I wrote as short essay for Cherwell, the Oxford sutdent newspaper, on film adaptations of superhero comics. Click here to read the article.
Originally, there was a different introduction that had to be cut: here it is:
SFX magazine recently published a conversation between two of the best recent X-Men writers, Mark Millar (Ultimate X-Men) and Joss Whedon (Astonishing X-Men). Millar said that the most common error for writers on the book was mistaking The X-Men for an action franchise when it’s basically a 75 million pound TV soap opera. The mistake applies to most superhero comic books, and becomes more dramatic when those comics are turned into movies. The forms are opposed on more than one level, making adaptation a tricky business.
[EDIT: The link to Cherwell does not work any more I have reprinted the article below.]
Like poetry, superhero comics are supported by a small but loyal readership. While people may read a novel or go to the movies occasionally, if they read poetry or comics they do so obsessively or not at all. Film adaptations of superhero comics are important because they represent both comic books and comic book fans to the outside world. The OC includes an exchange in which Ryan, covering for Seth Cohen and needing an excuse, tells the girl Seth likes that Seth is at a Star Trek convention; appalled at being portrayed as a nerd Seth cries “couldn’t you at least have said an X-Men convention.” What appeared to most viewers as insignificant banter resonated for comic book fans who silently thanked Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men films, for shifting the culture just enough to make the X-Men register with the public (however subliminally) as cooler than Star Trek.
Because the major superhero comics have been running for decades a series of canonical plots have been established. These plots get reworked every couple of years in comics, freshly outfitted with new twists and turns. Just as every generation needs a new translation of Dante, every X-Men fan needs a new version of Wolverine’s return to the people that made him what he is. Mark Millar gives us Ultimate X-Men: Return to Weapon X. Grant Morrison gives us the sublime New X-Men: Assault on Weapon Plus. Bryan Singer gives us the second X-Men film, which, alongside the second Spiderman film, is the finest superhero adaptation there is. Singer gets that what is needed in adapting superhero comics to the screen is not faith to a particular comic book story, nor is it heretical invention; what is needed is the same process that works most often in the comics: translate an old story for a new audience.
The original Superman films are wonderful, but dated now (we are only a few weeks away from Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns). The first X-Men and Spiderman films lacked money. Unbreakable was a great attempt at adapting the idea of the superhero to film, but it lacked fun a sense of humour. Batman Begins, also lacking those qualities, attempted to re-imagine Batman’s origin, but the wretched Shumacher films knocked it out of its proper orbit, making director Christopher Nolan fear the road of excess which is the path to a good superhero story; it was a re-imagining void of imagination. The Hulk had excess and good intentions, but little more than bad CGI and an attractive Jennifer Connelly remain in my memory. Of Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman, and The Fantastic Four we will not speak. X2 is a good story, well told.
Superhero stories often require lumbering exposition, as goofy (but charming) origin stories need to be justified to modern audiences; the Fantastic Four, for example, get super-powers when they are bombarded by “cosmic rays” from space. And the comics aren’t designed to end, so films that go for a solid ending misunderstand the form. It is thus no surprise that the best superhero adaptations have been self consciously middle stories like X2 and Spiderman 2, both of which get to start without an origin story and get to end with some cliff-hanger material (though only X-Men fans will see the hints of the Phoenix in X2); the upcoming X-Men 3 may be designed to cap a trilogy, which could be bad news.
On the whole, however, the proper adaptation of superhero comics will be in the future. The power of television has grown exponentially in recent years, rivalling the cinema on so many counts; Smallville is the first hint of what will come, I think: the serial adaptation of a serial genre. Until then we can content ourselves with progressive television made by writers who, instead of directly adapting superhero comics, are powerfully influenced by them in their own creations: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Carnivàle, and even The OC. The people who created these shows grew up on comics, and have all written them recently as well. Adaptation, a form of influence, goes both ways.
Geoff Klock (https://geoffklock.blogspot.com/) is the author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.