Comics Superheroes Leap Across the Great Cultural Divide


This month’s opening of Thor in the US is the first in a string of comic book movies that also includes X-Men: First Class (June 3), The Green Lantern (June 17), and Captain America (July 22) in 2011 and The Avengers and new Spider-Man and Batman films in 2012. Iron Man 3 is scheduled for 2013, which signals how long this string stretches.

Upcoming live-action adaptations of characters and narratives from comics also include works for television, most notably Wonder Woman (originally developed for NBC, but given a pass by that network) as well as lower profile titles such as Brian Bendis’ and Michael Oeming’s Powers (FX) and John Layman’s and Robert Guillory’s Chew (Showtime).

In previous columns I’ve looked at the investment of comics creators, publishers, and readers in seeing the works they make and love turned into films and TV. What I’m noticing in the current round of adaptations is that it is not simply “comics people” who are excited by these upcoming projects, but also film and television watchers and critics who are not “comics people”.

TV and movie sites like /Film and Television Without Pity (TWoP) are giving extensive coverage to many of the forthcoming films and series in development (there’s already a Wonder Woman forum on TWoP), and my Twitter feed is peppered with links for trailers and photos related to comic book adaptations from comics and non-comics sources alike.

Seen one way, this kind of attention validates studio and producer investment in comic books as sources for live-action entertainment, but begs the question of why people who have no other interest in comics would be looking forward to seeing these stories and characters on film and television to the extent of, in effect, helping to publicize and generate buzz around the adaptations.

One way to explain why interest in TV and film based on comics is wider than the interest in comics proper is to look at individual projects, and what they might offer for different audiences. In other words, while live action adaptations of stories and characters from comics may generate wide interest, not everyone will be looking forward to everything.

Starting from behind the camera, Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Joss Whedon (The Avengers), and Christopher Nolan (Batman) are all directors with fan bases and reputations that extend well beyond the world of comics, although Branagh is the only one who is a true outsider, at least for the moment. While generating as much skepticism as optimism for the series, having David E. Kelley (Picket Fences, Boston Legal) producing Wonder Woman has unquestionably given that project a credibility that it might not have otherwise, for both viewers and executives alike.

As with directors, attaching certain stars to a project may also draw in fans who care little about the source material, but who will go see just about anything that features a favorite actor. Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern), Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man), James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), and Natalie Portman (Thor) are all examples of actors who will attract attention to a film just for being cast. I have not yet mentioned it, but the Jon Favreau directed Cowboys & Aliens is packed with stars and other well known actors, including Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Sam Rockwell.

X-Men: First Class is an example of how a film can draw interest not just from its stars or the names of its behind-the-camera talent, but also from how the material is being adapted.

Envisioned as a ’60s period piece, images from the shoot show a Mad Men-like sense of style and modernity, an association made explicit by casting January Jones as Emma Frost, who, like Betty Draper/Francis, is a variation on the cool blonde archetype in American culture. Whether the film explores the same social and historical field as Jones’ TV series remains to be seen, but for now, the look alone seems to be enough to make many who might otherwise ignore a film based on a comic about super-human mutants take a second look.

At the same time that its casting and design shows how a non-comics audience can be drawn to a film made from comics material, X-Men: First Class is also interesting for the way it illustrates the tensions inherent in bringing stories and characters from comics to film or television.

For most readers of the comics, the phrase “first class” in the context of the X-Men connotes a specific cast of characters, including Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, Hank McCoy/Beast, Scott Summers/Cyclops, Bobby Drake/Iceman, Warren Worthington III/Angel, and Professor X/Charles Xavier. Of those, only Xavier, played by James McAvoy, and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are in the film. Interestingly, despite the disconnect, Marvel has been releasing special one-shots devoted to these classic characters in the lead-up to the release of the film.

