From Time Travel to Superheroes: The Impact of the High Concept Era

Paper by Evie Pazos Ramirez.

Today in the film industry, the rise of superhero films has certainly gained a popular interest to many. The superheroes comics have been around for over 75 years with many adaptations as well at the box offices. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, that the superhero film industry really grew. From there, Iron Man (Jon Faverau 2008) was released and created a big impact for Marvel Studios that went onto jumpstart the franchise we know today. In an article about Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence, the author Derek Johnson writes, “With Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)—the first of these self-financed pictures—Marvel launched a unique model for cinema production in the age of convergence: an independent company with expertise in a different media industry drove blockbuster film content” (1).

Moreover, with the rise of superhero films today, it takes one to wonder how exactly these films have become so successful? Therefore, in this paper, I will be discussing how high concept and blockbuster films created during the 1980s heavily influenced today’s superhero action films. This paper will talk about similarities between both film eras and how they marketed their key audience to create an influential impact on the film industry. Furthermore, the films discussed will be Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis 1985) and Black Panther (Ryan Coogler 2018).

During this time in the late 60s to 1970s, the film industry was going through a bit of a slump. Moreover, the industry then took a shift on genres and relating it more to current events especially with films about war when the Vietnam war was going on and cult drama films too. However, as the industry progressed, a new concept began to unravel. Going back to the late 1970s, high concept films were just beginning to rise within the film industry. As defined by Credo Reference, “High concept film is a work that depends heavily on a very simple premise that can be expressed in a sentence or less..”. High concept film is something that easy that people could come up with. Its main objective is for the film audience to understand it clearly and not get confused with any complicated concepts. Furthermore, Credo Reference explains the elements of a successful high concept. “It must be provocative and unique but with familiar elements. Includes a character, conflict, and a hook. Lastly, it should be based on a fresh and marketable idea” (The Screenwriter’s Bible). Of course, there are many more elements to making a successful high concept film, but these are some of the more relevant and important ideas all film producers take into consideration.

Blockbusters films have been around since the start of the film industry, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that the term blockbuster got a new meaning. In an article about the Rise of Blockbusters, it states,
“The longevity of blockbuster and its wide circulation from the corridors of media corporations to the quotidian conversations of moviegoers worldwide is highly unusual, but not without precedent…In fact, one still encounters erroneous claims that Jaws (1975) was the first blockbuster movie, whereas that film is better understood as a watershed in Hollywood’s increasing reliance upon big blockbuster hits and as a catalyst to a new phase of popular usage of the term” (Acland 12).

The idea of blockbuster films in the 1970s and 1980s was to make a grand gesture and form a unique idea. For the most part, high concept film and blockbuster films had a big budget and were produced by larger studios. Looking back at the Unit 6 lecture notes, this was a time where the industry had a rise in film production and the demand for a greater cost to produce films (Maestu 9). Some films during this time include Jaws (Steven Spielberg 1975), Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner 1980), E.T. (Steven Spielberg 1982) and Top Gun ( Tony Scott 1986). One specific film that played an influential role into the high concept film era is Back to the Future (1985).

The film, Back to the Future (1985) was directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by him and Bob Gale. Furthermore, the film was presented by Steven Spielberg, one of the most famous directors of all time and a longtime mentor of Zemeckis. Zemeckis and Gale began writing for the screenplay in 1980 and had the idea of wanting to make a film about time travel. In the production notes about the film on, Gale states “We had always been fascinated by the idea of time travel and liked the idea of changing history. But most of all, we wanted to write a time travel story where you didn’t have to know anything about history to enjoy it”.

The story follows Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), a 17 year old high school student figuring out his life. He lives a boring life with his family in the small town of Hill Valley. One day his mentor Doctor Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) calls him to meet him late at night at their local mall where he presents him with his latest invention. Later that night, Marty meets with Doc and he presents him with a Delorean. However this Deleoran isn’t just any kind of Delorean, but instead a time machine. As Doc is trying to explain to Marty about its abilities and how it works, they are quickly invaded by some terrorist who try to go after Doc. The reason being is that the car is being used with plutonium, an element that he stole from them. Marty quickly rushes into the car and tries to drive away. As he does the car reaches 88 miles which is considered the speed necessary to get the flux capacitor to activate. The flux capacitor is the thing that allows the Delorean to travel. Marty has now been sent back in time. However, once Marty gets out of the Delorean, quickly comes to realize he is not in just some random year. He was sent back to 1955. The year his parents met and fell in love. Since the car is out of fuel, Marty has to find a way to get back home, so he must find Doc and find a solution. This scene is important because it is when the audience first discovers about the Delorean time machine. As well this scene really captivates people’s attention because it is something that people can laugh at and wonder how one can get in this type of predicament.

