Comic Books have always been fair game for adaptation into both television shows and movies, but over the past 10years this seems to have boomed to a whole new level of epic proportions with everything even remotely related to a potentially successful comic book getting optioned by one studio or another. But is this really good for comic book fans? Well ive been thinking about this a lot recently, so lets see what random thoughts I can collect together.
There was a time, and not too long ago, where only the big comic books would ever see an adaptation to the big screen- I mean were talking ‘Superman’ and ‘Batman’ really and some of the other larger properties may see a successful run on television such as the ‘Incredible Hulk.’ The only other kind of comic book related movie you would see where some of the smaller characters that could be hugely altered and edited for the big screen, while given a tiny budget and released in the hope of getting action movie fans in to see the film- yes ‘Shadow’ im looking at you. But all that has changed in the last 15years, and were sitting in what is described as the best ever time for comic book adaptations and superhero movies that Hollywood has ever seen so this has to be good right? Well no im afraid it doesn’t!
Here’s why im willing to say that the golden age of comic book adaptations may not truly be the best thing for comic book fans- substance. This is a small word but has such a huge meaning when it comes to an adaptation. We can all think of our favourite adaptations, and the reason that we love them so, is that their so faithful to the source materials portrayal of characters that we instantly get a feeling of immense pleasure and familiarization (just look at Nolan’s take on Batman recently).
However there are far more movies since the boom started that decide to take a very different approach to the characters we all love, in an attempt to make the movie more marketable and appeal to a larger audience- sorry ‘Ghostrider’ but you sucked and ‘Blade: Trinity’ im still trying to forget you were ever made. The real problem with these two afore-mentioned movies isn’t the characters themselves, as they work in their comic book form but it’s that the studio felt they were too niche and altered their feel with hugely unsuccessful results. And this seems to be happening more often than not when you look at the big studios adaptations of smaller characters- Daredevil, Elektra, From Hell (I’ll mention this more later), Jonah Hex, League of extraordinary Gentleman and Wanted are all examples where studios attempts to change things have gotten it so badly wrong.
For every movie that Hollywood has managed to successfully adapt over the last 15years, there has to be three times as many that have missed the mark. For ever Zack Snyders ‘Man of Steel’ there is at least three movies that are more like ‘Timecop2: The Berlin Decision.’ What you didn’t know Timecop was a comic book adaptation or that the average first movie starring Jean Claude VanDamme got a sequel, well I assure you its worse and this is the symptomatic problem with adaptations. Many of the adaptations are done by film studios or film makers who have very little knowledge of or love for the source material, and how can you make a good adaptation full of substance when you dont even know or aren’t familiar with the original content. This leads me to looking at the amazing work of Alan Moore- one of the greatest comic book writers of original content to ever grace the pages of printing, yet his despite all the adaptations of his work there’s only one that even closer resembles the original content.
Alan Moore is renowned for hating the adaptations of his work into movies- and when you see them you can understand why. Taken on their own the adaptations of V for Vendetta (my daughter got her name from here- orignal comicbook of course) and Watchmen are good films, while From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen aren’t. Watchmen is the only film even close to its original content, and the film really shows this in its brooding and moody story that succeeds in producing a great tale- anyone who isn’t sad when it all goes wrong for Rorschach has no heart. Yet the ending of this is still tailored from the comic book, but this is a rare time when it works. But if you look at the other adaptations of Moore’s work you’ll see the common problem with adapting comic book movies, the studios fear the material is either to adult or too complex for a movie and kill its substance. Dont believe me lets look at League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which saw the studio add an American Character so the ‘audience would feel engaged,’ I mean really hollywood? Add to that the huge chances made to character origins- the invisible man is given a unfortunous background in the film compared to a sadistic man who abuses his abilities in the comic book, and its this abuse of his powers that makes him the warrior and devious man he is throughout the story so in the film the change just seems odd and like a plot device. Then there’s the ever heroic portrayal of Allan Quatermain in the film, who is already ready to save the world in a heartbeat opposed to the slightly reluctant hero with a heroin addiction in the comic book who struggles to hold it all together but does so for the greater good. The chances are simply too much for the original substance to hold true and thus the movie fails miserably as anything worth watching. Is it any wonder Alan Moore has nothing to do with any of the film adaptations of his work?
Now this next issue i have with adaptations is a very recent one, but seems to be becoming more and more common for adaptations of bigger comic book characters and film companies and its the desire to pre-announce sequels. Surely sequels to comic book movies are a good thing if the first film is great right? Well yes they are, lets just look at Captain America2: Winter Soldier as an example of a sequel that is far superior to the first in every way from story telling to the portrayal and introduction of its cast of characters. Yet recently more movies appear to be looking to set-up sequels more than they do provide a great tale that can naturally lead into more films, lets use Spider-Man 3 as an example. The film is notoriously the worst in the Sam Raimi franchise (I enjoyed the first 2 immensely) and the reason for this is that Sony and Columbia Pictures wanted to establish spin-off movies featuring everyone’s favourite symbiote Venom. This meant he had to be added to the movie after the original script had been written and as a result the movie feels like it contains too many villains, has an odd out of sync character change for Peter, has a very fast change with Harry Osborne back to hero and features such a fast pace in getting to the final showdown with the elaborate set pieces that it almost comes from nowhere- like the edited out 15miuntes of the movie. But this isn’t the only movie to do it, its become a little more common than we would like. Amazing Spider-Man2 also suffers from the same fate- the amount of villains that are placed in the movie to set-up future stories make the film seem like it’s a stop-gap, or a pilot movie for whats to come next. This in no way makes the movie horrible, but it does make it passable and feel like the studio themselves just wanted it out-of-the-way to move onto what they feel should come next. With this approach to movie making, how can adaptations be great- you need to focus on the movie your making and not the movie your going to make if you want the original materials substance to shine and that’s the whole point of an adaptation. Now were hearing that Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ will end on a cliffhanger that leads into ‘Justice League’ im just hoping this is a post credits scene and not a cut off at the end as we’ve heard may be the case, as this would be the worst case of building to the next movie to date.
