Superheroes at the Box Office: How Comic Books Changed Hollywood

professor spreads arms wide in discussion
Laura Stocker

Matt McAllister hosts Research Unplugged

"Movies based on comic books have many built-in advantages that can make them huge blockbusters, said Matt McAllister, a professor in Penn State's film/video and media studies department, last Wednesday, April 14 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre. McAllister spoke with a crowd of community members and students—some of whom were major comic book fans and film buffs—about the impact of comic books on Hollywood.

Noted McAllister, comic books have certain qualities that allow them to transform easily into box office hits, such as visually stimulating scenes, easy narratives, sequel potential and clear archetype characters—an obvious hero and villain. "Movies about superheroes and their quest to save the world appeal to a wide audience, including a global audience," he explained. "Audiences are easily entertained by the simple plot of 'good vs. evil' and battle scene after battle scene.

"Comic books have played a huge role in altering the blockbuster movie model," suggested McAllister. Half a century ago, the most popular movies were those that involved more intellectual, romantic, or theatric appeals. "Top box office hits have shifted from the historical blockbuster—like Gone with the Wind—to the comic book super-blockbuster—like Spiderman." Technology has facilitated this change as well, he pointed out.

"Movie critics and reviews used to be much more important, and now movies are review-proof because of their extravagant visuals and aesthetic-appeals," McAllister added.

Merchandising now plays a primary role in the movie business. "When it comes to making a profit in Hollywood now, DVD sales and license tie-ins—like t-shirts and toys—count more than the box office sales," he suggested, adding "That's why producers see comic books as so valuable as properties—they are easily developed into moneymaking franchises."

"In 1978, Superman was one of the first big superhero movies to be released—nationally and internationally—and also the first movie to have big moneymaking product placements," McAllister said. In 1989, Batman made $250 million from box-office tickets, and $750 million from everything else, noted McAllister. "Producers no longer just make movies, instead they make branded licenses. There are countless Batman products such as theme park rides, follow-up cartoons, toys and cereals. He pointed out how absurd the merchandising can get. "Along with Batman cereal, they later came out with a Batman Returns cereal—a cereal sequel!"

The fact that comic book-turned-Hollywood movies are easily turned into sequels is part of their appeal, added McAllister. "Movie producers have begun to automatically assume these superhero movies are going to turn into sequels. They think, 'Let's be efficient!' so they end up filming them at the same time."

Hollywood still takes chances and produces intellectual movies, he suggests, but they presumably will not be as big as the superhero blockbuster. "Graphic novels, a more adult-type comic book, have inspired more thought-provoking movies that are really well-done, such as American Splendor and V for Vendetta, he stated. "One could argue that comics and superheroes have limited the scope of the large-scale blockbuster; or one can argue that they have influenced other comic forms—like graphic novels—which have been sources of intelligent film inspiration."

Please join us next Wednesday, April 21, for the last Research Unplugged talk of the semester, "The Twenty-First Century Student: Can American Colleges Deliver?, hosted by Donald Heller from the College of Education.

For more about Matt McAllister, read on...

Last Updated April 20, 2010