X-Men: Herald Of The Modern Age Of Superhero Films

It was twenty years ago on this day that X-Men premiered in theaters. While many at that time knew of the film’s potential impact, its success was still surprising given how the superhero film has grown in stature.

Before the first X-Men film came out on July 14, 2000, there were many prominent and successful superhero films that made their mark in pop culture like Superman: The Movie, Batman and The Mask. However, the splash they made was not as intense as the one X-Men made. Yes, after those films made millions at the box office, superheroes were the craze with merchandising and copycat films and TV shows, yet X-Men heralded a new and lasting age of superhero films that continues to this day (well, coronavirus notwithstanding and causing most theaters to shut down and film studios to delay film releases). It was not that X-Men was a better film than say Superman: The Movie, it probably was that it was the first genuine hit based on a Marvel superhero IP. Before anyone brings up Blade, that film was marketed more as an action/horror film and most had not heard of Blade. The X-Men were different, they were prominent in geek culture and many fans were aching for a big-budget adaptation of the superhero mutants. They wanted to see how Wolverine would be realized in live action, how filmmakers could translate the complexity of the X-Men comic books. 

Director Bryan Singer did a fine job distilling and presenting a somewhat simplified version of the X-Men. This is not a criticism but rather a compliment in that he and the filmmakers (which included future Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige) were able to strip down what worked in the comic books, which were the best characters to bring forth, and knew what would resonate with audiences and fans. 

In their wisdom, they were nearly spot on with their casting. Starting with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, which was ironic considering Jackman replaced the original actor cast in the role, Dougray Scott, after Scott was injured during filming of Mission: Impossible II. Some scoffed at Jackman’s casting because he was tall, good looking and lacked a filmography that screamed comic book action star. But from the moment that Rogue (Anna Paquin) met Wolverine in a Canadian bar following a cage fight, we all knew after witnessing Wolverine’s feral nature that the casting gods were generous. 

Another equally important casting choice was Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, the leader and heart of the X-Men. Often, people mock fan casting for being ridiculous and unrealisitc. But time and time again Stewart was the fan favorite for a hypothetical X-Men film. Thankfully this proved to be perfect as Stewart brought gravitas and humanity to the role. We believed he was a kind and just mentor, who championed humanity. Needless to say. Ian McKellan as the villainous Magneto was a pleasant surprise given so many doubted his casting due to his age. However, McKellan displayed the same gravitas as Patrick Stewart and was able to believably match Hugh Jackman’s vicious Wolverine with his own cunning and hatred towards humanity.

For years, filmmakers were challenged by the idea of bringing the mutant team to life. Two reasons were because of budget and the complexity of the team. Their storylines were more mature than standard comic book stories as they tackled racism and related strife. It would not do to treat an X-Men film as a campy romp, nor could it be a mindless action fest. The villains were more nuanced with causes that audiences could sympathize with, namely the evil mutants’ actions resulted from humankind’s fear and bigotry. X-Men displayed this naunce splendidly, thanks to solid performances and Singer’s direction.

The film is not perfect, namely in the execution of the action pieces, which feel a bit pedestrian and low key compared to what filmmakers have been able to pull off in recent years. Some of those fights were cringe worthy! But no one should hold that against X-Men and the accomplishment of everyone involved with the film.

X-Men was not the biggest hit of that year, but it did well enough to excite fans and film executives who saw the box office potential of superhero films. Helping to cement the modern age of superhero films in the early years were Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United and Batman Begins. There were fits and starts in that decade but by 2008, the runaway success of Iron Man and The Dark Knight signaled that superhero films were here to stay and be a major influence in films. 

This was all due to X-Men; keep that in mind during the next viewing of this film.

The Current State And Future Of Comic Books, Part II

We looked at the current state of the comic book industry, which had been declining in recent years for many reasons ranging from too many products flooding the market to the obsession with variant comics. The industry suffered a brutal blow with the COVID-19 pandemic which forced most stores and industries to close in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This weekend, another annual Free Comic Book Day event would have taken place all over. That is gone, along with highly anticipated conventions, especially the San Diego Comic-Con.  But fear not, we will get our geek fixes at some point in the future.  However, as our society looks ahead and to reopening, many fans are wondering where the comic book industry goes from here or if it can survive.  Let’s look further.

The Coming Contraction

To be blunt, there are too many comic book titles flooding the market. Certain popular characters have multiple monthly titles; numerous crossover event books have overtaken the shelves; and every time a fan turns around a title is canceled, relaunched or rebooted just to produce a new number one issue for collectors. The hard truth is that this cannot continue. Once this crisis passes and the stores reopen, the publishers have to entice readers to buy their products. One thing to keep in mind is that too many buyers are now out of work and cannot easily afford comic books, not with current prices. It is not realistic to expect the average fan to buy all of your products as in the past.

