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    The Trouble With

    Comic Fans & Comic Movies

    by Bill Kte'pi

    Heard about the current plans for the next Superman movie yet? Warner Brothers wants to explore a more Matrix-y look -- they'd like to ditch the tights altogether. Seen the X-Men trailer? They're not exactly wearing costumes, are they? They look a bit more like a militia group than superheroes.

    Maybe that ticks you off. It sure seems to tick a lot of fans off, judging from the traffic I see on Usenet and various web sites. So does the absence of Nightcrawler, Colossus, etc., from the X-Men movie -- or the casting choices -- or comments made by the cast regarding the sacredness or lack thereof of the comics -- or, hell, maybe just the fact that no one asked them how to do it.

    That's fine. I can relate. Certainly I wasn't thrilled back when I heard Nic Cage was going to be playing Superman. And I haven't been happy with the Batman movies since Tim Burton left the scene.

    But people are giving these two movies -- one of which isn't even in pre-production yet -- a really, really hard time. There's talk of boycotts, for God's sake -- because, yeah, if a comic book movie fails at the box office, that'll convince Hollywood to make the comic book movies you'd rather see. No one polls the people who don't go to the movie to find out why -- they poll the folks coming out, to see what they thought (all right, "no one" is probably an overstatement -- they poll for just about anything. But you see my point.)

    I mean, get some perspective. The first thing to keep in mind here is the simple fact that if comic book fans don't go to see a comic book movie, the studios are going to assume there's no interest. And yet, paradoxically, we need to understand that these movies aren't being made for us. Why? Because we're a minority. If everyone reading this went to see Night Nurse directed by Martin Scorsese -- and if each of us brought a dozen friends -- we wouldn't impact the overall earnings of the movie in any significant way whatsoever.

    Because we are the few. Not "the proud, the brave." Just the few. And you know what? Frankly, I'm okay with that. When I go see a mystery movie, I don't necessarily want it to be something aimed specifically at mystery fans, playing to that genre's conventions and ploys. When I see a movie set in Seattle, I don't want to have to be familiar with Seattle to understand the movie.

    We don't need comic book movies, because we have comic books. Movies are not an extension of this. The Scarlet Letter was not made for people who had read the book. Yeah, it was a horrible movie. But you know what? The Godfather wasn't a horrible movie, and it's just as unfaithful to the book it's based on -- a book written by the screenwriter.

    Some things work in books. Some things work in comic books. Some things work in plays. Some things work in movies. These things are not subsets of each other. Ever seen a movie (like, for instance, House of Yes) and realized immediately it was based on a play? You knew because of the dialogue. Every line has zing, every exchange has subtext, every word is deliberate. It's heavily stylized, and not to everyone's taste, but there's a reason for it. When you're on a stage, and the audience is in their seats, you can't move the camera. If you want to emphasize something, you have only words.

    In books, you really only have words -- lacking the ability to create background textures and subtle moods, you rely on metaphor and figurative language to convey nuance. You use the look of language, and not just the sound, to create connotations your reader doesn't have to be aware of to appreciate.

    In comic books, you have words, you have images, but you don't have sound and you don't have motion. Without motion, you need something else to make the audience see flat, static pictures in the way you want. Color -- bright costumes make the subjects of the panel stand out, allowing the eye to easily track their "movement" across comparatively drab backgrounds. Fumetti (word balloons) -- their shape and placement, and the style of the lettering they contain, is the best we can do to convey tone of voice, and can often be more effective than even novels in this regard. Expressionism -- motion lines and repeated images, techniques borrowed from the futurist school, show us just how fast the Flash is, while weird designs instead of eyeballs show us what kind of mood Eric Cartman or Ranma Saotome is in.

    Every medium develops its own specialized techniques to pick up slack, because every medium has slack. By simple definition, no two media have the same strengths and weaknesses; they're all buckets with holes in different places, and one cannot use the same patch four times to keep the storywater from dripping out.

    What's my point? Glad you asked. What works in comic books does not and will not work in movies -- and vice versa. Books are altered when they're made into movies. If you don't know why, the best example (since the same director did both movies) is to compare the excellent film The Godfather, which deviates drastically from its text in plot, emphasis, and tone, to the horribly drab, painful-to-watch The Great Gatsby, based on my favorite novel (by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and faithful to it almost word-for-word. Coppola knew what to change with Puzo's novel, and was working with Puzo and presumably felt comfortable "editing" him. Fitzgerald apparently intimidated him too much, despite being dead; he allowed the writer who, while one of the country's best novelists was also its worst screenwriter, dictate the movie, and the result was a piece of trash that actually makes you dislike Robert Redford (and a young, pre-Horse Whisperer Redford at that).

    Bright costumes work in comic books. They do not in movies -- not serious ones. How many serious superhero movies can you think of -- that didn't suck? Superman worked because it was, essentially, a silly movie. Are there good dramatic moments? Of course. But if Shakespeare taught us nothing else, he taught us that every comedy should have such. Look at Christopher Reeve's bumbling Clark Kent -- his alien Boy Scout Superman -- and Gene Hackman's over-the-top Lex Luthor. This is a farce. It's an excellent movie -- the first one, anyway -- one of my favorites, and I remember fondly the first three times I watched it (in a row). But it isn't a serious superhero movie.

    Batman? Batman isn't a superhero. He's a rich guy with lots of toys who can kick your butt. Yes, Batman stories are generally superhero stories (less so these days, actually), but Batman is a mystery man (like the Shadow, the Green Hornet, and so forth). He doesn't fly. He doesn't shoot ray beams out of his eyes. He doesn't do anything that you or I couldn't do if we were in his position. It's the visuals that are important, though. Look at how Batman was dressed in the first movie. Armor. Not spandex and booties. Armor. He pulled it off. If it had been the grey tights and the little blue booties, I think we'd be talking about a very different movie.

    America will not take a man in tights seriously. Whatever you may think of the common man's fond recollections of Superman or Captain America, the fact is that when you combine [male] with [tights] in the calculus of the popular subconscious, there are two possible sums: Shakespeare in the Park, and Lord of the Dance. Neither doth a Superman make.

    Do I like the idea of a Superman without the cape and boots and emblem? Hell no. But do I want a Superman movie that doesn't suck? Yeah. Do I want a Superman movie that will be taken seriously enough by the movie moguls to get funding and A-list attention? Yeah. Do I want a Superman movie that will appeal to the public and reopen the door to comic book movies? Hell yeah.

    What do we have prepping right now? Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and maybe Superman. X-Men's in the can and on the way. These movies can fly or fail oblivious to the support of comic book fandom, but if we dis them now, what message are we sending? We're telling the studios, "No movies, please -- we're comics fans. We need things done the way they're done in comicbookland. We don't care for the rules here in movieland."

    You know what? I'm a comics fan. Have been since I read a Marvel Team-Up where Spider-Man helped the Invisible Girl rescue Franklin. But I'm a movie fan, too -- since seeing Star Wars on the big screen in 1977. It's okay with me that Star Wars comics don't follow the same formula and precepts that the movies did; it'll be okay with me if the Superman movie doesn't look like the comic.

     
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