With the current remake trend representing a major share of new releases in 2011, Comic book movies are revisiting things in a brave new way.
The film industry has been relying heavily on the model of producing material with a built in audience for quite some time. A reboot of an old favorite guarantees a certain level of success independent from any other aspect of execution solely for the benefits of audience familiarity. It is the concept that has kept James Bond on the silver screen for decades, just as it has with so many other familiar characters. Franchise films sell tickets before the first trailer is released, and in an industry as volatile as Hollywood, that is a very appealing concept. This built-in security has generated a boom in adaptations, remakes, reboots, and reimagining’s in recent history, while narrowing the window of opportunity for original content. Why would a studio take a risk on an unfamiliar and unproven concept, when they have three more Spider Man installments ready and waiting?
While there is certainly a sense that Hollywood is neglecting the value of quality writing and innovative ideas, creativity and good story telling have found themselves an unlikely hero amidst the chaos. Comic book movies epitomize the studio’s dependency on revisiting time tested material, and have seen a huge expansion in recent years, with nearly every major super hero and comic book villain finding their way on to one sheets and in to action-packed trailers. But a genre that used to pump out action-centric films where story was more or less an afterthought has taken a new approach to story telling, and in many ways is the saving grace of an industry that cares far more about the zeros on the checks than the words on the page.
In years past you could count on a good super hero movie to have some great fight scenes, some big explosions, probably some cool technology, and a few smoking hot villains or victims, but when it came to story quality it was more or less a delivery system for the “Booms” and boobs. Most comic book movies followed a pretty standard template of the hero has to stop the bad guys and save the girl.
In recent years however, the genre took a new look at their characters and brought it back to where it all began, and in doing so began putting a stronger emphasis on story and character development. The creation story has become the recent trend, and we have watched as nearly every franchise dusts off the initial volumes and digs in to the back story of the popular superheroes that have been so successful over the years. They brought us back to when Tony Stark found the key to his iron suit, to when 007 fell in love with martinis, and to when that spider snacked on Peter Parker’s skin. We saw an X-Men movie where Dr. X and Magneto still fought on the same team, and a Planet of the Apes film with apes that couldn’t yet speak English. We still got all that we expect out of a good super hero movie, with guns, capes, girls, and a new bat mobile, but we got it all by way of well written plots, heavy in respectable themes and rich character development in a way we never fully have.
By starting at the beginning, the screenwriter has been able to explore the character arch as a prominent plot line, letting the struggle against an actual bad guy play out in the b-story. We’ve gotten to see the heroes haunted pasts and current struggles, to witness their internal conflict and their coming to terms with their fate, and most importantly, we’ve gotten to see them back when they were just a normal person. This glance into who our heroes were before they were heroes has developed a stronger relationship between audience and action figure. We can connect with them on a human level, rather than view them as immortal, and develop a deeper connection to them as substantial characters.
The studios have recognized this as a huge asset to their already reliable franchise films, and have begun to utilize it as much as possible. We saw Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to confront his fear of bats in Batman Begins and we loved it. So what did the studio do when they returned with The Dark Knight? They gave us Harvey Dent, a stand up politician determined to rid Gotham of crime. We related to him for his good intentions and his human flaws, which made his transformation into the famous villain Two-Face that much more profound. This wasn’t the only major accomplishment in the hugely successful Batman film, as it also had a script that explored areas of psychology with the pathological Joker character that runs violent social experiments, a tense romantic dilemma between Bruce and Rachel, and the close friendship between billionaire and loyal butler.
Such examples can be mined from the reincarnation of dozens of popular franchises. Those who have realized the potential of complimenting eye-popping explosions that sell tickets with well-developed characters set against complex plots and significant themes, have opened the genre up to a broader audience. These new age re-vamps have become accessible to more than just comic book nerds and pyro-crazy teenagers, by seeing the value in a good story. In this way, the super heroes have done it again, by swooping in and protecting Hollywood from devaluing a good script entirely, and they have been substantially rewarded for it.