Publishers need to determine what books to create. The obvious answer would be to focus their titles on their most popular and recognizable characters. And they should be limited to two or three titles at most. One thing publishers can do is to increase the amount of pages in a popular title and feature back up stories with lesser heroes. This was the norm back in the Golden Age of Comics and would allow for the publishers to keep employing creators as is currently done.

Look at the Downside

While contracting the amount of books published monthly goes against publishers wanting to put out as much product as possible, there are long-term benefits. Limiting the amount of exposure for a character creates demand. At the same time, the quality of the stories will improve as not every story angle will be quickly used up in a short amount of time by writers and artists pumping out dozens of titles per month.

Another benefit for downsizing comics is that it will be easier to coordinate events and continuity. An all-too-common gripe from readers is how they are pressured to buy every single crossover comic book and keeping up with what is going on. Too often, events are contradictory and repetitive. How many times can someone in the Fantastic Four or the Avengers die and come back? Think of how great it was to read the early Valiant comic books. Back when those comics came out in the early 1990s, only a few titles were published monthly and there was a tight continuity between the titles. They were easy to follow, yet for the most part we were not forced to buy every book. This helped create buzz for those Valiant titles. When an event like Unity occurred it was a big deal. Nowadays it seems as if there is some kind of weekly event. Speaking of events, what is the latest Spider-Verse thing going on now? Or is it Spider-Geddon?

Reduced Prices

There are many ways to cut costs aside from limiting output. The easiest way to entice buyers is through sales: BOGOs, discounts, subscription services, etc. Many of these sales tactics are used right now, which is often seen during the holiday season, Free Comic Book Day, or the release of major superhero films.

Still, these sales will only go so far. To keep people coming back and buying comics on a regular basis, prices must be lowered. Expecting loyal readers to fork out $3.99 per title is unrealistic given the state of the economy. One reason why comic books took off when they were first published was because of low prices. Everyday kids could afford to buy them for 10 cents at the beginning. They were even affordable when the prices eventually went up to a dollar or so. But current prices inhibit children from buying them. Publishers must entice new generations of readers to keep the industry alive; although publishers put out inexpensive comics geared towards young children, they are not adequately attracted to more traditional titles.

OK, so how can publishers lower prices besides limiting the amount of books published? One thing that can be tried is to change the paper stock and if worse comes to worse go back to newspaper print. It was only in the past couple of decades that the paper quality in comics took quantum leaps forward. No longer did collectors have to worry about yellowing pages or crumbling paper. But this came at a literal cost. Perhaps it is time to revisit the traditional newsprint, if only for a while.

Another idea is to use less pages per title. This could mean shorter and more serialized stories. But this should be considered along with the actual size of a comic book.

Most fans know that the Golden Age and Silver Age comic books were actually slightly bigger than current comics. The sizes were reduced eventually to diminish the amount of paper needed and therefore cutting costs. Comic books in the future will probably be smaller and look like those Best of DC comic book digests that came out in the 1970s.

Continue reading

The Current State And Future Of Comic Books, Part I

It was well known by fans that the comic book industry faced declining sales in the past few years. Then this pandemic struck. Now, comic book shops all over are closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Major comic book companies like Marvel and DC will not release comic books digitally, and this has resulted in the entire industry coming to a standstill. We have not had any released comic books for several weeks and this has cascaded to lost jobs, revenue and products. On top of that, the San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions have been cancelled.

This crisis will pass at some point. But will its damage be too much for the comic book industry? Even without this pandemic the industry had many challenges and was running on inertia and good will from other media, notably the films and TV shows based on their comic book characters. It was in a fragile place and it may only take an outside factor like the coronavirus to be the kill the industry.

So, what happened to the comic book industry and where does its future go? If it even has one.

Modern State

When the American comic book first came into existence back in the 1930s they were aimed at children and at first reprinted newspaper strips. This changed with Action Comics #1 in 1938 as it introduced Superman, the first genuine superhero. After a lull in the 1950s superheroes dominated the medium to this day. However, comic books continued to change as new styles and ideas were introduced, and readers’ tastes changed, as well.