The casting of the film version of the “first class” of X-Men is clearly being shaped by the emerging film world of the characters more than it is by fidelity to its print sources. All of the first class from the comics have already been used in the prior films, and, even though the periodization of the new film allows for recasting, as seen with both Xavier and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence here, but Rebecca Romijn in the initial series), there may be considerations saved for future films and also for widening the scope of X-characters on screen. Furthermore, casting a random collection of characters from decades of X-Men comics affords the filmmakers more narrative freedom vis a vis readers than would following the books.

People who come to the film for James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto) or January Jones, or for the production design, aren’t going to know or care about the composition of the cast in relationship to comics canon or continuity with the books. For those who might care, maybe they stay away from the film, or maybe they accept that the world of the film and the world of the books are different, which seems a likely outcome.

However, it is not as if readers have been ignored in the casting of the movie. Emma Frost is arguably the most significant X-figure who did not appear in the initial series. Mystique is both a cult-y favorite from the comics and from the first three movies. Xavier and Magneto are the yin and yang of the mutant world in Marvel, and focusing the new film on their relationship ties it both to the earlier movies and shows an awareness of where to hold to canon and where film makers can afford to let go.

X-Men: First Class shows that there are multiple ways to look at specific adaptations and see how those projects are made to address different audiences, particularly fans of the source material on one side and non-fans on the other.

Of course, that could be written about any film or TV show based on previously published work. The only significant difference being that comics is the only medium I can think of where potential audiences will divide themselves over form and not content. That is, whereas every film based on a comic will prompt some critic somewhere to inveigh against comics as a source for movies, essentially no one writes about how they are tired of seeing movies based on novels or magazine articles without referencing the particular book or piece in question.

However, that kind of passion works in more than one way, and I don’t think that the intense interest that comic book adaptations generate can be explained entirely by looking at individual projects. Put another way, neither producer David E. Kelley nor star Adrianne Palicki are responsible for people already wanting to talk about the new Wonder Woman; Wonder Woman is.

Comic books, more particularly comic book characters, especially superheroes, are woven into the warp and weft of American popular culture. People can and do become fans of characters like Batman and Spider-Man without reading comics. More importantly, I can start conversations about iconic characters with all kinds of people in all kinds of places in the United States, and most likely, I will get responses that show a clear idea or image of those characters. Those ideas or images maybe positive or negative, or something else, but that flash of recognition is a sign of comics’ familiarity and meaning for readers and non-readers alike.

Engagement in American culture inevitably leads to superheroes, and their related kin in pulp fiction. People care about Wonder Woman or Superman even before they learn who might be playing them in a new movie or on TV. And while not everyone may care, particularly, about Thor or Emma Frost before a film or a series gets cast and made, the iconic figures provide a context for recognition of lesser known characters that makes those characters, too, seem, somehow, already familiar to audiences.

From one angle, this is not an accident. DC and Marvel have, for decades, invested time and money into making their characters accessible in different ways, from toothpaste to cartoons, comics to radio serials. The characters that populate the universes of the major publishers may primarily belong to comic books, but they have been part of transmedia designs for almost as long as they have been in print.

While corporate executives might like the idea that the kinds of passions engendered by superheroes and pulp fictions can be manufactured by marketing departments, that seems both doubtful and reductive.

One idea is that superheroes provide Americans with the kinds of narratives that older and ancient stories and figures have provided to people in other times and places. Feats of strength. Epic battles of good and evil. Apocalyptic threats.These are themes found all around the world and are ways for people to explore and define who they are. The only difference here is that Americans began fashioning their narratives after mass publishing became possible. This perspective explains both why superheroes with American origins hold international appeal and why creators at DC and Marvel have been able to find homes for ancient mythological figures such as Thor, the Amazons, and Hercules in the pages of their books alongside their more original creations.

Whatever the underlying reasons, what seems clear from the attention and excitement generated by adaptations from comics is that comic book characters do not just belong to comics. They address and feed cultural urges and practices that are larger than both the books and the TV shows and movies that are made from them.