The Golden Age of Comic Book Movies

Superheroes have made their way further into the spotlight of pop culture, becoming more mainstream than ever before. The current trend in superheroes and comic book movies has entered a new age, with more movies a year than ever before. More recently, a new, higher standard in the quality of superhero films has taken effect. Similar to the Golden Age of Comic Books, this modern age of comic book based movies and superhero movies has brought these character archetypes, stories and ideas to a wider audience than ever before, and paves the way for future movies and trends with the success of each film.

Comic book characters have been in blockbuster movies before, but there’s something special about the more recent changes, a new standard that new comic book movies are judged by. A more recent trend in comic book movies is the desire for accuracy or homage to the original comics. Tim Burton’s Batman, for example, was a widely successful film starring Batman and the Joker, and revealed that the Joker of this version of Gotham was the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This creative decision was to make the story more connected, to add a little poetry. I have nothing against the idea, in its own little universe, but I believe that that kind of change to a character and a character’s history would be less accepted by the standard we live in now.

Of course, Tim Burton’s Batman is far from the current age of comics or movies, and even though the release of any superhero material makes the idea of a new superhero movie more realistic, it is very detached to the current age.

I believe we’re in a new age of comic book movies. A vastly different age than anything in the history of comic book movies, with new trends and standards. This is the Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.

A major influence on the reception of every superhero movie or comic book movie today is based on numerous successes (and failures) of superhero and comic movies before them. So what makes this the Golden age, and not the early 2000s, with the release of movies like X-Men, Spider-Man, and (the non-incredible)Hulk?

Even though each of those movies added to the growing trend in popular culture, and made more superheroes and villains widely known, they fall short to the quality of superhero movies today. The standard is much higher now, shown by the fact that all three of those franchises/movies have been re-cast, reboot or retconned. In the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie, the results of time travel literally undid/changed the events of 4 of the past movies in that universe. The Spider-Man franchise was replaced with the Amazing Spider-Man, providing a new take on the character and even his powers, to be more accurate to the comics.

Toby Maguire's Spider-Man(2002) was able to shoot webs from his wrists, a result of the mutation, but unlike the source material.

Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man(2002) was able to shoot webs from his wrists, a result of the mutation, but unlike the source material.

Andrew Garfield's Amazing Spider-Man(2012), like the Peter Parker from the comics, built his own webshooters, showing a side of the character that the previous series left out

Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man(2012), like the Peter Parker from the comics, built his own webshooters, showing a side of the character that the previous series left out

The Guardians of the Galaxy movie exposed otherwise obscure characters to far more viewers than any of the Guardian’s comic series have, especially in a single weekend

Also never seen before is the massive cinematic universe Marvel Studios has created in their Avengers movie series. The beginning of this project in Iron Man (2008) is a viable option for the beginning of the Golden Age of Superhero Movies. Another noteworthy franchise being Nolan’s the Dark Knight trilogy starting in 2005 with Batman Begins, raising the bar for other movies and setting a darker tone for superheroes in movies that some say was carried over into Man of Steel. Each successful comic book movie gives producers and writers more confidence for new projects involving superheroes and comic book characters, or introducing more obscure characters into mainstream cinema.

Retcons and reboots are no new occurrence to the average comic reader. It’s necessary for a series or character to continue to compete in a challenging market, I see it as another sign of the progression superhero movies. Movie franchises are always competing with each other, notably similar to how comic book companies and series compete with each other. The competitive market drives producers and artists to create higher quality media more often.

The cinematic universes created by Marvel Studies and DC Entertainment will be competing over the next few years at least, with the Avengers movies and DC’s Justice League movie. This, in a way, brings the DC and Marvel battle that’s existed in the comic book market for decades to a new level, or at least brings the competition to a new outlet. These movies will be watched by a much larger audience than the readers of the comics.

