It’s comic book column time again—sort of. This week, rather than talking about actual comic books, I’m talking about comic book movies. What makes a good comic adaptation? What makes a bad one? This choice of topic was inspired by my seeing The Lego Batman Movie and Logan recently, and I’ll spend most of my time discussing those films and their titular characters in particular.
Any time a work of fiction from one medium is adapted into another, there will be fans of the original work who like or dislike the adaptation. One factor that is frequently cited when fans discuss adaptations is how similar the new work is to the one it was based on. When discussing movie adaptations of novels, this generally means the amount of important events and details that are translated from the book to the movie. Most Harry Potter fans, for example, would probably have considered the films to be less faithful if Harry’s backstory regarding how he got his lightning bolt scar had been heavily altered, or if his movie version did not have a scar at all. Fans might have been upset if major characters had their roles significantly altered. For example, if Ron and Hermione were barely present or even absent in the films, fan reactions would have been very negative.
The thing about comic books is that they are almost universally unable to be adapted in the same way as novels while still being good movies that capture the spirit of the source material. The most popular comic book franchises and characters have existed for decades. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and countless other comic book characters have existed, and had series in mostly continuous print, for over half a century. Even comic book films devoted to newer characters, such as Deadpool, often have over twenty years of comic book storylines to draw inspiration from. No single movie, trilogy, or even seemingly endless film franchise based upon the likes of Batman or Wolverine can ever hope to convey all the comic stories ever written about those characters.
In the case of comic book movies, I personally subscribe to the belief that the best adaptations are those that capture the central themes and spirit of the series they are based upon. In the case of Batman, you have a man devoted to stopping crime so that other people won’t have to endure the same tragedy that he did as a child when he lost his parents. You have his struggles with isolation and trust, as he forges relationships with the likes of Robin, Catwoman, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, etc. In the case of Wolverine, some of his most frequent themes involve questions of a blurred and traumatic past, dealing with one’s more animal and rage-fueled instincts, codes of honor, and bettering oneself through service to a greater cause (in Wolverine’s case, forming friendships with his fellow X-Men as they fight for mutant rights).
Neither character’s movies would be good if they lifted their scripts entirely from the comics. If one decided to make a Batman movie based upon Batman’s first appearance, they’d be working with a small number of pages in which Batman didn’t interact with any of his iconic villains and no deep psychological examination is given to why Batman does what he does. In Wolverine’s case, adapting his initial appearance would result in a film with him fighting the Hulk. This would in turn create the need to spend valuable screen time introducing and explaining the Hulk, which would take away from time that could be better spent on Wolverine. Not only that, but Wolverine’s backstory as it is now understood was not present in his first appearances. Adapting his comic debut would result in a Wolverine movie that had nothing to say about any of the history, personality, or other factors that were later added and ended up making him so popular.
The problem of direct adaptation isn’t solved if you decide to forgo first appearances in favor of more recent storylines that contain more of the characters’ central motifs. No comic book story exists in a vacuum; the most classic series and stories all feature details and influences specific to the context from which they originated. These details can be things such as side characters and plot points whose backstories have been explained in the comics immediately preceding them. Comics are, after all, serialized publications. Events and themes continually build on one another. It is difficult to take a comic storyline, which doesn’t explain certain key details because they’ve already been covered in previous stories, and then translate them directly into a film without adding more context, or cutting aspects of the original story that aren’t central to the story’s main plot or why it is so popular and effective. Good comic movies can adapt specific storylines, but I would argue that more often than not they cannot do so without making some changes. I also believe that there is no reason an adaptation should seek to be the exact same as its source material anyway. The original story already exists; if someone wants to read it, they can. Why not make the necessary adjustments to make it work as well as it can on screen versus in a book? Why not take advantage of the new artistic tools presented by a change in medium?
I consider The Lego Batman Movie to be an outstanding comic book movie. Whether it is a great adaptation depends upon how broadly one defines adaptation. The Lego Batman Movie features characters from various franchise’s outside of Batman’s, and doesn’t adapt one specific comic book storyline. It does, however, adapt Batman’s backstory, trust issues, and relationships with his supporting cast that captures much of the original material’s magic. Most Batman movies have focused on loner interpretations of the hero, ignoring how much he has worked with other heroes whether they be partners in Gotham or fellow members of the Justice League. TLBM introduces Batman as someone whose traumatic experiences have affected their ability to trust and get close to others. The film then introduces Robin, Batgirl, and Alfred, and shows Batman’s struggles between his desire to be close with other people and his desire to push them away due to fears of them getting hurt. My favorite thing about The Lego Batman Movie is probably the fact it is the only Batman film ever made that really conveys how important Batman considers his supporting cast to be, and how vital they are to maintaining his emotional health. TLBM shows The family moments between Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and Alfred in that film are some of the most emotionally affecting in any comic book film I’ve ever seen.
Logan is similar to The Lego Batman Movie in many ways. Logan, while sharing concepts with certain comic storylines, does not attempt to take a specific set of issues and replicate them on camera. Rather, we get an original story that reimagines the character (and to a degree, the X-Men franchise as a whole) in a new context that still makes room for the central thematic and emotional issues at the heart of the best Wolverine stories. We see a Wolverine movie not only delivers engaging and well-shot action sequences, but a touching narrative which highlights his relationships with Charles Xavier and Laura Kenney. The film utilizes stunning cinematography choices and a great script to deliver action, emotion, tragedy, hope—all of which are things which contribute to making the greatest Wolverine comics the quality literature that they are.
I’m not saying that all comic book movies have to invent entirely new storylines and characters to be effective, or that changes in and of themselves make good adaptations. Changes should serve a purpose, to streamline complicated continuity into a more digestible format, or to allow the filmmakers more time to focus on the aspects of characters that shape why readers love them, instead of adapting every little detail as is and losing potency as a result. Good adaptations can be varying degrees of similar to specific source material, they just need to capture, in a new medium and a new way, what was special about their original versions. The problem with Catwoman, for instance, besides just its horrible script and acting, was the fact that it literally did not star the comic book character. The film’s version of Catwoman changed not only her real name and outfit, everything about her backstory. Some changes could have been made to any of those things, but if all of them are so dramatically altered as to leave no remnant of the original, then it arguably isn’t even an adaptation, as there’s nothing left of the source material that’s actually being adapted.
If you want good examples of adaptations, though, I highly recommend The Lego Batman Movie and Logan, both of which are still in theatres. They’re not just great comic book movies, they’re great movies. Aside from being my top two favorite superhero films of all time, they’re both some of my favorite films period. If you want to see a well-written, well-acted and well-shot/well-animated film with great action and emotionally wrenching character drama, both films are great choices. The Lego Batman Movie is much more of traditional comedy, but both films contain humorous elements and incredibly touching serious moments. Their skilled handling of the various aspects of their plots and scripts inspired me to write this week’s column. Check out these films—they’re proof of what great things can be created when one adapts a comic book character effectively.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.