This is an imaginary story...aren't they all?
- Alan Moore, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
Let's begin with an anecdote. As an impressionable youth, I went with a few friends to the Gibson's Landing movie theatre to see Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever. Not knowing any better, I enjoyed the film, but one of my friends really disliked it. When I asked him why, he complained that the film was horribly inaccurate. “After all,” he explained, “everybody knows that the Joker killed Bruce Wayne's parents.”
Take a moment and let that sink in.
This example illustrates one of the innate difficulties in assessing the “accuracy” and “fidelity” of comic book adaptations, especially when they blossom into franchises. Do we look for how well the film represents the canonical print adventures of the caped crusader, or do we judge it based on its fidelity to previous Batman films? We are equally confronted with a more basic problem: comics are a medium that more or less hinge on revision, retconning, rebooting and parallel universes. To discuss a film in terms of its adherence to source material seems to imply that there is one singular version of a character's history, abilities and psychology, where comics repeatedly show us that this is not the case. In the face of this, we need to ask ourselves: do arguments of fidelity actually matter?
I think that there are a number of answers to this question, and they all seem to depend on what kind of superhero story the filmmaker is trying to tell. The most obvious example is the origin story: after all, a blockbuster superhero franchise has to start somewhere! In this case, a filmmaker is necessarily tied to some form of source material, lest they become the target of angry fans everywhere. For instance, when Richard Donner made Superman, he made sure to include the accepted features of the Superman mythos: last survivor of Krypton, raised by Ma and Pa Kent, works in a newspaper, falls for Lois Lane, butts heads with Lex Luthor. Not only are these the elements central to the Superman character, but they are also the things most mainstream (read: non-comic geek) viewers would know about Supes. You may not have read The Death and Return of Superman or followed the Grounded arc, but chances are you'd know Superman's origin, powers, love interest and nemesis. The same goes for most superheroes that have entered into mainstream public discourse; to get a sense of who makes that list, just check out the T-shirt kiosk in the mall. Don't read Batman comics? Well you probably know he's a rich orphan, posing as a playboy while protecting Gotham as an urban vigilante. When launching a franchise, a studio naturally wants to turn a profit by reaching the widest audience possible, and telling the story from the beginning with all the familiar elements is the safest route to go. Sequels to this launch point will then invariably draw on most, if not all, the elements in the first: it's not like The Dark Knight begins with a reveal that Bruce Wayne is actually a vampire with supernatural powers. Yet the “familiar” elements themselves can be problematic, especially when we consider what really counts as the “origin” of the character. Most Marvel and DC characters were radically reinvented between the Golden Age and the Silver Age: Superman originally couldn't fly, but could leap tall buildings in a single bound, Batman originally caught his parents' killer, the Human Torch was a sentient android, and Green Lantern was a single guy with powers derived from magic. For all that people complain about DC's latest reboot, and I'm one of them, we tend to forget that retconning and alternate-universe tales existed in comics long before “Flash of Two Worlds.” So how do we classify the origin anyway? If a Fantastic Four movie featured The Human Torch as a robot, some would argue that it's more faithful, but just as many people would complain that they changed the Johnny Storm they know and love. Most people would complain that the film is terrible, but that's another argument altogether. Yet if they made a note-perfect Silver Age film, you could equally criticize the film for straying from the original material. In a lot of ways, being a fidelity hawk is forgetting that a comic book and a film are two wholly separate forms of media, subject to very different pressures, and the idea of a one-to-one adaptation is a nice ideal, but more or less impossible.
