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Jan 2, 2014

Editorial: 2013 – The Year in Film and TV Comic Book Adaptations

Marvel vs DC

What 2013 said to me about adapting comic books to the screen. As comic book based film and TV projects continue to take a larger share of mainstream entertainment offerings, a few things occurred to me, while taking in some of this year’s offerings.

Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau have very long shadows

Christopher Nolan Jon Favreau

With just two films, Batman Begins and Iron Man, it seems the course of every DC and Marvel based film, respectively, had been set. I’m certain the failure of each house to imitate the other (Iron Man wannabe Green Lantern, and Dark Knight wannabe Punisher: War Zone) had something to do with it, but Nolan and Favreau’s real contribution, to our current Comic Book Age of cinema, has been to set the tone for everything that followed.

There has been some criticism of Marvel’s joint universe films for having been too light hearted and fantastical. The original Iron Man, as Marvel’s first in-house production, could not help but set the stage for the Avengers project (with Robert Downey Jr. at its center). The emphasis on making the joint universe films a fun movie going experience, however, begs the question of whether Marvel was going for consistency, or just lazily sticking to a winning formula.

By the same token, Nolan’s influence has been all over works like Man of Steel and the TV series Arrow. The former is understandable; he produced and helped shape Superman’s reboot. Arrow, on the other hand, has no connection to Nolan beyond its tone, characterizations, and themes, all more akin to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy than its own Green Arrow source material. Arrow could afford it, though. Like the Dark Knight trilogy, it can stand on its own.

Man of Steel, however, like Iron Man, will be setting the stage for more films to come. Compared to Marvel’s reaction to Iron Man, this seems like a clearer case of DC becoming dependent on both Nolan, and the single success story he has provided them, to get its own expansive projects off the ground. That has meant a a string of DC movies that have been about as humorless as the Marvel films have been whimsical. The two houses seem to be deliberately running as polar opposites.

Nolan’s contribution to Man of Steel might have bolstered Warner Bros’ faith in Zack Snyder, after Watchmen; but Nolan’s “Superman Begins” set-up seemed sharply contrasted against Snyder’s “Suckerpunch” follow through.

Zack Snyder still has some growing up to do

Zack Snyder

While Man of Steel was a far superior film to his last release, Snyder still seems preoccupied with the spectacle of blockbuster film making, rather than being a true story teller. Worse, it seems to me that he remains convinced of his stylized set pieces’ central value to the larger films. He hasn’t grown, since 300; he has doubled down.

Christopher Nolan may have brought some much needed substance to Man of Steel, but he won’t be there for the next installment (if ever again). Unless Snyder starts showing some range, he faces the prospect of being the next Michael Bay. That is not a compliment. Of course, when you have a multi-billion dollar enabler behind you….

DC Comics still has some growing up to do

DC logo history

The way I see it, there has been two distinct eras to DC comics’ evolution. The pre-Marvel years, and the post-Marvel years. It has nothing to do with who’s a fan of which. Before Marvel, and the Stan Lee revolution, DC enjoyed the kind of domination that came from simply litigating/ incorporating away all competition. Marvel was the first comic publisher to not just resist DC, but beat it; and I don’t think DC ever learned how to deal with that. From that point on, all the way to this day, DC has been trying to do the thing that it had previously never had to: appeal to fans.

First came poaching. In keeping with the “if you can’t beat them, buy them” model, DC hired a series of Marvel revolutionaries to work their mojo on the more straight-laced heroes of DC. This they did – in some cases, even making Marvel jealous. In the end, however, it was still just playing catch up. Frank Miller brought Daredevil to Batman; Jack Kirby brought Doctor Doom to DC, by way of Darkseid; John Byrne remade Lex Luthor in The Kingpin’s image; the Teen Titans would prove that DC could do youthful angst and in-house friction; and Clark Kent would realize that it’s not easy to be more than a man.

Unfortunately, the imperious nature of DC and Warner Bros has placed a lasting premium on the brand name value of characters like Superman. Any attempt at real reform of their iconic characters threatens to undercut decades of brand recognition. At its core, DC may view such characters as being too timeless to be subject to cultural shifts. How, then, to keep pace with changing market sentiment, now that they actually have to compete? Don’t change the icons; change the world around them.

