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."

1 comment:

Jessica Taggart said...

First and foremost, I would like to commend you for the excellent visual aesthetic of your page, the credibility of your links and sources, and the overall clarity of this blog post. I was impressed especially with the logical manner in which you discussed how the transition of "translation" rather than "adaption" came to be in regards to the changing nature of comic book films. I especially enjoyed how you focused on and clearly explained several key terms, such as "crossover" and "reboots", and how this has led to this process of adoption as opposed to adaption of comic book graphics. I also appreciated the inclusion of various comic book films that exemplify this transition: although I have not seen most of them, I was immediately able to understand your point after the reference to "Iron Man", which I had just re-watched this past week.

As you can see, it is difficult for me to critique this post, as it is well-written and articulate, and clearly explains and expresses the nature and particularities of your subject. However, I would like to see perhaps a further investigation as to "why" this is happening, and what has led to this transition of more direct adoptions of comic books into comic book films. I think it would help to establish a more personal connection to the topic, and perhaps include an additional expression of opinion or subjectivity to create a more personal connection to this topic, which is palpably significant to you and your field. In general, this is an excellent exploration into the world of comic book films, and I found it both interesting and informative as a novice to comic-book cinema.

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