Last Friday, Duncan Jones became the latest director to helm a big budget movie adapted from a video game. Warcraft is the latest attempt to successfully translate a game franchise to film. Unlike comic books, which have become the premiere intellectual property of Hollywood, video games have yet to seize the movie-going public in the same way. The journeys between the two genres are an interesting study in movie history. Ask most people which genre is most steeped in Hollywood tradition and success and the likely answer would be comic book movies. Since Batman came out in 1989, comic book movies have been far and away the better movie genre, but prior to that the video game genre held its own as a viable alternative. Here is a timeline of how comic book movies and video game movies have fared over the last forty years.
1978-1980: Comic Books
The first real attempt to bring comic books to mainstream movie audiences was 1978’s Superman. Superman was not only a commercial success, it was the number two box office movie of the year, but also a critical success. This success was followed up with the release of the sequel, Superman II, in 1980. Superman II again finished second for the year in box office totals, trailing only The Empire Strikes Back. The foundation laid by Superman I and II showed that there was a definite interest in comic book movies.
1982-1983: Video Games
In the early 80s the video game industry existed primarily in arcades, but was making its way into homes via consoles. With computers and electronic devices entering everyday use it’s not hard to imagine the movie industry branching out into this untapped source of material. In 1982, Tron was the first video game-related movie to hit theaters and it scored well with audiences. Tron was a modest commercial success, coming in at #22 on the box office standings for 1982. The film did double its production budget in box office revenue, but it’s biggest success was critically. Tron achieved new heights with its technological presentation while also garnering several esteemed reviews, including a four star (out of four) review from Roger Ebert. The success of Tron was built on in 1983 when WarGames finished in the top ten of the 1983 box office standings, beating out Superman III in the process. The thriller was a critical success and helped launch Matthew Broderick’s career.
1984-1988: A whole bunch of crap
Neither genre really did much to capitalize on their early box office successes. The comic book genre featured such hits as Red Sonja, Weird Science, and Howard the Duck (first Marvel movie!). On the other side the video game genre had Cloak and Dagger, The Last Starfighter, and The Dungeonmaster. So yeah, not a lot going on here and it’s amazing that either genre recovered. Fortunately, happy times were right around the corner.
1989-1999: Comic book establishes dominance
1989’s Batman established the bar for cross-medium success. The Batman franchise, along with a stream of lesser-known comics being turned into movies (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, Spawn, Judge Dredd, Men in Black, you get the idea) created a widespread net of comic book movie fans. During this same time the video game genre had Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter. The video games featured on the big screen were heavy hitters in the video game industry, but they failed to translate onto the big screen. These movies may be guilty pleasures now (Raul Julia is awesome in Street Fighter), but they were nowhere near box office successes. This was clearly the time when the two genres diverged from each other. As the new millennium dawned, this chasm would only grow.
2000-Present: Mic drop
2000 and 2002 were pivotal years for comic book movies. 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man established purely comic book movies (properties known specifically as comic book movies) as legitimate box office draws. Both films spawned franchises which brought in billions of dollars. The Christopher Nolan Batman franchise further cemented the box office viability of comic movies and then 2008’s Iron Man more or less sealed the deal. As comic movies were becoming awesome, video game movies made some valiant attempts to get a piece of the pie. Studios made big investments in video game franchises: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Doom, Max Payne, and more. Star power like Angelina Jolie, Mark Wahlberg, The Rock, and Mila Jovovich was not enough. Though many of these movies enjoyed some box office success, it was not in the same ballpark as comic book movies. The biggest reason for the divergence: the movies were bad. The Rotten Tomatoes average for video game movies between 2000-2009 is a solid 17.4%. Even dropping the lowest rated only raises the average to 19%. These movies are just awful.
Can Warcraft find its place with moviegoers and potentially carve out its own franchise? Probably not. Reviews are awful and even the game fanbase has displayed trepidation for the movie. It appears that Warcraft is destined for that elephant graveyard in Hollywood where video game movies are buried.