This bubble ain’t gonna burst anytime soon. Here’s why.
The so-called “Golden Age” of comics is theorised to span from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. In that ridiculously fertile period, the comic strip as an art form sprang to prominence. The industry was booming and the choice of titles became so vast that even the anoraks had a hard time reading everything. Artists and writers learned greatly from their predecessors and set forth on a creative renaissance that Hollywood is currently exploiting to ca-ching! effect. Like the four-colour panels that delighted young readers back then, cinema has learned from past mistakes and figured out how not to make a comic book movie. This truly is a landmark era for the superhero’s filmic legacy, and I’m arguing that it’ll go on almost as long as the Golden Age itself…
First, studios are becoming increasingly likely to stick to specific stories rather than cherry-pick bits from several decades of material (a method that has mostly led to disaster following Superman‘s mould in 1978). This “revolutionary” concept began in 2005 with Robert Rodriguez’s scene-by-scene translation of Frank Miller’s Sin City, and was witnessed last year in Fox’s The Wolverine (also based on a Miller title – he gets around). Looking ahead, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Marvel’s own Captain America: The Winter Soldier are cribbing their narratives straight from the page. It’s amazing that it has taken this long for studio brass to catch on, but why sacrifice the support of the fanboys when you can just spit them back tales they already know and love?
This is enough to keep those comic book movie detractors from crying “over-saturation,” as we’re about to see new and interesting stories told from acclaimed arcs. Sometimes, you just need a solid one-off and not a franchise-builder. We’re finally getting to that point.
And it’s not just superheroes who stand to benefit from this commercially-successful creative boom. Both DC and Marvel have vast libraries full of fascinating characters and concepts that don’t conform to the usual hero-defeats-villain-and-saves-the-day paradigm. Perhaps one day we’ll see a Lobo movie; you know, that intergalactic badass and bounty hunter who can go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel. Like, why the fuck not at this stage in the game? Maybe Guillermo del Toro could actually make good on his promise to deliver a team movie centred around the villains. Or perhaps fourth time will be the charm and Marvel will finally provide us with a Punisher film worthy of the brand. There’s way more adult and outré titles that studios can use to keep the formula fresh and reinvigorated, and chief among them is James Gunn’s sure to be bonkers Guardians of the Galaxy, which is perhaps the biggest gamble to date. There’s just no way a talking raccoon and a living tree will be acceptable to everyone, and such weirdness only makes me more excited in what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe can achieve.
That has been marked out in their stellar directorial choices to date, including Jon Favreau, Joe Johnston, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, and Shane Black. Filmmakers like these weren’t really known for mega-budget tentpole releases when they were chosen, and Marvel Studios’ determination to function more as an indie outfit with blockbuster potential is what is keeping this whole wave alive. Just in the last week we have learned that beloved actors Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton are joining the MCU in Ant-Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., respectively. They’re already alongside the ranks of Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, and you have to wonder who they’ll rope in next (rumour has it that Johnny Depp could be Doctor Strange – another offbeat title). As long as these films and shows draw in this level of talent, people will continue to tune-in or flock to the cinema. It’s all about introducing us to something new and keeping time-worn tropes fresh, and I sincerely hope that they don’t become lazy and choose to keep the progression going. We could have a fucking Aquaman movie one day…
Where do we go from here? Well, if Marvel and DC have their way, we’ll be watching their media on our television and cinema screens for at least the next decade (and I haven’t even mentioned Dark Horse and Image Comics who provide original content totally different to the big two). I assure you, the well is far from dry. Someone grab Warner Bros. a bucket!