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Do People Really Like Comic Book Adaptations, or Do They Just Like Marvel?

Marvel

Comic book adaptations are everywhere these days. Invincible, Jupiter’s Legacy and The Sandman have all been in the news recently and Loki just started airing on Disney+, basically sucking all the air out of the room from all of those other shows.

Netflix spent a fortune on Jupiter’s Legacy, and more broadly on comic book writer Mark Millar, the man who created Kick-Ass, Wanted and Kingsmen, who they hoped would create a bunch of successful new properties for them under his MillarWorld imprint.

They canceled it after one season because while it was successful, it wasn’t a runaway hit. Netflix is clearly looking for a big franchise property, something to compete with the Marvel Universe and Game of Thrones before it ran out of books to adapt and turned to s**t.

This is also probably why they’re creating a live-action version of One Piece. One Piece is essentially a cross between superheroes and pirates that follows Luffy D. Monkey on his quest to find the One Piece and become king of the pirates. It’s also the most popular comic book in the entire world and is massively successful everywhere but the US, where a terrible Saturday morning adaptation of the anime series by 4Kids was a lot of kids’ first exposure to it.

The point is that everyone wants to build the next Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they all think that comic books are the place they’re going to find it. And that leads to a world where we can’t throw a rock without hitting a hot take that we’re making too many comic book movies or someone comparing them to Westerns.

But I honestly don’t think comic book movies or superhero movies have actually become their own popular genres. I think people just like Marvel.

I know that when I say this, the first thing you’re about to say is “What about Batman?” Well yes, Batman, along with Superman and Wonder Woman, have always been pretty popular. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, if you asked someone to name a superhero, their response was pretty likely to be one of those three or one of Marvel’s three most famous characters, Spider-Man, Wolverine or The Incredible Hulk.

Comic book characters have always had some presence in pop culture. Aside from Wolverine, all the characters I just mentioned had a live-action, prime-time network TV show well before Marvel Studios was making movies. There have actually been five live-action Superman shows. Six if you count Krypton, so five.

My point is that while Marvel isn’t making the only comic book movies and TV shows that people are watching, we’ve had some amount of comic book adaptations almost as long as we’ve had comic books. There was a theatrical Batman serial in the 1940s and Little Nemo, widely regarded as the first animated movie, is from 1911 and based on the characters in Windsor McKay’s comic strip Little Nemo in Dreamland.

There isn’t really a boom in these adaptations and comic book movies, they’ve always been there. Even the adaptations of indie comics: remember Judge Dredd, Mystery Men and Men and Black? All based on comic books. And cartoons like Ultraforce, Gen 13, WildC.A.T.S. and Savage Dragon were big in the 90s.

Marvel’s movies are very popular and for good reason. I know that I tend to s**t on them, and I honestly didn’t think Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were that great, but in general, Marvel’s movies are all pretty good. They increasingly follow a cookie-cutter formula that really prevents them from being bad. It also kinds of prevents them from being great and it’s no coincidence that the most hype they’ve gotten in a long time was for WandaVision, a show that at least tried to break out of the mold.

Disney has also been experimenting with how much they can exploit the Marvel brand. The first six Marvel movies came out over a period of almost exactly 4 years. Seriously, Avengers came out 4 years and 2 days after Iron Man launched the MCU. This increased to two movies a year, the three, and now there are four Marvel movies scheduled to release in 2022. Plus they’ve got TV shows on Disney+ now. There have been three Marvel shows on Disney+ this year, counting the currently-running Loki, and two more, What If…? and Ms. Marvel slated to debut by the end of the year. Plus they have M.O.D.O.K. on Hulu, which isn’t part of the MCU but is still pretty good.

Marvel is more popular than ever, and a franchise putting out four movies and five TV shows a year is pretty much unheard of. Even NBC only has three Chicago shows and three Law and Order shows. And people are engaged with Marvel. You see a few recaps here and there for shows like Riverdale but basically every site on the internet covered WandaVision because it was so popular and so much fun to speculate about.

When people talk about “superhero fatigue” or complain about how there are too many comic book movies coming out, they’re really just talking about Marvel movies. DC has somewhat increased their theatrical output, but they’ve been putting movies out pretty steadily since Superman came out in 1978.

The flip side of that is that your attempt to make the next Marvel Cinematic Universe is probably going to fail. People aren’t rushing out to see anything comic book-related, they’re mostly just excited for Marvel. Jupiter’s Legacy failed. Justice League failed. They weren’t bad (okay, Whedon’s Justice League was pretty bad, but so was Age of Ultron) but they weren’t the next MCU either.

Marvel found the perfect formula for a summer blockbuster basically by accident when they let Robert Downey Jr.’s natural charm define Tony Stark and leaned into the campy fun the comic book industry has been trying to shake off since the 1960s Batman series.

DC tried to build their own cinematic universe by doing what most comic book movies were doing before Marvel came along, by being darker and more serious. This might work for Batman but it doesn’t work that well for Superman.

