The Reeler


May 4, 2007

The Paper They're Printed On

One filmgoer's plea to cure the comics adaptation cancer

(Photo illustration: D. Fith)

Spider-Man 3 may be opening this week, but I will not be rushing out to see the latest adventures of America's most famous webslinger. In fact, I will not be seeing it on pay-per-view, DVD, Blu-ray, HBO or any other delivery system it pops up on in the future.

That's because the film is based on a comic book character, and as far as I'm concerned, films derived from works whose protagonists speak in dialogue balloons are one of the cancers destroying the industry. Not that it isn't easy to understand why Hollywood is so desperate to bring Spidey, Batman, The Silver Surfer and all those other
superheroes to the screen: Because comic books are essentially glorified storyboards (lotsa pictures, little dialogue), they're ridiculously easy to visualize as motion pictures. And since they appeal to the comic book geeks and teenage males who constitute a major part of the movie audience these days, Tinseltown would probably be committing suicide if it didn't go comics crazy. Fact is, the first two Spidey epics grossed a total of $1.6 billion worldwide, and there's no corporate entity on Earth that would turn down that kind of money.

But let's be honest. This is a sub-literary genre lacking in subtlety and psychological depth. Not only isn't it Shakespeare, it's not even Stephen King. I mean, just because Peter Parker has family and girlfriend issues doesn't make him a well-rounded character. He is, in essence, a nice kid who might as well be the star of any one of a thousand teen novels, the kind your ninth-grade teacher encouraged you to read, hoping you'd move onto bigger and better things. And battling super villains as damaged as he is doesn't make him a repository for the wisdom of the ages. Get it? Peter Parker is not King Lear. And Sandman is not Goneril.

Speaking of bigger and better, I challenge anyone to name a film based on a comic or graphic novel that is a truly great, classic-for-all-time movie. Not that there haven't been some really solid flicks made from picture books -- Batman Begins, the first Superman and From Hell come immediately to mind -- but there simply isn't anything to match the artistry of films like On the Waterfront, The Godfather and Five Easy Pieces. Sure, very few movies achieve that kind of quality, but honestly, is there anyone out there who truly believes that any contemporary comic book adaptation merits the same consideration as these titles? Does anyone actually think the best portrayal of Batman can yield the same depth of character and resonance as Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea? If you believe this, turn in your B.A. in Film Studies. Now.

The fact is, because they make so much money, the big comic book films have become Hollywood's most sought-after genre. And the proliferation of these titles as franchises corrupts almost everything around it. It has certainly encouraged Hollywood's worst instincts, which has led the industry to make films based on theme park rides and video games (Even less thought! Even more action!). Because of this, it has become increasingly rare to see a big studio production that doesn't feature extensive use of CGI or have a truly well-written, thoughtful screenplay. If Paddy Chayefsky were alive today, he'd probably be forced to adapt Ironman for the movies instead of writing Network. So when you realize that a real literary talent like Michael Chabon is credited with the story for Spider-Man 2, you can see where this is all leading.

So what's to be done? We can demand the studios produce one $5 million film for adults for every $175 million comic book adaptation (fat chance). Maybe we can hope against hope that the whole comics trend will go the way of the Western, which right now is about as futile as assuming the Iraq War will end next week.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can start thinking about what the future would be like in a world where Zap! and Pow! pass for dialogue, and act accordingly. Think how your willingness to see these films only encourages the studios to make more of them. Then imagine a world in which their minimal plots, one-dimensional characters and computer-generated graphics are the norm. That's scarier than Sandman, the Joker and Lex Luthor any day.

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Comments (4)

it's shame your conception of comic books is limited to superheroes.

Sub-literary? I'm assuming your basing your opinion on a thorough reading of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Harvey Pekar, Seth, Michel Rabagliati, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Jason, Chester Brown, Frank King, Walt Kelly, George Herriman, Mark Kalesniko and Ivan Brunetti, right?

You can compare the artistry in films like The Godfather to that of say Batman Begins, and rightly come to the conclusion that The Godfather is better, but it's not a fair comparison. Thousands of movies are made based on novels, hundreds are made based on comics. Of course there isn't an equivalent yet.

Also, ditto on what Noel Murray and Matt Singer have said. I defy you to a Chris Ware comic book and maintain the stance that comics are "sub-literary". Chris Ware was curated into the 2004 Whitney Biennial, not just because he made a nice looking serial, but because his narratives are incredibly sensitive and nuanced. Comics of this kind are simply not successful without literary strength.

Wow what a naive article. Not only by the fact that comics are a great literary medium, regardless of that they use pictures to further thier plots, but hello, you said it yourself these movies based on comics are making millions of dollars. Do you know why? Because people like them. And yes a big reason I like them as well as billions of other comic fans is because that they're based on my favorite comics, but my whole family likes them and they've never picked up a comic book in their whole life.

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