Not Falling, but Doing – Comic Books and Bad Adaptations

(This post originally appeared in my other movie blog, My Life as a Doge.)

Say what you like about the yellow spandex, at least you knew who was on which side.

“It wasn’t like that in the comics” is a common enough rallying cry for the aggrieved geek community these days.

Let’s be clear: I’m not having a go at geeks. Have you read this blog? I’m a geek, or possibly a nerd; it depends if the geeks will have me. I’m talking about a particular facet of geek culture, which has as many flaws and foibles as any other cultural group.

So, increasingly I start to ask myself if it isn’t a good thing sometimes when an adaptation breaks away from the original text, especially in an original text as convoluted as a comic book continuity. After all, it isn’t as if the comic books themselves haven’t cleaned house from time to time, with either a universe shattering Crisis event or an outright reboot. It’s needed too, with the two main continuities – DC and Marvel – each spanning dozens of titles and decades of publishing history, including a lot of highly contradictory, controversial, and on occasion just plain dumb stuff.

So, what change is okay when adapting a comic book for the screen? What change is too much change?

Here’s my opinion: Any change is acceptable that is not to the detriment of the characters or story being told by the movie, and which does not alter the characters to the point that the adaptation is in name only.

Some examples:

Complaints about the X-Men franchise are legion: That Storm’s claustrophobia was ignored; that Wolverine was too tall; that Magneto was too old. Spider-Man brought us the controversial organic webshooters (and the Amazing Spider-Man was criticised for making them mechanical again). Do these matter?

Well, Storm’s claustrophobia, while an important part of the character’s personality in the comics, is not intrinsic. The character in the film does just fine without it, and to throw that in would have been a) completely out of left-field for movie viewers, and b) rendered the character ineffectual at a key moment without any build-up. Wolverine’s height is the definition of a non-issue, and Magneto’s age an unavoidable consequence of the march of time. The nature of Spider-Man’s webshooters really only matters in as much as it impacts on his character, although I prefer the mechanical, largely because the ‘performance anxiety’ jokes about them in Spider-Man II annoyed me.

On the other hand, there are changes that do matter, usually because they make the film or at least the character weaker.

A case in point is the removal of the Phoenix Force from the X-Men movies. I understand why it was done; it introduces a huge amount of backstory that is just too much for a single movie. The Shi’ar, the Phoenix Force itself, X-Men in space; it’s a hell of a leap for 130 minutes.

Of course, the Phoenix is not the only otherworldly force to be dropped from the extended cast (a problem that results from the opposite issue; trying to fit in too much of the comics). The Juggernaut of the comics is empowered by the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak (and is Charles Xavier’s stepbrother), rather than a mutant from Saath London. Again, that was changed to avoid a complicated backstory, but it is much less of an issue. Juggernaut’s schtick is that he’s big and angry and runs through walls, and that doesn’t change depending on the specifics of his origin story. His relationship to Xavier is a rather more significant change, but in the context of the film it makes little difference if he is angry because his brother was more powerful than him or from general mendacity.

The consequence of removing the alien Phoenix Force is rather greater. Instead of Jean Grey being a woman fighting – with the assistance of her mentor – against the influence of an external force that wants to manipulate her powers for its own alien purposes, she becomes a woman unable to control her own strength without her (male) mentor performing psychic surgery on her without consent. This is not good for her character, and it is not good for Professor Xavier’s character; she is made weak, he is made… well, pretty damned evil.

There were many other problems with X-Men: The Last Stand, of course, but this was one that was intrinsically connected to changes made in adaptation, and its problem was not the change per se, but the fact that it derails part of the story, and destroys the characters of a good man and a strong woman.

And strong women were the purpose and inspiration of the original version of this post, or a strong woman at least, and a change that perhaps ought to have been made.

The Sam Raimi/Tobey Macguire Spider-Man trilogy gave us a Mary-Jane Watson who was feisty, but basically useless. In her place, The Amazing Spider-Man (and II) delivers Gwen Stacy, a brave, brilliant, strong-willed young woman, whose drive, intelligence and courage enable Spider-Man to defeat both the Lizard and Electro.

And then they killed her, because that’s what Gwen Stacy does. Gwen Stacy falls, Spider-Man catches her, but she dies anyway. It’s how her story ends, because it’s how her story ended in 1973.

In this case, in my opinion at least, the film needed to be different from the book. Much of the tension of the films comes from Peter Parker’s fears that associating with him will get Gwen hurt, and Gwen’s determination that, with or without powers, she is capable of helping him and achieving something important in the world. Having presented Gwen as a strong, smart, competent woman, by reverting to the narrative of 1973 the film then tells its audience that the answer to this dilemma is that no, a woman – especially one without powers – can’t be a hero, and that a lover is a burden Spider-Man can not afford to carry.

This is crap.

But what about Ant-Man?

It’s 2014 and Marvel Studios have been showing for years with the MCU that you can reinvent your characters and setting in a cinematic form in just the same way, and at least as successfully (given the level of criticism leveled at much of the post-Ultimatum Ultimate universe and the New 52) as you can in comics. The MCU’s Black Widow has yet to succumb to her often terminal early-onset chronic backstabbing disorder, so why must we accept the ugly, wholly-negative assertion that Gwen Stacy was doomed from the start?

Even if it were true that Gwen Stacy had to die – which it isn’t – then I still have an issue with how it happened. This Gwen Stacy was brilliant, bold, proactive. She chose to be the one who broke things off with Peter rather than mope after him when he couldn’t commit to her. She chose to pursue a bright educational future instead of staying where her ex was. She had conviction enough that Peter was willing to go with her and set an episode of the franchise in London.

Just take a moment to absorb that dialogue before you decide that this is a sacred moment that has to happen.

And this woman, this incredible woman and amazing, positive role model, because of what someone wrote before I was born, died not doing, but falling. If she truly had to die, this Gwen Stacy deserved to go down swinging, if not defeating the Goblin then creating the opening which enabled Spider-Man to do so. Instead, she fell. From her crowning moment, when she not only helped Peter overcome a problem that had defeated him as a scientist, but then unhesitatingly sent a bajillion volts into Electro and trusted Peter to get out of the way, rather than agonising over how he might get hurt, to her ignominious death as a fridge-bound victim, took less than five minutes. Five minutes to tear down a wonderful, inspirational hero and make her into a damsel in distress.

It’s lazy writing, it’s against everything the film was building up (and not in a good, twist ending kind of way) and it was done from some misplaced devotion to the continuity of a forty year old comic. Yes, the death of Gwen Stacy was an iconic moment that possibly changed the course of comic book history, but it’s not a fixed point that has to happen to every Gwen Stacy, and it should not have happened to this Gwen Stacy; not like that.

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