Friday, November 14, 2008

Artisans Over Auteurs: Comic Book Films Playing It Safe

In one of my previous blog entries, I suggested that superhero films have begun to gain respectability, and just last week I blogged about the rivalry between Warner Bros. and Marvel. This week, I decided to follow up on both posts and see how the two studios are faring in their attempts, or lack thereof, to maintain this reputability based on recent news and rumors about upcoming superhero projects. First came the word that pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles expressed interest in playing Wonder Woman (pictured below), followed by a rumor that Warner Bros. is looking at Charlie's Angels director McG for the DC Comic adaptation. Then there was the announcement from Marvel that Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer and Jurassic Park III fame would be helming The First Avenger: Captain America (pictured below to the left). I took to the blogosphere to seek out what others had to say about these developments and also to offer my own take on how they relate to the maturation of superhero cinema and how they might affect the overall direction of their respective studios. The first external blog I replied to, entitled "Rumor: Beyoncé Wants Wonder Woman; Warner Brothers Wants McG," is a reaction to the news by Kevin Powers of The second, "Captain America To Be Directed By... Oh. Really? That Guy?" comes from Stuart Heritage of Hecklerspray and critiques Marvel's choice of Joe Johnston. My comments can be found below or by following the links.

"Rumor: Beyoncé Wants Wonder Woman; Warner Brothers Wants McG"
Thank you for your insightful post regarding these recent Wonder Woman reports. What strikes me most about the rumors, if true, is that they seem to imply that Warner Bros. is playing it safe with their upcoming superhero adaptations. While casting Beyoncé is a daring move for social reasons, she is still a pop sensation who would guarantee box office numbers and indeed "seems only interested in what the film might do for her, not what she could do for the iconic story." In other words, Beyoncé is bankable. Enlisting McG would also be a prudent decision on the studio's part, as his filmography consists of successful Hollywood blockbusters, TV episodes, and music videos. He has also been in talks to direct a superhero film since the rumored Superman film several years back, so his involvement should not surprise anybody. You would think that after the financial and critical phenomenon that was The Dark Knight, the studio could afford (and be inspired) to experiment a bit with their choice of actors and directors. The fear of losing money should not be an excuse. Even with a struggling economy, the movie business is supposed to be "recession proof," so what do they have to lose?

I would love to see Warner Bros. continue to recruit more auteurs in the vein of Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer with distinctive vision and a sense of artistry for their superhero films. McG is more of an artisan than an auteur. His movies are solid, competently made moneymakers. Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall are decent, but standard Hollywood movies that fail to really transcend the conventions of their respective genres. You even talk about expecting Terminator Salvation to be a surprisingly "solid execution," as if making excuses for a mediocre filmmaker. Given his track record, McG is the obvious pick to direct a big budget action picture, which is exactly the kind of choice the studio should avoid if they want films that are not merely acceptable, but exceptional. Even though you claim McG is adequate, are there any other, more suitable filmmakers you would like to see behind the camera for Wonder Woman? It's a shame Joss Whedon was dropped from the project, as he could have brought that extra artfulness to the table, in my opinion. I would just hate to see Warner Bros. drop the ball so soon after a movie as strong as The Dark Knight. What are your thoughts?

"Captain America To Be Directed By... Oh. Really? That Guy?"
Thank you for your humorous post about the relatively underwhelming choice of Joe Johnston to direct the Captain America movie. While I am a huge fan of The Rocketeer and can even enjoy Jumanji for its nostalgic value, I cannot help but feel that Johnston is too safe a pick and that Marvel is taking no creative chances when it comes to this crossover agenda they have been pushing as of late. What I have noticed, and what this announcement seems to prove, is that the studio seems to be going with somewhat unremarkable directors compared to the ones they were enlisting just a few years ago. Whatever happened to finding notable auteurs like Bryan Singer (X-Men), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man), Guillermo del Toro (Blade II), or even Ang Lee (Hulk)? Well, actually I probably just answered my own question. Unfortunately, the rather lukewarm reception of Hulk probably killed off any chance of getting talented visionaries again as far as major Marvel character adaptations go. Though you praise "indie darling" Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and "up-and-comer" Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), I find it hard to compare them to the quality of the directors that came before. While I thoroughly enjoyed both of their efforts, they have yet to prove to me they have the personal touch and artfulness to set their work as a whole above the rest. Instead, they have shown themselves to be simply competent filmmakers who know how to piece together a solid film. Like artisans, they promise a reliable product, which is why the studio chose them. Assuming I am not alone in this analysis, what do you make of this trend?