Multiple Crisis events kept DC updated, but made for a continuity nightmare. The British invasion would prove to be the best poaching deal since Kirby, but that talent was mostly kept away from the DCU (giving rise to Vertigo). By the 90s, however, none of that mattered. Comics took a hit, Marvel was on the rocks, and DC was coasting on recent revivals for both Superman and Batman (again, bringing drastic change to the titles, only to reset back to normal), while its parent company made bank on Batman films.

Then the success of films Blade and Men in Black encouraged Marvel to gamble on X-Men and Spider-Man. Several gambles later, and suddenly Marvel was back, beating DC in the one area it had all to itself, and forcing it to resort to old habits. Falling back on previous experience, DC took to poaching and incorporation in a single stroke, by way of Jim Lee and his Wildstorm imprint. Next came a punch for punch strategy; but nothing stuck, until Batman Begins. By that time, Marvel upped the ante with the joint universe project. Nolan’s trilogy wouldn’t be enough. DC needed to get the Justice League in ahead of The Avengers. This brings us to the current state of DC’s post-Marvel insecurity.

A cardinal rule of warfare is to never give your opponent the initiative. DC has always been about checking Marvel’s next move, often taking itself out of its own comfort zone to do so. Forcing itself to race against Marvel’s long term strategy, for a joint cinematic universe, has resulted in a series of unforced errors (e.g. Green Lantern). Those errors, in turn, may have forced DC to gamble on Zack Snyder as their pathfinder, while Lee fell back on another old DC play: the reboot.

Say what you will about The New 52 reboot of the DCU, it has given DC and Warner an opening they are perfectly placed to exploit. One area where they managed to overtake Marvel has been in animation. After years of just churning out random treatments, games and adaptations, they are now set to achieve a joint universe in animated form. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox was to have been another adaptation of a showcase DC comics event. Well, someone recognized its potential, so now it will serve as a starting point for an animated parallel to the New 52 roll out.

A promising step; but other developments in animation (a series of Superman and Batman adaptations, cancellations of other projects) suggests that the old fixation on its twin icons remains.

Marvel made its way by taking risks – even after being acquired by Disney. Through Warner Bros., DC can better afford to take risks, but simply refuses to. It has to branch out from under the cape and cowl to tap its extensive property resources. More importantly, it has to learn to compete on its own terms, and not just react to the success of others, while clinging to its own.

The Two Year Itch

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes

Live action and prime time programming has always been subject to pilot and inaugural season ratings. Later, they were only guaranteed a half season to earn a full one. What I loved about cartoons, growing up, was the 13 episode weekly launch, followed by the weekday 39 episode follow up (if the first 13 did well). Some series even started with a full weekday 52 run. What I didn’t appreciate, back then, was how finite those runs were. Live action series would run forever if they were a hit; hit cartoons still had to justify renewal after the second year. For two of my personal childhood favs, Transformers and G.I.Joe, it all fell to Hasbro; and Hasbro blew it. After year two of Transformers, Hasbro decided to kill Optimus Prime and the franchise never recovered. After the second year of G.I. Joe‘s ongoing series, Hasbro awarded the rights to DIC, which undercut Marvel/ Sunbow. The results were kinda yuck. So what does any of that mean for 2013 in comic adaptations?

I was caught very much off guard by the cancellations of Young Justice and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, this past Spring. As both were discontinued at the end of their second seasons, it seems the old practice is alive and well. Both X-Men and Spider-Man TAS lasted fairly long, and Batman TAS kept being reinvented (Batman and Robin, Batman/ Superman Adventures, etc); but then Spectacular Spider-Man and Legion of Superheroes both ended after 2 seasons, as did Iron Man: Armored Adventures. It seemed like both Marvel and DC (along with the various third parties, studios, and networks) were intent on keeping options open.