Currently, we are in the Modern Age and just as in the 1990s it is defined by an overreliance on speculators and comic books geared to please them. There are differences between the two time periods. The speculators during the Copper Age in the 1990s were mostly outside investors who hoped to retire by buying comic books with gimmick incentives like hologram covers, inserted trading cards, and numerous guest appearances by popular characters like Wolverine or Venom. This period was infamous for the Great Comics Crash of 1996 as investors were unable to sell their comics and left. Sales dropped so hard that comic books’ continued existence was in doubt.

Exclusive Variants

While those investors are long gone, today many hardcore collectors are encouraged to seek out very expensive variant comics. These are issues of certain key titles with different covers that are given out to retailers as incentives by distributors like Diamond Comics and publishers to encourage retailers to buy large volumes of comics. The retailers in turn sell these exclusive variants at premium prices, but are stuck with too many comics that will not sell. That is one of the reasons why comic book stores have so many sales with comics selling for $1 or so.

A new type of variants are blank cover comics that can be used for signatures or sketches by artists. This means that these comic books become unique pieces of art and thus more valuable. On average an individual title will have roughly eight to ten variant covers released. It can be hard to discern which is the regular cover for a title for a collector not interested in the variants.

These days collectors submit their coveted titles for grading to the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC). This company uses experts who thoroughly examine comics and assigned a number grade before the comics are sealed in hard plastic cases. This has led to collectors with large wallets to chase after these high-value items. Lately, CGC is selling comic books that are exclusives with black and white sketch variant covers of regular issues.

While some can profit handsomely with these graded comics, one has to wonder about the future of this niche market. After all, the average collector cannot afford to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars for these CGC exclusives, let alone the fee to have their precious comics graded.

Higher & Higher Prices

The current prices of comic books is an important reason why sales are declining. Let’s put aside the CGC comics. Those are a niche market for collectors with deep pockets and the average collector is not missing anything if he or she is just trying to keep up with a collection.

Anyone buying and collecting comic books will confirm that they cost too much money. This complaint has existed ever since the Silver Age when prices increased from 10 cents up to 20 cents. As publishing, printing and distribution costs went up so did the prices. Now, the average comic book costs about $3.99.

Lately, publishers released special anniversary issues that cost anywhere from 8 to 12 dollars. These particular comics are meant to celebrate the anniversaries of long-running successful characters. These special issues which feature assorted stories by many writers and artists sold extremely well, and is why more are coming out. The latest celebrant is The Joker who will have his own special 80th anniversary comic book that will ship directly later this month. Unlike the CGC comics, the average collector will seek these out even though they are expensive.

Where does this end? Think about it, where once a comic book cost only 10 cents now on average is nearly five dollars. Then multiply that with all the individual comics a collector will buy on any given month and what is left is an expensive hobby. Surely, most comic books today are not oriented to young children and publishers have correctly figured that the average buyers are adults who can afford their product. With that said, where does it end? It is easy to see comic books in the future costing ten dollars, even twenty dollars for an average issue. Will the average collector be willing to pay that much on a monthly basis?

Continue reading

The Greatest Marvel Hallmark Ornaments

marvel hallmark ornaments

Christmas or Holiday ornaments based on popular IPs have populated Christmas trees for quite some time. Along with the Star Wars and Star Trek ornaments, Hallmark has produced many different ornaments based on superhero properties. One of their most successful lines are ornaments based on Marvel Comics superheroes, whether featured in comic books or on film. Here is a list of the greatest Marvel Hallmark ornaments released by the company.

potted groot ornament

10. Potted Groot (2015):

Sweet, adorable Groot as seen in his seedling form at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy makes for one cute ornament! Although this Groot does not dance, the ornament features the song “I Want You Back”, which Potted Groot dances to behind Drax’s back.

9. Hulk: Thor: Ragnarok (2017):

The Hulk in his full gladiator regalia as he appears in Thor: Ragnarok, is one of the most colorful and intimidating Marvel Hallmark ornaments. The figure easily captures the enraged mood of the gladiator Hulk as he is ready to pounce on his next victim/opponent.

8. The Avengers: Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man (2012):

These were three separate ornaments featuring the three superheroes from The Avengers. They could be hung separately in a Christmas tree or combined at their bases to created a cool diorama. Plus, this is one of the best Iron Man ornaments.

7. Team Captain America (2016):

The year that Captain America: Civil War featured to opposing separate ornaments, Captain America and Iron Man. While the Iron Man ornament is well crafted, the Captain America ornament is hands-down the best one based on the star-spangled hero. Other Captain America ornaments usually have him in a stationary pose. This one, however, captures him in powerful fighting action.

6. Iron Patriot (2013):

The patriotic red, white and blue colors on a re-branded War Machine from Iron Man 3, make this ornament stand out so vividly. Never mind that the film divided fans, it cannot be denied this ornament is beautifully done.

