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Comic Book to Screen: Post the Third
assembling avengers
lil_shepherd
The third part of this ramble has been delayed by dogs and holidays and conventions, but here it is now....



Part the Third

At the beginning, I mentioned the problems with structure. Once upon a time (in the so-called Golden Age of comic books - 1930s and 1940s – and the very early Silver Age, around 1960) each comic book mostly contained but a single story. Generally, hero fought villain (or, in the team books, heroes fought villains) and won, with side helpings of romance (never fulfilled) and secret identity problems. Then, legendarily, Stan Lee's wife pointed out to him that he was never going to write the Great American Novel and why not make his name with the stuff he did write. The result was The Fantastic Four – a group of superheroes who were related to each other by friendship, romance and family, who lived in a real city (New York) and who had the problems that people in their situation would probably have (they went bankrupt, for instance, within a short period .) That included links between all the comics in the Marvel line. (If a big bad invaded, there were always footnotes explaining why the other characters couldn't help.) DC soon followed suit.

This all led to long storylines running over many issues, and shifting from title to title. So, it has to be said, did characters. (Did you know that, for a while, Bruce Wayne owned The Daily Planet, and both Clark Kent and Lois Lane worked for him? Or that Tony Stark has been both Secretary of Defense and Director of SHIELD - not that either turned out well, but that's Tony?) There were long story arcs even before we began to get the huge 'summer events' involving all the characters in either the DC or Marvel Universes.

I remember Peter David (comics writer of note) complaining that he got lots of letters asking things like "Can the Hulk fight the Rhino again?" to which his reply was, apparently, "No, because the Hulk would just whup his ass the same as he did last time." (Or words to that effect.) But there is a large group of comics fans (mainly teenage boys) for whom this is the whole purpose of comics. Unfortunately, this is also the demographic at which a lot of films are currently aimed (I could mention the Transformers movies) and no superhero movie is complete without a big name super villain on which the hero can go mano-et-mano. These are also the parts of superhero movies that the critics tend to loathe. Getting the balance right is not easy. (I am still not convinced that this year's big Marvel comics cross-over event is not just going to be a series of BIG FIGHTS – that's the way it is being marketed, at any rate.)

All this poses horrendous adaptation problems. To take one famous example: I squee'd just as much as anyone at the appearance of the bird-shaped shadow moving underwater at the end of X2. This was a plain reference to the famous Dark Phoenix arc in the Claremont and Byrne period of the X-Men – a storyline which has ramifications to this day. Bryan Singer plainly had plainly meant to try and adapt this arc for the third movie – but even if he had held the reins on that one it would have been incredibly difficult to meet fannish expectations and yet produce an understandable movie. Firstly, in order to do justice to the vast threat that Dark Phoenix would produce and the tragic love story at the heart of that arc, you have to give us the bright side, Jean's transformation into the immensely powerful super-hero, the Phoenix, a story that took time to evolve and ended up with Jean saving the universe (honest!) within the interstellar Shi'ar empire. And the Dark Phoenix's greatest crime also involves an event many light-years from Earth. So, you would have to bring it closer to the alternative version in Ultimate-X-Men and, indeed, there are similarities in the way the story is handled in The Last Stand. You can't have the Shi'ar, or the Starjammers ... and you are bound, by contract, to have Magneto – who played no part in the Dark Phoenix saga – in the third movie. The result is one of the most powerful characters in the whole of the Marvel universe reduced to a bystander, and her relationships with Cyclops (her great love), Wolverine (who she might have loved in other circumstances, and who loves her desperately), Professor X (her mentor and who was also in love with her at one time) and Storm (her dearest friend) reduced to nothing, with Jean's struggle becoming non-existent. (I am ignoring the retcon springing from Phoenix Rising, of which I heartily approve, for the purposes of this post, as undoubtedly it would have been ignored in any movie.) I am sure that Singer would have done better, but whether he could have done it well is something I would beg leave to doubt. It's just too big and long and complicated for the screen. Comic books are serial nowadays, and can afford to spread out and bring in characters from all over the shop.

The same is probably true of Demon in a Bottle (Iron Man). (Jon Faveau wanted to do this arc, but the whole story falls apart if Iron Man's identity is widely known – so that clever reveal of Tony's secret identity has pretty much halted that ambition, and it has been stated that the third movie will not use it.) It was certainly true of the Electra arc shoehorned into Daredevil. And if anyone tells you that DC ought to think about one of the Crisis 'events' or Marvel the superhero 'Civil War' just send them straight to Arkham asylum, okay?

A comic book can get away with whole issues where nothing much happens and/or (I'm looking at you, Brian Bendis) most of it is dialogue but it's a serial thing.

