A View from Atlas Park: How To Make a Good Comic Book Movie, Part 1

As a lover of comics, I also take an interest in seeing them transported to the big screen. In this modern age, it is a true mark of importance to have something taken from one medium and placed onto the big screen; to see it turned “real” in a movie. However, as anyone who has watched many comic book movies knows, it is probably not going to be a smooth transition – things will get changed, dropped or even just disregarded as the studio who buys the rights to a comic book property will often mangle it to fit their needs. As one potential example, the idea of the Green Lantern being turned into a movie is good; the fact that the movie will be a Jack Black comedy is very bad.

One reason I started writing reviews of comic book movies in Spandex Cinema (which is both here on CoH Warcry and here on my site) is that the very term “comic book movie” has such bad connotations that it is used as a derogatory term. In fact, some movies try to steer away from being called “comic book movies” despite that being their source – promotions for “Road to Perdition” barely even mentioned it; “Sin City” was a “graphic novel movie”, with “graphic novel” being code for “comic books with artistic merit so it’s okay to like them”.

But comic book movies don’t have to be automatically bad. Some of the recent comic book movies have been very good and made lots of money too. Movie studios like the “lots of money” bit and have greenlighted even more into production. However, some of these films appear to be churned out in a pretty assembly line fashion, calling on all the cliches that made “comic book movie” an expression of poor quality. Here’s how I think movie studios (who I’m sure are reading this too) could avoid some of the problems they’ve experienced in the past with adapting from comic books – and what’s more, I’ve got proof to show that it already works:

1. Respect the source material and keep faithful to its spirit

Well, duh. This would seem to be common sense – after all, a lot of money has just been forked over for something that worked well enough for it to be turned into a film. But due to ego (ie “I can write better than a comic book!”) or whatever, after purchasing the rights writers / producers / directors can go nuts, tearing the source apart and reshaping it into some near unrecognisable abomination (he says, glancing in “Catwoman”‘s direction).

A movie doesn’t have to be a literal adaption of the source – some things work better on paper than on film and visa versa – but provided a movie tries to keep with the spirit of the source rather than trying to break it make it ‘better’, it will have taken a pretty good step forward towards being a reasonable film (eg “Batman Begins”).

2. Dump the origin story movie

The last thing a comic book movie needs is another origin story that takes up most of the movie, with the hero learning to use their powers that they get through the accidental bite of a radioactive kung fu master, or whatever. It’s been done time after time and once you’ve seen three of this type of film, you’ve seen them all.

Comic book movies have to move past the idea that they have to pretend to be real, but with superheroic elements. They don’t have to explain in fine detail how the hero got his / her powers and how they learned to use them – the audience is usually willing to suspend disbelief to let a man fly without copious explanation because they accept that it is a movie. If the origin must be told, keep it brief – have it take up some of the movie (eg “Spider-Man”) and then move on to what’s important.

Sure, an origin movie can be well done (eg “Batman Begins”, “Unbreakable”). But the formula for a superhero movie seems to be 1) given someone powers, 2) show them learning to use powers and 3) fight with villain. It’s dull. It’s been done. “The Incredibles”, which is one of the best super movies ever released, doesn’t even bother with a minute of how the characters get their powers – they have them, they use them. That’s enough.

3. Get a decent villain

Since most comic book films are superpowered good vs evil melee battles, it pays to have a villain that are interesting to watch. Since we often gauge the ability of someone by the challenges they face, the villain must also be capable. Sadly, it seems that getting an interesting and capable villain is a very difficult task given how badly some comic book movies fail at it.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman” is probably the best example of a watchable comic book villain on celluloid. He’s unpredictable, funny in an odd way and very, very dangerous. However, he’s also borderline annoying, which seems to be what a lot of people took away when they try to recreate him, mistaking “screaming like a loon” for “interesting and dangerous”. Compare and contrast the Joker to Matt Frewer’s villain in “Generation X” to get my meaning – one pulls it off, one makes you wish for the sweet release of death (preferably his).

Hiring a good actor (or at least veteran ham to chew the scenery) as a villain is also very important. A good actor can sell atrocious dialogue, or a veteran ham can at least mug for the screen while delivering it – an average actor who can’t do either leaves a big hole in the film. Given that the hero is judged by the challenges he faces, giving him / her a weak villain to face just makes them look weak too.

In some cases, the villain is more interesting than the good guy – take “Daredevil”, where Bullseye was a lot more fun than Daredevil to watch. Indeed, a good villain can lift an average comic book film; it’s just a pity that good villains are so hard to find.

4. Start making sense

Once you’ve got your heroes and villains lined up, give them something to do that isn’t maniacally stupid to do. Have the narrative make sense. The main events of a comic book film shouldn’t rely on the audience swallowing huge loads of tripe blindly – if that is the case, people start getting angry at the film.

Take “Catwoman”, where the main plot (after Catwoman gains her powers) is that she must take on a cosmetic company who will be distributing killer face cream to the unsuspecting public. Yeah: killer face cream. Since when is face cream ever scary? Of course the audience is going to reject what they see on screen if they have to accept killer face cream as the core driver of a movie. Just because it is a comic book film, doesn’t mean the villain can lay out any lame plan and expect the audience to accept it.

A good comic book film should, like any other good film, have a strong story behind it that drives the action for it. Relying on special effects and skin-tight costumes to hide the fact that there is not much substance to the film won’t stop people seeing that the emperor has no clothes for very long.

And finally, it should make sense by being consistent. “Daredevil” was meant to have physically ordinary people with a few extraordinary gifts, but continually showed them falling or jumping long distances without harming their legs in any way. Comic book movies already have to walk a fine line between maintaining suspension of disbelief while providing vicarious escapism – such inconsistencies don’t help keep this balance.[/P]

5. Don’t be based on a comic written by Alan Moore

“V for Vendetta” may be the one to break the curse, but I doubt it. As such, it seems to be a golden rule in comic book movies based on material by the great comic book writer Alan Moore aren’t going to be turned into good movies.

While I enjoyed “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” for what it was, it certainly wasn’t a good film. Neither was “From Hell”. Both adaptions of the source tore strips off the original work created by Moore, mashed it back together and got something that superficially looked like the source but was, in reality, so much less. Even work that Moore has touched at some point in his career tends to end up with iffy films – “Swamp Thing” and “Constantine” for instance. (I’ll say here that I enjoyed “Constantine” too, but it sure as heck wasn’t “Hellblazer”.)

And that’s if it even makes it to the big screen. “Watchmen” has been stopped and started several times. “V for Vendetta” had the misfortune of life immitating art with the London bombings and has seen it’s release pushed back.

It could be that Moore crams too much into his work for it to be successfully adapted. It could be that he’s been the victim of studios buying what is popular without knowing what to do with it. It could be that the forces of magic are paying him back for his dabbling in the area. Whatever the reason, Moore’s work should stay away from films – it seems to be better for all concerned when this happens.

Anyway, those are the first steps towards making a good comic book movie. Sure, it is overly focused on the superpowered movie, but that’s the nature of the genre. At some point in the future, I’ll pick up this list again and add to it; if anyone has any suggestions about what should go on it, I’d be more than happy to hear from you.

[p] – UnSub [email protected] 15 September 2005

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