Bill chats with Dr. Liam Burke about comic book film adaptations

Dr. Liam Burke is the author of The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, a thoroughly excellent examination of that topic and one I highly recommend for both fans and non-fans of comics (thus the five-star review). Dr. Burke generously took the time to answer a few questions I had after reading his book and his responses were as clearly edifying as I had expected.

Bill: It could be argued that Marvel has so far had more success in adapting their catalogue to film in comparison to DC. Especially in terms of scope, since DC has really been driven mostly by two characters: Batman and Superman, while Marvel has brought a host of characters to the screen, with many more announced and in the pipeline. Would you agree that Marvel has so far handled the move into film better, and if so, why do you think that might be?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDr. Liam Burke: Historically DC has had a lot more success than Marvel, with Superman and Batman each receiving four feature-length adaptations when the best that Marvel could manage were maligned film versions of lesser-known characters such as The Punisher and Howard the Duck. However, following the success of X-Men in 2000 Marvel quickly overtook its rival with adaptations of popular characters Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil. This prolific period is partly attributable to Marvel characters being licenced to different studios, whereas all DC Comics adaptations were produced by their corporate partner Warner Bros. thereby limiting the number of films in production at any one time. When Marvel began producing movies under the banner of Marvel Studios, they again trumped DC by applying the comic book tradition of shared universes to their adaptations. While DC has now adopted a similar model, with Man of Steel the first step in a larger continuity, I am somewhat disappointed that DC did not adhere to their hermetically sealed movie franchises. As appealing as a Justice League movie might be, a shared universe limits the possibilities for each production as the filmmakers need to be cognisant of the other films in the continuity, whereas stand alone movies provide the filmmakers with more opportunities and creative freedom. For instance, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy could not have been achieved as part of a shared universe.

In your book, you discuss how one of the reasons for film producers to choose a comic book adaptation is that the comic brings with it a built-in audience or at least a general familiarity (even non-comic readers, for example, are well aware of characters like Batman or Superman). Interestingly though, Iron Man was a relatively second tier character, while the Guardians of the Galaxy were even less known. And Marvel continues to explore films about such lesser known figures, announcing upcoming films centering on Doctor Strange, the Black Panther, and Captain Marvell. Do you think Marvel runs a risk in turning to these less familiar characters from their stable, or has the genre become so embedded now in pop culture that little risk remains?

When Marvel Studios emerged in 2005, many of the company’s most popular characters such as X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four were already licenced to other studios. So Marvel initially turned to second-tier characters like Iron Man and Thor out of necessity. However, the success of these films established the Marvel brand, which is arguably more powerful in the marketplace than any one character. Accordingly, any movie that features that familiar read logo before its trailer is likely to generate curiosity among filmgoers, and when that film lives up to the high standard set by earlier Marvel movies, as Guardians of the Galaxy did most recently, these characters move from the fringes of popular culture to the mainstream. The upcoming releases, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, will test the strength of the Marvel brand, but if the studio can make movie icons out of a talking raccoon and a dancing tree anything is possible.

Comic book readers have obviously been a mostly male (young white male at that) audience, and the same description could be applied to many of the writers as well, though that has begun to change recently. This has led to some issues with the representation of gender, race, and ethnicity in the medium, such as how female characters were often drawn. The move to movies hasn’t always gone smoothly either. Marvel, for instance had the embarrassing flap over how the Black Widow was portrayed in a publicity poster, and both DC and Marvel have taken some flack for a lack of diversity in their films. How do you think the producers are doing in making the shift to a more modern and also wider, more diverse audience for these films?

When the last three Marvel movies were headlined by white guys named “Chris” it is difficult to ignore the lack of diversity in big budget comic book adaptations. While it is disappointing that movies have not been as progressive as the comics, as you point out, each studio is now making moves to redress that imbalance, with movies such as Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Black Panther, so hopefully we will enjoy greater diversity in the future.

Where do you see the comic book film going in the next 10 or so years? How long do you think it can continue to dominate the box office? Will over-saturation become an issue? Or “high stakes exhaustion”— the way in which everything seems to be apocalyptic-level stakes? Do you think more independent and/or alternative graphics will make the move to the big screen, graphics telling quieter, more personal, character-driven stories? 

In my book, The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, I chart how the comic book movie reached a stationary phase around 2008 when the levels of production seemed to plateau. It is inevitable that this genre will enter a decline phase due to audience fatigue and underperforming movies. However, with over 75 years of publication history comic book characters have proven remarkably durable so I suspect that any lull in production will only be a momentary pause before the genre is rejuvenated for a new generation.