Marvel seems to have settled (however unfairly) on its current joint universe tie-ins (Ultimate Spider-Man is the first animated Spidey project to make it past 2 seasons since TAS). As for DC, all the while it floundered to get a film franchise going, the general consensus was that it was dominating with its animated projects. Its answer to Disney XD’s Marvel Universe, Cartoon Network’s DC Nation, seemed to have a winning combination in Young Justice and Green Lantern TAS. My first thoughts on Green Lantern‘s discontinuation was a further rebuking of the Green Lantern film (there was something of a tie-in blitz for that release). Maybe Young Justice was left hanging to make way for New 52 projects; but only Beware the Bat has come (and gone), thus far. Having the creators of Green Lantern TAS switch to another Batman project feeds the narrative that DC and Warner will never invest in anything beyond Batman and Superman. As for the DC Nation, that’s being held in place by Teen Titans Go. Ever seen Teen Titans Go? It’s cute – even funny; but it plays like a never ending Looney Toons short, serving as a lead-in to a movie that never starts.

Jeph Loeb may be overrated

Jeph Loeb

I’ll take this moment to further lament one victim of the Two Year Itch. I fell completely in love with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It wasn’t just about the show, but what I thought it represented: Marvel’s answer to the Bruce W. Timm/ Paul Dini DC dynasty, that ran from Batman TAS through Justice League Unlimited.

Christopher Yost had been a driving force behind many of Marvel’s animated projects, and I had hoped that his treatment of the Avengers’ universe would eventually expand to include the X and Spider-verse, as well. I mean, it was already on Disney XD, what more meddling was necessary?

So Jeph Loeb happened, and Man of Action followed with him. With the Disney change-over came Jeph Loeb as executive producer/ co-executive producer of all Marvel TV projects. What did I care? It was a name with some industry pull, and I was still getting my EMH fix, with dreams of a Yost Dynasty. The Loeb difference made itself known with Ultimate Spider-Man. I will not go into Ultimate Spider-Man (when Paul Dini’s name doesn’t make a difference… yeah); I will say that, with Ultimate Spider-Man, Loeb officially took my dream away from Yost, and gave it to Man of Action. For those of you who don’t know, the collective known as Man of Action (until I attempted to… interview Mr. Loeb, at this year’s NYCC, I had no idea the “Man” was actually a group) was best known for bringing (and leaving) us Ben 10. The Marvel joint animated universe had been left to the creators of Ben 10; complete with the replacing of Avengers: EMH by Avengers: Assemble. If only the underwhelming stopped there.

So far, nothing he has been attached to has borne any fruit. Throw general disappointment over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in with the response to the new Disney XD line-up, and all that talk, about Disney taking Marvel’s edge off, starts to show some merit – even if only circumstantial. I did some digging and found a track record that ranged from O.K. (Superman/Batman, Lost), to so-so (the original Teen Wolf, the Batman Arkham games), to works that will live in infamy (Teen Wolf Too, Smallville, Heroes).

I really can’t voice full confidence that the man who presided over slow motion train-wrecks, like Smallville and Heroes, can do Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. justice. The past half season seemed to confirm my fears. There is only so much I can lay at Jeph Loeb’s feet, however. Sure, his is the name attached to all of the above, but tweaks to the creative staff can go a long way to turn things around. He was already in place for Yost’s run on EMH (but Man of Action was still his call), and Joss Whedon could still exert more influence on Agents‘ course.

Then again, learning that the upcoming Punisher series is headed for family friendly ABC, as well, left me imagining Micky Mouse walking out of “The House of Ideas” with a necklace made of teeth….

The perks of curbing your enthusiasm

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Of course, I could just say mea culpa for having such high hopes for Agents, or even the animated Marvel Universe, for that matter. Had I noted Loeb’s tenure at Smallville, I might have gotten past my Joss Whedon geek-out, and approached Agents with the same EOD protocols I set up for Arrow.

I had originally dismissed Arrow as a spin-off of Smallville (where Green Arrow became a regular). Serendipitous, as it turned out. Coming in on Arrow‘s second season spared me a slow start (or so I’ve heard), and what I’ve seen, thus far, has exceeded expectations. Kind of makes me wish I could skip to Agents‘ upswing point, so I could confidently assure its current viewers that it gets much better….

