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Why Are Superhero Movies Bigger Now More Than Ever?

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Why Are Superhero Movies Bigger Now More Than Ever?
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

We examine the comic book movie madness.

It seems like Superhero movies have taken over the world, and box-office numbers would back that argument up. Movies like Black Panther, Iron-Man 3, and Avengers: Infinity War crossed the coveted billion dollar mark. Even superhero movies that are considered box-office bombs amass hundreds of millions in sales. For example, Justice League brought in $657 million and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 grossed $709 million, but both were considered failures. That’s a testament to the stranglehold that heroes currently have on the box office. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing so well that Marvel Studios is dropping three movies a year. They began with two movies in 2008 (Iron-Man, The Hulk), then none in 2009, one in 2010 (Iron Man 2) and have since steadily increased their output after 2012’s Avengers. On top of that, DC and Warner Bros. have been releasing at least one new movie a year since launching their film universe, and Sony is expanding their Spider-Verse with animated films (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). Outside of Marvel and DC, competitors are rushing to put other comic adaptations on screen such as 300, Kick-Ass, or Hellboy. Even television is being flooded with comic book-based entertainment. The Walking Dead began as an insanely popular comic book before AMC created the captivating series. Why did comic culture become such a money-maker? When did comic books branch out from “nerd” culture to pop-culture? It all begins with Blade.

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Avi Arad has been behind the scenes within Marvel since the first Wesley Snipes-starring blockbuster. Arad is a storied producer, who orchestrated many Marvel films including all of the Spider-Man films, X-Men 2, Blade 2, Fantastic Four, and several other films and cartoons. He came to be a main figure over at Marvel after his company, Toy Biz, bailed out the comic powerhouse when they had financial woes back in the 90s. Arad had a vision of bringing comics to life on a grand scale, and the success of Blade proved to movie studios that there was a market for the content. Blade was the first Marvel comic book movie to become a breakout hit. The film made $131 million on a budget of $45 million, with a character that was so obscure many didn’t even know he came from a comic. Once studios discovered how lucrative the superhero market was, they rushed to put out films such as Spider-Man and X-Men. Blade first dropped on August 21, 1998. Within five years, X-Men, X2, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil had all debuted in theaters. Fantastic Four, Elektra, Spider-Man 2 & 3, and 300 would soon follow.Arad helped orchestrate the first X-Men film, where he began a working relationship with Kevin Feige.

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A young Kevin Feige was hired to help with the X-Men’s debut due to his knowledge of comics, and he rose through the ranks quickly until he reached the pinnacle of success as the current head of Marvel Studios. Feige attended film school, and was later hired as an intern by Lauren Shuler Donner. Donner noted Feige’s personal love for comics while they worked on films such as You’ve Got Mail, and when it came time to make X-Men, she promoted her young intern to an assistant producer to help guide the movie. Arad and Feige built the lucrative comic book movie market we know today. Sure, Batman and Superman had successful films that were monumental in shaping the industry, but their popularity seemed stationed more squarely in comic fandom.

The Dark Knight, which dropped the same year as the first Iron-Man film (2008), was the first DC movie to really break out into pop culture lexicon. When adjusted for inflation, the first Batman starring Michael Keaton sits at #56 of all time at the domestic box office. The Dark Knight sits at #32 and The Dark Knight Rises ranks at #71. Those are the highest grossing Batman films of all time. All the other movies, from Batman Returns up to Batman Begins, rank outside the top #150. The point is: DC wasn’t really commanding the box office in the same way Marvel is now. DC was still relying on comic fandom to sell their movies, until Heath Ledger delivered the iconic role as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

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Marvel, on the other hand, has four movies in the top 50 when adjusted for inflation (they have ten in the top 50 when unadjusted). Their reign at the box-office ushered in the current age of comic dominance. Feige and Arad built a billion dollar empire from the ground up, and casting was the main component in helping comics make the switch from the basement to the big screen. Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron-Man ascended nerd culture and solidified him as one of the highest paid actors in the world. Heavyweights like Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Tommy Lee Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Hugo Weaving, Don Cheadle, Edward Norton, and Idris Elba in the first handful of MCU films served as a boost for the comic industry. The presence of fabled star power also acted as a co-sign for Disney, who had to gain the trust of the audience that is now built-in.

Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, or Jim Carrey as The Riddler, the A-list performances of the new generation were refined and packaged for mainstream. No matter how much you may have loved Danny DeVito as Penguin or Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, it’s hard to argue that those roles were meant for a wider audience. Both of those villains were portrayed as comical, and fit the stereotypical role of the bad guy. In comparison, villains such as Killmonger, Thanos, The Joker, or Loki are depicted in a way that exposes their flaws and makes them relatable to the audience, bringing them to a more human level. For each of the aforementioned villains, there can be an argument made for their mission. Meanwhile, no one can argue that The Penguin’s goal was relatable or logical.

Heath Ledger brought a whole new energy to The Joker, one that influenced people who never even picked up a comic book to get his face tattooed on their body. Downey did the same, cracking open the MCU for lesser-known stars like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans to do their thing. Ledger and Downey Jr. essentially became rock stars, and helped pushed these comic movies into the mainstream. Once actors started becoming icons, that’s when things opened up on a major scale. One can argue that Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man planted the seed, but very few people would put him in the same category as Ledger, Downey Jr., or even Chris Evans at this point in time. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine can also be used as an example, but he wasn’t worshipped on the level he is now until around the time the third X-Men film dropped. X-MenThe Last Stand and the first solo Wolverine movie were dragged as atrocities, and it wasn’t until The Wolverine era (2013) that fans really began to treat Jackman like royalty (I can vividly remember fans claiming Wolverine: Origins was the end of Jackman’s comic career).

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Kevin Feige’s idea to create an interconnected movie universe revolutionized the movie industry. Nothing on that level had ever been conceived. Movies were structured in trilogies and solo characters may, or may not, get a spin-off. Feige focused on individual heroes and created a fantasy world where they all existed. Now half of the studios in Hollywood are rushing to build their own universes. The orchestration of the MCU was the defining action that placed comic book movies on the top of the totem pole, but the success of Blade and rockstar performances by Heath Ledger and Robert Downey Jr. are all essential to the rise of the genre as well. What was once considered a niche market is now mainstream, and it doesn’t look like comic book entertainment will be going anywhere anytime soon.

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