The increased popularity of comic books in mainstream pop culture was clear in the early 2000’s, with the beginning of long-running and successful franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men, making way for bolder attempts of comic book-inspired movies like Constantine in 2005 or Ghost Rider in 2007. There have been about 2-3 superhero movies a year involving DC and Marvel characters between 2000 and 2010, with 6 in 2005 alone, 29 total. Between 2011 and 2018, there have been/will be about 3-4 a year, with 28 total, including plans for sequels and reboots as far ahead as the Amazing Spider-Man 4 in 2018.

The rivalry between DC and Marvel has spread into the movie industry, making superheroes more widely known in popular culture, now more than ever. Because of this and other trends, I think of this as the Golden Age of Superhero Movies, starting mid-to-late 2000’s, up until either the Marvel Cinematic universe comes to a close or the Justice League series ends. Until then, we can probably expect a competitive rivalry shooting out handfuls of movies a year.

If that seems like a lot of superheroes on screen, take a look at some of the upcoming superhero/comic book-inspired television shows set to come out in the within the next few years, like Constantine, The Flash, Daredevil, Hourman, iZombie, and more. Ten confirmed so far, excluding already-airing shows Arrow and Marvel’s Agents of Shield. Superheroes and comic books inspired fiction has never been so widely liked and accepted, I would love to see this age continue and expand, and luckily it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Harley Quinn’s struggle with character progression

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Despite only being introduced in 1992, in an episode of Batman: the Animated Series, Harley Quinn skyrocketed in popularity compared to characters much older and with more history than her. She quickly found her way into comics, and was featured on the cover of the classic Batman: Hush. She later was the main villain in the “Harley’s Revenge” expansion for Arkham City, clearly well-known and liked enough to be put into the video game’s universe. She was always, in some sense of the term, the Joker’s love interest. After falling in love with the Joker while she worked at Arkham Asylum, she broke him out and became his accomplice, side-kick and partner in crime.

Further down are spoilers for the Batman and Suicide Squad issues in the Death of the Family storyline.

The Joker seemed to have a soft spot for her and they worked together on-and-off ever since she was first introduced. The Joker sometimes playfully showed signs of affection back to her, but the legitimacy of his feelings were never clear. Whether the Joker was honest or not, it’s always been a part of Harley’s character that she was in love and obsessed with the Joker. She gave up her life as a psychiatrist and accepted the insanity that came with being a super villain, all for the Joker. It wasn’t a healthy relationship by any standard, and that was often expressed in the stories she was in.

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There’s been some inconsistencies in Harley’s character since the New 52 reset the numbers on every series and changed major parts of the DC universe. In the beginning of the New 52, the Joker had his face cut off and went into hiding. Harley no longer had contact with him, and got arrested and enlisted in the Suicide Squad (written by Adam Glass). A year into the New 52, upon the Joker’s return, the basis of Harley’s character became challenged.SS15.3 The Joker stopped caring (or pretending to care) about Harley, and made her act as bait for Batman in the Death of the Family storyline.

Harley has come to terms that the Joker does not care about her, whether he changed his mind after his “rebirth” or is just now being honest about it may be up to interpretation. After Harley fulfills this last request of the Joker, he kidnaps her and tries to kill her. She fights back and the relationship turns violent.

After some hitting and yelling, the Joker drags Harley into a cellar, chains her up and shows her the skeletons of “other Harleys,” claiming he’s had dozens who he has killed and that she is utterly replaceable to him.SS15.2

True or not, it’s clear Harley and the Joker are no longer on good terms. Harley eventually escapes, cutting open her wrists on the shackles and almost bleeds to death stumbling back to the Suicide Squad. After the violent encounter with the Joker, who Harley openly refers to as her “ex,” she goes back to doing missions with the Suicide Squad. On some of the missions, she starts hearing the voice of “Harleen Quinzel” in her head, the name she went by before her acid bath and life of crime. She talks to herself, struggling to find her identity after the Joker claimed to make her and then tossed her aside like nothing.

So it seems pretty obvious. Harley went through more character progression than she’s ever seen since she was first introduced, changing the basis of her character, no longer being the lovestruck sidelick of the Joker. At least, that’s how it was written in Batman and Suicide Squad, but, as with any popular character in comics, she guest-stars and does cross-overs into other titles with different writers.

