Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Making Movies Into Comics (And Vice Versa)

Movies used to be so simple. You're 11, you go grab some popcorn, watch a couple hours of Spider-Man being sad and punching dudes, then you go home and you don't have to think about it anymore. If something didn't make sense in the movie, it was the filmmaker's fault. You could speculate on things if you knew the source material, try to figure out what was next in the franchise or explain an inconsistency, but at the end of the day, everything you really needed was in that 2 hours of footage. Then Marvel Studios happened.

It seemed groundbreaking at the time, "Wow!" you said, "You mean the Iron Man is going to be with the Captain America in the Avengers?!" It wasn't just a sequel, or even a spin-off, it was some sort of crossover movie! It was the first really successful movie universe! Yeah, in the comics Superman and Batman would have adventures together every other day, but they had completely distinct movie franchises. "Finally!" said triumphant comic fans, "Movies are just like the comics!" Unfortunately, this meant the movies were just like the comics.

Now, I don't hate comics. Or at least, not the good ones. Comic books can be pretty amazing, whether they utilize the special conditions of their medium or if they're just trying to tell stories. But if you want some inspirational shit about how comic books are the future, go read Scott McCloud. The truth is, most comics are shit. That's obvious just through conventional wisdom, or namely, Sturgeon's Law. Traditionally, though, comics are a niche market. You'll find no dearth of written material on how this ended up being exclusionary or whatnot, but the community was the cornerstone of comic books.

Few people could buy every single book that might interest them that week. As a result, one would end up making friends who read the remaining books, allowing comic nerds to indulge in their favorite hobby, explaining what happened in their comic books to other people in excruciating detail. Nowadays, the same thing happens, but instead there's Youtube channels dedicated to explaining past stories, and guess who writes the long-winded Wikipedia summaries? What I'm saying is, comic fans got used to the bullshit surrounding comic books. They sort of had to. But, you may ask, what is this bullshit? Let me get into that.

So Marvel Studios has a universe now, but what if you don't care about the whole universe? In concept, this should be fine. Just watch the Iron Man movies, or just Avengers. The issue (Hah!) arises when big time events happen, which happens to be in every single film. If you watch Iron Man 3 without seeing Avengers, you're going to be a little confused. In Age of Ultron, there are parts that come out of goddamn nowhere unless you happened to be watching Agents of SHIELD beforehand. Hell, you would be hard-pressed to even know what happened to everyone from the Incredible Hulk if you hadn't caught the passing reference to Emil Blonsky in Agents of SHIELD or read the companion comic books.

Remember that prospective film timeline Marvel put out a little while ago?

Look at that. That's not even all the films they currently have planned. Or the TV shows and Netflix miniseries. And unless you want to be left out in the cold about whatever the hell might be currently going on, you have to watch all of them. You just have to hope you continue to like whatever they refuse to stop making, which takes me to my second point.

In comics, there's a trend where some readers tend to follow writers rather than characters. It makes sense, you expect a certain level of quality or tone from that writer, which can vary if you just follow a specific title. This is just as true in the Marvel films. If you like the Captain America movies, you'll definitely like Avengers, right? I wouldn't say so. Captain America: The First Avenger has very character driven dialogue, and a dramatic tone. There's development, tension, and a plot besides punching robots. Avengers: Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is constant quipping and one-liners, and about 2 hours worth of punching robots. Captain America plays a prominent role in each film, but they differ so wildly in tone it's surprising there's an overlap of fans at all. But, once again, if you want to know the whole story, you're going to have to watch all of them.

Traditionally, when a work is adapted to a film format, a lot of changes have to be made. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "In a movie, somehow, the author always vanishes. Everything of mine which has been filmed so far has been one character short, and that character is me." When a book is made into a movie, it ceases to be the same thing it was as a book, because film has different rules and a book does not fit into those rules. As you grow up, you realize whatever happens to be put on film cannot be the same as the words on the page you once read. It's a movie now, and as such must behave like a movie does. Marvel Studios, however, did away with that paradigm. Movies must be distinct franchises? Bah. Poppycock. Who says we can't have half a dozen television shows that not only interact with but substantially affect our movie franchise? Rather than taking comic book plots and characters and translating them into a movie style, they've taken on films and television with a comic book ethos.

