COMIC BOOK MOVIES

​​I'm not an expert in anything. However, I can talk for days about comic book movies. So, for the uninitiated, we’re going to do a deep dive into the main purveyors of this genre that really isn’t a genre - DC & Marvel with some slight deviations. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of movies based on other comic book properties, see Appendix A. Also, I won’t be getting into the multiple cartoons and spinoffs, because that shit is hard to keep track of and it is all varying degrees of quality. I’ll start off with a little bit of history - because it’s better to understand where everything came from and how and why it got to where it is.

Before we dive in, there will be mild spoilers but nothing I feel might ruin the experience of the movies. It’s best to view this on a tablet or computer. There are a TON of GIFs and large images. If you’re feeling ambitious, go ahead and download the doc. I’ll be continually updating this as time passes, so be sure to drop by once in awhile. I’ll keep a timeline down below for posterity’s sake.

Mark I:  Oct. 12, 2016 "Mjölnir"

Mark II: Feb. 10, 2018 "Veronica" *added new movies from Doctor Strange-Justice League
 

The History of Modern American Comic Book Movies

​​I’m not going to get into what happened before the mid-80s - the time before Hollywood found out that comic book nerds could be milked for a profit. There’s a great ongoing write-up over at Film Buff for those interested in getting down and dirty with those oldies. Otherwise, we’re starting with possibly the only superhero that America will never tire of hearing about how he’s an orphan: ​​
BATMAN (1989), BATMAN RETURNS (1992), BATMAN FOREVER (1995), BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
All it took was a famous comedic actor and an out-there, but successful, director to make studios realize they could make some GD MONEY off a comic book. The 1989 Batman movie was considered a landmark and at the time was one of the highest grossing movies. The iconic villain Joker was played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson and quickly became the definitive, mainstream edition of the character. And damn if Michael Keaton didn’t play Bruce Wayne like the cocky bastard he is. Who knew he had it in him?
​ Can we finally just admit we all love Keaton? And gosh darnit, he deserves an OSCAR. Forget a bullshit lifetime achievement Oscar when he’s 80, but a bonafides statue earned in a film. Burton and Keaton returned for the sequel, wherein Danny Devito got bloated due to consumption of raw fish and Michelle Pfeiffer turned a generation of boys into men with her sexy turn as Catwoman. It was a worthy follow up and actually is my favorite out of the old franchise. It’s just weird enough.
​​But after that things got a little uncomfortably bizarre and...dumb. Warner Bros. just had to milk this franchise to the point where nothing was sacred anymore and no one understood that comic book movies could be anything but campy.
From batsuit nipples to Batman recasting (Val Kilmer! Clooney!) to more and more ridiculously absurd villains - the franchise started to resemble the campy 60s TV show. Which, you know, if you thought that was a good thing, then you’re probably showing your age. And with that in mind, the films found diminishing returns after the first. So maybe this was a fluke - Batman was a beloved character and the Joker was the only good villain he had. In fact, a lot of the success with comic book movies hinges on how good the villain is, rather than the actual superhero - which is a whole other article I could get into...but won’t.

It seemed like comic book movies couldn’t land a successful franchise. Sure, there were some great movie adaptations in the 90s - but nothing came as close to the franchise potential that Batman flirted with. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came the closest but fizzled out after two installments. And a lot of off-beat comics were adapted at this time with some successes - The Crow (94), The Mask (94), Men in Black (97), Spawn (97), Blade (98). Sometimes they were super dark and serious (The Crow, Blade) and sometimes just straight up comedies (The Mask, Men in Black). They worked, but would rarely get the sequel treatment and if they did, it was not worthy of the original or it was relegated to the straight-to-video section at the local video store.

1996 Marvel Bankruptcy

​ Marvel filed for Chapter 11 in 1996 during one of the worst slumps in comic book industry. To stop the bleeding, Marvel licensed out its most popular characters to movie studios in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.
​ This is probably the most important event in the history of comic book movies - without this bankruptcy, Marvel would still have all the film rights to all of its characters. However - Spider-Man and Ghost Rider went to Sony, X-Men and the Fantastic Four went to 20th Century Fox. Any other characters they licensed out have reverted back to Marvel because of a binding rule. The studios with the rights to characters have to make a movie and if they don’t, those rights will revert back to Marvel after so many years. (Punisher was one of those that expired.) That’s why Sony re-booted Spider-Man after only 8 years, because they couldn’t afford to lose one of the most recognizable superheroes in their film docket. Speaking of Spider-Man…

