Is Cinema the Best Medium for Superhero Stories?

Watchmen would arguably make a better TV show than movie. Does a movie, then, constrain superhero stories?

During Watchmen’s prolonged adaptation process, Terry Gilliam was brought on board to direct but ultimately left the project, stating that “in the end, I just felt Watchmen was unmakeable because when you reduce it down to a two-hour film, you’re taking so much textured detail out that it kind of loses what it’s about. I keep thinking it would be better as a miniseries; a five-hour miniseries is what I think Watchmen should be. Nobody’s ever suggested it as a five-hour miniseries except me. Nobody’s come forward and said, ‘what a great idea!'”

Zack Snyder met with HBO in 2015 to discuss the possibility of a Watchmen TV series. Readers of this site will most likely be aware that Snyder directed the cinematic adaptation of the original comics, released in 2009, and so is either interested in trying to adapt the original again, or to use the Before Watchmen prequel series as source material. Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen (but not Before Watchmen, saying of the project “what I want is for this not to happen”) has taken issue with the need to adapt it from its comic book form due to it being written specifically for that medium, using storytelling techniques that are specific to it. That it simply won’t translate into moving pictures.

Also, putting those concerns to one side, it’s really long.

In Watchmen’s case, I agree with Terry Gilliam in that – if you are going to adapt it – television seems the most suitable medium as the longer running time allows additional detail, plus changes in tone and focus from episode to episode. Now television has the budget and clout to lure a project like Watchmen away from movie theaters. Game Of Thrones and HBO’s output has done a lot for that, but author George R R. Martin said he got inquiries about a movie adaptation (singular) after the second book A Clash Of Kings was released, with even more coming in the wake of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Film had long been favored over TV for budgetary reasons, and because you could show scenes of violent or sexual nature in the cinema that network television would shy away from.

Ad – content continues below

Film is now dominated by PG-13 action-adventure where the template has become readily apparent through repetition, but equally films cost more to see now and so knowing what you’re getting – and knowing that it’ll be good – make it a more reliable source of entertainment. At the same time, TV has seen the rise and rise of HBO and other channels have followed suit, with streaming services able to offer flexibility in terms of episode numbers and adult content.

Recent DC adaptations have been better received on television than their cinema releases, and their continuities have been kept distinct. Zack Snyder has said “that’s not really the universe we’re building” regarding the TV shows’ relative lightness to the DC Extended Universe thus far. Marvel, on the other hand, has used Netflix as a platform for its darker characters, but doesn’t seem to have embraced that freedom totally: each series of Daredevil and Jessica Jones has 13 episodes, and arguably that’s not the number their storylines merited.

Nonetheless this format has allowed for a much greater depth than the likes of Captain America: Civil War could benefit from. As that film’s been a colossal success there is no reason for Marvel to reinvent the wheel. It will increasingly push against running times with increased ambition and the sheer busyness of its movies, featuring teasers for later films in the series. The films thus lack the focus of the Raimi Spider-Man, Singer X-Men, or Nolan Batman films at their best, and rely on an assumed fondness for characters such as Bucky Barnes, who has been given the bare minimum of backstory necessary for the films to work, and no more. There simply isn’t time to do anything else in the rush to get a film out while incorporating a ticklist of requirements and characters.

Coming from comics, where the storylines are able to rely on decades of accumulated continuity, the films are the equivalent of “event” storylines where numerous tie-in stories accompany the main feature, but cinema doesn’t allow for the same amount of backstory. TV is better able to replicate the way these stories were originally told, but it’s not where the focus is. There’s a very simple reason for this.

If I write “the MCU” in a Den Of Geek article, I can get away without explaining that it stands for “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” and indeed without explaining what that actually involves. Considering how uncertain success was for this project, the risk that paid off has become an immediately identifiable brand in itself. It’s changed cinema; it’s incredibly popular and anything incredibly popular gets copied, and so expanded universes have been considered for franchises such as Universal’s monster movies, Hasbro toys and are underway for LEGO, Star Wars and DC Comics.

The connective tissue may vary, but the Marvel approach is to create a lengthy serial in which individual movies have to be both chapters and standalone stories, almost like the issues in a comic, or the episodes of a TV show. The difference there being the regularity, with each instalment being released within months of each other, and with the chance to watch/read again at your leisure if there are references you didn’t understand. Geeky culture does delight in referencing or revisiting old ideas. Cinema, though, requires you to journey to a building some distance from your home and pay a fee to witness the story again, with a further fee paid before you own it. So it costs more money, doesn’t give you a product you can immediately and freely return to, and invokes plot beats that are both recent yet potentially only seen once about a decade ago.

Ad – content continues below

All of which makes cinema a strange medium for this kind of storytelling. It makes many Marvel films part of an unfinished serial, a chapter in a story where the ending’s been haphazardly pencilled in at best, reminding you that this is part of a strategy to get you excited for the next film. It’s clearly a strategy that’s working for them (and obviously it does make entertaining films as part of this), but fundamentally the reason cinema is chosen to relay moving pictures of 2D images is that it makes more money than television, and it definitely makes more money than comics.

North American comic sales across all companies totalled $870 million in 2013, compared to the little under $1.86 billion the two Marvel films released that year (Iron Man 3 and Thor 2: The Dark World) managed in the same timeframe. Cinema reaches more people, makes more money and is more of a sure thing than traditional TV advertising and syndication revenue as subscription/streaming increases in popularity. This in turn has a bigger knock-on effect on merchandising and licensing.

That’s the main reason for the focus on film, and the demand for them is clearly justifying the decision. If the way superhero films are made doesn’t seem fully tailored towards story, that’s just the business we’re in. We’ll take what we’re given.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.