How comic book movies kill the deep, mythic history of comic book characters
My own son will see every superhero movie with me, but no matter how I strategically litter the house with comics, he won’t pick one up.
This year Netflix will debut two new shows based on comic book characters—both properties of Marvel comics and part of what is called the Marvel Universe — Daredevil and Jessica Jones. These are not two of Marvel's most recognized characters, and in fact Jessica Jones is likely only known by devoted fans, what Marvel once called "true believers." Daredevil (blind lawyer Matt Murdock) fights organized crime in Hell's Kitchen and Jessica Jones is a retired superhero turned private detective, often called to investigate the sordid side of masked vigilantes. Netflix has confidence in their original series given the success of Orange is the New Black and House of Cards (although this year's Marco Polo has failed to garner the same kind of critical praise). To take a risk on superheroes that are not household names, even during a time when comic characters are extremely popular, seems counterintuitive to what works. And yet, I am hopeful, not because I particularly trust in Netflix's vision, but because I trust the characters.
Disclaimer: I am a true believer.
The first comic book I fell in love with started an affair that has never faltered: The Avengers #57. The issue is a continuation of a two-part story. The diabolical robot Ultron has built his own android — The Vision — to defeat the Avengers, a team of heavy hitters that includes Thor, Captain American, and Iron Man. Because The Vision is programmed with the "brain patterns" of another Avenger named Wonder Man, his conscience takes hold and he helps the heroes defeat his creator. In this particular issue, the Vision asks to join the Avengers, and after a series of tests, is offered membership. After accepting, the Vision — a supposedly cold unfeeling machine — excuses himself from the room. As he walks out, Iron Man comments how unearthly his voice is. In the final full-page drawing, the Vision is shown with a hand to his face, a long tear streaming down. Off panel, Captain America says, continued from the previous page, "And if you saw his eyes right now, I'm sure you'd learn that… even and android can cry." (The Vision would later go on to marry the mutant known as Scarlet Witch in Giant Size Avengers #4. She was my first crush.)
Here were super powered people that suffered doubt, who fell in love, and whose lives had worldly consequence. I was eight, and while I knew my own life did not matter in that way, I too felt anxious and uncertain. My father had lost his business to a fire and soon after was stricken with debilitating arthritis. My grandfather died. My sister eloped with a boy my parents did not like. I knew doubt, and fear, and reading about god-like people with similar feelings offered a kind of balm. I could lose myself in their stories, but still feel like I had one foot in the real world.
More than a decade earlier, the creator of these characters, Stan Lee, wanted heroes that were not merely steroids in spandex in made-up cities like Gotham and Metropolis. Together with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, they created superheroes that lived in recognizable places with recognizable problems. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was a bullied high school geek who struggles with use his uncanny powers responsibly. Ben Grimm (The Thing of the Fantastic Four) is turned into a hideous creature by cosmic rays. He jokes while throwing superhuman punches to mask his own suffering.
Nevertheless, these characters populated a universe with a deep, mythic history — filled with cosmic entities like Infinity and Galactus — placing Earth in the center of a vast drama. Despite years of continuity, retroactive meddling and reboots, the Marvel Universe has remained fairly consistent, particularly regarding the essential elements of each of the characters. No matter how many times their stories have been told, how many costume changes, death and reversals of those deaths, the characters withstand. Unlike other literary figures, comic book characters can sustain multiple re-imaginings without being reduced to ironic fluff like a zombie Mr. Darcy or a vampire hunting Abraham Lincoln.
It is not always successful, of course. Yet when a superhero comic fails, and many have, critics never put blame on the source material, but on the interpretation and the execution. For the forty years I have been reading comics, I have been witness to that element that makes them comparable to myths; they stand up to repeated tellings, even as they change slightly over time. There is also something comforting, cozy even, about being able to return these characters again and again. No matter how much life changes, they remain steadfast.
As my family found a new life in Florida after my father's setbacks, I discovered other comics that resonated in new ways. The Legion of Super-Heroes published by DC Comics offered a vision of teenage problems underscored by intergalactic politics. Each of the heroes had one unique power, often a consequence of their home planet; shape-shifting, telekinesis, super-intelligence (it was also the comic that introduced the oft-mocked Matter Eater Lad.) When we moved again, I was a teenager. I packed my comics and my adolescent unease. In our new home I became enamored of The Silver Surfer, one of the most powerful entities in the Marvel universe, and a brooding melancholy poet.
