Who needs a middle man? Not Hollywood. At least that was the conventional wisdom for a very long time when it came to adapting comic book properties for the big screen. While there were early stabs at Batman, Superman, and Flash Gordon, as cinema evolved most attempts to translate the odder weirdos of the stapled comic fell flat on their face. Howard the Duck and The Rocketeer may have their staunch defenders, but those rare folks could not accumulate into proper box office numbers.
Before Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man paved the way for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the all-powerful Marvel Cinematic Universe, comic book movies were too much of a bother. Usually, the characters were dismissed by suits as kid’s stuff that only rarely sparked national interest and boosted Happy Meal sales. For decades, spandex cats like Captain America and The Punisher were relegated to cheap, disposable direct-to-video atrocities. Only the sternest of comic book geeks found them palatable.
In 2000, when M. Night Shyamalan was riding high off the success of The Sixth Sense and looking to put a spin on the superhero genre with Unbreakable, Buena Vista Pictures (a subdivision of Walt Disney Studios) was not at all confident that these caped crusader concepts would fly with an audience that had grown severely tired of the Day-Glo Batman & Robin aesthetic. As the director recently told Rolling Stone, if they marketed Unbreakable as a “comic book movie” then “you’re going to alienate everyone” who does not attend “those conventions.” This is fringe, weirdo material. Not suitable for prime time.
As such, Unbreakable hit theaters as a follow-up thriller to the twisty turns of The Sixth Sense and sank like a stone. Only in the aftermath of the MCU’s global domination could Shyamalan attempt to finish the trilogy he once dreamed of completing. And he would have to do it with a completely different studio and a fraction of the first film’s budget. Split is a nifty trick of a movie. Whatever you think of the plot itself, the final revelation connecting it to the universe of David Dunn and Elijah Price is a shock to a system.
We once thought characters could not find new life twenty years after their failure, but this is 2019, and we’ve already seen the rebirth and redeath of The X-Files and Twin Peaks and a dozen other resurrected properties. Nerd culture reigns supreme, and niche audiences are not so niche anymore. Instead, we’re forever optimistic, hoping that the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film will do justice to the original vision of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
That said, even Shyamalan in 2019 is not comfortable calling his epic trilogy-capper Glass a simple comic book movie. He’s been burned too many times before to trust the Marvel crowd to sail this new film into financial glory. Speaking to Den of Geek, the director course-corrects the interviewer’s description of the film adding, “I would say…the goal was a comic book thriller…it’s a psychological thriller, so it always has that body of movement to it, but it has the colors of a comic book, and it has those moments in its allusions to those feeling of empowerment and of becoming who you are – origin stuff.”
Given how we’ve treated Shyamalan of late, I can understand his defensive nature. We’ve spent the better part of the last decade bagging on the man Newsweek Magazine once dubbed as “The Next Spielberg.” I may want him to finally raise his comic book geek flag high and wave it proudly, but he’s just not there yet. He’s stuck in the memory Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four and The Spirit (no not that Frank Miller one, but the 1987 failed pilot starring Flash Gordon’s Sam Jones). He believes the medium still needs elevation.
The consensus of twenty years ago was that filmmakers could do it better than whatever pap found on the newsstand. Sure, sure, we see your Richard Donner Superman and raise you Hero At Large. Wait, huh? You don’t remember that one? Oh, it’s an um…classic in which John Ritter plays a frustrated actor who accepts a lame-brain job as a costumed vigilante in a film, but then accidentally halts a robbery wearing his outfit and then suffers some serious delusions of grandeur.
Well, yeah, there are a few wannabe comic book movies better than that one. I’ve always been partial to The Meteor Man from writer/director Robert Townsend. In that film, a high school teacher on the run from a gang of drug dealers is struck by a green, glowing meteorite and gains powers worthy of a Kryptonian. It ventures into territories just as goofy as Hero At Large, but at least it has more on its mind than spandex wedgies and the importance of talcum powder. It’s scratching that “With Great Powers Comes Great Responsibility” Spider-Man itch.
Of course, the greatest comic book movie not based on a comic book is Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. While 20th Century Fox forever struggles to bring Marvel’s First Family (a.k.a. the Fantastic Four) to respectability, Pixar tackles the domestic dynamic with the utmost class. Yes, the animation allows for Bird to rip astounding set-pieces straight from the Jack Kirby sequential art tool box, but he never loses sight of what keeps us returning to these archetypes over and over and over again. The Incredibles schools other Hollywood wannabe superheroes by embracing character over action.
Pssst – that’s also the success of the MCU. We’re as equally excited by Rocket Raccoon’s bartering with Bucky for his vibranium arm as we are the horde of space dogs barging up Wakanda’s front lawn. We want the punching, but do we really care what happens to Thanos in Avengers: Endgame as much as we do about that inevitable uncomfortable reunion between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers? That’s the trick.
However, there can be only one MCU. Warner Bros. is doing their damndest to muscle up against The Avengers, but it’s going to take more than Justice League to topple them. The consensus of what makes one superhero film superior to another has changed and Hollywood is back in the snatching of IP business. Mark Millar is making a killing selling every little scrap of an idea in his head.
Our palates are now accustomed to Guardians of the Galaxy and the multidimensional madness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Filmmakers gotta do better than tangential tips of the hat to comic books. They can’t approach the material with a downward eye for improvement. There are far too many darn good movies out there. You gotta bring your A-game.
Still, if you’re not Disney or Warner Bros. or Netflix and you have not sided with the big two comic book brands or Mark Millar’s infinite output of high-concept superheroes that doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. The comic book onslaught shows no signs of stopping. Bloodshot, Hellboy, Invincible, and Spawn are on their way. Not to mention middlemen-less adventures like Brightburn and Fast Color. You can’t dismiss it as child’s play anymore. These films are too damn popular. Everyone loves the cool kids, right? Oh.