In Birds of Prey #32 (Christy Marx), a use of the word “Jokers” segwayed the introduction of Harley Quinn on the next page saying “My Honey-Bun isn’t here.” She might intentionally be playing the character of who she used to be, or the writer is just choosing to use that version of Harley, who is clearly still the more well-known version that the fanbase fell in love with.

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In January 2014, Harley Quinn got her own self-titled ongoing series, written by Amanda Conner. Still starring in Suicide Squad, her portrayal in her own series was more lighthearted (though no less violent) and comical than most DC ongoings. She played a happier, simpler version of Harley, with no mention of her mental instability. It’s common for different titles to have different “takes” or “versions” of the same characters to fit the tone of the series, so that itself isn’t a problem. Harley struggling to find her true identity and getting over the Joker, who started her on this life, wouldn’t fit the tone the series is trying to set. However, they seem to have tossed aside everything that happened in the Death of the Family storyline for this series.

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The writer is either leaving the comic out of continuity or writing a dumber, forgetful Harley for the sake of the readers and the lighter tone of the comic. This leaves Harley, as a character, in a confusing place. It seems like Harley’s only major character progression since she was created is being undone by each writer she’s written by until the status quo of her character is back to “normal.”

Is this simplifying the character for the comic, or undoing her progression entirely? Will other writers continue her progression in more serious comics, or will Harley go back to being the lovestruck sidekick most fans know her as? We might get some answers when the Joker returns, but as of yet, DC hasn’t released anything about him. Until then, various comics will portray Harley in various ways, further confusing fans on the state of her character.

Character progression is pointless if the most-read versions of the character are still stuck on a “classic” version of Harley. She could be acting oblivious and forgetful, but the average reader will still read it as the unchanged Harley Quinn, undoing life-changing character development.

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A recent history of the Joker’s face

The Joker has been an iconic character in comic books for decades. The personality, the murders, the malicious laughter, and his smiling face. The Joker and his face have been through a lot over the years, but in the past three years his face alone has been through more than ever. I’d like to talk about some of the recent events involving the Joker in DC’s New 52, but mostly his comically durable yet nightmarish face.

Forewarning, if you’re planning on reading Batman: Death of the Family, or want to avoid any spoilers to the stories the Joker (and/or his face) have appeared in around the time of it was released in 2012, stop reading here, and maybe just skim over the first few pictures. I also feel the need to warn everyone that the pictures themselves depict gross, bloody illustrations of the Joker’s face.

When DC re-launched all of their titles from #1 in 2011, kicking off the “New 52,” many writers took this chance to change minor or major aspects of the characters they would be writing, such as making a younger/older version of a character, or changing the outfit of a character or two.

Tony S. Daniel, writer of Detective Comics #1 of the New 52, decided it was time for the Joker to be revamped. At the end of the first issue, the Joker finds himself in a room in Arkham Asylum, where he arranged to meet fellow Batman villain, the Dollmaker. The Dollmaker is a master surgeon who enjoys cutting people apart and sewing them back together in strange, twisted ways. Being good friends, he agrees to do a favor for the Joker. The Dollmaker uses his surgical skills to cut the skin cleanly off of the Joker’s face, as some form of “rebirth.” The Joker leaves his face pinned to the wall and escapes.

 

So, there it is. The Joker and his face departed for the first time. The Joker goes into hiding, to plan, and presumably recover. The face itself is taken by the Gotham City Police Department for evidence. What evidence, who knows, but it’s not like anyone else was going to take it. They put it in a little freezer, preserving it and lock it away.

 

Maybe they’ll need to take more DNA evidence sometime. The GCPD just keep it around. They make their new recruits work near it overnight and play pranks on them with recorded laughter, it’s all in good fun, totally not weird.

