Sunday, May 14, 2006

Cherwell: Film Adaptations of Superhero Comics

[This article has been edited because the links do not work. See below.]

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 ( is the author of How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.


jennifert72 said...

hey geoff -
thank you for directing me to that interview. any interview where whedon's first words are "First of all, thank you for bringing up my pelvis." is definately worth the time it takes to read!
well, i do hope x-men 3 pulls it off. are there plans for a spiderman 3?

Ping33 said...

I wrote a Paper as an undergrad about the same topic, though viewed through the lens of Marshall McLuhan. I think that the whole "Medium Is the Message" idea is really useful when looking at comics, as, more then other forms their content is dictated by the fact that they are essentially each another chapter in an endless and constantly evolving serialized story. I totally agree with your point about X-Men 3 capping a trilogy and to a lesser extent: Smallville... but I think that even then you won't escape the idea that it needs an ending.

I would also like to suggest that the values which make a comic book "good" and the values which make a comic book movie "good" are sometimes at odds with one another. Watchmen was great because of it's exposition and mobius-strip like construction. X-men2 was at it's best when the action was "all out, Balls-to-the-wall action" like in the open. If you accept that a Comic Movie is kind of like a Graphic Novel or Trade Paperback in terms of Arc and story content, then with X2 you have, essentially a 22 page fight scene open the story, not the most exciting comic but a damn fine movie. The BEST, most exciting aspects of the movie are the ones which are most boring and cliché on the printed page. Meanwhile, all the depth and complexity of a V for Vendetta or a From Hell are either thrown right out as unworkable or become some of the dullest, clunkiest moments of a filmic version.

Mitch Montgomery said...

Ping: I absolutely agree on the subject of "V for Vendetta" and "Watchmen". Part of what makes each of those stories brilliant is that Moore deliberately crafted and paced them to be enjoyed in comic book form. It's not like Spider-Man, where you can grab a few supporting characters and villains and shake, bake, repeat. The pacing and deliberateness of "Watchmen" IS the art in it. I remember reading an early draft of the script Terry Gilliam was attached to direct of the Watchmen movie... needless to say, it begins with a scene where "The Watchmen" (and they are collectively refered to as such) prevent an attack on the Statue of Liberty. haha. Totally misses the point.

Geoff: I'll be interested to hear your reactions to X-Men 3/Superman Returns when they come out.

The Futurist said...

I recently rewatched the original Burton Batman, and I have to say that with the exception of Bruce Wayne's receding hairline, the movie is still amazing. It seems to understand that the bulk of the audience will be familiar to Batman not through the comic book, but through the 60's TV show. Everything is poppy and grandeose and (with the exception of Robin) all the quintescential characters are represented - But stylistically, Burton introduces to the filmgoing public the dark Gotham that Miller pioneered. This balance made the film convincingly authentic yet new and innovative.

Geoff Klock said...

Jennifert72: I think the third Spiderman is wrapping up filming now. And yeah, Joss Whedon gives great interviews.

Also, I will be able to talk about the third X-Men film a week before most people because, since I am reviewing the film for the newspaper here, I am going to a preview screening on May 17. Let's hope it is good enough to make everyone jealous. I could post my review here early (I will be writing it that night), but people get upset about spoilers...

ping33: you are right; people love endings (even for the comics); I just think TV is a better fit for comics generally. And you are quite right about the differences between comics and films; on many points they are opposed.

Mitch: I had not heard that about the Watchmen film. That is funny.

the futurist: the original Batman film is great, but Will Brooker, in his book on Batman, makes a good point about how we judge it now: we compare it to other Batman films, then go back and give it extra points for being the best. It's hard to imagine now but many comic book fans at the time -- and he has a lot of fun evidence of this -- did not like it at all, and said about it what we said about the Shumacher films.

saradani said...

all I want to say is: topher grace as venom????

Ping33 said...

Gilliam did say in the end that if Watchmen was adapted it should be as a 12 part TV mini-series.

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Geoff Klock said...

I am sure everyone has already guessed this but let me say: the deleted comments, here and elsewhere, are not angry people saying I suck; they are spam.

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Geoff Klock said...