Continuing in the Remaking the Eighties miniseries, a look at an earlly attempt for an original superhero series, Misfits of Science.
Today, superheroes are big. Blockbuster big. Movies, TV series. Tie-in novels. It’s impossible to check theatre listings without seeing an ad for a superhero movie. In the Eighties, though, while superhero comics were seeing a resurgence, but the characters really didn’t cross over to any other medium beyond animation. There were exceptions; The Incredible Hulk with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno ran 1978 to 1982, with three follow up TV movies from 1988 to 1990 is the main one. DC had sequels to the 1978 Superman film and the spin-off, Supergirl with Helen Slater, and the 1989 Tim Burton helmed Batman with Michael Keaton. The phenomenon of today didn’t exist in the Eighties.
However, the success of the Superman sequels was enough to get a studio wondering how to cash in on superhero popularity. Special effects were catching up to the what could be seen in comics, and practical effects could deal with most powers. Misfits of Science debuted October 1985 with a pilot movie and ran for fifteen more episodes before being cancelled for low ratings. The series starred Dean Paul Martin as Dr. Billy Hayes, Kevin Peter Hall as Dr. Elvin “El” Lincoln, Mark Thomas Miller as “Johnny B” Bukowski, Courtney Cox as Gloria Dinallo, and Max Wright as Dick Stetmeyer.
Billy was the leader of the group, despite having no powers. He specialized in “human anomalies” and worked at the Humanidyne Institute. That mean that Billy was looking into creating superhumans, though within the bounds of ethics. His partner at work, El, went one step further and underwent a hormonal treatment to shrink himself. El’s goal was to get down to a normal height; he was tired of being asked to play basketball because of his height, never mind that he was not any good at the sport. The problem with the treatment was that it went too far. Instead of regressing El’s height, it allowed him to shrink down roughly to the size of a Ken doll, and just him. He had to carry around a spare set of clothes for when he did shrink.
Gloria, Cox’s first main role on TV, is a telekinetic who has to see her target in order to affect it. Blindfold her, and she won’t be able to affect anything around her /except/ the blindfold, which became a plot point in one episode. Gloria is also troubled teen with a history of delinquency and crime, having a probation officer, Jane Miller (Jennifer Holmes). Johnny B who Gloria has a crush on, is a rock musician who gained electrical powers after being electrocuted on stage.. He is capable of tossing lightning bolts and superspeed. Johnny B also drains all electrical and electronic devices, so he tends to live in isolation in the desert, where he can charge thanks to static electricity. Finally, Stetmeyer is the put upon director of Humanidyne. He’s the face of the company and while Humanidyne might have some ethical issues, it is not an evil corporation. Stetmeyer is there for the research, not world domination.
The episodes were all stand-alones, as was typical for the era. The series was an action comedy, with some episodes being parodies. The use of powers did get creative, but some solutions called for a specific abilitiy one of the characters had. Some character’s issues were dropped along the way, getting in the way of episode plots. However, the show had potential that was never brought forward
That potential makes Misfits of Science ripe for being remade. Superpowered people are no longer seen as just for children. Marvel/Disney in particular is having great financial success diving into Marvel’s characters, even if certain X-titles are off-limits thanks to earlier deals. At the same time, Misfits of Science might not thrive on the main four networks, CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX. It could work on the CW, where the Arrowverse – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, and Batwoman – are thriving or have succeeded. The flip side is that the CW may not have room for a non-DC superhero series, leaving streaming services. There are only so many streaming services a potential viewer can afford, and after paying for Netflix and Disney+, for example, another streaming service may not be affordable.
That said, a potential Misfits of Science can fill a gap. While the Arrowverse does have some lighter series in The Flash and Supergirl, most superhero series tend to be serious. In order to not be seen as childish, the pendulum swings the other way by going a little grittier. This way leads to the Zack Snyder version of the Justice League, dark to the point of needing a flashlight to see the movie. Having a lighter superhero series isn’t a bad thing, provided it’s well written. The characters in the series have a good base to start from, with motivations and backgrounds that can lead to interesting arcs. Johnny’s drawback adds a new twist in the 2020s where we carry around far more electronics than we did in 1984. Any potential viewer will know the feeling of a cell phone running out of battery power at an inopportune time.
The series is set at the origins of superpowered beings, the human anomalies. While the original had Billy and his team get into plots to try to help, the new series could explore the impact of regular people with powers. Johnny B can’t walk around downtown without draining every cell phone around him. Gloria is dealing with a mother who has had a mental breakdown; she’s also on probation, so needs to keep her nose clean, or at least maintain that appearance. El and Billy, being the researchers, have the reason to stay close with the anomalies they work with, especially after El becomes one. There is room for episodic and season-long plots to combine while still keeping a light touch. Keeping Humanidyne as a neutral company instead of evil will allow for less ethical companies to pop up as rivals, with their own misfits.
Misfits of Science was ahead of its time, foreseeing the superhero boom we’re now in but not able to properly exploit it. A remake today can update some of the premises, bring the concepts to a new audience, and be entertaining. The only real issue is finding it a proper home.
