Sep 3, 2010

Matt's Mentionables: Adding Sound (on the translation of comics to movies)

Matt's Mentionables is a column written by Matt for The Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Adding Sound
by Matt

The translation of comic book heroes to movies and television is not a new phenomenon. Batman and Superman both had multi-part serials in the 1940s, as did the first hero to appear in such films, Captain Marvel. However, the past decade has seen an influx of superhero movies. From my perspective, both films and comics are media where the visual is important. However, the obvious distinction being that films can include sound, where comics must make do with their *pows* and *zaps*. Essentially what I want to look at is the problem not only of translating from one medium to another, but also what often goes wrong in an attempt to make comics massively appealing. And, no, I will not be dealing with Watchmen, I don’t have the time.

In the beginning…

The first attempts at translating comics success to movie success were serials in the 1940s. The first was in 1941 Captain Marvel, and his 12-part serial was critically acclaimed and served to influence some Golden Age stories and The Power of Shazam! launch in the 90s.1 Batman was next and his 1943 serial was not as critically acclaimed, but did add the Batcave and its entrance through the grandfather clock.2 The last of what I am calling the big three was Superman in 1948, and was billed as actually starring Superman and was a tremendous box-office success.3

What we basically see from these serials is that adaptations in the 1940s were not always picture perfect to the source material (Batman was called fat), but generally contributed to the mythos that we have come to know in the respective series. However, the serials were produced when canon and backstory were not as set as they have become.

In the middle…

The 70s and 80s saw the reappearance of the superhero movie (at least popular superheroes). Of course, I mean Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Tim Burton’s take on Batman. Each represented an attempt to capture the essence of the hero and I think was a success, up to a point. However, the sequels that followed the initial movies foreshadowed the eventual turn that superhero movies would take.

Superman, with is first scenes depicting Kal-El’s arrival on Earth, resonates and the Superman portrayed by Reeve is everything you expect. He’s a regular boy scout and he says he’s fighting for “Truth, justice and the American way.” I think, the success of this movie is shown by the fact that the special effects of the 70s were not great and required the movie to be carried by its actors and story. You feel the palpable rage when Superman sees Lois die and then races around the Earth to turn back time. While the special effects didn’t improve, the subsequent sequels removed themselves from Superman’s core stories and were somewhat trivial.

I consider the Batman movies more of a mixed bag from the start. Burton’s Batman is in an awkward latex costume and Michael Keaton is a rather wooden actor, but it does not have the sense of overproduction you see in the more recent movies - the lack of huge explosions and growling Batmans are self-evident. Burton and Keaton’s Batman is not as fun as Adam West, but still has at least a sense of adventure. However, this series of Batman movies falls prey to the same deficiencies of the Superman series, the sequels ended terribly and deviated significantly from the established material, relying more on gimmick than story.

Superhero movies never truly went away, but their “Renaissance” as films came about in an era of improved, and improving, special effects, so any hero’s power became possible; however, the results have be mixed, leaning toward disappointment.

The end?

The last decade has seen an explosion of superhero movies. Batman has returned with 2 movies, the X-Men and Spiderman have 3 apiece, Superman tried for a reboot, Iron Man appeared on the scene with 2 movies of his own and there are more to come. While I won’t say I didn’t enjoy some of these movies, they suffer from a similar deficiency: they departed from the intent of the comics.

Unlike others, I don’t expect movies based on comic books to be completely true to their source material. However, I do expect them to remain true to intent of the books and basis of the characters. Therefore, I don’t care too much the Hugh Jackman is too tall to be Wolverine, what I care about is if he can embody the anger that Wolverine derives from not knowing who or what he is and do it in a way that is believable. In that respect, capturing the emotion of the character and sounding right (essentially the acting part of acting) is what usually falls flat.

I will admit one exception to this trend and that appears to be the Iron Man movies (though I can’t speak for the second one). Robert Downey Jr. seems to evoke the necessary joy, devil-may-care attitude and life of luxury that is needed for Tony Stark. While I may disagree about Iron Man as a hero (a whole other topic), it appears that the makers of Iron Man were able to capture his essence while still using CGI and giant explosions.

I almost refuse to believe he is a superhero.

What I fear for the future is the upcoming Green Lantern movie. GL is one of my favorites and I can just imagine the horrible things that could be done by poor writing, overuse of effects and poor acting. However, I must wait and see, all I know is Ryan Reynolds is Hal and the pictures I keep on seeing, which are overly CGI, but not terrible.

I continue to hope that movie producers will begin to realize that what makes a movie enjoyable is not the size of the explosions or how creative you can get with effects, but how to retain the essence of comics by simply adding sound. Oh, and about Watchmen, I hated it for all the reasons above and that they completely missed the point of the book.

1. It can be unreliable, but I’ve found Wikipedia’s articles on comics to be useful:
2. Apparently Batman was doughy and obviously from Boston:
3. I find the ability of the 1940s to sustain a story over so many parts and still manage to produce a sequel:

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