Comic books seem like easy targets for movie treatments. The storyboards, setting and costumes are already laid out for you, and an established fan base already exists. So, it is not surprising that there are about 20 movies based on comic books in various stages of production this year. As you read this article, someone somewhere in Hollywood is out there trying to make ‘Ant-Man’ into a film (the amount of excitement that you would feel for this film is directly proportional to how long you’ve waited in line for a Star Wars film).
So what is it that separates films like ‘Sin City’ from ‘Daredevil’ ? ‘Batman Begins’ from ‘Catwoman’ ? ‘X2’ from ‘X3’ ?
Comic books, just as with any other medium adapted to film, are subject to the quality of their adapters. The problem with comic books, specifically superhero comics, is because so many of them are inherently flashy and action-packed that many adaptations also focus on big action sequences and forget about plot and character development. For example, there is the Joel Shumacher-helmed ‘Batman Forever’ in 1995 introducing the creep-tastic notion of ‘bat-nipples,’ and the even more farcical ‘Batman & Robin’ in 1997, a disaster of a film that was panned by both critics and Internet bloggers living in their parents’ basements alike. Just like many superhero comic book adaptations, ‘Batman & Robin’ was rife with cheesy dialogue and jokes that give a nod to their origins. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his role as Mr. Freeze has 24 different lines related to the fact that he has a freeze-ray (my favorite: ‘What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!’). These terrible bits of dialogue are the worst kind of fan service. An even more egregious example of this is the Internet meme-inspired ‘I’m the Juggernaut, bitch,’ awkwardly inserted into the dialogue of ‘X-Men: The Last Stand.’
However, there clearly is a way to be true to the comics, please fans and achieve critical acclaim. Movies like ‘Batman Begins,’ ‘Sin City,’ ‘Superman Returns’ and ‘V for Vendetta’ do exist. The difference here seems to be the care given to these stories by their filmmakers. All of these movies are well-shot, well-cast (‘Batman Begins’ gets a pass for trading Katie Holmes for Maggie Gyllenhaal in the fourthcoming ‘The Dark Knight’) and well-scripted. These films show a trust for their source material, and movies like ‘Sin City,’ ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘300’ also go as far as to take many visual cues from their panels (most notably in the case of ‘Sin City’).
It really seems to come down to this dichotomy: What are the filmmakers saying to themselves as the movie goes into production? ‘Man, this is going to be a great film!’ or ‘Man, this is going to make lots of money!’ Are the producers looking for which directors and actors are hot and hip, or are they looking for individuals that believe in these stories and can best bring them to life? In the case of big-budget comic book films (and big budget films in general), casting often seems to come down to whoever is the biggest star they can pay to play the part. This problem plagues films like ‘Ghost Rider,’ ‘Fantastic Four,’ ‘Daredevil’ and ‘Spiderman.’ Does anyone believe that Nicolas Cage is a badass biker on a mission from the devil?
Comic book movies are subject to the same problems as any other big blockbuster studio film. The added problem seems to be that comic book movies are treated like kids’ stuff and aren’t given the same care as a film adapted from a novel. There is a whole world of comic books that are just as much of a literary achievement as any other piece of writing. For example, Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ earned a special Pulitzer Prize for fiction, an award that usually excludes the comic medium. Further, 2002’s ‘Road to Perdition’ was nominated for six Academy Awards and was based on a comic. Maybe there is hope for comics yet.