There’s a scene in the new Avengers movie where Captain America is sat feeling like a man out of time, not getting the cultural references around him. Then someone says a line about flying monkeys (as in the Wizard of Oz) and he smiles and says, “That one I get.”
It’s a scene slightly reminiscent of a great piece in the Civil War: Frontline comic where Ben Ulrich and Sally Floyd interview Cap in his cell and point out all the things about modern day America he doesn’t know about or doesn’t get. That’s an aside, as this blog isn’t about the comic (although I do love the Avengers franchise dearly)—it’s about the changing nature of superhero films.
When I came out of the Avengers last week, with my two eldest kids (9 and 8) we were buzzing about the movie. What was so special about it? My son hit the nail on the head as we drove home (as he often does). “Dad, that was awesome... it was just like the comic.”
And there you have it. The reasons it’s so good is that it was just like the comic. From the dialogue, to the plot, to the action, to the depiction of the Hulk. It was spot on. Now that’s no great surprise—Joss Whedon, amongst many things, wrote for Marvel (The Runaways was excellent, and his run on X-men was OK). But he carries something more to it... an understanding of how to translate what looks good on the comic page into something that doesn’t look like CGI cheese on the screen. It’s not simply a matter of special effects- Transformers 2 proved that. It’s the actors and the plot not coming across as too daft that makes it work.
Of course Avengers can’t claim to be the first to achieve that. There have been some amazing superhero movies over the years—but it made me think, when did they really start to reflect the comics? As I supped a glass of red wine I pondered the question, with the world becoming as fuzzy as a James T Kirk love scene
I grew up (well got chronologically older) in the seventies and eighties. It was an era where special effects really came into being, and marked the boom in sci-fi films and series (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Alien, Buck Rogers etc). There were attempts at fantasy films that hit or missed (Hawk the Slayer, Excalibur, Sword and Sorcerer, Conan, Krull... a rather mixed bag). And there were superhero films.
I adored the sixties Batman re-runs as a kid, and indeed the film, which was shown fairly regularly in the pre-VCR days. Ironically it reflected the comic at the time it was made, but by the time I watched it Batman the comic was undergoing a re-birth with darker stories and grittier characters. And I was never a big DC fan. Then the big screen played host to Superman, and the little screen to the Hulk and Spiderman.
They just weren’t right. Superman was a great film, as was Superman 2, and I got the duvet cover, the posters, the bubblegum cards, and so forth. Superman 2 had the super-villians (kneel before Zod!) but it still didn’t feel like the comic, which was far more cosmic and on a different power scale. Similarly the Hulk series gave us great lines about not making me angry, and the eternal debate about stretchable trousers, but it was a different kettle of (green) fish to clashing with The Leader, The Abomination, Doc Samson, The U-Foes etc. And Spiderman? Loved the wall crawling, could cope with chunky white bracelets, but here was a dude with the best roster of villains ever in comics. And he spent most episodes battling hoods with pistols. Sigh.
The effects, the costumes, the stories just couldn’t match the comics. When did that change? I’m tempted to say with Batman, in the late Eighties. Yet even with the wonder of Tim Burton, and I do love those first two films, there is a vibe of underlying campness to it, a sort of silliness, that didn’t reflect what we were reading at the time (Batman in late eighties had seminal works like The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman Year One).
It was Spiderman who saved it for me. The X-men was close, and in retrospect probably turned the tide, but Sam Raimi’s trilogy was perfect. I’d loved Raimi’s Evil Dead films as a student, mainly for the brilliant Evil Dead 2, which has the best lines ever in a horror film... and a chainsaw grafted to a stump of an arm. With Spiderman he got it perfect—the effects, the story, the acting. The sense of pity you had for Peter Parker that pervaded the comics from day one was captured, as was the menace of the Green Goblin and the tragedy that follows. Spiderman 2 was even better—I can watch and re-watch the scene in the bank where he pulls Aunt May down as the vault door hurtles overhead.
Of course, other (non superhero) comics have had the big screen flourish. They are a mixed bag too: Alan Moore’s have struggled notably, sadly as he’s probably the best comics writer alive (Watchmen was OK, as was V for Vendetta, but League of Extraordinary Gentlemen contravened the Geneva convention); 300 was cool, Wanted I’ve not even seen (although the comic was a let down). Kick Ass is on my to be watched list (the comic pushed the taste boundary for me too).
Now they’ve got it right, from a comics fan perspective, I hope they stay on track. The worst thing in the world would be to get carried away and let shite stories slip in. I’m hoping for an awesome Avengers 2, and given the popularity of the current film I’m certain they’ll do one. And despite all I’ve written, I loved those superhero movies/series when I was a kid because it was still a buzz seeing characters you love coming to life on the screen—even if they weren’t quite right.
Which would lead perfectly into talking about The Hobbit....
But that’s a blog for another day....