The Death of Supermen – Why Comic Book Adaptations Are Failing Their Audience

Originally published online at 4:3

In just over a decade superhero films have gone from an action movie sub-genre to an irreplaceable part of pop-culture. The films created by Marvel Studios alone are the hottest cinematic property today. I’d go as far to say that they’re the biggest thing since Star Wars, which is weird when there’s a new Star Wars film just around the corner. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the face of cinema – much like Marvel changed the face of comic books back in 1960s. Superhero hero films aren’t going away anytime soon; there are seven superhero films coming out in 2016, with another nine in 2017. But the thing is – I just don’t care anymore.

I’m done with superhero films.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy superhero ‘movies’. There are some genuinely enjoyable movies in the genre, which I’ll throw on time to time when I’m looking for something easy to watch. To me, they exist within the same space as the Fast & Furious franchise1 – a bunch of cool looking action scenes, a couple of laughs and it ends with good triumphing over evil. They’re predictable; looking at the trailers for the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot and Ant-Man I could probably tell you their plots and get about 90% of it correct. There’s nothing new or fresh here – the same white dudes learning that with great power comes great responsibility, the same “This will change everything!” plot-point. We’ve seen it all before.2

2008’s Iron Man is the goose that laid the golden egg. While the Spider-Man and X-Men trilogies set the stage, Iron Man is responsible for launching a multibillion-dollar film and TV franchise. Considering that Iron Man wasn’t a hugely popular character before the films came out makes that film’s success nothing short of incredible. Sure, comic-book fans knew who he was but to the average non-comic reader he was nowhere near as recognizable as characters like Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. With that film Marvel made the incredibly bold move of establishing a shared universe for its franchises, keeping their comic-book adaptations as comic-booky as possible. And it worked really fucking well. Fox have also established a shared universe for their X-Men franchise, only on a slightly smaller scale, while Warner Bros. plan on establishing their own cinematic universe for DC Comics with the upcoming Batman v. Superman. Even Michael Bay has thrown his hat into the ring with the recent announcement that there’s going to be a shared universe for the Transformers franchise.

But while this shared universe was one of Marvel’s strengths, eventually it’ll be Marvel’s downfall. One of the biggest blockades new comic-book readers face is the convoluted inter-connectivity of the superhero genre, in which stories are filled with decades of history and character developments. Most of Marvel’s Phase One films can be watched independently of the others, except perhaps The Avengers itself; all the sequels of Phase Two rely on prior knowledge of not just their previous character-based films but also many others. Age of Ultron is more or less Avengers 2: Electric Boogaloo, but it requires the viewer to have seen most of, if not all, of the Phase Two films to get the full picture. From all the press releases so far, it looks like Captain America 3 isn’t exactly the third film of that sub-franchise but primarily a glorified Avengers sequel. While the upcoming Black Panther and Captain Marvel films are the beginning of new series, there’s no doubt that they’ll come with some required reading.

2018/19’s Avengers: Infinity War will be the conclusion to a decade long story arc. If they were to go ahead with an equally long follow-up arc, will the audience stick around? And that’s just for Marvel, there’s also the over-arching epic for the Justice League, X-Men and Spider-Man franchises. Superhero films aren’t going away, that bubble will never burst – it will deflate. With a market flooded by the same thing every other month, fatigue is an eventuality – people are going to get bored. In 2008 a shared cinematic universe was an incredibly bold move to make. In 2019, it’ll just be commonplace.3

To say Wonder Woman’s iconicity is significant would be an understatement – in the history of comics there isn’t a superheroine whose cultural impact comes even remotely close. Yet, in her 75-year history she has yet to make a cinematic appearance. Why? Her popularity easily out-shines Iron Man and Thor, and absolutely eclipses Hawkeye and Black Widow. She’s a third of DC Comic’s trinity, standing equal with both Superman and Batman. Her permanency in general pop-culture is untouchable, not to mention her widespread use as a feminist icon. Her first solo film is being released in 2017, which will also be the first female-led superhero film since 2005’s Elektra. How has it taken so long for one of the most popular superhero figures of all time to reach the silver screen? People argue that audiences just aren’t interested in her character, yet we live in a time when C-listers like Ant-Man and Rocket Racoon can make it onto the big-screen. When strong female characters do actually appear on-screen in superhero films, they never amount to anything more than a sidekick. Black Widow’s film incarnation is fantastic and a fan-favourite, yet there’s no headlining movie in sight, despite the demand for it. For now, she’s stuck juggling screen-time with the Avengers.

