Saturday, May 4, 2013

Comic Book Adaptation: Betrayal and Fidelity

First things first, this post involves MAJOR SPOILERS for "Iron Man 3". This isn't a review of "Iron Man 3" mostly because I don't really think writing a review of "Iron Man 3" would be much fun. It was a rather good film, but it didn't fill me with an overabundance of glee or excitement as I left the theater, not necessarily because of any specific failings, but because it was altogether a rather nice, self-contained film without any major lingering plot threads or big questions that are meant to resonate.

But the reason I bring up "Iron Man 3" and the reason I'm going to spoil it big time is because there's a twist in the film regarding one of the characters that is a very substantial deviation from comic book canon, and it has a lot of comic book fans up in arms. Really, that's what I'm here to talk about today.

When is it OK for a movie or TV show based on a comic book to alter the source material and when is it unnecessary?

OK, here we go. SPOILER time.

You Will Neverrrrrrr See Meeeeeeee Coming

So the big twist in "Iron Man 3" is that the Mandarin, who has been portrayed as the big bad for the first half of the film (as well as the entirety of the film's marketing) is actually a sham. An actor playing a character. A shadow puppet controlled by the true villain of the film, Aldrich Killian.

A lot of comic book fans are severely disappointed by this because they felt they were promised the Mandarin and then got sucker punched.

I can understand where they're coming from. After all, when I saw the first glimpses of the Mandarin in trailers and such, I thought he looked pretty damn cool. And really, nobody actually loves the Mandarin as a villain, but his gimmick of techno-magic rings of power would have been REALLY cool to see on film, so I guess I'm a bit sad that we'll probably never get to see that.

However, despite my problems with IM3, this twist was probably the one thing I unabashedly LOVED.

As I seem to mention every time comic book movies are the topic of discussion on this blog, "The Dark Knight" is my all-time favorite comic book movie. However, a lot of the things that film did incredibly well have been poorly imitated since its massive success.

One thing "The Dark Knight" popularized was this notion of "Nolan-izing". Basically, taking something very comic-book-y and making it dark, gritty, and plausible. This has become very common in other comic book adaptations, but also common in a lot of adaptations in general to the point where people make trailers for gritty reboots as a joke on YouTube.

The other thing "The Dark Knight" popularized was this idea of a chaotic supervillain that represents the fears present in post-9/11 America. The mad super-genius who is one step ahead of the hero, cloaked in mystery, comes off as deceptively unassuming, talks funny, and just wants to watch the world burn. The Joker, Bane, Moriarty, that guy from "Skyfall", you get the idea.

So really, to me, the Mandarin represented both aspects of this trend to the point where I was actually kind of worried how they would handle it. His appearance clearly evoked the image of Bin Laden and other aspects of his appearance evoked various Asian cultures. He appeared to be a conglomeration of all of the jingoistic fears in modern America, which was very much the original purpose of the character in the comic books, who very much embodied the Yellow Peril iconography.

His new very down-to-earth and gritty appearance was very starkly contrasted with his comic book counterpart.

Also, yes, there was a very strong likelihood that they weren't going to do the whole magic rings bit. Then, as if they were playing Dark Knight Bingo, the way he talked in the trailers was very reminiscent of the way that Heath Ledger's Joker found his own unique rhythm and verbal tics that were just sort of off-putting and kept you on edge. Not traditionally threatening, but unsettling.

Thus, by having the Mandarin within the context of the film be nothing more than a conjured up boogeyman speaks volumes about what modern-day Americans consider to be the "face" of our greatest fears. And having the actor that "plays" the Mandarin (not Ben Kingsley, the character he was playing) be a complete goofball and having Killian's motivations be very simple (money, power, etc.) also subverted the tendency to have a typical scary-serious, enigmatic nemesis whose motivations are typically unknowable or something vague like "anarchy". Basically, it wasn't that Shane Black was trying to rip off "The Dark Knight", it was more that Aldrich Killian was in order to terrify the public. It's all very clever and also rather hilarious.

Still, the thing that bothers people isn't that this twist isn't clever, it's that the twist comes at the expense of "faithfully" translating a rather substantial (if not particularly deep) character from the comics. I mean, despite where the character came from, he's been around a very long time and while I find it unlikely that anyone considers him their favorite character, I'm sure someone out there had their dreams crushed.

And in general, that sort of thing bothers comic book fans. We would love to see a lot of cool stuff from the comics on the big (or small) screen, and when stuff like this happens, we can sometimes get... disappointed.

But that's not always the case. While the changes in "The Dark Knight" were largely welcomed by a lot of fans, the changes in "The Dark Knight Rises" were generally not quite as welcome.

When are changes in translation OK and when aren't they? What's the key to avoiding fan-rage?

This is Your Canon on Drugs

To show the other side of this, let's take a quick look at a current television show that does the "Nolan-ization" thing as a reflex: "Arrow".

Now I want to go on the record and say that I like "Arrow". I certainly like it a lot more than I thought I would. However, they have absolutely no qualms with deviating from the comics, whether or not they seem to have a decent reason.

Sometimes this works out, though. For example, while I was kind of put off by how Ollie in "Arrow" won't hesitate to kill bad guys, it makes sense given the tone of the show. Having a guy who many would perceive is at a disadvantage due to his lack of powers rely solely on gimmicky trick arrows and handicapped by an unwillingness to kill would probably just come off as hokey. They make his willingness to kill a central theme as well. In many superhero stories, people don't trust them because they hide their identity or just because being a vigilante is against the law. In "Arrow", people don't trust him because he is sometimes known to kill people and some people don't think that's cool.

However, "Arrow" has this need to change things for seemingly no good reason at all. Their reinterpretation of Count Vertigo, for example, turns him into a hyperactive psycho-chemist/drug dealer who calls himself "The Count" because, I dunno, he's kind of like Dracula I guess? Now, turning him into a drug dealer, I can get behind that. Giving people literal vertigo was kind of a lame power anyway and it seriously wouldn't fit the tone of the show or provide terribly interesting conflict. However, what was the point in changing his character completely? Turning him into a psychopath? Making him American? Coming up with a useless bullshit reason for his "street name"? They already established Russian mobsters, just have him claim to be descended from royalty or something and thus the rightful heir to a "Count" title that is utterly meaningless in modern Eastern Europe but gives him this narcissistic sense of pride anyway. Give him dignity, give him class. Have him represent the sort of aristocracy that Ollie both represents and constantly fights against. It would have worked so much better and made for a far more interesting villain.

And yet they just turned Count Vertigo into yet another Joker knock-off (mixed with a dash of Scarecrow).

In the end, it's not about what they take away from the source material, it's more about WHY they take it away.

In the case of the Mandarin, they took everything away because the Mandarin was, let's be honest here, SUPER-DUPER RACIST. Yeah, Marvel continuity has been doing its best to walk that whole thing back over the decades, but no matter how you tweak or reinterpret him, that Yellow Peril history will always be sitting there like an elephant in the room. So why did Shane Black change so much? Well, because by turning the Mandarin into this symbol of "other-ness" to draw attention away from Killian, they essentially use that inherent baggage to the character's advantage. Despite literally changing everything, this interpretation of the Mandarin is actually incredibly faithful to what the comic book Mandarin kind of represents in comic book culture: this symbol of how we give our fears and prejudices faces to target and beat up.

Yet in the case of Count Vertigo... well, they got rid of his super powers because "Arrow" doesn't have meta-humans (yet). That might change down the road a bit (they recently introduced A.R.G.U.S. and they keep hinting at other big DC universe cities and characters, so who knows?) but for now, everything is meant to be somewhat plausible, so superpowers are out and I respect that. Not everything has to be Thor. But why turn him into this scenery-chewing psycho? Well, because they were copying Nolan. Like I said, he's basically just a combination of Nolan's Joker and Scarecrow. Why were they copying Nolan? Well, because to them, Count Vertigo is probably a joke of a character. No one really knows who he is and even those who know who he is don't really care about him. So why faithfully interpret a character that probably won't be popular when you could just turn him into a conglomeration of two characters that were popular?

However, this decision comes based on the assumption that a more faithful interpretation of Count Vertigo would not be popular. While I can't necessarily guarantee that he would be, I certainly believe that basically ANY character can be made popular if they are done well, yet "Arrow" rarely seems to want to try. They want to shove as much as they can into the Nolan Box because they are afraid to risk failure, and the unfortunate result is that they have very very few things that make them stand out.

It really just raises the question... why make a show about Green Arrow at all if all you want to do is turn him into Batman (except he kills people with arrows) and turn all of his villains into the Joker? Why include canon from the comics if you just want to bend and break it until it resembles something else that was successful?

That I think is what separates Marvel's films and TV from DC's films and TV (except for "Young Justice" which was AWESOME). Marvel basically HAS to try new things in order to stay afloat. None of their characters (at least the ones they hold the rights to) are particularly iconic in the mainstream culture. But they are actively trying to change that and it's working. Just walk around a mall and count how many Captain America shirts you see versus how many you saw just a few years ago. Count how many arc reactor shirts you see versus how many Superman shirts you see these days (though that might change again in a month). By taking risks, they're establishing these previously underrated characters as new cornerstones of our popular culture. Yet DC is afraid to try anything new unless it has already been proven to work in other places. That's basically why they can't make a good movie about any hero other than Batman and Superman. They forget that the whole reason they've been enjoying this new era of comic book fandom is because they took a risk by letting Christopher Nolan reboot Batman (and at the time, the concept of a reboot made a lot of people very nervous). As good as "Arrow" can be, if all it aspires to be is a Batman rip-off, then Green Arrow as an IP will never surpass his current status within the popular culture. If you sand down everything unique about him, how will he ever stand the test of time?

I do want to say very quickly that I think that "Arrow" sometimes gets things very right even when they make changes. I really like their interpretation of Deathstroke. I really liked their interpretation of Firefly (before he was killed for some reason). I like a lot of the new characters (Diggle, Thea, Felicity, etc.). However, it sometimes feels like they keep using "Nolan-ization" as a crutch. They aren't sure how grounded to make everything, so they just default back to "let's just copy Nolan" when they start breaching uncharted territory. Hopefully they'll get a little more bold as time goes on, but for now they mostly just seem terrified of becoming "Smallville".

It's not that changing the established canon is a way of dodging risk. Changing the Mandarin as much as they did was probably far more risky than just playing him straight. It's just that the people adapting these things need to understand why they're changing what they're changing. Are they just trying to conform to a style that is currently considered popular, or are they trying to fit a particular tone that they're shooting for? Do they understand what makes the source material interesting and want to highlight that, or are they simply using it so that it has brand name recognition? These are the questions that truly matter when it comes to adaptation. I can tell that Shane Black asked these questions when he wrote "Iron Man 3", but the writers of "Arrow" (and probably whoever is put in charge of the inevitable "Justice League" film) should probably start asking those questions more.