It’s been eleven years since the first X-Men film came out. In that time, we’ve had Iron Man, Hellboy, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, two Hulk movies, a re-launch of Batman, an attempted re-launch of Superman, Thor, Captain America, and (if I get my way) Squirrel Girl will probably get her own movie some day. Superhero movies are not a fad. They’re here to stay.
But I’m not here to write about the continuing trend of superhero flicks. Rather, I’m here to compare and contrast the modern day superhero comic to the modern day superhero film. Despite starting with the same basic premise, they are in entirely different places culturally. And I think it’s time to admit that superhero comics could learn a thing or two from superhero films. Superhero films are written with a wide-ranging audience in mind while superhero comics are so narrowly aimed, such a niche market, that they can only continue to become less relevant as time goes by.
Superhero movies are made for the casual viewer, the folks who want to go watch a fantasy film, who aren’t obsessive about continuity or shared reality. Even Marvel’s upcoming Avengers film, while having a fair bit of continuity and probably rewarding those who paid attention to the previous films with a few treats here and there, isn’t going to require you see any of them to enjoy it. Because if Hollywood is investing millions of dollars into a blockbuster film, you can bet they aren’t planning on deliberately making it unfriendly to new audiences.
Superhero comic books, on the other hand, seem to delight in this brand of continuity lockout. It’s almost become a mark of whether or not you’re a true fan if you can tell how many times Hitler was killed in the Marvel universe (ANSWER: a whole heck of a lot) or if you know that Superman dated a mermaid for a while. If you can’t tell me who is faster, Flash or Superman, or who is smarter, Mr. Terrific or Elongated Man, or the complex psychology of the Hulk’s transformations, or how Batman got the batcomputer into the batcave, then you tend to be dismissed as a dabbler, an often unwelcome visitor in the world of superheroes. You don’t belong here, and you will be treated with disdain. Not just by the fans, but even by the writers themselves.
And then there’s all the “mature content” found in most superhero comics. Whether it’d death, gore, or sex, most superheroes are so entrenched in it that it can be overwhelming. While the recent Captain America film was a mostly bloodless pulp adventure, in the comic universe, a recent Cap stand-in had his arm ripped off and a hole punched through him. In All-Star Batman and Robin, a comic that is supposed to represent the absolute best of the characters, Batman is an unshaven thug and his idea of “training” Robin is to lock him in the Batcave and have the Boy Wonder catch rats. A recent Spider-Man comic had the Lizard eat his own son. Even darker films like The Dark Knight and X-Men: First Class can’t compete with the gritty angst and ugly death of most superhero comic books.
The paradox is obvious. Superhero comics struggle to maintain an audience that is both insular and unfriendly and by doing so, they continue to shrink and become culturally less relevant. Meanwhile, superhero movies strive to embrace mainstream accessibility. And while movies could be a great tool for revitalizing the comics, it all goes out the window the second most people pick up a Thor comic and see a shower of blood and guts when Thor smites a frost giant or reads about yet another character being raped or killed for cheap drama and childish versions of maturity.
I don’t think that all superhero comics need to be mainstream, but it still seems like the gulf between the superhero comic and the superhero movie is far too wide most times. And until the comic book industry realizes the benefits to being a little bit more like the movies, it’s only going to get worse for the comic book heroes and their universes. It’s a cosmic threat more powerful than even Thanos himself because even Squirrel Girl can’t defeat this bad guy. And that’s saying something.
A. Lee Martinez is a writer you probably haven’t heard of but really should have. He is the author of Gil’s All Fright Diner, In the Company of Ogres, A Nameless Witch, The Automatic Detective, Too Many Curses, Monster, Divine Misfortune and Chasing the Moon. He credits comic books and Godzilla movies as his biggest influences, and thinks that every story is better with a dash of ninja.