Hubert Burda Media

Superhero Hype

They may be big money-makers, but can comic-book-inspired films keep audiences interested?

Stan Lee was obviously looking deep into the future when he threw the phrase “with power comes great responsibility” into one of his early comics.

Literary nuts will attribute those words — or something close to them — to everyone from French thinker Voltaire to former US President Harry S Truman. But to most geeks around the globe, they’ll always be remembered as the words Uncle Ben spoke to Peter Parker, a warning to the young lad as he started to fully comprehend what would be at his disposal once he began turning into the superhero soon to be known as Spider-Man.

As has been the case throughout his 70-year career, Lee seemed even then to be ahead of the curve. It’s a statement directed at one character but can quite easily be pointed at the raft of superheroes who have followed since, first on the pages of comics and, more recently, on our cinema screens.

Superheroes are now responsible for so much more than saving damsels in distress; they’re responsible for big business, as reflected in the US$7.5 billion in returns recently announced by Disney, who only took over Marvel’s movie-making operations at the start of the year.

An appearance in one of the seemingly constant stream of new comic-book-inspired film franchises can make — or even break — the career of a hungry young actor, as it offers instant and international reach, a hefty pay cheque and the promise of work for the foreseeable future.

The real wonder lies in how it took so long for the penny to drop. Although comic books have been around since the 1700s, superheroes were first made popular in the US in the 1930s and up until recently, their big-screen adventures have been hit-and-miss affairs.

In terms of Hollywood, there were films inspired by the Superman and Batman television series of the 1950s and 1960s, but nothing really of note until Christopher Reeve starred in the blockbuster Superman (1978), which took more than $300 million in global returns.

Still, it wasn’t until Tim Burton was allowed to work his magic on Batman for Warner Bros in 1989 that the big studios started to raid their comic book stashes. That film grossed more than $400 million and the studios have never really let up since. There are an estimated two dozen superhero films planned for the next five years.

As the studios fork out big budgets, they place big demands on the talent at their disposal, which means public appearances, confidentiality agreements and smiles shared all and sundry.

Chris Evans is a case in point. The man who plays Captain America has benefited more than most from the current big studio’s — and box office’s — obsession with men in costumes. The first two films in the Captain America franchise not only have been major money-winners but also critically acclaimed, with most of that praise coming for the naturalistic approach taken by Evans and directors Joe Johnston (in The First Avenger) and Anthony and Joe Russo (in The Winter Soldier).

The fact that Evans (in character) appears in The Avengers franchise keeps attention (and the cash flow) bubbling along nicely. With this fame has, no doubt, come great fortune too — rumours are that his role brings with it a guaranteed pay cheque in the region of $3 million-$5 million. Nice work if you can get it, although nowhere near the reported $40-odd million Robert Downey Jr is reportedly getting for reprising his role as Iron Man.

Still, during a recent and very brief trip to China, Evans was bubbling in his enthusiasm for a character who has seemingly set him up for life, but did not give much away when asked about possible developments for the third instalment of the Captain America franchise, due for release next year.

“Yeah, I love it,” said Evans of the role. “It’s more about being satisfied with the work. I mean, if Marvel was making bad movies, I think it would be harder to go to work. But I love the movies Marvel makes, so it’s really a blessing to be able to play that character and to be making movies about him.”

Evans spoke of the physical demands the role requires — the months of gym work to get his body in shape and the hours of choreography that go into making the action scenes seem as real as possible — and how he tries to drop physical activity completely when not preparing for the role.

He also, apparently, has to pretty much drop any talk about how the character might be developing. “Marvel is very, very quiet about those movies and I’ve learned the hard way to not even give a little bit because it could be taken out of context — and then you get a phone call,” he said. “So it’s always smarter just to keep your mouth shut and just let [people] know it will be a good movie.”

What is most exciting about the superhero phenomenon is that for every film that seems to stick to a tried and tested (and of course, successful) formula — here’s looking at you, Thor — there are some film-makers out there willing to test the limits somewhat.

The very best examples of the genre always give their audiences a nice, dark, juicy origin story to chew on. It’s there with Captain America, in little snippets of memory that alert new fans to the character’s past and his troubles, while making ageing fans of the comic book smile quietly to themselves in recognition.

Christopher Nolan, of course, was a groundbreaker in this regard, picking up the pieces of a Batman franchise that had fallen into contempt by the time the lamentable Batman & Robin (1997) had rolled around. In the simmering Christian Bale, he found a hero who was actually interesting. The disappointment in the end was that the final instalment of Nolan’s run — The Dark Knight Rises (2012) —featured a bad guy no one (not even a bat) could hear properly.

But there seems to be exciting times ahead for audiences across Asia, as we turn into the new year. Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 2000) raised the curtain on Birdman at the Venice Film Festival in August, where reviews were as promising as the film’s premise. And how’s this for a healthy slice of backstory: Michael Keaton (aka Batman way back in the day) plays an actor whose career has hit the skids after having once played a superhero. He’s a man who may or may not have special powers but most definitely — and quite wonderfully, given that most fans of the superhero genre are now sliding into middle age — he does have problems with adjusting to the very human concerns that come with the passing of time.