Man of Steel was a mess and you can’t point the finger at Joss Whedon for that. The washed-out colors, the depressing story and Superman killing Zod all went over like a wet fart with fans. Zack Snyder had a really interesting idea for Superman’s story arc in the would-be DCEU: turning Superman into the monster Lex Luther thought he would become after being corrupted by Darkseid and then showing how he redeems himself.

That would be a really good DC Comics miniseries, but it’s not a great idea for a series of four-quadrant summer blockbuster studio tentpole films. One of the things Marvel does really well is giving the audience the most iconic version of their characters. Mostly. Tobey McGuire’s Spider-Man was so much closer to the iconic depiction of the character than Tom Holland’s Iron Man Jr.

There’s a limit on how many Superman movies we can make, so people don’t really want them to be about his turn to evil and redemption. They want the classic Superman fighting for truth, justice and the American way and facing off with Wall Street douchebag Lex Luthor.

This is why DC’s planned Black Superman movie is probably going to fail as well. The Elseworlds “what if Superman was different” movies aren’t what people are looking for. I’m sure it’ll be a good movie when you do cider it for what it is, but when people go to see Superman, they want to see Superman, not an interpretation of how Superman might be in different circumstances.

But boy did Zack Snyder and Amy Adams absolutely nail Lois Lane. That’s the best version of Lois Lane that’s ever been on the big screen. Get your Superman as close to the classic as you got Lois Lane and you’ve solved it.

DC arguably has more brand recognition than Marvel, especially before the release of Iron Man, and they have had some successful movies, but not enough to be another Marvel. People don’t want something too different from Marvel, there’s a reason they like those movies. But they also don’t want something too similar because they could just watch Marvel’s films instead. That puts them in a really tough spot.

And then there’s Jupiter’s Legacy. Mark Millar is an excellent comic book writer. He’s created some really amazing properties, and arguably wrote the comics that inspired the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nick Fury looking suspiciously like Sam Jackson? That was Millar and artist Bryan Hitch. Marvel smartly used a lot of his ideas but ditched the ones that strayed too far from the core of the characters, like ignoring his Captain America being the super-soldier version of your Fox News-watching Grandpa in favor of the classic, wholesome moral compass Cap Chris Evans played.

Mark Millar had a lot to say in Jupiter’s Legacy the comic, it was very tied to his political beliefs. I’ve actually talked to Mark Millar about politics on Twitter, the man is not shy about sharing his beliefs and he’s incredibly well-informed and passionate.

The comic and the show are about the idea of the second generation of superheroes growing up in the shadows of their parents, trying to live up to their ideals and exploring whether they’re outdated. It’s a sort of meta-commentary on comic book tropes as well as what those superheroes would look like in the current world of late-stage capitalism.

Ever since Alan Moore wrote Watchmen, he’s been endlessly imitated. Millar is the first person to really capture the energy Moore had in that book because his look at the meaning of superheroes in the real world realized that Watchmen was written in 1985 and Millar wrote a book for the 2010s.

Still, as good as Jupiter’s Legacy was, Netflix didn’t want a good show, they want a franchise. They want a superhero universe they can build into a franchise, and so they canceled Jupiter’s Legacy in favor of other stories set in the same world. They also want to build a Marvel-sized franchise without the Marvel-sized budget, which probably isn’t feasible.

Speaking of Watchmen, HBO attempted to make a sequel to the beloved comic and failed miserably. While the show was acclaimed by critics, it was pretty clear those critics weren’t familiar with the source material. Of course, neither were the creators of the show, so it worked.

Watchmen had incredibly low ratings, to which HBO said “no, like 8 million people watched it. They just all watched it online and that’s why Nielsen said it had like a third as many viewers as Westwood. But people were totally watching it.” And that’s why they didn’t renew it for another season, because too many people watched it. I don’t think that anyone really believes for a second that HBO paid for a property as high-profile as Watchmen with the intent of only doing nine episodes.

So why have all of these would-be franchises failed to take off? Is it superhero fatigue? Have comic book movies finally gone the way of the Western? Well, no, Loki launched recently and the buzz for it is huge. It was also Disney+’s biggest debut to date. Marvel has three films coming out in the second half of this year and four films next year. No one is getting tired of Marvel, even with the last two Avengers films acting as something of an ending.

There has never been a franchise like Marvel before. By the end of the year, there will be more Marvel movies released in 13 years as there have been James Bond movies released in 60 years. It’s essentially a genre in and of itself. And the assumption has been that if Marvel is so popular then other, similar things must also be popular. But that really hasn’t turned out to be the case.

It’s probably not the healthiest thing in the world for one movie studio to control so much of the blockbuster market share, but Marvel’s consistent quality and “no such thing as too much” attitude to their films has really pushed out their competition. And it would probably be in the best interest of other studios looking to create their own franchises to try to find a different niche because Marvel has theirs pretty well-covered.

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