The problems with directly adapting comics

Feature Rob Leane 29 May 2014 - 06:21

From Days of Future Past to Iron Man 3’s Extremis arc, we examine the positives and pitfalls of plundering comics directly for film...

This article contains spoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier but only discusses the basic story elements of X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

There was a period during the last few years, beginning with the original X-Men trilogy dwindling out in 2006 and arguably ending with Avengers Assemble in 2012, where Marvel heroes at the movies seemed to exclusively deal in reboots, recasting and origin stories. Despite a few exceptions, including the unloved Iron Man 2, discovering your power and embracing your destiny as a hero (or member of a team of heroes) seemed to be the order of the day for Marvel characters during this six year period.

Meanwhile, DC were doing something pretty interesting around this time period. Namely Christopher Nolan’s oft-praised The Dark Knight trilogy which took elements the auteur loved from the comics (the rooftop meetings and other inspirations from The Long Halloween, the breaking-the-Bat arc from Knightfall, elements of The Man Who Falls and Batman: Year One) and pulled them together to make a coherent, thoroughly entertaining trilogy.

With the Avengers assembled, Spider-Man rebooted and the X-Men revitalised through First Class, 2012 marked the beginning of a new era for Marvel at the movies, albeit with the properties still separated between different studios. Since then, filmmakers have been given the chance to delve a little deeper than simply relaying a well-known origin story and have been lifting popular comic book arcs from the decades of source material and adapting them directly for screen. 

Since then, with the only real exception being Thor: The Dark World which lifted characters but not the main plot, we have seen the history of comic books directly plundered for screen potential far more than ever before; Iron Man 3 borrowed heavily from Warren Ellis’ Extremis arc; Captain America: The Winter Solider was a fairly faithful adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s comic of the same name; The Wolverine took a lot from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine limited series; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 reproduced the infamous The Night Gwen Stacey Died story from 1973, and now X-Men: Days Of Future Past has arrived as a comparatively loose reworking of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s brief but much-loved 1981 arc of the same name.

Now that we live in age where most major superheroes are established on screen, we had a look at these recent adaptations to find out what works, and what doesn’t about directly adapting comics...

Knowing what’s going to happen

This is one of the biggest problems with directly adapting comic books to the screen, the foresight it gives fans. Simply due to the centralising of Gwen Stacey in the post-Raimi reboot, hardcore fans began speculating years ago as to how many movies it would take before she took an unfortunate tumble off a high building of some kind, leading to one of Peter’s toughest moments in life – when, in trying to save Gwen, he actually killed her. In the comics, this horrifying moment continues to haunt Peter for years and was genuinely shocking when first read back in the seventies. Did the film version have the same shock factor? 

To a certain degree, yes. Seeing as the film wasn’t billed as The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Plummet of Gwen, this one retained a certain ability to offer an emotional gut punch, greatly helped along by the stellar chemistry between the pair and Garfield’s on-screen reaction. Generally this Spidey sequel was advertised as a multi-villain bust-up with some family history revelations thrown in. Some of the advertising (namely the two-part Superbowl Trailer) actually deceptively featured snippets of Gwen falling within the clock tower, but only showed the initial skirmish, including the shot where Peter caught and saved her, not the second more fatal fall, which actually served to throw a few viewers off the scent. Smart move.

The same cannot be said for Captain America: The Winter Soldier though which, if you know the comics, would have one big twist nullified for you. The identity of the eponymous Winter Soldier is common knowledge to comic book fans as the Bucky’s-still-alive-but-has-become-a-soviet-assassin plot-point originally played out in panel format back in 2005. Was knowing this kind of information before the film even started a bit disappointing? Maybe, but did the film make up for it in other ways? Definitely. 

As much as it’s easy to envy people who saw Bucky’s return with fresh eyes, there were plenty of other twists and turns in that narrative to assure that anyone looking for a conspiracy thriller with big revelations wouldn’t leave unhappy just because of their foreknowledge. Marvel Studios made a clever decision by tying in some plot elements more inspired by the Nick Fury Versus S.H.I.E.L.D. arc from 1988, namely the HYDRA infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which doesn’t feature in the Winter Soldier comic at all). Despite what we may have expected entering the cinema to see a film called Captain America: The Winter Soldier, what we actually got was more akin to The Dark Knight trilogy in terms of handling inspiration – it tied together elements that Marvel Studios and the Russo Brothers enjoyed from Cap’s canon and tied them together into something new.

Again, much like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the advertising of Captain America: The Winter Soldier actually threw us off the scent for the real major moments in the film. HYDRA’s take-over of S.H.I.E.L.D. was all anyone was talking about afterwards, despite being on nobody’s mind beforehand. Both these films have shown that lifting big plot points from the comic book world can work well and garner big reactions if handled correctly. By keeping schtum about the real revelations/losses in both films, despite the fact both movies had huge advertising pushes, meant that both could still have a big effect on people and offer plenty of surprises. 