This under-representation also extends to people of colour. Marvel’s Black Panther is being released in 2018 and will be the first superhero film headlined by person of colour since 2004’s Blade Trinity. Heroes of colour suffer from the same fate as women, in that while they appear in superhero films, it’s always in a sidekick role. When news broke of another Spider-Man reboot there was a lot of talk and rumors that it could be the African/Latino Miles Morales or a race-swapped Peter Parker. A non-white Peter Parker could have been a fresh and interesting take on the character, especially after the incredibly underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man films. These rumors have since been silenced, as half-a-dozen baby-faced white men now occupy the casting shortlist for Peter Parker.

People complain that under-representing non-white males in superhero films is a reflection of the medium they adapt, which is by far the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard.4 While comic-books themselves aren’t perfect when it comes to representing people of colour, women and even non-hetero sexualities – both on and behind the page – they’re certainly doing a much better job than Hollywood.5 The X-Men character Storm is one of the strongest African-American women to ever appear on a comic-book page, a compassionate leader yet fierce warrior. She once fought Callisto, leader of the Morlocks, to the death in a one-on-one knife fight, and kicked Cyclops’ arse to decide who will lead the X-Men. In the films, she’s just another character juggling screen-time, whose portrayal touches on some of her character strengths but ultimately falls short of showing just how strong she truly is. These problems of on-screen representation only scratch the surface of the issue, which extends to behind the scenes too. Not one of the MCU films has been directed by a woman, with Guardians of the Galaxy being the only film to be written by a woman (Nicole Perlman), whose co-writing credit was disputed by director James Gunn. Representation matters, and is a problem that needs to be sorted out much sooner rather than later.

Something that is slowing any real change here is that superhero films are particularly vulnerable to creative and aesthetic disagreements between filmmakers and studios. In May last year it was announced that Edgar Wright was leaving the production of Marvel’s Ant-Man due to ‘creative differences’. This came as a shock to many, as Wright had been working on the film since 2003. While the specifics of these creative differences haven’t surfaced, one can assume that Wright’s particularly unique style of filmmaking didn’t gel with the Marvel Studios’ overall aesthetic. Which is an absolute shame, as Wright’s fast-paced comedy and action would have brought an energy to Ant-Man unseen in Marvel’s other films – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is evidence to that. It’s this adherence to a consistent franchise-wide aesthetic that admonishes creative freedom. Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The First Avenger are two of the strongest films in the MCU because of their semi-detachment from what’s currently happening in-universe (one exists on the other side of the galaxy while the other exists during World War II). Guardians embraces the poppy weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic comics, while Captain America adopts the aesthetic of 1940’s pulp serials (much like director Joe Johnston’s previous superhero foray The Rocketeer). The Winter Soldier quickly does away with this look, taking on a something that’s in-between Whedon’s Avengers and the average Hollywood action-thriller. Age of Ultron looks exactly like its predecessor, and while they’re both enjoyable movies they are ultimately interchangeable.

While keeping with an aesthetic stifles creativity, it can also lead a film in the wrong direction. From what we’ve seen so far from the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, director Josh Trank seems to be favouring a much darker and more mature look that one would expect. This seems out-of-place for the Fantastic Four, who are without a doubt the brightest and weirdest Marvel team. From the early comics by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee which read like a sci-fi fever dream by the way of 1970s pop-art to the more recent high-concept sci-fi epic by Jonathon Hickman, they’ve always been a team that favours the more strange and ‘out there’ facets of the Marvel universe – they embrace the fantastic in their name. One of their most iconic villains is a world-eating giant in a purple dress whose side-kick is a silver guy on a surfboard. Instead, Trank’s F4 doesn’t seem to be doing anything to set itself apart from its competitors. From what we’ve so far from trailers, it looks like the standard superhero origin story, plot points a seemingly paint-by-numbers affair.