Big things can come from the small screen

The Walking Dead Too Far Gone

For those fans that stuck with Arrow, past its slow start, there were some pretty big pay-offs. Dark Knight influences or not, Arrow has provided what may have arguably been some of The CW‘s biggest moments, outside of Supernatural, and older WB shows like Buffy and Angel. It has also clocked more comic book character appearances , in its one and a half seasons, than any other live action superhero treatment outside the X-verse. Not too shabby.

The Walking Dead, after what seemed like a bleak fourth season launch, delivered one explosive and far-reaching mid-season finale.

All eyes now turn to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the upcoming Netflix Defenders project….

When fanservice becomes disservice

The Mandarin

Mandarin. There, I said it. I’ll even take things a step further. The Mandarin, Heimdall, and… oh, let’s say Bane, walk into a bar. No punchline, but I’m pretty sure a fight would break out between fans of the characters, and fans of the films they were in.

Face it: there hasn’t been a comic book movie that has been entirely faithful to the source material  (other than the first TMNT film). What troubles me is the inconsistency to the arguments. As I recall, the detractors of Tim Burton‘s Batman, calling foul on him shooting at the Joker and blowing up a warehouse full of henchmen, were popcorn pummeled into submission by an audience just happy to see an antidote to Adam West. Fast forward to Man of Steel, and a broken neck (along with lots of collateral damage) dominated the conversation.

Okay, The Mandarin was a punchline, Superman suffered a loss of innocence, Heimdall was still black, and the new Wolverine movie didn’t go far enough to disavow the last one. How were the movies? Even if the Devil is in the details, you don’t throw a case out of court because one objection was sustained. The merits of a film shouldn’t hang on viewer hang ups over creative license. I hated what Iron Man 3 did with The Mandarin; but I still laughed. I laughed enough to deem the film enjoyable, despite its many flaws. Where the original Batman is a one man operation, merely utilizing the talents of others for the greater good, Nolan made him more dependent on the hearts and minds of others. This better served the specific themes of his singular trilogy. The Watchmen film took great pains to be completely faithful, but it didn’t quite work on screen. Sometimes it is better to make a film for wider audiences.

Besides, if the the adaptation sticks to the material you’re familiar with, doesn’t that make you familiar with the adaptation? Unless you want your comic book movie to be a sing-along, some of these creative changes at least keep you guessing. Who expected Jack Napier to be the guy that shot the Waynes? One of the keys to The Walking Dead‘s success (IMO) has been it’s divorcing from the book; we can’t spoil the surprise by just reading ahead of the show.

The point is, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Isn’t it better to  see a good film loosely based on a comic, than a lousy film that’s utterly faithful?

When dissing fans becomes disservice

ben-kingsley-the-mandarin

So the Heimdall thing. I like Idris Elba, I appreciate putting character ahead of casting concerns (I mean really, can anyone suggest an actor even close to The Kingpin’s size – that can act – other than Michael Clarke Duncan?), but the whole black Heimdall conversation was an unnecessary distraction. Fans really should have been talking about Volstagg’s A-MAY-ZING diet and workout regime. If the Elba casting choice counted as a diss to fans, then internet squawk, over a white South African playing The Black Panther, should indicate just how serious the matter has been taken (i.e. not at all).

No, the Mandarin reveal stands as a better example of telling source fans that making the film work is more important than getting its details right. Luckily for Iron Man 3, enough people showed up for the spectacle (and Robert Downey Jr.) to render that point moot. Between Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel, there wasn’t nearly the level of outright discounting of (if not contempt for) fan sensibilities as with X3, Spider-Man 3, or Catwoman. Fans responded to those affronts in kind; 2013 was a much better year. The fact that the third Iron Man film outperformed the first of the new Superman films, however, left me wondering whether fans were more forgiving of the Mandarin being played for laughs than they were of Superman’s darker tone.

Will the real Clark Kent please stand up

Superman: a retrospective

I recall a time when being “The Big Blue Boyscout” just wasn’t enough for fans, anymore. DC comics, seemingly conscious of this, did the poaching thing (to bring the relatability), but complete with the yada-yada-yada: “thanks for the boost, but let’s not mess with the brand.” Well, one of the better examples DC yada’d was John Byrne’s original Man of Steel. Like Kirby, Miller, and the others, Byrne did his job, and did it well; delivering a Superman that actually had a man under the suit.