The early comic book market was a strange beast when compared to comic books today. Characters rarely had their own title, rather publishers would make anthology books where they could try out different concepts or characters, who could recur if they were popular enough. When DC Comics was first created, and wasn't called DC Comics, its characters didn't interact. The Flash didn't know Superman existed, and Batman couldn't pop over and see Wonder Woman. But a writer named Gardner Fox figured, well, since they own all these characters, why not have them meet? So he created the Justice Society of America, and from that point all these characters were inextricably linked. I'm convinced DC has at least a framed plaque, if not a dazzling memorial statue to this guy. From that moment onwards, you weren't just reading Flash stories, you were reading DC Universe stories. This set the framework for most of the weird stuff comic books are known for, the crossover event, the tie-in book, the need for reboots and crises, a shared history and continuity. After this, how could a person stick to only one book?

This was the holy grail for DC accountants for sure, but writers probably took a while to adjust. If a character is dealing with some cosmic threat on the superteam book, can they still have solo adventures? Does every writer have to remember what their character did in every title they appeared in? Eventually it seems they settled on the easily defensible position of Who Cares. Wolverine could be on 5 different team books as well as a couple solo titles, and comic fans don't bat an eye. If you read comics, you just got used to the these weird inconsistencies because that's how it's been going on since long before you started reading.

Marvel Studios figured, well, if it works for comics, it'll work for movies. In the case of their bank accounts, this whole comic book movie parade works like a well-oiled machine. The problem is, they've imported their whole comic book methodology into a film franchise, without really trying to work out the kinks. In a comic book, you almost expect a character to sound different when placed in a different writer's hands. In movies, well, it's more jarring, since the character is played by the same dude so he looks and sounds the same, but something's off. If some crisis happens in a character's solo book, it would make sense that his teammates might show up, right? It's easy to accomplish; a page with Captain America, Iron Man, and Hawkeye costs just as much as a page with one character on it. If we look at a film, it would cost too much money to have all those actors show up in some Captain America sequel, so they just don't.

Now I'm not saying this is inherently terrible, what they're doing. As far as profits go, there doesn't seem to be a reason to stop making these films until the end of time. Thing is, there are a few consequences of this trend apart from allowing Kevin Feige to swim in a money-vault. For one, now every big studio wants to make a crossover franchise. One of the reasons Amazing Spider-Man 2 did so poorly was because it was so transparently a setup for some kind of Spider-Man Universe. Warner Brothers' Man of Steel was meant to be their Iron Man, the stepping stone to a nice blockbusting DC Movie Universe. Batman v. Superman is where they lose patience and try to get this Justice League wagon train a-movin'.

If we consider what happened to Sony's prospective Spider-Man franchise, it's not hard to imagine similar results for DC's attempt, although they have more recognizable names on their side. Eventually though, I think the superhero movie bubble is going to burst for everyone. Since comic books were niche to begin with, publishers can keep cranking out the same type of material for possibly forever, as long as they keep acquiring new talent and new ideas. Films tend to have popular trends that go out of style whenever the general audience grows tired of them. It happened to zombie movies and 80's remakes, and it'll happen to superhero movies.

When comics start failing to make enough money, publishers do what any reasonable person would do, which is replace everything and start from scratch. Once Marvel movies stop breaking box office records, is that their next plan? Are they going to reboot the movie universe? Will we soon need Youtube videos that explain exactly what's going on with current Marvel films?

It looks to me like this trend is causing superhero films to be just as arcane and alienating as comics are seen to be. In a few years, if you suddenly find yourself interested in a Marvel movie without having seen any of the others, what can you do? Is it worth it to invest all that time to understand what the general setting of this movie is? To use a cliche, the cost of admission to these films is getting higher with each one. And the sunk-cost fallacy dictates you have to keep watching, because you've already spent so much time doing so.

A nice change of pace, but also following the comic framework, is if these studios started making one-shot films, once the rule, now an exception. They can afford to gamble, why not make a Spider-Man 2099 film? Why not just go crazy, showcase more weird-ass characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, but don't tie them into the meta-plot. This movie universe is a nice novelty, but eventually it will stop making money, and Marvel Studios will have to act like a normal movie studio again.

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