Once Marty finds Doc, they realize the only way to power the Delorean to 88 miles is through the historic lightning storm that broke the clock tower of Hill Valley that would hit . That same night of the storm is also the school dance where Marty’s parents fell in love. In order to not be suspected, Marty goes along to school where his parents go. One day he actually finds his dad in a diner where he is being bullied by Biff, Marty’s dad’s supervisor in the present time. When he follows his dad, George, he is seen in a tree spying on Marty’s mom, Lorraine. When George falls Marty pushes him to the side before getting hit by Lorraine’s dad. This results in Marty waking up in Lorraine’s home and altering the timeline since George was supposed to be the person hit and when they first meet. Now Marty has to find a way in order to get his parents together before the timeline is completely altered so that he is erased from existence.

One of the most important scenes from this film is while at the school dance. After asking Marty to the dance, Lorraine and him are in the car waiting to go inside. As Lorraine tries to approach Marty for a kiss, they are interrupted by Biff. He pulls Marty out of the car and this is when he begins to harass Lorraine. Marty is put into the trunk of a car by Biff’s friends and is unable to help Lorraine. That is when George comes to open the car door thinking Marty is in the car with Lorraine. Biff gets up and pulls George’s arm. Instead of taking on Biff’s bullying, he does the incredible and punches Biff. George saves Lorraine and they head to the school dance. This is an important scene because it proves that sometimes the little guy or the “loser” can win. They just need some confidence and are capable of doing anything.

The film ends with the timeline being restored and Marty making it back to 1985. However, the timeline has changed a bit within Marty’s family. Instead of being a boring and sad family, they are now a successful family with his parents being more than ever in love with each other. As well Doc is saved from the terrorists and he goes onto travel to 2015. The film ends with a sneak peek into the sequel when Doc returns from the future and asks Marty to go back with him in time to save his children.

This film had a budget of $19 million. It was released July 7, 1985 and grossed $11,152,500 opening weekend in the US and Canada. Its gross worldwide is $383,336,762 (IMDB). This film did a great job at marketing the high concept type of film because it was easy to understand the plot concept. A teenager gets stuck in time and has to get home. This film was produced by Universal Pictures, a big studio production that is still very popular now. Due to this, it makes the film even more of a high concept film due to its production and larger budget. Moreover, during this decade of film, the genre of science fiction was very popular with films such as Star Wars (1975). The demand for more sci-fi films was increasing and this one was an ultimate hit. The way they marketed this film was by making it enjoyable to all viewers. The film targeted all age groups and was something that the whole family could enjoy. The film was also light hearted and didn’t have a dramatic dark scene making a great blockbuster.

Moving forward 30 years in time, the film industry heads to the superhero film era. Now in the present day, high budget films are all the buzz thanks to the high concept film era. After 2008 with the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studios received a high accredited audience. Viewers of all ages could enjoy it and the production studio grew into a larger than life franchise. Marvel Studios had really made a name after themselves with this film. In his book, David Cook defines and provides an example on what it means to be a franchise in the 21st century, “The American film industry in the twenty-first century had become a crucible for the creation of franchises and brands through the synergistic interaction of corporate parts. A franchise involves the creation of an infinitely exploitable entertainment product, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe” (120).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) from 2008 to 2016 has released over 12 films including the Iron Man (2008, 2010, 2013) trilogy, the two Thor (2011, 2013) films, and the first two Avengers (2012, 2015) films. Now in 2016, the MCU is reaching its peak with its highly anticipated film, Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo 2016). This is the third film of the Captain America trilogy where Captain America and Iron Man go against each other after a disagreement with the government having control of the Avengers. This results in the Avengers breaking up and choosing sides between Steve and Tony. Characters such as Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, Wanda Maximoff, Scott Lang, and Clint Barton on Steve’s team. Then Rhodey, Natasha, Vision on Tony’s team. The Marvel comics has many beloved superheroes and this film was to introduce two new characters in the MCU. Black Panther and Spider-Man were the highly anticipated characters introduced in the film and created a memorable film for many viewers. They went on to partner up on Tony’s team. With the success of this film, Marvel Studios went onto creating origin films for both characters.
Black Panther played by Chadwick Boseman left an impact not only to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as well to the film industry. The origin story of T’Challa was released in 2018 in the film titled, Black Panther. For years, fans have been waiting for this type of representation on the big screen. In the article titled “Out of this World ”, Devika Girish explains the impact Black Panther had made on the big screen. “Rarely does big-screen science fiction allow people of color to represent and interrogate their own lived experiences of subjugation and exploitation. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther marks a radical break in this trend” (30).