Spider-Man

SPIDER-MAN (2002)
I know I’m getting ahead of myself here because technically X-Men was the first to arrive on the scene in this modern era of superhero movies. But Spider-Man is probably more important because, just like Batman, it shattered records at the time. And once again, it took a quirky, horror-centric director and a relatively unknown cast to make the spandex money rain. Spider-Man became the first film to make more than $100 million in a single weekend and went on to gross more than $400 million. Spider-Man fever took over and, unlike Batman from the 90s, the two sequels raked in almost as much cash as the original. The first film had a charm and, while some consider it boring, was a great origin story (what origin story isn’t inherently boring?) that clearly nailed the balance between great action and great characters. It doesn’t hurt that the romance between Spider-Man and Mary Jane was sizzling and brought in the female audience. Plus it had J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, the bull-headed editor of the Daily Bugle who pretty much stole every scene he was in.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Spider-Man 2 came along and garnered even better reviews -- some still consider it the best comic book film to date. The sequel checked off all the boxes of a proper second installment and it looked like Sony and Marvel would keep that web-slinging momentum for quite a while. The villain, Doc Ock, was a perfect foil for Spider-Man and upped the ante with Parker’s relationships. It had some great action scenes and still handled the characters with respect and depth.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
Then came emo Peter Parker and all our dreams were shattered. I fully admit I still enjoy Spider-Man 3, but will acknowledge it is still a dumpster-fire of a movie. The studio got too involved - trying to juggle two separate villains (Sandman and Venom) while mishandling Gwen Stacy’s character. It was too much for Sam Raimi and the writers. It fell under its own weight and turned off a great many people. You can tell how bad it was when almost half of its domestic gross at the box office was made on opening weekend. Sandman deserved a better storyline than that ho-hum criminal trying to do good by his sick daughter. And VENOM. Jesus, VENOM. Probably one of the more beloved villain/heroes in Marvel’s lineup, and they couldn’t have made his character less likeable or badass when they recruited Tobey Maguire lookalike Topher Grace to step into the role. Seriously - Venom was a great comic book character.
And the movie reduced his character to some whiney photographer who gets infected, but doesn’t truly transform into what fans really wished for. It was a feeble attempt by the studio to pander to comic fans’ wishes, but failed miserably. The damage was done, but that didn’t mean things would stop. That wonderful stipulation in the contract about keeping the film rights would make Sony pursue an actual reboot when no one from the third film, including Sam Raimi, would come back for a fourth film.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)
After the disappointing third film, Sony decided not to pursue another movie. Until they realized that soon they’d have to give up the film rights to Marvel. Thus, the completely re-booted Amazing Spider-Man. Here was Sony trying to make it up to the comic book fans. The plot stays truer to the original comic origin story - Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first love and he had mechanical web slingers, not some weird, natural wrist webbing. And Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man ended up being a good choice and so did Marc Webber, the much-loved indie filmmaker responsible for one of the best modern-day romantic comedies, (500) Days of Summer. And instead of taking an iconic villain for the first rebooted go-around, the film enlisted the campy Lizard as Spider-Man’s foe. Despite only coming out 5 years after the other series, The Amazing Spider-Man was well-received and it looked like a promising future for all involved.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)
Then the backlash came. It’s almost inevitable that most franchises will hit some sort of backlash nowadays. 2016 is a prime example of this - TMNT 2, Divergent, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Now You See Me 2 - they’ve all failed to capture the magic of the previous installments. And although I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was more good than bad, it did not exactly light up the box office, nor did it hit critics too well.

Sure, Electro was a poorly conceived villain, but everything with Gwen Stacy was perfect and Dane Dehaan as Peter’s old friend, Harry Osborn, was set up to be a great storyline. The action wasn’t as great, but Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and everything about her relationship with Peter was spot on. It was the better part of the movie while failing to find its footing with the main villain, played way too seriously by Jamie Foxx. Unfortunately, the people spoke and the last Spider-Man movie ended up being the lowest-grossing movie in both series, even with ticket price inflation and the rise of a global box office. Sure the movie made some money (see sidebar), but not the kind of money Sony wanted to see.

