MOST. <i>IMPORTANT</i>. COMIC BOOK. MOVIE. YEAR ... EVER!?

POLL: 2011 Comic Book Movie Showdown

 

It’s crunch time for comic book movies.

With four high profile films based on comics scheduled for release between now and the end of July -- “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Green Lantern” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” if you’re scoring at home or even if you’re alone -- Summer 2011 is shaping up to one great feast for fanboys.

Judging by the absolutely colossal lineup of heavyweights coming down the pike next year, Hollywood is clearly not done nursing at the teat of the comic book cash cow. But don’t discount the 2011 entrants as prelim bums, an amuse-bouche, if you will, to tide us over until the Mayans’ favorite year. Because this summer may be the most important yet in the relatively short history of the comic book film genre.

While it seems like heady times for adaptations of comics and graphic novels, the genre finds itself at a critical juncture. Crisis point? You bet your Bowen statue collection it is. Because here’s the unvarnished truth: Comic book movies have hit an Adamantium-strength creative wall.

How many more by-the-numbers origin stories and uninspired adaptations will we have to endure before we stop, look at each other as they’re munching on their buttery, pricy popcorn, and asking, “Is that it?” I mean, if “Jonah Hex” wasn’t the red flag to end all red flags…

Face it, we’ve been spoiled.

We were treated to the wondrous sight of our favorite Webhead swinging through Manhattan in “Spider-Man”; our jaws dropped at the audacious artistry of “The Dark Knight” and the gleeful inappropriateness of “Kick-Ass”; we smiled ear-to-ear as we watched Robert Downey Jr. in the role he was born to play in “Iron Man.” We’ve also been saddled with the mediocrity of “Fantastic Four” and the celluloid evidence that Mark Steven Johnson has been allowed to ruin two –TWO –-Marvel characters.

Where’s the next game changer? Have we seen the best the comic book movie genre has to offer? Or is the best yet to come?

 

That is why this year’s crop of table-setters is so important. How “Thor,” “X-Men: FC,” “Green Lantern” and “Captain America” turn out – and how they perform commercially – will help answer those questions. Make no mistake True Believers; these heroes need to deliver.

These films create the leverage for the movies that come down the pike,” said Hollywood.com’s Paul Dergarabedian.

Count screenwriter Ashley Miller as one who thinks the alarms being sounded about the health of comic book motion pictures…are premature.

“The death of the superhero film is …a little exaggerated,” according to Miller.

Considering he’s the co-writer (along with Zack Stentz) of two of this summer’s heaviest hitters, “Thor” and “X-Men: First Class,” Miller can certainly be considered less than objective. But he also has an inside view of the Blockbuster Industrial Complex. He knows how the doughnuts are made. And despite the bursting pipeline of pending comic book pictures, he does not worry about comic book movie overkill.

“How many westerns were released in 1956?” he asks. “The audience will go [see comic book films] as long as the movies are good. The market can bear a hundred great comic book films in a year. If they’re all s*#t, then the audience won’t go. It’s really that simple.”

Dergarabedian, the veteran box office analyst, agrees.

“Hollywood is banking big on superhero movies,” he said.

Judging by the 2012 summer superhero slate, Roland Emmerich may have been right.

The newest “Superman,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wolverine,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers”...it’s impossible to overstate the kind of Geeky goodness heading our way.

“The Avengers” next year is the Big Bang of Fanboy film fantasy, the dream Silver and Bronze Age comics fans had since the days of spinner racks and Slurpee character cups: An Onscreen Marvel Team-Up. It’s the payoff of a years-long gambit by Marvel’s upstart film studio to create an onscreen Marvel U.

This summer, the final two pieces are put into place. But what happens if “Thor” and “Captain America” don’t quite float our boat the way we’ve imagined?

“’Thor” and “Captain America” have to do well. I don’t think that’s a mystery to Marvel,” Miller said. “If [they] don’t do well, it hurts “The Avengers” in all sorts of ways. Because it’s all inter-connected.”

“If Thor and Capt. America don’t do well,” added Dergarabedian, “it really puts a lot of pressure on “The Avengers.” Conventional wisdom would suggest if the first 2 don’t do well, then “The Avengers” won’t. I don’t necessarily agree with that. And I actually think Thor and Cap will do very well this summer.”

And while we’re being honest, now that the buzz from the rock-star unveiling of the Avengers Assembling in Hall H last summer has faded…after the sheer joylessness and inconsistency of “Iron Man 2,” doesn’t “The Avengers” have just as much a chance of being as anti-climactic as the long-delayed “JLA-Avengers”comic book crossover, as it does of being the epic adventure we hope/pray/dream it will be?

[What? Impossible to screw up such a dream project? That’s what we all thought about “Iron Man 2.”]

Questions also surround the stand-alone X-franchise. Early reaction to the trailer and the character posters has been mixed. What if the retro-groovy X-Men fail to rejuvenate that property?

