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Comic Book to Screen: Post the Second
iron man avengers trailer

Part the Second (still mainly more on the problems with origin stories.)

There are other problems with origin stories. Directors, producers and fans feel that any superhero film has to start with the origin, while this is often not terribly interesting. I mean, the Fantastic Four go into space, are hit by cosmic rays, and get their powers. That's really, really interesting, not. Or it seems entirely disconnected from the main story, something that occurs in Daredevil.

Even worse is the temptation to which most directors succumb which is to re-tell the origin story even if there has already been a rather good version (or to make a couple of prologues that don't fit with the originals that are supposed to be part of the same universe – and yes, I am looking at you Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.) 2012 will see two reboots of decent superhero franchises; Superman and Spider-man. In the comic books, Superman's origin has been rebooted several times, though with only minor changes. People are familiar with the classic origin story, which was used in the excellent film Superman, John Byrne's critically acclaimed comics reboot through the TV series Lois and Clark which was based on it, and TV's very own reboot in Smallville. We will have to wait and see if the new version has anything to add. Likewise, Spider-man did a very reasonable job of the origin, and we will have to see if ringing the changes with Gwen Stacey in place of the more interesting MJ Watson and the Lizard in place of the Green Goblin will be enough to make The Amazing Spider-man worthwhile. (It has to be said that Marvel themselves are, apparently – I say apparently because I haven't actually read any Spider-man for many years – guilty of deciding to revise umpty-ump years of Spider-man history by having him make a deal with the devil Mephisto which took him back to being a young, single, angsty geek working as a photographer. )

I'm sure the thinking is that "it worked for Batman" but Christopher Nolan, though he read a lot of classic Batman first, was trying a new approach. His plan seems to have been to lose the emphasis on the surreal and the gothic with the villains front and centre that characterised the Burton version and its sequels. Despite picking a villain originally based on magic in Ra's al Gul, he grounded Batman Begins in a cold, scientific modern and brutal world, which became even more pronounced in The Dark Knight. I am very much looking forward to more of this very different Batman in The Dark Knight Rises.

It is also very noticeable that Nolan avoided the trap of using the Joker, the most famous of all the huge gallery of Batman villains, in that first movie and, when he did bring him in, it was a version with an emphasis on the madness rather than the over-the-top clownishness. It was a good insight. On the whole, the Joker isn't in the least bit funny (though I will never forget his appearance at Mister Miracle's and Big Barda's barbie in JLI, which was.) After all, the Batman 'family' (it's the word DC uses) of comics have been running for a very long time, and a wonderful collection of villains has been acquired.

Which is another thing directors will do – throw everything into an opening film, even if there are hopes it will be an on-going series. Green Lantern, quite the worst of the superhero films of 2011, was particularly guilty of this. The Director seemed to think (and it appears that Geoff Johns advised him, which makes me very sad) that throwing in lots of fan-pleasing GL cameos, such as Kilowog and Tomar Re, not to mention a completely under/misused Sinestro, plus Hector Hammond, plus Carol Ferris (who, contrary to my expectations, proved to be one of the best things in the movie) plus a totally wasted Parallax, would make the movie better, when it just made a mess. Might I suggest that it would have been better to concentrate either on Hal Jordan discovering his powers on Earth, in which case you could use Hammond, or to take him to Oa and use Sinestro in the way he was originally intended, instead of leaving him hanging, with the audience unsure whether he is hero or villain or just a place holder. (Parallax is an invention of the latest reboot, created to absolve Hal of mass murder. It has no place in this movie, which is grounded in classic Silver Age GL.)

It was the same with Daredevil. Daredevil is interesting because he is flawed and complex and not a particularly admirable person. He is a deeply religious but vicious vigilante, while also being a highly principled lawyer. If you've already got the Kingpin – and the film has – there is no need to insert the Electra storyline. Wait for a second movie and do it justice. (I haven't seen the Electra movie and, on the basis of the reviews, I do not wish to do so. Daredevil was bad enough...)

