Comic Book Movies Eventually Got Great. So Will Video Game Movies.

By  · Published on March 17th, 2014

Buena Vista Entertainment

Need for Speed will not be remembered fondly.

If that seems unnecessarily cruel towards Need for Speed (which it does), it’s because the truth can be cruel sometimes. And it is the truth. The film currently holds a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes, and although it was projected to win the box office with a mediocre $25M, it only managed a paltry third place with $17.8M. Two weeks from now, Need for Speed will be naught but faded memory.

But there’s one place where Need for Speed will continue to thrive: in the great argument why “video game movies suck” (and if that seems unnecessarily cruel, which it does, take it up with all the many many many articles using that exact phrasing). It’s no secret. Films based off of video games have a garbage rep; the most critically acclaimed one, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, scored a 44% on our foremost bulbous red fruit-based scale. Every other video game movie in history has scored in the thirties or below.

When it is discussed (and it is discussed, normally every time a new video game movie fails to impress), the same argument always crops up: that Hollywood is a soulless, corrupt machine that crushes all source material in its cold steel claws. A few examples follow:

“The real reason the vast majority of video game movies stink is that the writers, directors and producers involved don’t want to take the time and energy to figure out how to transform the inherent joys of a particular game into an agreeable and cinematic form. All they care about is getting a movie in theaters that shares a title with a popular game.” (Screencrush)

“The Hollywood machine, in its endless chase for big bucks, can’t help but exploit the latest hit interactive outing, often failing to realize it’s often a specific gameplay mechanic, psychological meme or technical feature that makes the title so compelling.” (CNN)

“Few talented people in Hollywood respect or adore video games enough to enable a legitimate attempt at a video game adaptation.” (The Diamondback)

Hollywood bad, video games good. But there’s another explanation, one that’s not so cut-and-dry:

Video game movies are terrible because they’re supposed to be.

The video game, as an art form, is still extremely new. It hasn’t had time to become “adaptable,” if you will. It’s an artistic medium that’s just begun developing, as has its relationship with film. Video games need time; lots and lots of it. Time to understand exactly how a video game is supposed to be adapted to a different medium, just as cinema struggled technologically to build genuine suspension of disbelief . Time to make a lot of really awful video game movies, because neither industry quite knows how to communicate their ideas in the right manner. It’s no one’s fault, not the video game industry’s, and not because of some malicious intent on Hollywood’s part. It’s just the way it is.

But it’s also a unique situation – how many other brand-new artistic mediums have emerged (and been used as movie fodder) after film was already well-established? Well here’s your answer (because I wouldn’t pose that question unless I knew where I was going with it): One other medium. Comic books.

Comics, like video games, first hit it big after film was the dominant player in popular media. And like the sordid history of video game adaptations, there’s an equally sordid history of comic book adaptations. Lay them out side by side and the two match up on a near-perfect level- an illustration of how, sometimes, two mediums just need some time to get to know each other out before they can cross-breed without the results being some ungodly abomination.

So let us begin the great side-by-side-comparisons:

Warner Bros.

Adaptation Period: The Serial

Comic Books Had…: The first comics were comic strips and political cartoons, which have been around a few hundred years or so. But the first “comic book,” as it were, is considered to be “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics,” in 1933. By 1934, comic books had recognizable heroes like Flash Gordon. And in 1936, we had the first Flash Gordon radio serial. Superman’s comic debut was in 1938; his radio debut was 1940.

Radio serials, unsurprisingly, are not hard to make into film serials. And the 40s brought film serials galore, with the likes of Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America. Superheroes, and comic books, were most definitely mainstream. You go to the newsstand, comic books. You go to the movie house, comic serials. And they were not what you’d call cheap, not when the first Flash Gordon film serial was made for roughly $350,000 (more than half the budget of King Kong).

And Video Games Had… : No exact equivalent. Comic books got big and the film industry jumped all over them, with big budgets and popularity from the start. Video games didn’t get anywhere near the same amount of attention. In the early 80s, video games graduated from being “blips shooting blips at other blips” and started to introduce recurring characters and franchises: Q*bert, Pac-Man, Zork. Any one of these had enough name recognition to become a radio serial, if 80s radio serials were a thing that existed. Instead, video games were snapped up by their 1980s equivalent…

Adaptation Period: The Saturday Morning Cartoon

Comic Books Had: Comics were Hollywood’s darling back when serials were still in vogue, but once serial popularity started to wane, so did comics’. By the early 1950s, serials were kaput. Barring a single Superman series (as the Coca-Cola of superheroes was popular enough to survive on his own), comic book characters did not exist outside of comicdom.

Until 1966, that is. That’s the year when comics exploded back into the mainstream, by way of the Saturday morning cartoon. 66′ saw Superman, Superboy, and an Avengers-ish collection of Marvel heroes imprinting on the impressionable, mushy brains of children nationwide. Spider-Man, Aquaman and the Fantastic Four joined up the next year, and ever since superheroes have been a staple of early weekend hours and exceedingly sugared breakfast cereal.

And Video Games Had… : Saturday Morning Cartoons. Craptons of them. Video games might not resemble cartoons as uncannily as comic books do, but the little animated Marios and Sonics on arcade cabinets, boxes and instruction manuals were enough to inspire many a TV show. 1983’s Saturday Supercade did just that, churning out so, so many video game cartoons built around the one primary mechanic of a popular arcade game.

Frogger was an ace reporter (no idea where that came from) that was frequently squashed by something.

