The Avengers, the next installment in the mostly-solid string of Marvel adaptations, opens May 4th. I, along with my fellow diehard fans, will be sitting down at midnight to take in the next adventure. This particular subset of the Marvel Universe has really rocked with two Iron Man movies, Thor, and Captain America. The reboot of The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton was solid. (Sorry Ang Lee- I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but Hulk was shit.)
I am a superhero guy- a fact well-established in my prior posts. In fact, comic books were just one way to satisfy my love of great stories and characters. Comic books, novels, short stories, you name it- I’ve always loved to read. Series, whether in comics or literature, were the best because once you found a character that really clicked each installment that followed brought a whole new set of adventures with that hero.
Hollywood has picked some great source material to adapt. We’ll get to see our favorite characters brought to life on the movie screen. The Avengers gets the full summer blockbuster experience- top-notch cast, gifted writer-director in Joss Whedon, amazing special effects. The next great story adaptation should be nothing but exciting.
Except Hollywood seems to have forgotten (or ignored) some key points about adaptations.
- The source material is strong. That’s why it was noticed.
- Getting the adaptation wrong sucks.
…and most importantly,
- To Hollywood- that story you’re adapting? It’s not yours. You are borrowing it. Respect other peoples’ things!
First, Hollywood chooses to adapt a story because of the strength of the source material. It is that strength that catches Hollywood’s rain-making attention. The size of a fan base is not the primary driver. Strong source material drives a fan base. Twilight, although not my thing, is strong material because it made a ridiculously solid connection to its core audience. Evaluating the material as a piece of literature misses the first point of story-telling: a story teller must entertain their audience. Everything else can only occur after the audience is entertained.
Second, we need to acknowledge the risks here. Just because they’ve started with great material doesn’t mean that the movie will be good. To keep this rant simple, let’s just look at comic book adaptations. Remember- all of the original comics here have long histories and solid fan bases. Don’t blame the comics.
- Fantastic Four (and the disappointing sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer)
- the aforementioned Hulk from 2003
- Ghost Rider
- The Punisher (both Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane’s versions)
- most of the Batman franchise between 1989’s Batman and Nolan’s genius restart in Batman Begins
- much of the Spider-Man franchise
- X-Men in its many iterations
I won’t make you read through my rant against each and every item in the list above. But trust me- I’m a geek. I watched them all. Here’s a few select points.
In Victor von Doom, Marvel created one of its most complex and interesting villains- Dr. Doom. Despite the 1960’s-era name, Doom is arguably Marvel’s greatest villain. Doom stands as a Shakespearean foe against Marvel’s greatest heroes- the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Avengers among them. Yet in the movies Doom becomes a cardboard cutout heavy that carries none of the comics’ nobility or tragedy. Why use a character with such a rich history and depth and then discard all of the good stuff? If you used just the source comics as inspiration, you could write a wonderfully dark screenplay of the Faustian Doom.
Sam Raimi rocks. No arguments from me on that. But I scratch my head at some of the choices he made. Organic web-shooters? The Green Goblin as some kind of evil manga-esque Iron Man? To be fair, when these first came out, I enjoyed them. But the more recent Marvel titles (and Nolan’s Dark Knight) have shown us what great superhero movies should be.
Batman– the middle years
Tim Burton’s film, in 1989, gave us back the superhero movie as a viable genre. We fans had suffered in the few years before that. I’ll allow you to decide which was worse- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or Howard the Duck. As a Marvel fan, I can’t forgive the damage done by choosing to make that bastard duck. Of all the other options in the Marvel canon, who picked Howard the Duck? Those two movies were representative of the schlock that nixed superhero movies until Michael Keaton donned the cowl versus Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
So Burton’s take on the hero should be commended. It resurrected the genre. But things quickly slid downhill from there. I would posit that the Bat-nipples of 1997’s Batman & Robin must have been envisioned by someone that hated the genre and was intent on finishing it off once and for all.
Never has a movie been so anticipated and disappointing. I was willing to overlook the ridiculous height difference between that crazy Canuck, Wolverine, (at 5’3”) and Hugh Jackman (at almost a full foot taller- 6’2”). I’m a fan of Hugh Jackman. I love his performance in the movie. But the story was… meh. Again, Hollywood ruins a beautifully complex/sarcastic/dark character (Deadpool) and ignores a brilliant story in canon (the 1982 4-issue limited series titled “Wolverine” from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller) that really defined Logan’s complex psyche and motivation. Wolverine and Sabretooth teaming up at the end?
I think all of my objections to poorly-done Hollywood adaptations come down to a single lesson that I have taught my sons: respect other peoples’ things. These stories and characters do not belong to whichever movie studio or corporation has bought the legal rights to the properties. These uniquely American myths- our superheroes- belong to the fans that have kept the stories alive for more than 70 years. Those characters have lasted (and Hollywood became interested) because we the fans loved them.
When you borrow something that does not belong to you, you are obligated to safeguard it. If I loan my neighbor my lawnmower, I expect that he’s going to use it. But I also expect that he’s going to use it properly, ensure it doesn’t get lost or stolen, and return it to me in the condition I loaned it. Perhaps if the producers attached to these adaptations understood the idea that my boys do- Respect Other Peoples’ Things– we would have a better track record of movie adaptations.
I understand the creative need for a writer, director, or actor to put their unique stamp on something. I’m writing to fill a creative need. But that doesn’t give me (or them) the right to ignore the body of work going back decades. Explore new questions about a character? Great. Illuminate facets of that character consistent with the well-established source material? Please do. Want to change the core elements of the character or history? Sorry- go create your original story somewhere else. Go roll your own.
I trust that Joss Whedon is going to do the right thing with The Avengers. His commitment to character and story is well-documented. No worries here. So I’ll be in the theater at midnight in a few weeks as I get ready to hear the rallying cry- Avengers Assemble!