Why do some comic book movies flourish while others fail?
Comic book adaptations are slightly harder than novels, as comic book series often run for many years and contain evolutions of the main characters. A good adaptation should consider the main elements of each character and follow the style of storytelling demonstrated throughout the comic book. The visual story-telling that is built into a comic book puts a lot of pressure on a film crew in terms of casting, set design and story editing. In terms of translating from the pages to the screen there are different ways to approach the process. There are obvious differences in story telling when translating a comic book into a movie. There have been many in the past including Kick Ass, Spiderman, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and X-Men: First Class just to name a few. What makes a movie like The Avenger’s so successful when so many comic book inspired movies have failed?
When adapting the characters to film it is painfully common to focus on the backstory. A backstory helps show the spirit of the main characters throughout the film. Although finding a balance of how much of the movie should be dedicated to backstory can be hard. This style of superhero story-telling originated in the 1978 Superman movie and the formula is still prominent now. Even 33 years later there are very few movies that stray from this formula. At the beginning of each comic book you would not see the backstory of the protagonist however throughout films this is prominent. A successful example is the short amount of backstory at the beginning of Spiderman 2 that recaps the events of the previous Spiderman in a comic book stylised opening sequence. It cleverly gives the audience enough information to properly enjoy the movie.
For any comic book movie to be enjoyable to an audience it has to be believable. The movie has to be able to sell the laws within its universe. We understand that being vegan does not give anyone psychic abilities however when watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this is not something we question. The world within Scott Pilgrim is a fantasy universe that parallels our own but with a few video game inspired enhancements. The movie also uses comic book visuals throughout which provides a solid foundation for innovative story telling. The consistency throughout the universe within this film means the audience does not find themselves questioning whether or not something is plausible. Suspension of disbelief is very important in superhero films as they include such extraordinary characters and situations.
All good movies need heart. There must be characters or relationships within the movie that make an audience care. They could be friendships, family bonds or more commonly a romantic interest. A movie isn’t engaging unless its audience is emotionally invested in the characters interests. The relationship between Hit-Girl and Big Daddy in Kick-Ass helps build your engagement with the characters and their vendetta. The father-daughter bond is a strong believable relationship that provides the audience with an emotional connection to the characters. Comic books have strong relationships so that you care about the characters and what happens to them, so the movies need to make sure these are translated effectively to the screen.
The final thing a good comic book adaptation needs is the right amount of vulnerability. All superheros have a touch of humanity in them, a part of their backstory that makes them relatable. In X-Men: First Class the characters are all mutants which left them feeling isolated from the world before they came together and helps them develop strong relationships between themselves. The vulnerability of a character is developed with the relationships. The characters within comic books are aimed to be relatable to the reader and the movie must do the same. It is important to the story to keep any vulnerabilities of the protagonist.
The original comic books have all of these elements in them. The key to a good movie is being able to translate the relationships, a characters vulnerability while maintaining the suspension of disbelief and mood of the comic book. Comic book movie adaptations are quite often hit and miss, so I recommend to everyone to read what the reviews say about these key elements of storytelling. If the review doesn’t include these, find one that does.