I will admit, however, that not all of Marvel's recent decisions have been unadventurous. The choice to put the brilliant Edgar Wright in charge of Ant-Man is indeed a breath of fresh air, and a Thor movie directed by Kenneth Branagh sounds promising. Heck, the idea of even attempting a live action Thor film is a brave endeavor in and of itself, given its ridiculous premise. At the same time, while these two characters do play a key role in Marvel's upcoming crossover plans, they are arguably less important than Iron Man and the Hulk, who are probably better known among casual superhero fans, and especially Captain America, the leader of the Avengers team. I am assuming this is why Marvel is playing it safe in terms of these crossovers, because they cannot afford to alienate audiences by experimenting artistically with one character if he is the crux of the eventual crossover film. A poorly received Captain America picture could translate to an Avengers movie that no one wants to see. As a result, they have chosen Joe Johnston, the safest bet to produce an adequate product. That said, The First Avenger: Captain America, like Iron Man and to a lesser extent The Incredible Hulk, can still be a good or even great film even with an artisan like Johnston at the helm, and at the end of the day, that is ultimately what matters. I would personally just like to see the filmmakers behind the camera be as adventurous as the heroes in front of the camera.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Franchise Flexibility: How DC Can Be Distinct

I have mentioned in other posts Warner Brothers' intent to emulate the crossover technique recently initiated by Marvel Studios in their upcoming DC-Comics-based adaptations. The plan is to "[release] a single film for each character, and then [use] those movies and their sequels to build up to a multicharacter film." This move is clearly an attempt on the part of Warner Bros. to capitalize on current industry trends and compete with Marvel. After all, DC and Marvel have been rivals in the comic book world for years (as represented by the epic battle depicted to the right). It is only logical that their respective film studios should challenge each other as well. While the temptation for any business might be to replicate what is already successful, Warner Bros. can in my view better counter Marvel's efforts by differentiating itself from the opponent rather than copying them.

If anything, Warner Bros. should look to the critical and financial accomplishment of its own summer sensation, The Dark Knight, as an example of abstaining from popular convention. The movie works as a complete, self-contained story without any promise of future character crossovers, unlike Marvel's two interrelated films from this year, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, which serve as precursors to the upcoming Avengers film. Director Christopher Nolan even recently told the L.A. Times, "I don’t think our Batman, our Gotham, lends itself to that kind of cross-fertilization." Furthermore, regarding future Batman-related projects, leading man Christian Bale has said that he finds it "tricky to imagine working on it without it being a collaboration with Chris." As such, it is unlikely that fans will see Bale's version of the Caped Crusader in a non-Nolan-directed Justice League film unless the studio can manage to lure the actor with either an irresistible screenplay or a huge paycheck. This may certainly be the case if Armie Hammer ends up filling the role in George Miller's possible Justice League adaptation, which remains in pre-production limbo but might resume at some point.

Rather than interpreting it as a detriment to the existing Batman franchise, the recasting of the character could be seen as an opportunity to tell an entirely different self-contained story, removed from the continuity of Nolan's films altogether. By concentrating on just creating the best and most complete narrative rather than trying to connect it to other movies for the sake of crossing over, the Justice League film could prove a more worthwhile effort than some people expect. For this to happen, the adaptations for each individual character from the superhero team would have to be isolated from the Justice League movie. If Mark Millar is able to make his proposed eight-hour Superman trilogy, which would follow the character from the beginning to the end of his life, it would, like Nolan's films, leave no room for crossovers. As far as the Justice League picture goes, this means Warner Bros. might have to use a different actor for Superman than whoever they decide to go with in the upcoming reboot. Planned films for League members like Green Lantern, The Flash, and Wonder Woman must also remain separate from the superhero team in terms of both casting and continuity.