Going a little off topic, I’d like to bring attention to the Joker’s obsessive love interest, Harley Quinn. After the Joker went missing, Harley got herself arrested and enlisted in the “Suicide Squad,” a shady task force run out of Belle Reeve prison and comprised of the supervillians there. The criminals are offered time off their sentences in exchange for going on high-risk missions for the government. After hearing rumors about the Joker’s face, Harley ran away back to Gotham to steal the face of the Joker. Her “coworkers” were sent to bring her back into the program, but not before Harley knocked out the Batman villain Deadshot and reaching the Joker’s face.

 Harley is less emotionally and mentally stable than ever, and does what any unstable co-dependent girlfriend would do with the face of the person they love. Take it out of the freezer box and put it over the face of Deadshot. But merely talking to Deadshot and pretending he was the Joker wasn’t enough for her.

 The traumatized Deadshot frees an arm and shoots Harley after the disturbing kiss.

 Nobody wins.

 The Suicide Squad takes them both back to Belle Reeve, and the GCPD takes the face and puts it back in the box. Hey, it’s not like it’s going to get stolen again, right?

Next time we see the Joker’s face is in Batman #13, written by Scott Snyder, the first issue in the Death of the Family. The Joker returns to Gotham, kills a handful of GCPD officers and steals back his favorite face. Now, and for the rest of the arc, he is wearing his old skin over his face. Strapped with a belt and wiring, he stretches it into a smile.

He explains to Batman that he left because he was sick of seeing how Batman has changed, saying he’s grown to rely on his allies, and now he’s returned to help him by killing them for Batman. They fight, Joker escapes, and the Joker appears in a handful of separate titles, torturing Batman’s allies and family in various ways. His face is just along for the ride.

The face itself was in better care in the ice box, as Joker uses it as a prop to torment his victims. For example, in an attempt to scare Robin, he drops him in a room full of worms, maggots and flies and wears his face upside down.

By the end of the Death of the Family, the Joker’s face can be seen literally rotting while strapped to the Joker, complete with flies hovering around and eating it as he speaks.

There are numerous panels where the Joker is hit so hard his face falls off. Rough stuff, even back when it was attached to the rest of his head.

When Batman breaks free, he chases the Joker through tunnels in the cave system under Wayne Manor, to an underground waterfall that fades into nothingness below. The Joker falls, his face falls off, and that is the last the Joker has been seen in the comics since.

 While the story of the Joker has come to a pause, his face lives on. In 2013 a character was introduced in Batman: The Dark Knight #23.4(Ann Nocenti) called “The Joker’s Daughter.” She seems to be a young homeless woman living in the sewers under Gotham City. By chance, she finds the Joker’s face floating in the water, and thinks herself chosen, declaring herself the Joker’s heir. (to her dismay, she has no actual blood relation to the Joker). She appears again in a one-shot called “Batman: Joker’s Daughter” (Marguerite Bennett) which follows her in her attempts to get Batman and the Joker’s attention.

In case it wasn’t clear, she just tore a piece of flesh of the face off and swallowed it. What did the Joker’s face do to deserve this?

The next thing this girl does is decide to wear the rotting, torn and soaked face over her face. She appears to have stapled it to her face.

She flees, kills a janitor at Arkham Asylum and goes through an existential crisis about the whole thing, trying to find her true self. Now would have been a good time for her to stop, but the Joker’s face hasn’t been through enough. The Joker’s Daughter goes to the Dollmaker, the man who cut off the Joker’s face years prior. The happy reunion is cut short with the Joker’s Daughter threatening to kill the Dollmaker’s “children,” which I imagine as miniature Frankensteins, or he sews the Joker’s face onto her face permanently. The Dollmaker agrees, and even lets her take some of the Joker’s blood, which she injects into her veins and has a little psycho-trip off of. 

 Now you’re up to date on the latest happenings of the Joker’s face, 2011 to present. Beaten, eaten, rotten, drenched, and sewn to an obsessive teenager’s face.

 Who knows what the future holds for this unfortunate piece of skin? What we do know is that the Joker’s Daughter will be joining the Suicide Squad when the series is re-launched next July, which also includes Harley Quinn on the roster. That, as well as upcoming issues of Batman Eternal, will show their interactions for the first time. We’ll have to wait and see how the Joker’s face effects their relationship.