From Pop Art Panels to Record Breaking Blockbusters: The History of Comic Book Movie Adaptations

The history of comic book movie adaptations and the story behind the medium’s big screen transformation.

Here is a theater poster for The Adventures of Captain Marvel from 1941. The film was one of the twelve chapters that were each released and advertised separately from one another.

Republic Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a theater poster for ‘The Adventures of Captain Marvel’ from 1941. The film was one of the twelve chapters that were each released and advertised separately from one another.

From a lazy, lasagna-loving cat to a brooding bat-themed vigilante, comic books have been one of the oldest sources of entertainment out there. It’s no surprise that these small pop art strips have been translated to the big screens. Many comic books are being turned into films, and they are some of the most anticipated movies each year. One great example of a studio doing this would be the Marvel Studios, which is the studio responsible for creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe, otherwise known as the MCU. They turn beloved characters and their tales into movies on the big screen with famous faces. Superhero movies are not the only ones to come from comics, as many films with very different morals and themes have the same pop-art sources. 

The oldest comic based film is “The Katzenjammer Kids,” which was created by Rudolph Dirks and was first printed in 1897. Dirks’ creation was a slice-of-life style comic that followed the two protagonists, the Katzenjammer brothers and their daily shenanigans. It was extremely popular, having been printed in newspapers every week. Resulting from this success, the comic was adapted into a colorless silent animated film in 1898. The comic ran for 109 years, with more cartoon adaptations created later on in 1938 and 1971. The later  adaptations were not as iconic as the first. However, they were still part of the long legacy left by the Katzenjammer kids. 

While dozens of comic strips had been turned into easily digestible cartoons, the first ever comic to be adapted into a live action film was “Whiz Comics #2” (1939) and featured the superhero Captain Marvel. The movie, entitled The Adventures of Captain Marvel was designed as a television serial with many episodes, similar to previous animated comic book adaptations like Superman. However, this adaptation has nothing to do with the Captain Marvel that would later be shown in Marvel Studios. The adaptation was a film serial with many episodes, like one that would be streamed on cable today. It was meant to be watched in small installments as more episodes were produced. This is clearly shown through the thirty minute intervals in which the show is set up. During these intervals, individual plots seem to arise, climax, and resolve. The film included fight scenes that relied on actors more than effects and camerawork, an obvious contrast to modern-day fighting scenes. There was very little commentary on the film, as it performed poorly on the big screen (or smaller screens). 

One of the biggest arguments against these adaptations is that they stray too far from the source material. This argument applies to novel-to-film adaptations as well. Those who are against adaptations have had multiple complaints, ranging from how different the cast is to how much the plot has changed. There are varied opinions on what should be done with comics and media. A popular term in fandoms is “gatekeeping,” meaning that fans will try to hide away and exclude any new people interested in their treasured media. Gatekeeping has been popular among those who have read the comics before the adaptations, some of them going as far as to make petitions to prevent these adaptations. Legendary comic writer Stan Lee greatly encouraged the production of these adaptations. Lee made many cameos of the movies inspired by the onomatopoeic graphic novels. 

The first D.C. Comic-based movie adaptation ever made was quite a short one. This movie, entitled Superman and the Mole-Men was created in 1951 with a runtime of 58 minutes. In the movie, Superman is fighting underground beings who had come from an oil well and decided to cause a panic among those living above. This movie is, of course, based on the comics featuring Superman, who was a well known comic character at the time. However, the movie is not based on a single comic in particular. In the 1950s, there were many supply shortages due to the aftermath of World War II. Oil was one of these shortages. While underground creatures aren’t exactly what people would think of when they hear the words, “oil crisis,” the creation of a new plot in the comic is one of the first examples of a comic book adaptation film going on its own route, rather than staying completely loyal to the original comic. This display of  “going off script” would later become an issue for die-hard fans of these characters down the road. 

The first film series adaptation of a massively popular Marvel character would be The Amazing Spider-Man, which ran from 1977 to 1979. This first episode was an hour and twenty-three minutes long and was simply entitled Spider-Man. The episode is about Spider-Man getting used to his powers and defeating an extortionist who was holding people for a large ransom. Similar to the Superman film, the episode was not based on a specific Spider-Man comic, and was another example of a film adaptation “going off script.” This pilot was in color and was well received among fans of the beloved character. Stan Lee was a co-writer on the first episode of this series, which made sense, as he was the creator of the character. However, he only collaborated on the first episode of the series. His approval for the rest of the series was the first green light on these types of film adaptations. 

A book entitled, The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, written by Dr. Liam Burke, investigates what made these film adaptations so popular and how Hollywood used the large fan bases of the comic book medium to their advantage. In 2015, Bill Caposerre interviewed Burke about his book. 

In the interview, Burke said, “It is inevitable that this genre will enter a decline phase due to audience fatigue and underperforming movies. However, with over 75 years of publication history, comic book characters have proven remarkably durable. I suspect that any lull in production will only be a momentary pause before the genre is rejuvenated for a new generation.”

The official beginning of a storyline in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is in the movie Iron Man. This movie was released in 2008 and was a massive success in the box office, grossing over half a billion dollars when it was first released. This movie would also mark what many fans would call “Phase 1” of the MCU. These “phases” would continue as time passed, with more easter eggs and hints in every movie. 

These film adaptations have taken the world by storm, with Avengers: Endgame, a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie, earning 2.7 billion dollars worldwide when it was released in April of 2019. It is currently the second highest grossing movie of all time. It’s incredible that this successful box office movie all started from none other than a comic book adaptation.

While dozens of comic strips had been turned into easily digestible cartoons, the first ever comic to be adapted into a live action film was “Whiz Comics #2” (1939) and featured the superhero Captain Marvel.