Another way Warner Bros. could distinguish itself from Marvel is to take the idea of reboots to a whole new level. Rather than milking every superhero franchise to its last drop, the studio could actually plan on definitively ending a series and then taking it in an entirely different direction with a new series. In other words, they could treat their superhero properties like the everlasting James Bond franchise, which cycles different actors through the title role over time, constantly changing flavors and reinventing itself with each leading man. As IGN points out, the Batman films to date have actually been remarkably diverse with each incarnation (symbolized by the multiple Batmen from the comics to the left), though not until Nolan had any been treated as a storyline with a definitive ending. Adam West and Joel Schumacher both interpreted the concept as a campy comedy, Tim Burton's films channel 1930's film noir and Gothic fantasy, while Nolan's installments reflect more of a realistic crime drama sensibility. There are multiple possibilities as to where the Batman franchise can go after the conclusion of Nolan's films, aside from changing actors. For instance, it would be interesting if the next wave of Bat-films drew from supernatural horror or perhaps even placed the character in a different time period. A live action rendition of the futuristic sci-fi animated series "Batman Beyond," which was at one point considered, might be in order. This franchise flexibility would also leave room for adaptations of individual stories from the comics like Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, or The Dark Knight Returns, which in my view could hold their own as distinct, unrelated films.

Ultimately, this method of constant reinvention can work, if the lasting success of the Bond franchise is any indication, with its six actors and twenty-two films over a period of forty-six years and counting. Such reboots open up doors for quality storytelling and creative freedom, as superhero films would not be limited by the need to awkwardly align with other movie continuities. Perhaps more importantly, it offers an alternative to the current Marvel mode of doing things, with which audiences might become disillusioned should the studio's crossover agenda prove less satisfying than expected. With the promise of constant fluctuation, DC Comics fans could always look forward to a new and refreshing take on their favorite characters instead of waiting for the current series to go sour. If nothing else, Warner Bros. could at least avoid seeming desperate in an attempt to copy Marvel and actually give their rival studio a run for the money.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Comic Book Fan Entitlement: Doing Justice to the Source Material

In my first blog post, I suggested that in today's superhero-obsessed Hollywood, the worlds of comic books and comic book films are becoming increasingly entwined. Naturally, comic book fans are among the prime demographic to which comic book films are targeted. This also means that such pulp fiction enthusiasts are the hardest to please when it comes to the adaptations of certain superheroes. Spending one minute perusing any message board or reading blogs dedicated to the discussion of comic adaptations is enough to recognize the variety of differing, and often very passionate, opinions on the matter. One begins to notice a sense of entitlement, the impression that these fans feel they deserve quality adaptations. A portion of a recent essay from Michael Peterson entitled "A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology" got me wondering, how does a comic book film do justice to the source material in ways that please the core audience? Peterson writes, "A film audience doesn't want a Batman story, they want the Batman story." In my exploration of the blogosphere this week, I decided to search external blogs concerning "important" properties that are dear to the hearts of comic book fans and critics alike and whose film adaptations are currently in the works: Superman (pictured to the left) and Watchmen (pictured below to the right). My goal was to discover what certain aficionados thought it might take to make the Superman story or the Watchmen story, and also to provide my own thoughts. The first post, "What To Do With The Superman Movies," is, as the title clearly states, a suggestion by blogger "dailypop" on how best to handle the next installment of the aforementioned franchise. The second, "A Bit More On The Watchmen Movie," is a critique of the Zack Snyder's upcoming adaptation written by "Ampersand" from Alas, A Blog. My comments can be read below, or in context by following the adjacent links.

"What To Do With The Superman Movies"
First of all, thank you for an inspired post providing your own personal insight to what is going on in the world of superhero movies. For some reason, I have found that most blogs on the topic merely relay comic book film news without much critical analysis involved. By identifying Superman as the "blueprint for the superhuman hero," you acknowledge the fact that great care must be taken in adapting the iconic character the screen correctly. Indeed, "the idea of a man flying" is not enough to inspire awe given today's limitless usage of CGI. I actually thought that one of the strengths of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns was that it addressed the possible irrelevance of the character in contemporary society, illustrated in the film by Lois Lane's article, "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman." However, the underwhelming response to that film proves that a modern Man of Steel movie must go even further to eradicate any public notion that Superman is obsolete and connect with viewers on a higher level. Perhaps the themes of "madcap inventiveness and absurdity played against mundane everyday life" that you mention are a step in the right direction, though I feel it needs to go even further than merely the absurd, perhaps setting the ordinary against the divine. Superman is morally incorruptible and virtually indestructable, essentially a god. I think the next Superman film must remind us why he is the hero that all other superheroes look up to, go grander with its themes yet still retain a more personal human element to which viewers can relate. That said, I was curious as to your thoughts on Mark Millar's recent proposal for an epic Superman reboot, an eight-hour, Lord-of-the-Rings-like trilogy that would chronicle the entire life of the character, starting a thousand years ago on Krypton and ending "with Superman alone on Planet Earth, the last being left on the planet, as the yellow sun turns red and starts to supernova, and he loses his powers.” Do you believe your idea could work within the framework of Millar's concept or is his more in the darker vein that you feel inappropriate for the series?