In the mid-1980s, comic books writers were attempting to tread new ground, and reshaped the possibilities for storytelling. Writer and artist Walter Simonson took on duties for Thor, digging deeper into Norse mythology and crafting one of the most perfect runs of a comic book. As I matured, the comic book did too, and it was all too easy to project whatever course my life was taking onto the colorful newsprint. When things turned dark in my late teens and early 20s, I lost myself in the murkier morality that writers were then introducing. Some of those stories remain iconic today, including Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, both Batman stories, a character already over forty years old. But there were and still are tales to tell.
At mid-life and still reading, it's a golden age for comic book fans. There is considerable talent in the superhero comic industry, with writers like Scott Snyder, Matt Fraction, Ales Kot, Mark Waid, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Jason Aaron writing smart sophisticated stories with characters strong enough to inhabit a variety of narratives. Daredevil, currently being written by Waid, has gone through considerable changes since his first appearance in 1964. In 1979, Frank Miller took over writing the blind red-costumed crime-fighter and brought the once smiling B-lister to the depths of New York City where he came up against organized crime. His girlfriend became a junkie. In 2001, Marvel handed the reigns to Brian Michael Bendis, and with artist Alex Maleev, wrote Daredevil as crime noir and stripped him of almost all superhero pretension. Since 2011, Waid has injected levity back into the comic, but retained the edge and drama that keeps it from being lighthearted pulp.
Then there are superhero films and television shows attracting fans that might never have read a comic book. Current trends in filmmaking technology – with writers like Joss Whedon and actors like Robert Downy Jr – make blockbusters like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy possible. My generation had to grin and bear the Saturday morning Shazam!/Isis Hour and The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby. Today offers the CW's Flash, and Arrow, two of the most watchable series on network television. Since 2010 there have been 14 movies based on Marvel characters alone, and this year will see five more, including the next Avengers film, Age of Ultron, and on television, the series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. Netflix has even more superhero shows in production. But despite my faith in the eternal quality of superheroes, it might be their narratives are simply better told panel by panel, sequentially, month by month.
The lexis of comics (Marvel in particular) versus the language of film is often incompatible. Comic book characters have labyrinthine histories. Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, along with her brother Pietro (also known as the lightning fast Quicksilver) grew up as gypsies, were raised on Mount Wundagore by a Dr. Moreau-like creature named Bova, a saintly cow woman, created by the High Evolutionary. Wanda and Pietro would later discover their father is the mutant anti-hero, Magneto. And so it goes. The compressed storytelling necessary in film and television makes these rich origins almost impossible. As comics and other media entangle the companies who are banking heavily on the films and television shows, the comics books themselves will become more like those media vehicles, and risk lose their integrity.
In 2011, DC Comics re-launched their entire series calling it the New 52, a fresh start to bring in new readers while trying to retain the core mythos of the characters. All the characters were rebooted, and many of their age-old details were erased or revamped (Clark Kent, for example, is not in love with Lois Lane, and she doesn't work for the Daily Planet.) This April, in an attempt to clean up continuity issues and bring cohesion to what is called the Multiverse, DC will publish the mini-series Convergence. Over at Marvel, May of this year will see Secret Wars, a massive event that will weave various "alternate" universes together.
I am admittedly getting a little overwhelmed. All I really want is a comic book version of the Iliad with a complex but reliable history, translated anew for each generation. The website Den of Geek is mildly bemused and even a little frustrated at the constant tinkering that goes on to assuage "true believers." Mike Cecchini recently wrote: "But maybe the real best case scenario is that fans will stop demanding that the impossible minutiae of comic book continuity, especially when it involves intellectual property that's at least a half century old, make any kind of sense." No one, Cecchini is suggesting, cares much anymore about Bova the cow creature. The important thing is just to tell good stories, be them in the pages of comics, or IMAX in 3D.
Maybe it is time to let go. My own son will see every superhero movie with me, but no matter how I strategically litter the house with comics, he won't pick one up. He sees them as impenetrable, something that adults like, flavored with nostalgia he can't identify with. It's not unlike what I felt walking through the house while my parents listened to jazz, catching a rhythm here or there, but still heading straight into my room to listen to Minor Threat. Maybe comics need to catch up with movies and TV's condensed story-telling, only relying on internal continuity for as long as the show is renewed each season. As such, creators can begin again, not beholden to any previous interpretation — except those fundamental to the story that make them worth retelling: orphan from a dead planet, magic hammer, radioactive spider, gamma rays, mutant genes, emotive android.
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