Jun 26, 2014

Is Live Action the Wrong Action?

What Happens When Pen and Paper Meets Latex and Celluloid

We, shockingly, live in a world where the presence of comic books characters in our movies and our TVs has become common place. As one might recall - if said one lived before the year 2000 - live action versions of superheroes were extremely limited at one time. More frequently, your caped crusaders and amazing heroes were cast on a smaller, more animated screen.

As I’ve discussed before, comics require special considerations when they change media. The additions of sound and motion are two of the more important things an animator, director, set designer, sound mixer, whoever is involved with the translating process, needs to consider when interpreting comics. Adaptation is difficult, what works for a monthly serial may not work in a TV series or a movie. Just think of your Super/Amazing Friends or Hassel-Fury.

It is my contention that the best way to translate what works in comics to movies and television is through serialization and animation. The argument mostly derives from history and the relationship between what comics do especially well and how those aspects can best be translated. The basic points are: costumes, action and acting.


Let’s get this one out the way first. What is the greatest complaint people have about how comic characters are presented in live-action? The answer: the costume. Batman has nipples, Superman is covered in weird S underwear, the Green Lanterns all look silly.

There is just a lot wrong going on here

I’m not picking on DC with these issues. Marvel has them too. The Fantastic Four movies particularly spring to mind of bad costumes. Costumes in particular highlight the problems of transferring drawn works to live-action. She-Hulk, Power Girl and Wonder Woman have similar issues with their costumes (if any one of them actually ever gets the live-action treatment in the near future, a topic that deserves a separate and lengthy discussion).

The essential problem of the costume in a live-action film is that there is a strong desire for practicality, reasonableness and appropriateness that a comic can basically ignore. Batman must have thick or super-science thin armor and belt to work. Captain America must have patches and what-not. Hawkeye must not have sleeves, Superman must not have shorts, Green Lantern must literally be a lantern, the list goes on. The live-action version of these characters suffers from a desire to look real, when the basis of the characters themselves is unreal.

When designing a character concept and first drawing him/her, the creator doesn’t say “How do I make this costume practical for the real world?” The first question is usually “What costume makes sense for this character’s mission, theme or goal?” For Batman, that means dark tones and a utility belt. For Superman, that means a bright costume with a giant S on the front. For Spider-Man, it’s the webbing. The purpose of the costume - outside the obvious identity hiding - is for a reader to look and say, yes, that is definitely a Green Lantern or yes, that looks like someone who would call himself the Flash.

If you are noticing the costume too much and analyzing it’s meaning, I suspect the point of the costume has been lost and it’s become a means unto itself. Animation is particularly effective at conveying who a character is by a costume. A cartoon short-circuits the problems with live-action costumes because the audience or adapter doesn’t expect or project authenticity onto the costume. They can still be crazy or simplistic and the adaptation doesn’t end up breaking the fourth wall. My prior, salivating appreciation of the DCAU illustrates some fine examples of animated costumes working where live-action ones fail.

There is a lot right going on here (see second row, middle)

Essentially, it boils down to too much attention and detail heaped onto the costume. Extra lines, details, nipples, just invite extra scrutiny. The purpose (in my not particularly humble opinion) of comics is accessible escapism and suspension of disbelief. Nothing distracts a viewer from the fantasy like trying to get the costume as believable in the real world as possible. It’s a fantasy world, the costumes don’t have to be functional, they have to facilitate the story.

Animation also lends a hand when a costume and hero need to be put to use: destroying cityscapes using powers.

Action aka Powers

I will preface this section by saying that advances in special effects from Superman to X-Men: Days of Future Past have been tremendous. If Richard Donner had has access to 21st Century CGI in the 70’s, Christopher Reeve turning the Earth backward (SPOILERS!) in time would’ve looked way less dorky. I think, therefore, it’s fair to compare effort to effort in the time they occurred.

Batman Returns to B:TAS, JLU to X-Men: The Last Stand. I would compare more recent animated and live action action, but I haven’t seen The Batman or any Marvel animated shows since the 90’s. The one case that springs to mind of an action or power usage sequence being equivalent between animation and live action is in the case of Green Lantern, but mostly because the movie and cartoon were both using the same technology. Taking that caveat away, let’s compare and contrast!

