Editor’s Note: The original intention was for this to be a video, which you’ll find above. But I’m also including a transcript of the video below for the hearing impaired or anyone who doesn’t want to get lost in YouTube.
Intro: the long wait for Superhero fatigue
All trends die eventually, and there will be a day when superhero movies fall out of favor and Hollywood moves on to another plug-n-play formula for future film franchises.
But what could take the place of superhero movies? What’s the next big thing? Is it possible Hollywood will shift toward producing creative original content?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but it’s fun to think about what the answers might possibly be, maybe, at some point in the future.
You already know what the title of the video is, so let’s talk about it: could video game movies be the next superhero movies?
This leads to a lot of smaller, implied questions, too.
Is it possible to create entire cinematic universes based on video games?
Would video game movies be primarily animated or live-action?
If video games did become Hollywood blockbusters, which publisher would be on the top of the pile, and which publisher would pathetically try to mimic their success?
In each section, I’m going to address a few key pieces of evidence that lend themselves to either side of the argument.
These aren’t quotes or anything. I’m sure other people have had similar thoughts on the topic, so nothing here is gonna be all that groundbreaking, it’s all just stuff I think is important to consider, especially in reference to the trajectory of superhero movies that we’ve all been witnessing firsthand for the past 30 years.
Keep in mind that this is really a discussion that I’m having with … myself, I guess. So there’s gonna be a lot of going back and forth between YES and NO arguments.
A very important topic is the audience for future video game movie franchises. Would people go to see video game movies, and if so, who would go to see them the most?
So here’s the first big thought I had on this:
In general, not as many people are familiar with video game IPs as they are with superhero IPs.
Right out of the gate, I’m sure this is accurate, although it depends pretty drastically on the specific IPs in question.
For example, I’m sure that more people are at least aware of Mario than they are of an obscure comic book character like, I dunno, Calendar Man?
But on an average, yes, I think a larger percentage of the general public, especially outside of the US, is more familiar with superheroes than they are with popular modern-day video game characters and franchises.
The most famous superheroes have been part of American pop culture for decades. Whether people have ever read a comic book or watched a show or movie about a comic book character, most of us at least know about them.
We all know Batman, we all know Superman, we all know Spider-Man. Outside of these characters, familiarity drops off steeply.
On the video game side, what characters can we say are just part of Earth pop culture? Mario, sure. Pokemon, as a concept, I think most people are aware of, and it’s been mentioned in many videos and articles that Pokemon is the most profitable media franchise of any kind, of all time.
From there we could probably say Sonic. Pac-Man. Annnnd after that we’re already starting to run out.
From a distance, this definitely seems like a problem, especially since most of these characters and franchises have already had movies, and with a few exceptions, none of them were very successful. We’ll come back to the track record of video game movies later, but for now, yeah, this seems like pretty good evidence that future video game movies just wouldn’t do as well. If familiarity with a brand isn’t that widespread, then fewer people go to see the movies. That’s pretty logical.
Now let’s look at some counterpoints for this argument.
Counterpoint #1: People have clearly connected with video game characters and stories, so there’s already a significant built-in audience. That small, rabid audience would be enough to make these movies successful.
This has definitely proven to be true, sometimes. The DC movies are a decent example. It’s a small, hardcore group of fans that has held on, and for the most part, they’ve been able to keep the DCEU afloat.
Despite the movies not being very good, they still make quite a lot of money.
That could hold true for video game movies, too. Again, it depends on specific characters and game worlds.
Problem is, fanbases can also be, well, finicky? If there’s even a small portion of fans who feel like they’ve been wronged or they don’t agree with the creative direction, they won’t support it. There will be a boycott and several online petitions and plenty of internet outrage.
Look at Star Wars and the aftermath of The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson really did make some strong, controversial moves, and I think it’s fair to say that many of the fans tried to voice their dissatisfaction by not going to see Solo several months later, making it the first big Disney Star Wars flop.
(While we’re here, can we just watch this little clip of Lord and Miller doing an interview when they were still working on Solo? [clip] He’s not happy. The anger is coming through. I love this.)
And the Rise of Skywalker was the least profitable of the Disney Star Wars trilogy.
