How do you make movies based on comics better? "Write better scripts" is the easy and obvious answer, but once you get that down, then what?
You look at the past 10 (or more!) years of comics movies to see exactly what worked and what didn't. There have been both amazing and awful comic-based movies in recent memory. What's more, there are half a dozen new comics movies due soon, be they reboots like 'Spider-Man' and 'Superman' or all-new entries like 'Thor' and 'Priest.'
Now that we've gotten past the growing-pains stage of comic book movies (hopefully), we can get into creating works that stand the test of time. We've come up with a few rules for the production teams to keep in mind.
RULE 1: The Big Names Are Not Always the Best Names
Do you know what kicked off Marvel's highly successful string of movie adaptations? It wasn't 'X-Men' or 'Spider-Man'; it was 'Blade,' featuring Wesley Snipes. Before he was a movie star, Blade was a marginal comics character. He was featured in a hit series in the '70s, but floundered after that. Thanks to the character's relative obscurity, screenwriter David Goyer could get away with updating the character for a new generation.
Take a look at the second or third tier of heroes -- characters like She-Hulk, Batgirl, Night Thrasher or Luke Cage. With these characters, you can create some very entertaining films without being held back by having to maintain the integrity of a trademark. Shang-Chi is all about a sublime mix of kung fu and silky smooth espionage action. Dazzler could be the star of a great commentary on celebrity and mutant powers in the 21st century. The Atom could make for a great sci-fi/fantasy tale. You can go as wild or as lowbrow as you want without worrying about ruining someone's lucrative toy deal.
Got It Right: 'Blade' got it right. Take someone without all the baggage of a major character and you can do wonderful things.
Got It Wrong: 'Man-Thing' got upgraded from straight-to-video to a theatrical release, and then bumped back down to "Straight to Sci-Fi Channel." All the freedom in the world won't save you from painfully bad writing, acting, and direction.
RULE 2: Don't Be Afraid to Be Unfaithful
Don't be afraid to break from tradition. 'Blade' is another good example of a movie that was unfaithful to the source material, but faithful to its spirit. It jettisoned the stuffy, old-fashioned vampires of the comics, removed Blade from his British roots, and created a fresh take on a dusty old character. If you have something that might work and makes for interesting viewing, go for it!
At the same time, don't go too far. When you start messing around with the DNA of these characters, sometimes things turn out extraordinarily poorly. Remember 'Catwoman'? It borrowed the name and part of the gimmick of the DC Comics character before spinning off into another direction entirely. If you come up with what you think is a hit script that features a comics character, but the only thing it shares with the source material is a name, then just change the name to something new. There's no point in it being based on a comic if it's completely different. If you're going to adapt a work, adapt it. Don't just change it to something else and stamp a name on it.
Got It Right: 'Iron Man' did a good job of updating the origin and finally pulling Tony Stark into the 21st century. It was done in the spirit of the comic, if not exactly to the letter.
Got It Wrong: 'Watchmen' is the dictionary definition of faithful, and it is nearly unwatchable. If you're going to be that faithful, just give us the soundtrack to listen to, while we read the book.
RULE 3: Enough With the Origin Stories
Origin stories are, nine times out of ten, the most boring part of a superhero career. We get the appeal, and it's easy to structure the first movie in a trilogy after a hero's origin story, but honestly -- just get to the point. Show us a hero who already knows what he can do and is established and ready to have adventures.
'The Incredible Hulk' got the origin story across during the opening credits. The team behind that film knew that people wanted to see the Hulk smashing things, so they got the origin out of the way as quickly as possible in favor of getting down to business. Audiences aren't dumb. They're willing to accept outlandish things, as long as it fits the movie. Trust your audience, especially if you're working with a character who is either mildly popular or who has had several movies that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Got It Right: 'The Spirit,' for all its flaws, got right down to business. We want to see these heroes knocking heads, not figuring out who they are.
Got It Wrong: Raise your hand if you don't know Batman's origin. Parents died, Bruce cried, and now he's a Bat, right? While it was well done, 'Batman Begins' spends entirely too much time recapping things that we already know. You really, really don't have to do that much explaining.
RULE 4: Don't Cram Too Much Stuff Into One Movie
The downside of working with comics is that everyone has their favorites, whether they're just fans or screenwriters and directors. As a result, everyone has ideas of what should go into a movie. Rather than stacking your film with dozens of fan-pleasing in-jokes and references, focus on making a good movie first. 'Spider-Man 3' made the mistake of having three villains -- four, if you include Evil Peter Parker. That's entirely too many, and made for a disjointed viewing experience.
Even the almighty 'The Dark Knight' went a little overboard, smashing two movies worth of material into one long feature. Be a little more conservative and focus on showing us why your main villain is a threat or why your plot is a big deal, rather than splitting your attention between several villains or a lot of little subplots.
Got It Right: 'X2: X-Men United' mixed a bunch of classic X-Men tales into one big stew and it turned out pretty well. It was exciting, well-balanced, and left you wanting more. Sadly, "more" turned out to be 'X-Men 3.'
Got It Wrong: 'The Dark Knight' is great, but it's also two and a half hours long. That's a bit much, particularly when it has two villains that could carry a movie on their own. It makes for an intense movie, but also a draining one.
RULE 5: Take the Heroes on Their Terms
If you're going to adapt a work, adapt it. That means approaching the work on its own terms. You can't really do a day-glo bright 'Batman' movie or a depressing and dark 'Superman' film. They fit in certain lanes in the comics, and when you break out of that lane, the characters don't ring true. Brandon Routh was excellent casting for Superman, but 'Superman Returns' saddled him with a very un-Superman-like role (Not to mention the incredibly low number of fights in that film). As a Superman movie, 'Superman Returns' was incredibly unsatisfying. It didn't treat Superman like Superman.
We don't need a dark or gritty Superman on the silver screen. We need one that's the greatest hero of all time, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and more powerful than a locomotive. We want that same feeling of inspiration that 'All-Star Superman' gave us, and failing that, we want to see Superman punch a giant robot in the chin. If at all possible, I'm pretty sure that we'd all prefer to see both.
Got It Right: 'Batman Begins' took the Batman we know and love back to the gutter, with dark themes, darker costumes, and brutal fight scenes.
Got It Wrong: Remember 'Batman & Robin' and, to a lesser extent, 'Batman Forever'? That's how you do it wrong.
RULE 6. Branch Out!
There's more than Marvel and DC out there! One of the best comics movies is Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes's 'Ghost World.' It took a single book and transferred it to cinema very well. 2010's 'Scott Pilgrim vs the World' took an indie comic published by Oni Press and created by Bryan Lee O'Malley and put it in front of millions of people. Start looking at other comics companies. Image Comics, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and IDW, for example, all publish some fantastic books. Sure, they aren't superheroes, but not everything needs to have capes! Branch out and show some diversity of content.
There are all kinds of comics, and while the capes might make you five hundred million dollars, the ones about real people will let you build up an evergreen catalog that doesn't depend on fads. Think of the long game. Use those big blockbusters to make fat bundles of cash, and then use that cash to create one or two smaller, more intimate comics movies.
Got It Right: 'Ghost World'! It was a comic that was published by Fantagraphics, a company that pushes forward the idea of "comics as art," and it became a pretty great movie. Not a blockbuster, mind you--but a great movie.
Got It Wrong: 'Whiteout' took a great comic by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber and turned it into... a bad movie. Try harder, folks, especially when working with strong source material.