You know who else had a nice dark, gritty, incredible background?
- Ghost Rider
- The Punisher
- Man-Thing (no, really!)
Historically, Marvel's "dark knights", if you will, have had a problem: how do you make money on the movie?
- Because it's a licensed film, you can't go too low budget, or you'll hurt the overall brand.
- If you aim too wide, especially in terms of movie ratings, a lot of the grit/pathos that makes the character interesting is lost.
- Related, if you focus too much on star power, what ends up on the screen is Ben Affleck in red leather, rather than Matt Murdock, Daredevil.
- Of course, stars are bad for other reasons… It might be easier to get a fan of the title to sign on, but then they may use their leverage to screw up the script or direction because they "know better" – looking at you, Nic Cage!
- Sometimes Hollywood gets lost in the origin issue – how can you tell fun new stories about the Punisher without first doing a "set up" piece about how he became a deranged homicidal maniac?
- If you ignore the origin and just tell the story, "won't all the non-fans get lost/turned off?" – this is not entirely unfounded… A lot of Marvel characters, especially, depend on their origin and background in the larger universe to be interesting. The Punisher by any other name… Is a dude with guns killing bad guys. That becomes a "red ocean" problem, where you suddenly ALSO need to just make a kick-ass vigilante action movie to compete with the rest of that genre, on top of everything else.
For these and other reasons, comic book movies tend to have a lot working against them from the very outset… And if the comic title in question isn't a "household name", well, for most producers and studios, it's just too risky to do as a tentpole/blockbuster.
On the brighter side – this is, in large part, why Marvel pulled out of its production deal with Sony in order to found their own studio – use your own cash, make your own rules. And now that they are "free", their execution has been much better… They will have released the entire "Avengers Core Team" as solo films by the end of 2011 – Hulk, Thor, Cap, and the Tin Can. With the exception of Captain America (not yet released), performance globally has been from decent to astounding.
The next step is to bring them all together in an eye-exploding orgy of hopefully-not-suck called The Avengers, in 2012. That movie should also see an expanded list of tier-two 'masks' like Hawkeye getting a bit of screen time… If done right, that might tip such heroes into the household name category, enabling them to star in their own films, gritty or otherwise.
To say the least, there are a lot of "what if's" involved, and only time will tell. But it's certainly fair to say that Marvel has learned an important lesson about fully-outsourcing its product to Hollywood, and that while there are likely to be continued misses down the road (Ghost Rider II, whaaaa?!?), the batting averages for the next 20 years are almost certainly going to be better than the last 20.