Video game fans, myself included, can be even more sensitive when it comes to their favorite properties.
Marvel has to be verrrry careful with its creative decisions, and most of the time they just decide to do things that won’t be controversial at all.
Anyone making a movie out of a beloved video game staple would have to be even moooore careful, especially the first time out. The initial design for Sonic is pretty good proof, although of course the controversy wound up promoting the movie way beyond the marketing team’s expectations, I’m sure, because the algorithm rewards engagement, regardless of its pH. (Sarah Zed covered this very well.)
Counterpoint #2: More and more people are getting into video games.
I don’t think that certain groups aren’t really taking notice of just how much the gaming community has been growing.
Arlo has talked about this, as well as a bunch of other people. It’s a whole thing. But in general, YouTube and the internet as a whole have been a huuuge boost for the popularity of video games, both in terms of playing them and watching people play them.
Mobile devices made gaming more accessible (then mobile game developers poisoned the water as quickly as possible).
And I’ll just go ahead and say that the Switch’s popularity, which has only increased during the quarantine times, has been a big factor as well, purely because it’s the most accessible gaming console to non-gamers. It just is. The other consoles have focused solely on hardcore gamers for so long, which is fine, but over here, in a nice little sunny meadow, the Nintendo Switch just wants to make you happy (while also charging exorbitant prices for poorly made accessories).
All in all, more people are playing games right now, meaning the audiences for major video game IPs are also getting significantly bigger.
So yes, not as many people know [insert video game character] as [comic book character], but the gap is closing rapidly.
Counterpoint #3: Pre-existing audience investment in a character was not an important factor for the Marvel movies, and historically it hasn’t been a major factor for superhero movies in general.
I really stand by this one. We have to compare potential video game movies to the superhero movies that led to the current glut of cape content.
The Christopher Nolan Batman movies were a huge influence, and everyone knows Batman so that doesn’t help us out here.
But the first real Marvel Cinematic Universe movie was of course Iron Man. That first movie was popular, the character became popular with general audiences as a result, and right up to Endgame, Tony Stark continued to be a huge fan favorite.
The part was well-written, well-acted, and well-directed. Having those elements was enough to elevate a comic book character from relative obscurity to insanely cool and slick and witty and worthy of being on more merchandise than you can conceive of.
And I remain convinced that video game IPs have the potential to follow a similar path.
All you need is talented filmmakers, actors, and a fair amount of studio support. But this bleeds into a whole thing that I wanted to save for the end, so we’re leaving the thread here for now.
Suitability for Adaptation
So here’s the next big section, which is all about the actual “texts” in question: the video games themselves. Are video games suitable for film adaptations that will be extremely successful?
I think this question has a lot more weight than the question of finding an audience. In most cases, the blockbuster adaptations of existing IPs that I’ve loved follow a specific trend: they’re good movies first. The licensing and the source material are secondary, almost incidental in some cases.
But is it even possible for video game IPs to be turned into not just successful one-off movies, but the building blocks for entire Cinematic Universes?
Here’s one of my initial answers to the question:
Video games aren’t well-suited to cinematic storytelling. The evidence? There have already been a lot of video game movies and none have managed to be massive successes.
So this is the ultimate NO in the source material category, and it’s basically saying that video games are just a different art form, they don’t gel incredibly well with the film format.
And yeah, there have already been a whole lot of video game movies, in the broadest sense, and none of them were especially big.
Warcraft was pretty big, thanks to the international market, .which in this case really just means China.
But that’s kind of it. The Super Mario Bros. movie was a terrible bomb, and also a terrible movie.
Counterpoint #1: Detective Pikachu
Detective Pikachu is probably the best evidence for just how lucrative video game movies can be. The movie’s total box office take was almost as high as that of the first Iron Man movie.
And it just barely finished behind Warcraft’s box office total.
Based on the storyline itself, it didn’t seem to leave much room for a sequel, but a sequel has been planned, and it could be released as early as 2022.
Ok, so maybe Detective Pikachu, and by proxy, Nintendo, are leading the way into a future trend of successful video game movies.
Is a Detective Pikachu cinematic universe enough to kill the superhero trend? No, it’s not. But it’s a start.
