Starz Inside: Comic Books Unbound

The comic book genre makes [Hollywood] a ton of money.

— Selma Blair

It used to be that a movie (whether comic-adapted or not) that could bring in over $100 million was a record-breaker. But since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the magic number for a bona fide smash is more like $300 million. This summer, Iron Man has raked in nearly $277 million so far. Coming hot on its heels this summer are The Hulk (the second film treatment of the Marvel superhero in five years), and Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated The Dark Knight, both of which are expected to be similar cash cows. Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty observes of superheroes’ stranglehold on the summer box-office, “No superhero [is] too minor or crappy to be pulled out of the mothballs, tarted up, slapped on the ass, and turned into a bloated summer movie.”

Cable pay channel Starz now offers Comic Books Unbound, the latest in its documentary series, Starz Inside. The press release claims the movie means to show how “comic books have become the single biggest force in Hollywood.” That’s a pretty ambitious goal for an hour-long documentary, and unfortunately, Comic Books Unbound doesn’t come close to delivering; mostly it’s Hollywood studio boosterism. A seemingly endless parade of actors, producers, directors, comic artists, and publishers chatter on about the connections between comics and film. Both media rely on the sequential presentation of images to make narrative sense, both deploy common visual tropes, and both traffic in what we might call ur-fantasies of individual exceptionalism. Um, yeah, and Superman wears a red cape.

Comic Books Unbound tries to offer more complicated commentary on the imbrications of comics and film, mostly in relation to their increasing corporatization. It details the influence of comic fan culture and the attention Hollywood now pays to the core base of comics. In particular, the documentary demonstrates how the annual Comic-Con International in San Diego has become a mini-satellite of the Hollywood PR machine. Jon Favreau announced completion of Iron Man at Comic-Con last summer and treated attendees to a special sneak peek at clips and the trailer. Comic Books Unbound submits that this demonstrates respect on the part of Hollywood directors and producers for a previously maligned subculture of comics geeks. A less generous estimation might call it pandering, in order to guarantee an audience predisposed to a film treatment of a comic character.

One comic publisher bemoans this infiltration of Comic-Con, pointing up that Hollywood increasingly sees the convention as a huge “merchandise and focus group opportunity.” Marketing increasingly dictates the forms of both film and comics, but Comic Books Unbound merely notes the development, without investigating effects on these forms or their production.

This is most obvious when the documentary briefly raises the transformation of Marvel Comics into Marvel Entertainment Group. Having languished behind DC Comics in terms of selling its stable of superheroes to filmmakers for years, Stan Lee and Avi Arad turned that lag around so that Marvel now takes the lion’s share of film adaptations. What Comic Books Unbound fails to mention is how the struggles to diversify Marvel Entertainment Group nearly destroyed the company. (Dan Raviv’s book Comic Wars [2002] nicely details how the corporate skullduggery of Ron Perlman and Carl Icahn nearly drove Marvel under.)

Comic Books Unbound‘s cursory treatment of the media conglomeration that has made comic-film box office domination possible is repeated in its attempt to answer the more abstract questions of what makes comic characters so popular, both as film and pulp publication. The documentary gives a general history of comics’ influence on and reflection of mainstream culture and politics, briefly noting the use of comics as war propaganda during WWII, the 1954 Senate Committee investigation of comics as a deviant influence on youth, and the engagement of comics with countercultural trends and politics in the 1960s and ’70s.

But indexing that connection between comics and their environments is all Comic Books Unbound offers, as if merely stating that comics and by implication film-comics have always engaged with larger cultural debates explained why. The documentary gestures towards comics’ engagement with minority struggles and anti-war politics by panning across two iconic images, Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of feminist magazine Ms. from 1972, and the cover of Spider-Man #68: “Crisis on Campus” from January of 1969.

Many questions might be asked about these images. For instance, why would Gloria Steinem opt for Wonder Woman to represent the emergent feminist movement in the U.S.? And why was Spider-Man struggling with the moral and ethical conundrums of student unrest, drug addiction, and the Vietnam war at a time when the majority of mainstream media, entertainment or news, were largely silent, or reduced to mere reportage? By not asking any questions, Comic Books Unbound only replicates such reduction.

RATING 5 / 10