Monday, 5 May 2008

Cinemaniacal: Comic Book Confidental: How To Adapt Comics The Right Way

Fans, both of you, of my Cinemaniacal pieces may recall how I did a little number on how Joel Schumacher & Warner Bros. butchered the Batman movies when they took over the franchise from oddball auteur Tim Burton.
With the blow out success of Iron Man, and the coming of The Dark Knight, I thought I would take a moment to discuss how comic books can be correctly adapted into feature films.

There are two elements that make up a good comic book franchise, and a good comic book movie.

1- THE WHAM KA-POW FACTOR: These are the surface elements of the comic book. The colourful characters (& costumes), the over the top action, and often crazy plot-lines.

2- THE THEMATIC FACTOR: This is what runs beneath the Whams and Ka-Pows of comic book/superhero adventures. All the good comic books have them and they go beyond the usual concepts of good laying the smack-down on evil. They can involves concepts of duty, sacrifice, honour, rejection, acceptance, you name it.

The key to making a creatively and financially successful superhero film like, let's say
Batman Begins the filmmakers have to find that special balance between the Ka-Pows and the thematic concerns.

The Joel Schumacher "nipples on the bat-suit" films were loyal to the Whams and Ka-Pows, but they paid short shrift, or completely ignored the rich thematic gold that lay underneath. Which is why despite their relatively good ticket sales, they don't exactly make that special connection with the audience that will turn a successful film into a classic that people enjoy again and again.

Batman Begins delivers the Ka-Pows, all well and good, but also makes use of the thematic elements of loss, revenge, corruption, and morality to make the film a richer experience. You really got to know Bruce Wayne as more than just filler between disco-lighted fight scenes, he was a flesh and blood human character.

Plus they also remained faithful to the basic premise of Batman as the avenging "dark knight" who sprang from the shadows to terrorize Gotham's underworld. They didn't try to sugar coat him under the pretence of appealing to kids (in fact just trying to appeal to pushy worry-wart parent's groups) when kids who are Batm
an fans like him bitter and scary.

Now that doesn't mean that some tinkering isn't allowed. Bryan Singer tinkered a lot with the X-Men movies, one of the most dramatic changes was the complete dumping of their original comic book's spandex costumes. (And in the case of Mystique any costume at all)

Singer wasn't a comic-book geek in the classic sense of the word, and he saw his cinematic vision of the X-Men as science-fiction rather than "comic book" and treated the subject matter accordingly.

While he muted the Ka-Pows, he stayed faithful to the thematic elements of the X-Men. The themes of mutants as social outcasts facing bigotry, rejection, etc...etc...

And it paid off. The first two films were both commercially and critical successes, and the geeks forgave him for dumping Wolverine's yellow spandex. Too bad the third film was considered a disappointment because Singer's replacement Brett Ratner saw only the Ka-Pows, and didn't go much beyond the surface.

So, I guess the thesis of this little ramble is that in order to make a successful superhero adaptation, a filmmaker must understand more than just the action and costumes, but the reasons behind the action and costumes.

Know that and you really can't go wrong.

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