This film follows up on the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War (2016). In that film, T’Challa’s father King T’Chaka has been assassinated leaving the reigns of their country Wakanda to him. T’Challa has already been appointed as the Black Panther as it is a tradition that follows in his family. As well, Wakanda is a hidden city from society and it is unknown that they carry one of the most powerful metals in the world, vibranium. Before his homecoming, T’Challa invites Nakia, a former girlfriend of his to join him as he is set to be crowned. T’Challa comes home and is greeted with open arms from his family. One of the most important scenes in this film is the coronation of T’Challa and the ceremony process. It is incredibly beautiful and designed to show the Wakandan culture. All the people arrive near a waterfall and chant in unison for T’Challa’s coronation. In order to become king, the person must as well accept the challenge from anybody apart of the community. From there, the soon to be king must be stripped of his Black Panther abilities and must fight with his strength and heart. Myron T. Strong and K. Sean Chaplin bring up a great point about the representation of African culture stating, “The film’s ability to imagine a futuristic and alternative uncolonized Africa provides audiences with positive portrayals of Africa beyond stereotypes of civil warfare and violence, disease, famine, and other social ills. It also left Black moviegoers feeling a sense of pride and connection to a Pan-African identity” (58).

This is just one example of the difference between high concept films in the 80s and superhero films of now. Superhero films try their best to relate to issues going on in today’s society as well making it into a simple concept for people to understand. This film allows for people who don’t normally see themselves on the big screen to be the main character. As well this film brings out the best in the people of film. They don’t lean on stereotypes, but instead celebration and appreciation. This is something that drove the success of this film. It was just one way that it targeted its audience in today’s high concept film elements.
M’Baku tries to challenge T’Challa, however he ends up winning the fight and the crown. Moreover, the film progresses and T’Challa is faced with a conflict of someone stealing vibranium from a museum. The man who has stolen it goes by the name of Ulysses Klaue and is a familiar character in the MCU. He is known for stealing and dealing goods and was one of the reasons as to why Eric, also known as Kilmonger’s dad, was killed. It turns out that they are both partnering up to steal the vibranium, but come to find out Kilmonger kills Klaue to prove his loyalty to Wakanda. This is where Eric arrives in Wakanda and tells tribe leaders that he is also Wakandan and is the son of King T’Chaka brother. This leaves Kilmonger to challenge T’Challa for the role of King and the Black Panther. The people are left in shock when Eric wins and throws T’Challa into the water. Eric is now the king and has made an order to destroy all the herbs that give one the power to become the Black Panther. However, Nakia is able to take one before it all burns down.

The second most important scene of this film is after Nakia and T’Challa’s family have fled to find M’Baku for help. From there M’Baku reveals T’Challa’s is indeed alive, but weak and frozen. Nakia gives him the herb and the film takes us to the ancestral realm. In Captain America: Civil War (2016), after King T’Chaka has passed, T’Challa reveals to Natasha and says, “In my culture, death is not the end. It’s more of a stepping point. You reach out with both hands and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into the green veld where… you can run forever”. Furthemore, as T’Challa is in the realm, he speaks with his fathers on the actions that he committed and why he killed his brother and abandoned Eric. This scene is especially touching because it sets another view that superhero films take on. These films as well try to implement a lesson amidst all the action and drama presented.

The film breaks out in a fight between the people of Wakanda and Kilmonger vs. T’Challa. However the people step down when W’Kabi stands down against Okoye. T’Challa goes on to defeat Kilmonger and amongst being enemies, T’Challa still wants to take care of Eric and help him. However, Eric decides he would rather not and he is seen watching the sunset with T’Challa. The film ends with T’Challa making the decision for people to know of Wakanda.
The budget of this film was estimated at $200 million. The film was released February 18, 2018 and grossed $202,003,951 in its opening weekend in the US and Canada. Furthermore its gross worldwide is approximately $1,382,248,826. There are many reasons for the film’s success and as well how it marketed towards its audience. In an article written by John McCarthy, he lists off the many reasons as towards its marketing campaign for the film. “First, the film is the first to feature a black director in Ryan Cogler of Creed fame.” This is an important highlight because it also touches on the representation needed in the film industry. Not only on screen, but as with behind the scenes. Since these are superhero films, they try their best to target children. Marvel Studios does many campaigns and collaborations with toy companies to produce toys of their latest superheroes. McCarthy mentions this type of marketing revealing, “Similarly reaching children was a toy-selling ad campaign from Hasbro. Featuring. Charles Pulliam-Moore writes in Gizmodo how this campaign (ad below), featuring children of color is important: “Characters of color have historically been relatively marginalized in movies, comics, and television, toys and commercials like this simply haven’t existed before”.

Looking back at these two films, one may think that they are completely different from each other, but they actually are not. Although Back to the Future and Black Panther are about 30 years apart and have two completely different plots, they share the concepts of high concept film. Both of these films can be considered a high concept film due to its budget, production and the way it targets their audience. As well both of these films are simple ideas that viewers can easily understand and discover on their own the hidden messages beneath it all. Both of these films can be enjoyed by all audiences, especially families. These films have come out during a highlight year of films and both appeal to its marketing ideas. They are also both considered science fiction and deal with futuristic technology. These films do as well have differences with Black Panther representing a more global ideal of culture representation. This is just one way as to how it helped target their audience. It is clearly evident that the high concept film era of the 1970s and 1980s impacted the superhero films of today. They helped revolutionize a new era with the same basic elements, but an addition more production. The high concept film era presented some of the best films of all time and helped to create the new generation of film that we see today.

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