So after all was said and done, Sony was getting a little weary at the prospect of their own shared universe with Spider-Man. They had plans to make a female Spider-Man movie, a Venom movie, another Amazing Spider-Man and a Sinister Six movie (kind of like Suicide Squad, but with Spider-Man villains). Couple the diminishing returns from the franchise and the hack into Sony’s servers in 2014 - they probably were more receptive to Marvel than they ever had been. And then in 2015, it was announced Sony would be partnering with Marvel to allow Spider-Man to appear in Marvel’s movies, but also make a brand-new reboot...again.
Budgets & Box Office
When talking about a movie’s profitability, it’s a little more complicated than a movie just getting its budget back dollar for dollar at the box office. Studios and the movie theaters that show the film have deals in place where, on average, the first week of the film, 90% of ticket sales go toward the studio, with the percentage slowly declining each week. This is a really rough and simple outline - it’s not exact, but you get the idea. So near the end of a movie’s run, you can expect the studio to make about 50% of its box office intake. Foreign is a little bit trickier, but that’s roughly 45%. So a film budgeted at $150m would have to take in at least $300m in worldwide box office receipts. BUT most studios don’t disclose marketing costs for each movie - so for a bigger movie (like the $150m), you could expect marketing costs to hover around $50m and higher. So now that $150m movie has to make at least $350m in box office money to break even.

Example:
Tomorrowland from last year had a budget of $190m, and I’ll conservatively estimate its marketing budget at $65m. $380m + $65m = $445m. The film worldwide only did $209 million. So Disney lost around $235m. (Reports say around $140m were lost, but they don’t include marketing although they do probably estimate home video sales.)

Deadpool, however, on a budget of $58m and a marketing budget probably around the same, would need to make $116m+$50m=$166m. The film made $778m worldwide. $600m in profit from just box office alone.

Spider-Man Side Projects

With Sony still holding the rights to Spider-Man and seeing the success of Homecoming, it was only natural that they want to focus on expanding the universe with other characters. While Sony had to scrap plans for most of its movies, there is still the Venom movie coming out in 2018 starring Tom Hardy as the titular character.

Also on the horizon is Silver & Black, which will feature Silver Sable and Black Cat, two female superheroes who frequently team up with Parker and Spider-Man. They are scheduling a release for early 2019 and have lined up a director - Gina Prince-Bythewood, but no cast has been announced.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)
No origin story, no re-hash of old villains (or even Uncle Ben, or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy). This was a straight-up high school comedy with a superhero bent. And it's refreshing. Call it the Marvel touch - but it seems like the character has found a good home in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The big assumption about this movie is that A) you know who Spider-Man and Peter Parker are and his origin story B) you know who Iron Man is and you've seen most of the MCU movies. So yeah, it's surprising that this movie does a good job standing on its own. Even if you don't know much about anything, the movie does a good job at just telling a story without bogging you down with exposition and world-building.

And the cast! Holy cow the cast! Tom Holland looks and sounds like a teenager here out of his depth. Michael Keaton is in full-on badass mode and plays probably one of the better Marvel movie villains. Marisa Tomei adds a little spice to Aunt May. And the rest of the high school cast were fantastic. It was a nice blend of Peter Parker and his struggles at school and just being a socially awkward kid. Plus it had good action and was funny as well.

This movie got rave reviews and is sitting just behind Spider-Man 2 as the best of all the films. It was the highest grossing superhero movie worldwide in 2017. So I think Sony and Marvel are pretty pleased with the results. They took a minor gamble on one of the most recognizable superheroes and it paid off.

Where Spider-Man goes from here is interesting. If Marvel sticks to its formula, we'll be seeing a full trilogy with Peter Parker still in high school. Which is great - the other two iterations were quick to shove Peter past high school and into the 'real' world, but I like the idea that we'll see more teenage Parker than emo Parker.
There are three separate series for Spider-Man. They do not co-exist and while they share a lot of similarities, they’re different just enough to justify the need for a reboot. I didn't include Spider-Man: Homecoming on this watch list because you should really be checking it out with the MCU. The must-sees are the original Spider-Man 1 & 2, the Amazing Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Other than that? Unless you’re a completist, there’s really no need to see the last films in both series. Here’s my final, official ranking:

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  3. The Amazing Spider-Man
  4. Spider-Man
  5. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  6. Spider-Man 3

X-Men

As much as Spider-Man ushered in a new era for blockbuster movies based on comic books, that movie was still a little silly and campy, even though Hollywood had transitioned into its post-9/11 humourless phase. (Side note: The Bourne franchise could be considered a superhero franchise - this was a deeply serious American superhero created out of the ashes from those terrorist attacks a year before the first movie’s release. I’ll sound like a broken record, but that is a whole other post I could write about.) But here come the X-Men, all with brooding stares and dark suits, fending off bigotry.

