The Tumultuous Task of Adapting Comic Book Films
Comic book films are a unique medium. While adapting literary material is not new to the film industry, the parameters are much different. Traditionally, when adapting a book, there is a set story from a single source that a screenwriter needs to adapt. When it comes to comics, there is a near-infinite pool of stories to choose from. That can be overwhelming for any filmmaker. It makes sense why many choose to take the basic fundamentals of comic characters and craft their own story. However, we have seen more direct adaptations to popular comic stories, and those have had… varying success. Today we’re going to talk about 3 comic book films that took different approaches to craft their stories.
In Name Only: Captain America – Civil War
Civil War is an instance where the film is initially taking a faithful approach to adapting the Civil War comic. The main conflict features the same characters at the forefront with Iron Man and Captain America. The two feud over some form of superhero regulatory legislation. A tragic event resulting in the loss of innocent life is what spawns this legislation. It plants the seeds of conflict between Tony and Steve. That’s about where the similarities with the source material ends. I’ve mentioned this in my ranking of the MCU films, but the scale of the conflict in the film does not match up. The “civil war” in Civil War is not actually a war at all. It’s essentially one battle, with no casualties.
This ends up being one of the biggest divergences, as the Civil War comic ends with Iron Man ultimately winning. And with Captain America surrendering, and ultimately getting assassinated. This ending would have posed problems for the MCU going forward, which makes it one of the more acceptable changes. However, it does not change the reduction in scale we see in the Civil War film compared to the comic.
In the case of Civil War, the film and the comic share less in common than you’d think. However, I think in this case, it’s okay. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a storytelling beast in its own right. It’s fair for the MCU to choose to adapt or not adapt source material as they see fit in order to tell the best story they can.
Faithful Adaptation: Iron Man
It’s really interesting how closely Jon Favreau’s Iron Man origin follows the story beats of the character’s comic origin. The biggest factors in what made this work was how the story was framed, and timing. In 2008, a story about a military industrialist during the height of the war in Iraq coming out around the same time Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy created a semi-realistic world for superheroes to exist in, it was perfect timing.
Some story beats had to be altered to create a story that could exist on its own, while simultaneously launching the MCU. When Tony is initially kidnapped in the comics, he deals with The Mandarin directly. In the 2008 film, it’s more subtle by way of naming the terrorist that kidnaps Tony. “The 10 Rings” is a reference to The Mandarin and his powers.
What Iron Man gets right in being a faithful adaptation above all is not making sure that the film is structurally and narratively congruent to the comics, but making sure the foundational story beats are hit. Tony Stark is a rich boy that people love to hate. We come to love him through his struggles to escape captivity. And learn what it means to use his gifts to be a hero. Iron Man does a fantastic job capturing that story arc. It is a shining example of how to properly adapt to comic book films.
Missing The Mark: Batman V Superman – Dawn of Justice
This film is a mess on several levels. When it comes to BvS, the two main comics to discuss are The Dark Knight Returns and The Death Of Superman. Zack Snyder fundamentally failed to implement the elements of each of those stories into his film. I’ve been lukewarm on Civil War’s approach to adapting its source material. However, they do a good job of pitting Tony Stark and Captain America against one another. Batman V Superman implements two of their respective protagonists’ most famous stories and fails to create a compelling conflict.
The Batman Influence
Let’s start with how the film approaches The Dark Knight Returns. The legendary Frank Miller graphic novel makes up much more of the film’s backbone and structure. While there is something to be said about Ben Affleck’s veteran, weathered Caped Crusader doing a decent job of mirroring the jaded and cynical version of Batman we see in Miller’s graphic novel. There are some serious betrayals of the character and misunderstandings of what Miller was trying to say about the confrontation between Bats and Supes on Snyder’s part.
What is so perplexing about Snyder choosing The Dark Knight Returns of all stories to frame BvS is how he thought he could have this conflict while somehow finding a way to root for both heroes. Superman is undoubtedly supposed to represent the archaic, dogmatic establishment of justice that Batman undermines in The Dark Knight Returns. Batman v Superman frames Superman more as a martyr. Clark sacrifices his public image, reluctantly doing the work despite the fact the world is growing to hate him.
The Dark Knight Returns captures themes like duality, what constitutes a hero and a villain, and the justifications people make when they think they’re doing the right thing. Batman v Superman passes over all of that nuance to create the most simple possible situation in which Batman and Superman could fight each other, and that is one of its two biggest failures. And a failed attempt at adapting comic book films is far worse than choosing not to adapt in the first place.
The Superman Influence
Let’s now talk about The Death of Superman. Fans let out a collective groan or a confused exclamation at Doomsday reveal in Dawn Of Justice. At that point, fans had already come to understand that not only would this film feature a confrontation between Batman and Superman, but the formation of DC’s holy trinity with the addition of Wonder Woman, but ALSO Doomsday, which all but signaled that Superman would die in this film in big bright neon lights.
BvS had too many cooks in the kitchen. Trying to shoehorn in one of the most influential comics of all time without giving it the proper room to breathe and develop as a story in BvS was the most indicative of that. The main elements of the story of Superman’s death don’t develop into anything emotionally compelling. The fight between Superman and Doomsday is long and grueling. Superman realizes that as he continues to fight, he is running out of options. This leads him to understand that he will have to make the ultimate sacrifice. That is just simply not something that you can convey in the last 20 minutes of a 2.5-hour long movie. Snyder would have just been better off trying to craft his own story rather than failing to adapt different comics at the same time.
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