Fox is now pulling a similar trick with X-Men: Days Of Future Past, which we won’t spoil here. It’s worth noting though, that the main similarity to the original comic is the central time travel conceit and the necessity to stop an assassination. The bulk of the film features astounding action, some emotionally-charged interplay between the core cast and, perhaps most importantly, a few surprises along the way. This seems to be the smartest away to adapt comics, with a unique new spin and some newly added elements.

Adding in too much

Of course we know that mixing up the formula and throwing in some additional elements doesn’t always work quite that well. The backlash from some fans after the Iron Man 3 reveal that uber-terrorist the Mandarin was actually out-of-work thespian and former toast of Croydon Trevor Slattery was some of the bitterest post-film feedback we’ve seen in recent years, despite Iron Man 3 receiving positive reviews and much love from other members of the public. 

Perhaps this vocal reaction from certain corners of the comic book fan-base was so negative because audiences had been told to expect a big screen adaptation of Warren Ellis’ highly-lauded Extremis series, which while still featuring Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce’s AIM evil genius) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall’s duplicitous scientist), had a notably distinct lack of any sort of Mandarin, let alone a comic relief version of the character.

Adverts in print comics around the time of the release urged you to pick up Ellis’ Extremis series, now a major motion picture, despite the big changes made before it got to screen. During the trailers and TV-spots the addition of the Mandarin seemed like an overwhelmingly good one – he was fierce, resourceful and enigmatic. But the realisation of his true identity disappointed some viewers and distracted away from what could have been a fan favourite franchise installment.

This is symptomatic of the aforementioned benefit to adding in new story elements – significant moments in the film can be masked in the advertising, allowing surprises and revelations on top of the comic book story which fans may know already. When this backfires though, as it did for some people with Iron Man 3, these extra revelations can affect the whole film and give it a bad reputation in certain circles.

This is a case of adding in too much then, or simply adding in stuff which wont please everyone. The Mandarin reveal was a risk for Marvel, which turned some people off, but equally entertained others. The MCU survived this one, but may not attempt anything too similar in the near future.

Failing to capture ‘the essence’

Arguably a worse fate than splitting opinions with new additions, is a film which doesn’t quite capture the essence of a beloved source material. Such was the case with The Wolverine which, despite being a fun entertaining action movie, somewhat lacked the brooding reflective tone of Claremont and Miller’s original Wolverine comic series.

Things started promisingly as Logan wandered the woods, did some soul searching and dished out a little vengeance, but things soon went off track when Hollywood-isation nullified any attempt at the nuance and character development that Claremont valued. The biggest problem is the unnecessary addition of the Silver Samurai, who only appeared in the epilogue to the original comic series, but is thrown into the film to force a generic superhero-movie-by-numbers big smash-up conclusion. A kendo duel between Logan and Shingen (Mariko’s father, who has most of his story given to the grandfather in the film), is also stripped – one of the Claremont’s biggest grievances with the film. 

“That kendo match is the seminal moment of the story,” the writer told Vulture. “Because it reveals Wolverine as vulnerable, even with his claws and his healing power.” Removing moments like that and preferring big silver CGI-enhanced fights is symptomatic of why direct adaptations don’t always work at the movies. 

Problems like this have haunted the X-Men franchise before of course, with Brett Ratner’s heartless retelling of Claremont’s beloved Dark Phoenix saga in X-Men: The Last Stand (which also failed to do justice to the cure-based storyline originating from a Joss Whedon-penned comic) being the direct adaptation sequel which plunged us into an age of reboots and recasting in the first place.

As discussed on this site before, X-Men: The Last Stand had plenty of epic action and attempts to carry a message, but fell down by turning Charles Xavier into an arsehole, killing off Cyclops at rapid pace and relegating Jean Grey, the presumed central character, to mainly standing around frowning at people.

To wrap up then, films like X-Men: The Last Stand, which fail to capture the essence of their inspiration by playing fast and loose with canon and characters, are those which come off worst when trying to adapt much-loved comic arcs to the screen. A similar fate, though not as bad a case of it, affected The Wolverine, which removed some interesting character development material and chucked in a clichéd closing smack-down instead. X-Men: Days of Future Past has shown a better way to adapt X-Men stories by staying true to the central premise but treating characters far better.

Superior to the pre-Future Past X-flicks are films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which lift whole stories from the comics fairly faithfully but find ways to surprise you with them, be it by misleading you from a big plot point in advertising (Gwen’s death) or throwing in a whole extra narrative strand which no-one saw coming (the HYDRA plot). Even this method is far from flawless though, as the mixed fan reception to Iron Man 3’s comic twist proved by offending some of Marvel's most vocal followers. 

Let’s hope that the various studios working on comic adaptations have taken note by now of what works and doesn’t and attempt to make smart decisions going forward, as we have no shortage of new superhero flicks coming soon. 

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