Is Detective Pikachu a good movie? No, it’s not. It’s fine. And on a recent rewatch, I noticed just how much it mimics the goofy kids’ movies of the late 90s.
But the movie also wasn’t making use of top-tier talent, for the most part. Sorry, Rob. And talent is important, which brings us to counterpoint #2 …
Counterpoint #2: When talented filmmakers and performers are attached, a movie can be successful, regardless of the source material.
There’s a lot of evidence to back this one up. Here’s some of that evidence:
-The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.
-The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord.
-Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins.
-Thor: Ragnarok: Directed by Taika Waititi
-A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller.
-Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
And it’s kind of tough to talk about these successes because, in the end, these are all just examples of a studio cynically building a movie around a popular IP and proceeding to find success, whether critical, financial, or both, by lazily regurgitating pop culture.
But from a different angle, these are inspirational stories about the power of creativity. Talented filmmakers got signed on to a kind of stupid project but made it something great, with some kind of heart and emotional investment.
So, I dunno, if we’re talking about the overall health of the entertainment industry, I don’t think that over-reliance on stuff that’s already popular is reaaalllly a good thing, but if we manage to get some cool movies out of it every once in a while, then, ehhhh …
The fact remains that it’s perfectly possible for video game movies to be great movies. But they need good writing, good performances, and good direction.
Likelihood: Looking Through the Reality Goggles
Before we finish up, I’d like to try to predict what’s actually going to happen, and this shifts the conversation a little bit.
I’m not even completely sure where I land on the whole thing. I think I’m just barely on the side of, yes, video game movies do have a shot at becoming a successful Hollywood trend, but it would really take one or more killer success stories to make that trend more likely.
Detective Pikachu was a great proof of concept for video game movies that can appeal to general audiences while also keeping fans happy.
And Nintendo is apparently planning out a Mario movie, in collaboration with … Illumination.
So maybe the new Mario movie won’t be the one, but there’s still lots of potential out there.
But there’s one past movie that makes me very confident in the future of video game movies as a whole.
I liked this movie when it came out, and I still really like it a lot. But Scott Pilgrim is most relevant to the discussion because it integrated video game elements into a real-world environment successfully.
I get it, this isn’t really a video game movie. If anything, it’s a manga adaptation. But it shows how a very talented filmmaker (Edgar Wright), took fantastical elements and used them to enhance a story, all to create a highly memorable movie.
Based on Wright’s experiences working on Antman, it’s safe to say he probably won’t be the one to lead the charge into well-made video game movies, which will no doubt have a lot of interference from the studio and the game publisher.
But the fact that Scott Pilgrim got made and had the impact it did (albeit well after it’s theatrical release) is proof that hit movies about video games are more than possible.
It’s possible to make an adaptation that respects the source material while also adding personal flair. It’s possible for these adaptations to be fun, engaging, and neat to look at.
And for any Hollywood producers out there looking for the next big thing, I think Scott Pilgrim is a great jumping-off point.
None of this means that I want video game movies to become yet another dead horse that Hollywood will beat into a puddle of hooves, glue, and … horse hair I guess.
I’d be thrilled if Hollywood studios made a shift toward smaller investments, rather than putting all the chips on one or two tentpole movies every year.
Wouldn’t it be great, if the typical blockbuster budget of $300 million got divied up into dozens of smaller projects? At the very least we’d get more variety, and new filmmakers and screenwriters would get a chance to try some new things.
(It’s kind of what Blumhouse has been doing. Problem is, the budgets are sooo low they don’t have a lot of wiggle room, and the talent they hire ranges from very good to … not very good at all.)
But I don’t see that change happening any time soon.
Still, it would be nice to see things move away from superhero movies, especially since Marvel already has so many more lined up.
I’m not angry about the superhero glut, but I am tired, and bored, of these movies. I’d really like to see what Disney would do if it needed to change course.
Maybe video game movies will be the next big thing, and maybe Disney will miss the boat somehow. Could be fun to watch.
But in the meantime, movies are over here and video games are over here. We just have to wait and see what comes of the Mario movie and the Detective Pikachu sequel. You can bet that Hollywood big wigs are just as curious to see how these movies perform.