It's not easy. On one hand you have the fan boys and girls screaming that they want all of it, just like the comic book, right now (and if you haven't watched the videos of the reception Ryan Reynolds got when he recited the Green Lantern Oath or that of the introduction of the The Avengers cast, both at Comicon, you can have no idea of how great that pressure is or how easy it is to give in to it) and on the other you have the vast majority of people who know very little or nothing about the comic books and just want an understandable and exciting movie.

What's more, people get upset when they don't get what they're expecting. While reaction to Batman Begins was generally favourable – as it ought to be – a lot of people (and even, to their shame, some fans) seem to have thought that Bruce Wayne's wanderings round the world at the start of Batman Begins are outside of comics canon, but he certainly did travel the world perfecting his skills before donning the cowl. (And sent at least one of the Robins (Tim Drake) to do the same.)

There was also a perception among fans of the previous Batman movies and the 1960s TV series that Batman is not interesting but the villains are. That was never true in the comics. All three men who have legitimately donned the cowl are interesting in their own right and Bruce Wayne may not be a particularly nice person, but he is complex enough to sustain interest throughout a trio of movies.

The genius of Nolan is that, without being a long-time comics fan himself, he distilled the essence of Batman by going to some truly classic comics (I don't know who guided him to Batman, Year One and The Long Halloween, but thanks) about the early Batman, pre the massive supporting cast, and updated it for the 21st Century. One of the very interesting things about The Dark Knight, in particular, is how much of it takes place in daylight, in a hard-edge, modern city.

Then you have the very opposite problem with characters who have not had major films or major television series about them in the past. In one way you have more freedom, in another you are restricted because you have to tell an origin in detail and whether people will approve of your changes depends on them being better than the original. Jon Favreau made a virtue of necessity of this in Iron Man by means of a virtuoso performance from Robert Downey Jr that dominates the screen throughout sequences where he has nothing to act with or against but an invisible AI and a robotic arm on a trolley! There are a number of differences, both in appearance and character, between comics Tony Stark and film Tony Stark – though the snark is strong in both and some of the film Tony's manic monologues appear to have seeped through into some comics (you haven't lived until you've seen a naked Tony Stark bound to a stone altar and surrounded by ogres and an annoyed dragon trying to talk his way out on the basis of a – very – problematic rescue by Thor*) but Downey was and still is utterly convincing.

However, Iron Man saves its best change until the end (the end of the film, not the stinger.) All we old-time Iron Man fans watched with nodding heads as S.H.I.E.L.D. sets up the long-term secret identity cover of the Iron Man as Tony's bodyguard, lulling us into a wonderful false sense of security. We all know where this is going – Tony kept that secret for years of comic book time, even from his close friends, both inside and outside the superhero community, and once managed universal brainwashing to re-establish it.

Then: "I am Iron Man."

That was a moment of awesome and dead in character for this new version, which appears to have won over the fanboys as much as it won over everyone else.

* But then Avengers Prime is pure romp.

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ringing the changes with Gwen Stacey in place of the more interesting MJ Watson

I'm not sure how you can be certain that Gwen Stacey is less interesting yet. In the comics MJ (from what I saw of her) seemed to be a mature figure who was doing a lot of work to help Peter Parker deal with his issues (and they were married at the time). Whereas the movie MJ.... just seemed to have practically no chemistry with Peter Parker at all. At the end of the first movie he randomly decides to shun her, only to spend the next film whining about how much he wishes he hadn't (and from what I hear this only gets worse in the third movie).

The point is that these characters won't be the same in the movie as they were in the comics. Rebooted Gwen Stacey could be anything the scriptwriters decide to make her. I'm interested to see what they do.

I don't know who guided him to Batman, Year One

Initially Darren Aronofsky was planning to adapt "Batman, Year One" and Christian Bale was believed to be the main contender for the starring role even back then.

Of course, Gwen isn't even the first of Peter's girlfriends who wasn't particularly interesting in the early Spider-man comics*. She could be great here, but, as I said, we shall have to see. The point is really that Gwen's character arc, terminated (sorry) as it was, had almost no depth. It's a long time since I went back and read early Spider-man (indeed, I'm not sure whether I or my brother have those issues in store, though I think it is me) but Gwen was one of Stan's chicks-without-a-personality-but-with-some-annoying-traits of which there were a lot in Silver Age Marvel.