Yes, Virginia, Clark Kent has to shave in the morning – like regular folk. No, DC doesn’t have to embrace change. While retaining some of Byrne’s fixes (like Kingpin Luthor), DC opted to restore Superman to his pedestal status. Miller had an easier time with Batman, since Denny O’Neil merely restored Bob Kane‘s original dark anti-hero. Superman, however, had to remain a symbol of Americana.

Personally, I don’t think fans or viewers should allow themselves to be locked into a one-dimensional view of any character. Captain America was once every bit the “Blue Boyscout” for Marvel; but he was a soldier. No one cried blasphemy when he got his hands dirty. Nolan’s Batman threaded the needle perfectly with the “I don’t have to save you” line. Despite DC and Snyder’s efforts, Superman is no messiah, and the Kents did not raise a saint. It is disingenuous every time they try to convince us that he has Peter Parker sized angst while maintaining a superhuman resistance to all forms of vice. If he couldn’t bring himself to kill Zod: fine, cry out about the consequences. He decided to kill Zod to spare the innocent: own it – no crying over saving the good at the bad’s expense. Save for a few hold outs, mad about the “breakup,” Miller’s handling of the character, for The Dark Knight Returns, was widely accepted. So how bloodless, do you suppose, was Superman’s service to the government (you know, while smashing through aircraft and sinking ships) in that title? There’s room for moral complexity; give the man his room.

Either he’s the pre-Marvel god amongst men, or the post-Marvel man who fell to earth, condemned to the life of Atlas. While works like Miracleman and Supreme Power demonstrate that he can be both, DC has just never had the cobbles to try. I say let’s not make that decision on its behalf. Nut up, DC, and let the Man of Steel get real.

This ain’t your daddy’s (insert title)

marvel-vs-dc-01-350x164

I think the most important thing about 2013, was that it showcased the ongoing evolution of comic book properties, Marvel, DC, or Image, big screen or small. There was renewed debate over Marvel’s direction for S.H.I.E.L.D. and its Avengers components. Some flame wars were waged over Superman’s use of deadly force, and concerns voiced over the somberness of DC properties like Man of Steel and Arrow. The point is, wherever you stand on how much such properties should be as they were, versus as they are, or have become, that debate suggests that no one – not the fans, not the powers-that-be – are taking them for granted. Kick-Ass 2 took much for granted; let that be a lesson for anyone else who does. Evolution rarely ever comes without resistance; it’s up to all concerned parties to determine which developments are positive – or even necessary.

G.I.Joe: Retaliation was a blasphemous mess I couldn’t even sit through; but I took some solace in what seemed like more of an effort to pay homage to its comic book roots (Larry Hama made the G.I. Joe most of us remember. Period).

The Wolverine failed to live up to either its hype or its source; but it may yet prove essential to Fox’s rehabilitation of its Mutant franchise.

While Arrow benefits from countless DC reboots, denying any generation from laying claim to any one canon of its material, Agents of SH.I.E.L.D. has two photo negative images to live up to – and may not be living up to either. No less an authority than Jim Steranko has felt let down by the series, and the overall depiction of the agency on screen (I can personally quote him as saying “I love Samuel L. Jackson in the role; but Nick Fury wouldn’t be caught dead in a pimp coat.”).

As for The Walking Dead, what can I say? It maintains enough of George Romero‘s recipe to please Zombie fans of all generations.

I could also say that Comic Con has come a long way, since “my day” (it was so cute, back in the 90s. Now it comes with attitude and cosplay cleavage – not that I’m complaining), but that would be getting off topic.

Call them classics of previous generations, that you stand to inherit, or necessary upgrades, to stay current and relatable, that you can call your own. 2013 didn’t settle all that much, but it brought us the kind of debate that (fingers crossed) will spare us further acts of Schumacher or Ratner.

Let 2013 go down in record as the year the battle of the joint universes was joined. Trolls, back to your bridges, and stock up on flammables for 2014. Happy New Year.

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