Monday, July 28, 2008

Cinematic Superheroes; Rating the Greats, part 1

The financial success of the Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Hellboy, X-Men and Batman franchises in recent years ensures us that the foreseeable future will be inundated with further entries into the Super Hero genre. Actually, calling it "Super Hero" might not be exactly correct as from time to time we veer more into "Comic Book Hero" realm, a subtle yet sometimes important distinction. The Comic Book hero would include source material such as the oft-maligned and underrated Judge Dredd (1995) and the rumored Jonah Hex movie. If they stay true to the source material I will be there opening day for that one. However...if they go the route the scripts have been rumored to go...not so much. If I wanted to watch X-Files material I would watch the X-Files.

And therein we have one of the issues surrounding Comic Books as source material. The audience becomes a moving target even within the "fanboy"/nerd/geek paradigm. On the one hand, you have people like me...I know the general outline of even 2nd tier Heroes such as Darkhawk, the Green Arrow, Elongated Man, etc. and have a pretty good sense of the Superman pantheon of enemies, for example. Yet I have nowhere near the level of interest of people who, for example, recognized the name on the test tube in The Incredible Hulk (2008) as belonging to the guy who injected the Super Soldier serum into Steve Rogers (Captain America). On the other end of the spectrum are people who needed me to identify Steve Rogers as being the alias for the iconic Super Hero, to whom names like Zsasz or the Mad Hatter are unlikely to bring to mind Batman villains.

That leaves open the question of whether or how much origin story to kick in when starting a new tent pole Hero. In Spiderman (2002) the answer was yes, we will give the relatively long form version. In Daredevil (2003) the combination of too much back story and Ben Affleck unfortunately sunk a potentially very entertaining franchise as fans turned away in droves from a movie that, in retrospect, was actually quite entertaining. In The Incredible Hulk (2008) they dispensed with the back story entirely and assumed the audience would quickly comprehend the potentially complex relationships between the 3 main characters.

There is, like so often in the movies, no "right" or "wrong" answer. The Fantastic Four (2005) was essentially nothing but origin...yet it was entertaining and paved the way for further movies. Iron Man (2008) was also quite heavy on the origin portion yet left fans clamoring for more. Why did these movies succeed while Daredevil, The Hulk, and, arguably, even The Punisher (2004) failed?

Over the next few days I will explore a variety of factors that help explain the success, failure, and entertainment value of various comic book and Super Hero movies. Along the way the factors that make these movies entertaining...or not...for many people who may not have ever encountered the material prior to seeing these movies.

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