The Problem With Transitioning Comics To The Big/Small Screens

I wanted to start off the year with a post related to something I have been thinking about for a long time; the problems with bringing comics to the big/small screen.  I will be the first one to admit that sometimes a comic will do better as a TV show or as a movie and vice versa, but there is a fine line about the distinction and I will explain.

WHEN IT WORKS BETTER AS A TV SHOW

Arrow and Flash

We have all seen the success of the CW “Arrowverse” and its related content; conversely, we have seen the success of the Marvel Netflix corner of the MCU. Both of these successful franchises have something in common, they’re grounded.  The CW started dabbling into the superhero genre with Smallville way back in 2001. It was the first widely successful superhero television show and ran for a full 10 seasons. The show centered around Clark Kent as he grew up in Smallville and his eventual move to Metropolis. The thing that made the show likeable was that we watched as Clark grew as a person and as a hero, he started as a young naive kid and ended the series as the Superman the world needed. One thing I will say about the show is that I felt it was about 3 seasons too long, and I know I for one was a little irate that he never flew until the last 5 minutes of the last episode.  I get that the show had budget restrictions but come on! It’s Superman!

Almost exactly a year after Smallville ended, a gritty new superhero drama graced our television screens, and that show was Arrow. Arrow went for a much more dark and gritty approach and knocked it out of the park. I know I was blown away with the show and never missed an episode until the dismal fourth season… ugh. But the show worked as a television serial because of the grounded and character driven plots, not to mention it wasn’t heavy reliant on CGI.  Netflix used this formula to create probably the greatest superhero TV shows to date. Within the Netflix universe you get Daredevil, Punisher, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist; all these heroes are fairly grounded and don’t rely heavy on the crazy storytelling and plots that would require heavy CGI.

The “Arrowverse” has definitely branched out and included some more “out there shows” with the likes of Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the crossover episodes but they just don’t fit with the gritty world Arrow created. When the Flash first aired, it actually started by using a backdoor pilot in Arrow, and was an interesting contrast to the dark tone of the show. Much like the title characters of DC comics, Batman and Superman, Arrow and Flash are the exact opposites. Arrow is the dark and brooding drama; whereas Flash is the lighthearted fun serial with lots of bright colours and warm tones.

Runaways

With the sale of Fox to Disney, I am interested to see what will happen to all the new slew of X-Men related content now airing on television. I will not lie, I watched one episode of the Runaways and turned it off halfway through. It just wasn’t engaging and the rarity of a teenager using their powers? I know if I had powers as a teenager or even a dinosaur that responded to my mental commands… I would use that shit every chance I got! X-Men is one franchise that will not work well on TV just because the heroes and story arcs rely on heavy CGI. Badass ninjas and indestructible skin are easy to show on TV, shooting ice and fire from your hands or giant laser beams from your eyes… not so much. For a superhero show to be successful it needs to be grounded and character driven, which sadly most comics are not.

WHEN IT WORKS BETTER AS A MOVIE

CGI and team ups. Enough said.

Big budget movies can obviously have ridiculous amounts of awesome CGI and still pull it off. For the most part… Looking at you Justice League!

justice_league_final_poster_1039055

Massive team ups also only work as a movie, unless you devote a solid series to each character first, then they CAN work. They won’t always work, but batting 80% is better than failing every time.

I just find that for the likes of Avengers, X-Men, and Justice League the characters are too big to have them just thrown in or put into a TV show. Smallville tried to put the Justice League and the Justice Society into the series and it worked… sort of. Each member of the their “league” was given at least one episode of introduction prior to the team up. The Justice society was jammed into a 2 episode arc that really only highlighted two, potentially 3 characters.  While the ending to the Justice society arc did give us back Martian Manhunter and gave us Hawkman in a more permanent role, it wasn’t properly executed.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK FROM COMICS IN MOVIES & TV

Okay I will admit that there are some glaring issues with the MCU and the DCEU, everybody with me so far let’s move on…

The MCU is the unstoppable force behind all the modern connected universes, that being said, they tend to change a lot of things so that it will work with their overall narrative. The Infinity Stones are a prime example of Marvel studios changing their lore to work with their overall narrative. We all know there are 6 Infinity Gems (stones in the MCU), each representing a fundamental force that composed the universe. Originally called the Soul Gems until Infinity War when they were renamed the Infinity Gems, Thanos was the first to use all 6 in unison.  The thing that irks me is that they take other artifacts that are important from Marvel comics lore and make them Infinity Stones for the sake of the narrative.  The Tesseract is not the Space Stone, it is in fact closer to the cosmic cube which is responsible for Hydra Cap; Loki’s Scepter is not the Mind stone, and the Eye of Agamotto is not the time stone.

