The Accuracy Trap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Iron Man Armour - Movie

So, this week’s big new movie is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I’ve already reviewed and would prefer, for the sake of my blood pressure, to not dwell upon any longer than necessary. But, between this and giving in to the Mystery Box Marketing Machine by pretending that a photo of various people sitting in a circle is innately newsworthy beyond “Here’s a thing that happened!” … blegh. Okay, let’s talk about some funnybook movies.

These days pretty much every major movie seems to be some kind of adaptation of this or that preexisting material, and while I don’t necessarily think that’s the end of the world or even the medium it does unquestionably present certain challenges for those of us on the reporting/critiquing end of the system. Pre-existing material means pre-existing ideas and expectations, and if your perspective wasn’t in some way colored by those things (assuming you have them in the first place) I don’t know what kind of human being you’d be. For the most part, adults can generally see past that sort of thing – particularly if that happens to be your job, as it is in my case – but a thing that’s there is a thing that’s there.

Let’s face it: The reason to do remakes and reboots and adaptations in the first place is to sell tickets based on people’s fond memories and/or emotional attachments to the material. And while movie studios are always looking to put a fresh stamp or a new “spin” on famous characters (for business reasons as often as for filmmakers’ aesthetic taste – you want people to buy the new tie-in merchandise, not the stuff they might already have) they’ve also wised up pretty quick to the idea that an easy way to turn a fanbase immediately receptive is to match their expectations in some way. The original Iron Man trailer that so famously tore the roof of SDCC did so in no small part simply because it was able to deliver an Iron Man who looked like he’d stepped out of a comic book and onto the screen.

On the flip side, while Man of Steel is widely regarded as a disappointment (though hardly a “failure” in the box-office sense,) it’s certainly true that at least some poorly-prioritized fans were predisposed to nitpick it because (of all reasons) Superman showed up sans his traditional red shorts. While the Michael Bay-produced Ninja Turtles do-over has been one of the industry’s most famously troubled productions for a few years now (at one point shutting down completely after the leak of a widely-derided screenplay draft) discussion of its trailers has focused overwhelmingly on whether or not the title characters new human-like noses are an inappropriate design decision. These things happen.

This has created a pair of reader/critic/other-critics dynamics that would be sociologically interesting if they weren’t also so practically irritating. The first being The Internet’s impressive ability to redefine rather specific phrases/concepts like “bias,” “prejudice” or “blind spots” as all now meaning “A person has engaged in conscious thought at some point before viewing a movie in question” and that somehow being damning “evidence” either of nefarious intent or intellectual-impairment. Heaven help the journalist who has made publically known a single opinion about any topic that might even indirectly be connected to the subject of a given criticism, for they will – in the best case scenario – be immediately found “untrustworthy.” The worst case scenario? They’ll be implicated in some kind of shady dealings ranging from simple bribery (“How much did so-and-so’s competition pay you for this hit-job???”) to elaborate conspiracy theory.

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The Avengers

Granted, that sort of thing has always come with the job. And sure, there have also always been critics who are more than a little guilty of projection and petty grudges. But there’s simply no question that it’s become supercharged in the Internet Age, wherein the late-90s emergence of the “Film Geek” journalist contingent has led to a film-commentary landscape dominated by folks whose “fanboy” backgrounds make them easy targets for dismissal both by the old-guard critics who look down on them and the actual fanboys who insist on seeing them only as equally-or-more-fallible contemporaries (a neat trick of self-elevation by way of tearing others down) regardless of their professional stature.

The second development is more interesting to me, though: The competing back and forth assumptions about “accuracy” and what it actually means or doesn’t in terms of quality. There’s nothing particularly “new” about rhetorical shouting matches between fans of cinematic adaptations and fans of material being adapted. Google up the thousands of essays about whether Kubrick’s The Shining was A. a masterpiece of filmmaking, B. a bastardization of the book or C. both to see what I mean. (The answer is “A,” incidentally – King hadn’t matured into a great writer by that point.) But there is something new about the accuracy issue at this moment in movie history, and that something is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

No matter how you slice it, the filmmaking arm of the Disney corporation’s recently-acquired comic book company is running the table in this Golden Age of superhero movies; producing not only the hits every rival studio would kill to have made but the “franchise-universe” business model said rivals are desperate to emulate. And since simply accepting that the basic calculus of Good Script + Good Direction + Good Cast = Good Odds remains proven would put a lot of box-office analysts out of work, everyone has to go looking for “the secret” to their unprecedented success – and some fans are eager to claim their much-ballyhooed “respect for the source material” as The Answer.

