What are the ingredients to today’s comic book-based blockbuster movie successes? With films such as "Iron Man,""Man of Steel," and "The Avengers" drawing global attention and unprecedented box office numbers, it may seem like there is a magic formula to follow.
Some might assume that it was the A-list casting, the immense budgets, or the high-quality visual effects that fueled these broad audience spectacles, but based on so many high-profile disappointments of late, it should be clear that nothing can be taken for granted.
Let’s decode Hollywood’s comic book movie franchises to see what the future of comic book films may hold.
Before we peel back the layers into what makes a successful comic book movie franchise, it is important to clarify why comic books are targeted for movies in the first place. To simplify the film selection process as a whole, there is a relevant similarity between a real-estate developer and a movie studio. Movie studios look to invest into projects that are built upon great properties, just as every real-estate developer is looking for a great investment opportunity. Of course, what defines a great investment for a real-estate developer and a movie studio are two different things, however the basic principles are the same: maximize potential revenue and profit from a single property.
A common generalization is that comic book properties are targeted because of their built-in fan bases, or because the comic books serve as storyboards for a movie. While there are instances of titles being chosen for those reasons, many of today’s biggest comic book movie successes have been sourced from not-so-well-known titles such as "Captain America" and "Thor."
So what is attributed to the recent box office success of so many comic book-based movies? The answers are actually much more primitive and obvious than one might think. They include: (1) a great high-concept, 2) a character-driven storyline, and 3) successfully applying the principals of the “Hero’s Journey.” Let’s explore these facets.
1. Great high-concept
A great high-concept is the beating heart of a movie franchise. Whether it is a comic book movie or not, the high-concept is defined as a basic premise that appeals to a wide audience.
Many films live and die by the strength of their high-concept and whether they appeal to a broad audience. Thinking back on various films like "Spider-Man,""Iron Man," and "The Dark Knight," it is clear that every story is defined by a high-concept: a bite from a radioactive spider on a school field trip gives Peter Parker superpowers; a billionaire engineer Tony Stark builds an armor suit to escape capture and eventually uses it to save the world, and; after the murder of his parents, a wealthy industrialist devises a bat suit and takes Gotham City justice into his own hands. The next step is connecting each concept with a unique and globally-identifiable character.
2. Character-driven storyline
Storytelling is one of the most primitive forms of communication in the world. As a source of entertainment in every culture, storytelling creates a universal connection that attempts to understand human existence and the human condition. In movies, ensuring every story has easily identifiable characters is the difference between box office success and failure, regardless of the strength of the high-concept.
Both "R.I.P.D." and "Green Lantern" are examples of films that, despite a great cast and big budgets, failed to deliver strong characters and as a result suffered at the box office. With strong characters, the next step is adapting the story to properly emphasize the “Hero’s Journey.”
3. Application of "Hero's Journey"
Not everyone is familiar with the “Hero’s Journey,” as defined by American scholar Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). This narrative pattern is the backbone of modern literature and can be found in many of the greatest pieces of literature and film throughout history. Mr. Campbell identified that the human experience revolves around ordinary people being called upon in extraordinary circumstances and which is a recurring theme in all cultures.
Following the “Hero’s Journey” helps audiences subscribe to a character’s adventure in a personal way, and stories that are built upon this model have a better chance of achieving audience appeal. When a film has universal appeal, there is a better chance for box office success.
A strong and original high-concept, character-driven story and a “Hero’s Journey” is in the DNA of every major comic book movie success. Of course, there are many other external factors at play, including casting, marketing and a director’s ability to deliver a unique perspective.
However, at the heart of each film, the story and its characters must be relatable.
As an example, when Disney acquired Marvel Comics, many naysayers pointed to a catalog comprised of secondary characters that would be difficult to attract the fan base that surrounds well-known characters like "Spider-Man." However, by properly adapting each high-concept, creating an emotional connection, and closely following the principles of the “Hero’s Journey,” each Marvel Studios release since their acquisition has been rewarded with remarkable box office success.
Comic books provide an endless resource of ideas that can be adapted for film and other forms of entertainment. However, without the combination of these three tenets, the greatness of each story may never be realized on the big screen.
Jesse Berger is the co-founder and Executive Vice President of Radical Studios, a Los Angeles-based entertainment company, that specializes in developing and adapting stories and characters for licensing across the media landscape.