Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why is the comic book film hitting it big now?

The amazing commerical success of this year's film "The Dark Knight" has certainly prompted many to pose the question. Personally, I see the answer within a generational shift from Baby Boomer nostalgia to Gen-X nostalgia.

The comic book films, so to speak, of the late 70s and early 80s were the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" franchises along with "Superman". In the case of "Star Wars", one might suspect an origin partly in the space adventure serials of the 40s and 50s, although it seems equally clear that George Lucas was drawing inspiration from the post-World War II golden age of science fiction (especially the novel "Dune"). Indiana Jones was deliberately modelled on the more conventional (perhaps boy's adventure) serials of that era. Superman, of course, was one of the stars of the Golden Age of comic books in the late 30s and early 40s.

In other words, Baby Boomers in their thirties were getting to see film versions of some of the pulp media that they would have been exposed to as children. Flash forward to the present decade and we see the same process happening again. This time, the comic book characters that are hitting it big are the comic book characters from the Silver Age of comics that Gen-Xers in their thirties would have read about as children. Marvel comics is hitting it big this time around because Marvel comics innovated its slate of Marvel Universe characters -- The Fantastic Four, the X-men, Iron Man, the Hulk, etc. -- in the 1960s. DC is also doing well by basing movies on the "gritty Batman" theme -- Ra's al Ghul, a psychotic Joker, and the dark, determined, vigilante Batman -- that emerged in the 1970s.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell pose the question and attempt to answer it, but in their distrust of the zeitgeist explanation, they don't overtly point to a generational shift in Hollywood:
Not all genres are created equal, and they rise or fall in status. As the Western and the musical fell in the 1970s, the urban crime film, horror, and science-fiction rose. For a long time, it would be unthinkable for an A-list director to do a horror or science-fiction movie, but that changed after Polanski, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, et al. gave those genres a fresh luster just by their participation. More recently, I argue in The Way Hollywood Tells It, the fantasy film arrived as a respectable genre, as measured by box-office receipts, critical respect, and awards. It seems that the sword-and-sorcery movie reached its full rehabilitation when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King scored its eleven Academy Awards.

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