The 21st century has undoubtedly been a golden age of comic book cinema. Marvel and DC Comics have dominated the movie box office through the superhero genre via their adaptations of their fantastic shared universes. The cinematic adventures of Superman, Thor, Batman, and Iron Man have borrowed from comics to create great cinematic stories. However, they’ve also left viewers and creators wondering just how much the comics and their strange continuities should dictate the films.
When combined, DC and Marvel’s movies have generated tens of billions of dollars for Hollywood since they went mainstream. Richard Donner’s Superman movies and Michael Keaton’s Batman films sparked the new age of superhero cinema, moving on from the old campy style that dominated the genre in previous decades. Here, viewers were given a more serious and often direct adaptation of the comics that had captivated the imaginations of millions of young people. Even fans who didn’t read comics knew the names of the biggest superheroes, and it’s hard to deny the impact the genre had on American pop culture. However, movies and TV have never been perfect replications of comics.
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How Superhero Comics Have Influenced Cinema
Since comics were first created, their stories and characters caught on with viewers almost instantly, as did adaptations like cartoons, black-and-white serials, and, later, feature-length films. Projects like 1989’s Batman, the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and Marvel’s and DC’s beloved animated series in the 1990s and 2000s proved the viability of their worlds in mainstream media. These adaptations have all held up very well in the minds of fans and helped remind people that comics had a lot to do with the world-building and development of their heroes. Superheroes were no longer one-note good guys who always saved the day. They began to develop flaws, weaknesses, and complex personalities. In a word, they became more human, and audiences absolutely loved it, especially the kids who were enjoying their animated universes.
Even outside Marvel and DC, comic book cinema has become a dominant force in Hollywood, even if many fans don’t realize it. Setting aside the superhero genre, acclaimed thrillers like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence managed to win over critics who ordinarily distanced themselves from comic book projects. Some of the same critics who would have been reluctant to see The Dark Knight win an Oscar would have been all too happy to see artistic comic-based films like American Splendor and Ghost World sweep the award ceremonies. Other indie projects like Hellboy, Dredd, The Walking Dead, and Invincible have shown just what can be done with the most beloved independent comic characters in print and generated entirely new fandoms in the process. All of this was done by respecting what worked in the original comics while presenting the characters in a way that suited their new medium.
Comic book movies and the superhero genre have been interpreted in cinema in other ways too. Films like Unbreakable (and its sequels), Chronicle and Brightburn tried to take well-known formulas and deconstruct them. To this day, many fans count Unbreakable not just among their favorite superhero movies but their favorite films of all time. These projects looked at the core of what makes a superhero story, broke it, and put it back together, leaving viewers with an artifact that was familiar and unique. They also showed just how versatile and malleable the genre was. Likewise, DC and Marvel’s respective animated universes showed how these stories could be turned into more kid-friendly worlds while still appealing to adults.
The Best Ways To Adapt Comics
The age of superhero cinema has presented fans with many different takes on how best to adapt the works of Marvel, DC, and indie comics to film and television. Some projects have prided themselves on almost perfectly mirroring their comic book inspirations, while others have shown how deviation from source material can enrich their characters. Some projects have shown how, in trying to put a fresh spin on an old story, a movie can leave viewers with a mess that falls short of their expectations. Subverting expectations can be good, but it’s also hard and requires someone who knows what can and can’t be changed. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen managed to make some good changes. Here, Ozymandias’ genetically engineered monster was replaced with a plot to frame Doctor Manhattan, which worked well with the story while arguably improving its message.
Some movie and TV adaptations of comics have actually proven superior to the comics they were adapting, and have improved the characters they embraced. The most famous example of this was Mike Mignola’s reinvention of Mister Freeze when he gave the villain a tragic backstory for Batman: The Animated Series. Victor Fries went from being a campy, ice-themed villain to a tragic, grieving husband doing whatever it took to save his dying wife. The story’s depth offered comic writers a chance to dust off an obscure villain and turn him into one of the most compelling characters in Batman’s rogues gallery. This remains a great example of the good that can come from offering writers creative freedom when they’re adapting these stories. Meanwhile, some viewers and even readers have latched onto the cinematic portrayals of characters like Thanos as exceeding the comics that inspired them.
On the other hand, looser adaptations of comics have also had their problems and some franchises have even reworked major ideas until they were much closer to the comics than they started out. The Iron Man franchise teased the Mandarin’s existence in its first installment but when it debuted him in the MCU, he turned out to be an actor unwittingly playing the role of a super terrorist. However, this wasn’t well-received, and The Mandarin’s more literal adaptation turned out to be Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father and the villain of Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings. The resulting villain was an improvement on the comics in many ways, more sympathetic and interesting than the original Mandarin’s Fu Manchu pastiche. Moviegoers want the depth cinema can give them without losing the substance of the characters in the comics. A nuanced adaptation can make heroes more likable, villains more threatening, and the world seem more interesting without changing the elements fans always loved about their heroes and villains.
