The COMIC BOOK MOVIE DECADE - The Men Behind the Movies
COMIC BOOK MOVIE DECADE: The Filmmakers
As Hollywood makes more comic book movies now than ever, several filmmakers have influenced the direction these films have taken over the last decade.
While today's filmgoers are used to seeing comic-based films taken seriously, the evolution to this point wasn't overnight. But much of the modern era of comic book movies were driven by groundwork laid a little over a decade ago by a handful of directors and writers who understood how comic books could be respectfully translated to film.
"What we have now is this great recent history of cool, interesting, character-based superhero movies or comic book movies, and people are seeing that they can be emotional in a real way," said Michael Green, who co-wrote the Green Lantern movie, as well as a few comic books, and is writing the next Fantastic Four film. "I could list any number of really good ones – Spider-Man, X-Men, even going back to Blade, which was one of the first comic book movies that really sort of set a tone and said, 'Hey. It doesn't have to be silly or uneven or ridiculous, but rather could feel like something that exists in our world, but just sort of heightened' – almost making it into a sci-fi movie rather than just necessarily a comic book movie.
"On the shoulders of all these really great, creative films, success begets success, and people want to make more of them," Green said.
It would be impossible to list all the filmmakers who guided the last decade of comic book movies, but in an attempt to examine their influence, we've noted a few:
David S. Goyer: Goyer, the writer behind three Blade movies and co-writer on two Batman movies, was one of the pioneers of the last decade of serious-minded comic book movies. While Blade hit theaters in 1998, a little over a decade ago, it's cited by most movie pundits as a turning point in Hollywood's approach to comic book movies that helped define the last 10 years.
"Goyer, going all the way back to Blade, was one of the early guys in town talking about what these things could be, that they could be more than just popcorn, confectionary entertainment," said Jeff Katz, the movie producer and comic book writer who worked on films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. "And I think what Goyer did, at a certain level, particularly during the early days, was he made executives comfortable with comic book movies, that they were making things that had a real point of view and intelligence, and a patina of class to them at a certain level."
"It just felt like they'd cracked a tone for the first time with Blade," Green said. "I do think that a lot of movies were built on the back of that, and then of course Goyer went on to do amazing things beyond that, but I always look to Blade with gratitude."
A comic book writer himself, Goyer went on from Blade to help write Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And just this week, it was announced that Goyer left his job as showrunner on FlashForward, the ABC TV show he helped create, so he could concentrate on his movie projects, which would presumably include co-writing the third Batman movie. In the works for the writer are several more comic-inspired films, including Super Max, Ghost Rider 2 and Y: The Last Man.
"David continues to get a lot of business in that area. He was sort of the first. He owned that brand when this thing broke out," Katz said.
Bryan Singer: Director of the 2000 movie X-Men and its sequel, X2: X-Men United not only kicked off a decade filled with superhero movies, but his vision for the X-Men movie universe established the continuity for more than a decade of X-related films, including three more in development.
"I would argue that, although everyone in comic books considers the X-Men an A-list property, I don’t know how many people unfamiliar with comic books were familiar with the X-Men before that movie," said Marc Guggenheim, co-writer of the Green Lantern film and a comic book writer himself. "To put it another way, when you look at the box office X-Men did, clearly people who had never heard of the X-Men went and bought a movie ticket. I think that’s pretty major, and I think that’s a big feather in Bryan Singer’s cap."
According to Katz, Singer also brought a new level of respectability for comic book movies in Hollywood because of his roots directing critically acclaimed films like The Usual Suspects.
"Bryan’s real legacy was having, sort of, what we viewed as a 'high-minded filmmaker, serious filmmaker' doing comic book stuff," Katz said. "Even Tim Burton, and Dick Donner, and the others – they were still viewed as sort of popcorn guys. They were great, but they were viewed as those guys. And so I think [Singer] brought this idea of getting a win for a studio by having, for want of a better term, a 'high-minded' filmmaker on a property like this, which I think now you’ll catch Chris Nolan and so on doing these types of movies."
It's been well-established that Singer wasn't a fan of comic books before taking on the X-Men film, and he rejected all scripts and storylines that had already been put together, developing his own story for the X-Men film.
"X-Men really made them feel believable, made their problems feel real," Green said. "I mean, he used the metaphor of being different, being gay, coming out to your parents. It was a great metaphor for how to make that feeling of being different real. It was a great way to frame being mutant in our world that felt real."
"Bryan was the right guy at the right time to show that these movies could also serve as allegories for other issues, a bit of real intelligence behind the pyrotechnics," Katz said.
In December, Singer signed on with Fox as director of X-Men: First Class, returning him to the franchise he helped launch 10 years ago and bringing him back to comic book movies.
"Also, you know, he was responsible for the last Superman movie," Guggenheim said, referring to the 2006 Warner Brothers film Superman Returns, which Singer also directed. "So he’s been a big player in the comic book movie scene."
Sam Raimi: Released in 2002, Spider-Man helped to establish Marvel's best known superhero as a movie franchise, and Sami Raimi was the director whose love for the character made the film such a huge box office hit.
"You remember when Sam got that job he was not necessarily a slam-dunk choice from a commercial perspective," Katz pointed out. "Yet, it made a lot of sense in terms of tone.
"But Sam just shows you that there was, I think, a generation of filmmakers, even multiple generations of filmmakers, with a real burning desire to go and tell these stories from comics," he said. "I mean, Sam spent a decade of his life playing in that world and was a guy who had a real passion for the character, highly influenced by reading those comics growing up."
