July 17, 2008

Comic Book Fare a Hero to Box Office

As far as this year's box office receipts are concerned, it would seem the geeks have inherited the earth.

I mean, here we are, smack dab in the middle of the summer movie season, and for five of the nine previous weekends, a comic book or superhero-based film has stood -- cape billowing in the breeze -- as king of the earnings hill.

Marvel Comics' "Iron Man" blasted open the season with a blockbusting $100 million premiere and stayed in the Top 10 for more than a month. To date, it has earned more than $300 million.

Following (the super-armored) suit, "Incredible Hulk" proved to be a green monster in both gamma-irradiated and money-making muscle, bounding over its competition with a premiere of more than $50 million and nearly $130 million so far.

And if the profits come anywhere close to the advance hype for DC Comics' Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight" could be the most super movie hero of all.

Count the specialty comic titles, like "Wanted" and "Hellboy II," the antihero protagonists in "Don't Mess with the Zohan" and "Hancock," and even the ill-fated live-action version of the classic "Speed Racer" cartoon, and you have a film slate that only a prepubescent boy would have dreamed up 30 years ago.

How would I know? Because 30 years ago, I was that comic book-reading, cartoon-watching boy.

Before nerdiness asserted itself as its own alternative lifestyle, I fed my pulp paper habit in the proverbial closet until college and work got in the way.

The diehards, though, stuck it out and were vindicated with well-told, relevant and -- finally -- popular superhero fare, such as the groundbreaking X-Men and the sublime Spider-Man II.

A fellow geek in the newsroom agreed: This is the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.

As the days wound down before the opening of the new Batman movie, I spoke with Jamie Cope of the West Virginia Film Office, to get his opinion on the popularity of the superhero genre.

"Sequels work," he said. "And even with first-time productions, like 'Iron Man,' there's a built-in sequel factor. A classic comic book character is already in the public's consciousness.

"Plus, these films are geared primarily to 13- to 18-year-old boys, as well as old Generation Xers," Cope said. "That's a wide demographic."

Cope, 38, places himself "in that geek category." To him, the potential pitfall of watching the comics of his youth come to life was the prospect of having them meet his own adolescent recollections of how cool they were.

He said this new generation of flicks met those expectations, saying that he enjoyed especially the first two Spider-Man movies and loved "X-Men" and "X-Men: United."

He remembers something Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee said in an interview explaining the explosion in superhero movies.

"He said the special effects finally caught up to where the superheroes looked right," Cope recalled. "The Fantastic Four's Human Torch must look real. The technology became affordable to make it possible."

As a side note, he mentioned that West Virginia had its own brush with superhero movie celebrity when the producers of Will Smith's "Hancock" were scouting locations and looked at some here.

"They needed a scene for a prison," he said. As location manager for the film office, Cope is responsible for helping studios find locales in the state for filming.

"Ultimately," he said, "they wound up using a spot out in California."

Cheryl Pauley, of Cheryl's Comics in Kanawha City, says as the "Dark Knight" approaches, her shop has been buzzing with superhero talk, but not in the way you'd expect.

"They've been excited," she said. "But there have been so many good comic book movies this summer that Batman hasn't been the only topic of conversation."

So, I asked her, is this indeed the Golden Age?

"I would have to say this is the best time for comic book movies," she said.

She seemed to agree with Cope on the reason for the genre's growth in popularity.

"It's money," Pauley said.

"Plus, the studios also seem tuned in to the idea that the way to be successful is to not change the characters so much. They are being truer to the spirit of the comic."

As an example, she cited Ang Lee's poorly received production of "Hulk" in 2003.

"It was Lee's interpretation of what a comic is, not about the Hulk. It was horrible."

Pauley was much more pleased with this year's version from director Louis Leterrier.

"It was like a Hulk sorbet, to cleanse the palate of Ang Lee's version of the Hulk."

She found it puzzling, noting Marvel Comics' success with its film efforts, that Time-Warner, owner of DC Comics, hasn't made the connection that there's money to be made with more good superhero movies.

"It's seems like a no-brainer," she said.

I guess it's true, then, that money talks.

And at the moment it is enclosed in a cartoon word balloon -- complete with pointy angles, exclamation points and, of course, lots of dollar signs.

You sometimes hear about the Golden Ages of various cultural phenomena -- radio, television, sports, even comics -- when they held sway over the national consciousness, forged their images and created touchstones for everything that followed.

They always seemed so far away and left me wondering how marvelous it must have been to be alive when your personal passion was all the rage.

Well, now I'm living in one. And all I can say -- to quote the old "Batman" TV show -- is "Zowie!"