This argument ultimately becomes self-defeating, but it's worth examining simply to reveal the implicit assumption within: that comics were perfect the first time and that any deviation should be met with unadulterated scorn. Why else would people get so upset about changing the “original” version? Does this mean that no Batman story after Kane and Finger is worth filming? How then could comic characters evolve or progress if quality stories were chained to the points of issue one? Here, I think there's a bitter irony: the fans most invested in a comic, the ones who have followed it longest and read it the most, are also the group least willing to let it evolve or take new directions. Following this logic, introducing a new costume, a new villain or a new power becomes tantamount to rewriting the Bible, and at its worst, this desire for fidelity simply becomes an arbitrary reason to criticize pretty decent films. For example, Thor was a pleasant surprise for many, a film that managed to present a somewhat niche superhero in an entertaining and coherent way. Thor's origin, which can be somewhat convoluted (like all superheroes) was streamlined nicely for a two hour film, yet certain fans were incensed that the idea of Donald Blake, Thor's secret identity, was discarded. Does this mean that Thor is a bad film? Or is it a film that recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of the medium and adapts accordingly? It is telling that you never see people argue the reverse: “Sure, Fantastic Four was absolutely atrocious in terms of narrative and style, but man oh man did they nail the continuity!” Do we, as comic fans, trot out our knowledge of print runs simply to distinguish ourselves from everyday moviegoers?
Of course, this makes sense to a degree: after investing all this time and emotion into the Batman universe, nobody wants to see a new writer make dramatic changes to the fundamentals of their beloved characters, and when a blockbuster adaptation gets everybody talking, we like to point out that we were fans from the beginning. But by the same token, DC, Marvel, and all the major publishers are concerned with selling comic books, and the less they change an established character, the easier it is to pick up and enjoy an issue regardless of its publication date. Yes, there will be some pretty strange departures here and there – like Peter Parker giving Mary Jane Watson cancer from his radioactive semen, Frank Castle becoming Frankenstein, and Doug Moench turning Batman into a vampire so he could fight Dracula (or something) – but few, if any, of these have ever worked their way into canon. Thus it seems kind of silly to throw up red flags the moment that characters are combined or condensed when they are brought to the screen. Consider a film adaptation to be an extension of the famous Marvel “What-Ifs,” only here, the question is “what would these superheroes be like as living, breathing people?”
This brings up an important distinction, and one that many comic book fans often forget: comic book movies are not typically made for people like you. Let's do some quick math. Marvel's Incredible Hulk, subject of a handful of film adaptations, animated series, and the mega-blockbuster The Avengers, sold just over forty-five thousand issues in January of 2012. At a $2.99 cover price, this works out to one hundred and thirty thousand dollars a month in sales and one and a half million per year, which is certainly more money than I have, and not a bad take for print-media these days. If we consider that Hulk appears in a number of other Marvel titles, as well as figurines, video games, and cartoons, then we can raise that number significantly. Let's say the number swells to the point that executives take notice and decide to cash in with a film. In the mind of superfans, this part features studio heads and the script team sitting down to think of a treatment that would reward Hulk's loyal readers with a note-perfect adaptation, sure to please each and every reader. They could not be more mistaken.
Not to be overly cynical, but Hollywood is an industry first and foremost. When Disney acquired Marvel, does anyone think it was because the studio had been longtime fans of comic books, or was it because the studio recognized that Marvel was producing consistently profitable and popular adaptations? Similarly, would any investor back a project that was tailor-made to the forty-five thousand people buying Hulk at newsstands? Returning to the numbers, let's say they adopt that very strategy. Those forty-five thousand fans, instead of paying three dollars for an issue, go to the movies and pay sixteen bucks apiece. Better yet, let's say that they each convince a friend to come see it too. Congratulations investor! Your multi-million dollar film has an opening gross of one and a half million dollars, the same amount that the much cheaper Hulk comics rake in yearly. And now that the superfans got exactly what they wanted, the studio heads are fired, Marvel suffers an enormous loss and no comic book movie is ever made again. But hey, at least it was faithful! Of course, this is a purely hypothetical example of some pretty extreme logic, but it illustrates why studios cannot market films solely for the fans.
All things considered, complaining about fidelity for its own sake is unrealistic and somewhat misguided. For instance, The Avengers tells a more or less original narrative, and if the box office and reviews are any indication, it's done pretty well for itself. Similarly, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight synthesizes elements of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with elements of Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween (and some would say elements of Frank Miller's worldview) while furthering an original narrative; this film was equally well received. However, this is not to say that adaptations are exempt from this type of criticism. Returning to one of my initial points, when bringing characters to the screen, the goal is to bring the fundamental elements to life, not every incidental detail. And yes, there are a number of films where the filmmakers get it flat-out wrong on a thematic level, and thereby open themselves up to the fury of the internet. As a case model, let's briefly look at Matthew Vaughn's gritty and generally well-received adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass.