"A Bit More On The Watchmen Movie"
Thank you for your insightful analysis of the upcoming Watchmen adaptation with regard to its original source material. I agree with your point that the film's slavish reproduction of the graphic novel will not necessarily translate into a quality film. Much of the enthusiasm for the film spawns from its apparent frame-by-frame adherence, rather than the possibility for it to achieve for films what the original Watchmen did for comic books, that is to comment upon and deconstruct the medium from which it comes. You say "it's not going to be as good as the comic." While I agree that the adaptation will probably not be as groundbreaking to the medium of film as the comic was to its medium, I do believe that it has the potential to be innovative in the ever-expanding genre of superhero films. Several things I have seen and heard about the film seems to be deliberately reflecting on superhero films of the past. For instance, the changes made to both costumes of Nite Owl and Ozymandias for the film bring to mind the flambuoyant rubber costumes from Joel Schumacher's Batman films. Indeed, Ozymandias' suit actually sports those infamous nipples... Given the notoriety of Schumacher's series, one can only assume that Zack Snyder is intentionally exploiting this style in a symbolic way and not attempting to replicate it based on any sort of "cool" factor. A big reason I think Watchmen is employing intelligent pastiche instead of empty reflexivity is based on the music used in the trailer. The song is Smashing Pumpkin's "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning," written for the soundtrack to Schumacher's Batman & Robin. Snyder admitted at Comic Con 2008 to choosing the song ironically based on its "lineage." These touches give me hope that the movie "looks like every other superhero movie that’s come out in the last few years" on purpose. Perhaps one reason to admire the film is because it deviates from the aesthetic of the original graphic novel. Rather than subvert the visual style of existing superhero movies, as its comic predecessor did, maybe the film is subverting the source material itself by exploiting those formal techniques to achieve a different end. Either that, or Zack Snyder is simply trying to make a movie that looks cool, which may very well be the case judging by his slick previous effort 300. Still, I would rather give Watchmen the benefit of the doubt until I see it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Superhero Sophistication: Transcending Funnybook Status

In one of my cinema classes last week, I had the privilege of seeing a mostly unknown independent film called Special (pictured to the right). It was a moving story about a man who comes to believe he possesses superpowers as the result of an experimental antidepressant. I left the theater impressed by this more mature, realistic take on the conceit of the costumed crimefighter. More notable, however, was the fact that a superhero film was, for once, a low-budget indie endeavor rather than a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster, and based on an original concept no less. Unfortunately, the movie has had hardly any exposure, save for a few festival runs, and will only be released in a few select theaters in November. While I do not expect Special to perform exceptionally well at the box office due to the limited nature of its distribution, its mere existence reaffirms a suspicion that I have gradually come to harbor based on current industry trends, that superhero films are becoming respectable.

For evidence of this shift into reputability, look no further than to the critical and financial phenomenon that was this summer's The Dark Knight. The film generated Oscar buzz even before its release and will be re-released in theaters this January for the consideration of Academy voters. In addition, Warner Bros. has started campaigning for a supporting actor nomination for the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker (whose influence can be seen in the vandalized Oscar poster below), and there is talk of the film garnering support in even more categories. Can the latest Batman installment do for the superhero genre what Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did for the fantasy genre and elevate costumed crimefighters in cinema to a level of prestige? Only time will tell. For now, it might be worthwhile to examine exactly how and why director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Batman has gained such high esteem. First, Nolan's masterful casting decisions have contributed greatly to the growing respectability of the superhero genre. His two Batman films are replete with award-winners and nominees like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, and of course, the aforementioned Ledger. Indeed, filmmaker Jon Favreau credits Nolan's Batman Begins with first showing "that you could bring an independent film sensibility and cast to a big movie and transcend it a bit." Favreau recruited equally reputable actors into his own Iron Man series, which was also a critical and financial success this summer.

