Comics-based movies: Breaking ‘the book was better’ rule
Are you getting excited? New teasers and trailers are being released almost every day now. The countdown to Summer Movie Season is officially on, and the big blockbusters adapting comics are looking promising. Iron Man 3 has an armada of armors flying around; can’t really go wrong there. The Wolverine has ninjas as far as the eye can see. And the bearded and brooding Man of Steel might even end up being good. Throw in a little Kick-Ass 2 and RED 2, sprinkle with R.I.P.D. and 300: Rise of an Empire, and top it off with 2 Guns, and you’ve got yourself one fun summer.
While we still get clunkers, the ratio of good to suck has definitely improved. It used to be that the old chestnut response to a movie adapted from a novel could be more often than not applied to movies adapted from comics: The book was better. And it’s often still true. But there are times when the movies do it better than comics, and while that’s great for the filmmakers and audiences, in a way it’s an indictment on the comics-makers.
Comics offer more boundless creativity than almost any medium. With comics, there’s no studio executive, no creation-by-committee made up of shareholders and board members with less experience creating and telling stories than their companies’ interns. It’s why Tony Stark being an alcoholic doesn’t fly with Disney and was removed from Iron Man 3. Comics can still include collaboration and compromise but they can just as easily be the result of a single voice. Even with the most heavy-handed editorially mandated comics, they’re still created by a fraction of people needed to make a Hollywood movie. Comics are generally more spontaneous, imaginative and clever than most major studio movies. But sometimes, Hollywood gets the jump on comics.
I still remember sitting in the theater and being ecstatic at seeing Spider-Man really swing through New York City in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. That euphoria lifted the rest of the movie, masking weak chemistry between Peter and Mary Jane, and other elements that were really just OK. Consequently, the movie didn’t really hold up to repeated viewing, especially stacked up against J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man comics of the time. His run had yet to be tainted by Gwen Stacy clones and “One More Day.” In fact, that period was seen as a revitalizing moment for The Amazing Spider-Man, which had been plagued with stumbling efforts for years. Straczynski was still relatively new on the title, and the controversial issue of Aunt May revealing she already knew Peter was Spider-Man had recently been released. The comic was fresh and bold in challenging the established Spider-Man mythos, serving as a dynamic counter-point to the movie. Toby Maguire fans looking for more of the movie Spider-Man, though, would’ve done better to check out Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which was less than two years old and still defying expectations with strong sales and positive reviews. While the movie was a good first crush, the (comic) books were better.
But it wasn’t always quite that good. Two years earlier, Bryan Singer’s X-Men out-X-Men’ed the X-Men comics of the time. Efforts were made, but the Revolution initiative did nothing to streamline or strengthen Uncanny X-Men or most of its spinoff titles. Chris Claremont’s long-awaited return just didn’t click, and a year later, the entire line had another effort to try to straighten things out. The movie better captured the core of the characters and the very concept that Claremont had helped put in place decades earlier, and the wish fulfillment casting of Professor X, Magneto and Wolverine brought the comic characters to life even without the costumes. It was a tough time for Marvel, which was still getting its footing crawling out of bankruptcy, and the comics couldn’t compete with the first big Marvel-based movie.
Batman Begins and its sequels redefined Batman in pop culture. These days whenever someone does a Batman impression or posts a Batman video on YouTube, they do the ridiculous Christan Bale laryngitis voice. In many ways, it was the Batman we wanted from the Tim Burton movies but it also brought a new dimension to the character. Batman was now an obsessively driven, intense force of nature. He was more passionate and impulsive, more animalistic, whereas in the comics he tended to be more brooding and calculating. Meanwhile in the comics, Batman was still living off the glow of the popular “Hush” story by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee. A story thread from “Hush” was developed and being finished by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke with the controversial “Under the Hood,” which was followed by some one-offs. In Detective Comics, David Lapham was bringing a horror vibe to Batman with his 12-part “City of Crime” story. While these were more or less well received, it was tough to compete with Batman Begins, which while not perfect, showed a potential that eclipsed the comics of the time.
The Iron Man movie similarly redefined Tony Stark. It’s probably more accurate to say that it defined him, as the character was virtually unknown to the masses before the movie. It succeeded because finally it was clear how fun and cool it would be to be Iron Man. A sense of humor that was barely existent in the character before suddenly became one of his defining and more charming traits. In the comics, Daniel and Charles Knauf were putting out a respectable run on The Invincible Iron Man, retitled Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it was too muddled by post-Civil War shenanigans and simply couldn’t compete with how the movie presented the character.
And finally, Marvel’s The Avengers. This movie was such an event, pulling off the merging of three successful franchises (and one struggling franchise) into one mega-movie. And it actually produced a fun and exciting movie. Finally the Hulk worked. In the comics, we were knee deep in the Avengers vs X-Men miniseries and crossover, and everything in a five-mile radius, especially if it had Avengers in the title, tied into it. Except that is for Avengers Assemble by Bendis and Bagley. This was supposed to be the comic to read if you liked the movie. Perhaps it didn’t stand out enough or maybe it drowned in the AvX tidal wave, or maybe Marvel’s The Avengers was simply the mightier take on the characters. While the movie built on what was already established in the main characters’ solo movies, it smashed them all together with such glee and childlike bombast. In last summer’s comics, those characters meeting was still old hat.
And that’s probably the key to those moments where the movies outshone the respective comics of the time. The comics were mostly working off the old patterns. While the changes Hollywood directors and screenwriters make can sometimes be odd, they also bring a fresh perspective, an outsiders’ perspective, that can find the right pieces to put together for a new discovery in how a character is depicted, and how to turn that into an accessible story. In newer properties like RED or Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim, the comic creators might be working harder to bring that accessibility and strong perspective in to their stories because there isn’t a legacy to rely on. But even so, those comics seemed to inspire movies that either held up to their counterpart, or found something more to do with it and expanded on it.
I should note that while I chose to look at snapshots of time of when these select movies came out, there are plenty of instances where comics made before or since are just as good or better. But several of these movies still found new and compelling takes on characters unseen in comics.
The rise in prominence and quality of comic book movies over the last 10 to 15 years is just another reminder that comics have to continually strive to be more creative with stronger stories and more unique experiences. I like getting to say to a non-comics reader, “If you liked that movie, you’ll love the comic it was based off of because as good as the movie was, the comic was even better.”