Donkey Kong was an escaped fugitive who threw conveniently-placed barrels at his pursuer, Mario. Q*bert was a version of Grease where every character is trapped in an LSD-soaked nightmare dimension. When video games left the arcades and weaseled themselves onto people’s TV sets, the franchises followed, with The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, Captain N: The Game Master and about a million more.

The first games and comics were bright and colorful and simple; their primary audiences skewed young. This was the natural order of things, and the easiest way for both mediums to break into the adaptation game.

Adaptation Period: The Big, The Dumb, The Fun

Comic Books Had…: Batman!

Adam West, to be specific. The ’66 Batman series on ABC was the beginning of a new age for live action comic adaptations; an era that where everyone winked at the camera and saved their self-respect for different, non-insane genres. Superheros wore spandex and not one of them had a physique that deserved to be shown off in spandex. Batman used go-go dancing as a form of self-defense. Hulk once shot put a grizzly bear, because obviously that is the safest and most rudimentary form of outdoor safety.

This is the next logical step from the Saturday morning cartoon. It’s still goofy and it still bears the same “kid friendly” stigma that affected most comics/video games of that era, but a little part of you laughs at the show, not with the show. And that means it’s cool for adults to laugh, too. From here, TV series became TV movies (Wonder Woman, Dr. Strange, Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man), and those TV movies were finally stepping stone enough for the comic book adaptation’s crowning acheivement: 1978’s Superman. Ahhh, legitimacy.

And Video Games Had… : Mortal Kombat. Resident Evil. Tomb Raider. The same principal applies, even though they skipped a few steps. Instead of gradually moving from cheese-laden TV series to slightly less cheese-laden film, video games jumped right to the cinema. Existing in the late 90s/00s means the camp must be seriously downplayed, but these films serve the same purpose as Hulk’s bear-o-pult: sit down, turn off, and enjoy something that’s a little cartoony (but not actually a cartoon).

Adaptation Period: The Experimental Phase

Comic Books Had…: Enormous success with Superman. And with Superman II. Then nothing for about ten years. Unless you want to count Supergirl, Howard the Duck or Supermans III and IV (and I’m almost certain no one, under any circumstances, would). Superman was the real deal; after three straight decades of kid stuff and camp stuff and stuff that can’t really be qualified as “good” in the same way that people wish to qualify a video game movie as “good,” comic books had an Unquestionably Outstanding Comic Book Movie.

But Superman was mostly a fluke. After it passed, comic adaptations floundered for a decade, until another peak with Tim Burton’s Batman. By this point, comics themselves had splintered off into a much more varied industry, after underground comics and alternative comics became a thing in the 70s. Batman got people interested again, and those interested parties found a comic industry with a flourishing indie market, and a wider range of material to offer. The 90s had horror comic movies (The Crow, Blade), kid-friendly comic movies (Richie Rich, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) and comedy comic movies (The Mask, Men in Black). And of course, many a defender of justice clad in a cape and matching boots.

This all led to the new Renaissance kicked off by X-Men and Spider-Man that we currently enjoy.

And Video Games Had… : Nothing, so far. But then, video game adaptations are still stuck in an era where they’re popular enough to be made, but not popular enough to be made well. And the games themselves are still changing – like underground and alternative comics in the 70s, the indie game scene has just now gotten serious.

And unlike comics, the actual foundations of video games are changing, too. Originally, video games were simple. Shoot the guy, race the guy, beat the guy in a sport. Now, we have games where all you do is learn about your sister’s love life by reading her journal entries. Or where you are an octopus in human clothing, and your only goal is to perform household chores with such precision that no one realizes you are an octopus in human clothing. Virtual reality is a thing now. If the one company that sells virtual reality headsets hadn’t just sold out, you could buy a virtual reality system today.

Video games are not comic books, and there are aspects of video game storytelling that make them far more difficult to adapt than comics. Comic books don’t turn the reader into the protagonist. Comics don’t occasionally stop the comic book-ing to show a pre-rendered movie of a particular story beat, before going back to the part unique to comic books. Those issues (player immersion and the existence of in-game cinematics) don’t mean that video games are impossible to adapt. It simply means video games need more time to develop, on their own and as adaptations. Eventually, Hollywood will understand how these elements contribute to a story, and they’ll figure out how to tell that story in a way that caters to film’s strengths. Just like they did with comic books, over a period that spanned more than a few decades.

Essentially, it all boils down to one oft-repeated, extremely cliched idiom that has no place in an argument that’s trying to be somewhat serious (aside from the whole Hulk/bear thing): “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”

Comics succeeded at first. Then they didn’t. Then they took multiple decades of constant failure (and two good Superman movies) to find success again. The sheer, utter terribleness of basically every video game adaptation needed a scapegoat, and that scapegoat became Hollywood. But video games are following the same pattern for any medium that develops in a film-heavy world. Or at least the one major one we’ve seen so far.

The bottom line? Don’t try to assign blame to the fact that video game movies are all really, really, bad. Just think of each Need for Speed as another tiny step towards the future. A future where “video game movies suck” isn’t used as a statement of fact. A future where we could have a Super Mario Bros. movie, and it wouldn’t be the really, really awful Super Mario Bros. movie we already have. Close your eyes and imagine a critically acclaimed adventure featuring two turtle-hopping plumbers that people claim was snubbed for an Oscar nomination. If that seems far-fetched, think of how long it took Batman to get there.

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