Aside from the note
worthy talent involved, The Dark Knight and Iron Man share another element in common that has catalyzed the rise in cultural status for superheroes: sociopolitical relevance in a post-9/11 America. The two films deal with the current political climate in different ways. For instance, the villain of The Dark Knight, essentially an anarchist with no morals or motives, brings to mind the enemy in America's war on terror. Batman ponders to what extent he is responsible for the violence he has set out to stop in the first place. As some believe the U.S. has done in Iraq, Batman's war on terror has only fueled the fire, spawning even more radical and dangerous villains than before. In Iron Man, the actual war in Afghanistan is worked into the character's origin story, while the protagonist also battles over his own destructive contributions as an arms manufacturer for the military. In short, superhero films have moved out of the realm of escapist fantasy and started to confront real world issues through metaphor. As a result, viewers are able to take the genre more seriously than before.

Can superhero films keep up this trend of respectability? Well, since Warner Bros. has decided to try and replicate the "brooding tone" of The Dark Knight in future movies based on DC Comics properties, perhaps the studio will also continue to infuse significant allegory. For example, the upcoming Watchmen film, with its political overtones and alternate Cold War history setting, leaves plenty of room for commentary. The Richard Nixon of the graphic novel, who has managed to remain in office well after two presidential terms, could easily provide an opportunity to draw parallels to the current administration. Furthermore, the fact that the United States enlists the brutal aid of superheroes in the Vietnam War might also offer possible analogies for the Iraq War. In addition, the cast of relative unknowns makes the film seem more like an independent movie than a mainstream blockbuster, even more so than the The Dark Knight or Iron Man. The original limited series on which Watchmen is based is already a reputed work on its own as the only graphic novel on Time's 2005 Top 100 List of All-Time English Language novels. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this high quality will translate in the adaptation from comic to film.

While The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Watchmen share common political themes, I do not think their merit relies solely on the fact that they deal with current political issues. That is to say that reputability and political relevance are not mutually exclusive. Whether addressing grand issues of national security or the personal problems of a single man, as in the aforementioned film Special, costumed heroes have begun to enter a new stage of prominence in both Hollywood and independent cinema. It is my hope that the current surge in popularity of superhero cinema will inspire less adaptations and more original concepts as in past movies like Unbreakable, Hancock, and Special. One thing is certain, that the sheer volume of comic book adaptations being released in the next few years allows more than enough room for experimentation, and plenty of chances to wow casual fans, critics, and, the way things are going, possibly even the Academy. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the token quirky indie comedy is replaced by the token superhero movie in the annual list of Oscar nominees. Move over Juno, here comes The Dark Knight.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Outside the Panel Frames: Exploring the Comic Book Film Community

This week, I investigated the Web to find substantial resources involving the comic book film genre in an attempt to enrich the content of this blog. Applying the criteria of the Webby Awards and IMSA for evaluating online material, I have compiled a number of exceptional sites and blogs that offer valuable news and interesting opinions about the events in the world of comic book films. These sources have been included in my linkroll (right), but I will also assess them and provide links in the post below.

The first website I will address is one of my own personal favorites, known as Superhero Hype (pictured right), which offers daily comic book film news and a professional, aesthetically intriguing interface. It is also impossible to discuss Superhero Hype without mentioning its sister site,, which discusses film and television in general, not just superhero films. This is especially helpful when dealing with upcoming comic book films that might not necessarily involve superheroes. While both sites do provide the interactivity and community of a message board, they each might benefit from an affiliated blog or opinions column, as neither presents any sort of commentary or analytical perspective on the news items. One site that does take a more personal perspective is JoBlo's Movie Emporium, which, like, examines general movie news. The writers often tackle stories with a humorous tone, providing a more entertaining experience for the reader, though this can border on unprofessional at times.

