If you take a look at IGN's Top 100 Comic Book Heroes, specifically the top 20, you'll notice a trend. It might not be all that shocking, but looked at from a certain angle, it's fairly disconcerting. Only two of the entries come from the modern era – Rorschach from Watchmen (1986) and Dream of the Endless from Sandman (1989). The next closest is Wolverine, who debuted in 1974.
Beyond that, the top 20 is comprised of characters that range from the earliest days of superhero comics, the late 1930s, to the "Marvel Age" – the early-to-mid 1960s. In addition to being comic book icons, a bulk of these characters are also the bankable franchises currently running the Hollywood scene: Batman, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.
After pondering this list (which I myself had a hand in creating) and writing my Wrestling & Comics: A Perfect Match article from earlier this week, something rather profound occurred to me. Much like pro wrestling has relied on the same big name talent for the past 20 years out of an inability to create new stars, so too have comic books in Hollywood. There are very few examples of newly created heroes in mainstream comics that have blown up to the level of being ripe for a summer superhero movie.
Hellboy, and Spawn – but in terms of a Marvel or DC superhero that has caught on to the general public enough to warrant a film, there's been nothing (not counting Steel, of course).
What's really interesting is considering the success rate of the films that we have seen. Obviously things like Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men and the Avengers-related flicks have all proved successful, solidifying their viability as box office superstars. But then look at Superman, a character that modern audiences (and comic book readers) often cite as irrelevant to the modern age -- an issue I've discussed in a past Hero Worship -- and you'll see, time and again, Warner Brothers attempting to make him a viable franchise.
Aside from Donner's original Superman: The Movie, and to a lesser degree Superman II, no Superman film has been generally well-received. One has to wonder if the core of the character simply isn't connecting with modern audiences. Why then, are we seeing a constant effort to reshape this character? I'm a huge Superman fan, and as excited as I am for Man of Steel, it's hard not to wonder if we should stop relying on Superman's status as the first superhero and iconic archetype, and try to move onto something inherently more in tune with this day and age rather than trying to shoehorn relevance into a hero that was born in a very different era.
The only new Marvel or DC hero that has achieved some semblance of mainstream success inside and outside of comic books is Deadpool, who was created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld in 1991. Deadpool quickly became a hero that the "too cool for superheroes" comic book readers could like, or even those that had become disenchanted with the typical storytelling of Marvel Comics at the time. He's a definitively Gen-X kind of hero, and one that survived the 90s in a way that most other characters from that time have not. He remains an important staple of Marvel's publishing schedule, a mainstay in Marvel video games, a candidate for a feature film, and provides a specific appeal that offers up something different amongst the slew of X-Men and Avengers books that regularly populate Marvel's catalog.
But since moving into an age where summer tent pole movies are growing ever more superhero-centric, new franchises viable for adaptation has grown slimmer. Oftentimes, the best new characters and books teeter on the brink of their respective universes – look at Secret Six for DC or Marvel's cosmic books – and are hardly in the eye of pop culture. In an environment like today's comic book market, it's unlikely that a niche character will catch on fire with fans outside of comics, like Deadpool did in the midst of the '90s boom.
While comic book fans would undoubtedly love to see characters like Catman and Deadshot on screen, the studio mindset of relying on the icons (no different than their love of sequels and reboots) is unlikely to change. But in the case of things like the Green Lantern movie, deemed a failure in most respects (except, of course, by me) Warner Brothers is more likely to try a rebooted Green Lantern movie (a la Incredible Hulk) than a different, lesser known "pop culture franchise" all together.
Inability to change isn't just a Hollywood problem. It's an issue inherent to superhero comics, too. There are exceptions, as there are to every rule, but this is why characters don't stay dead or always revert to their best-known roles. It's why DC Comics needed a jumpstart this past September: change doesn't come naturally in superhero comics.
DC recognized this problem to a degree and took drastic measures to instigate it. Obviously, there was a whole lot more that went into the decision, but the need to shake things up – both in terms of business and characters – was a primary factor. Whether or not it has been successful in those goals is still up for debate.
The truth is that diehard comic book readers make up only a fraction of the general movie-going audience. But considering that comic book publishers are becoming more and more akin to Research and Development departments of the bigger corporations that own them, there needs to be a significant push toward new stories that will lead to new characters. It's unlikely that characters will ever die and stay that way, but the best example I can point to is Dick Grayson -- one of the few superheroes to ever show true progression. He began as Robin, became Nightwing, and eventually Batman. While he's since reverted back to Nightwing, his 30 years before the DC relaunch remains a shining example of building on the past of superhero comics to grow the future.