 

DC Entertainment is playing catch-up these days to its Marvelous rivals, but it has a similar gamble in play. If “Green Lantern” doesn’t print money, what happens to the company’s plans to diversify its movie properties under the DCE banner? Dergarabedian has high hopes for “Green Lantern,” and thinks it could finally provide DC with the second big bat it needs in its movie lineup.

“You need a bench; you just can’t rely on one or two franchises, like Batman,” Dergarabedian said. “They almost won’t need much more if ‘GL’ opens big because you know “The Dark Knight Rises” is going to be a huge hit [in 2012].”

All are huge risks in their own ways.

One is about a dude with an awesome power ring that is largely unknown outside of comic shops and fans of old “Superfriends” cartoons. Another takes places on two worlds…one where Norse Gods sound like Shakespearean Theatre understudies, another where gas is $4.50 a gallon. Another is a period piece about a star-spangled super guy, while the fourth biggie is aiming to capture some Kirbyesque Silver Age cool.

Comic book heroes have become victims of their own success. Last year’s “Iron Man 2” earned $622 million and to some, was still a letdown. “Kick Ass” earned $96 million, more than triple its modest budget, yet some (mistakenly) consider it a failure. Zack Snyder still has tire tracks on his back from being tossed under the bus by fanboys after his wildly divisive “Watchmen”, which nevertheless earned more than $100 million.

He’s bounced back though, and will direct the latest revival of Superman. Snyder will take over from another unseated Fanboy king, Bryan Singer, who squandered his Geek Goodwill with “Superman Returns,” a movie so terrible it made only $391 million.

Despite what Miller, Dergarabedian and others say, the 2010 cinema landscape was littered with evidence hinting that audiences may be tiring of comic book pictures.

“Jonah Hex” was such a debacle, it practically disqualifies itself from consideration on sheer awfulness. But the much better and vastly underrated “The Losers” also bombed. Both were Warner Bros. films made before DC Entertainment was formed to shepherd DC adaptations.

Then there was “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.”

The darling of Comic Con International: San Diego last summer, “Pilgrim” was poised to be the film that cemented the Geekerati as this generation’s tastemakers, the ones who make it rain at the movie theater. Edgar Wright’s take on the popular graphic novels debuted in August to rave reviews…and promptly tanked.

Not even the relentless championing by a network of bloggers deriding America’s cinematic tastes could save the movie. Scott Pilgrim’s commercial failure was the clearest sign yet that comic and graphic novel adaptations without mainstream characters face huge hurdles in finding sizable audiences.

“Pilgrim” also blew the lid off the fool’s gold that is Comic-Con Buzz. Few films have scored as well in San Diego as the 8-bit mashup did; yet it didn’t translate to strong box office. Chris Thilk of Movie Marketing Madness says studio marketers need to open their eyes and realize they can’t build their marketing strategies around SDCC.

“It's hard-core fans talking to hard-core fans.” Thilk said. “Comic-Con panels don’t change a lot of minds, just reinforce opinions, so it's not accurate for studios to come out of there excited about the number of tweets or the sentiment of blog posts.”

Three years ago, A.O. Scott, movie critic for “The New York Times,” virtually predicted the current malaise of the comic book movie right at the feet of perhaps the genre’s greatest achievement.

In 2008, after “The Dark Knight” scored $1 billion box office and worldwide acclaim, Scott wrote a piece that theorized that the comic book genre had reached its evolutionary limit. He lavished praise on TDK, while simultaneously underscoring its red herring, its – ahem – kryptonite.

“'The Dark Knight' has rules…and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated.”

Miller argues that Scott missed what TDK really accomplished, which was to “kind of kick the doors open “for the genre, so that these movies can be different from what we’ve seen before.”

Miller has a point. But so did Scott.

There’s no doubt TDK was a monumental achievement. Unfortunately for all of us, too few filmmakers have the clout, courage and craftsmanship Nolan has to take the risks he did with a superhero sequel.

C2E2: Chris Hemsworth Q&A LIVE!
C2E2: Chris Hemsworth Q&A LIVE!
 

But as Dergarabedian observed, “The superhero movie is here to stay.”

He points out that few films have the worldwide box-office potential that a superhero movie featuring the likes of a Spider-Man, Iron Man or Batman has.

The a flip side to that coin; the risk is also much greater.

Like a couple that's been together long enough to see passion exit stage left and routine settle in, films about capes and four-color characters have been coasting on their good looks and cool costumes for some time. The genre is at a crossroads.

Will the comic book movie class of 2011 take us down a different path? In rthe coming weeks and months, Newsarama will be exmaning this issue in greater detail and from various angles...

Also on Newsarama:

(Michael Avila is a writer based in New York City. He wants to thank Keith Olbermann for the SportsCenter joke he appropriated at the beginning of this story. Follow him on Twitter - @mikeavila – for more pop culture musings)

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