It’s not hard to see why: Fans are often invested, short-term, in seeing movies based on their favorite characters look and feel as close to the versions that made them fans in the first place. For such fans, the notion that Marvel Studios’ success can be attributed to making sure everyone’s costume is the right shade of the right color is understandably tempting. And to be sure there’s a certain logic in it. It makes sense to assume that a filmmaker who fixates on details like that is motivated by passion that extends, however slightly, beyond just picking up a check.

Problematically, though, this has led to an overly simplified strain of punditry seizing hold of online fandom; the now often-regurgitated notion that all an adaptation needs to do is “follow the Marvel route!” and “stick to the source!” in order to please fans and find box-office success. And while my inner child is as happy as anybody’s to have seen The Avengers turn up all looking more-or-less like they’re “supposed to” (well, except Hawkeye, but five out of six ain’t bad) …I’m sorry, that wasn’t the reason that movie worked. After all, if it was, other page-perfect realizations like Ghost Rider would’ve been similarly successful, no?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Never mind the fact that, costume design and employment of comic book arcana as series-branching plot devices aside, the Marvel Studios features aren’t nearly as slavish to their progenitors as they occasionally seem to be. Sure, Iron Man’s armor looks “right,” but Robert Downey Jr.’s starmaking conception of a snarky rich cad slowly growing a conscience is a pretty far cry from the Tony Stark of the comics: an ideological anti-Communist whose “playboy” lifestyle was a cover both for his dead-serious secret career as Iron Man and the near-crippling heart condition that necessitates his bionic implants in the first place. The films’ version of Thor is so far removed from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original conception as to be an entirely different character. I could go on, but you get the point.

This sort of thing wouldn’t bug me if it didn’t start to metastasize into a willingness (an eagerness, even) to trade “revisionist but great” for “faithful but mediocre.” But that’s exactly what I’m starting to see, and it’s… worrying, to say the least – Exhibit A currently being a seemingly fandom-wide reappraisal of the Sam Raimi-directed original Spider-Man movies in comparison to the more recent ones from Mark Webb. Obviously, there’s no accounting for taste, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of Raimi (one of the great living American genre filmmakers of the last several decades) reshaping visual and tonal aspects of the Spider-Man mythos to fit his signature directorial style not being preferable to the newer films’ offering of “Here are some generic action beats, featuring Spider-Man.” Never mind the ceaseless cheerleading for Webb’s attempt to translate Spidey’s standup-comedy mid-fight monologuing from the comics to screen… only to ably demonstrate why previous live-action versions of the character decided not to bother. What reads as “fun loving hero antics” on the page winds up as “sub-Schwarzenegger quip-machine” obnoxiousness on-screen.

It’s an awkward line to straddle. Sure, I eventually got sick of Christopher Nolan’s reimagined “realistic” Batman like a lot of folks did; but I’ll still take it over a hypothetical “faithful” version where everyone wears their proper costume only to go through rote action scenes and a cookie-cutter plot. As for the Marvel movies, I find that their strength is drawn not from the details they get “right” but from strong appreciation for what the material got right in the first place: Where other filmmakers might have looked at these various licenses and said “This is all silly and it needs to change,” they seem to say “We own this and we’ve watched it be successful and resonant already, so figure out how it did that in the first place and get as much of it up on-screen as possible.” The “accuracy,” whether we’re talking about costumes or third-tier fan-favorite characters, is a byproduct of that – not the source.

We’re probably going to be finding out Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman will look like in “Man of Steel 2: Sorry About Man of Steel 1”. I’m hearing lots of interesting rumors. If, as has been widely speculated, the various uniforms (Batman’s in particular) embrace a Marvel-style from-the-page frame of reference, I imagine there will be much rejoicing from the fandom – and I imagine myself likely to join the chorus. A Wonder Woman outfit overseen by Zack Snyder? Which gods did I please?? Would I like to see Batman finally ditching, as Ben Affleck himself has hinted, the “Matrix-like black armor?” Of course I would. But it won’t be the thing that tells us whether or not the movie will be good – that comes later.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.