THE AVENGERS: The Rise of Superhero Movies and the End of Superhero Comics

Curator's Note

Last weekend's record-shattering release of Marvel's The Avengers marks the culmination of a multi-year plan by the comic giant-turned-movie studio to translate the shared superhero universe of its comic books to the silver screen. And while The Avengers’ broad-based acceptance by critics and audiences signals the success of that plan, it also signals the transition of Marvel's "canon" away from the comics over to their screen avatars, potentially sounding the final death-knell for a medium long buffeted by the twin travails of rising prices and reduced readership.

Since 1978’s Superman: The Movie, the first real attempt to treat a comic character with a seriousness and profundity that belied the dimestore origins of the medium, there’s been a constant progression toward giving the filmic superhero genre credibility, with ever-bigger budgets and ever-improved effects. However, the one barrier forever giving superhero comics advantage over their celluloid cousins was the inability to allow characters from different franchises to cohabit the same fictional space, thanks to various legal loopholes and hurdles related to how different properties were licensed to different studios. But that all changed in the mid-2000s.

As Marvel saw the box office bonanza its characters were generating for studios such as Fox (home of the big screen X-Men franchise) and Sony (producers of the Spider-Man film series), they set about reclaiming some of their most prominent properties. Thus, with 2008’s Iron Man, the first Marvel superhero film to be self-produced by the newly-minted studio, the first crack in that final wall between comics and movies appeared via a post-credits “stinger” scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of ubiquitous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., assured Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, that he isn’t the “only superhero in the world.”

Just over a month later, this concept was further paid forward when Stark himself visited Universal/Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk. Suddenly, everything had changed. As seen in the collection of “stingers” placed at the close of the different Marvel Studios productions, something that had always been deemed impossible, or at the very least impractical, was now the new normal: Different franchises freely cross-pollinating with one another. From Iron Man to Thor to Captain America to, finally, The Avengers, the superhero movie has finally arrived in its purest form...though it may well have killed the superhero comic in the process.


Zaki: I really like how you provide some context for the history of the superhero film. I also found your statement that the superero movie "may well have killed the superhero comic" to be very provacative. Could you expand on this thought a bit? I'm curious to hear how/why you think the comic book film is having a negative impact on comic books themselves...

It definitely seems a little counter-intuitive, given that conventional wisdom is that folks who are impressed by the media adaptations will want to check out the books from whence they sprang (a situation that's currently playing out vis-a-vis AMC's TV series The Walking Dead).

However, what makes superhero movies different, in my opinion, is that the kind of spectacle and "big canvas" stories that they specialize in, and which were once their exclusiver pervue, have become more and more readily available through their cinematic ideations. And with the line between what comic books offer and what their movie adaptations blurring further and further, what we're already starting to see is the transition of "primary" canon away from the comics onto the films.

Note how the Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury, at one time an "alternate" take on the traditionally caucasian character, has now become accepted as "real" for many, appearing in most media adaptations (the new Ultimate Spider-Man animated series, for example). To address this, Marvel recently introduced Fury's African-American son (who bears an inordinate resemblance to the Jackson model) into their mainline books to serve as their de facto version of the character.

The analogy I would make is with the James Bond franchise. Although the character is drawn from the late Ian Fleming's series of novels, once the character became appropriated by the movies, the tail didn't just wag the dog, it became the dog. Nowadays, they still publish Bond novels, but they're read by a fraction of the people who watch the movies, which have, by default, become the primary canon for the character.

That's the situation I see happening with the comic books eventually. With the construct of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaching far, far more people than even the best-selling monthly comic, eventually the comic books will become a fun sidelight to the real Marvel Universe, which will continue to unspool on a movie screen near you.

So we have here what films can do that comics used to do (story-wise) and what films can do that comics can't do (audience-wise), but are there not other conditions of the comic that might enable to the comic to continue either in spite of , in response to or in tandem with the comic book film?

The breadth of story and scope of characters across issues and 'verses has been one of the most compelling aspects for me of the comic book hero (or villain) and why I think films are even capable of co-opting their stories, even as traditionally the filmic story told is quite different in focus - stories are told still phenomenonly differently in 1-3 films vs. even just one year's comic issue run. The Avengers mutli-film franchise certainly poses the possibility of taking on some of the storytelling qualities native to the Avengers comics in bringing so many characters and histories together. I'm personally inclined to think if, done right, the films could learn a lot from the narrative scope of the comics, though I still don't know that the depth can be replicated. What would be amazing is if the multi-film franchise led to an increased understanding of the value of a transmedia franchise where the comics did not become tie-in's to the films or vice versa but that people of varying storytelling mediums continued to contribute to a universe of stories. The fluidity of comics canon is what I've often found so attractive - it opens itself up to writers, artists, and readers as much as any initial confusion might close them out - and I do wonder if the film medium would too disturb that fluidity.

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