Special thanks to guest contributor Rich Watson from the film blog
Wide Screen World for today’s post.
During the opening weekend of the new Fantastic Four movie, I saw a discussion on Facebook in which people were putting it down, and more importantly, praising the original incarnation – the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961 which signaled a sea change in the industry. Among the comments included one by my cartoonist buddy Scott Roberts, whom I’ve talked about before on my blog. He questioned a notion that, in this age of comic book superhero movies, we’ve perhaps taken for granted:
“Maybe some properties are better left as they were. We’ve become conditioned to thinking that everything that was ever written, drawn, sung or even thought MUST MUST MUST be made into a movie (or “the” movie) ASAP, or it will never be an official, top tier part of our pop culture.”
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Fantastic Four was the comic that got me into comics, long ago during my youth – the art, the writing, the cosmic-scale adventure and the unique family dynamic all appealed to me from the start – and like many fans, I had hoped that this new movie, directed by young turk Josh Trank, would be an improvement over the Tim Story duology from less than a decade ago. It mattered to me, for what amounts to the same reason that Scott brought up, though I never admitted it to myself: I wanted it to be “legitimate” somehow. I wanted an FF movie that I could hold up next to Avengers, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man and Superman and have it judged as good as those movies, for the sake of my childhood memories of enjoying the comic. Instead, it looks like it’s going to be one of the year’s biggest bombs.
On the one hand, this attitude is indicative of the exalted place movies still hold within our culture. In a time in which television and video games have improved their standing in the eyes of Fandom Assembled, movies are still considered the gold standard. Even with the prose novel I’m currently working on, in the back of my mind, I’ve thought about who would play which character if it ever became a movie. However, are we so in thrall to the spell movies cast on us that it blinds us to the inherent value of “lesser” media – especially when comics are concerned?
Comics were considered “lesser” for years, looked down upon by many as juvenile and inferior. Then groundbreaking titles like The Dark Knight Returns, Maus and Sandman got noticed outside of the industry, and the way the public thought about the medium began to change. When more fans permeated Hollywood, the current wave of comic book adaptations took off: superhero material like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man; avant-garde films like American Splendor, A History of Violence and Ghost World; and small-screen adaptations like The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil. Even Broadway has caught the bug now, with the lavish spectacle Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the Tony-winning Fun Home. Still, for many fans, movies are the default medium of choice when imagining live-action adaptations. But why do we expect Hollywood to come calling for every hit comic?
Watchmen scribe Alan Moore has said that when he created that book with artist Dave Gibbons, he did it with an eye towards taking full advantage of the strengths of the medium – things like the deliberate nine-panel-per-page pacing, the visual transitions from one scene to the next, the way words can tell one story and pictures another simultaneously, etc. – and the result was a work that was resistant to a movie adaptation for many years, though Hollywood tried its best. Director Zack Snyder finally succeeded in 2009, and while certain elements were unable to make the original theatrical cut, such as the comic-within-a-comic “Tales of the Black Freighter” – which ran throughout Watchmen and provided a counterpoint to the main story – he came about as close as any filmmaker possibly could to capture the book’s spirit. And the film’s existence, while it may be anathema to some, doesn’t negate that of the book.
Was it inherently wrong of Snyder to have made a Watchmen movie? Moore thought so; he had his name taken off the credits. And while some have mocked him for what could be considered an absolutist view, he’s been burned by Hollywood before. He saw no need for a Watchmen movie, but many people, many fans of the book, did. Personally, I was ambivalent at most on the matter. I didn’t really believe it would happen, and once it was announced, I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of Snyder directing it – his heavily stylized visual aesthetic, to me, seemed all wrong for an adaptation of a book by Moore, whose work is highly cerebral – but once I saw the first teaser trailer, I was as eager to see it as everyone else. Why? Because I was in thrall to the idea of a Watchmen movie, too – no matter how questionable an idea it may have seemed.
I think what it comes down to is the simple excitement one gets upon seeing what used to be static images on paper come to life – especially images first encountered as a child. That’s a terrific experience, no doubt about it, but what has happened within the past fifteen years or so is that we’ve become like the kid who loves ice cream so much, he pigs out on gallons of the stuff. We’ve become spoiled from so many successful film adaptations of beloved comics, plus adaptations in other media – but not every comic book film is an Avengers, or an American Splendor, or even a Watchmen. Sometimes we get a Fantastic Four, and when that happens, the disappointment seems more acute – especially when all three FF films have been underwhelming at best (four if you count the Roger Corman movie). And yet, Fandom wails, if only they would get X director and Y writer who will do A, B and C, they’d have the perfect FF movie! How hard can it be?
We expect that comic-as-movie. We demand it. Appreciating comics as comics – appreciating the things they can do that set them apart from other media, like we did with Watchmen – is no longer enough anymore, in part, because we come from a very recent history of comics being under-appreciated and disrespected. I could be wrong, but I believe the idea that comics are “less” than movies remains within our collective psyche today, if only on a subconscious level.
So do we need to take a step or two back from this insatiable demand for our favorite comics to become movies? Do we need to rebuild our self-esteem when it comes to our faith in comics-as-comics? Maybe, though given how profitable comics-as-movies (and television) have become, and continue to be, for Hollywood – due partially to the slow increase in quality – this would be difficult to achieve. Fandom Assembled pores over the tiniest aspect of the development of each new comic book movie, dissecting each detail down to the microscopic level. The studios know this, and it’s not likely to change anytime soon.
And while there will always be those who don’t need a movie adaptation to love a particular comic… is it possible this notion is beginning to become a quaint one?
Rich Watson is entering his sixth year as the creator of the film blog Wide Screen World. As a writer, his work has been recently published in the anthology magazine Newtown Literary. As a part-time cartoonist, his works include the graphic novella Rat and the comic strip City Mouse Goes West. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, any thoughts on this topic? Let’s hear it!