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Crest of the comic book movie wave
Release of 'The Dark Knight Rises' may mark apex of 'geeky' genre
0719MARKER.DARKNIGHT5
Christian Bale returns as a brooding Bruce Wayne and Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises," released this weekend. The summer's most-anticipated film also may mark the high water mark of the recent comic book movie wave.

Read Jeff’s review

A screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was not available in time for Get Out press deadlines. Jeff Marker’s review of the film will appear Friday online at gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

The release of “The Dark Knight Rises” tonight at midnight is a significant movie moment.

It’s the end of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, one of the most — arguably THE most — respected comic book movie franchises in history.

“Rises” and “The Avengers” were far and away the most anticipated movies of the year, and we will almost certainly witness the peak of the 2012 box office this weekend. “Rises” is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of all time, in fact, and seems poised to shatter box office records.

I believe, though, that “Rises” will also mark the high point of the ongoing comic book movie trend. The wave of movies built around superheroes and costumed vigilantes has largely defined the past decade of Hollywood history, and it’s hard to imagine any movie generating the same combination of excitement, box office gross, and — we hope — artistry.

Anatomy of a wave

It’s interesting to ponder how adaptations of comic books have become the most bankable, most widely appealing of Hollywood movies in the first place.

First, Hollywood likes nothing more than a well-known intellectual property. Brand recognition sells tickets, and the branded characters that have served as the foundation for this wave have been part of American pop culture for most of the past century.

Superman first appeared in a comic book in 1938. Batman followed in 1939, joined by Captain America in 1941. They were among the most popular characters of the comics’ Golden Age. Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and many other popular characters emerged in the early ’60s at the beginning of the Silver Age of comics.

Hollywood has always been interested in adapting these characters but until recently lacked the technology to do them justice. (I’m not discounting earlier achievements like Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” and its sequel; those movies succeeded in spite of limited visual technology.)

Now, however, digital technology can bring any comic book concept to cinematic life, seamlessly meld live action with animation, and place actors into any conceivable computer generated environment.

Fellow critic Jonathan W. Hickman recently reminded me that 1997’s “Spawn” was one of the first comic adaptations in which the special effects faithfully translated images from page to screen, and our effects capabilities have grown exponentially in sophistication since then.

The comic book movie trend is thus an instance of technology meeting up with interest at the perfect time, because fandom of comic books, superheroes, video games and all things “geek” has never been as widespread.

What was once a cultural niche has gone mainstream. Witness the growth of comic conventions (the mother of them all, the San Diego Comic Con, just ended days ago), the popularity of “The Big Bang Theory” and comic book sales figures.

The movies are merely part of a larger movement.

Crest of the wave

These and several other factors have combined into a perfect storm and produced a bona fide cinematic wave, which will reach its crest tonight with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Comic books and superheroes will never go away, but I doubt the movies based on them will ever be more popular or lucrative than they are right now.

Hollywood will try to extend the wave as long as possible, of course, but the quality of the films will inevitably diminish.

Batman will be rebooted, and does anyone think the next iteration will be as good as the current one? Can “Avengers 2” live up to Joss Whedon’s epic success? Can Robert Downey Jr. go on making Iron Man movies forever?

The answer to all these questions is no.

But hey, let’s not brood like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne about the impending, slow demise of a movie trend that has been so much fun. Instead, let’s enjoy it and ride the wave like the Silver Surfer, who is slated to hit theaters in his own movie in 2014.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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