I read an article a while ago (sorry, I can’t find the link) that discussed video game movies and why none of them live up to expectations. That got me thinking about the difference between video game movies and comic book movies. Both comics and video games started as “nerd” activities, but playing video games has moved into the mainstream, while reading comics is still considered a niche activity. What’s odd about that is that comic book movies have thrived while video game movies have struggled. Here are my thoughts on why that happened, and whether or not video game movies will ever make a similar surge in popularity:
Comics have been around for a long time. The Golden Age of comics started in the late 1930s, and Superman, the first superhero, debuted in 1938. That currently gives comic books about an 80-year backlog of characters and stories that movie studios can draw on. Despite that rich history of stories, the first big movie production based on a comic book character was 1978’s Superman. That’s 40 years after the character’s first appearance. After Superman‘s success, there were a few minor movies and box-office flops (like Howard the Duck) before the next big comic book movie, Batman, came out in 1989. In the 10 years between Superman and Batman, there were a grand total of 12 comic book movies released in the United States, and the only ones that were successful were the Superman sequels. As a point of comparison, since the beginning of 2016, there have been 11 comic book movies released.
Video games also have a long history, with the first video games developed in the early 1950s. The first widely popular game was Pong, released in 1972, and the golden age of arcade-style video games started around 1978 when Space Invaders was released. The first video game movie adaptation was Super Mario Bros. in 1993, and that movie was almost universally panned. After Super Mario Bros. flopped, there was a string of small budget and animated video game adaptations (like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Pokemon: The First Movie), but the first truly successful video game movie didn’t happen until 2001 with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Over the next 10 years, there were about 20 more video game adaptations released. Most of them were financial failures, but the Resident Evil franchise managed to find success. Since the beginning of 2016, there have been more video game adaptations finding their way into theaters, and it’s finally paying off. The Angry Birds Movie, Assassins Creed, Warcraft, and the latest Resident Evil installment were all profitable, marking the longest string of successful video game movies to date.
One of the things that makes movies successful is the passion of those in charge of the production. When it comes to comic book movies, Richard Donner (director of Superman), has long been involved in comics, even writing some. Tim Burton (director of Batman) admitted that he was never a big comic book fan, but loved The Killing Joke, which he cited as a big influence on the film. More recent directors, like Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) and Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) grew up with comic books. They understand the medium and the characters, which leads to more successful movies.
The early video game movies didn’t have that kind of background. The Super Mario Bros. movie was released 8 years after the original video game. Tomb Raider came out 5 years after the game, and Street Fighter 3 years after the game. Most video game adaptations have been created by writers and directors who don’t have the same foundational knowledge of the franchise that their comic book counterparts had. Part of that is due to the rapid evolution of video games. Comic books have had 80 years to develop characters and franchises. Video games don’t have that history. Even the most successful characters, like Mario, have less than 40 years of history, and the installments are much farther apart. Comic books come out once a month; video games are once every few years.
Even though superhero movies have been around since the 70s, they really didn’t become mainstream until the late 90s. For every big hit like Superman or Batman, there were several flops like Spawn or Captain America. In 1997, Men in Black, a little known comic book, was adapted into a blockbuster movie. The next year, Blade was released and was also a success. In 2000, the first X-Men movie came out, and the era of superhero movies truly began. It was 20 to 30 years after Superman’s release that comic book movies came into their own and really started to thrive.
Video game movies are much younger than superhero films. It’s now been about 25 years since the first video game move was released, and only about 15 years since the first successful video game adaptation. Just like with comic book films, it took time for filmmakers to understand how to adapt their source to the big screen. The recent string of successful video game movies is showing that writers and directors are starting to figure things out. If the timing is similar, then video game movies are probably entering their “Men in Black” phase, and we’ll hopefully start seeing some truly great adaptations in the next few years.
Ease of adaptability
Video games are incredibly difficult to adapt to film. Some of the difficulty comes from the length of a video game. Recent games are designed to have extensive gameplay. The most recent installments of the Persona series by Atlus take over 70 hours just to complete the main story line. Games like The Elder Scrolls can take hundreds of hours to complete everything. Even older games like Super Mario Bros. and Metroid were designed to take the average gamer longer than it takes to watch a movie. Condensing that much material down to about two hours means leaving a lot of material out of the story. That can make character development or world building difficult and leave fans of the game unsatisfied.
Another aspect of converting a game to a movie is the interactive element of video gaming. Games like Heavy Rain or Silent Hill 2, for instance, have very different endings based on the choices the player makes during the game. Star Ocean: The Second Story has over 80 possible endings, though most of them are small changes in dialogue based on which characters are recruited to the party. This interactivity can’t translate to movies. It has to be removed. This means that because movies remove much of the source material and both are visual mediums, movies don’t add anything to the experience of playing a video game.
Comic books, on the other hand, are incredibly easy to adapt. A graphic novel or even a single issue of a series can act as a storyboard. Comics are episodic by nature, and a full story line can often be read in an hour or two. Character development in comics is limited. Some superheroes have been around for decades without the character changing much from issue #1 to issue #200 or #500. Spider-Man, for instance, first appeared as a high schooler in 1962 and didn’t graduate from college until 1978. Comics rely on readers being able to pick up the story in the middle of the run, so most characters need to be consistent from issue to issue. Different writers may bring new aspects to a character, but often those changes are undone later by other writers. In movies, that’s not an issue. Characters are expected to grow and develop. The Dark Knight trilogy covers the origin of Batman through his retirement in under 8 hours. It took almost 40 years to cover that same span in the comics.
So Will Video Game Movies Ever Succeed?
The short answer is that they already have. As I mentioned earlier, there has been a recent run of video game adaptations that have performed well at the box office. That means it’s more likely that new adaptations will be made. A greater quantity of movies is a small victory, and the more movies that get made, the more likely we will see some that are really good as well.
The long answer is a bit more complicated. Writing and directing are the most important parts of good movies, but that doesn’t mean that those movies are financially successful. Usually, movie studios are hesitant to provide large budgets for movies that they’re not confident will be profitable. Smaller budgets usually means less money for writers and directors. Unless those involved are passionate about the source material, the movie is likely to be disappointing for passionate fans.
In my opinion, the best hope for getting some really good video game movies is for a small-budget movie to be surprisingly successful. Comic book movies have regularly done that. Lesser-known franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, and Blade were all very successful given their limited budgets. Most recently, Deadpool became one of the highest-grossing comic book movies in history, despite a budget that was pretty paltry by modern standards. For video games, Angry Birds and Resident Evil are really the only two movies that could qualify as surprising successes.
There is a lot of interest in making more video game movies. According to Den of Geek, there are a good number of video game adaptations being planned. Who knows how many of them will actually make it to theaters, but it looks like movie studios are aware that the genre is ready to break out.
Personally, I’d like to see an adaptation of a cult-classic video game picked up by an independent studio blow up at the box office—something like Grim Fandango, Persona, or Mirror’s Edge. A lesser-known franchise that has a strong (not necessarily big) following, but can get some really good, passionate writers on board. If something like that happens over the next few years, then I think video game movies will move from niche to mainstream.