Comic book fans of today are very fortunate, because we are living in the Golden Age of comic book films. Since the early 2000’s, fans have had the privilege of seeing the beloved characters of our childhoods realized onscreen in their full epic glory, with stories that not only excite and amaze, but also manage to surpass expectations of what we thought comic book films could do.
Unless you’re a fan of DC, in which case, God help you.
Of course, we didn’t always have it this good. Those of us that grew up in the 90’s had to suffer through some of the most awful adaptations of comic books the world has ever seen – and looking back, it’s not too hard to see how they ended up that way.
I. Lack Of Reverence For The Source Material
It may be hard to believe, but comic books were not always beloved by all ages as they are today. Although most of the stories we grew up with were created long before many of us were even born, many people abandoned them in generations past upon reaching adulthood in order to go off to war, enter the workforce, and get married so they could finally get past second base with Trudy from homeroom. As such, comics were mostly thought of as a medium for children to enjoy – an attitude that was held by most of the decision makers in studios at the time.
Sure, people were aware that some comic book fans were older, but….. Let’s just say those fans were not held in high regard.
This lack of reverence for comics – and lack of respect for comic book fans – by the people responsible for making them into films is arguably the biggest reason why 90’s comic book adaptations were doomed to mediocrity and failure. Producers and studio heads were far more interested in putting kids in the stands than they were with creating compelling stories from the source material.
This type of thinking led to a lot of poor casting, storytelling and budgetary decisions designed to sell toys rather that thrill audiences, which in turn pissed off long-time fans and actually limited the appeal of the movies themselves. It would take many years before studio heads finally figured out that having people who respected both the audience and the source material would lead to better films, and much bigger box office returns.
II. Low Budgets
It’s been proven time and again: if you want to make sure a comic book film sucks, try to make one on the cheap.
In spite of the abysmal failure of that film both critically and commercially, Cannon Films attempted to do it again with Captain America, thinking the problem was that they threw too much money at it. The result, as we all know, was arguably the worst superhero film ever made.
Red Skull’s lair looks more like the inside of an abandoned Costco at night, and scenes filmed there are so poorly lit that they might as well have been filmed in the dark. And the action and fight scenes are so bad, they make Dolemite look like it was done by Woo-Ping.
Nevertheless, studios continued to churn out superhero films with low budgets, particularly after the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which grossed about 15 times its meager 13 million dollar budget. What studios did not realize was that TMNT was an outlier: A film that benefited from practical effects rather than CGI, riding a wave of popularity that would ebb immediately after they put Vanilla Ice in the second film.
However, for most comic book adaptations, where a human being has to wear a convincing suit and do amazing things, suspension of belief is critical, since people have to be amazed in order to invest in the story and characters onscreen. As we learned from the low budget stinkers of the 90’s, it takes a bit more than your leftover cocaine budget to get it done.