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Starlog Archives: Bringing Comics to Life Circa 1976

These days, it seems like there’s a new superhero movie every few weeks.  But forty years ago, the genre was in its infancy.  Superman: The Movie is largely considered the first modern super hero movie, but it was still in development in 1976 when Starlog published this article about the brave new world of movies based on comic book characters.  The article, from the magazine’s second issue, lists Burt Reynolds, James Caan and Robert Redford as candidates for the Man of Steel and Guy Hamilton was still attached to direct.

The pickings were relatively slim in the seventies.  Aside from Superman, most of the movie projects mentioned here never actually came to pass.  The ones that did were delayed for years and had little impact when they were finally released.  Most of the article deals with TV shows like Wonder Woman and the old Batman series or instances in which TV characters like The Bionic Man were adapted to comic books.

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Posted on November 23, 2016, in Starlog Archives and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I grew up as a child in the 70’s and I instantly gravitated to comic books. In those formative years I devoured numerous comics like Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman among many, many others. Back in those years there were few avenues to see your favorite comic book heroes realized in anything other than comics: Batman had a kid-friendly tv series from the 60’s that I watched religiously in re-runs, same goes for the animated Spider-Man animated series (and very briefly as a short lived live-action tv series with super-low production values), then you had the Hulk and Wonder Woman in hit live-action tv series…… but Superman: The Movie was the big deal back then. Not only was it a big-budget production, but it was sooooo damn good too.

    Strangely despite Superman: The Movie turning into one of the most successful movies of all time, major film studios didn’t see the potential so we had to wait years or even decades to see Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Wonder Woman theatrical films. Today’s kids have absolutely no idea of the drought that we lived through.

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    • My theory on that is that the studio guys didn’t see much of a distinction between Superman and Popeye. They were all cartoon characters to these old guys. As far as they were concerned, anything that originated with a comic strip was pretty much the same thing. There were high expectations that Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action Popeye would duplicate the success of Superman: The Movie. When it ended up grossing less than half what Superman grossed, the studio guys just kind of assumed that Superman’s success couldn’t be duplicated. Around this time, they couldn’t get a Batman movie greenlit! I remember after Superman III disappointed, representatives from WB said that there was a limit to how many Superman stories you could tell. Even as a kid I was like, “Tell that to the guys who have written decades of stories about the guy!”

      In fairness, there were limits to what you could do with superheroes in the movies in the 70’s and 80’s. We wouldn’t have our modern golden age in the genre were it not for technological advances. Also, superheroes weren’t as socially acceptable then as they are now. If you didn’t break out the way Superman and Batman did, you were making a very expensive movie for a niche audience. But you have to wonder how Howard the Duck made it to the big screen before Wonder Woman or Spider-man.

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      • Lebeau you are the first person I’ve ran across to posit the idea that these old-school movie studio execs of that era could not see the difference between say Superman and Popeye, between Batman and Howard The Duck (both were popular comics, weren’t they?), and I think you are really onto something with that line of thought. I can see that thought process even existed years later in the late 80’s/early 90’s; after Batman became a massive blockbuster (and one of the biggest moneymakers of all time back then) Dick Tracy got fast tracked and there were genuine expectations by Touchstone Pictures that it could be as big a blockbuster. Never mind that Dick Tracy was more of an old-fashioned character based on a newspaper weekly and never came anywhere close to Batman in the pop culture, its easy to see that those movie execs could not differentiate between say a Batman and Dick Tracy.

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        • Exactly. Batman’s a hit, so let’s make our own Batman out of… what can we get the rights to? The Phantom? The Shadow? The Rocketeer? Brilliant!

          When Popeye and Flash Gordon bombed in 1980, the studios took that as a sign that audiences didn’t want comic book movies. Or at least that they were too big of a gamble. Then Superman and Supergirl started disappointing, Howard the Duck flopped and that was about it until Batman in 1989 which kicked off the whole cycle over again.

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        • One thing this early Starlog article makes me realize, Lebeau, is that several low-rent films based on comic books did gain release in the mid 80’s, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Red Sonja was a B-grade Marvel comic from the 70’s that featured a scantily-clad warrior (you never can go broke courting the lowest common denominator, can you?) that saw a big-screen feature in 1985 starring Brigitte Nielsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film was a big flop, even with Arnold suggesting (ripping off?) his Conan character.

          In 1984 we had the movie Sheena starring former Charlies Angel actress Tanya Roberts, based on the comic book “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”. I vaguely recall this movie being released (I certainly remember the Prevue magazine cover promoting it) although it came and went in a flash, bombing along the way. But here’s a fun fact worth knowing (and I just discovered this while doing some research on Wikipedia): Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was actually the very first female heroine with her own comic book! Sheena predates Wonder Woman by a full 4 years.

          So a few more comic book-based movies released in the 80’s than I was aware of. Certainly a couple of 3rd-rate comic characters bombing did no favors for the advancement of comic book films, that’s for sure.

