Apr 24, 2009

Comic movies... worth paying the $8.50?

I've mentioned before that I find movies based on comic books to be a bit questionable. Their quality as films isn't exactly the problem, though plenty of them are just plain bad ("Spider-man 3," "X-men 3," and the last two films of the "Batman" franchise before the Christopher Nolan reboot, to name a few). There are plenty of great movies based on comics, but a good movie based on a comic book isn't always a good comic book movie.

Comic book movies are rarely ever accurate to their source material, and they are incorrectly carrying the comic book subculture into the culture of mainstream America. Popularity isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the popularity is for a distorted image. Michael Keaton's Batman isn't bad, but he definitely isn't the Batman I always read about. The villains he fights are also hardly what they should be. And, while "Wanted" was a pretty cool movie, the popularity had more to do with Angelina Jolie than with the story that was very different from its source.

I understand that some things in comics don't translate well to film, as much as the two mediums are alike in their use of image and dialogue. That's why the Sandman should never have been in "Spider-man 3" with such limited attention and the Penguin... well, he should never be translated into any film. No matter how much we like some of them in print (not that I really like the Penguin ever), once you take the comic book pages out from under them, some characters are positively silly.

Of course, there are just some things that shouldn't be ignored or altered. Just like an incorrect translation of a language, an incorrect translation of a comic into film results in a loss of meaning. The "Spider-man" films are frivolous, paling in comparison to their source material. Taking a character like Gwen Stacy, who in the comics is such an important part of defining Peter Parker's character, and making her a minor background character while Peter dances around the room for Mary Jane's affection is practically a crime. And if Sam Raimi really wanted to make a dark, tortured Spidey instead of the ridiculous and immature one we got in that last movie, he would have done much better by using the real Gwen Stacy storyline.

Thankfully, the past three or four years have shown a significant shift in the way comic books are turned into films. The reboot of the "Batman" series may not include the truest films to the source material in events, but "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" manage to keep the essence of the character and the series. I commend Marvel for self-producing some of the more recent films. "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk" were a great start, nearly making up for the mistake of killing off Cyclops in "X-Men: The Last Stand" to give Halle Berry's Storm a bigger role that the character never really had.

"Watchmen," however, takes home the prize for the most faithful adaptation. Much of the film is adapted word-for-word, so much that it even feels like reading a comic book. Certain plot points are missing, but they couldn't be fit into the long movie. The filmmakers did their best to give fans what they wanted, though, and even included nearly all of the missing material in either a feature-length animated film or in the special features of the upcoming DVD release. The one thing I could be nit picky about is the drastic change in the ending, but I don't want to. This is the one time I'll probably ever say something like this, but the film got the ending right.

Honestly, I will probably never stop going to see these movies. Just like all the teenage girls that don't care how crappy the acting, the camera work, and pretty much everything else about the "Twilight" movie is, I'm always going to love seeing my favorite characters on the big screen. I just have one stipulation (I know I've said it before, but there's is no saying it enough): No more dance scenes for Spider-man.

Apr 15, 2009

Marvel vs. DC

Yes, there are other big companies that have characters that are easily recognizable, such as the Ninja Turtles and Hellboy, but they don't really even come close to achieving the popularity that both Marvel and DC have. Pretty much every comic book reader has their preference for one of the two largest comic book publishers. I've been a Marvel reader for years, Spider-man having been my first love in comics, but I've come to also love DC and its imprints more recently.

Of course, ask almost anyone who doesn't read comics which company is better and Marvel will probably be the one he names (assuming he knows the name). While DC has had great success with "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," Marvel has been much more exposed in the film business in recent years. Hits like "Iron Man" and the trilogy of Spider-man films have done a lot to popularize Marvel's characters and stories.

Honestly, I think it's a shame that the Marvel-DC debate is now taking films into account when most of these films aren't completely accurate depictions of the characters. DC's films are actually truer to the original material, but Marvel has had more overall success by accounting for what audiences want to see. I'm not criticizing either company's films (Okay, maybe I'll criticize Marvel for letting Sam Raimi and Tobey MacGuire destroy Spider-man, but I've said plenty about that before). There are a lot of them that I really love. Unfortunately, looking at such films, good or bad, really distorts the comparison between the two companies.

