Last week‘s look forward to this year mentioned that superheroes aren’t going away. Superhero works may become the new Western because the new genre doesn’t carry the historical problems while still providing for morality plays. Right now, though, the success of superhero works is mainly through adaptations of existing characters and titles. Marvel Comics and DC Comics have seen success with the transition of their works to movies and television.
Naturally, the success of superhero movies and TV series are creating a backlash. Part of it is the source – comic books have been considered for children and teenagers, not something an adult would be caught reading, works like Watchmen and Maus notwithstanding. Another part of it are two decades, the Eighties and the Ninties, when original works were more popular than adaptations, unlike the rest of the history of film[http://psychodrivein.com/lost-in-translation-history-of-adaptations-wrapping-up/].
Is it possible to create an original superhero TV series not based on an existing character or setting? There have been attempts in the past. Mutant X lasted three seasons in syndication and ended after the its studio was sold, though the series was originally meant to tie in with Marvel’s X-Men until Fox sued. Misfits of Science ran one season in the mid-Eighties. Heroes survived four seasons despite a writer’s strike and network interference. The track record isn’t great for original superhero works, but the audience didn’t exist then like it does now.
Television may be the better medium to attempt an original superhero work. Movie studios are risk adverse and the budget to do a superhero movie well may be too high for an unknown work. No one wants to be responsible for a $150 million superbomb. Television is more competitive today, so risks need to be taken just to get viewers. What might not be popular in theatres could garner attention on the small screen; the admission cost is lower with the biggest investment being time, not money. Television also allows for viewing on the viewer’s schedule, thanks to time shifting through DVRs/PVRs and, going old school, VCRs.
They key to succeed with an original superhero work is to embrace the tropes. The colourful costumes, the obvious heroes and villains, the morality, everything found in the comics need to be taken seriously, even if the situation is bizarre. The DC television series have had success because the characters were treated seriously. A man returning home to clean up his city, a teenager whose original mission was over by the time she reached Earth, and a forensics analyst trying to clear his father’s name are solid ground to build from, and Arrow, Supergirl, and The Flash all did that successfully.
The next catch, though, is to not be just superheroes. DC’s television universe, known as the Arrowverse after the first series to air, and Marvel’s cinematic universe aren’t just superhero stories. Arrow includes both family and crime drama. Supergirl sees Kara adjusting after getting to Earth too late to raise her cousin while dealing with a demanding boss and helping her adopted sister. Ant-Man is a superhero heist movie. Iron Man is a superhero techno-thriller. Captain America: The First Avenger was a superhero pulp war story while its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero political thriller. Even the original movie The Incredibles is a superhero family drama crossed with a spy thriller. Pure superheroics can happen – look at The Avengers and Justice League – but an original work will needs its own spin on superheroes.
Television does long form dramas well. Character development needs time, something that a two hour film just doesn’t have. A new superhero character can be introduced, with personality and abilities laid out over the course of a few episodes. Too slow will lose viewers, though, but that’s true whatever the genre. The goal is to present a character who is a superhero. Marvel’s approach to heroes may work well here; the characters have powers, but they aren’t useful in dealing with the more serious problems in their day-to-day life. Peter Parker may have spider-based powers, but they haven’t helped him deal with school, job, or family.
The series’ world can be introduced to the audience over time. There’s no need to go into the history of supers in the first ten minutes of the first episode. Details can be filled in, from a TV in the background mentioning a hero in a different city to a character, main or supporting, making a mention. Building that world, though, needs to be done before the series starts. The world of the new superhero needs to make sense to the viewers, especially when asking them to suspend their disbelief on how physics works in the series. How are supers treated? Will the superhero character needs a secret ID and how will he or she maintain it? Who are the rest of the cast? Even DC’s solo heroes on television have an extensive supporting cast backing them.
For film, the big problem is getting everything packed into a two hour time span. An origins film could work, but that often means that everything else will get overshadowered as the character becomes a superhero. Smallville spent ten seasons showing how Clark Kent became Superman; movies don’t have that luxury. Audiences will be showing up to see superheroic action, unless the marketing can convey properly what the movie is about. Film also has the potential for a larger budget, allowing for cutting edge special effects, even with the likelihood of an original superhero movie having a lower budget due to risk aversion. It’s probably best to get the actual origins – how the character became a superhero – out of the way early but have the repercussions of them last through the film. If the origins are interesting, as seen in Deadpool, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Iron Man, then make them the focus of the movie. The goal is to tell a story that will keep audiences in their seats.
One problem that does occur in comics and is starting to occur with the both Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes is continuity lockout, where readers need to be familiar with the entire output of a company to understand what’s happening. DC’s Arrowverse have had three crossover events where the casts of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow appear on an episode of each series in an interconnected storyline. If a viewer somehow wasn’t aware of the other series, the new characters would be a mystery, even if the episode gave enough detail to allow the view to get through to the end. Continuity lockout can happen even if there is just one series if the show lasts long enough. Supernatural uses a “Previously On” segment to get viewers up to speed with what’s needed for the upcoming episode, but even there, a new viewer jumping on in season 10 may not be aware of what happened to Sam and Dean’s mother, detailed in season 1.