In the earliest phase of today’s comic movie trend graphic novels and alternative titles such as Ghost World, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence were regularly adapted to movies. This trend seems to have slowed down in recent years, but I suspect that this has more to do with a larger move toward tentpole releases in filmmaking. As in other genres, those more character-driven stories are likely to move to television, and we are already seeing hints of this with alternative titles such as Preacher, Constantine, and iZombie recently becoming the basis of TV series.

I know when doing my own research I always end up with a lot of material that just doesn’t fit in the end result — whether due to length issues or being too digressive. Can you tell us one thing you left out of The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre that you most wish could have been in or that you personally found most interesting?

As I alluded to when answering the last questions, with the shows like Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead, The Flash, and Gotham, there is a lot of interesting work being done in television. While the book considers television shows as part of wider trends in comic book adaptations, the focus is on the movies. In the coming years I would be interested in returning to this topic and focusing on adaptations of comics to television.

Which is your favorite of the comic book films and why?

While it is impossible to pick any one comic book movie as my favourite, I am very fond of M Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Although the film isn’t based on an actual comic, it comes closer to realising the qualities of the medium cinematically than most direct adaptations. The film applies a realist approach to a superhero origin story that includes all the elements synonymous with the genre, but turns them on their head. The film is even more remarkable when you consider it was released at the very earliest stages of the Golden Age of Comic Book Filmmaking. While later movies such as Hancock, Watchmen and Kick Ass might have also critiqued the genre; none were as elegant as M Night Shyamalan’s overlooked Unbreakable.

What graphic novel/comic book would you most like to see adapted into film and why?

Spider-Man 2099 artist Will Sliney created a wonderful action adventure book based on Irish folklore, Celtic Warrior – The Legend of Cú Chulainn. It’s a 300-like story that lends itself to cinema. Sliney is one of the rising artists at Marvel, and I was lucky to have him provide the cover for my book before he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel.

Back to superheroes, I’ve always enjoyed period superhero movies like Captain America, X-Men First Class, and Watchmen. In that tradition I would love to see Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s graphic novel Superman For All Seasons adapted to the screen. The book is a bucolic retelling of Superman’s first years. With its Frank Capra tone and John Ford inspired vistas, Superman For All Seasons lends itself to the movies. Unfortunately, the rush to shared universes means that we are unlikely to ever see such idiosyncratic stories on screen.

Thanks once again for taking the time to chat with us, Dr. Burke. And here’s hoping the wait isn’t too long for that book on TV adaptations!

Readers, The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre is on sale now, and I strongly suggest picking up a copy.

Publication Date: April 1, 2015 by University Press of Mississippi. In the summer of 2000 X-Men surpassed all box office expectations and ushered in an era of unprecedented production of comic book film adaptations. This trend, now in its second decade, has blossomed into Hollywood’s leading genre. From superheroes to Spartan warriors, The Comic Book Film Adaptation offers the first dedicated study to examine how comic books moved from the fringes of popular culture to the center of mainstream film production. Through in-depth analysis, industry interviews, and audience research, this book charts the cause-and-effect of this influential trend. It considers the cultural traumas, business demands, and digital possibilities that Hollywood faced at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The industry managed to meet these challenges by exploiting comics and their existing audiences. However, studios were caught off-guard when these comic book fans, empowered by digital media, began to influence the success of these adaptations. Nonetheless, filmmakers soon developed strategies to take advantage of this intense fanbase, while codifying the trend into a more lucrative genre, the comic book movie, which appealed to an even wider audience. Central to this vibrant trend is a comic aesthetic in which filmmakers utilize digital filmmaking technologies to engage with the language and conventions of comics like never before. The Comic Book Film Adaptation explores this unique moment in which cinema is stimulated, challenged, and enriched by the once-dismissed medium of comics.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. ” …but if the studio can make movie icons out of a talking raccoon and a dancing tree anything is possible.”

    It was an AWESOME talking raccoon!

    I hadn’t realized that Road to Perdition came from a comic book — although I should have with that moody cinematography. It’s a good example of stories that don’t just include costumed superheroes.

  2. It’s interesting that Dr. Burke mentioned his desire to see A Superman for All Seasons turned into a movie, because I thought that a lot of the material in that book transitioned well into the first few seasons of the Smallville television series. Granted, that’s not the same as a single movie dedicated to the source material (which would have its own detractions, as any adaptation will), but I thought it was a good effort.

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