What’s so super about superheroes?

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Comic-book films have become very fashionable in the last few years, with many a film remake and numerous US TV series’. This includes the geek chic phenomenon that started with Seth Cohen in the US series The OC. The popularity of TV series The big bang theory has also assisted in highlighting comic-con, comics and comic-book films. The latter is an American sitcom displaying the lives of four highly intelligent men, that are in employment at their local university, all with PhDs (bar one of them), and stereotyped as ‘nerdy’ guys that love comic-books and everything that goes along with them in addition to Star Trek and cosplay (short for costume play, where individuals dress up as characters and participate in role play). The writers have done a fantastic job of engaging the audience with the characters so that we are laughing both with them and at them but in an endearing way. This phenomenon has led to the Oxford English Dictionary adding the word ‘adorkable’ to the dictionary with the definition of someone who is adorably dorky. The series has been such a success that it is currently in it’s eighth series. The popularity of the series has brought comic-books in their entirety into the main stream. It is no longer uncool to read comics or to talk about them. Which I guess is a paradox as the stereotype is still the geeky guy that is unable to talk to girls. The whole hot guy who is a socially awkward genius is very in right now (i.e. aforementioned Seth Cohen). My husband has loads of comics in boxes under our bed from his teenage years and he still likes ‘graphic novels’, which appear to just be grown up people comics to me. Luckily, I actually enjoy watching comic-book characters come to life on both the big and small screen, as I am not sure we would be married right now if I didn’t. One thing that initially baffled me was the fact that a plot directed at men always has some form of a love interest. This seemed very rom-com to me. There is always criticism by my husband post-film if the love story is elaborated on too much. Which lead me to ask – why is there a love interest in a male fiction genre anyway? My husband replied with what seemed obvious once he had said it – that the stereotype of a person who reads comic books is ‘nerdy’ teenage boys who are unlucky with the girls in real life. The reader lives through the character and feels empowered when the hero gets the girl. It makes sense when you put it like that.

There have been previous attempts to make superhero films over the decades, including the four Superman films in the 1980’s that have epitomised superhero films until recently. I have been advised by my comic book loving husband, that the X-men film (in 2000) was the dawn of the recent wave of comic-book adaptions, leading the way for the ‘Blockbuster Comic-Book Film’ formula. Comic book films have had a huge impact on film sagas across all genres, increasing consistency throughout films from the same franchise. James Bond films for example (pre-Casino Royale in 2006) were all one off stories with no continuation of storylines or characters from one to the other. This was not going to be acceptable for comic-book fan boys who insist on accuracy not only throughout a series of films for one particular superhero but for other characters who also inhabit the same comic-book universe. Marvel have done this particularly well by setting out a lineage of films to be produced and signing actors and directors up for several films at a time, all in order to create the consistency that the fan base expect. Marvel released films for individual characters (Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor) that would all end up in one team and in one film at a later date – The Avengers. This is now known as the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’. There are cameos within individual films from other Marvel heroes, giving the impression of one universe. This is known as an ‘Easter Egg’ in the film industry; a nod towards something or someone else that the audience is in on. This is a very difficult task for the film studios to take on, having to find the balance between sticking to original comic-book material for the fan boys and making a successful film for the masses (including women) if blockbuster status is to be achieved. This usually means action for the men and romance for the women.

There are two main competing comic-book houses that represent their own heroes and villains; DC and Marvel. Although both have sold film rights over the years, it is Marvel that now has it’s own film studio (albeit the entire Marvel Entertainment is owned by Walt Disney, the latter however merely funds the former and does not interfere with the production of the films) and has full control of every aspect of any adaptions made from their own comic books. DC on the other hand is owned by Warner Brothers, DC doesn’t appear to have been as successful with it’s films released, this is based on the popularity and critiques of films by both Marvel and DC. Out of the top 10 highest grossing comic-book (superhero) films, 8 were Marvel and only 2 were DC. The highest grossing superhero film of all time is The Avengers, raking in $623, 357, 910 (£389,337,725). In fact The Avengers was so successful that it is the third highest box office grossing film ever, behind Avatar and Titanic respectively. One only needs to hear this fact to know how popular comic-book films.

Previous comic-book films (pre-2000) were very much men in tights and fairly camp. Christopher Nolan changed this when he directed Batman Begins, Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises, unlike previous comic-book films they were dark, realistic and gritty. Gotham could easily be London or New York. It also wasn’t possible before the 21st century to create a film with characters exhibiting superhero powers due to the rudimentary special effects available at the time. Now with green screens and computer technology superhero films have advanced the film industry by light years. Film makers are no longer restricted by their technology. To further prove this last point, George Lucas re-released Star Wars with new scenes of how he would have liked scenes to have looked if he had, had the technology to do so. Some think that the current trend of comic-book films is merely a phase but others argue that they have now carved out their own genre. They are no longer a sub-genre of sci-fi but a genre in their own right. With the recently published announcements on 28 October at the ‘Marvel Event’, it looks as though we are looking at many years of comic-book films to come as they announced a line-up of films up to and including 2019. Whether you are a fan of comic books and/or comic-book films, one cannot deny the massive positive effect that superheroes have had on the film industry across the world.

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