Superheroes aren’t going away any time soon. Adaptations of superhero comics will continue to hit television and movie theatres. There is room for an original superhero work in those media, but it will take effort to make the work successful. Just following on the coattails of the leaders won’t draw an audience. The new work, movie or TV series, needs to stand on its own. It’ll take work, but it is possible.
Throughout this series, I’ve focused on comparing adaptations to originals and seeing where the differences were and why they came about. What I haven’t touched on is how an adaptation or remake can become better known than the original. There are works where people are unaware of the originals, or prefer the new version over the old.
Last week’s Frankenstein is a perfect example. Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster made the character sympathetic and was the focus of the movie. Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, had Frankenstein’s homunculus appear just once, behaving as a fully grown man; the rest of the novel focused on Victor Frankenstein and his travels as he first fled then pursued his creation. Karloff’s Monster was embraced early because of his child-like behaviour and has become part of the pop culture consciousness to the point where people who have never seen the movie will recognize the character.
Recent works can also have the same effect. Far more people are aware of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series than the original movie, and those who have seen both tend to prefer the show. With Buffy, the advantage of a longer format like a TV series gave the adaptation an edge; not only did Buffy and her Watcher get fleshed out to a greater degree, the Slayer also got a supporting cast who also had depth. The movie focused on Buffy’s mission, not her, and worked as a parody of slasher movies. The TV series moved the focus to Buffy and her friends and brought in the horror element.
Longer formats don’t necessarily result in being the more popular. Little Orphan Annie is a good example. Starting in 1924, Little Orphan Annie was a long running comic strip, ending in 2010. The strip spawned a radio show in 1930, movies in 1932 and 1938, and a Broadway musical in 1977. The musical led to the 1982 movie, Annie, which is now the definitive version for audiences. Since 1982, all movie adaptations have used Annie as the base, including a 1999 Disney TV movie and the 2014 remake with Quvenzhné Wallis and Jamie Foxx.
Audience reception is the key factor. Sometimes, it’s a matter of sheer numbers, as with Buffy and Annie above. More people saw the remakes than the original, even with Little Orphan Annie being a syndicated comic strip. Both also offered a fresh look at the original concepts, with Buffy being what Joss Whedon wanted the movie to be. The Karloff Frankenstein was one of the top movies of the 1930s and led to a number of sequels and related films to the point where high school English students are confused on reading Shelley’s novel about Frankenstein’s monster.
The Wizard of Oz, from 1939, is a good example. Again, one of the top grossing films of the 1930s, the movie was loosely based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Prior to 1939, Baum’s book was adapted as a Broadway play in 1902, silent films in 1910 and 1925, and an animated short in 1933, plus the sequels resulting from each of those. The 1910 film was done by Baum through his own production company. However, the 1939 film, with its creative use of Technicolor and memorable songs, remains the version that later remakes use, including The Wiz with Janet Jackson and Muppets Wizard of Oz. The audience sees the Judy Garland movie as being the core work; the story from the 1939 work is the best known.
This is the problem that Warner Bros. and DC Comics is having with Superman movie adaptations. There have been a number of adaptations of the character, from radio to serials to television to movies. Superman is the best known superhero. With all the adaptations around, though, the definitive portrayal comes from the 1978 Superman, where Christopher Reeve showed how a pair of glasses could convince people that Clark Kent and Superman were not the same person. Superman Returns built itself up from the 1978 film, trying to combine a more serious tone with the comic book sensibility of the Reeve movie, to mixed results. The subsequent movie, Man of Steel, retold Superman’s origin as part of the plot as a means to separate itself from /Superman/, again, to mixed results. Meanwhile, the TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville had their own approaches to the movie. Lois & Clark treated it as background, allowing Dean Cain to build up Clark Kent as a character. Smallville focused on a young Clark as he grew up in Smallville, learning about himself and leading towards being the Reeve character.
Not all works have this effect. While the 1966 Batman TV series did have lingering effects on audiences, the comic was already heading towards the Dark Knight aspect of the character. When Tim Burton’s Batman came out in 1989, he mixed both versions together, resulting in Michael Keaton as a darker Batman than the general audience remembered but satisfying comic fans while still having the Joker be whimsical despite being a killer. With the release of Batman Begins in 2005, audiences were ready for the darker Batman. Yet, the portrayals by Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale are all Batman. A Batman for all seasons*.
A work doesn’t have to be obscure to be surpassed, as Superman shows. What an adaptation needs to do is add the little details that will lodge in the audience’s mind. It can be as simple as a portrayal, like Karloff’s Monster as child-like or Reeve’s physical change from Clark Kent to Superman through posture and confidence. The adaptation can go into depths that the original didn’t or couldn’t, as seen with the Buffy TV series. Will an adaptation today ever be considered the definitive version? Hard to tell, especially with studios using highly popular works, but it is possible.
* To cut a long discussion short, I’m ignoring the impact of Kevin Conroy’s performance in Batman: The Animated Series, which could be the definitive version of the character, and Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman in The LEGO Movie. Suffice to say, there’s a Batman for everyone.