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        • There’s a little bit about Red Sonja in the Conan the Destroyer article I wrote last year. Basically, Schwarzenegger made it in place of Conan 3. Once his contract was fulfilled and he had made Terminator, he declined to return to the ghetto of sword and sorcery flicks.

          I definitely remember Sheena. It came out at the exact time that Tanya Roberts in a fur bikini was beginning to appeal to me. That movie played on cable constantly back when a movie with a little nudity could still get a PG rating. I don’t know if I ever watched the whole movie, but I caught bits and pieces very often.

          I do think those kinds of movies were seen as Conan ripoffs (like The Beast Master) more so than comic book movies. But there’s definitely so overlap since Conan himself had ties to comics. He originated not in comic books but Robert E. Howard’s pulp stories. Sheena was a comic book creation and Red Sonja was kind of a hybrid – a character created for Marvel comics based on a character from Howard’s original Conan stories.

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  2. Lebeau since you posted this topic you’ve got me curious: we’re about the same age and we grew up in the same era so I’m wondering, what comic books did you grow up reading during your childhood? What was your favorite comic book back then, and all these years later what is your favorite superhero movie?

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    • Believe it or not, I didn’t read very many comic books as a kid. When I was little, my dad was finishing law school so we were pretty much broke. There just wasn’t any money for movies or comic books. After my dad finished law school, he made a healthy income, but I was the oldest of six kids, so it took a while for our standard of living to reflect that. When I was a kid, I got toys on Christmas and my birthday which were both in the same week. So it was odd to me seeing my younger siblings getting toys all year round. But by then, I didn’t want toys anyway so I didn’t really care. I kind of outgrew all that stuff at a relatively young age.

      I did have a very small collection of comic books. It was very rare to get multiple issues in a row, so if a story went more than one issue I wasn’t likely to get to finish it. My favorite comic book was Justice League of America #205. It was the final issue in a multi-part story I hadn’t read and it was filled with characters I wasn’t familiar with. But I was fascinated all the same. The villains were Hector Hammond and The Royal Flush Gang. Firestorm, who was still a new character, featured prominently in the story.

      The one multi-part story we mostly put together was Fantastic Four #113–116 which introduced the villainous Overmind. It started off with a battle between Hulk and the Thing, then Overmind took control of Reed Richards and made him fight Johnny and Sue. Desperate, they turned to Dr Doom for help and he lead the Fantastic Four against Reed and Overmind. It was epic. I read those books till they came apart.

      My favorite single issue was Captain America #241 which introduced Cap to the still relatively new Punisher. The Punisher was still flatly a villain and Cap had to stop him. But he was a sympathetic villain. My dad owned a convenience store which I eventually ended up working at as a stockboy when I was 15. Once, the store was sent a couple free comic books with a big stamp on the cover that said “SAMPLE.” Since you couldn’t sell them, dad gave them to us. I think my brother got a Spidey comic and I got this one. It was a self-contained story which I loved. And Cap vs. an antihero like The Punisher was just delicious.

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  3. Regarding the Dick Tracy film which was discussed earlier: the Warren Beatty film earned $103M domestically in 1990 and this needs to be put into perspective: back in the 90’s, any film that broke the $100M barrier at the box office domestically was instantly regarded as a blockbuster. Not just a hit film mind you, but a legitimate Blockbuster. Every film studio strived to have their A-list films cross that magic $100M barrier, and on the rare occasion a film was just a couple million shy at the end of its run, film studios would sometimes actually put extra money into keeping certain films in movie theaters a little while longer (Die Hard With A Vengeance comes to mind in 1995) just so they could push its box office take over $100 Million so that they could claim it was a blockbuster.

    With that in mind, when Dick Tracy released in 1990 it crossed that magic barrier with a total of $103M domestically. It more than doubled its $46M budget, and when taking worldwide box office into account it earned $162M, tripling its budget. By any standard, Dick Tracy was a success.

    And yet, according to then-Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, despite the film tripling its budget worldwide he regarded it as a faliure as he expected the film to match Batman’s extraordinary box office (and record breaking) numbers. Which explains why a Dick Tracy 2 never happened, despite the studio having expectations that Dick Tracy could be a long-running franchise…..

    Now I’m just an average movie-goer, but if I could offer a little bit of advice to film studios…. it is pretty unwise to EXPECT a film to perform as well as one of the biggest grossing films of all time.

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    • As I was reading, I kept thinking of responses and then you would address whatever I was thinking in the next sentence. 😉

      As recently as a couple years ago, Warren Beatty was still talking about making a Dick Tracy sequel in which he would reprise his role. A few years back, he even went to court to retain the rights to the franchise. Which is why no one else has rebooted it.

