The Nukes Gotta Go: The Evolution of Comics in Cinema
In my beginnings with Public News, I presented a so-so review of Avengers: Age
of Ultron (2015), what was supposed to be one of 2015’s biggest movies. It was definitely one of last year’s most anticipated films, behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, but the end result was on a subpar level compared to previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), particularly for the sequel to The Avengers (2012). Now that we are well into 2016, several heavily anticipated comic book films have hit theaters, with and without favorable reception. The differences in both the films and their reviews have sparked numerous discussions regarding the status of comic book films. Are they getting better? Are audiences getting tired of them? I myself have had frequent conversations with a co-worker, an avid comic reader who will be referred to as the Comic Book Guy, and it’s in these discussions where I’ve recognized a pattern regarding these films and the industry.
Deadpool, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, and
X-Men: Apocalypse all released within three months of one another; a heavy dose of comic book films for such a short span of time. Interestingly enough, the reception for these films is all over the place. Deadpool received an overly welcoming reception from audiences, presenting itself as a fresh approach to comic book films, but this had more to do with the titular character than the film itself. Deadpool (Wade Wilson, played by Ryan Reynolds) isn’t like most comic characters we see on the big screen, and given the long wait fans endured for a proper adaptation of the character since the botchery of X-Men
Origins: Wolverine (2009), it’s fair to say expectations were extremely high. Expectations reached even higher when Deadpool officially received its R rating from the MPAA, an inevitable decision given the character’s vulgar nature. This is a point when most studios will pursue different directions to make the film suitable for wider audiences, but there comes a time when doing this destroys the project’s integrity. So I’ll definitely admit I was glad to see Fox have the nerve to just release Deadpool the way it was meant to be seen, despite my not having much interest in either the film or the character, and it certainly paid off for them given the film’s worldwide gross of $763 million— Deadpool was 2016’s highest grossing film until Civil War surpassed it in May. Moving on to Batman v. Superman and Civil War, it’s obvious the former was just an outright mess, and the film’s 85% drop in ticket sales after one week—a historic occurrence for such an expensive and highly anticipated film—should serve as more than enough evidence to support this position. And if that weren’t enough, actor Jeremy Irons (who played Alfred in Bat
man v. Superman) said the film’s story was “overstuffed” and deserved its negative reception. Civil War on the other hand has had an exceptionally superior performance, both commercially and critically. But why is this? If you ask me, I say it’s simply because Civil War is a better movie, generally speaking. All the characters and plot points aside, better decisions were made with Civil War in the editing process. Both films were lengthy, but one could argue Civil War had better pacing than its DC counterpart. Regarding the characters, I feel this is more or less self-explanatory, but Civil War possessed the better character development for obvious reasons. The MCU has developed these characters in film for eight years now, starting with Iron Man (2008), and having such extensive character arcs from film to film over that span of time means when a friend vs. friend film like Civil War finally comes about, harder and deeper notes will be struck. In a sense, this is what comic books themselves are like, and it’s awesome to see this level of continuity finally finding its way into cinema. I won’t say the MCU is the first franchise to do this, as that credit belongs to Harry Potter, but the MCU is no doubt taking that continuity to a level beyond Harry Potter.
Batman v. Superman was our introduction to Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, and for those who cared about Henry Cavill’s Superman, this film was only his second entry, in which case I don’t think most audiences had developed much of an attachment to his character. And when we’re talking about a climactic fight to the death between two iconic characters such as Batman and Superman, it’s difficult to properly channel an emotional response from audiences when you’re only in the second chapter of your series. Yes, Batman v. Superman shows us why these two would go up against each other, but it plays itself out in more of a predictable way because the filmmakers have to rush to fill their 150-minute runtime.
