After more than a decade of unprecedented dominance over Hollywood, the reign of superhero comic book adaptations may finally be coming to an end. The once-bulletproof Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen its first box office disappointment in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and returning Disney CEO Bob Iger has pumped the brakes on the nonstop parade of forgettable streaming shows.
DC Films has entered a rebuilding phase after Dwayne Johnson’s long-awaited Black Adam failed to make a splash, and The CW’s sprawling Arrowverse is coming to an end after a cumulative 41 seasons across eight television titles. While the comic book movie may yet rebound in the years ahead, its place in the zeitgeist is rapidly being conquered by another arena maligned by older generations: video games.
Has the video game movie curse lifted?
With the massive success of HBO’s The Last of Us and the marketing blitz around the upcoming animated The Super Mario Bros. Movie, it’s clear that there’s no longer a stigma against video game adaptations on film and television. Last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog 2 grossed over $400 million worldwide. Even if they’re rarely critical darlings, they’re no longer inherently risky at the box office. Titles ranging from Borderlands to Space Channel 5 are currently in development for the big screen, allowing Hollywood studios to do what they do best: cash in on established brands and allow organized fan communities to do half of their marketing for them.
This time around, however, they’ll be trying to appeal to an existing audience that is not only larger, but more diverse in its interests. The comics medium is home to all varieties of genres, but the American comics market is dominated by two companies, Marvel and DC, who trade primarily in superheroes, making “comic book movie” and “superhero movie” practically interchangeable terms. For example, there are now three Ant-Man movies, but none based on the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets comics, which have been running since 1982.
Video games feature no such genre monopoly, and popular games run the gamut from fantasy epics to military shooters to cozy small-town misadventures. A Call of Duty movie would bear no resemblance to an Animal Crossing movie, and either stands a fair chance of getting made. This makes the prospect of a video game movie boom a welcome change from the monotony of the superhero era, which, judging from the tepid reception to Quantumania and outright failure of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, appears to be over.
However, as any gamer will tell you, not every video game lends itself easily to the shape of a narrative film, including some of the most recognizable titles in the medium. For example, 138 million people downloaded Candy Crush Saga last year, but its perfunctory story doesn’t exactly have the makings of a cinematic masterpiece. Minecraft is an enormously popular open-world game with no story at all, and its planned adaptation has languished in development hell for nearly a decade as a parade of writers and directors have failed to settle on a vision for the film. However, just because some hit games aren’t directly adaptable for the big screen doesn’t mean movie studios are simply going to leave that money on the table — it only means that they’ll have to get creative.
A movie about Tetris, but not based on Tetris
Tetris, the new feature from Apple Original Films and director Jon S. Baird, is the story of one of the most popular and enduring video games of all time, but it isn’t a video game adaptation. Instead, it’s part of another trending genre in Hollywood: the business biopic. These are films or miniseries that dive into the lives of famous entrepreneurs and, by extension, famous products. In 2022, streamers and premium cable networks released miniseries about the shady entrepreneurs behind Uber, WeWork, and Theranos. This year will see a handful of feature films about the invention of consumer products like the BlackBerry and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Tetris is such a film, an admittedly exaggerated account of how Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers promoted Soviet programmer Alexey Pajitnov’s perfect puzzle game to worldwide ubiquity. Rogers is the movie’s main character, portrayed by Kingsman star Taron Egerton, but he’s not the main attraction. Undeniably, the film’s star power comes from the title, which belongs to a video game with unprecedented mass appeal. Baird, Apple, and producer Matthew Vaughn have found a way to adapt the unadaptable, drawing eyes to a midbudget drama in the impossibly competitive streaming economy where films live or die based on the appeal of a thumbnail image. Taron Egerton sporting an incredibly ’80s mustache isn’t going to get much attention, but everyone’s heard of Tetris.
A future with less superheroes and more movies about video games?
If the Tetris film is deemed a success (though this may be hard to measure for a streaming-only release), it may provide a road map with which movie or TV studios can exploit video game brands that do not lend themselves to direct story adaptation. Farmville does not have the makings of a thrilling family adventure, but could it be the title of a business drama about the rise and fall of the trendsetting freemium game? Might Sega’s new film division be wise to earmark $20 million for a movie about the console wars? How long before we get a Bombshell-style film about the scandals within Blizzard?
If the growing marketability of video game adaptations tells us anything, it’s that gamers have matured to the point that the business of video games interests them as much as the games themselves. Interspersing tales of the real-life showbiz drama behind the games industry within the probable deluge of direct adaptations would not only be a welcome change of pace, but also enhance viewers’ understanding and enjoyment of games and game adaptations in general. If video game movies are, in fact, to be the new new Western, an inescapable, decade-defining trend, such an approach may prove both profitable for studios and far less exhausting for audiences.
You can stream Tetris on Apple TV+ right now.
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