Marvel Is Marvelous. Will The Man of Steel Be Super?

Iron Man

I admit it, I was never a comic book kid growing up (nor am I a graphic novel guy now). I did, however, watch Adventures of Superman, the hokey 1950s TV series starring George Reeves as The Man of Steel, and Batman, the campy 1960s TV show with Adam West as The Caped Crusader. I even remember seeing random episodes of Spider-Man and Fantastic 4, two late-sixties Saturday morning cartoons. The production values for all of those shows were marginal, at best, but they were products of  their less technologically savvy times. That and the fact that superhero stuff wasn't exactly big time then, so producers just weren't willing to throw a lot of money at them, let alone attempt to make them cutting edge. Perhaps as a result, I was never more than a fair-weather fan of all things superhero.  A few weeks ago I went to see Iron Man 3. Frankly, it was a blast! In contrast to the superhero shows of my childhood, Iron Man 3 is probably as cutting edge as it can be. Imaginative special effects and quality sets in the service of an engaging story with clever acting adds up to a great time. You know, I’ve really come to enjoy many of these page to screen adaptations of superhero stories that are so popular currently. It seems as though the honchos at Marvel Studios have really figured out the formula, with wildly successful versions of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, as well as the X-Men. First Class and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots, all coming in just the past five years. There’s always a lot of fan boy talk about which of the two major comic book empires – Marvel, or DC – is the better of the two. For movies, at least right now, it’s no contest.  Marvel is at the top of the comic book-turned-silver screen superhero heap!

And then there’s DC Comics. This weekend, DC (through Warner Bros.) releases Superman ReturnsMan of Steel, the second reboot of the Superman series since the glory days of the franchise when it starred the late Christopher Reeve. The last entry, 2006’s Superman Returns was a complete dud. The last five DC Comics creations to reach the big screen were (in reverse chronological order) The Dark Knight Rises, Green Lantern, Red, Jonah Hex, and The Losers. OK, I’ll admit that The Dark Knight Rises was a very good, if not great, film, while Red was just successful enough to warrant its upcoming sequel. Along with the others, however, they don’t exactly constitute a winning streak. It’s clear that DC has not had the same run of success that Marvel has had since they created their own production companies several years ago.

Before DC and Marvel ventured into film production themselves, other companies purchased screen rights from them to produce movies based on their properties. The first superhero movies, however, were few and far between. Not surprisingly, the first comic book stars to get the Hollywood treatment were the two biggest of the period – Superman and Batman – and there are many parallels between their transitions to film. Superman first popped up on the big screen in a pair of serials: 1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman. His first feature-length appearance came in 1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men, starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. That was it until Reeve starred as the refugee from planet Krypton in four films released between 1978 and 1987: Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Likewise, Batman first graced theater screens in the serials Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin Batman & Robin(1949), while his first feature-length appearance was in 1966’s Batman, also starring the cast of the concurrently-running TV series. He didn’t re-emerge from the Batcave until Michael Keaton assumed the role for 1989’s Batman, and again in 1992’s Batman Returns. Those were followed by 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin, starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney, respectively. Some were more successful than others, but all were big hits and DC clearly held the upper hand.

In 2005, Christopher Nolan revived the Batman franchise with a vengeance, co-writing and directing the highly-acclaimed and mega-lucrative trilogy starring Christian Bale. Batman Begins was followed by 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Unfortunately for DC Comics, however, they’ve never been able to establish any characters beyond Superman and Batman as big screen stars, not Swamp Thing, Supergirl, SteelCatwoman, Constantine, or The Spirit.

Marvel is doing marvelously well now, but it too has more than its share of superhero skeletons in its Hollywood closet.  It took until 1998’s Blade that they had a hit movie and until 2000’s X-Men that they had a bona fide blockbuster. Among the Marvel properties that were unsuccessfully transferred to the screen were 1986’s Howard the Duck, about a cigar-chomping alien humanoid duck; a barely released 1990 version of Captain America; an un-released 1994 version of The Fantastic Four; and three (count `em, three) attempts to establish The Punisher as a silver screen star, in 1989 (which went direct-to-video in North America), 2004, and 2008.

As last year’s The Dark Knight Rises brought that Batman trilogy to a close, it’s now up to British-born actor Henry Cavill (best known for the TV series The Tudors) to help resurrect DC’s fortunes as the Man of Steel. On July 19, Red 2, based, as was the original, on a limited comic book series, will open on U.S. screens. The original was a mid-level hit, so the sequel isn’t really expected to do blockbuster business, that is, certainly not Marvel-level business. After that, the next DC production isn’t expected until 2015, when Justice League should arrive in theaters.

In the meantime, Marvel still has Kick-Ass 2, The Wolverine, and Thor: The Dark World all still coming this year. What’s more, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy are all expected next year. As if those aren’t enough, Ant-Man, as well as an Avengers sequel, plus a reboot of The Fantastic Four are all slated for 2015. I hate to say it, but Marvel isn’t just beating DC, they’re crushing them like the Hulk crushes a cockroach.

The Des Moines Public Library invites you to select your superheroes of choice from our wide collection of DVDs and graphic novels. Then use the superpowers contained in your library card to check them out through the wonders of modern technology, because at the DMPL, we're cutting edge, too!

1