Comic-Con: Remember When Hollywood Wasn't Obsessed With Superhero Movies?

"I think the majority of executives in Hollywood still think of comic books and superheroes synonymously."
Frank Miller/DC Entertainment

What has made the movie industry so obsessed with comic books?

It's a question that many have wondered, and at Friday's "The Comic Book Film Adaptation" panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Dark Knight producer Michael Uslan and comic book writers Mark Waid and Joe Kelly attempted to find an answer.

Kelly, who has not only written for Marvel and DC, but also worked for Cartoon Network and Disney as part of the Man of Action collective, suggested that advances in special effects were, in part, responsible. "The technology caught up. We were finally able to make the movies that looked like we wanted them to look like," he said, adding that something should be said for the quality of the source material. "The audience wants to be entertained, and these are great stories."

For Waid, however, there's a generational shift at play. "I know from dealing with creative filmmakers — or people making any media outside comics — of a certain generation, they didn't grow up reading comics, or if they did, comics were shorthand for children or morons," he explained. "If a grown man was reading a comic, it was shorthand for something's wrong, he's a man child. Then, in the mid-80s, comics hit a peak with Maus, Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and ten years later, those people were movie executives and they knew that there was more to comics than just biff bang pow."

Uslan agreed, telling the audience that he was able to buy the movie rights to Batman as a 20-year-old in the 1970s because "no-one else wanted them." Talking about discussions with Warners at the time, he said, "People there were telling me that the company was embarrassed that it owned a comic book company. The only reason they bought DC Comics was because of Superman, which was considered the only character who had any value. They didn't care about Batman or any other DC character. That was 1979 thinking."

It wasn't just Warners that didn't see the potential value of a superhero project. "The best rejection I got was from Sony, where an executive told me, 'Batman will never be successful as a movie because Annie failed for us.' I said, what does that have to do with me? He said, 'Oh, come on. They're both out the funny pages,'" Uslan remembered. (United Artists, meanwhile, explained that no one would want to see Batman and Robin on screen because Robin & Marian had failed in theaters.)

For his part, Uslan feels that the current superhero movie zeitgeist fills a deeper need for the audience. "Where have our heroes gone? What about the great politicians we looked up to? What about the astronauts we looked up to? We no longer have a space program to speak of," he said. "Our heroes are evaporating, and superheroes fill that void."

Even as the movie and television industries grow to appreciate the monetary value of superheroes, everyone on the panel agreed that some effort was still required to appreciate comics as a whole. "I think the majority of executives in Hollywood still think [of] comic books and superheroes synonymously," Uslan said. Kelly agreed, saying, "We've worked on some very strange projects as Man of Action where people would say to us, 'We want it to be like a comic book.' But comic books are not a genre, they're a medium. We have everything. It's the next level of education."

While the panelists agreed that the education would happen in time — "You went to film school to learn how to make films, and it's learning from example," Kelly said. "The people who grew up reading Watchmen also did that. They learned from it on a storytelling level" — Uslan offered a cautionary note that oversaturation might kill anyone's interest to learn before lessons take.

"You've got studios right now announcing movies through 2019," he said. "This time next year, you'll have, by my count, 24 television shows on the air based on comic books. Even if four or five are great, how many does that leave that suck? That's the real danger moving forward."

 

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