It was December of 1989, while rummaging around the floor of a bygone department store in Glasgow, when I chanced upon a small toy car that would change my life. I was five years old and the toy was an unboxed miniature ‘Batmobile’.
Having found it, I took the unusual decision to return the coveted item to the lady behind the counter, thinking someone may have lost it. For my honesty, she let me keep it. The Batmobile remained with me for many years as did the tale of the mysterious masked vigilante I’d been assured was driving it.
That deep connection to a mythos such as those found in comic books is surprisingly persistent. My interest in far-fetched stories with fantastical characters like Batman and Superman flies in the face of everything I understand about being a grown man. For those with no connection to pop culture of this kind, the very idea of buying into a brand, via children’s toys, may seem naïve or even vulgar but for the first time in the history of comic book adaptations, those naysayers are part of an increasingly out-of-touch minority – because superheroes are literally the business.
Last week, despite mixed reviews from critics, mutterings of superhero fatigue and a crescendo of hype that would be impossible to live up to, comic book juggernaut Marvel’s little film called Avengers: Infinity War swaggered past the two most recent Star Wars films, The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens, to record the biggest opening weekend of all time. And while the film itself is certainly not perfect, what really pops off the screen is the love and respect the studio, writers, directors and actors have for the only indispensable factor in the equation: the fans.
READ MORE: Film review: Agengers: Infinity War
Infinity War has been ten years in the making, since the surprise 2008 hit Iron Man, which performed the dual feat of rehabilitating not only Marvel – which had resorted to selling the rights to its most recognisable characters, Spiderman and the X-Men, to Sony and Fox respectively – but also the ailing career of a certain Robert Downey Jr, back then a disgraced actor Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
This willingness to take risks is what marks Marvel out from its increasingly baffled competitors, one of which is in particularly bad shape despite having a 30-year head start where comic book films are concerned. Since the 1978 release of Superman: The Movie, DC (Detective Comics) has dominated the conversation about comic adaptations. That film, directed by a young Richard Donner, is widely regarded as a classic in cinematic terms and also became an archetype of the superhero genre. With its iconic John Williams score, ensemble cast including Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman as well as the late Christopher Reeve, Superman is a film to which subsequent directors of similar source material often return for much-needed inspiration and guidance.
So, why are these films so popular? And why do they strike the fear of hell into a certain type of movie enthusiast? Just last week, legendary director, writer and producer, James Cameron, who helmed the two biggest movies of all time in Avatar and Titanic, rather ironically noted that Marvel’s approach was formulaic and that sooner or later we’d see “Avengers fatigue” setting in. This from a man who is currently filming four (yes four) sequels to Avatar; a movie that was arguably so successful because a great deal was made of its 3D visuals – a novelty that has long since worn off with cinema-goers, much like the nightmarish Terminator franchise he set in motion in the eighties.
The truth is, Marvel releases only two or three films a year. It’s hardly over-saturation. And while their dominance of the media landscape is certainly mind-numbing at times, it must be said that even their middle-of-the-road affairs, like Iron Man 2, Age of Ultron and the first two Thor movies (in my opinion) are still incredibly entertaining, well-made movies.
From a distance, it looks like the selling point is escapist fantasy and action which, without a sense of connection to the characters, quickly becomes obtrusive noise with no stakes. The costumes become camp and ‘toyetic’ and the ‘always just thwarting the end of the world’ storylines seem uninvolving and ludicrous. But that’s what Marvel understand so well. They’ve spent the last ten years building a rapport with audiences to the extent that they can literally introduce gun-toting racoons and talking trees into their shared universe alongside well-established characters like Captain America and nobody bats an eyelid.
What many film-buffs miss, is that these seemingly flamboyant characters are imbued with gifts and flaws to which we can all relate. It might seem funny, but for many people, these characters provide more than entertainment and escapism; they offer hope, identification and guidance – just like the characters in any good book or film.
Marvel’s decade-long run of interconnected films – 19 to be exact – has quite rightly become a phenomenon and has done so precisely because the people who made them remained faithful to the core ideas encoded in the source-material: comic books. And like these movies, the medium of the comic book was once subjected to the same soft ignorance from those who regard themselves as aficionados of cinema and literature. Though if those people are genuinely interested in art and culture, and its ability to stir and inspire us, and genuinely wish for others to become passionate about books and film, then they would do well to recognise that for many young people not afforded the greatest start in life, comic books and the adaptations they spawn, are their first literary experience.