I found this article this morning on my daily news run.
With author George R.R. Martin's HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones one of the hottest things on TV right now, it's fitting that another Martin-penned project has caught Hollywood's eye.
Syfy Films, the theatrical division created in December 2010 as a joint venture between Syfy and Universal Pictures, has acquired the screen rights to Wild Cards, a superhero anthology edited, co-created and co-written by Martin. (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/game-of-thrones-george-rr-martin-wild-cards-254382)
The idea of a Wild Cards movie, done right, is exhilarating….for fans of the series already.
(I need to point out that the intention is for a theatrical release, not a Syfy network movie. Syfy has already proven it doesn't know what to do with good writing when it comes to their TV movies and mini-series. For reference see Dune, Earthsea, and Riverworld [twice!].)
I have to wonder, safe in a comfy chair far away from the decision-making process, what these folks are thinking. The only movies that do really well (at the box office) are those that involve a hero that most everyone already can recognize, such as Spiderman, Captain America, Superman, or Batman. Movies that involve characters most people barely know, like Ghost Rider or Green Lantern or Hellboy, can get a nice initial bump from the die-hard fans and then they die miserably over time. I'm willing to admit I don't know what the sales are like on the DVDs, and perhaps sales and marketing folks are expecting solid revenues from those sources as they measure the potential profit, but from a purely box office revenue point of view, using unknown characters is dicey at best.
It can be argued that it helps if the movie is actually well-written and well-crafted; such proponents point to Iron Man and The Dark Knight as examples of what thoughtful superhero movies can do in the box office. But I would counter with the Hellboy movies again, the first one of which I found to be just delightful and also relatively true to its source. I'd also point to Watchmen which had attention paid to the source material and was a tremendous production (despite the ending they just could not film). But fans and non-fans alike were turned off by the story in a visual format, more concerned with Dr. Manhattan's giant anatomy than with the smart and thoughtful story. So, I have to fall back on theatre-goers generally wanting to see movies about characters they recognize.
Let's look at some numbers! The following table is total box office receipts for the top 10 and numbers 40-50 movies in the "superhero" genre per the Web site Box Office Mojo (boxofficemojo.com), organized by domestic receipts.
The Dark Knight
Iron Man 2
X-Men: The Last Stand
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The Legend of Zorro
I'd love to see these adjusted for inflation, but that part of the Web site seems not to be working and is premium besides. I'm curious, but probably not curious enough to potentially have to pay for a one-time look-up.
Let's look at the outliers from my expectations. #7, The Incredibles, is a Pixar movie. Anything that Pixar makes is box office magic, and so the name alone will overcome any resistance to a movie featuring characters no one has heard of. #10 is Hancock and stars Will Smith, a huge name when it comes to box office draw. Perhaps big names will somewhat thwart ambiguous knowledge about the story. On the other end, a movie starring Superman would seem to go against my hypothesis, but remember, this is the abysmal Superman III, which gets a sad 24% positive review from Rotten Tomatoes (compared to 94% and 88% for the first two in the series). Plus Superman III is the earliest movie in this selective list, and it might be somewhat higher if I had access to inflation-adjusted numbers. And I'll be darned if I know why Zorro is even in the superhero category…. Bearing in mind I just don't know what "good numbers" are for a movie, this breakdown seems to give my hypothesis some weight, at least as far as comparison between films within the genre goes.
So, a superhero movie needs to either be about characters people know (and perhaps like already) or star some name actors. Wild Cards has no characters that anyone might recognize, and since it is actual a series of books, the story goes to some non-traditional places that will likely go against popular expectations for what superhero stories are all about. How would the standard movie-going audience deal with people receiving superheroic powers as a result of alien weapon testing on Earth? Or the virus that gives people powers actually killing 90% of whomever comes into contact with it and hideously deforming another 9% so that life is completely miserable? How would they feel about heroes whose powers include magic based on tantric sex rituals? Or the non-discriminatory nature of the powers—anyone can get them—such that truly vile and reprehensible people receive the powers? How would they feel about a protagonist that is not only alien but gay? These sorts of plotlines work in books, and maybe in comics directed to adults, because the audience for them generally self-selects. But when it gets to adult ideas being treated in a movie, the overall record is not too good (see Watchmen again).
While the technology to make a nice-looking and visually accurate Wild Cards movie exists, if it is used, one of two things is going to happen. The movie can be a faithful adaptation of the story, resulting in a movie popular with the people who know the story but not very successful "mainstream." Or the movie could not be very faithful at all, resulting in a movie that just antagonizes the fans (see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or The Spirit). And if I were to be connected creatively with the production, neither of those options seems very good to me.
What seems far more palatable is the current explosion of long-form drama series on cable television, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad (on AMC), Justified and The Shield (on FX), or the series that probably got people thinking about Wild Cards in the first place, Game of Thrones. If the creators could be given the time to tease out the characters and plots for an adult audience as these examples do, the results could be really good. But I don't think anyone is willing to take that much of a monetary risk. So, once again I find myself nervously excited about the potential for a story I enjoy being made into a movie. Sometimes they get it right, but it seems too often something important is given up to appease one audience or another. For every The Dark Knight there are lots more Blade: Trinity.