Another part of Batman v. Superman’s problem was that it just wasn’t about the titular characters, whereas if it had been and nothing else, the plot could have been simpler, possibly resulting in a more balanced movie. Characters like Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman and Doomsday were not needed, and when one thinks of the screen time wasted on these characters, it makes one wonder what more could have been done with the characters that mattered. Now, we finally arrive at X-Men: Apoca
lypse, a film which has the luxury of being part of a rather questionable franchise. The X-Men films have been down such a rocky road since the eponymous film’s release in 2000, having a strong start with the first two entries before going massively downhill in the third and fourth. Origins: Wolverine is a film I find so atrocious, I generally refuse to acknowledge its existence. X-Men: First Class (2011) saved the X-Men franchise the same way Batman Begins (2005) did for Batman after Bat
man & Robin (1997). Aside from the fact James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s performances as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr were unexpectedly outstanding, First Class utilized a simple plot featuring simple characters with simple motivations, while also bringing a less grounded and more comic book atmosphere to the franchise, unlike the first two installments.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), the sequel to First Class, sort of went in the opposite direction by featuring a far more convoluted plot, yet still retaining the strong comic vibe of its predecessor. Oddly enough, this experiment worked well for the X-Men series, and served as an apology for mistakes made with the direction of previous entries. Unfortunately, Days of Future Past worked too well because its successor, Apocalypse, wasn’t able to top it in the eyes of most. A film like Apocalypse brings about problems because when you’re audience knows the protagonists will face off against an apocalyptic threat before the movie is even released, you’ve automatically put yourself into a corner. When it comes down to it, one of two things will happen: The world will end, or it won’t. And with these types of films, about 99.9 percent of the time, the world spins on. So right there, you’ve made the more skeptical members of audience ask, “Why should I care about what happens?” In some respects, it can make any characters’ deaths pointless, as well as the entirety of the film. We’re in a comic book movie era now where a film like Civil War has the upper hand against Apocalypse because while we know the Avengers are going to split and face each other, Civil War’s story unfolds in a way where we don’t know who will succeed or potentially lose their life, which brings about drama and suspense and emotionally involves the audience in what’s transpiring onscreen. And with all that said, where exactly are these films going? It’s hard to say just when the “comic book movie genre” appeared in cinema because for different people, there are different starting points. We have Tim Burton’s
Batman (1989) in one hand, Blade (1998) in another, as well as various other works, but most probably credit X-Men (2000) with cracking the code to the genre’s commercialization. X-Men was the comic book film to introduce the formula that’s become so predictable with these types of movies, though we must remember it was a brand new thing at the time. XMen showed films based on comic book characters could be grounded in reality yet retaining the source material’s fantastic elements, all while being commercial to audiences on a mass scale. For the next 12 years, numerous films depicting various comic book characters hit theaters, some performing better than others. But the game-changer came in the summer of 2012 when Disney and Marvel finally debuted the long-awaited team-up film The Avengers. The idea of doing a franchise featuring an ensemble of characters, each of whom would receive a solo introductory film before the grand finale where everyone finally meets, had never really been done in live-action cinema. It was a huge gamble that started when rights for some characters were still controlled by different studios, and not too many people believed it would pay off. Many thought Avengers would come out and either flop, or just be OK before fading into a footnote. This wasn’t the case as Avengers quickly became a smash hit, breaking box office records and lasting an entire summer cinematic season, an extremely difficult feat these days. Knowing their future was secure, Disney and Marvel took the MCU into directions some would have thought too farfetched in previous years. A film like Guardians
of the Galaxy (2014) would never have thought to be a success prior to Avengers’ release, and even upon announcement of Guardians, many people including myself were skeptical of whether it work. As it turned out, Guardians is now one of the MCU’s most successful and popular en- tries, with a heavily anticipated sequel due for release next year. So why is the MCU is so consistently successful when most other comic book films, barring a few notable exceptions, tend gain little traction or flop completely? This is one of the many conversations I’ve had with my coworker, the Comic Book Guy, and his assessment is rather interesting. Following his viewing of Apocalypse, the Comic Book Guy said (and for the sake of context it should be noted he is not a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, particularly the latter two films): “Superhero film/show writers, the plot does not have to revolve around an end of the world event. These nukes, portals and apocalyptic plots have become so predictable that they’re not threatening anymore.
Deadpool, The Dark Knight (which should prove my non-biased opinion), X2, Civil War, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, and Raimi’s Spider-man are all superhero films where the threat is not an apocalypse. Smaller, personal threats will help explore the individual traits and personalities of these characters. We learn nothing from, “Oh the world is ending, I should try hard to stop that.” But, “I’ll beat the armor off of my teammate if it means I’ll keep my friend safe,” or, “I’ll kill any and everyone in my path to get revenge and save my girl,” actually say things about who these people are. Read the books, learn WHO they are as well as what they can do, and then keep it simple.” We’ve all heard the phrase, “Comic book movies are dying off.” Director Steven Spielberg even commented on this subject saying: “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.” I agree with this to a certain extent, touch- ing on what the Comic Book Guy said. I feel a certain type of comic book movie is dying off, meaning the formulaic, predictable type. Only comic book movies and shows that tell deep, emotionally-involved stories with these characters are going to survive. It’s the only real way we members of the audience can connect with these characters. This is why Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Marvel Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones are held in such high regard, because not only are their heroes understood by the audience, but the villains are as well. For example, in Jessica Jones, we’re not following someone stopping their nemesis from gaining absolute power and take over the world. We’re watching a woman confront a personal tormenter from her past, standing up against everything she fears. For comic book adaptations, we have to know why the villain chooses their course of action, and to a certain extent sympathize with them. This is why Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in Daredevil is such a praised character, because we sympathize with him, understand him, and even root for him most of the time. He’s not just doing something frivolous like blow up the planet. He wants to save Hell’s Kitchen, just as Daredevil does. The two go about it in entirely different ways, and Fisk’s actions directly affect the other characters in the show, whom we also care about. It’s more personal and that’s what these films need to remain interesting. The fact Netflix is taking on these character arcs in the form of multiple episode arcs only means we’re going to get more, and frankly proper, development, showing the subject matter is still very much relevant. This is what successful live-action comic book adaptations are evolving into. It’s not about making a comic book movie or show anymore. It’s about making a thriller, a drama or even a comedy. Civil War and Jessica Jones work because they’re heavily character-driven dramas. Winter Soldier works because it’s a political thriller. This is a time where these films and shows have to rise above the stereotypes associated with them in the past. Without that, we’ll keep getting generic, predictable results. Some studios have wised up to this and some haven’t, which is why some projects are an overwhelming success and others drastically bomb. Comic book movies aren’t dying, they’re evolving, and in the process of evolution, only the fittest make it through. The nukes need to go, and allow depth to flourish.