After last week’s look at works that adapt characters instead of stories, it’s a good time to examine such a work. Today, Deadpool.
The character Deadpool was created in 1990, with his first appearance in New Mutants #98, written by Rob Liefield and Fabien Nicieza. Deadpool’s main ability is much like Wolverine’s, a heightened healing factor, though with the Merc with the Mouth, it’s offset by cancer. The two characters are linked through the Weapon X project, the one that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and Deadpool his accelerated healing. This combination has seriously unhinged Deadpool to the point where he thinks he’s a comic book character. His appearances are marked by his ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the readers directly. In his video game appearances, he has cheered on the player.
Deadpool’s first cinematic appearance was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The problem there, though, was that his mouth was sewn shut, so he couldn’t speak. He was also decapitated in the movie, though a post-credit sequence shows him picking up his head and telling the audience to “Shh.” Ryan Reynolds, who plays the Merc with the Mouth, admitted that it was wrong, so was eager to play him again, this time properly. Thus, the Deadpool movie released shortly before Valentine’s Day, 2016..
Deadpool set out to correct the problems with the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where the character had his mouth sewn shut previously, this time around, he talks non-stop, to the point of providing narration even into the post-credit sequence. The core plot hinges around Wade Wilson, Mr. Pool himself, trying to get the experiment that turned his Ryan Reynolds good looks into something that repulses people reversed. The man responsible, Francis, credited as Ajax*, played by Ed Skrein, provided the a treatment that halted the spread of cancer through Wilson’s body, but didn’t remove it.
However, the core plot isn’t the only part of the story. There’s a romance as well, with Wade getting engaged to Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin. Vanessa is the reason why Wade went into the Weapon X program – he didn’t want to leave her mourning him. This connection, though, puts Vanessa in danger near the end of the movie.
The movie is a superhero comedy that, instead of taking refuge in audacity, revels in it. Deadpool is also one of the most comic book movies made, alongside Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The film opens with the cinematic version of a two-page splash page. The credits that appear wouldn’t be out of place in one of Marvel’s lighter titles, like What The–?!, credits like “A Moody Teenager” – Negasonic Teenage Warhead played by Brianna Hildebrand, “A CGI Character” – Colossus voiced by Stefan Kapicic, and “A British Villain” – Francis. Deadpool himself narrates the story, stopping the action several times to address the audience directly. Not only does he break the fourth wall, at one point, he does so while breaking the fourth wall during a flashback.
Deadpool is an origins movie, though the character’s background isn’t as well known as Superman’s or Spider-Man’s. The movie retells Deadpool’s background. However, remember that cinematic superhero universes are a thing. The movie isn’t accurate, but given it’s Wade narrating it and he believes he’s a comic book and, for the film, a superhero movie character, variances are allowed. Deadpool is structured much like a comic book. The opening shot, as mentioned above, acts as the two-page splash. Flashbacks fill in details. Narration adds extra information. The opening splash is revisited several times, once in the regular narrative flow, and at least once with a flashback.
The writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, pulled together the information on Deadpool’s origins and focused on his personality. Deadpool is more about the character than getting details of his history correct and presents Wade as the unhinged mutant seen in the comics. Any problems from X-Men Origins: Wolverine were erased, even called out and ridiculed by Wade himself. To emphasize that he believes he’s a character in a movie, Deadpool often comments on the film. A scene at the X-Men’s mansion has him commenting that, “It’s a big house. It’s funny that I only ever see two of you [Colossus and Negasonic]. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”
The main potential point of failure was not getting Deadpool translated over to film. The movie managed to take the character concept and bring it from the pages to the silver screen while still keeping the core that made Deadpool popular.
* The name Ajax is used once. Even the DVD subtitles refer to him as Francis.
This week, everyone’s favourite hero with anger management issues, the Incredible Hulk.
The Hulk first appeared in The Incredible Hulk #1 back in 1962. As with many of Marvel’s early original heroes*, the Hulk was created by Stan Lee, with Jack Kirby. The origin had Dr. Bruce Banner, physicist, being at ground zero of a gamma bomb. Instead of dying, Banner absorbed the gamma rays, turning him into the Hulk. From that point on, whenever Banner was upset or angry, the Hulk would be released. Stan Lee has said that he invoked Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde along with Frankenstein with the character, noting that the Hulk, despite being the monster, was the hero. Although not an immediate hit**, the character guest starred in other Marvel titles and became a founding member of the Avengers, staying in The Avengers for the first two issues before leaving.
In 1978, CBS aired a television series, also called The Incredible Hulk based on the comic. Changes were made; Bill Bixby played Dr. David Bruce Banner, a name change required by executives. The gamma bomb accident because a lab accident that infused Banner with gamma radiation. The Hulk, played by Lou Ferrigno, had reporter Jack McGee chasing him, trying to find out the truth about the accident. The series ran five seasons, with three made-for-TV movies following.
Wait, you may be thinking, why mention the TV series when I haven’t done anything like this before? Isn’t this about the 2008 movie, The Incredible Hulk? Indeed it is, I say as I somehow read your mind. However, I continue, the TV series is important to keep in mind for the rest of the review.