      I think Disney expected the casting of Madonna and their marketing machine to be able to duplicate what WB did with Batman. I suspect their disappointment had more to do with Dick Tracy merchandise sitting in the discount bins rather than flying off the shelves like Batman T’s in 1989. As you point out, the box office was respectable when looked at on its own.

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      • I’ve posted this elsewhere before, but several years back (in I think around 2008) Warren Beatty did this bizarre one-off TV special “in character” as Dick Tracy. It aired on Turner Classic Movies only one time and centered on film critic Leonard Maltin interviewing Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy. Basically, the whole thing was done as a quick excuse of Beatty’s to hold on to the film rights.

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        • It’s a pretty off the wall TV special; I remember seeing it before. Cheeky as all that.

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        • Warren Beatty’s comeback film sucks

          https://www.datalounge.com/thread/17914881-warren-beatty-s-comeback-film-sucks

          With regards to Warren and Streisand. I think they both became interested in controlling their work – producing and directing – rather than letting themselves be produced and directed by someone else. This made them very picky about projects and they turned down a lot of work. I would guess that Warren had less interest in acting and being a pretty boy, unlike say Redford. Streisand’s case is also a bit different, since her prolific cinematic period was when she was under contract to Ray Stark and once she was free her output slowed down. In addition she had a recording career which too had contractual demands, so I would guess that having private time was important to her.

          —Anonymous

          reply 73 11 hours ago

          Beatty’s directorial control freakery hasn’t though resulted in films which you want to go back to every year or so. Kubrick he isn’t. Yes ‘Reds’ won big, but it’s rarely if ever mentioned in anyone’s top 25, even. ‘Bulworth’ was though I thought underrated.

          —Anonymous

          reply 78 8 hours ago

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    • Why Dick Tracy 2 Never Happened

      http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/dick-tracy/246948/why-dick-tracy-2-never-happened

      The Dick Tracy movie was a defining summer blockbuster, yet somehow never got a sequel. And it probably never will. Here’s why…

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  4. Too bad about how “Dick Tracy” is viewed; I guess the comprehension that Dick Tracy merch couldn’t possibly sell as well as Batman’s wasn’t there. Expectations can really be a downfall to many endeavors, I guess.

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    • It seems like Disney had too high of expectations w/ “Dick Tracy”. They pretty much expected it to be another “Batman” level type of success. The problem with that is kind of two-fold. Number one, Batman has and still is a bigger pop cultural icon than Dick Tracy. And number two, the 1989 Batman movie from Tim Burton was really one of those once in a generation “event” movies. I was only seven years old when the Batman movie came out, but if I were old enough to fully understand what was going on, then I more than likely would’ve been extremely excited and urgent to want to see it too.

      With “Dick Tracy” it was a beautiful looking movie, but it none the less (to younger people at least) looked like a middle aged guy in Warren Beatty playing dress up. There just isn’t as big of a “cool factor” in “Dick Tracy” (other than his two-way watch and Tommy-gun, what was there really to grab out of that character) circa 1990 than with “Batman”.

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      • I just think there’s no way that “Dick Tracy” would have the sustainability or impact of the 1989 “Batman”, and I agree that one of the reasons is how much of an event that film was. I mean, I liked “Dick Tracy”, thought it was neat and all, but I remembered “Batman”, because, well, it’s Batman, and I think the general public basically felt the same way.

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  5. Wouldn’t you guys agree that the first xmen movie is what paved the movie for the comic book movie genre to become huge . I noticed after the success of that film many comic book flicks followed and it grew after that

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  6. Given the bad reviews rules don`t apply got i do not see beatty get oscar nom. Beatty is a lot like costner he goes overboard with his directing projects at times and it blows up in his face. Plus both of them trip over their large egos at time . Plus both where womanizers in their day. Costner seems to be setting well into a character actor phase while warren looks ridiculous trying to recapture his leading man days . rules dont apply is evident of that

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  7. lol nice pun lol. I do think their is hope for kevin but I do not see warren getting more work. I doubt he wants to work much anyways but with the failure of rules do not apply and his last film town and country i do not see producers lining up to cast him . Costner is curently getting oscar buzz for hidden figure plus hidden figures has gotten positive buzz so there is somewhat hope for him. Plus he will be in film written by an arron sorkin . Most of the films he has written have been hits so its a good sign. I think warren spend another 10 years laying low

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    • Yeah, I’ve discovered that word on “Hidden figures” is starting to pick up (Taraji P. Henson has been singled out for her work in the film so far). I mean, it seems like a solid flick and worth a look, but you just never know how the end results will be.

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  8. True everyone thought Billy Lyn halftime walk would be oscar worthy but it ended up getting bad reviews. Gluestry did you hear anything about kevin performance I heard he is getting buzzz

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  9. Great way of looking at where the hero movie boom started by going back to its earliest roots. If you could be so kind as to look at my blog at deweyancomicreader.wordpress.com that would be much appreciated.

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