With the success of Iron Man 2, it appears that comic book movies aren't going anywhere, and several more are coming in 2010.
But whether comic book movies are based on well-known superheroes, quirky independent books, or just "kick-ass" concepts, their success begs the question: What's next?
One of the obvious new trends in comic book movies is the "shared universe," where different movies overlap characters and introduce new franchises, sometimes even teaming up for movies. With hints that Superman could show up in Green Lantern and Iron Man showing up in The Incredible Hulk, the concept is well on its way to becoming a reality.
"Marvel and DC seem to both be taking business steps to consider these movies a foundation for a much larger pyramid," said Michael Green, who is writing the script for Marvel's Fantastic Four and co-wrote next year's Green Lantern film. "Marvel and DC are starting to think of Marvel and DC separately as their own franchise."
Iron Man 2, which has already grossed more than $500 million worldwide, solidified the idea of a shared universe among moviegoers as it clearly set up other franchise films by placing Nick Fury and his "Avengers" project into the film.
"So, as Iron Man gets together with a few other characters and they're able to do an Avengers movie, or as Batman and Superman are able to get together and do a Justice League movie, then that becomes a franchise that's even larger and a way to introduce new characters that could then spin off in their own way," Green said. "It's the same way Deadpool can just spin off of the Wolverine: Origins movie, as you hang new characters onto beloved characters."
The anticipated scale of what Marvel and DC could accomplish through a shared universe with their almost inexhaustible list of licensed characters could significantly impact the future of comic book movies.
"The concept of the shared universe movie franchise is almost unheard of. You can't even imagine it, except in terms of comics," said Brian Michael Bendis, the comics writer who is part of the creative committee for Marvel's films. "That's the next step for superhero movies."
As Hollywood looks at the success of movies like Wanted and Kick-Ass, or the potential of the upcoming movies Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Red, the real explosion in comic book films looks to be occurring outside Marvel and DC. Even the older Men in Black franchise, which was originally based on a comic, is getting a revival as a third movie is in development.
"The big goal for the comic book industry going forward, I think, is going to be the more independent publishers bringing new and exciting, non-superhero material into the market," said Stephen Christy, Editor-in-Chief for Archaia, who works with Hollywood on behalf of the small publisher. "I think you’ve seen that IDW’s had that success of 30 Days of Night, Top Cow’s had that success with Wanted. We've certainly seen some things that we're hoping can be announced soon."
Jeff Katz, the movie producer who worked on films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine before starting his own comics and production company, American Original, said smaller comic book publishers are getting more attention from Hollywood because of the success being seen among comic book films that have nothing to do with superheroes.
"For mid-level publishers, that’s a good thing because that’s going to be their lifeblood," Katz said. "A guy who might be in the red on a book may get into the black off of making a movie deal and ultimately can drive them some real business when the movie gets made."
While Marvel's move toward a shared universe is currently changing the future of comic book movies, their establishment of their own movie studio had a huge impact on comic book movies of the past decade. And that idea of self-created movies may eventually extend to other publishers in the future.
"I’m really excited to see who the next publisher is going to be that actually decides 'Hey, we’ve had enough of having to wait and having to push Hollywood to make these things. I’m going to take 5 million dollars and go off, and we’re going to make our own movie,'" Christy said.
"It's not an easy thing to do, but it's certainly in the realm of possibilities," said Matt Hawkins, president of Top Cow, the publisher behind the Wanted comic book that became a hit film.
In fact, Top Cow is producing The A-Team with Fox. But producing a film and making it yourself are two different things, Hawkins said. "Marvel made a separate company and had something like $600 million of financing come in to set it up. And it was all predicated on the success of the Spider-Man," he said. "The amount of money that's involved and the amount of risk that's involved, and the bonding and all those various things, mean you have to really invest yourself in that before it makes sense."
But Christy pointed out that the money required to make Spider-Man is very different from the money required for a feature film version of something like The Walking Dead, which AMC is making into a TV show.
"Everything is getting so much cheaper. Distribution is changing as a whole," Christy said. "The next 30 Days of Night movie is probably going direct to DVD. What happens if you’re IDW and you can actually put down a few million dollars and make your own feature? I mean, Dark Horse is doing that now with Dark Horse Independent, although I believe that’s still going through Universal. I’m really curious just to see what happens when the world’s independent film making and comic books collide."
Movies Launching Heroes
There's always the possibility that Hollywood will skip the actual paper comic and make its own comic book hero from scratch — something that could instead launch comics later.
"You know, before Avatar came out, I would have told you that’s definitely not the next step," said ," said Marc Guggenheim, co-writer of the Green Lantern film. "But Avatar gave me hope that on the Hollywood side, we can deliver something that is totally original and that sparks the imagination."
With the success of franchises based on comic book heroes like Batman and Spider-Man — or book universes like Harry Potter and Twilight and TV universes like Star Trek — it's starting to become a rarity for Hollywood to invent its own successful franchise.
But Guggenheim points out the success of Star Wars as something that created an extensive universe that ended up spawning a series of comics and much, much more.
"I remember how excited I was when the Star Wars comic came out after seeing the Star Wars movie," he said. "I want, you know, this is more wish fulfillment than prediction, but I would like to see the creative flow go a little bit more back and forth between Hollywood and the comic book industry rather than just one way."
Of course, attempts by Hollywood to kick off their own superhero franchise have often been met with disdain from comic book fans, such as the relatively cold reception to Catwoman and Hancock. But the news that Hancock 2 will reunite Will Smith and Charlize Theron means Hollywood is still working to establish a superhero franchise of its own.
Still, there's little doubt comic books will continue to be mined for film-making material well into the future. "Despite the fact that the technology is such that you can make it, it's still an incredibly expensive endeavor to make a film like that," Green said. "I mean, to make any superhero-type movie you're talking hundreds of millions of dollars between the filming and the special effects and the marketing. So there is definitely a predisposition among studios to make films based on previously existing material, because at least it's something that can be pointed to with a built-in fan base.
"It's why adaptations or re-imaginings are popular – why there'll be an action movie based on The A-Team, as opposed to just inventing something new, because you're hoping that it has at least some built-in audience and some recognition factor that will help secure an audience to help offset these absolutely amazingly huge costs," Green explained. "So the familiarity of comic books, comic book characters, and superheroes – and the fact that they are loved – is one of the reasons that the studios go back to those wells and try to find things to develop further."More on the Comic Book Movie Decade: