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 email@example.com.
Well, any thoughts on this topic? Let’s hear it!
18 thoughts on “Guest Post – Musings from a part-time cartoon artist: Maybe some comics shouldn’t be movies”
I like the MCU, so I feel a little weird saying “yes, we should step away” when I’m looking forward to so many things from them. I do think some sound like terrible ideas – like Aquaman, or the new Super Girl TV show. They feel like characters that barely anyone cares about, and it just gives more ammo to “oh there’s too many of these out right now!”
I’m always going to be disappointed that Fantastic Four doesn’t seem to stick, only because I love the Silver Surfer so much.
In all fairness, I first thought GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was a terrible idea too, but I know what you’re saying.
I’m not a comic book reader but I love most comic book based films. That being said, some comic characters or stories just won’t translate well to the big screen, good examples would be FF4, The Hulk, The Punisher and even Watchmen. Obviously comic book based films are the bread and butter for the studios within the last 15 years or so. Unfortunately I think the trend might be tiresome for some viewers, we’ll see how well Batman vs. Superman performs next year, if that one fails to make big bucks at the box office then we might see a decline of big budget superhero flicks. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because we need to see something more “original” at the cinemas.
PUNISHER is just a vigilante crime story. One would think there would be no need to reinvent the wheel with it, but that’s Hollywood for you.
I think The Punisher is practically made for the big screen. But I actually enjoyed the Thomas Jane film.
Hi Keith! I actually haven’t seen the Thomas Jane version of Punisher. So it’s good eh? I might give it a shot since they’re including this character in season 2 of Daredevil on Netflix.
I thought it was
Pretty fun. It’s violent. Be warned. John Travolta is the big baddie!
Ah I see. I’d imagine it’s be violent but it’s called The Punisher!! 😉 I’ll see if it’s on Netflix.
Just don’t accidentally rent the Dolph Lundgren version! Terrible!
Ahah no way, I can stomach Thomas Jane but not Lundgren 😬
Having made the original comment, I will add that I have enjoyed several of these movies, including WATCHMEN. But I stand by my caution that we should not fault a beloved and influential property for failing to make the transition to “The Movie.” If if was good in the first place, it doesn’t become worthless because we can’t run to the cineplex to see it move, and hear it deafen us. On a related topic: it would sure be nice if the sound in today’s movies could be mixed so that the dialogue isn’t buried by the music and SFX. Actors are mumbling and whispering their way through important exposition, while things are exploding right and left to a Wagnerian soundtrack. Balance, people.
Yep. ELEKTRA the movie does not invalid the greatness of ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN. But I’m in no hurry to see that made into a movie either.
Thanks for letting me quote you (again)!
Interesting take. I read comics for 30 years before washing my hands of them two years ago. Yet I’m not one who wants every character brought to the big screen.
Still, I do think a good FF movie could be made but at this point they may be too scarred to even try.
I think the first two films were flawed but they had fun spirits. This new Fantastic Four isn’t a disaster simply because of the characters and their comics history. There are major problems in so many basic moviemaking areas. Terrible writing, huge lapses in the logic, poorly conceived creative liberties, half- baked performances etc etc. I just don’t know if that means the Fantastic Four shouldn’t be brought to the big screen. But on the other hand, if this is the result we’re going to get then I think it’s safe to say they should be left alone.
Perhaps it’s more a matter of Fox being the wrong ones to handle the FF, if you dig what I’m saying.
Hmmm, interesting thoughts. Well, they don’t seem to be able to make a half decent Fantastic 4 movie do they, so there’s mileage to the argument that cetain comic books fon;t good movie make. There will come a point in the not too distant future when audiences are going to start to drift away from comic book movies; there’s simply too many of them. What I think does work better is the long form adaptation via TV. The Walking Dead and DareDevil are testament to that and I’m really looking forward to Preacher.
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I never read comic books, so to me every new superhero action movie introduces me to new characters and possibly a new world. So I can’t really say if a specific comic should or shouldn’t be adapted. On paper something like Ant-Man sounds like a horrible idea for a movie, but they made it work.
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