I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about this week, but sometimes the Universe provides. A couple of days ago, I came across a piece on Vulture criticizing the new Iron Fist series on Netflix.
While I agree with some of its basic points, it really annoyed me in spots. Particularly when it argued that the Iron Fist series should have thrown out even more of the comic book source material, just because:
It’s easy to imagine the strategy: Keep the costume, the karate, the power, and the humor, and throw away all the stuff that doesn’t work. Why should Marvel marry itself to a boring origin story that is hardly a beloved one? Why should they stick with a white guy, when — and I say this not out of progressive belief, but an appreciation of good storytelling — other choices would be more interesting? Why should he even be named Danny Rand? Get a bunch of creative writers who love the superhero genre, then let them run wild to reinvent the character.
Well, I don’t know… How about he’s a white guy named Danny Rand because that’s who the character is? If you want to argue that Marvel shouldn’t adapt Iron Fist into a television series because the whole “white savior” trope has seen its day, that’s a valid argument. I’m all for having more minority characters in MCU, but saying that a Caucasian character must be an Asian character just because he’s a martial arts master is idiotic. It’s just trading in one stereotype for another.
The Vulture article digs itself deeper here:
Reverence is overrated, and superhero fiction has demonstrated why plenty of times in the past. Hawkeye used to be a colorful goofball with a criminal past until he was reinvented as a leather-clad black-ops veteran in a comics series called The Ultimates, which led to his successful screen incarnation in The Avengers.
Well… yeah, I guess that was successful, except for the fact that the big screen version of Hawkeye is widely regarded as the least interesting of all the Avengers. No one’s clamoring for a Clint Barton solo movie the way they are with the Black Widow. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the group’s least popular character is also the one that’s the least like his classic comics counterpart.
I get why they changed Hawkeye for the movies. The personality traits that largely defined him in the comics, his rebelliousness and sarcasm, had already been co-opted by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. So Hawkeye needed to be something different in order to stand out. I wonder if part of the reason that Joss Whedon decided to have Clint Barton under Loki’s mind control for most of the first Avengers film was to buy himself a little time to figure out just who this version of Hawkeye was supposed to be.
Honestly, the only place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where I felt like I was seeing the real Hawkeye was this scene from Age of Ultron, which starts out with Hawkeye talking smack to the Norse Thunder God. That’s the Clint Barton I know and love. If they could get more of that cocky underdog attitude into the movies, I think people would get behind Hawkeye more.
That’s why I’d like Hollywood to show more reverence to the comics, not less. If these characters have lasted for 30, 40, 50 years before you got your hands on them, there’s usually a reason for that. And it’s usually because the creators did something — or several somethings — right. So it behooves you to consider exactly what made the character successful in the first place and then figure out the best way to translate that to the screen. That’s a better approach than automatically assuming that you know better than these poor dumb comic book creators and that anything you change will be an improvement.
And the fact is that reverence is the smarter approach. If you look at live-action adaptations of superheroes, most of the really successful ones show a reverence for the source material, and a lot of the big flops are the ones that changed things around for no good reason.
When Batman producer William Dozier tried to adapt Wonder Woman into a TV series in 1967, he made a campy, comedic presentation film that failed to generate any interest, despite featuring future Planet of the Apes star Linda Harrison as a pretty good-looking Wonder Woman (Harrison is the one in the mirror, but be warned: It’s five minutes of your life that you’ll never get back).
When they tried again in 1974, they gave us a blonde Cathy Lee Crosby in a red and blue jumpsuit fighting Ricardo Montalban, which, even as an adaptation of Wonder Woman’s Emma Peel days, was a stretch.
They finally succeeded when they went back to the original material, set it in the 1940s with a dose of feminism, and put a perfectly-cast Lynda Carter into a faithful recreation of Wonder Woman’s comics costume.
The 1970s Spider-Man TV series with Nicholas Hammond had potential, but it squandered that potential by missing a lot of what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man. It missed the poignancy of the “with great power comes great responsibility” lesson of Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle Ben’s death, and it missed the trademark humor of our favorite web-slinger. Without those two things, they ended up with a very bland character, and a quickly-canceled series.
The first time the X-Men movies tried to include Deadpool, the Merc with a Mouth, they gave us Ryan Reynolds with his mouth sewn shut, firing optic blasts. The fanbase was less than pleased. When they made a movie with the same humor and irreverence of the comic character, fans came out in droves, and so did the general public.
I could give other examples, like Evel Knievel Captain America, Brady Perm Dr. Strange, or Keanu Reeves John Constantine, but honestly, it would depress me too much, and I think you get the point. You don’t need me to tell you that the bad stuff was bad. I’d much rather talk about the good examples, anyway.
The Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk television series took a lot of liberties (thankfully, Stan Lee vetoed producer Kenneth Johnson making the Hulk red instead of green), but it was a well-done show that got the BIG thing about Banner and the Hulk right, namely that the Hulk is a tragic character at his core.
Despite inventing a new look for Krypton and making some changes to the backstory, the 1978 Superman movie didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, either. The guy that Christopher Reeve played was recognizably the same character we knew and loved the comics. Heck, the movie took an even more classical approach than the comics did at the time, since they had Clark Kent working as a newspaper reporter at The Daily Planet instead of the anchorman of the evening news on WGBS. It was okay that this Superman never had a career as Superboy or that Lex Luthor didn’t dress in a purple and green jumpsuit, because Superman was still Superman.
I think that’s the trick. If you get the BIG things right, you have a little more license to change the window dressing. Part of the reason the current crop of DC movies have gotten so much grief is that they’re changing the big things. Despite all the desperate justifications some fanboys use to try and rationalize Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, the fact is that those movies didn’t do as well as they could have because they got the title characters wrong. A Superman and Batman who kill without remorse are very different from the classic versions of those characters, and when you’re trying to create a cinematic universe to compete with Marvel’s, that’s a problem. DC is building a house on a shaky foundation. If they can’t — or won’t — get their two biggest characters right, what hope is there that they’ll get everyone else right?
I’m not saying that faithfully translating the comics will automatically mean success, but it certainly gives you a better shot than changing everything and putting out something that only shares a title in common.
I’ll give you a hot tip, Hollywood: comic book fans, we’re a superstitious and fanatical lot. And yeah, we’re picky about the things we love. But if we like the movies or TV shows you make out of the things we love, we’ll see them over and over and talk them up to our friends. And repeat business and good word of mouth can be the difference between a modest hit and a blockbuster.
But what if your property is largely unknown to the general public? Surely it’s okay to change things then, right? After all, who cares? But you could just as easily make the opposite argument. If something is proven to work in the comics, why not use it instead of an unknown quantity? It won’t make any difference to the average audience member, and the hardcore fans will love you for it. Look at it this way — it’s decades’ worth of free market research.
Take Iron Man. Jon Favreau and company took what was cool about the character, and made it work for 2008. Together with some shrewd casting and a great trailer, the movie became a huge hit. But Favreau also threw in all sorts of things he didn’t have to from the comics, and the comics fans noticed and appreciated it, because it told us that the character was in good hands.
So yes, by all means adjust things for a new medium. Update characters where you need to to make them relatable to today’s audiences, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Faithfulness to the source material isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe the next time producers find that a comic adaptation isn’t working, they could try a little reverence instead.