Comic Book Adaptations – Why Do So Many Fail?

The real Clash of the Titans

Comic Book films have certainly come a long way in the past 10 years. There have been some truly sensational films, that spawn even better sequels that keep hope of more films like it alive. Yet there have also been God-awful messes that cannot be unseen no matter what you do. With all the good and bad out there I think filmmakers/studios are finding the groove but things could be a lot better. We need comic book adaptations which will do more than just keep the genre from simply breaking even.

Now to start things off, there is no one solitary reason more comic book films fail than succeed. It’s usually a combination of things which may include but not be limited to bad writing, poor casting, unconvincing visuals, source material omissions/oversights and a fair amount of luck.

Again, they’re not all doomed to failure and some have been near masterpieces. For example, Watchmen and Road to Perdition were films that worked just as good as their graphic novels but it seems the “Superhero” adaptations are tougher to get right, hence the various hits and misses (though I’d say more miss than hit). It’s time that the Marvel/DC adaptations offer something more flattering than the 2 dimensional stories/characters we’ve had to endure.

Now the cinematic world we live in today is drastically different from the one 20, 10, hell, even 5 years ago. The most significant change: CGI. With it, Hollywood set out to create these fantastic worlds and characters, but in my humble opinion, they should have slowed down. It seems today that Hollywood is happy with CGI that they’re more interested in getting a flaming Ghost Rider head than they were with getting a good story together. That’s always their first mistake. CGI is a tool in the whole process. Period. It should not take precedence over other elements.

Yet all the CGI in the world isn’t going to save a flat character or flesh out a poorly written story. Story, with a capital S, above all else is the main element to focus on. Sadly, it has been the one continually weak and overlooked element in all the failed comic book films. True, a purely flashy/action packed movie will get people in the seats but the style over substance approach and “CGI overload” is not a winning formula to a quality movie. CGI just has to be supplemental to the story, not driving the boat.

Also, I’m not saying a non-CGI or effects laden comic book movie won’t succeed. Batman Begins (which didn’t have an obscene amount of CGI or effects like others did) worked so much better than its predecessors because at the end of the movie you felt like you’ve grown with the character. It was less about loud colors, goofy one liners and (worst of all) nipple suits, and it was more about character and heart.

The Good

Additionally,  I think what’s been missing from the movies in general is “longevity” which is a direct result of a good story. Even though we are a society of disposable entertainment, we really want to go back and see a film again and again because the quality is there. Films like Spider Man, Titanic and The Dark Knight are near the top of the All Time Box Office list for a reason. Those movies worked because 1. the story was good, 2. the film did a great job of investing time in the characters (so you would care what happens to them), 3. they made the elements of the storyline relatable in someway and 4. they got somewhat talented people to act it all out.  So although I may have laughed at a character named Uncle Ben (because of the rice), I felt saddened when he died in Peter Parker’s helpless hands because it felt like I got to know him.

The Bad

Now this is all my opinion, and I don’t have the math for a successful comic book movie but I know what I need to see for the movie to work for me. It has to be equal parts origin story (for those who don’t know the history), great writing (plot AND dialogue), fan service (the “what were you expecting, yellow spandex?” reference worked well with X-Men), and lastly a modest attempt at the first entry to a mythology which is so much larger than the one movie. I for one would not want to see an entire universe of a character I adore shoddily crammed into an hour and a half. If a comic has been around for all this time what makes you think the hero’s story can be summed up in on feature film?

The Break-Evens

Hollywood wants to make good movies (face it, it’s how they make their money back) but things like time, budget and other factors always get in the way. Great comics and their characters have been around for decades. Like I wrote above, don’t demean the legacies and dishearten the fans by trying to cram 40 years of content and great story lines into an either thin or heavily convoluted 90 minute movie.

There is hope dear friends as the last few years have shown major signs of improvement and while the’re still a fair amount of stinkers the odds are faring better for comic book adaptations in general. In 2010 we saw lesser known comic films Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgirm succeed while Iron Man 2 stumbled. Also 2011 has shown Thor and X-Men have been met with pretty solid reviews and fantastic results even though Green Lantern was a bit of a stinker. Also many others that people don’t realize were comics, like The Losers, are being quasi-accepted. But more and more there’s been a constant element increasingly injected that’s previously been missing in most recent adaptations.

What is that you ask? Well it’s simple. Most failing properties lack sufficient heart in their stories (although it could be easier than that if studios just didn’t waste their time on 2nd and 3rd tier heroes). Fans not withstanding, people care less about Matt Murdock and Johnny Blaze because the scripts for their movies didn’t get us interested in their characters. You get the audience behind the character and you could watch them read the newspaper for 90 minutes and they’ll be happy. But that’s just what I think. How about you all? What do you see as being the scapegoat for a failed comic book adaptation??

Side Note: I recently read a feature on Total Film showcasing the Marvel and DC comic films that work and the ones that don’t. Take a look at some of the films listed and see if what I wrote above doesn’t at least have some merit or correlation:)

Comments

  1. The reasons why some comic books movie fail are the same reasons most other movies fail. A heavy reliance on gimmicks and style over substance. The vast majority of movies with a great story and great characters are nothing short of very films while the vast majority of flicks that are all about style over substance are average at best. The sad truth is most people prefer to go watch a flashy, shallow, popcorn flick than spend brain matters pondering on more meaty films.

