Superhero films are the new hotness, breaking box office records and redefining the genre. The comic book age of my youth was something of a boom era where the popularity reached a peak of sorts with sales repeatedly hitting new highs and major crossover events occurring on a regular basis.
The kids that grew up in that era have entered that prime entertainment demographic where they are old enough to have disposable income and are still young enough to use it. We are in the golden age of comic book cinema because money drives the market.
Marvel has planted the flag and taken the superhero genre to another level, creating a unified cinematic universe. This is significant in a number of respects, not the least of which is changing how audiences think about comic book movies. Every film is a continuation of a larger narrative but still accessible to the uninitiated.
There is one area where comics and films must distinguish themselves however. If done correctly this can be the greatest weapon in Marvel’s arsenal. I refer specifically to Marvel because they are the dominant force in this arena and also the most poised to take advantage of what I’m about to say.
In comic books, heroes rarely age and if they do its at a glacial pace. I remember reading once that there was an actual conversion rate used in Marvel comics between real years and comic book years, but I digress. Live action films require actors and real actors age.
This poses a particular dilemma for comic film makers. When the time comes do you recast or reboot a franchise? I would argue neither as retirement is the real answer. As popular as these characters are, these actors are iconic in their portrayals. To create a living, breathing, and evolving cinematic universe these characters need to age with it. Characters entering and exiting the stage services the greater story.
This is not to say that there are not ways to restart certain characters such as an Iron Man or a Captain America, but once Tony Stark and Steve Rogers complete their personal stories what is there really left to say? Many iconic comic book heroes have multiple identities over the decades of stories already told; Green Lantern is an obvious example.
Super heroes tend to represent an ideal, but the best stories come about from how the people behind them learn to deal with their power. Iron Man works because the audience is invested in Tony Stark, the suit he wears is just a plot device that lets us explore who he is and how he deals with it.
Comic book films are ultimately character studies, and Marvel can draw on an extensive universe of characters to refill their universe. A successful franchise that lasts is one that adapts. Marvel is uniquely positioned for that revolving door of iconic characters.
A few cinematic deaths may be in order, which is something that Marvel has yet to truly pull the trigger on. At some point the hero dies or becomes the villain. Without the possibility of loss can the victory be heroic, and a heroic death is one of the most powerful moments a cinematic universe can have.
There will always be the financial impulse to push a franchise till the wheels come off (ie. Crystal Skull), but studios need to embrace this aging factor. Audiences can accept a hero and a world that will age and change with them. To build a world you build its history, and keep building on top of that.
Demographics will continue to evolve and the comic book boom of today may not survive into tomorrow, but a unified cinematic universe will define the next generation’s interests and expectations in the same way the comics of my youth are defining the films of today. The next generation of movie goers will be steeped in the lore of Marvel movies and not the comics they are based on.