The point is really that unless there is a particularly strong new vision for this reboot, it will probably fall flat on its face. Reboots work best when the original wasn't particularly strong. (I refer you to the two versions of Ocean's 11.

* That would be Liz Allen.

Edited at 2012-01-24 07:52 pm (UTC)

Reboots work best when the original wasn't particularly strong.

... Personally I thought Sam Raimi's version was dire....

I quite liked the first movie, and thought it very close in spirit to the original comic book. I didn't like the second movie so much, and didn't bother with the third.

However, my brother, who is the real Spider-man fan of the family, loved all three...

I preferred the second movie, though to be honest that was mainly because the Bruce Campbell cameo was better.

And no, none of them were close in spirit to the original comic book, unless there was some period in Spider-Man's comic book history where he didn't bother with witty insults against the bad guys.

I'm also not convinced by a Green Goblin who can be stopped by a few people throwing bottles off a bridge. Especially when he clearly has large quantities of explosives available to chuck back at them.

Modern Osborne - no, of course not. Taking him down took everyone-except-the-X-Men to go by the summary on Wikipedia (haven't read the Siege storyline.)

But yes, back in the day, you could probably take down the Goblin like that. Some of early Marvel is plain downright silly. (No reflection on Silver Age Marvel - so is Silver Age DC.)

And the very early Spider-man's stitck wasn't as practiced as it later became. There's a lot of angst in the early issues...

NB: Quick checks on IMDB shows high critic ratings for movies 1 (89%) and 2 (93%), with a much high audience rating for 2 than 1, but still well in fresh... Which ties in with my memories of what was being said about it at the time.

Edited at 2012-01-24 09:42 pm (UTC)

But yes, back in the day, you could probably take down the Goblin like that.

The way Goblin is taken down is directly from the comic books.

What is not from the comic books is the bit where the New Yorkers throw bottles at the Green Goblin and shout "you take on one of us, you take on us all". Even if that sort of cheesiness is "like" some of the earlier comics is hardly a reason to include it, is it?

There's a lot of angst in the early issues...

There's a lot of angst in the stuff I read. In one issue Spider-Man makes himself a cocoon and we're told by MJ that "something died in there". Yet even in this grim time (where I'll admit, he briefly gives up the light hearted japes) he at least has the decency to be cynical.

Quick checks on IMDB shows high critic ratings for movies 1 (89%) and 2 (93%)

Both higher ratings than Batman Begins (85%). Clearly Nolan's Batman was the least impressive of those three... :S

Look, all I'm saying is that I personally found Raimi's movies hugely disappointing. So, for me, I'll probably be happy with whatever this reboot can offer. If they simply give Spider-Man a sense of humour I'll take that as a massive improvement.

My point was that the idea that this new reboot will be bad because "Raimi's films were so great" doesn't exactly work for me as an argument.

That's the way it goes. Raimi was, not unnaturally, considering he grew up with it (he was born in 1959, so would have been too young for the very early issues in the early 60s but no doubt collected them later) aiming for early Spider-man and was almost certainly inflienced by the rather bad TV series. My brother's liking for it is probably for much the same reason - it spoke to him clearly because he came to it as an angsty pre-teen and teen. I came to it as a teen - but as a girl who wasn't quite so angsty and I didn't - and still don't - like Ditko's art.

It's all a matter of the way you look at it. I like the wisecracking Spider-man myself, but have heard much about him being 'whiney' recently, so some people plainly don't agree.

Spider-man is generally reckoned to have been good enough to have started the more recent trickle growing steadily of superhero movies. He is plainly not going to be allowed to do much changing in the comics as he is still aimed, squarely, at the teenaged male crowd (admittedly the largest proportion of the people who buy comics) as an identification figure, and I doubt that the movies will ever try to change that, as it's a major proportion of that too. So we will get the same old, same old. I am hoping to be proved wrong, but I really, really doubt it.

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