If you are anything like me or basically a person at all, you probably saw The Avengers this weekend. It broke some records and and took all of our money this weekend. It also got me thinking. How did we get to this point? It wasn’t too long ago comic books and video games weren’t cool. They were fun, but the opposite of cool. How did we get to the place where so many of our top grossing films are from the same space almost no man’s virginity could escape?
Take a look at this:
This is a list of all of the movies that have ever made more than a billion dollars in the box office. Box Office Mojo keeps a list of all the top earners, but I thought a billion was a good cutoff. Looking at this, I have more questions than answers. Rounding out the bottom is a movie based on a comic book character; actually the sequel to a movie based on said character. There’s a Star Wars above that, though how Phantom Menace beat out The Dark Knight is a mystery all its own. Two movies based on a Disney ride, two movies about wizards and monsters, One movie about toys, one movie based on a line of toys and of course Avatar. And that’s just stopping at the billion dollar club. South of Batman are four or five more Potters, a few Pirates, and three Spider-Men.
I went searching for this list hoping to find a clear pattern, but it’s a schizophrenic series of fantasy movies with no discernible pattern. So what can other decades tell us?
Still a lot of Star Wars and Toy Story, but it seems like the 90s were all about family movies and action-adventures, with Titanic and Forrest Gump being the exceptions. The 80s were pretty much about George Lucas. There isn’t a lot of clarity here. If you went by these lists you might think Star Wars fans and Batman groupies had been on top of the culture pile the whole time. For more decades, click here.
So let’s narrow the scope. The real question is how a movie like The Avengers could be such a big hit. By all rights superheroes shouldn’t work as a movie. The concept of guys and gals running around dressed up like circus strong-men is ridiculous. Throw in all the aliens and continuity and it shouldn’t have traction on the big screen. And why the hell would this work better than Halo? Halo is basically the plot you get when you combine Transformers and Independence Day, but we opted to go with the guy in the star-spangled underwear. Most of the Justice League just quit wearing tights last year.
And let’s not forget the comic book adaptation batting record. It feels totally natural now, but up until the late 1990s Batman was the only “superhero” anyone could expect to consistently make money in theaters, and they drove that brand into the ground. Since Batman & Robin struck out in 1997, there has been an awful Catwoman movie, an awful Jonah Hex movie, one awful Punisher movie. In these cases, awful means they lost a lot of money. Actually, Watchmen, Superman Returns, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, and both Hellboys made less money (domestically) than their own costs. There are ways to get around that with international markets and DVD sales, but that’s a lot of flops. According to this guy, almost half of all comic book movies produced could be considered failures.
Despite all of that, some iteration of a Marvel or DC property has been on the big screen pretty much every year for the last decade and change.
I’m honestly stumped. Have we run out of ideas? Do we churn out so many movies, so quickly now that we’ve gotten to the end of all original work? Have we finally worked out the formula to make any idea from any source polished and witty enough to work as a movie? Is geek mainstream now? Did Joss Whedon sell his soul to Azazel? If The Avengers make a billion dollars, will it trigger the rapture?
Also, why doesn’t this apply to video game adaptations?