X-Men didn’t come storming out of the gate like Spider-Man, but it was pretty successful. Bryan Singer, the director behind The Usual Suspects, may be a mediocre director in my opinion, but he did make some solid X-Men movies. While X-Men has always been about a team instead of its individuals, there was one standout among all the laser eyes and metal-crushing. Wolverine.
Wolverine has always been a fan favorite in the comics, but I don’t think 20th Century Fox knew what kind of superstar they had on their hands when they cast Jackman for the role. He took over the franchise after the first film. He’s the only X-Man to get three of his own films. But let’s get into this franchise - a consistently good series with a couple hiccups. However, Fox can never get any of its films to garner the kind of box office numbers like Batman or Iron Man.

X-MEN (2000)
What’s great about the first X-Men is that it doesn’t hold your hand as far as exposition goes. There’s mutants who’ve been in the world for quite some time, but the public has not really been made aware of them. There’s a war brewing over mutants’ role in the world and Magneto sees it as that - a war, where Professor Xavier sees a chance for a brighter, more diplomatic future. This has been the main driving force for most X-Men movies, and unfortunately the only main driving force. But it works pretty well here. The casting is solid, but the action isn’t going to steal the show - the climactic ending is anything but.
X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
Someone from Fox never got the memo that the 90s ended when they came up with that silly title. X2, like Spider-Man 2, is considered one of the best comic book movies. It’s pretty deft at doing things better - better action, more depth to the characters and their relationships, and it manages to metaphorically tie all this together with themes of civil rights and gay rights. The level of adeptness is astounding - there’s a lot more going on with this film than people will give it credit for. The love triangle between Wolverine, Jean Grey and Cyclops gets more complicated and the man behind all the shenanigans is played brilliantly by Brian Cox. The ending sets up nicely a third film that could possibly close out a rewarding trilogy, with Jean Grey coming back as the Dark Phoenix, one of the best X-Men comic storylines.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)
Unfortunately the third installment was doomed once Singer left for enemy territory - to work on Superman Returns. Probably not the wisest decision, but hindsight is 20/20. In his wake, Fox decided to hire sleazy douche director Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame). The studio got too involved with the film - just like Spider-Man 3 - where they wanted to capitalize on every GD X-Men character and shove them in with no regards to plot or coherence. Ratner wasn’t all to blame - the writers from the first two movies were gone as well and the new writers didn’t get the vibe with where the series was going at the end of the second film.
You knew things weren’t going to go well when they killed off Cyclops right in the beginning. That character deserved a better death than what he got here. Plus James Marsden is so dreamy, how could they let him go? And talk about a botched attempt at telling a decent Dark Phoenix storyline. It was dumb and anticlimactic from the get go. If you’re starting to see a trend here with the third film in a superhero franchise, you’re not wrong.

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009)
At this point Fox had nothing to lose. Technically The Last Stand is still the second-highest grossing X-Men film worldwide, but people were pretty much done with the franchise after the ho-hum third outing. Fox had been attempting for a while now to get an origin story from some of their more popular characters, like Magneto and Wolverine. Clearly Wolverine could earn some dough, so why not? If you think about it - this is exactly what Marvel Studios were going to do with their Cinematic Universe, only in reverse.
While the Wolverine movie wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t that good, either. There’s some great moments in the film - especially the beginning and pretty much everything involving Liev Schreiber as Sabretooth. And the ending was appropriate and tied directly back to the first film. But all of the sad drama with his girlfriend in Canada was dumb and the movie kind of meandered around for awhile, not knowing how to just be a fun action flick. And of course, the biggest sin was what they decided to do with a beloved character - Deadpool. This was even worse than Venom - and it was like the studio didn’t even care about the merc with the mouth. They sewed up his mouth for no discernable reason other than it just looked kinda cool. I think Ryan Reynolds went along with it because he probably figured this was his only shot to play that character. But damn, talk about shitting all over your fanbase. That was 7 years ago and Fox has learned a lot since then.