As the director of Spider-Man, Raimi also helped establish the idea that comic book movies about superheroes can drive a character's popularity across multiple platforms. "These became almost 360-degree businesses," Katz said. "Spider-Man was able to drive licensing deals and fueled other division’s profits and so then, the emphasis became more and more important on doing these sorts of movies. That success is what made comic book movies so attractive to studios."
Having Raimi succeed with Spider-Man also established that a good movie starring an established comic book character can sell the film even if a well-known actor isn't involved. "Comic book movies are vehicles that, generally speaking, you don’t need big stars in them. I think we’ve seen that, and Spider-Man proved that. It did so well, but, I mean, Toby McGuire wasn’t a big star," Katz said. "The character was the star."
The idea that Raimi was a "fan" of the character, with what was perceived as a real respect for the source material, also brought that type of approach credence, Katz said. "[Singer and Raimi] are almost like Yin and Yang, in a certain way: The guy who sought the artistic merit and saw how it sort of spoke to issues today, then the other guy who had read all the issues in the ‘60s and ‘70s getting his childhood dream," he explained. "So I think that kind of shows you two extremes maybe of a directors work knowledge."
Zack Snyder: As director of the 2006 movie 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, Snyder put his unique stamp on comic book movies through his visual style and his adherence to the source material's adult nature.
"300 is a movie that really stands out," Green said. "Taking a comic that wasn't very well known and using it as a blueprint and making these amazing visual images be these tent-pole moments in a movie. Shots, scenes, moments, you just thought were absolutely impossible. It was one of the first times that a comic was followed in such a blueprint sort of way and done so effectively. The other example would be Sin City. Actually, I think the better point for 300 is any movie that starts with something Frank Miller wrote is going to be worth watching."
Movies like 300, Watchmen and Sin City also established that comic book movies weren't only for younger audiences. Because of the groundwork laid by 300 and its success, now R-rated comic book films like Wanted and Kick-Ass are more likely to be made.
The success of 300 also showed Hollywood that comic book movies weren't necessarily superhero movies, but were still a unique type of film, even if they explored other genres.
"For a decade, we had to educate the audience and Hollywood about the difference [between superhero comics and non-superhero comics]," Katz said. "They get the difference now. 300 was a comic book movie, but it wasn't a superhero movie."
Snyder's movie was also among the first non-superhero movies that was marketed as "from the graphic novel," even though there were no tights or superpowers involved.
"300 seemed to be a watershed moment where studios realized that tying a film in with its source material is a good marketing idea, even if the source material isn't one of the more recognizable Marvel or DC properties," said Robert Venditti, the author of Surrogates, the graphic novel on which last year's Surrogates movie was based. "So I think, generally speaking, moviegoers are now much more aware of the alternative comics and graphic novels that find their way to the screen."
Snyder has stated he will return to the subject matter from 300 in the prequel Xerxes, a graphic novel that Frank Miller recently announced.
Christopher Nolan: After the critical success of his film Memento, Chris Nolan was given the task of creating a new origin film for one of the best-known DC Comics superheroes, Batman. What resulted is Batman Begins, which set up a new movie universe for the 2008 hit film The Dark Knight.
"What started with Bryan Singer paid off with Christopher Nolan," Katz said. "Where again, he’s a guy who’s not an obvious popcorn filmmaker, but he comes in and gives a real world perspective, and as a result found that great balance of character and comic. And ultimately, the result was what I think is now one of the top five highest grossing films of all time in Hollywood history."
Nolan also succeeded in taking an unrealistic character and setting him in an emotional reality – something that wasn't easy for Batman, whose emotional reality in the comics hasn't always been portrayed as healthy or normal.
"We owe him a debt of gratitude," Green said, "for setting [Batman] in as real a world as possible, to the point where you believe it could really exist. That choice of putting on a cape and costume and fighting crime is a plausible, real, viable one. He made that all feel possible."
Green, who is helping to reboot a franchise by writing a new Fantastic Four script, also pointed out that Nolan was one of the first directors to reboot a movie franchise with a character that had just been in another movie series.
"He proved that one can take a beloved franchise that had gone in one direction, and reboot it in a completely new one," Green said. "It wasn't too long before [Batman Begins] that we had had the Schumacher versions of the movies, which for better or worse, were of a very specific, lighter tone, and they weren't outside of recent memory. Yet the Nolan movies came along and said, 'You know what? We can start fresh and do it so differently that no one will think we're just being redundant, but rather honor the realities of the character in a wholly new way.'
"What that does is prove for a lot of other franchises that you can reboot them and not have to wait 50 years; that you don't always have to make it a sequel upon sequel," Green said.
In fact, Nolan's demonstrated expertise at rebooting a franchise is allegedly being tapped again by Warner Bros. According to a report this week, the studio has tapped the director to mentor development of a reboot for Superman.
Nolan's latest film, Inception, has wrapped up filming for a summer release, so there are also rumors swirling that the director wants his next film to be the third Batman installment. The aforementioned departure of Goyer from his television series has stepped up rumors that the writer is working again with Jonah and Chris Nolan to write "Batman 3."
While this list isn't necessarily comprehensive, these filmmakers have influenced comic book movies in their own unique way. Who will define the next decade of comic book movies? That's yet to be seen. But these writers and directors, and others like them, have laid the groundwork for an era where Hollywood is willing to take a risk on the next batch of groundbreaking comic book films and the people who create them.More on the Comic Book Movie Decade: