marvel’s rival DC comics) and so forth. This gave great mainstream exposure to Marvel characters and helped revitalize the company. (Someone needs to write a book about the transition from a bankrupt Marvel to the powerhouse it is today) The problem for Marvel though, was they only saw a small portion of these movie profits, most of which went to the studios, who in turn take the financial risk of producing said movies.
The whole game changed last year with Iron Man and the Hulk, both produced and made by Marvel Comics themselves. In 2005 Marvel took a $525 million dollar loan from Merrill Lynch to produce a series of films, the rights to those films being collateral. The plus side to this is if the films are successful, it will create a huge new revenue stream for Marvel, plus Marvel will build it’s own film library for later distribution to TV, digital, and other channels. Most films have about a six year window of generating revenue, from box office, to DVD, pay per view options, airing on premium channels like HBO, and finally airing on cable and network TV.
The down side of this is that along with potential profits, they are also taking on potential risks. If the movies are not successful, Marvel will lose money, and either way they still have to pay back their loan to Merrill Lynch. In addition a lot of the big name Marvel characters are already movie franchises, namely Spidey, and the X-men. There aren’t too many big name characters left to film, exceptions being Captain America and Thor, which are in development now.
The counter side to that argument however, is that while there aren’t a lot of big names left, there are literally thousands of minor characters that are potential big screen franchises. The Blade film franchise, for example, was based around a third string character no one outside comics ever heard of, but was re-imagined, made cool, and starred Wesley Snipes, so presto, success. Again there are endless numbers of would be franchises waiting in Marvel’s library, surely all of them won’t hit the mark, but undoubtedly some of them will.
The final benefit of what Marvel is doing is that fans will finally get to see the first comic crossover film. Last years Iron Man and the Hulk are set in the same universe, with Tony Stark appearing at the end of Hulk. The upcoming Captain America and Thor movies will also be set in the same world, culminating in 2012 with the Avengers. That movie will show us the super heroic team of Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and probably a few others, like Nick Fury. Fury (played by Samuel Jackson) of course appeared in the post credit Iron Man scene, talking to Tony about the “Avengers Initiative.” Geek moment of the year for Marvel fans.
So I beg the question, why isn’t DC doing this? Furthermore why haven’t they started years ago? Given they’ve all been under the WB roof for decades, it shouldn’t have been too hard. Looking back, Superman Returns should have been Superman Begins. Instead of a love letter to the old movies, it should have restarted the franchise, and established a shared universe with Batman. More movies could have followed like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Green Lantern, building up to a Justice League movie starring all of the above, and maybe a few more like Martian Manhunter. As much excitement people have now over an Avengers movie, imagine the excitement building up to JLA.
Then imagine if Marvel and DC were going head to head with these movies, each summer both companies releasing an entry or two. Truth be told DC could probably outgun Marvel as far as JLA vs Avenger characters are concerned. In my opinion, there are more JLA characters that could carry their own movies than core Avengers characters. Either way, imagine the debates, the fandom, the hype, two entertainment juggernauts dueling it out for 5 summers straight. It’d be the comic book equivalent of wrestling’s Monday Night Wars.
But enough about comic movies, let’s talk about comics! Marvel hasn’t forgotten that it publishes comic books, and in the last few years published mainstream headline grabbing events. First was Civil War, the premise, due to a tragic accident the US government now requires super-humans to register with the government, or else be jailed. The result is a divided superhero community with some heroes now fugitives, and some villains chasing them for Uncle Sam. Next was World War Hulk, where the Hulkster returns to earth after being exiled into space by his fellow heroes, and boy is he pissed! Next was Secret Invasion, where shape shifting aliens (Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are not about to invade earth, but already have, replacing heroes and normal citizens alike. The tagline was, “Who do you Trust?” Currently running is the Dark Reign story, where Norman Osborne leads a band of villains disguised as heroes to protect the United States.
What do all these events have in common? They’re all simple to explain to a non comics fan, and all sound at least somewhat interesting. DC has also done big events recently, but if I were to try to explain them to you, it would take me 20 minutes, and you probably still wouldn’t understand anyway. Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada is on mainstream TV shows like the Colbert Report NPR radio, and online at Myspace, hyping Marvel projects. Can you imagine the head of DC comics trying to explain Infinite Crisis to a television audience?
Into the digital realm, Marvel started a digital online comics experience where, for a subscription, you can read Marvel comic books online. This again got much mainstream attention, and almost crashed Marvel’s website upon initial release due to high volume traffic. DC has done.., some sort of talent search which sounds cool, but the conditions were initially confusing, and online Batman books are nowhere to legally be found. Little things like this are why Marvel has ruled the comics market for 30 plus years.
To be fair, DC’s Vertigo line publishes titles that may be more creative than much of Marvel’s output, it’s just that they don’t sell as well. The DC animated universe, a.k.a. their series of interconnected cartoons in the 90s and 2000s, put Marvel cartoons to shame. Comic’s first mega-crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, has never been topped. Kingdom Come is great, New Frontier is great, and finally Watchmen is simply the best comic book ever. When DC gets it right, they do it better than anyone else, but those moments are few and far between. Marvel seems to get it right more often, and has done more in recent years to get their characters in the public eye. If their own movies continue to hit big, Marvel will be rolling in dough. For this and many other reasons, even in this economic downturn, Marvel stock looks like a good purchase.
So until we see Superman punching out Darkseid on the big screen, make mine Marvel!
(Originally published on myspace on 5/3/08