Loose Adaptations Have Mixed Results
DC and Marvel have both dipped their toes into very loose adaptations and stricter ones. Rather than comparing distinct movies, it’s better to look for more comparable ones. For example, though they weren’t supremely successful, Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movies made a valiant attempt to bring fans a comic-accurate adventure for the heroes. When Fox attempted to resurrect the team for a fresh 2015 reboot, they showed that while some changes can be good, other things shouldn’t be messed with. In this case, the strange new look at Doctor Doom, arguably Marvel’s greatest villain, left virtually every Fantastic Four fan disappointed and showed studios what not to do in these adaptations. Unfortunately, the failures of these films can sometimes be taken by studios as the failure of the IP, rather than as a bad adaptation.
When studios bring these beloved superheroes and villains to cinema, they need to know what to keep and what to change. While details like costumes and even origin stories can be reworked to feel more grounded, the core of who a character is should remain intact. It’s also important to know which stories are best to adapt. A huge weakness for the DCEU was that it looked not to the company’s beloved post-Crisis continuity but rather the contemporary New 52 status quo. With James Gunn changing course, the new DCU could benefit immensely from looking to Rebirth, a far more popular era for the company. Marvel has shown how optimism, color, and comedy bring in the biggest audience, and how a classic look at comic universes triumphs, even if some things get changed.
Perhaps the single most direct MCU adaptation of a comic, Captain America: The First Avenger, showed just how great comic-accurate superhero cinema could be The film is one great homage to Captain America Comics #1 (Jack Kirby & Joe Simon), where the hero first appeared, walking viewers through Steve Rogers’ journey to becoming Captain America. It maintained the Red Skull’s irredeemable nature, Cap’s supporting cast in Bucky, Peggy, and the Howling Commandos, and gave fans the World War II setting the story needed. It even came across in some scenes as a Steven Spielberg-quality movie. The entire movie felt almost like a panel-by-panel cinematic adaptation of Marvel’s Golden Age and it’s still one of the best entries in the MCU. The core of who Captain America is was respected and the story’s characters were written much as they would be in comics. And it was fantastic.
Comic Book Movies Should Be Mostly Accurate
For mainstream audiences who don’t necessarily read comics, the lack of a source of comparison means they aren’t bothered by deviations from the source material. Whether it’s reimagining a serious character as comic relief, updated costumes, or the replacement of one villain with another in a key story, most moviegoers take these films at face value. For comic fans, however, deviations from comics can be both incredibly frustrating or a source of unexpected delight. While some comic stories were so good the first time that changing them feels like a betrayal, other comics admittedly disappointed readers and the movies can actually end up fixing their mistakes. For example, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy ended with Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle happily moving on from Gotham, something that will never happen in comics.
It’s hard to deny that many of the best-remembered superhero projects based on DC and Marvel comics are strict adaptations of their source material. Ideas were added and lost, and characters were placed in fresh stories, but the basics of the characters were either kept perfectly intact or enriched with added context. Live-action film has a weakness that comics don’t: Time. While comics can maintain seemingly ageless heroes, in reality, actors age out of their roles, studios come under new leadership and continuity is more fickle. However, this is a blessing too, as it almost compels studios to find satisfying conclusions for their characters in a way comics don’t, and forces more traditional structure to their stories. This, of course, means deviating away from the endless, timeless nature of the comics.
Characters like Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Christian Bale’s Batman required a resolution to their stories. This completely changed the calculation of how they should have been handled on the big screen. As nice as it might be to imagine every epic comic book saga playing out in live-action, it simply isn’t practical. Comics offer creators the freedom to tell stories across hundreds of issues, while films have to contain a simpler beginning, middle and end. In the case of a project like Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn, it’s unlikely the full, 350-issue saga of Al Simmons will ever be fleshed out on film or TV. Instead, creators of both the Spawn film and animated series picked their favorite parts. Villains became more expendable, stories more consequential, and successors more necessary.
Knowing What Works (And What Doesn’t)
Considering the fact many of the comic books up for adaptation even today date back as far as 1938, it’s completely understandable that some aspects of the original stories are dropped, reworked, or subverted. The world has moved on from certain themes and tropes, and some things are just naturally dated. Moviegoers and comic book readers alike have a lot of patience and understanding for changing aspects of the source material, and they love it when that improves a familiar story. However, the best adaptations understood the importance of leaving characters recognizable and intact in a way that wouldn’t alienate either comic readers or mainstream fans. In most cases, the more obscure a character is, the more leeway fans will give creators with them.
Comic books and cinema are fundamentally different mediums, and that means there will always be some give and take when creative teams are translating these stories to the big screen. Ensuring that the basics of what audiences see match what comic fans read does have some merit. Seminal stories like Kingdom Come, Civil War, The Dark Knight Returns, and Old Man Logan have a timeless nature to them that works best when faithfully carried forward, even if some things change. Changes that stray too far from a character or story can leave fans with the reasonable question of why a filmmaker would mess with perfection. On the other hand, creators thrive when they have the freedom to execute their personal visions. Adapting classic superheroes and their stories will always be challenging but most characters are at their best when a movie or show remembers who they are in their hearts.
The DCU and MCU have a wealth of comic book stories to adapt for their franchises. Just how comic-accurate should Batman and Thanos be? Read More