I've come to recognize that DC may be the best company to look at for great graphic novels or limited series comics. I don't think that I will ever become a regular reader of Superman or Green Lantern comics, but no one needs to threaten me to get me to open a DC graphic novel. I love a lot of the Superman limited series, such as ones under the Elseworlds imprint that puts DC's most familiar characters into self-contained universes completely unlike the regular continuity. Some of the best stories in comics come out of them.

Despite this, one thing is not going to change for me: Marvel's characters are just better; there's not even a competition there. I like to see a certain realism (well, aside from the powers and the dressing in costume to fight crime) in my comics, and Marvel achieves this more often than DC. I find myself able to connect better with characters like Spider-man and Wolverine, because they seem to be realistic products of their pasts. Don't get me wrong. I love Superman, but sometimes his morals, too much the equivalent of a boy scout's, are just boring (thus the reason I like Elseworlds).

So when it comes down to what comic book I'd prefer to be reading... I'll still take a Marvel comic any day.

Apr 4, 2009

You think your comic is great? Well, I hope it sticks to these rules...

Just like every other form of art, comic books have their highs and lows. There are some bad comics out there, there are some good ones, and then there are the great ones. But what makes a great comic or graphic novel? Here are my top criteria:

1. An awesome hero (obvious, yes, but it must be said). The less obvious thing is what constitutes a good hero. Personally, I think perfection is highly overrated. If you've got a hero without flaws, you've probably got no story (or, at the very least, one with the depth of a teaspoon). Oh no! A giant monster rampaging in the city? Piece of cake for your hero. A huge meteor is about to collide with the planet and destroy half the population? Forget it. Mr. Perfect took care of it ten minutes ago. An evil mastermind has a genius plan to take over the world by turning everyone into zombies? No big deal. Ms. Infallible already knows how to stop it.

Vulnerability is the key to making a hero interesting. Call me crazy, but I like my superheroes to mess up once in a while. Superman isn't always my favorite superhero when he's close to perfect, but at least he's got his kryptonite. He's got to have a few setbacks when he's trying to stop Lex Luther. Iron Man started with the daily threat of shrapnel piercing his heart if he didn't charge the magnetic chest plate keeping it out. Spider-man was just a nerdy teenager dealing with the typical dramas of being an unpopular high-school student. It only took four bullets from a sniper rifle to take down Captain America, a guy who had survived decades frozen in a block of ice.

More than just a vulnerable hero, I tend to love a tortured hero. I think we all like our heroes with a hint of cynicism and questionable methods. The comic book world is full of anti-heroes that are tormented by either their pasts or some fearful insight into human nature, and the only way many can respond is to embody the chaos of the dog-eat-dog world. These are the most compelling characters in comics. Wolverine's visceral drives are a huge factor in his immense popularity. He doesn't always do things by the book, and neither do characters like Rorschach and the Comedian, to whom we are drawn and interested in despite his obvious flaws and seemingly unforgivable mistakes. It's always going to be more interesting to follow a character teetering on the ledge between heroics and wrongdoing.

2. A villain who would make you shake in your superhero boots. Sure, the idea of common burglars and muggers in everyday life may seem pretty scary, but knives and guns are pathetic in comparison to the super-powered or technically-aided vigilantes they're up against. A good villain needs to have powers, and those powers should probably be much greater than the hero's. Galactus may wear some crazy headgear (at least, he does as we meager humans see him), but he is the Devourer of Worlds, the embodiment of the cosmos so powerful that his true form is inconceivable to anyone. There is no way that anyone should be able to beat that, but that's the kind of thing that readers want to see the hero either overcome or be defeated by (the bad guys have to win sometimes). Of course, there's nothing wrong with intellectual powers either. Some of the scariest bad guys are the evil masterminds that are otherwise ordinary human beings.

Often, a great villain comes straight from the past of his or her hero counterpart. Why are Venom and Carnage awesome foes for Spidey? They share the connection of being bonded with deadly alien symbiotes like the one (in the case of Venom, the exact one) that tried to bond itself with him. And you can't forget all of the family rivalry that goes on in comics, especially when a former good guy goes bad (whether under the influence of mind control or not). Nothing like having your wife attacking you, huh Cyclops?

3. Gray areas. Morality isn't exactly clean cut. Any comic that presents it any differently probably won't be a great read, because if everything is perfectly black and white (and I don't mean the artwork) there is no room for a hero to ever lose. This is one of the most captivating themes at the most basic levels of almost any good comic. The two best characters of Watchmen are personifications of the chaos created in gray areas between right and wrong. And Wolverine? Well, he eats your perfect morality for breakfast.