Jul 9, 2012

With Great Stories...

I'm a big fan of comic books. I have to use the present tense there for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's still true. I pick up about a dozen comic book titles on a monthly basis, and have been reading them almost without fail since I was about nine years old. Almost without fail is accurate, as well, because in the 1990s...well, comic books weren't exactly without fail. In point of fact, they were woefully bad.

It's easy to look back on a period of artistic development - like comic books in the 90s - and see how badly the trends thought back then to be likely to last forever truly were. But even then, I just got tired of them. It's not even that they weren't "cool" (comic books weren't even CLOSE to the realm of relative social acceptance they've since achieved) or that I'd grown out of them. They were just not very good at all. Art, marketing, stories, they just... well, they got lost a little bit.

I picked them back up after the 90s when I came upon an independent publisher called CrossGen who was doing some impressive and unorthodox titles like Scion, Meridian, The Path, Way of the Rat, and so forth. Really imaginative and original material - it brought me right back in to the waiting arms of the comic book industry.

I watched the movie "Unbreakable", and really enjoyed it - not so much for the storyline as for the statement about how comic books were becoming the storytelling voice for our generation. And I still truly believe that.

For example, look at the motion picture industry, and its now standard approach to development. In most movies now, one of the certain stops along the moviemaking process is a little standby called storyboarding. Broken down, it's really little more than comic book design. And I think it's no mistake that this design mechanic is both attributable to comic books as much as it is creating a certain stylistic rhythm to the movies they end up becoming.

But more directly, comic books have become many movies - with many more on the way - so much so that they have begun to defy simple movie categories. Not just "action" or "science fiction", they're starting to be referred to under the title of "comic book adaptations". I recognize that this reference bristles many a critic, but where it fails to accurately define the movies' genres, it does underscore the fact that comic books truly do have a distinct storytelling style than most movies.

The Avengers is currently on track to becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of all time (as of this week, it's at number 3) - with a handful of other comic book adaptations peppered across the list: The Dark Knight, Spider-man, Iron Man 2, and so on. So it's no surprise that more and more studios are looking for ways to stake their claim on a superhero property for conversion to the silver screen. Marvel/Disney are still hoping to regain their movie rights on the X-Men titles, Spider-man and the Fantastic Four, while DC is being represented by WB and others without a centralized in-house movie production company.

This year was an unnerving one for me, being a comic book fan. This year held a lot of.... well, I want to say "promise", but I also want to say "hype." The feeling was somewhere in between the two. Essentially, we had the Avengers , The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man (yes, I know Dredd is coming out later, but I really haven't been terribly worried about that one).

I've loved the Marvel movies leading up to this, and I've always been a fan of Joss Whedon's work - he wrote my favorite spin on the X-Men comics, and though he's never had a big budget movie like this to flex his cinematic muscles, he's never failed me thus far. Christopher Nolan has done a fine job of reinventing the Batman franchise, so I remain comfortable in my anticipation of that - but Spiderman had me the most worried. You see, of all the comic book characters EVER, Spidey was always my favorite. I don't pretend to say I understand him better than his creators - I'd never presume to think I could write him, or anything.

I'd watched the Spidey cartoons, the electric company shorts, the live action television show (don't hate. It was the 70s, and there was no tech for it), and then the Sam Raimi movies of the 2000s. I liked them all, in their own ways. Though Sony movies bent Raimi over with that third movie, I still thought his three movies were a great introduction to the Spider-man universe. Oh, sure, I had my points of criticism, but what are you going to do? It's not like they're going to make the movie as per my precise specifications, nor would I want them to.

Okay, well, maybe a little.

But here's the point I've been meaning to get to. Writing comic books is not the same as writing comic book movies. The two do NOT instantly, automatically, convert to each other's mediums. The average comic book does not simply become a movie, nor vice versa. And yes, put your torches down, there are some that have come very, very close. The Walking Dead turned into a series with huge chunks gleaned straight out of the graphic novels, for example.

And I feel for the poor wretches who decide to make comic book adaptations. There are some pretty terrifying critics out there that movie companies aren't used to having to accommodate: comic book fans. It's not like movie critics, who can always be counted upon to provide a blurb or what not. Comic book fans will often pore over the set photos and teaser trailers and insider buzz about the movies from the moment Variety announces the movie, and unleash a barrage upon the internet about their take on the films, long before the movie is even into its principle stages of development.

Sometimes, their criticism is found to be pretty valid (for example, the almost-was Wonder Woman television show, the Tim Burton/Nicolas Cage Superman movie), and other times not so much. A couple good examples of the "not so much" were the casting choice of Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man/Tony Stark, and the hiring of Joss Whedon to helm the Avengers movie. The internet suffered a mild aneurysm when those two things were announced, but look at them now: they were both pretty damn ideal.

So, yes. The Avengers... remains perhaps one of my favorite comic book adaptations of all time. Brilliant perhaps because it was not a literal adaptation of comic books. The bulk of its story cannot be found in any one Avengers comic - in fact, most of it came from a series in Marvel's "Ultimate Universe", in the comic title of the same name, written by Mark Millar and drawn by Bryan Hitch. In fact, in that comic, they designed the character of Nick Fury to resemble Samuel L Jackson - and in one scene following the main climactic battle, they sit around contemplating the likelihood of Hollywood filming their lives, and Fury insists that only Samuel L Jackson himself should play him in the movie.

Not a bad prognostication, considering it was published in 2002.

But the part that really made the Avengers and the Dark Knight movies pay off for me as a moviegoer was that they at some point stopped being Comic Book Movies, and started being...well, movies.

I watched the new Spider-man movie this weekend, though, and clearly a lot of people still don't understand why movies like the Avengers and the Dark Knight movies worked so well, and why the Amazing Spider-man did not.

And let me be clear - almost everything about the Spider-man movie, I felt, was done right. They had an almost ideal cast (Andrew Garfield did a fabulous job, by the way. Major kudos to him.), they've got the special effects down very well, and aside from some pretty horrible continuity errors and plot holes, the movie essentially holds it own.

Where I felt it really failed, though, came down to one big thing: the script. Broken down further, it would come to the dialogue and the characterizations.

The dialogue was, to a broad point, frustratingly painful. They deliberately avoided certain key and essential dialogue in a way that I found unforgivable. One perfect example of this is the specific omission of the "with great power comes great responsibility" line. Though not originally a spoken line of dialogue in the comic, it's an integral part of his origin and his core. It's why he's Spider-man at all. In point of fact, that sentence is as key to Spider-man's universe as "To Be or Not to Be" is for Hamlet. Oh, sure, you're going to make that face at me because I just compared Spider-man to Hamlet. But you know what? They DO compare. In fact, pretty much everything in Hamlet can be found in Spider-man stories, if you want to pick nits. But my point is that there are key elements which are tied to the particular verbiage of a script, the omission of which is just ridiculous.

Seriously, what would have happened if Kenneth Branaugh had made Hamlet and left the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy out? You'd NEVER have forgiven him. But this is just an example - one particular Spidey-specific phrasing that is essential to the character's iconography - every bit as critical as the white eyes and the spider imagery, the cracking wise and the general rambunctiousness of the character. But there's just a certain quantity of Spidermanitude which is requisite to the character that I found strongly lacking from this movie. In a nutshell, what failed wasn't the acting or the special effects - hell, I could even live with the costume if I was forced to - but the writing and direction. Someone, somewhere, looked at that script and the story, and said, "yeah, man, we got ourselves a Spider-man movie!".

Fact is, if you strip away all the aspects of "comic book"ness, it should still make sense as a movie. And this movie wasn't that. It was a "spider-man movie", and sadly, not an even good one at that.

And on that note, I'll stop. There's only a week or so left until the Dark Knight Rises, and I don't want to depress myself further before going to watch it.


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