Is there an oversaturation of comic book movies? This question pops up in the media somehwere on an almost weekly basis. So, to answer it: Yes, and indeed, no. Before I start faffing about, it’s worth having a wee recap as to what ;comic book’ films are and is this trend a recent one?
A comic book film is simply a film adapted from a comic book. You may instantly think of a Batman or Spider-Man movie, but then you have the likes of Men In Black, or A History of Violence, or Ghost World. The comic book film is a wide and varied thing, so when people say “there’s too many comic book films’’ they really mean ‘’there’s too many superhero films.’’ So for the sake of argument, I’ll stick to that criteria which means it’s all capes and spandex from now on.
Is this a recent trend? Depends on your definition of ‘recent’. Superhero films go back decades in some shape or form, but to make this easy the modern age of superhero films start in 1978 with Superman: The Movie. That’s an important film as it establishes the superhero movie not as something low budget with B-list actors, but as a massive multi-million dollar blockbuster with A-list actors that opened like any other big film of the age. That changed things, though technology restricted what filmmakers could do and subsequent big screen superhero adaptations were restricted, or crap; in the case of Howard the Duck, both. Even after Tim Burton’s Batman, superhero films were still thin on the ground and of dubious quality. The spark that kicked off the 21st century boom of superhero films was Blade in 1998.
Blade is a minor character in Marvel’s vast universe, created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan for their Tomb of Dracula title in the 1970s in the midst of the Blaxploitation boom. In 1998, the film came out to no expectations at all, but became a decent sized hit that showed the superhero film could not only be successful with a relatively minor character, but with a star name (Wesley Snipes) and a moderate budget, you could have a hit as well as make a pretty decent movie.
2000 saw two important films: Marvel’s long-awaited X-Men which became a massive hit while making a superstar of Hugh Jackman, and Unbreakable, a film not based upon any comic but one that gave the superhero a gravitas in in cinema it previously lacked. This showed that the superhero film didn’t just have commercial viability but critical acclaim could walk with it, so studios suddenly looked at comics and worked to mine them for all they could. The next step was 2002’s Spider-Man, which was at that point, the biggest grossing superhero film of all-time.
The floodgates openedm yet quality control was high; 2003 saw one of the best sequels, as well as superhero films, in X-Men 2, not to mention the trainwreck that was the adaptation of Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That latter showed producers were now looking at anything comic-related as marketable based purely upon it having been a successful comic and cranking it out often against the demands of creators or even good taste. In terms of numbers, it wasn’t until 2005 when the comic book film started to number more than three or four a year to a veritable flood of films, many of which were crap. The boom as we know it today kicked into gear in 2008 with Marvel Studios’ Iron Man, which laid the building blocks for 2012’s The Avengers which becomes one of the biggest grossing films in history, and still stands as the biggest grossing superhero/comic book film of all time. Iron Man also ushered in the MCU, which is still in motion to this day, with each release dominating the box office.
At the same time Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy defined the character for cinema audiences in the post-9/11 world of the 21st century while also drawing acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Matthew Vaughan’s adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick Ass showed audiences were ready for the post-modern cynical superhero and by 2012 superhero films are a stream of gaudily-clad characters dancing across cinema screens worldwide. By 2017 superhero films are coming at us thick and fast from Marvel, DC or anyone with a comic book property, or one influenced by comics.
And this brings me to the question: is there an oversaturation of comic book films? The answer is no, there isn’t. Looking at what’s coming up is daunting as there are films planned for release until the early 2020s and, undoutedly, far beyond; so on the surface the bubble we’re in isn’t going to burst, nor will it. It may eventually become unfashionable like the Western or Musical (both genres enjoyed the oversaturation people accuse superhero films of) did, but that doesn’t stop a Django Unchained or La La Land being made, so those people hoping superhero films are eventually going to end: they won’t. Marvel/Disney has a successful extended cinematic universe putting out at least two films a year, while DC/Warner Bros. are trying to create an extended universe of their own. This isn’t going to stop and with these films making billions in cinemas, and with merchandising, as long as the money keeps executives wealthy beyond the dreams of us mere plebs then the superhero film is here to stay.
So, we don’t have an oversaturation. Because of these films lengthy marketing campaigns and endless merchandising it does seem that as soon as one is released, another comes up just after it. There’s also an issue with quality in many cases, as although many of these films are enjoyable (Civil War and Doctor Strange for example are both perfectly fine, if unspectacular films) few are truly trying to do something different or break from the increasingly formulaic style these films have now established. The truth is cinema trends will change. There will be a point where oversaturation occurs, though that may well be thanks to television or whenever the whole ‘Geek culture’ trend bursts over people’s faces like a technicolour bukkake. Until then we’ve got superhero films as an established film genre whether you like it or hate it.