Are Comic Book Fans Losing Their Grip in the Marvel Universe?

Hank Pym, Ant ManWENN / Marvel

There are three ways to sell a movie: sex, violence, and Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie Golden Globe Award winners. Super producer Kevin Feige knows this, and he has roped Sunday night’s victor Michael Douglas into the Ant-Man cast. Not a match you would have made, but this is the direction that superhero movies are heading in.

No longer is Marvel stardom limited to refurbished comic actors, abdominably-gifted newcomers, or future self-obsessed outsider art renegades. This latest wave of comic book movies has seen the inclusion of performers of the highest esteem. Douglas joins Paul Rudd, the media-literate public’s equivalent of the freakin’ pope, in action comedy master Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man feature, an announcement that comes a few months after Guardians of the Galaxy tacked on the likes of legends Glenn Close and Benicio del Toro, Academy pet Bradley Cooper, and mainstream comedy mainstay John C. Reilly. Actors with varied, successful careers are flocking to the superhero circuit — good news for the masses, who are taking new interest in this line of releases (which, in turn, is great news for the studios), but is it good news for the existing fans?

While we’ve seen broad audiences take to superhero flicks since Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man represent a league of superhero series that have, up until now, thrived on small but devoted communities of comic book fandom. The announcement of their film adaptations sparked tiny bursts of glee, but also questions: how are they going to do this rightGuardians and Ant-Man are especially weird properties that A) wouldn’t appeal to Avengers-sized audiences as is, but B) would outrage the established fans were it to reform toward general palatability. We can’t assume just by the casting of Rudd and Douglas that Ant-Man is going the Hollywood angle, but we can wonder exactly what it has up its sleeve.

Iron Man 3 presents a good example of the concerns of die hard fans (not Die Hard fans though — they probably loved Iron Man 3, which is exactly what we’re talking about). The third chapter for Tony Stark, handled by action-comedy kingpin Shane Black, transformed the genre of the Robert Downey Jr. trilogy into something like that which you’d see in his Lethal Weapon scripts, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And to those not stringently adhered to the Iron Man mythology, the movie was fantastic. Fun, goofy, malleable, creative, and hilarious. To those who wanted the Mandarin and Extremis they knew from the comics, it was… enraging.

But more even than the issue of contextual changes is that of the sense of the aforementioned communities of comic book fandom. There is something special about being part of a small union of like-minded, unappreciated folk — e.g., being one of the few who hopped on the Arrested Development bandwagon before the series got its post cancelation hop-ons (but to be fair, you’re gonna get some hop-ons). This adherence to exclusivity, this “I was into it before everyone else” mentality, they’re not entirely healthy or condusive to authentic appreciation of a piece of art. But the phenomenon was born from necessity: way back when geekiness of all sorts was brandished and those belonging to said genus were ostracized (you know, in that long dead era known as high school), it was the very idea of finding others like you and reveling in your elite appreciation for some piece of underdog genius. It helped many of us get through tough times. Love for comic books, specifically — and what’s more, the idea that you were one of a small, special, unique force of “superhuman” devotees — charged some much-needed positive vibes. And although we all should be more than willing to open up our beloved titles and characters to the world, there is always that hesitation. Does Marvel expanding its reach to everyone, does everyone’s appreciation of what you once held dear and sacred make it less so? Do these stories about “different” people need to be read and loved only by people who identify as different in order to have their desired impact?

Maybe. But figure this: maybe, this way, they’re reaching a young watcher or reader who might otherwise not have had the opportunity to benefit from their glory. Maybe this is the only way that these tales of justice, strength, humanity, integrity, and imagination can get through to everyone who needs them. Don’t feel as if you’re being forced to sacrifice your place in an “elite” supergroup. Think of it as the characters that saved you moving on to do the same for the rest of the world.