Capes on Tape: The Difficulties of Putting Superheroes on Film

    With the star-studded Iron Man 2 coming out this Friday and Kick-Ass still in theaters, the profound impact (or at least prevalence) of comic-to-movie transitions is hard to ignore. Many of them, such as The Dark Knight, have even emerged as critical and financial giants, and it’s easy to see why. They’re massive projects starring pre-made icons with an already established fanbase. But that doesn’t mean they’re not prone to their fair share of problems.

    The transition of stories from comics to movies has always been something of a natural progression. Comics are essentially storyboards. To a large degree the script, appearance of the characters, composition and even color are usually laid out for the filmmaker. However, this close correlation can sometimes cause as many problems as it solves, usually from one of two basic pitfalls: sticking too close to the source material or straying too far from it.

    Due to the nature of the moving image, some characters just don’t translate well. Unfortunately, Batman is one of them. Simply due to limitations in the medium, it’s very difficult to showcase Bruce Wayne possessing the same subtle mystique he has in the comics. Known by many in the comics as “The Batman” — implying a monstrous, mythical, urban-legend sort of quality — his more ethereal traits prove difficult to capture on camera. Often accentuated by an enormous cape and a highly nuanced, stealth-based fighting style, the Caped Crusader’s more intriguing qualities are often, understandably, lost in the translation to film.

    But Batman is just one character tasked with a difficult transition. Honestly, there’s just something about Superman’s bright-red underoo’s, or Scarlet Witch’s decidedly gaudy headdress that has trouble making the leap from panel to celluloid. As such, it’s understandable when directors get a bit derivative. And it often succeeds — at least financially. Just consider the success of the X-Men and Batman franchises, which evoke leathery, badass, even militaristic characterizations in lieu of more traditional ones.

    This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it often deviates a great deal from the comics. While I’d be the first to acknowledge that many changes are often necessary to make a character work on film, I’m still disappointed when source material is tragically under-utilized. This is very much the case with The Dark Knight, which, despite being labeled as such, just doesn’t feel like a Batman film. The gravely-voiced, belligerent, blunt instrument that Christian Bale delivers loses out on most of Batman’s finer qualities: his intellect, his subtlety, his sense of loyalty — in fact, he has few redeeming qualities at all. He’s less than likeable. As such, The Dark Knight feels more like a Joker film with bits and pieces of famousvolumes scattered throughout. And that’s fine. It’s not a bad film — just not much of a Batman film, functioning as its own separate piece of media, with its own mythos and set of goals — and should be treated as such.

    Deviance, of course, isn’t the only way translation can go awry. A film can also lose out if it seeks to duplicate rather than adapt the source material. This can result in something that doesn’t watch like a film at all, instead playing out more like a live-action motion comic. Case Study: Watchmen.

    Based on yet another Alan Moore classic, Watchmen strove to recreate the source material almost shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Considering that the film tried to mimic Dave Gibbons’ vertically-oriented panels in a widescreen format, I can’t applaud the endeavor. The film itself, as a result of this and countless other attempts at noir affectations, falls prey to a certain visual stiffness, not helped any by mediocre acting. Ultimately, the film’s flaws stem primarily from a directorial hesitance to treat the piece as an independent art form. It just never really got to breathe as a film. Though there’s really no arguing its adherence to the story of Watchmen (except for the ending), the lack of variation and individual identity is quite visible. It’s a movie that doesn’t feel like, well, a movie.

    Iron Man, to me, personifies the happy medium. Drawing upon retcons introduced in Iron Man: Extremis for the Armored Avenger’s origin, the film did a spectacular job appealing to a modern audience and telling its own story (one that wasn’t exactly based, after the origin, on any one comic), all the while staying true to the title character. Unlike The Dark Knight, it characterized its protagonist accurately, telling a story with some of the best aspects of the original comic. The snarky humor, conflicted heroism and political bent made it an ideal choice for adaptation, and it shows: The strengths of the film almost completely eclipse its flaws.

    No one’s arguing that juggling adherence and deviance is easy. Far from it. Even so, I feel that the strongest adaptations must do so, utilizing the best parts of their source material while also maintaining their integrity as films. Just as the Kick-Ass movie utilized John Romita Jr.’s garish, childish color scheme and Sin City took on its predecessor’s shadowy composition, comic films can be their own art form while cherry-picking the comics’ strengths. Though some changes are often necessary, I can’t help but admire when filmmakers manage to strike equilibrium between loyalty and creative liberty. I think Iron Man 2, like its predecessor, can manage that. It may not turn out to be an astounding, artistic film, but it looks to be a hell of an adaptation. And that, for any non-original material, is half the battle.


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