On the other hand, a more authoritative source for superhero news is the movies section at Wizard Universe, an online supplement to the noteworthy Wizard magazine. The design of the page could be improved, however, as most of the news items are tucked beneath two large graphics and are almost invisible without scrolling down a significant amount. This was also the problem with the site Comic Mix, which otherwise features solid news items. Similarly, the news stories at are placed beneath a series of advertisements. Even so, the site is easily navigable, as each item is accompanied with a graphic icon. Another site with equal functionality is the comics section of, which was formerly known as That said, the move to Mania almost seems to be a step backwards from Comics2Film, as the original site is now confined to a small section of a larger website rather than occupying its own main page. Another professional site with limited content is Comic Book Resources, which serves as an excellent resource for comic book news but whose coverage of comic book films is minimal. Still, it is important to watch the comic book industry with regard to comic book films, especially as the two realms begin to converge, as I discuss in one of my previous posts.

Another news site that seems to emphasize comic books over movies is ironically titled, which also happens to exemplify a problem I encountered with several other sites, wherein the main page is merely an aesthetically uninteresting list of news stories. The lack of visual flare makes the experience of visiting these sites seem more like looking at the results of a search engine rather than an attractive main page. Other sites with the same problem included Superhero Flix and ReelComix, although they do include some interesting graphics where Filmfodder does not. The content of these sources are valuable and consistent, yet the absence of aesthetics make for an underwhelming online experience. On the other hand, E.Favata's Comic Book Movies boasts an attractive interface but is slow to post news. The movies section of Marvel's website also demonstrates impressive visual design, but the content is often outdated and rarely updated. For instance, the site still has director Matthew Vaughn as currently attached to the Thor movie, when in reality the filmmaker dropped out of the project months ago. This lack of professionalism is extremely surprising, given that Marvel is essentially leading the current comic book film phenomenon in Hollywood. In general, my search for news sites yielded a range of results that will provide a wealth of resources to inform the content of my future posts.

As for my research into the blogosphere, my favorite turned out to be MTV's Splash Page (pictured left) whose name partially inspired the title of my own blog. Splash Page updates several times a day, always with unique opinions on current comic book film news and links to a variety of interesting external material that enhance the overall experience. Perhaps the addition of an interactive online community, a message board for instance, would improve this already excellent resource. Another noteworthy blog that updates multiple times a day is Geeks of Doom, which consists mostly of movie reviews and the occasional news report. It also displays a visually striking interface that resembles the pages of a comic book. This is also the case with Bam! Kapow!, whose onomatopoetic title and extra large graphics recall the aesthetics of pulp fiction. However, I wish both of these blogs offered more interesting personal perspectives, such as those in Modern Mythology, which examines contemporary pop culture with a critical eye and provokes thought about current news. My only minor issue with Modern Mythology is the simplistic visual design, but it hardly detracts from the content. Similarly, Aaron's Comic Books Blog at presents a minimalistic layout, yet offers a very personal point of view. One thing that sets this blog, as well as the blog Groovy Superhero, apart from the others is that it involves a variety of comic-related topics, sometimes extending beyond just comic books and comic book films. Another blog whose perspective I found to be most interesting was Hero Complex, which focuses on heroic figures in all areas of popular culture. Naturally, superhero films come up quite often, but my only wish is that they were more critically analyzed. Overall, I was disappointed to discover a lack of blogs that consistently scrutinized the goings-on of the comic book film world from an analytical standpoint. That is why I have made it my goal to provide such insight with this blog.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Can Captain America Be Black? : The Risk of Racial Misrepresentation