    • I guess no genre is immune to the rule “style over substance makes not a great movie”. You pick any of the most famous films of all time and 9 out of 10 are classics because of the story and story alone. Effects and stylistic elements are just tools to tell the story. But since comic books are flashy, it seems that many studios think if you get an actor in a suit that looks like the comic character, the film will write itself.

      I sometimes fall into that category of watching flashy popcorn films but as escapism, and not by choice. But you’re right, audiences are more and more having the mindset, “why do I want to think at the movies?”

      • I completely agree. Comic book movies seem to be even more hit or miss than regular movies. Sure audiences seem to come anyway, but somehow its a delicate product to adapt.

        • Yup, well said. I also find it that Hollywood can’t depend on a huge (or popular) star to make the film a success. Elektra and Ghost Rider are solid proof of that:P

  2. mcarteratthemovies says

    Really? I didn’t hate “The Punisher”; actually, I kinda liked it. I thought Thomas Jane did well enough with the part, and that fight scene with The Russian was genius.

    One stinker was “Superman Returns” with Branden Routh (hideously bad) and Kate Bosworth (worse). The only good thing about that movie was Kevin Spacey, who made for a kickass Lex Luthor.

    • I didn’t hate it either but it could have been much better. Possibly forgoing all the comic book elements, and the weak side characters. But Jane wasn’t half bad if you only focused on his performance.

      I felt Superman Returns was just a slow slow story. Really hated Bosworth (read USELESS) but at least Routh looked the part. Singer didn’t aim for a Wham Bam Superman story, he wanted a character study, and not an actioner. That to me was the biggest reason it failed. I keep trying to watch it and find redeeming value but there’s none…except for Spacey who was AMAZING as Lex, and the saving grace to the film.

  3. Somehow I get the feeling I’m the only one that liked the 2004 Punisher.

    But then again I liked the 1989 Punisher as well, which had little to do with the comic book in the end.

    • Don’t worry, I have a few films that I like but everyone else either seems to or plain vehemently dislikes (I just can’t disclose them here). I feel your pain;) Thanks for the comment!

  4. In my opinion I liked The Punisher. I thought it captured the essence and mood of the comic books, and that scene with him and the Russian, is always sick to watch.

    • True Dan, but as far as I’m concerned, one scene (as great as it was) doesn’t make a movie. But taste is subjective and you like what you like. I enjoy X-Men the Last Stand and although it fell a looooong way from what Singer started, it still has some redeeming value.

  5. We’re truly living in a golden age for those who were raised on comic books – I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if this had been going on when I was in High School, I would have been broadcasting geek rays over the entire Ottawa Valley, instead of barely keeping them in check…

    Like just about any other film, it totally depends on who gets a hold of the material. If the material itself is pretty dorky, like Fantastic Four for example, you’ve got a helluva struggle ahead of you to make it cool enough for the masses, unless you want to go the other way and silly it up… sadly, they didn’t know which way they wanted to go with it.

    While there have been a few stinkers in the Superhero genre over the past 5 years (maybe even more than a few) I think what we’ve got happening now is infinitely better than what used to be available? Have you that 80s Captain America movie? Freakin’ terrible! Superman just barely held it together, and definitely can’t maintain the kind of mass appeal that Batman or Iron Man hold over pop-culture today.

    • Sure is sweet to be seeing our heroes on the big screen (to a varying degree of success). Certainly agree that the mindset of the culture is what lets the elements of the movie pass on audiences. Also, you’re right, what we’re seeing today beats the hell out of the failed attempts in the past. There was a Spider-Man movie (or maybe it was a TV movie) that was HORRIBLE. Though it’s tough to be worse than the old Captain America:P

  6. cos theyre shit?

    • A fair amount are but when they’re stellar, they are stellar:)

      • I mentioned something in the upcoming edition of The LAMBcast where we discuss IRON MAN 2.

        The recent comic book movies seem to have one constant to them: win or lose, there’s no formula.

        I’ve long argued that what makes a great comic doesn’t make a great movie, since the art forms are so different. Further to that is the fact that it takes more than just a good story. Take WATCHMEN for instance – it’s widely considered the greatest graphic novle of all, but its screenplay didn’t exactly translate that well.

        Then there’s direction. Choosing a good director for a comic movie doesn’t seem so simple. After all I think we can all agree that Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, and Gavin Hood are all great directors. Unfortunately their talents didn’t do much for Hulk, Superman, and Wolverine. So even if a studio chooses a seemingly great director, they aren’t out of the woods.

        Finally, there’s acting. Sure casting Halle Berry was a dumb move that everybody could have seen coming – but what happened when Edward Norton tried his hand? That’s two-time-Oscar-nominee Ed Norton up there turning green. You’d think that bring some heft to the whole story.

        Like I say – there’s no formula. It’s a complete crapshoot and seems to go wrong far more often than it goes right. Weird the way that happens, isn’t it?

        • I like the points you bring up about directors and I agree, getting a big name/talented individual isn’t a magic bullet. Directors are supposed to be able to bring a great performance out of the actor (although Lucas hasn’t figured out how to do that). If they can’t then editing, art direction and the other trades contribute to pick up the slack so to speak. Acting too is a hit and miss element. Unknowns have gone on to floor the audience and help champion the movie, and still (as you mentioned) big names are not sure fire either.
          Finally, I agree whole-heartedly, there is no formula, but what I was trying to establish is that without a good story (the absolute most essential building block), it’s certain to go downhill and become a more chaotic mess. Thanks a bunch for the comment Hatter!!