5. A New Breed of Superheroes (2006):

Actually, this ornament is a collection of mini-ornaments featuring classic Marvel heroes that can be combined at their bases into one. This allowed one to either use all six heroes (Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk, Captain America, the Thing, and Iron Man) together or separately. It’s a highly sought-after collector’s item.

4. The Infinity Gauntlet (2019):

The fearsome weapon that Thanos used to wipe out half of all life in the universe as seen in Avengers: Infinity War, is a powerful ornament indeed. Featuring multi-colored lights emanating from the Infinity Stones, this gauntlet fits surprisingly well in a lit-up Christmas tree.

3. Spider-Man and Green Goblin (2010):

This ornament featuring a mighty battle between Spidey and his arch nemesis, the Green Goblin, stood out from other Spider-Man ornaments just for its concept of having a hero fighting an opponent. The two figures are dynamically posed which helped make the ornament one of the very best ones produced by Hallmark. The company should continue this idea with other Spider-Man villains; imagine what one featuring Doctor Octopus would be like!

2. Comic Book Heroes #3 – Incredible Hulk (2010): 

This Marvel ornament was part of an ingenious ornament series from Hallmark. On one side was a 3D figure on a background that recreated a famous comic book. In fact, the ornament was a mini-comic book reprint of the famous issue. In this case, The Incredible Hulk #181, which is renowned for having the first full appearance of Wolverine. It’s too bad, Hallmark discontinued the series after just four ornaments (the final one being the following year’s The Avengers #4), there are so many other classic and iconic comic book covers the series could have recreated.

first spidey ornament

1. Spider-Man (1996): 

There have been many wonderful Spider-Man Hallmark ornaments. Most of them had our favorite Web-Slinger in wild and spindly poses that accurately represented Marvel’s most popular superhero. But the very first ornament is still the best one. It’s so elegantly posed so that this mini-Spider-Man looks so natural hanging from a tree branch. The strings attached to his hands aid with the illusion that he is swinging around a Christmas tree with its lights that could easily stand in for the bright lights of a city.

Honorable Mentions:

The following are pretty terrific Marvel Hallmark ornaments that are worth mentioning and hunting down on Ebay or elsewhere:

A New Kind of Hero: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017); Black Panther (2018); Captain America: Avengers: Endgame (2019); Comic Book Heroes #1 – Amazing Fantasy #15 (2008); Comic Book Heroes #4 – The Avengers #4 (2011); Deadpool (2017); Groot and Rocket (2018); Hulk Smash! (2014); Iron Man (2008); Iron Spider (2019); Slinging and Swinging (Spider-Man, 2016); Spidey Swings Into Action (2018); Thanos (2019); Thor: Thor: Ragnarok (2017); Venom (2016); Web-Slinging Wonder: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

José Soto

Spider-Man: Life After The MCU

The dust still has not settled over the shocking news last week that Spider-Man is leaving the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). So much for making Spider-Man: Far From Home earn over $1 billion to keep Spidey in the MCU! As we all digest this huge turd sandwich and cling on to every nugget of hope that Sony Pictures and Disney/Marvel Studios can still work out a deal, it’s time to face reality and ponder on what happens next for our favorite Wall-crawler in live-action films.

As mentioned in the previous post, actor Tom Holland still is contracted to do one more Spider-Man film and right now plans for that film are going forward from Sony. The film studio has the right to do a Spider-Man film without Disney’s blessing but obviously, cannot have it connect to the successful MCU. Sony may feel they can get along fine without the MCU and it may very well be the case, but it’s a dangerous gamble now. The animosity towards Sony by many fans is well documented with campaigns starting to boycott any Sony Spider-Man or related film. The question is will this anger keep up next year when Morbius and Venom 2 premiere? If both films falter or just earn less than expected in the box office then it can be attributed to fan backlash and can force Sony back to the negotiating table. This may not happen but then again look at Solo: A Star Wars Story and the backlash it received for The Last Jedi.

One no-brainer way to entice Spider-Fans to make Venom 2 a success is to shoehorn in Spider-Man now that Sony has him. One thing the studio has in its favor is that many fans are dying to see Spider-Man meeting Venom and fighting Carnage. Yes, the two characters fought each other in Spider-Man 3, but that version of Venom was poorly received. The Tom Hardy version was a hit with with fans though the film Venom was not as well thought of. If Spider-Man and Tom Holland are forced to appear in Venom 2 do the filmmakers have the skills to make it an organic appearance rather than an obvious cash grab? We’ll see.

Continue reading