Four rules for a successful superhero film
As Kevin Mattison pointed out a couple of weeks ago, it’s really tough to make a video game work as a movie, but we’ve been fortunate in the past several years to have some really great movies based on comic books. Based on a long personal history of comic book reading, and more than a little comic book movie watching, I’d like to offer some guidelines for future successful adaptations.
1. Don’t get caught up in the skin tight costumesAmerican superhero comic books normally clothe their characters in outfits that, shall we say, defy the laws of physics. Interestingly, this is a phenomenon fairly unique to the US. The more scholarly among you will refer to your local bookstore’s art section and look for the “How to draw manga” books, which have entire volumes devoted to the way that various types of clothing drape on the body. There’s at least one book devoted to different kinds of underwear on men and women. It’s research. Really. American comics for the most part ignore all this in favor of what can without too much exaggeration be likened to body painting. In zero gravity. On space aliens that resemble a teenage boy’s imagination of the naked human form. Anyway, whatever it is, it doesn’t translate to film. Too often, Hollywood has attempted to approximate comic books by using foam-padded rubber bodysuits, like in the 1990 The Flash TV series, or, to a slightly lesser extent, the 1989 Batman. 2008’s The Dark Knight was a substantial improvement, with a costume that was more “body armor” than “body,” but the gold standard remains the costumes from X-Men (2000) and its sequels. Black leather bodysuits—form-fitting but not spandex, with a light protective function. Very, very cool.
An exception, can be made for Jessica Alba. The Fantastic Four (2005) poster, after all, was far better than the movie itself.
2. Not too many characters
The third X-Men film, 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, while continuing in the proud tradition of excellent costuming, is the perfect example of the “too many characters” syndrome. Most major comic book franchises date back to the 1960s if not before, and have hosts and hosts of secondary characters who have been introduced over the years. It’s a great temptation to cram in as many as possible, but given the limitations of screen time in even the most bloated 3-hour summer popcorn flick, too many characters make for a film that never really figures itself out. In X2 (2003), comic book readers get rewarded when the US military invades Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters, and several characters get brief but distintive cameos as the children either escape or are captured. X2, however, never forgets that it’s really about Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro, as they make their first adult choice to stand either with Xavier or Magneto. The Last Stand gives too many characters too many things to do, and it just gets lost quickly.
Also, films should generally pick one villain. I hate that the Batman films, starting with Batman Returns (1992), seem to feel that you absolutely need at least two major villains. This works acceptably well in Batman Returns, as Max Schrek is really the primary villain, leads to a scenery chewing contest in Batman Forever (1995), and just collapses in Batman and Robin (1997), which I normally like to pretend doesn’t exist. Similarly, after a solid Green-Goblin-centered Spider-Man (2002) and Alfred Molina’s wonderful performance as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007) features no less than three villains, and feels like two unfinished films stitched together into a rather shoddy whole.
3. Casting is critical (or, superhero movies are Shakespeare)It takes a certain something to really play a superhero, and surprisingly often that something is a background in Shakespeare. Now stick with me here—playing a successful superhero means taking the larger-than-life and really inhabiting it all while staying connected to a more human dimension. Superman and Batman are the grandchildren of Hercules and Achilles, and characters like MacBeth and King Lear are the early English-language equivalents. (And well, Beowulf, but Beowulf isn’t a play.)
Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Michael Chiklis are all good choices. They can all do big performances while retaining an emotional core. Quieter actors like George Clooney and Tobey Maguire generally are not. (Maguire gets away with Spider-Man, since Peter Parker is a nerd, but he never really feels right as the wisecracking web-slinger, and still can’t throw a convincing punch.)
A good alternative source, apparently, is musical theatre, with its intense physical demands and requirement that an actor be able to do bombast with a straight face. Also, as Hugh Jackman proved, “jazz hands” translate well into “Wolverine claws.” Or rehab, for the same reasons, as in Iron Man‘s Robert Downey Jr.
4. When in doubt, make a good movie first
Finally, the source material is great, but when you have to choose between making a good movie and making a good comic book movie, always go for the former. I love The Dark Knight, but Christian Bale is actually a terrible Batman, and The Dark Knight isn’t really a great Batman movie. Batman Begins (2005) has its take on Batman right: he’s a ninja of sorts—sneaky, silent, and there are Batman comics where he does nothing but face off hand-to-hand against martial arts masters. Gadgets have also always been part of the Batman mythos, but The Dark Knight turns Batman into military special forces—not that smart, not really great at detective work, but good at punching. He’ll get in and get out to get his man, usually with an airplane. For all that, I love The Dark Knight, and I’m drooling over the upcoming sequel. Bale may suck, but Gordon, Dent, and the Joker are all great, and Nolan pulls them all together into a compelling world. I may not be convinced it’s Batman’s world, but I’ll hang out there as often as Nolan lets me.
Bonus #5. Remember that comic books are much more than superheroes
I know I said “finally” back on #4, but it has to be mentioned as a postscript that some of the best comic book movies are the ones you might not have realized started off as comic books, like A History of Violence (2005), The Road to Perdition (2002), and Ghost World (2001).
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.