And then there’s the DC cinematic universe, which is taking a much darker and gritty look than anything we’ve yet seen. Man of Steel was launched as a starting point, much like Iron Man was for Marvel, but whereas Iron Man promised something new and interesting Man of Steel delivered nothing but crushing disappointment. At his core, Superman is a character who exists to overcome the impossible and help humanity reach their full potential, becoming super-beings themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not cool enough for Zack Snyder whose idea of Superman is a cocky asshole smugly walking through a destroyed Metropolis who actively murders Zod, because fuck it, why not? The first trailer for Batman v. Superman promises more of the same brooding melodrama, with more joyless CGI-drenched action. While Marvel may be firm on a consistent look, it’s a look that at least cares somewhat about fun and embraces the comic-book origins of its characters. The problem with this darker, more adult tone is that while it works for a character like Batman it doesn’t translate well for others – Superman being a prime example. A solo Flash film has also been announced, with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump St and The Lego Movie tagged as directors – two filmmakers who, while talented, absolutely do not fit with the aesthetic of the universe we’ve been presented with.6

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is thrown around a lot when discussing the more adult takes on superheroes, but its inclusion in conversations about tone feels confusing at times. While Nolan’s version of Batman is undoubtedly the most mature we’ve seen, it’s one that enforces a stronger sense of realism than any other superhero film.7 And that works for a character like Batman. At the end of the day, he’s a guy doing kung-fu in body armour – he’s not leaping buildings in a single bound or covered in orange rocks. The tone of these films is dark because Batman is a dark character, who comes from a background of a gothic aesthetics and urban crime – the latter of which Nolan places emphasis on. Superman isn’t dark, neither is The Flash or the Fantastic Four. Snyder’s biggest flaw is that he places style over substance. He leans heavily on making his films look “cool” and “adult” while ignoring good storytelling. His adaptation of Watchmen is the perfect culmination of his flaws, in that it doesn’t feel like a movie, but rather some incarnation of nerd pornography, merely an attempt to perfectly recreate comic-book panels on-screen. In that vein, Batman v. Superman has hinted at a battle between the titular characters that’s lifted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. While that fight is an incredibly iconic scene, chances are its impact will be lost if Snyder meticulously recreates it. He’s a director too obsessed with appealing to comic-book fans that he loses sight of why fans enjoy comic-books.

Superheroes are meant to inspire us and encourage us to achieve greatness, as both an individual and collective society. But when a single genre is flooded with films that look and feel the same as one another, it’s easy for inspiration to be washed away in a sea of grey gloomy palettes and CGI. I want to see change; I want to see something different. Wonder Woman is a huge a deal – not only is it the character’s first solo Hollywood film, it’ll also be directed by a woman.8 As uninterested as I am with superhero films, this is a significant moment for the genre. It’s something new and different. It’s a step forward that I want to see more of. It’s time for the studios to finally take on the great responsibility that comes with the great power they wield.

1. Although, weirdly enough, the Fast and the Furious films are the least serious of the two.
2. I know I’m not the first person to make this call. Throw a stone on the Internet and you’re bound to hit a dozen people with similar opinions. That said, there are problems with superhero films which extend past the realm of personal taste and opinion.
3. The Western was the most popular genre of the early 20th century, now you’d be lucky to see one or two films released a year.
4. See writer Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue here.
5. If you’re not reading Ms. Marvel you should probably start reading Ms. Marvel.
6. The Flash himself is a character who is predominately portrayed as a cheerful, upbeat character. But then again, so is Superman so all bets are off at this point.
7. Not to say it takes a fully realistic approach – The Dark Knight Rises reaches some high levels of ridiculousness – but it’s grounded more in the real world than something like Superman or the X-Men films.
8. Though not, as initially announced, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones regular Michelle MacLaren. She has been replaced by Patty Jenkins, director of the highly acclaimed Monster.

One thought on “The Death of Supermen – Why Comic Book Adaptations Are Failing Their Audience

  1. Pingback: Essays + Op-Eds Masterlist | Chris Neill

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