Saturday, June 06, 2009

We Need A Hero! (A Super One)

Mystique, take note. Bonnie Tyler would have been a way better choice for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants pre-cog than Destiny.

If there were any doubt about the importance of comic book heroes to the movie business, just go stand around the watercooler or Keurig coffeemaker at work. The deafening silence you hear is proof that without our beloved capes, Hollywood's money-making time of year is missing that all-important ingredient: BUZZ.

Pardon me for bursting the bubble of "Star Trek" fans everywhere. That film has been the big hit so far -- deservedly so, it's a fantastic overhaul of Gene Roddenberry's universe -- but it hasn't sparked the zeitgeist like last year's early breakout star "Iron Man" did, or how the late-season phenom "The Dark Knight" did.

Some could argue "Sex and the City: The Movie" had more people talking than "Trek." Look, when you've made $230M+ at the box office in less than a month, you have nothing to apologize for. J.J. Abrams and his team did their job. But six weeks in, the Summer of 2009 is well on its way to falling short of the Summer of '08 not just in terms of overall dollars earned, but pop culture immersion. In fact, this summer movieseason is actually kind of boring.

It just feels like we're going through the motions. Obviously, people are still going to the movies. "Up" and "The Hangover" were neck-and-neck for the box office crown this weekend, so there's proof right there. However, people just aren't talking about the movies as much as in years past.

"Did you see the new Pixar movie? Yes, it was great! So sad...cute dog...old people rock!"

"Up" was an incredible moviegoing experience, and perhaps the best movie of the year up to this point. But it hasn't captured the imagination of a large section of the country. Partly because no Pixar movie ever does anymore, because each year, when we think this is the movie that will finally be a letdown -- a chef rat? A robot movie with no dialogue for 30 minutes? An old guy in a balloon-lifted house?!? -- Pixar proves us wrong. But it's almost as if we expect them to do it. So it doesn't catch us off-guard like Robert Downey Jr. suddenly reinventing himself as an action hero did.

Part of the problem is unavoidable because it has to do with timing. After all, you can slot in monster-budgeted event films all summer long but phenoms can't be predicted or programmed. They just happen.

Everyone knew TDK was going to be big, but NO ONE could have predicted it would have been 'second highest-grossing film of all time' big. No one knew "Sex and the City" would prove that a chick flick could do blockbuster biz. And we were waiting nearly 20 years for a new Indiana Jones film, so forgive us if our excitement to see Harrison Ford don the fedora again clouded our judgement on THAT film.

Contrast last year's crop with this summer, when we've had up to now a new Trek, a Terminator sequel that made T3 look cool, another top-notch Pixar movie, "Night at the Museum 2" and..."Land of the Lost."

No wonder people aren't talking movies as much.

Yes, I know "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" - a 100% comic book movie -- kicked off the season, but doesn't that film seem like it opened a million years ago? Hugh Jackman's film is the only comic adaptation opening this summer, and that's precisely my point. Without these caped crusaders, men of steel or friendly neighborhood multiplexers, the movies just don't seem be very much on people's minds, during the 'fun' time to be a movie fan.

The comic book movie is the dominant Hollywood species right now, the type of movie that get people excited about rushing out, opening night, to see it. In the 40s it was war movies; the 50s were the era of the sword and sandal epics; the Bond movies became must-see movies in the 1960s; the 70s saw the high-concept blockbusters rise to glory; the 80s were all about the action movie.

The first decade of the 21st century? All about the comic book adaptations, baby. These movies stir Hollywood's drink, butter its bread, shine its shoes.

In other words, super heroes are the home run hitters. Comedies are the spray hitters who hit for a high average but who rarely hit one out of the park. Nothing wrong with that. You need good tablesetters to have a successful team (just ask Warners, which looks to have a big comedy hit with "The Hangover" that could ease the sting of "Terminator Salvation's disappointing performance). But without your power guys, you're likely not going to win, at baseball or movie profiteering.

Chicks dig the long ball, and so do studio execs.

