Holy box office, Batman!

To date, comic book adaptations have made $5,815,026,986 (that’s almost six billion dollars) at the box office, which is a lot of money! Hollywood has had a love-hate relationship with comics for quite some time now, as some of its most successful movies have been comic book adaptations, along with some of its biggest flops.

It all began in 1975 with the summer release of the blockbuster Jaws. It broke the Hollywood story stereotype of angry men, frantic car chases, big guns and exploited women as it swam from behind to take a big chunk of the box office – $100 million to be precise. Studios took notice and just two years later box office revenues went galactic when Star Wars stormed cinema screens across America. With it the ‘blockbuster’ was born. Around the same time, the comic industry was going through a renaissance of its own. The golden and silver ages of comic books were over and drastic changes began to surface in what became known as the bronze age of comics.

The two powerhouses of American comics – Marvel and DC – were exploring diverse issues within their respective panels. At Marvel, titles like Spiderman and X-men were going through drastic change in terms of tone and characterisation and many popular characters were killed off during this time. Storylines in DC Comics also took a different turn as issues like drugs and racism were tackled. Both industries were growing – whether it was the gross returns of the box office, or the quality of storytelling in comics. In 1978 these two worlds came together when audiences and comic book readers were made to believe that ‘a man could fly.’

Producer Ilya Salkind acquired the rights to DC Comics’ Superman. He went on to hire director Richard Donner and writer Mario Puzo of The Godfather fame for its adaptation. Donner’s unique approach to the character and Puzo’s detailed script (some 600 pages in length) were quite faithful to the ‘man of steel’ story.

It also had a stellar cast. Screen legend Marlon Brando played Jor-El (Superman’s father) and Gene Hackman starred as the diabolical Lex Luthor. Superman: The Movie (1978) swept the box office away with breathtaking special effects, a grand storyline and a little known stage star who outshined both leads. That individual was the first, last and only true Superman – the late Christopher Reeve.

With Superman, the floodgates opened and in the following two decades, many comics were given the silver screen treatment. Batman, The Mask, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, Popeye, Dennis the Menace, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Sheena, Steel, Dick Tracy, Casper, The Rocketeer and Time Cop are a few notable mentions. Some of them proved to be great hits whilst others crashed into box office oblivion. Batman (1990) is perhaps the most successful comic book movie of its era, bagging a total of $251,188,924, and is the third most successful comic book movie of all time. Like Superman, it was followed by numerous sequels which weren’t as successful as the original.

Most of these adaptations starred at least one A-list actor and their casts would often read like a who’s who of Hollywood. Actors like Jack Nicholson (who got paid a record $60 million for his role in Batman), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Kim Basinger, Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Val Kilmer and Cameron Diaz featured prominently in these adaptations. But it wasn’t just actors. Writers and directors were also lining up to do comic book movies. Names like Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, John Hughes, Akiva Goldsmith and Richard Donner signed on to shoot or pen movies based on comics.

The arrival of the new millennium saw a new breed of comic book movies. This new breed came soon after the release of Batman & Robin (1997) which, according to many, is the worst comic book movie ever made. At the box office it collected barely $100 million while $130 million had gone into its production. The movie is so bad that lead star George Clooney said he would personally refund the money to anyone who paid to see it. He is also rumoured to have admitted that this movie single-handedly “killed the franchise.”

In 2001, Hollywood opted for a more faithful and traditional approach to comics. Sony Pictures acquired the rights to the Spiderman movie franchise, which had previously been attached to James Cameron, from the troubled studio Carolco Pictures. Sony then brought Sam Raimi on board, and he brought with him something that was crucial to the revival of comic book blockbusters: respect for the history and background of the comic. Raimi re-worked a script-in-progress by James Cameron, hired an almost unknown cast, and treated it in the same way as Richard Donner had previously done with Superman: The Movie. Raimi chose Donner’s Superman because that character’s story closely resembled that of Spiderman‘s.

Both have foster parents, both work at a news agency, both have secret identities-unbeknownst to their respective love interests (Lois Lane and Mary Jane). Both have villains that are megalomaniacs (Norman Osborne and Lex Luthor), both chose to give up their powers for their love interests and both have strong American patriotic motifs (Superman’s ‘Truth, justice and the American way,’ and Spiderman’s hometown of New York City, the unofficial American capital post-9/11).

Where Donner showed Superman holding an American flag, Raimi presented New York City as a supporting cast member. And the similarities don’t end there. Spiderman (2001) has become — and still is — the most successful comic book movie of all time, slinging in a mammoth $403,706,375, echoing the release of Superman: The Movie some 20 odd years earlier.

In the years that have followed, the number of comic book movies has increased dramatically, so much so that it has prompted Marvel Comics – which ironically went bankrupt in the ’90s – to rename itself Marvel Entertainment. Marvel is a leader in comic book movies, with 13 so far and several in various stages of production.

DC and Marvel aren’t the only two comic book houses around. Dark Horse Comics have also enjoyed a reasonable amount of success on the silver screen. Sin City (2005) and Hell Boy (2004) are two good examples, both extremely successful and now awaiting sequels. Though not from comics, the Alien vs. Predator franchise was first conceived in comics by Dark Horse and eventually successfully brought to the screen in 2004.

Since Spiderman, there have been comic book movies every year and even a few old ones have been remade. Director Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) saw the return of the ‘man of steel’ after an absence of 20 years from the silver screen. Similarly writer/director Christopher Nolan stripped away the cheesy elements of all previous Batman films to bring us a very gritty look at the Dark Knight in Batman Begins (2005).

Once again, the great comic book movie craze is in full swing. Just recently Ghost Rider (2007) has set the box office ablaze, earning an impressive $80 million and the box office top spot for two consecutive weeks. Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007) rallied a resounding victory, having taken in $78 million and the top spot on its opening weekend, eclipsing Gladiator and Troy in its current returns.

There you have it; the story of comic book adapted movies. Though they are not always successful, one can be certain that the next big blockbuster just might be a comic book adaptation. In 1978, Superman: The Movie proved to the studios that they can tell good stories and still earn extremely high returns. Just as it proved to audiences that a man can fly.