How did we go from ten cent kids comics to movie budgets that could feed a small nation? The answer is, “A little at a time.” Financial analysts and fanboys alike are aghast at the latest Wonder Woman movie. “Why didn’t it make more money?” “Why isn’t the story better?” “Will Wonder Woman crash the superhero movie industry?”
To understand what is happening, we need to go back to the beginning. When comics were made for kids, where heroes fought villains, and a titanic battle between good and evil was resolved in 10 pages. These were disposable stories, printed on disposable low-quality paper, which is about what you should expect for a dime?
Time passed, comics evolved, and the first real superhero comics arrived just before WW II. The industry moved forward, but slowly. Many artists left their drafting table and fought in the war. Often talented but poor, their “art” reflected their ghetto upbringing, their war experiences, and experience fighting as soldiers and seeing the atrocities of war. Super heroes faded away in the 1950s but came roaring back in the “Silver Age”, in the 1960s. Stories got a bit more gritty, a bit more realistic, and began to appeal to adults.
Of course, comics didn’t make this transition all on their own. During WW II, an obscure book was written by an obscure Cambridge linguistics professor by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien. His “Lord of the Rings” was expected to sell a few thousand copies to academics, but eventfully sold over 150 million copies.
Later, John Campbell, professor of literature, wrote several academic books about Heroes. These works became standard reading for comic writers (and later, movie producers). The new generation of comic book writers were turning simple comic stories into galactic space operas. Sales rose, and comics began to influence “legitimate” art and culture. Then, in 1977, “Star Wars” arrived. And everything changed. Although we didn’t know it at the time.
George Lukas writer and director of Star Wars, read Lord of the Rings and books by Joseph Campbell, and he directed a documentary about comics. Originally, Lukas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, but couldn’t get the rights, so he created his own universe. Flash Gordon was a “serial”, or a short weekly feature wedged between a feature film and a cartoon (before television, most movie houses showed a lot more than just a main feature). Flash Gordon was itself a live-action version of a comic book hero. Over time, “serialized” entertainment had migrated from newspapers to comics, to film, then television, and eventually streaming services.
Star Wars was a massive hit. Not just as a film. Toys, cartoons, comics, video games, and… SEQUELS. Before Star Wars, sequels were a joke. Now and then they might be passable, but they were rarely good, and never great. A sequel was a fast money maker, created without the original stars, writers, or directors. But the massive success of Star Wars was followed by a more expensive and more successful sequel.
Today, big movies are always followed up with big sequels. Not just one sequel. A series of massive hits. They want a franchise. Three or more massive movies, plus toys, plus books, comics, a streaming hit, and more. They want a billion-dollar empire. Occasionally, they get it. The Star Wars “franchise” has 8 sequels, 2 stand-alone movies, over 100 comic book titles, over 300 books, AND cartoons, computer games, board games, etc.
Most movies don’t become a runaway success, a success rarely spawns an equally successful sequel, and sequels live to become an enduring franchise. This brings us back to Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman was one of the first female superheroes. Created in 1941, just after Superman, Batman, and Captain America. But Wonder Woman never sold as well as her male counterparts. Nor surprising. Comic readers were predominantly written for and bought by boys. Those boys grew into fanboys and created the “no-girls allowed” rules of today’s comic world. The first Wonder Woman movie was a stunning success, especially to rabid fanboys. Worse yet, it was directed by Patty Jenkins, who made the defiant and unpopular choice of being a woman.
Ten years ago I actively followed superhero movies. You get an “origin story” and then you might get an original story. Batman, Superman, and Spiderman have now each been rebooted several times. I watched the Batman story in the 1980s. YAY! A real movie with a real budget. Then there was sort of a rebook in the late 1990s (worst batman sequels EVER!). Then in 2005 a reboot. Hey, the studios care about the franchise again! Then they did another reboot in 2016, not even bothering to write a new story. The plot is just taken from a comic from the 1980s. I thought the comics… excuse me… Graphic Novels version was better. I lost interest in big comic book movies.
Wonder Woman? I never saw the movie, but the bits and pieces I saw were good. Gal Gadot? An excellent choice for the role! It was a surprise blockbuster. Then they wanted to do it again. Not surprisingly, the director wanted more of a say in the script and movie production. Hard to say, but I think she felt a certain weight of history about putting her own ideas into the movie, like keeping the familiar 1980s hooker boots and swimsuit costume out of the movie. If you think the costume choice is a trivial issue, google the movie for fanboy commentary about Gal Gadot being… AH… inadequate for the movie. What do the fanboys want? Bigger breasts.
This is the model driving the most expensive movies ever made. Be miraculously successful, with the touchiest audience to ever tweet a negative comment. Do it again and again. Sell a raft of other products. And never make a mistake. Sure, a few hero’s beat this crazy model, but not many. Will Wonder Woman beat the model, or will newer characters like Captain Marvel or Black Widow prevail? Or will Hollywood’s over-dependence on Super Hero stories kill the genre?
What do you think? Will Wonder Woman become a franchise? Can Hollywood keep the Super Hero model alive, or will they all go the way of the Cowboy movie? Let us know what you think!