Without any more comic book films in the wings, the boys of summer, circa 2009, have become singles hitters.

Last summer, admittedly an aberration, two comic-based films earned over $300M, "Iron Man" and "TDK." Unless "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" do it, there will be no summer movie to cross that threshold.

It's important to note that making $200 million at the box office remains a spectacular measure of success, by any type of accounting (even Hollywood's notoriously shady calculations). But when a film hits $300 mil, then it becomes a true blue, rub-your-eyes and say-what? phenomenon.

That figure is far from exclusive to comic book movies. The LOTR and Star Wars prequels all reached it, as did the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But in this day and age of reboots, remakes and franchise continuations, movies based on super heroes offer studios the best chance to soar to such heights.

The expectations are so high for comic book-based films that a movie which makes nearly $400 million can be considered such a disappointment, it sends the entire franchise back to the drawing board.

Do you know how many studios would rape, pillage and torture to have the box office receipts "Superman Returns" brought in? Only problem is, when you're talking about the World's Most Famous Super Hero, anything less than $600-700 mil worldwide is out of the question.

The reasons why expectations are so high for such films are probably well known to most of you: Sequel potential, merchandising opportunities, multi-media expansion, etc, etc.

They also offer the greatest potential for the most powerful form of marketing known to man: Word of Mouth. I can't tell you how many non-comic fans waited until after the first week to see "Iron Man." Once they started hearing from me or other friends how good it was, they rushed out to get in line.

We geeks, we're an excited bunch. When there's a film we like, we'll talk it up through any means available to us. Be it Facebook, Twitter or our own blogs (look Ma, no servers!), we'll spread the word.

But while I LOVED "The Hangover", after a few Tweets saying how LOL funny it was, I kinda run out of things to say about it. Now, "Hellboy II" or "Watchmen" or "TDK", you can break those movies down on a variety of levels. How it compared to the original comics, the actors, the special effects, the tone ... the Easter Eggs hidden inside the movies. The texture to these films lend themselves to being overanalyzed, unlike comedies or romances and many dramas.

How many message boards devoted to "The Departed" have you lurked on? Registered on any "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" fan sites recently?

A word of warning however, to my four-color friends. Better enjoy this ride while it lasts, because if history is any indication, it won't.

As studios mine comics for any and all possible franchise starters, the law of diminishing returns comes into play. The Spider-Man and X-Men franchises exist as proof, and the "Wolverine" prequel offers more confirmation. Just as science fiction movies fell out of a favor in the early 80s, and action films in the early 90s, you can bet your CGC 9.8 copy of Marvel Two-in-One #51
that the same thing will happen with comic book movies. It is inevitable.

How many more Spidey movies can Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire make? How many X-prequels can Fox squeeze out before they wind up being direct-to-DVD fodder? Marvel's already rebooted two big-name heroes - Punisher and Hulk - within 5 years. All that does is dilute the core property.

Besides, what fresh faces are left to prop Hollywood on it's broad, spandexed shoulders? Green Lantern seems, at least to me, to be the best hope for breakout success. It has the type of character and mythology that if done right, could be something spectacular. Flash too. Some would say Wonder Woman, but they're all DC characters and that company seems to have a problem getting corporate sibling Warner Bros. to do right by any of its heroes who aren't Batman.

As for Marvel, Captain America is the obvious choice for their Next Big Thing. But considering his most identifiable move is throwing his mighty shield, I'm a bit concerned on how he will translate to the screen properly. I have similar concerns for Thor and the Avengers movie Marvel's film studio is laying all this groundwork for.

I'm personally hoping each company has an 'Iron Man' or 2 still left in them. By that, I mean an adaptation that catches people off-guard with its fresh ideas and inventive reinterpretation. I don't know if it's Luke Cage or Booster Gold, or even Invincible (Image guy I know), but watching a B-level hero break out onto the A-list would be just as, if not more than, much fun as seeing "Spider-Man 4" break box office records in 2011.

There is something to be said for being surprised, after all.

(now go click on the video. you know you want to)

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