What works best, I think, is a story that respects the comic book history but is not circumscribed by it. X-Men had a decent stab at this, though I very much disliked the revamp of Rogue. In fact, Rogue is a difficult character to handle at any time within the comics, though letting her steal Ms Marvel's powers on a permanent basis gave her more action on the main team – unfortunately, there are all sorts of reasons why that wouldn't fly here (what did I say about the complexity the Marvel universe?), but X-Men had a plot that could not be resolved in any other way than by use of her powers (and who didn't see that coming?). However, they already had a large cast, so they saved themselves a problem by making her a kid and hooking her up with Wolverine-as-mentor in the same way that Jubilee did in the comics. Indeed, her character was also changed to be closer to Jubilee's, unfortunately making her dislikeable. (Ghu but I dislike Jubilation Lee.)

Then there is the character dynamic. Drama is always about conflict, whether physical – and superhero comic books are good at that one – or between characters. This is where, in my personal opinion, both Hulk films came to grief. There are things to admire in Ang Lee's Hulk, in particular the imaginative comic-book style cinematography, but the pacing is dire, there is no humour to speak of (and the The Incredible Hulk comic was written, among others, by Stan Lee and Peter David, who could be very funny indeed) and, above all, there is almost no character conflict and none at all involving the Hulk himself. Over the years, the comics Hulk has varied from educationally subnormal to having Banner's own intellectual status as one of Marvel's four top genius scientist/inventors – Banner, Richards, Stark and Pym – but he has always been able to speak. This, ladies and gents, is because writing a character whose dialogue tends to stick with "Hulk smash!" and "Madder Hulk gets, stronger Hulk gets!" may be boring, but it's better than silence, and having the character be bright and funny is even better. And Banner in Hulk and The Incredible Hulk films as well as the TV series (which I also cordially disliked) is on the run and undercover and so concerned with controlling his rage that he tries not to interact with people. This may be psychologically correct, but it does not work on screen in a summer tent pole movie, no indeedy. It will be interesting to see what The Avengers does with the Hulk, quite the most difficult character to integrate (and has been in the comics – Hulk was a founding Avenger but left the group within a couple of issues, and no-one seemed particularly sorry to see him go.)

Interestingly, once the Hulk had left and Captain America joined, the founding Avengers in the comics, who included Iron Man and Thor, had very little character conflict. Joss Whedon is quite deliberately (and rightly, I think) introducing conflict between characters whose friendships have survived nearly fifty years of writers gleefully trying to screw them up. The X-Men avoided that by using the comics' canon tension between Cyclops and Wolverine over both their attitudes to teamwork and feelings for Jean Grey, and the Magneto and Professor X friends-turned-enemies dynamic. On the other hand, desperate attempts to introduce some sort of character conflict into The Fantastic Four failed completely, and is one of the reasons that that franchise wasn't a particular success, either with the critics or the fans. (Other reasons include bad writing and dire mistcasting.)

When you've got a superhero team, it makes it easy to introduce character conflict both in and out of the battle, but the best of the single hero films do it too – the Iron Man franchise was quick to introduce War Machine and the Black Widow (and the Widow was, in origin, an Iron Man villain, as indeed was Hawkeye.) Thor was followed to Earth by Sif and the Warriors Three and Smallville used the proto Justice League successfully in later seasons.)

It's why I think Spider-man needs J Jonah Jameson and Harry and Norman Osborn and why, in omitting these characters and deciding to go with what seems to be pure very early Lee/Ditko High School (but with Gwen and not Liz) The Amazing Spider-man may lose dramatic tension. Flash is, after all, your typical insensitive jock, and Gwen is the very essence of first crush (though in the comics she was at least Peter's third crush.) This reboot is trying very hard to be different, but it is, I think, reducing its appeal, where a slightly more mature Peter might make a pleasant change. But then X-Men: First Class is pretty much a High School AU on its own account, and then there's the appeal to the Twilight and Harry Potter crowd, though, to be honest, the greatest appeal of First Class seems to be in the slash fan-writing community...

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HBO has just picked up Game of Thrones for a third season and is currently talking about working through the books if GRRM can write write them fast enough to stay ahead.

I keep hoping HBO will decide to option something from Marvel or DC is the same way. A series would allow more character building than a single film can deliver.

Smallville and the Batman cartoons showed it could be done well - indeed, most of the big superhero teams from both major companies are available as cartoons that often use the comic book scripts.

But for every Smallville or Lois and Clark there is something like Birds of Prey (a comic I adore) or The Tick - live action superhero stuff that gets cancelled after half a dozen episodes, mainly because of problems with scripts.

*whispers* *Psst! It's Bryan Singer, not Stringer!*

Thank you. The one name I didn't bother to check. *sigh*

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