(It’s also a terrible comparison because I was not a fan of the GL movie and JS in the DCAU does borrrrrring powers. The characters even make fun of him for it. Which is the sort of bonhomie that you don’t get in films.)

I will give sound effects and triumphant bass explosions to live action. Nothing quite matches experiencing the destruction wreaked on New York in The Avengers as experienced in the movie theater. However, on my meager personal TV speakers, the sound is not as awesome. And since most people do not watch movies or TV on giant screens with impressive surround sound (If you do, great, stop telling me about it, I don’t have the room), the best field of comparison is watching this stuff on my TV.

Actually, very well-done

Live action powers, much like costumes, serve to draw direct attention to some of the sillier aspects of a character’s nature. Superman has heat vision, super-strength, ice breath and can fly. Of those, the heat vision and ice breath are particularly difficult to pull off in a movie or TV show. Laser beams coming out of Clark’s eyes just calls attention to the fact that there are a lot of things about this show/movie that don’t add up. As a writer/actor/director, you can choose to embrace or ignore these issues at your leisure. Reeves somewhat embraces them, the more recent movies equate seriousness with capable storytelling and do not. Reeves is still damn dorky though.

The recent Marvel movies (not counting the ASM movies, since I haven’t seen them), have done a better job of displaying live action powers. The primary reason for this outcome is that the powers of these movies are relatively easy to visually display without much second guessing. Iron Man just mouths off some techno-babble and at this point, society is pretty much fine with it. Hawkeye and Black Widow shoot things and do martial arts, another easy sell. Thor is a bit harder, but his main skill is being strong and having thunder, again not much of a stretch.

The X-Men are different (as always). You have a somewhat unique blend of the goofy and effective. Beast looks goofy in blue, Nightcrawler as well. Wolverine’s healing, Mystique’s mimicry and Ian McKellan Magneto’s metal manipulation play out well as effects-driven powers. Telepathy is a bit of an easier sell too. These types of powers do not require a lot of disbelief to be suspended as they don’t throw the crazy right in your face.

Not too in-your-face

Where the X-Men and other live action movies run into trouble is when the use of these powers forces you to admit that what you’re watching is completely off-base. The function of live action is to make the viewer feel like the situation on screen is believable or possible in actual, non-movie life. Thus far, the live action translation of powers and abilities, has been mixed at best. CGI makes Green Lantern very glow-y, but doesn’t provide the depth or detail you see in comics. Trying to make Batman the latex ninja has not worked particularly well, his whole range of motion is terrible. I also am of the opinion that Superman remains particularly difficult to translate because his powers are so enormous. It’s like a hurricane destroying a seaside town, he’s just too much.

In some respects, moving the characters to a cartoon environment eliminates the need for them to be 100% (read 32.5%) realistic in their abilities or powers. No longer constrained by a need to be even remotely realistic, and removing moral quandaries by making all buildings look empty, cartoons can truly let their fights escalate to epic proportions. Consider the destruction wreaked in the video below:

Basically, Superman and Captain Marvel wail on each other in an abandoned city (Luthor is there, but he doesn’t count). It displays quite effectively the power of both characters and also their preference for not destroying large, populated areas with their powers. A critique Duy leveled convincingly enough in his Man of Steel diatribe that I just didn’t see the movie. While I may talk nauseatingly at length about my love for the DCAU, Marvel - in the 1990s when I watched their cartoons - got a lot right too.

The X-Men and Spider-Man cartoon from the early 90’s demonstrated a sustained effort to get both hero and villain powers in the right visual ballpark. (I am going to ignore Spider-Man’s terrible CGI for this part since it’s irrelevant.) The Days of Future Past and Phoenix Saga stories, done well enough for someone to follow who didn’t read comics before he was out of diapers (me), also include excellent depiction of powers. Bishop’s absorption and use of energy, Jean/Phoenix, even Banshee flying gets a shout out.

What particularly sticks in my mind from the Spider-Man series is the use of webbing. In this case, it’s science webbing, but you get to see it combined with acrobatics in a way that translates actions from page to screen extremely well. This type of action rendered by CGI or wire effects (as in the Maguire movies) is too fluid and slick and ultimately draws your attention to other aspects of Spider-Man that don’t make any (spider) sense. These issues dovetail nicely into the final factor in favor of animation: voice acting.

