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Super Fans behind Comic Book Films’ Super Success

"The Dark Knight Rises" releases July 20, but tickets for opening weekend sold out as soon as they went on sale in mid June. Illustration by and courtesy of Branden Vondrak.

Comic book movies—they can make record box office profits in a single weekend; inspire toys, clothing, and other merchandise collected by generations of people from all walks of life; and this summer, just as they have during recent, past summers, comic book movies will be major draws at theatres across the country and around the world.

But why are we continuing to see film after film based on comic book heroes—sometimes witnessing the same characters reinvented numerous times, as is the case with the July 3 release of the first film in the Spider-Man franchise reboot, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and could be the case with Batman after the July 20 release of the final film in the Dark Knight franchise, “The Dark Knight Rises”?

One reason: comic book movies consistently make money—a lot of it—says Amanda Berry, an assistant professor of literature at American University whose research includes comic books and graphic novels as well as British literature and contemporary literary criticism and theory.

“During the last 5 years, Hollywood studios have released 21 films adapted from comic books,” said Berry, who will teach the course “Narrative and the Comic Book” at American University this summer. “While all but four of the 21 films generated a profit, the amount of money made by extremely successful comic book movies vastly outweighs the small losses by a margin of 8:1.”

“Fanboys” Help Drive Films’ Popularity, Profitability

Berry also believes the comic book fan base—one that does not claim an especially large number of people but boasts a super power of its own—helps drive the popularity and hence, the profitability.

“Comic books have generated—and continue to generate—a unique fan base,” said Berry, who is also a “fanboy” (slang for “comic book fan”). “This fan base is intensely loyal and seriously engaged in the very particularizing serial culture of comic books.”

In fact, comic book fans are so invested in comic books that they consider themselves participants in comic book creation. This is a feature of many comic book fans’ self-construction as readers and collectors, and to some degree, it is also true, says Berry.

“The comic book industry, especially Marvel—the company that brought us Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Avengers among others—began in the 1960’s to solicit input from readers in the form of fan letters and queries included at the end of comic books,” said Berry.

These fan letters are not merely notes of praise or complaint, but often comprise fascinating and complex acts of critical reading, noting problems of continuity or “‘realism” in a series; suggesting “better” plot variations; and giving extensive readers’ reports on particular issues like large and small plot arcs, character development, visual renderings, and writing style.

Mainstream comic books, like soap operas, are a serial venture that can require studious attention to detail and to an ever-accumulating archive. Superman, for example, has been fighting crime since 1938 in a serial comic book that is still published weekly, as well as in various spin-off and crossover comic books.

“Comic books can be read as single issues of course, but the serious fan understands that each single issue also relies on years and years of accumulated textual history,” Berry said.

What may be most remarkable about the disposition of the serious and long-term comic book reader is the sheer pleasure he or she takes in an enormous and mostly impossible project of reading and thinking about an absurdly huge and constantly expanding archive of material. It is this devotion to the material that allows the comic book fan base to inspire interest and anticipation for comic book films among other audiences.

“Simply speaking, these fans are uniquely capable of generating excitement about comic book films among themselves and others because their own investment in the world of the comic book is so intense,” Berry said. “What may seem like escapism to an outsider is a deeply pleasurable opportunity for endless learning and study for the ‘fanboy.’”

Other Possible Popularity Causes Are Questionable

There has been a great deal of speculation about other possible reasons for the relatively recent surge in comic book films, but Berry says there is no way to tell if any of those reasons are valid.

“Right now, there is no reliable way to know what, if anything, the market success of comic book plots and atmospheres tells us beyond their ability to generate profit,” said Berry.

One of these theories is that filmgoers are seeking escape from real life hardships such as the current economy. But this interpretation is complicated by the films’ inclusion of relevant and troubling social issues such as home foreclosures, every day acts of crime and violence, drug abuse, sexism, the death of loved ones, and poverty.

Other possible explanations for the popularity of comic book movies are: the basic appeal and comfort to audiences of a good versus evil plot with good emerging victorious; the draw of high tech, visually-dazzling special effects; audience identification with an everyman who has a secret, alternative identity as an unerring, popular savior; or even that people wish that they, too, could fly, lift buildings, and possess other super human powers.

Batman: A Dark Knight, Indeed

Since childhood, Berry has been a Batman fanboy, citing the Caped Crusader’s dark outlook as his defining trait.

“Batman, to my mind, is an isolated depressive—moody, pessimistic, angry, and often frustrated. This quality defines his very interesting relationship to his own crime-fighting, which tends to be less optimistic—and thus more realistic—than, for example, Superman’s chant of defending America without reservation and in every case,” Berry said. “Superman fans would fight me on this.”