Comics Conquer Hollywood

This story was written by CBSNews.com's Nicola Menzie
News that Marvel comics plans to churn out movies based on its comic book characters highlights Hollywood's growing appetite for films ripped from the pages of popular comics.

Marvel intends to sink more than half-a-billion dollars into the movie venture. The company has some 5,000 characters in its library, and plans to turn out 10 films over the next eight years. The first titles will include "Captain America" and "Nick Fury."

Marvel's decision to take things into its own hands is hardly surprising. The current 'it' thing in Hollywood is adapting comic books for the big screen, primarily with publishing giants like Marvel and DC Comics.

At the rate that comic book movies are being produced, it's practically uncommon nowadays to walk into a theater and not see at least one preview or poster for a DC or Marvel-based movie.

Even the smaller comic book publishers, like Image and Dark Horse, are muscling their way onto the Hollywood film lots.

It all started in 1978 with the pivotal release of "Superman: The Movie," starring the late Christopher Reeves. The film was well received and even won a few awards.

However, it wasn't until 2002's "Spider-Man" that Hollywood studios and comic book publishers realized what kind of damage they could do at the box office.

In comparison, "Superman" grossed more than $134 million, while "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man 2" are two of the top ten highest grossing U.S. box office films with $403 million and $373 million, respectively.

Marvel was able to climb out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1998 partly because of the comic book-to-big screen cash infusion it received. Nevertheless, most analysts believe the company's haul was relatively small in comparison to the money raked in by the Hollywood studios that produced the movies. That's why Marvel decided to take things into its own hands.

And why not? Comic book movies are so lucrative nowadays that even Archie Comics is rumored to be jumping on the bandwagon.

Imagine, every superhero, every super team (the X-Men and Fantastic Four) and every superhero from every super team--and perhaps even a villain or two--are all film possibilities.

What's more, it isn't just your typical superhero fare that's getting the Hollywood treatment. Audiences have also embraced "The Road To Perdition," the biopic "American Splendor" and the gritty crime noir "Sin City." With so much variety and breadth of material, comic book movies may have quite a long and profitable future.


Some future releases are "Batman: Beings," "Superman: Returns," "Fantastic Four," "The Green Hornet," "V for Vendetta" and literally dozens of other titles, not to mention their impending sequels.

So what's driving the popularity of comic book movies?

Gareb Shamus of Wizard Enterprises, a company that caters to the comic book industry, said comic book fans provide Hollywood studios with a built-in base of moviegoers.

And he wasn't talking only about the fans that line up at the box office either. "A lot of people that grew up reading comic books are now in a position in Hollywood where they have the ability to work on these projects," he noted.

Some examples are "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon (working on "Wonder Woman"), Kevin Smith (working on "The Green Hornet") and Bryan Singer ("X-Men" 1 & 2 and working on "Superman: Returns").

Whedon and Smith have their own comic book titles, and Smith also has comic book shops on the East and West Coasts.

If Hollywood has comic book aficionados scrambling to write, produce and direct these films, then imagine the sheer number of fans on the flipside who just simply want to watch live-action versions of the characters they've been reading about for years.

It's for that reason, Shamus said, that comic book movies won't be running aground anytime soon.

But there are some skeptics.

Toby Miller, director of the Film and Visual Culture Program at the University of California, sees some darkness at the end of the tunnel.

"The future looks bright, but as with all such subgenres, too few good stories will be available, and this will see the genre overheat and lose appeal," he said.

That may be--if comic book creators one day stop working and the comic book industry goes out of business. But neither of those scenarios seem like real possibilities.

And who says the stories have to be good? If there's any money to be made, Hollywood is going to keep digging into the comic book barrel whether the resulting film might be a blockbuster or a dud (i.e., "Constantine," "Hellboy," "Daredevil").

Only time will tell, but with such a dedicated fan base and a large number of stories -- old and yet to be written -- it's very unlikely that comic book movies will be going the way of the Western any time soon.