Is America ready for a black Captain America? Perhaps a more suitable question is how might a black Captain America be most appropriately depicted? For the past few weeks, comic film fans have been debating over the controversial rumor that African-American actor Will Smith (pictured below) was in talks to play the role of the patriotic superhero. While the rumor has since been apparently debunked, the mere fact that it incites controversy warrants closer analysis. Marvel legend Stan Lee weighed in on the topic this week: "It might be a really smart thing. If Barack Obama becomes President who knows ... suddenly a lot of our characters will be black!" While perhaps not the most politically correct response, Lee's comments indicate the care that must be taken in representing black characters in comic books and comic book films. If Marvel indeed went with an African-American actor for Captain America, how would the character need to be responsibly portrayed in order to avoid misrepresentation? I explored the blogosphere this week to find out what people were saying about Lee's latest comments and the can of worms it opened in terms of racial representation. I decided to offer my thoughts on two blogs. The first post, Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?, was written by T. Troy Stewart and comes from a blog entitled BlackCynic America. I felt the need to comment because unlike other blogs about the rumor, Stewart outlines the problem of changing the race of a traditionally white American hero without regard to the racially turbulent historical context. He then suggests that Marvel Studios look to the limited series Truth: Red, White & Black for how to properly portray a black Captain America. The story places African-American character Isaiah Bradley (shown below) in the role rather than Steve Rogers, the original white Captain America. The second post was Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America' written by Colin Boyd from a blog called Get the Big Picture. Boyd suggests that the Will Smith casting is a good idea, and states that "there is nothing 'white' about Captain America, meaning the character's race doesn't determine the character." I disagreed with this point, as T. Troy Stewart essentially does in his post, and chose to express my dissent with a comment. I have made my responses available below:

"Will Smith As Captain America? What’s Next, Will Ferrell As Kunte Kinte?"
Thank you for taking this Will Smith casting rumor into consideration and providing such a thorough analysis of the issue at hand. I appreciate that your post addresses the complications that arise when the race of an already established white character is changed without regard for historical accuracy. While I have read several comments regarding the rumor, I had not encountered any that I felt sufficiently concentrated on the problem of “rewriting history” that you mention in your entry. The personal tone of your argument and sense of humor make for a compelling read as you engage the reader with provocative examples. For instance, your critique of Marvel's depictions of black characters like The Falcon and Luke Cage effectively reinforces your argument and illustrates that a black Captain America could fall into the trap of misrepresentation if not handled properly. I also liked that you cited the historical examples of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis as examples of real-life black “Captain Americas,” though your post might benefit from some elaboration on how they relate to the issue. Are Owens and Louis to be looked at as examples for how to appropriately portray a black hero of the time? I do agree that the Isaiah Bradley character from Truth: Red, White & Black rather than merely making Steve Rogers an African-American would be a step in the right direction should Marvel go with Will Smith or another black actor. However, because the studio is planning their Captain America film with the intention of bringing him back to lead the team in the Avengers movie, they would have to tweak the ending from the limited series so that Isaiah Bradley retains his sanity. Suppose the filmmakers have him go into suspended animation as the original Captain America does and then revive him in the present to lead the Avengers. Do you feel keeping his sanity intact would take away from the character and the strength of the story at all or does it matter?

"Stan Lee: Will Smith a "Long Shot" for 'Captain America'"
First of all, I appreciate the fact that you can admit to liking the potential casting of an African-American as a traditionally white character when many people disapprove of such controversial choices, as evidenced by some of the comments you have received for this entry. I agree that a black Captain America can work. However, I do not agree with your claim that “there’s nothing ‘white’ about the original Captain America, meaning the character’s race doesn’t determine the character.” To simply change the skin color of Steve Rogers, the original character, without regard to the historical context would be to ignore the racial conflicts of the times. The original Captain America was hailed as a great American hero of his time, before racial segregation had been declared unconstitutional. An African-American from that period would not have been so eulogized without some sort of consequence. Racial tensions would certainly have to factor into the depiction of the character if he were made non-white in that time period. I would have liked to see some more in depth analysis of the issue. Anyways, the casting of Will Smith might imply that Marvel wants to use Isaiah Bradley, the black Captain America from the 2003 limited series “Truth: Red, White & Black.” which indeed does address the issues of race I have established. Fans, however, might condemn the film if the filmmakers use someone other than the iconic Steve Rogers character. If Will Smith were in fact cast, do you think fans would rather have a black Steve Rogers (for the sake of using the well known original character but risking racial misrepresentation) or Isaiah Bradley (so as to ensure historical accuracy and racial sensitivity despite being a much newer character)?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Crossing Over: How Comic Book Films Are Starting to Look More Like Comic Books