Acting, Voice

More than effects, more than costumes, more than most things, the actor or actress playing a comic book hero/villain is the one who truly sells the role. I don’t expect everyone to be Kevin Conroy or Michael Fassbender. You are going to have some bad/awkward casting (just put whoever you dislike here). The distinction between good and bad acting or voice acting is how the character is sold and conveyed. Arguably, this task is more difficult in animated shows because the voice actor only has tones and accents to convey emotion and little to any control over how the character will actually appear.

For shows or movies focused on an individual hero, the job of the lead is to play both parts fully. They have to be Bruce Wayne and Batman, Clark and Superman. It’s hard work. A lot of people are not up to the job. Seeing this basic failing, to realize you’ve been cast as two characters for one paycheck, is the real test of an adaptation.

The successful Marvel movies have mostly elided this problem with their choices of focusing on the X-Men and Avengers franchises. Despite seeking anonymity for mutant kind, the X-Men don’t really have secret identities, Iron Man ends with Tony Stark admitting he’s Iron Man, Steve Rogers basically doesn’t hide his identity to protect anyone (mostly, they’re all dead anyway). The strength in this approach can be seen when a character does require a secret identity.

The original Spider-Man titles and pretty much most of the recent DC movies illustrate the weakness of the dual identity. Christian Bale doesn’t just have a Batman voice problem, but also a Bruce Wayne acting problem (Michael Keaton is better at portraying both sides in his first movie). His Bat-voice is gravelly and he doesn’t seem to even pretend that Bruce Wayne needs a life too. Tobey Maguire is a lackluster Spider-Man. He is a wooden actor and the quick wit and quips Spider-Man is known for seem hollow coming out of his mouth. He breathes little depth or humor into Peter before he gets bitten so the sudden change comes across false. (There are a lot of other examples I could go with, but at least Batman Begins and Spider-Man are amusing to watch. Daredevil and Green Lantern are not and epically fail to make at least one half of the superhero interesting.)

Uncle Ben died in this scene and I can’t stop giggling

Again, the superhero adaptation is hard. I get that, I’m not trying to be unreasonable in my claims or preferences. Live action adaptations that expect the characters to lead two, often conflicting, lives is not going to be an easy sell. I believe that this conceptual difficulty makes the success of animation in adapting page to screen all the more impressive.

As I’ve laid out before, the DCAU was particularly successful at turning Batman, Superman and the rest of the Justice League from page to screen. To this day, Kevin Conroy is Batman and Bruce Wayne, Dana Delaney is Lois Lane, Michael Ironside is Darkseid, David Warner is Ra’s al Ghul. The voice, expression and actions are inextricably linked in my mind. B:TAS won 4 Emmy’s (one primetime). One for Robin trying to avenge his parents’ murder, it’s not light material.

He is vengeance, he is the night, he is Batman. Also, Kevin Conroy

The voices make the characters. Sell their reactions, paranoia, powers and costumes. As I’ve stated before, in many ways the work of a voice actor is harder than a live action actor. Tim Daly often doesn’t necessarily see what Superman is doing, but Henry Cavill actually does it. Christian Bale is there to physically be Batman, Kevin Conroy has to make you believe he’s there. It’s a taller task and the fact that anyone could pull it off, or consistently for over a decade is an accomplishment in and of itself.

You may be saying, wait, cartoons are easier, the expectations are lower. Perhaps, but you can also trip over that bar. I don’t think the expectations are particularly high for a summer blockbuster, but live action adaptations have certainly managed to both exceed and lower those expectations. The question you should ask after watching a live or animated comic adaptation is not if they cast the right person or if they checked off all the boxes in your mind, but if the entire package, the costume, the powers and the acting sold the character. Did you forget that you were entering a fantasy land where the Asgard are basically real? Did you feel the fear, rage and desperation a young boy felt over the murder of his parents? Did you lose yourself in the story?

Those are the real questions that matter and in this critic’s opinion, animation delivers. Consistently.

Just so long as it’s never, ever the Fantastic Four.

1 comment:

LaMar said...

The only FF entity that exists outside of the comics is the 6o's cartoon. It also had one of my favorite theme songs...matter of fact let me cue that up right quick

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