For the unfamiliar, Kick-Ass is about Dave, a teenage boy who yearns to be a superhero. He makes himself a costume and goes out at night to become an urban vigilante while musing that not every superhero needs powers or a tragic origin; they can just be regular people who want to make a difference. He fails spectacularly when he is stabbed and run over while interrupting a carjacking, but after a surgery that strengthens his skeletal system, he is undeterred. One night, he tracks down a deadbeat husband and gang member but is interrupted by Hit Girl, a young girl and a deadly assassin. Along with her partner Big Daddy, her goal is to rid the city of its mob influence, which she achieves by brutally murdering every criminal she sees. Some exposition later, the three are kidnapped by the mob boss, who murders Big Daddy, leaving Kick-Ass and Hit Girl to take revenge.
At its most basic, this summary describes the book and the film in equal measure, and for the most part, the film adheres to the source material quite strictly, presenting the world of Kick-Ass as grounded and realistic. More importantly, both address the issue that not every superhero needs to be a brooding victim of tragedy. But as they say, the devil's in the details, and here's where the film goes awry. For starters, Dave befriends one of his classmates and falls in love with her, though she mistakenly thinks that he's gay. Late in the film, Dave confesses that he lied, and he's been in love with her all along, and she responds by kissing him and becoming his girlfriend. In the comic, the same scene occurs, but she reacts the way any normal human being would: she screams at him, slaps him and vows to never speak to him again. Of course, not a major plot point, but a point where the grounded, real-world nature of the comic is discarded. Similarly, when Kick-Ass and Hit Girl mount their assault on the mob boss' headquarters, they do it the old fashioned way: kicking in the front door and punching out anybody that comes near them. In the film, Kick-Ass and Hit Girl build a jetpack with machine guns mounted on it to crash into the boss' boardroom. Again, nowhere near realistic, but still a comparatively minor detail.
However, there is one change that fundamentally undoes the whole message that Millar's comic created. In the comic, Big Daddy is revealed to be an average working stiff who, fed up with his wife and mundane life, sold his comic books, bought weapons, and decided to crusade against crime. However, in the film, Big Daddy is revealed to be a former cop, sold out by corrupt officers in his department and wrongfully imprisoned. While in jail, his wife died of some undisclosed movie illness, and upon his release, Big Daddy trained his daughter to seek bloody revenge. When this was revealed, I facepalmed so hard that I felt it for days, because here the film completely misses the point. In adapting a story about everyday people fighting crime “just because,” they decided to give a central character the exact same origin that the comic was trying to reject.
Despite making the case earlier that continuity and fidelity doesn't matter as much as some may think, instances like this are much harder to overlook. At best, the studio decided the original text was too grim and the characters were too unsympathetic; at worst, some exec simply saw the title, saw the amount of blood on each page and decided that they could profit off an “edgy” and “alternative” kind of comic movie. One shouldn't be concerned with whether or not a director has read every single issue and paperback of the material they're directing. At the same time, you should never have to actively ask if the director has read any of it either.
In the end, the plain fact is that we'd be equally critical if adaptations simply lifted the visual design and plot wholesale from the source material on the grounds of unoriginality. Would the on-screen death of Gwen Stacy be nearly as shocking if we all knew it was coming? Furthermore, what role would screenwriters and directors play in adapted cinema beyond assembling ready-made pieces from a previous work? In the interest of originality and creativity, writers and directors of superhero films will need to be selective with their foundational material, and some will disregard it entirely. Sometimes this will work stunningly well, and sometimes this will cause films to collapse under their own inanity; that's just the inherent risk of film-making. Ultimately, we as viewers need to recognize that questions of fidelity are only marginally related to the main question that criticism seeks to answer: is the film any good or not?
You can follow Andrew as he antagonizes Hulk Hogan on Twitter @YesWeKann.