From "Jonah Hex" to "Joker": the 2010s in Comic Book Adaptations
Well, it’s 2020. It still hasn’t hit me. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m still processing all of the crazy developments and changes that comic book adaptations have gone through in the past decade: the rise of the interconnected cinematic universe concept. The studio acquisitions and closures. Some movies smashing past a billion dollars and making history, some movies crashing so hard they destroy franchises – and even entire planned cinematic universes! When you pass a benchmark – like the end of one decade and the start of another – it can be illuminating to look back and see the steps taken along the way. Join me and let’s take a look back at the 2010s in comic book adaptations…
Where do you even begin? The timing is almost too perfect to begin anywhere else: on the very last day of the PREVIOUS decade, December 31st, 2009, The Walt Disney company purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. This would prove to have enormous ripple effects later on: not only did this help streamline the production of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it, the acquisition of Marvel helped pave the way for further Thanos-esque acquisitions by Disney as the decade continued. But for now, we’ll use this as a benchmark for the start of the decade.
It’s hard to believe now, with how inundated we feel at the movies and on our streaming services, but in the first year of this last decade, 2010, only three superhero movies were released: Super, directed by James Gunn (who would go on to have a very busy decade!), Jonah Hex, starring Josh Brolin (the eventual Thanos!), and the most successful superhero film of that year, Iron Man 2. It’s strange to actually think back and put yourself in that time: Iron Man 2 was only the third movie in the MCU at that point, and the only one we had seen that wasn’t an Iron Man film was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which didn’t exactly leave the strongest impression on people, to say the least. At this point in the game, it was less of a Marvel Cinematic Universe and more just…three movies with extremely light crossover between them. Oh, how times have changed.
2011, meanwhile, brought us such bombs as Green Lantern, The Green Hornet and Conan the Barbarian. These movies all performed so poorly that all sequel plans were put on indefinite hold, and as of this writing all three of these properties have yet to be brought back to the big screen. More importantly, however, we saw some of the more prominent franchises of the decade begin to take shape in 2011. We got our introduction to this decade’s version of the X-Men in X-Men: First Class; and we got our first look at two eventual headlining Avengers in Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Chris Evans’ Cap would go on to anchor the MCU for the rest of the decade, with Evans making six additional appearances as Cap (not counting his hilarious cameos in other Marvel films including Thor: The Dark World and Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Hemsworth returning to play Thor in six more movies (as well as a cameo in Doctor Strange). It’s safe to say that by 2011 we were starting to see the overall picture the MCU was starting to paint for us, and it was glorious.
Something to notice in Hollywood – once something is a success, it inspires imitators. This is nothing new, and the same applies to superhero films. 2012 saw the release of one of my low-key favorite superhero films of all time, Chronicle. My love for this film might merit its own blog post eventually so I won’t go too overboard here, but suffice it to say if you’ve never seen this one, at the very least search for it on YouTube and rent it! It’s a foreboding story about what happens when a group of three teenage friends gain superpowers, and what happens when one of them starts to go bad…
In other non-Chronicle news, in 2012 we got the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. It feels like this trilogy gets remembered mainly for Heath Ledger’s Joker performance, but it’s worth reflecting on the fortunate fact that we had a filmmaker of Nolan’s caliber creating not just one superhero film but an entire trilogy. Nowadays it seems like A-list directors are more interested in insulting superhero cinema (and thereby breaking my poor heart) rather than seeing what they might be able to do in that arena. (I actually think Scorsese’s crackling cinematic energy and flair for troubled, flawed masculine heroes could have made a film like Iron Man very interesting…!)
Oh yeah, and a little movie called The Avengers also dropped in 2012.
2012 also brought us some important, non-film updates! The all-powerful Disney would go on to acquire Lucasfilm in December 2012 for $4 billion, kickstarting a new trilogy of Star Wars films (that just recently wrapped up!) and a new era of Star Wars moving forward. It’s also worth mentioning that in October 2012 we witnessed the premiere of Arrow, a series on the CW network about DC Comics’ archery-based hero Green Arrow. Nobody at the time could have predicted that this one small, extremely grounded and gritty show would run for the rest of the decade, and be responsible for the spin-off shows The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and Batwoman, thereby creating, almost by accident, the most successful non MCU “cinematic” universe. More on those later…!
2013 brought us more of the same. The MCU dipped a bit in people’s eyes, only releasing Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, two of the lesser-appreciated films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, things weren’t much better on the DC side of things: 2013 brought us Man of Steel, a Superman film that was unfortunately the first casualty of what would eventually become known as the DC Extended Universe. The studio heads at Warner Brothers (the parent company of DC) were looking hungrily over at the runaway success of The Avengers and, wanting a team-up movie of their own, decided to make one after Man of Steel, without doing the years of prep work that Marvel Studios had done laying the groundwork for these characters. Because of this abrupt change in plans, DC didn’t release a single movie after Man of Steel for three years. Unfortunately, as you’ll see later, this eventual film was not worth the wait.
