My local cinema multiplex is showing “Avengers: Endgame” thirty-six times today. Quite rightly, the reviews for the film, in its opening weekend, have remarked on the extraordinary achievement that has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how it ties up the eleven years of connected storylines that unfolded and weaved through large numbers of films and TV series, coming together for event storylines, and characters appearing in each other’s films.
I remember first hearing, in 2005, that Marvel Entertainment had secured a credit facility with Merrill Lynch to start making its own films, intending from the start to make a series of films that would come together, and I just thought, “they’re doing what now?” However, it has not been enough for me to invest the time in watching all these series, as while their characters and storylines were being introduced to the wider public, I had already been catching up on some of them for years.
The first superhero comic book I ever bought was “Robin,” issue 96, dated January 2002, which guest-starred the Blue Beetle. I had no idea what to expect – I didn’t yet know that this was the third Robin so far, and the second Blue Beetle, and I had no idea that “Oracle,” running information checks behind the scenes, used to be the original Batgirl. I didn’t know it was set after a particular crossover storyline, and it didn’t matter. It told a pretty good action-based story, and showed me that superhero stories can be told well, and provided a lesson in how you can arrange time on a printed page. I later picked up the great examples of superhero stories, like “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen,” and I have built up quite a collection of books in the years since.
So, here is my problem: why do I need to see a comic book film, when I read comic books? I felt this especially when “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was released in 2014, having already read the original comic, first printed back in 1981. Earlier, “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” sought to reproduce the look of the comic as exactly as it could, just as Channel 4’s version of Raymond Briggs’ “The Snowman” had directly used the original picture book as its storyboard. By then, comics using a more “decompressed” storytelling style, like “The Authority,” and Marvel’s Ultimate line of books, were providing a more cinematic and realistic style than before – “The Ultimates,” retelling the Avengers for the Ultimate line, presages the cinematic Avengers in its style, if not the storyline.
I do wonder if comic books could eventually be supplanted by comic book films. Marvel and DC are both owned by major film companies – Marvel has been owned by Disney since 2009, while Warner Bros. realised that year that they had downed DC Comics since 1967, and restructured it as a division of a new company, DC Entertainment, to take better advantage of the stories and characters that had been under their noses for so long. Comic books are essentially the Research & Development section for a film company, and will later serve to provide the tie-in books for their films. All the while, comic book films are the mass market version of a niche industry: “Avengers: Endgame” will be watched by tens of millions of people, but the latest issue of an “Avengers” comic will be bought by tens of thousands, from a specialist comic book shop. It almost doesn’t matter if those readers know what stories will make the films, because those readers number so few.