Fueled by the recent financial and critical successes of superhero films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, both Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers have begun to lay out their future plans for more movies based on Marvel and DC Comics properties, respectively. In the next few years, the two studios will employ a strategy that has been used in comic books for decades but until just this year has been absent from comic book films: the crossover, wherein characters from one property interact with characters from another within the same continuity. Marvel's next three films (Iron Man 2, Thor, and The First Avenger: Captain America) will be made with the intention of bringing each titular character (pictured to the left) together as a super-team in the ultimate crossover film, The Avengers. This year, both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk introduced the idea of a shared filmic universe. In a post-credits scene in Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury makes a brief cameo to inform protagonist Tony Stark of the "Avenger initiative," planting the seeds for the future team-up. Later in the summer, The Incredible Hulk featured a surprise appearance from Tony Stark himself, who passes the word along to General Thunderbolt Ross about the team, further setting up the eventual crossover. Marvel's plan is to continue including character cameos in their films even before the Avengers movie. For instance, the superhero Thor will be introduced in Iron Man 2 before starring in his own film. Warner Bros. has decided to follow in Marvel's footsteps and include crossovers in their own films based on DC properties. The Wall Street Journal reports that the studio "has quietly adopted Marvel's model of releasing a single film for each character, and then using those movies and their sequels to build up to a multicharacter film." This trend of crossovers illustrates one way that contemporary comic book films have begun to look more like the comic books from which they are derived.

One of the more intriguing new trends in comic book films is the wave of "reboots," in which previous storylines are disregarded to start anew. This reflects the multitudes of overlapping and contradicting continuities in the comic book industry, in which the origins of superheroes are constantly being retold. The concept of restarting already established film franchises was likely popularized by 2005's Batman Begins, which completely re-imagined its title character from scratch after an eight year hiatus following the critical failure of Batman & Robin. Such intervals between franchises have become increasingly shorter. Marvel waited five years between the relatively unsuccessful Hulk and this summer's unrelated The Incredible Hulk, and only four years between Punisher and the upcoming Punisher: War Zone. Similarly, Warner Bros. has already announced a Superman reboot two years after the release of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, as well as a live action reinvention of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise just one year after the animated TMNT.

With the gap between reboots rapidly narrowing, it is entirely possible that in the near future, multiple film incarnations of the same characters will be produced simultaneously. Such an idea nearly came to fruition when Warner Bros. recently planned a Justice League adaptation, which would have included another version of the Batman character, as actor Armie Hammer was cast instead of Christian Bale, who stars in Christopher Nolan's current Batman series. The film would have also excluded Brandon Routh, the Superman of Bryan Singer's now-canceled franchise, in favor of actor D.J. Cotrona. Thus, fans would have been left with two versions of each character at the same time. However, the Justice League film was tabled due to the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike, although development has since resumed, meaning the two continuities may in fact still become a reality. If this were to become a trend, the comic book film genre would again more closely parallel the comic book industry, where multiple titles involving the same characters co-exist while telling different stories. For example, Spider-Man has appeared in a variety of different series such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Peter Parker: Spider-Man and others at the same time. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before we see two actors portraying Spider-Man in separate film franchises.

The convergence of cinema and comics has been enhanced by another recent convention, "translating" panels of graphic novels directly to the screen rather than merely taking inspiration from them. In other words, studios have started to "adopt" the comics rather than "adapt" them, essentially treating them as storyboards. Films not only borrow story techniques from the comics, but literally look like the comics. For instance, director Zack Snyder's upcoming adaptation of the limited series Watchmen will religiously adhere to the comic's illustrations (as evidenced by the image to the right comparing a panel from the graphic novel and a still from the film). Snyder was just as strictly faithful in adapting Frank Miller's 300 in 2007. This trend of copying the comics frame for frame began in 2005, however, when Robert Rodriguez adapted Sin City. Given the financial successes of these two films and the potential profitability of Watchmen, the comic book film fans could continue to see an influx of translations rather than adaptations.

One can only wonder if the comic book film will adopt more qualities from its canon of source material as the genre continues to develop. Perhaps the formal strategies of cinema will be utilized to further reflect the visual style of graphic novels. Ang Lee's Hulk, for instance, featured a stylized form of editing, including split screens and dynamic visual transitions reminiscent of the panels of a comic book page. The film was not well received, however, and studios have likely hesitated to revisit these cutting techniques for fear of financial failure. However, it is possible that such editing strategies will soon be revisited as the realms of cinema and comics more tightly intertwine. Perhaps new formal techniques will emerge from the fusion and enrich the genre even more. The future path of comic book films will certainly be interesting to follow as these two industries themselves continue "crossing over."
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