As a comic book fan, I freely confess that there are few joys greater than seeing my childhood heroes translated on to the big screen. Whether it be the latest incarnation of the Dark Knight, the thrill of seeing the X-Men face off against Apocalypse, or a clash of titans as the Avengers fall apart, these are truly exciting times.
But scratch beneath the surface of superhero fandom, and you hear the same problems repeated. The Studios aren’t honouring the source material: Batman doesn’t kill, Hank Pym invented Ultron, and Wolverine’s a short, bad-tempered hairy Canadian! Why don’t the films represent the comics more faithfully?
For the Studios, the problems all begin with the fact they need to make an adaptation. As book fans have known for decades, it’s simply not possible to translate everything from one medium to another. Take the wonderful Lord of the Rings films, and ask yourself; where is Tom Bombadil? The creative team (rightly, in my view) judged him as an unnecessary complication in an already-complex plot. The thing is, though, in literally erasing the character they also removed huge chunks of J. R. R. Tolkien’s original mythology.
In other cases, films take much looser inspiration from the original material, and sometimes it really does pay off; Minority Report, based on a short novella by Philip K. Dick, is a good example.
Comics are even harder, because every writer tends to interpret a character in a different way. Although Stan Lee created Magneto, his version was a disturbingly one-note villain prone to diatribes – and gloriously unsubtle in naming his team “the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants”. Years later, Chris Claremont was the writer who added Magneto’s Holocaust backstory, transforming him into a complex, sympathetic character.
That was the character who made his way into the X-Men movies; ironically enough, at the very same time, writer Grant Morrison was penning a very different Magneto. As Morrison explained to Pop Image:
“What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat. No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he’s just an old b****** with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion.”
So how do we want our Magneto to be portrayed? As the complex Holocaust survivor, or as a “mad old terrorist twat”? Both Chris Claremont and Grant Morrison wrote the comics, and adapting either interpretation would be honouring to the source material.
In fact, it gets even more awkward than that. DC, for example, have a habit of “rebooting” their comics through a so-called “Crisis” whenever sales start to slide. There’s yet another “Rebirth” coming in just a couple of months’ time.
How long has Batman been a superhero? Did Superman’s powers first manifest when he was a teenager? Was Barbara Gordon crippled by the Joker, or did she recover and reclaim her Batgirl identity? Your answer to these questions is largely dictated by which era of comics you grew up in.
Although Marvel have, in theory, just the one timeline, they have a habit of revisiting their heroes’ origins and modernising them. This was done most dramatically in the early 2000s, when they launched their so-called “Ultimate” Universe. It’s worth noting that many aspects of the Ultimate Universe – from Hawkeye’s family to Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury – have been seamlessly integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this causes still more difficult moments, where the Studio must play two versions of continuity against one another.
It doesn’t help that, when Fox launched their X-Men franchise in 2000, they were doing so under the belief that traditional superhero films would fail. Attempting to abandon everything that was geeky about the then-collapsed Batman franchise, X-Men even lampshades the fact that the heroes have abandoned spandex! Whether the premise was flawed or not is debatable, but the success of Marvel Studios has proved you don’t need to go to such drastic lengths to make superheroes work in the cinemas. Fox do seem to have learned their lesson, perhaps best demonstrated by the costume work they’ve put into the Horsemen in X-Men: Apocalypse!
Ultimately, the Studio has only one responsibility: to make a good film. Whether fans like it or not, they don’t owe us anything. Fox don’t owe X-Men fans a shorter Wolverine; their goal is simply to fashion a Wolverine on the big screen that works, and draws viewers in. Just because Marvel use Ultron, it doesn’t mean they owe the fans his comic book origin; not least because, at that time, they had yet to introduce Hank Pym. Rather, their goal is simply to take the core idea of Ultron, and use it to tell a powerful story that advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A comic book simply won’t translate effectively on to the big screen. Comics are highly episodic, with overarching narratives running through countless single issues in a way that just wouldn’t work on a film. I’m not saying that we should just accept whatever we get, but the fact remains that we’re getting something wonderful – a chance to see our childhood superheroes on the big screen. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the ride.