BOOK REVIEW

How superhero movies have dulled the comics that gave them life

The pressure to turn comics into films has transformed a once gleefully lowbrow and willfully weird art form into middlebrow mundanity, and not everyone’s happy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 9:00pm

This year, the Marvel/Disney movie Captain America: Civil War, which opened last week, takes the coveted spot of Superhero Movie that Kicks off Blockbuster Season. Which could also be known as A Good Time to Be Reminded that Superhero Comics Are Now Way Too Much Like Movies.

I am not going to complain about superhero movies as movies. I don’t care that once-colourful costumes are forced to be muted and dark and tough-looking on human actors (Batman v Superman, the black leather X-Men). I don’t care that too many superhero movies rely on disaster-porn clichés (Man of Steel, Avengers) or that the Marvel Cinematic Universe/shared universe theory of storytelling turns movies into episodic entertainment rather than something that can stand on its own (even Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon has complained about this).

OK, maybe I care a little. But I’m here to complain about how superhero movies have not made superhero comics better.

If anything, since the first Spider-Man movie crossed the US$300 million mark back in 2002, superhero comics have, on the whole, stagnated. One is reluctant to point to a direct causation, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …

Batman v Superman reveals an unmistakable superhero malaise

What was once a form that prided itself on being fast, cheap and out of control is now intellectual property worth millions, subject to the sort of five- and 10-year planning that would impress an ageing Soviet. Title after title that Marvel (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) and DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) release reads as if it were pre-approved from the TV and movie side of things.

Superhero comics are not the kid-aimed, dream-logic wish fulfilment of the 1940s and ’50s. They’re not the attempts to appeal to teens of the ’60s and ’70s, full of angsty heroes and dense plots rocketing ever forward.

They’re not the grimmer and grittier comics of the 1980s, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. They’re not the urban fantasies of the 1990s such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.

What once was a form that was gleefully lowbrow and willfully weird is now, as a friend elegantly put it, “just more middlebrow crap”.

Civil War is the third Captain America movie and the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the autumn, Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, will be the 14th.

At one point, Civil War was going to share the opening weekend spotlight with DC Comics/Warner Brothers’ Batman v Superman, but the latter was moved back to March, the better to have the market to itself. This was probably wise in terms of box office, but for critics it was a bit like cinematic global warming.

Film review: Captain America: Civil War adds mistrust and division to Avengers showdown

Later this summer, Fox presents X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth film in the X-Men franchise if you count the Wolverine movies and Deadpool, the US$58 million movie that, thanks to its loose wit and clever execution, has grossed more than US$760 million worldwide. That’s a far better return on investment than Batman v Superman, a US$250 million film that has made just US$851 million globally (yes, that “just” looks absurd out of context).

Warner’s Suicide Squad, a movie about Batman villains more or less, arrives in August.

Superhero movies are a global force; the market shows few signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, as Civil War readies to rack up no doubt huge numbers, the average superhero comic reads like an illustrated screenplay, carefully constructed for maximum cross-platform revenue generation.

Part of the reason comics from decades past might seem stilted to the modern reader is that each issue needed to be a potential point of entry – powers and relationships were often explained anew in every one.

As storylines have got longer or become, in comics parlance, “decompressed”, the vast majority of titles have begun to feel more and more like work that is easily adaptable to the big screen. Everything reads the same.

It is impossible to imagine this shift without the work of Brian Michael Bendis, who pens slow-moving stories heavily indebted to the chatty style of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin.

His writing on Ultimate Spider-Man (2000-09) and Avengers (2004-12) set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe; the best elements of his series Alias (2001-04) were turned into the Netflix series Jessica Jones. His pacing became the house style at Marvel, and he remains an influential creator.

At this point, most of the monthly genre comics I buy come from the independent Image Comics, where the creators own their work. Image is also good at providing value-added “back matter” after the main story – an essay, a solid letters page, some sort of supplementary material – that is in the single issue but not in the trade.

And Image is also home to Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, which is a weird little miracle in that it succeeds brilliantly as both a comic book and a TV show.

Image has struck gold by trusting creators and their visions – it is easily the most interesting publisher of genre comics around. And I like a number of them, mostly the stranger science-fiction books. But there’s no getting around the fact that even some of the ones I like feel like TV or movie pitches.

I can’t blame comic book creators for using their comics to show that they can break down a movie or TV script – that is where the money is. And I’m not going to say that when a comic is optioned for big or small screen adaptation, it is an inherent failure as a comic. But I might think it to myself now and then.

Film review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an opportunity missed

What do I miss the most about superhero comics, what do I want for all genre comics, really? I want what has become middlebrow to become bonkers lowbrow again.

I want more insanity. I want genre comics to be filled with the unfilmable. I want scenarios that could not possibly work on the big screen. I want dense, lunatic stories that span centuries. I want stuff that works on the page better than it works on the screen, all the time.

I love comics as much as or more than movies, TV, film, poetry or prose. I want comics to be the best comics they can be, for every possible reader or any age. And it is entirely possible that the evolution away from the single issue to the trade paperback is simply how things have played out. All art forms go through change over time, often as a direct result of financial pressures, positive and negative. It happens. On the whole, comics as an art form are as healthy as they have ever been.

You may love comics that read like movies. You may feel that getting a movie out of your favourite character is the ultimate way that character should exist in the popular imagination. If so, you have literally dozens upon dozens of titles to choose from.

But if you find that sort of thing wanting, know that there are all kinds of comics that are 10 times as bonkers as anything you can see on screen, that go places that movies can’t hope to go. Like a recently deceased pop star once said, go crazy.

Tribune News Service