Robot 6

Comics-based movies: Breaking ‘the book was better’ rule

iron-man-poster-2

“Demon in a Bottle” will probably be better since well, you know…

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.”

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12 Comments

“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.”

That made me laugh. Basically because it’s so naive. Comics are micro-managed as much as Studio films are. Why do you think Andy Diggle etc jump ship on such a regular basis. 99% of the articles on CBR such as Comic Book Legends etc deal with how creators have had to change their stories due to Editorial edicts. Does the name Jim Shooter even register?

The advantage movies have over comics is that they’re two hours long, not competing or working against/ with continuity, and are able to take other writers ideas and combine them into a cohesive film. Sometimes it’s done well, sometimes not. For every Batman Begins I’ll give you three Punishers, two Ghost Riders, a Fantastic Four, and a Daredevil. Plus a third X-Men and a Wolverine. Sneak in a Green Lantern too.

And as much as we harp on about Nolan, Raimi, and Singer revolutionising superhero films, keep in mind they had no original ideas whatsoever. Their visions were taken from other creator’s body of work. This is not a criticism mind you, just a fact. Their job was to research the characters, find the best examples from over 40years of work, and then combine them together to make a film. That takes enormous talent I agree. But still, their work, their accomplishments, are based on the likes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Steve Ditko, John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Dennis O’Neil etc. I always get a little annoyed when they always pull out David Goyer as some kind of godsend to the comic genre. He’s great, and he’s talented, no question, but his career was a result of extracting the best from other writers and slapping them all together into a screenplay.

This is like a chicken and egg question but with a definitive answer – without the comics there would be no movies. I love the movies. Iron Man 3 was excellent no doubt, but credit where credit’s due. Let’s remember Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s contributions when we walk out of the theatre. The film wouldn’t exist without them at all ( even with Robert Downey Jnr.)

One of the big problems is that most comic movies aren’t based on a single book. When The Hobbit film came out, bookstores naturally stocked their displays with the original (and only) Hobbit novel. With comics? Well, I guess you put out a couple of prominent Batman graphic novels and hope that somebody bites. Maybe Green Lantern: Secret Origin would have equated well with the GL movie, but most comics don’t have that luxury. You couldn’t put out Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original Thor or Avengers books to compete with the movies, because the films weren’t faithful adaptions of those books. They just took the best pieces of them over a period of decades and made something palatable to modern audiences.

Heck, I think Nolan is the best example of what I consider “out-of-contextualism.” His Dark Knight trilogy borrowed a lot of scenes from the comics, but in a completely different sense than they were originally used. Yes, The Dark Knight borrowed the scene with the burning pile of money from THE LONG HALLOWEEN, but in the film, it was the Joker doing it to prove a point on his insanity. In the comic, it was Batman doing it to strike at the mob. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman files a helicopter out to sea to detonate a bomb. In Frank Miller’s original scene, it was two bad guys who were just steering off-course because they’d been shot. Nice movie, maybe, but not something I can say “Now read the comic!”

I had a long reply ready to go but to keep it short and sweet:

A shot by shot re-creation of Xmen: Days of Future Past from the original Claremont/Byrne two parter would be so, so much better as both work of art and as entertainment than whatever mishmash they’re planning on sticking us with. Does anyone doubt this?

KrisWV: I’ve never actually got around to reading Days of Future Past, but if you do that you run the risk of “the Watchmen problem” – which is that the more immutable you treat the source material as, there is a danger that the actual thing comes off as stilted – comics and films are different mediums, and converting one directly into the other doesn’t give it room to breath. Besides, I can’t bring myself to not be excited for a film with so many very good actors in – a film with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, James MacAvoy and Peter Dinklage should hopefully be worth the ticket price on that alone…

i laughed at the bit about with comics there are now execs and shareholders or committee with less experiance creating stories then their interns how true since some of the comic films. showed that the execs in charge never bothered to either read the source material on the character or is not a comic fan and is just trying to do said film for normal box office gold or keep rights

Completely off topic, but this is @Jamie. Before you take the easy route and Shooter bash, maybe look at the track record under his stewardship. It’s easy to take sides, but you can see how the line made more sense then than it does today.

KrisWV: I doubt it. But to be fair, I will reserve judgement which is better to once I actually see the film. To make up my mind on which is better before then would be asinine.

Bob from Accounting

April 25, 2013 at 8:53 am

I don’t think comparing the movies to what was going on in the comics at the time is really the best approach, since both are influenced and building on older works. Better to compare with those runs and arcs that the movies are based on.

It’s worth noting that in every one of those examples, a comic run started concurrently or immediately after those movies that proceeded to blow the movie out of the water:
-Singer’s X-Men was followed up by Morrison’s New X-Men;
-Nolan’s Batman was followed up by Morrison’s Batman;
-Favreau’s Iron Man was followed up by Fraction and Larocca’s Iron Man;
-Whedon’s Avengers was followed up by, I mean, I was going to say Hickman’s Avengers, but if that’s not your style there’s also DeConnick doing her thing, or even Gillen/McKelvie depending how far you’re willing to stretch your definition of “Avengers.”

So even when these movies “get the jump on” the comics, it’s sort of a tortoise/hare scenario.

Just to agree with a few of the comments and point to the idea that no matter what your preference Claremont (mine) or Morrison’s run of the X-Men is superior to any of the movies. While I’d take Thomas/Englehart/Shooter/Stern/Busiek over the Avengers movie, I prefer it to the Bendis run or Millar’s Ultimates. The best thing is if you love the comics or you love the movies, there’s so much great stuff out there right now with these great characters!

@Brandon, I can see how my post looks like I won’t walk into the XVDOFP movie with an open mind, ready to enjoy, but should I live so long, I’ll be there opening weekend with a smile on my face. But for all of it, there are comics that are in the top 50 stories I’ve ever experienced, and there are movies that are in the top 50 stories that I’ve ever experienced. But there are no comic book movies.

@Alex H. True enough — the weaker Harry Potter movies have that problem too. Big 2 comic writers have the blessing and curse of continuity — it can add weight to the story, as I’d say it did in spades in the original DOFP, but of course it leads to worlds so complex that it limits the medium’s appeal.

@Teddy. I wasn’t bashing Shooter at all. I was stating a fact – he was known for interefering in writer’s plots on a regular basis. That’s a fact. He was disliked by many writers at that time ( Steve Gerber comes to mind. ) That’s a fact.
Whether or not you agreed with his decision to do so, or think his input was positive or negative is irrelevant. He still did it. I raised the example to demonstrate how silly it is to think comics are some kind of creative Nirvana free from interference. They’re not.
I don’t have anything against Shooter at all. In fact he wrote one of my favourite Avengers story of all time – the Korvac Saga ( some believe the central character Korvac was written by Shooter to represent himself, and the Avengers fighting against him even though his plan was in their best interests, represented a number of Marvel Writers at the time) I’m not sure it’s true but it’s an interesting theory.

Roy Thomas, who left Marvel following a contract dispute with Shooter, reflected in 2005 on Shooter’s editorial policies:
“When Jim Shooter took over, for better or worse he decided to rein things in — he wanted stories told the way he wanted them told. It’s not a matter of whether Jim Shooter was right or wrong; it’s a matter of a different approach. He was editor-in-chief and had a right to impose what he wanted to. I thought it was kind of dumb, but I don’t think Jim was dumb. I think the approach was wrong, and I don’t think it really helped anything.”

Creative freedom in the comics industry is just as compromised as the movie industry. That’s all I’m saying.

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