There were four superhero movies in 2013, and I’ve only gone over three of them. What was the fourth? Do you remember? It was The Wolverine. Yeah, me neither. Suffice it to say, it was a pretty dull year for superhero films. (Thankfully, I was too busy playing The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5 on the PS3 to mind all that much!) 2013 also saw the announcement of Marvel Television’s groundbreaking deal with Netflix to produce four superhero series, building up to a crossover series much the same way the first wave of MCU films built up to The Avengers. Between 2015 and 2019 (it really felt like they were around longer than that…!) we had multiple seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, with the crossover series The Defenders showcasing their team-up. Daredevil also gave us a spin-off series based on the villain from its second season: The Punisher. All in all these shows were a unique way to update the shared universe concept the films had pioneered, and provided valuable (yet harsh) lessons that hopefully the studio heads at Marvel will have learned by the time their new series on the Disney+ app start to premiere later this year. (MAKE THE SEASONS SHORTER, MARVEL! TIGHTEN IT UP!)
Wow, this far down and we’re only just getting to 2014. Thankfully, not much seems to have happened in the middle of the decade. We got a franchise-killing sequel to Amazing Spider-Man and the first of several X-Men sequels, X-Men: Days of Future Past. I prefer another second installment that was released that summer: Captain America: Winter Soldier. I think looking back, this movie will be seen as the high point of the MCU, from a cinematic (or, “Martin Scorsese”) perspective. Winter Soldier was the darkest, moodiest, most thought-provoking Marvel film so far, and even if that was the only MCU movie we got that summer I would’ve been happy. But we also had the biggest Marvel gamble so far, released four months after Winter Soldier: Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s funny to look back but I definitely remember being worried that this was going to be the movie that finally derailed the MCU. There was no possible way they could pull this silly movie off! And yet Guardians went on to become one of the most beloved entries in the entire MCU. In fact, I would argue that the one-two punch of Winter Soldier and Guardians was the strongest pairing of sequential films in this franchise, second only to maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok in 2017.
That’s it for 2014. While these movies were being released, behind the scenes other studios were looking at Marvel and their unbroken string of box-office behemoths with a covetous eye, scheming like supervillains in their own right. “Maybe if we try to make an interconnected franchise of films, we can get some of that sweet Marvel success!” The concept makes the most sense for superhero films, as this is basically how comic books have been operating in print for decades. But horror films? Action movies? These attempts at cinematic universes weren’t as lucky.
Universal Studios had the original cinematic universe, with their monster horror films in the first half of the 20th century. They made an attempt to restart their universe with a reboot of The Mummy in 2017, starring Tom Cruise. This was supposed to serve as a springboard, Iron Man-style, to a full-blown cinematic universe featuring all of the Universal monsters: reboots of The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and more were all planned and even cast before The Mummy was released and completely destroyed any hopes of an interconnected cinematic universe.
Even action franchises like Transformers and The Fast and the Furious, with the films Bumblebee and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, are attempting to graduate from a measly franchise into a full-blown cinematic universe. The most successful non-Marvel cinematic universe is probably James Wan’s Conjuring series. It’s a horror universe with seven films spread over four film series (two Conjuring films, three Annabelle films, and two standalone films without sequels yet, The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona). Those movies vary wildly in quality though, from great to dreadful, and seeing as that is the cinematic universe that has come closest to the success of the MCU, Marvel is holding a pretty strong lead right now.
2015 was so disappointing I almost don’t even want to talk about it! Cinematically, all we got was Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man (which wasn’t bad but wasn’t nearly as great as it could have been before the Edgar Wright situation), and Fan4tastic. Nuff said! More importantly in my mind, 2015 is when the Marvel Netflix shows started to trickle in. In April we got the first season of Daredevil, and then in November we got Jessica Jones. Both of these premiere seasons were well-received and did better than expected, leading to a focus by the studios on small-screen comic book adaptations - to varying degrees of success - for the remainder of the decade.
2015 was the last year of the 2010s with such a slim slate of comic book adaptations: from 2016 to 2019, only one of those four years (2018, if you’re curious) had less than seven comic book films, a far cry from the likes of 2010 or 2015 with three each. On the MCU side of things at least, 2016 was when the Endgame started to become clear. That year saw the release of Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, two movies that laid some serious groundwork for the final stretch of the Infinity Saga.