Apart from the renaming and branding of the Infinity Gems, one thing that Marvel does take a liberty with is changing their stories to work with the modern superhero/sci-fi framework, let me explain… Sci-fi stands for Science fiction, everybody knows that, so why do they remove sci-fi aspects from their movies? Let’s look at Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a solid movie, not the best of the MCU but also not the worst. The thing is that Ultron is a recurring villain that the Avengers have never been able to defeat 100%. They always just BARELY beat him and then he shows up again later and better equipped. I understand that they needed to have his origin, growth and death all in one movie, but why choose that story to do? The real Age of Ultron story from the comic of the same name plays out completely differently than the movie. In the comic, Ultron confronts the Avengers and wins. Within the first 20 pages of the event, Ultron has beaten the Avengers.  He establishes a dystopian society which he rules from the future using Vision (his son) as a conduit. In order to win, Wolverine and Sue Storm make a desperate attempt to go back in time and kill Hank Pym the original creator of Ultron before he can develop the genocidal AI. Because time travel never goes the way it’s supposed to, the future ends up being worse with the Avengers being named the Defenders, and a massive war being waged by Tony and his tech/cybernetic empire against Morgan Le Fey and her magic kingdom. Wolverine and Sue Storm decide to go back in time and stop themselves from killing Pym by… killing themselves. This makes them a temporal paradox and because nobody likes that kind of stuff, they convince Pym to install a backdoor program in Ultron’s code before they use Dr. Doom’s time platform to return to their own time, thereby righting the paradox. Wolverine and Sue arrive at the beginning of the story when Ultron first defeats the Avengers. Before Ultron can finish the job, the subroutine installed by Pym in the paradoxal timeline runs causing Ultron to shut down momentarily allowing Thor the time he needs to smash Ultron to pieces.

For obvious reasons they couldn’t use the story because for one… Wolverine and Sue Storm were owned by Fox until several months ago. But this story is a prime example of one key component of comic book fiction that will never transfer well into movie form, time travel.

Time travel is something inherently accepted by the comic community as a regular occurrence in comics. When it occurs it never really throws anyone for the ringer. Most readers just say “oh, this is going to get good” and they continue reading. DC’s Flash is probably the most relevant case with this type of publication. I like the Flash but I don’t get to read a lot of his stories because Batman… and priorities. That being said most of his major events have revolved around him either travelling backwards or forwards in time and mucking something up.  Then he has to fix it before he can come back and grow a little bit as a character each time. Time travel just doesn’t transfer well into a movie, there are some exceptions (Looper), but for the most part it’s a type of Sci-Fi that works best in printed form.

Multiverse

Keeping the train moving on Sci-Fi concepts that work better in print than film, Alternate Realities. It is well established that everything that happens in comics takes place on one earth in the vast array of the multiverse. Both DC and Marvel utilize this concept and generate some pretty great stories with it. DC has made great stories like Crisis on Infinite Earth, Final Crisis, and Infinite Crisis. Marvel uses the multiverse a lot less liberally but still generates some great stories like the Hickman run on Avengers in the MarvelNow! printing, Secret Wars, and Battleworld. Alternate Realities is just something that can be accepted in comics, mainly because of the infinite possibilities and variations on heroes. Not only that but it allows for some possible evil versions of the heroes to come to the forefront as with DC’s Crime Syndicate of Earth-3. When making a film there are certain things that you have to take time to do, one of the big ones is explaining how the physics works in the world you’ve created. If you look at every successful Sci-Fi TV show they all explain how things are possible in their universe, from FTL travel to weapons and even biological life. Films can do this but they have to condense it way down into  a few minutes, which doesn’t allow for a lot of in depth explanation. For this reason most films have avoided the subject of alternate realities unless the entire premise of their plot is based on it, like The One from 2001.

With glaring plot holes abundant in their films, there are still just some things that comic fans will accept without a reason. When Flash was first published he was the “Fastest Man Alive” and nobody needed to know how it was possible. Over decades the story gets a little more clear and complex and now it’s common knowledge among many comic fans how Flash can move as fast as he does. The same can be said for Superman. Way back when Action Comics #1  was released and we saw a man who could lift a car, was bulletproof, and could fly; nobody needed an explanation as to why he could do it. Again, through several decades of continued story telling the picture has become a little clearer to the point where it is crystal.

the-defenders

Movies and TV shows are a great medium to be able to tell comic book stories, and get those who might not be inclined to pick up the latest issue of Flash or Spider-Man interested in the character. Like I’ve said though there are just some things that will never transition well into a movie and a TV show and that’s okay. Alternate Timelines and Alternate Realities are confusing enough for the fans without butchering explanations and leaving giant earth sized plot holes. The second season of the Flash TV show explored the idea of the multiverse but they didn’t let the concept overwhelm the overall narrative of the show. They dabbled into the science but kept the focus on Barry and his team, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. For myself and many other this was not an issue when watching the show, but I do know there were several people who stopped watching due to the confusing nature of the season and its jumps from earth to earth.

Movies or TV shows,  it doesn’t matter to me how they do it, as long as they do the story justice and stay away from things that just should be better left on the pages of a comic book.

 

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Author: tristanmathieson

Law Clerk at a firm in Ontario. Gamer, musician and self-proclaimed comic aficionado.

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