Watch: The 100-Year Evolution of the Comic Book Film

Our modern blockbuster has a history almost as long as cinema itself.

It's no secret that in today's film landscape, studios trust nothing more than the comic book to make them their millions. Unfortunately, while their devotion to creating complex webs of spin-offs and anthologies have proven a successful formula for raking in dough, the results in entertainment quality have not been nearly as lucrative for movie-goers.  In his new essay for Fandor Keyframe, video essayist Drew Morton chronicles the rise of the comic book genre, but also provides us with some clear insight into how quality is often sacrificed for numbers. It has to do with the three most-used styles within the genre and how they relate to the ebb and flow of mass audience reception. 

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Since Batman first made his way to the tube back in 1966 the comic genre has, in essence, been a constant struggle between what Morton refers to as a "campy/baroque" style and a "photographic realism" style. He likens it to a pendulum that's swinging back and forth between the two based on box office returns and what the audience appears to be interested in.

Adam West and Burt Ward in the sixties 'Batman' TV series.
Adam West and Burt Ward in the sixties 'Batman' TV series.

A good example to contrast these two styles within the confines of one franchise would be Joel Schumacher's ill-fated Batman ventures in the mid nineties (campy) and the Christopher Nolan Batman movies which directly followed. Nolan ended up learning from Schumacher's mistakes and would set a new bar for quality in photographic realism.
George Clooney, Chris O' Donnell and Alicia Silverstone in 'Batman and Robin'

Big name studios limiting the releases of these films to these two sub-sects, however, has led to the era that we find ourselves in now, where the balance of film and genre releases in general has taken a massive hit. Not only does every other movie or TV show today seem to leap into the comic book genre, but they also maintain their comfort within the boundaries of these two specific styles.  It's come to the point where photographic realism could now be labeled as "generic realism." Releases from the middle ground between the pendulum are becoming more and more rare. This is especially unfortunate because it's from this middle-ground sub-sect, which Morton refers to as "Stylistic," that creativity in comic book movies emerges.

Christian Bale in 'The Dark Knight'

The "stylistic" sub-sect comes into play in a film landscape where both the campy and photo-realistic sub-sects can co-exist. It's not surprising in the least that these are the comic book films that are often most unique and entertaining. (For the Batman canon, maybe it's in this realm in which Tim Burton's films can be placed.) Films like Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, or even Zack Snyder's 300 serve as perfect examples. Though they were "commercially unsuccessful" by studio standards, they are true testimonies to what the comic book genre could give us if it wasn't so hell bent on serving the mainstream. Let's hope the pendulum sways back into this breeding ground of creativity someday soon.     

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did you forgot that between animation of 1911 and superman of 70ens there were a lots of superheros like shazam, captain america, superman, and lots more... far beyond superman and batman of 60...
also old Phantom of 30', mandrake, and more...
Movie people red comics years ago before come actual business...

July 18, 2016 at 12:43PM

You voted '+1'.
Carlo Macchiavello
Director (with strong tech knowledge)

Yep. There's not really that much of information in this video.

July 19, 2016 at 8:03AM

Thales Banzai
Director; Screenwriter

I had more of that in a longer version, but it didn't really serve the point regarding style (it's not an all-encompassing historical chronicle - it's an argument). It also slowed it way down.

Here's a piece I did on the cultural history of the comic book film that might scratch that itch a bit more:

July 22, 2016 at 7:26AM, Edited July 22, 7:26AM