2016 also marked the triumphant return of the DCEU, not seen since 2013’s Man of Steel! And we were given…Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that was so unsure of itself and what it wanted to be that it was almost impossible to believe. Was it a Man of Steel sequel? Was it the first movie in a Ben Affleck-led Batman series? Was it a Justice League prequel? Somehow, it was all three of those, and none of those at the same time. At least we had another DC film to look forward to later that summer, right? Thank goodness the all-time classic Suicide Squad was there to cleanse the palate after sitting through Batman vs. Superman! Seriously though. There’s nothing more to be said about Suicide Squad that hasn’t already been said, but let’s just say the combination of both of those spectacular duds, released within five months of each other, is the main reason that DC movies find themselves in such a deep hole, that they have only just now started to climb out of, in this humble writer’s opinion.
2017 was a better year. Out of the six comic book movies released that year (seven, if you count Power Rangers), only one of them was a unanimous dud: Justice League (and Power Rangers, if you’re still counting that!). The rest of 2017 was pure quality: Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. It seems like a one-off, until you look at the last couple of years of superhero cinema and realize that it genuinely does seem like the quality of the films are improving. The filmmakers and studios are (finally) learning the lessons from failures of films past. For example, Wonder Woman received such good feedback upon release that the entire direction of DC movies moving forward was changed: stop trying to catch up to Marvel, and focus on singular franchises as opposed to the doomed DC Extended Universe. Throughout the remaining years of the decade we would see that decision bear fruit. DC movies have had a rough go ever since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films wrapped up, but it’s good to see them getting back up again after stumbling so hard in the middle of the decade.
2018 wasn’t that long ago. You probably don’t need me to go on about Avengers: Infinity War or Venom or Aquaman. In my mind, the biggest most influential comic book film of that year was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This movie was, in a word, different. It had such an unbelievable sense of kinetic energy and just plain fun to it that made the movie one of the most successful animated films in years and even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (take THAT, Ralph Breaks the Internet!). More important, though, is the impact this film will have moving forward. It might not be evident now but I believe we will see more superhero films like this in the future; not just animated superhero projects (the upcoming What If? series is going to be animated!) but films that take the source material seriously and don’t treat the audience like they won’t be able to understand the concept of things like a multiverse. Animation is not “just for kids,” it can be for everybody, and every few years a movie comes along like Into the Spider-Verse to remind everybody of that.
The other atypical superhero-related event of 2018 I want to talk about is the launch of the DC Universe streaming service. It’s a platform consisting of digital comics, a video library of much of DC’s cinematic, animated, and television programming, and, most relevantly, it also offers new original content. We saw the release of an app called Marvel Unlimited years before, but they are exclusively a digital comics-only subscription service. DC Universe offers that, plus new, original, live action and animated DC content. As of this writing, we have seen original live-action series Titans, Doom Patrol, and Swamp Thing, the return of cult classic cartoon Young Justice with a third season, as well as an animated Harley Quinn series. The second half of the decade saw various comic book shows landing on various exclusive platforms: you couldn’t watch Luke Cage without paying for Netflix, you couldn’t watch Watchmen without an HBO subscription, or The Boys without being an Amazon Prime member. And with the launch of Disney+ late last year and the upcoming 2020 releases of their first Marvel original series, this stratification is only going to become more pronounced as the new decade rolls on.
And that’s how I want to end this behemoth of an article: what’s next? What do we have to look forward to? In my mind, there are my three biggest question marks for the near future as far as comic book adaptations are concerned:
1). How does the MCU move forward after the conclusion of the “Infinity Saga”? 2). With the further addition of even more streaming services in 2020, how will this increasingly divided viewership handle so much content spread over so many platforms? 3). How will 2021’s The Batman impact DC’s cinematic plans for the rest of the decade? If it does well, will that lead to a complete re-hauling of their upcoming films, the schedule for which has been in place since late 2014?
All in all, if you had told me in 2010 that this was what the state of the comic book movie world would look like in ten years, I would have been blown away. “Hey 2010 Ryan, by the end of the decade there will have been 22 interwoven movies made in the MCU and it will end with a gigantic battle featuring dozens of characters in the most epic moment imaginable!” “Hey 2010 Ryan, by the end of the decade Disney will have purchased Lucasfilm AND 20th Century Fox! And that live-action Star Wars show they’ve been talking about for YEARS will finally have been released! Oh, and Joaquin Phoenix is going to play the Joker at the end of the decade. And the guy who created Lost will make an unbelievable Watchmen series for HBO, except it’s a sequel to the comic…” and on and on…this was the decade we can say our hobby went from nerdy, niche hobby to full-blown mainstream phenomenon. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that the 2020s will be as generous to the world of comic book adaptations as the 2010s have been!
Thanks for looking back on the last ten years with me. It’s been a crazy time researching and typing all this. To the one solitary person that has decided to waste their entire life reading this enormous article…you’re my favorite. Thanks for being you! Love you all, and hope you have a great 2020!
-Fire Guy Ryan