Ok, I know right now it all sounds doom and gloom for adaptations but I do like them- honest! and when there done right they truly are a thing of beauty. I mean lets look at the successes in the last 15years and you’ll see why the studios and the cinema going public are lapping up adaptations right now, and will be for some time to come I’m sure. Since the year 2000 there have been a total of 92 live action (Main language English) comic book movie adaptation and amongst these are the likes of ‘A History of Violence,’ ‘The Dark Knight,’ ‘Hellboy,’ ‘Sin City’ and ‘Iron Man’ all of which are great movies that have made huge waves in all areas of the film industry. So what did these movies get so right?
Well basically they stuck to the core material they were adapting- and looked at how the film could be made to work around the story and not the story work around the film industry. Sin City is the best example, they hired and kept Frank Millar (original creator) on the movie the whole time, as this was part of the adaptation deal. This means that he was so involved there was no way the movie could ever be deviated from the source material to far as he would just refuse to allow this to occur, but not only that the studio took a huge gamble of the visuals of this film, sticking to the black and white colour scheme with splashes of colour just like the source material. And the fact that studio held the story together along with Millar’s distinctive visual style produced one of the best adaptations to date, and one of the most visually stunning movies of the last 10years that manages to hold up so well due to it having all the original materials substance. Even smaller and lesser known comic books can make great adaptations, this is no more true than in the case of ‘A History of Violence’ which is a lesser known comic book but manged to get several Academy Award nominations and showed just how much there was to comic books and comic book movies than superheroes. This is a great crime thriller that really tells the tale of escaping your past and attempting to change and build a new life for yourself, and does so through the tale of one man and his family. It’s a real emotional tale, that has you hooked from the beginning both when you read it and watch it. This is the closest and best small comic book adaptation to hit or screens.
Most of the successful adaptations have one other thing in common- great directors and casting, this is no more true than with the entire ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy that was recently finished by Christopher Nolan. The director took a franchise that had become a joke, thanks to Joel Schumacher’s decisions to go for ‘more is better’ over story telling and turned it into what we all knew it had been before (Tim Burton nailed Batman) and what we all knew it had the potential to be, one of the best superhero franchises ever! Nolan took the tale of Bruce Wayne, and stuck so closely to the original origin and the darkness of the character that we got a true adaptation of everyone’s favourite non-powered superhero. Add to that the realism that was added to the villains, Scarecrow was amazingly well done, and the fact that the fight scenes were so well choreographed and filmed there was no way this franchise wasnt going to succeed. Then there came Heath Ledger and his portrayal of the ‘Clown prince of crime’ and the Joker had never seemed more scary or genuinely threatening to Batman on screen than he was this time. Its this struggle between the two, and the way it ends “I feel well be doing this for a long time” that shows how much love there was for the source material and just how much Nolan and the actors, Christian Bale specifically really wanted to give everything in the movie a real sense of substance, meaning and worth. The same can be said for the X-men franchise, at least under the helm of Brian Singer (lets forget X3) and this is the reason that these characters have all manged to break out and will continue to pack audiences into cinemas.
I feel it would be wrong of me to end this article without a mention of the best thing to happen to comic book adaptations in the last 25years, and that is simple Marvel Entertainment/Studios taking their characters in-house to produce movies. Since they released their first self produced movie in the form of ‘Iron Man’ the comic book adaptation has never been the same, the studios approach to producing a universe and sequels was new and fresh and has totally changed the landscape. Marvel planned their movie releases into phases (each phases to focus on set characters and introduce new characters/teams) and in each phases they would tell a story with each character, and not build to the sequel specifically. Yes there are hints in each movie as to what is to come next, most notably Thanos in the ‘Avengers’, but these are always used as a plot device to tell the current story and not to merely focus you on the future. This has allowed them to tell some great stories and introduce non comic book fans to a host of characters that they now care about too- Black Widow is a great example of this, as who would have picked her a stand out character. Marvel have also used the post credit scene to huge effect, as this is the time they drop the little hook or bomb shell for characters that will lead into the next sequel for this character or the next film that there releasing, and this usage of a shared universe has made people go and see movies they otherwise might not care about. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the next release from Marvel and who would have thought the hype would be so big for a lesser known property, but the building of their cinematic universe has people in a frenzy to see what happens next. More studios should take note of this story building and make it part of their plans, and it looks like some have been given the recent post credit teaser in ‘X-men: Days of Future Past.’ Not only this but Marvel have comic book writers and editors working on their movies, which means you get the integrity of the original story transferring across to film along with a host of little nerdy content in each movie (CrossBones in Captain America2) that really helps these films feel like big events and not just a poor understanding of the source material set around some good action scenes.
So while I said I feel that this is the golden time for comic book adaptations, I feel that for comic book purest to truly get the most we need to see a few changes across the board in Hollywood- their are great adaptations there as discussed but there’s just too much done wrong for it to truly be a ‘magnificent time’ to be a comic book fan in the cinema. Yes Marvel are nailing there movies, and DC has recently had huge success in partnership with Warner Brothers on ‘Batman’ and ‘Man of Steel’ but we need more movies approached like this on all adaptations and less movies approached and produced like a quick cash in because the comic book movie is popular. I feel as a huge comic book fan that we are in a boom, but im hopeful that we stay here and see an improvement across the board from companies to truly give us the stories and the original content we all love and cant wait to see.
With that said, im aware if totally ignored the popular television adaptation of comic books but i assure that’s on its way in Part2- so stay tuned.