Comic book films’ success credited to super fans

Updated: Jun 24, 2012, 14:19 PM IST

Washington: Researchers have tried to find out why the audiences are continuing to see film after film based on comic book heroes, who have been major draws at theatres across the country and around the world during recent and past summers.

Amanda Berry, an assistant professor of literature at American University, said that one reason behind this is that comic book movies consistently make a lot of money.

“During the last 5 years, Hollywood studios have released 21 films adapted from comic books,” Berry said.

“While all but four of the 21 films generated a profit, the amount of money made by extremely successful comic book movies vastly outweighs the small losses by a margin of 8:1,” she said.

Berry also believes that the comic book fan base — one that does not claim an especially large number of people but boasts a super power of its own — helps drive the popularity and hence, the profitability.

“Comic books have generated—and continue to generate—a unique fan base.

“This fan base is intensely loyal and seriously engaged in the very particularizing serial culture of comic books,” she said.

In fact, comic book fans are so invested in comic books that they consider themselves participants in comic book creation. This is a feature of many comic book fans’ self-construction as readers and collectors, and, to some degree, it is also true, says Berry.

“The comic book industry, especially Marvel—the company that brought us Spiderman, The X-Men, and The Avengers among others—began in the 1960’s to solicit input from readers in the form of fan letters and queries included at the end of comic books,” Berry said.

These fan letters are not merely notes of praise or complaint, but often comprise fascinating and complex acts of critical reading, noting problems of continuity or “‘realism” in a series; suggesting “better” plot variations; and giving extensive readers’ reports on particular issues like large and small plot arcs, character development, visual renderings, and writing style.

Mainstream comic books, like soap operas, are a serial venture that can require studious attention to detail and to an ever-accumulating archive. Superman, for example, has been fighting crime since 1938 in a serial comic book that is still published weekly, as well as in various spin-off and crossover comic books.

“Comic books can be read as single issues of course, but the serious fan understands that each single issue also relies on years and years of accumulated textual history,” she said.

What may be most remarkable about the disposition of the serious and long-term comic book reader is the sheer pleasure he or she takes in an enormous and mostly impossible project of reading and thinking about an absurdly huge and constantly expanding archive of material.

It is this devotion to the material that allows the comic book fan base to inspire interest and anticipation for comic book films among other audiences.

“Simply speaking, these fans are uniquely capable of generating excitement about comic book films among themselves and others because their own investment in the world of the comic book is so intense.

“What may seem like escapism to an outsider is a deeply pleasurable opportunity for endless learning and study for the ‘fanboy’,” Berry said.

There has been a great deal of speculation about other possible reasons for the relatively recent surge in comic book films, but Berry says there is no way to tell if any of those reasons are valid.

“Right now, there is no reliable way to know what, if anything, the market success of comic book plots and atmospheres tells us beyond their ability to generate profit,” she said.

One of these theories is that filmgoers are seeking escape from real life hardships such as the current economy. But this interpretation is complicated by the films’ inclusion of relevant and troubling social issues such as home foreclosures, every day acts of crime and violence, drug abuse, sexism, the death of loved ones, and poverty.

Other possible explanations for the popularity of comic book movies are the basic appeal and comfort to audiences of a good versus evil plot with good emerging victorious, the draw of high tech, visually-dazzling special effects, audience identification with an everyman who has a secret, alternative identity as an unerring, popular saviour, or even that people wish that they, too, could fly, lift buildings, and possess other super human powers.