Probing Question: Why are so many movies based on comic books?

The superhero genre, with its array of masked, caped, and vividly costumed champions with unusual powers, is a mainstay of today's movie industry. Credit: ©ThinkStock / xubingruoAll Rights Reserved.

Comic book geeks, unite! The era of modern crime-fighting superheroes that began in 1938 with Action Comics #1 and the first appearance of Superman has made the leap into the 21st century and onto the big screen like no other art form. Evolving from ten cents a copy to billion-dollar box-office brands, comic book superheroes -- and their legions of fans and superfans -- have earned their spot at the top of American pop culture.

What explains the immense success of movies based on comic books?

"In most of the history of film, movies based on comic-book characters were usually 'B-movies' -- B for budget, or second-tier," says Matthew McAllister, professor of media studies in Penn State's College of Communications. "Some of the earliest film adaptations of comic books were movie serials, where moviegoers would watch one chapter of an unfolding story every week in a theater. These included The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941, Batman in '43, and Superman in '48."

There were virtually no mainstream releases of superhero comic book theatrical films from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, he says. "Blockbusters or 'A-movies' tended to be targeted for older audiences and were focused on more serious topics" such as biblical epics -- think Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments -- or historical dramas like Doctor Zhivago.

All of that changed when Superman hit the silver screen in 1978. "The release of Superman set a precedent for movies based on comic books to play a significant role in developing and defining the modern blockbuster," says McAllister. "For the first time, in a genre previously considered only for child audiences and produced on shoestring budgets, a superhero movie was a big-budget release with both global distribution strategies and big-name stars, including Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman."

The release of Batman in 1989 proved that superhero movies could generate merchandising revenue beyond the theatrical box-office returns, adds McAllister. "Warner Brothers' exploitation of licensing, such as the soundtrack and book adaptation, also solidified the value of comic book franchises as multi-media money makers." Superhero flicks are 'high-concept' films, he points out, "meaning the premise can be succinctly summarized and the formula is easy to repeat in sequels. What's more, the distinctive and colorful look of superheroes creates easily identifiable merchandise such as action figures and themed games."

The cover of Action Comics No. 1, the issue that introduced us to Superman. Credit: Art by Joe Shuster and Jack AdlerAll Rights Reserved.

Advances in digital effects have also played a role in the surge in superhero movie popularity, McAllister says. "Special effects really enhance the look of super powers and spectacular feats. When combined with significant action and clear archetypes of heroes and villains, these movies appeal to global audiences." 

Just as superheroes have on-screen rivals, the two leading American comic book companies have been competing for decades. Batman and Superman are characters from the DC Comics universe, which dominated the mainstream comic-book film audience for much of the 1980s, notes McAllister. "This began to change in the early 2000s with the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men movie franchises, which illustrated the viability of movies based on Marvel Comics characters."

Exactly how successful has this genre been? "Four of the top films in U.S. box office history are based on comic books: Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and The Dark Knight Rises," says McAllister. Comic-book films are among the top-earning films each year, he adds. In 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently ranked #3 with $1.4 billion in global box-office revenues. For three straight years, between 2012 and 2014, the top earner at the U.S. box office was a comic-book film. They also receive among the largest production and marketing budgets, some costing upward of $250 million to make.

While the comic-book industry has humble roots, times have changed, says McAllister. "Many comic-book companies and their characters are now also owned by large entertainment conglomerates, as is the case with Disney's ownership of Marvel, and Time Warner's ownership of DC." Since these conglomerates also own movie production and distribution companies, the interplay between films and comic books becomes economically efficient, he adds. "They also serve as publicity for other versions of the characters produced by the conglomerates, especially in television or online."

Comic-book films now can be said to be a key genre for modern filmmaking, concludes McAllister. "They attract top directors and actors, have budgets in the hundreds of millions, and, when they're a hit, they generate revenue in the billions." There may be a downside to that success, though. "As such a dominant genre, these superhero movies demand a lot of the resources and attention of Hollywood, so the distribution of resources to other genres may be affected," says McAllister. "What kinds of more nuanced and sophisticated movies are not being made, for example, when a movie about an ant-sized superhero costs $170 million to make?"

If that thought tempts you to swear off superhero blockbusters in favor of art-house indie films, you might want to wait until after March 25, 2016, jokes McAllister. That's the release date of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the first time the two iconic superheroes will battle it out in live action on the big screen.


Matthew McAllister is professor of media studies and chair of graduate programs in the College of Communications. He can be reached at

Matthew McAllister, professor of media studies, traces the expansion of superhero tales from early comic books to modern-day blockbuster movies. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 29, 2017