The 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk was filmed by Marvel Studios as part of its Avengers Initiative, a series of movies leading up to the release of The Avengers. The Hulk, as mentioned above, was a founding member of the team, despite leaving after the second issue. Might be easy enough to gloss over; Avengers #1 is older than the target audience. Except, as seen with the other entries, the filmmakers are well aware of the history of the comics. The Hulk is, now, one of Marvel’s iconic characters, inspiring phrases such as “hulking out” and the source of, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”***
The movie quickly shows the Hulk’s origin during the opening credtis, combining the one comic and the one from the TV series to have a super solider serum test go wrong. Banner was led to believe the serum was to help resist gamma radiation. General Ross, an old foe of the Hulk from the comic, had other ideas. The movie opens in Brazil, with Banner working at a factory while trying to research a cure. An industrial accident that leads to a Stan Lee cameo lets Ross know where Banner is hiding. Ross sends a special forces team, led Emil Blonski, to retrieve the hiding scientist. Suffice to say, they got Banner upset, and that never ends well for anyone.
While Banner returns to the US to get the original data from the project that turned him into the Hulk, Blonsky and Ross work together to create a weapon capable of going toe-to-toe with the green monster. Blonski volunteers to under go the super soldier treatment, foreshadowing the events of Captain America. The first fight between Blonski and the Hulk, at a college campus, leads to Blonski recuperating in the hospital with every bone broken, but healing fast. The fight was also recorded by a jounalism student with the last name McGee.
The movie continues, using Blonski as a mirror to Banner. As Banner works to get rid of the Hulk, Blonski works to embrace the monster within, eventually becoming the Abomination. The difference between the two gamma radiated monsters is that Blonski kept his intelligence. Where the Hulk is raw, brute strength and fury, Blonski keeps his skills, losing a little in raw power.
The movie itself draws from the Hulk’s forty year comic history and the television series, blending the two. Edward Norton, who played Banner, looked a lot like the late Bill Bixby, even down to mannerisms as Bruce. Lou Ferrigno not only has a cameo as a security guard, but is also the voice of the Hulk. The journalism student mentioned is a shout out to Jack McGee of the TV series. Audience members who know the hulk solely through the TV series would not be lost. The influence of the TV series brought me to a question that I hadn’t considered before; that is, “Is there such a thing as an adaptation that is more influential than the original work?”
The Incredible Hulk also had to deal with history progressing since 1962. Originally, Blonski was a KGB agent. With the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the de-Sovietization of Russia, having a KGB agent would stick out. Turning Blonski into the English-born son of Russian immigrants on loan from the UK to the US brings the character into the 21st century. Likewise, the gamma bomb became a lab accident; the push to out-arm the Soviets also disappeared with the end of the Cold War. While the US does maintain a stockpile, the need to increase the number of warheads has dropped greatly. The movie updates the Hulk mythos nicely, telling an archetypical Hulk story with a current setting.
Next week, expanding a setting through an adaptation.
* As in, not the ones originally created my Marvel’s predecessor, Timely
** The Incredible Hulk, volume 1 lasted six issues.
*** Originally from the TV series, in the opening credits.
The Avengers Adaptation continues!
Captain America first appeared in Captain America Comics, published in early 1941* by Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics. The character and the comic were intentionally patriotic, almost a given considering world events. Marvel brought back Cap in The Avengers #4, thawing him and bringing him to the “modern”** age. Cap started as Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man whose desire to enlist and fight the Nazis in Europe was thwarted by his own ill health. However, his persistence got him noticed and invited to the Super-Soldier project, where Steve was given the Super-Soldier Serum, transforming his body to perfect health and physique. Cap then fought through WWII with his sidekick, “Bucky” Barnes, battling the Third Reich.
Captain America: The First Avenger essentially retells Captain America’s origin. As you might have read last week, I went on for a few paragraphs about superhero origins. However, in Cap’s case, there are two elements to consider. One, Cap’s origins aren’t well known to the general audience. Comic book fans, especially those who follow the Avengers, are aware, but Cap isn’t the household name Superman is. Two, Captain America’s origins alone are an exciting story, especially in the context of modern Marvel stories (as opposed to the Timely comics). How Steve Rogers came to the modern world is well worth spending a movie on, if done well. The other key part to the origin is that Steve already had the right mindset to be a hero, even if his body wouldn’t let him. Falling on a grenade that he thought was live without a thought towards what would happen to him while everyone else dove for cover tends to show people what a hero is.
The First Avenger was done well. Once again, as in Iron Man and Thor, the right cast, the right crew, the right director were all involved. Joe Johnston, the director, had worked on pulp-like projects before, including The Rocketeer and Jumanji. The First Avenger definitely had a pulp feel, from time period to larger-than-life heroes and villains. Casting included bringing in Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Carter.
If you go back a bit in Lost in Translation, you’ll find my review of Flash Gordon. The two movies work together to show what’s needed to make a good adaptation. Both movies had great casting for supporting roles, excellent music, and a script that acknowledged the comic book feel of the original works. The big difference is that Captain America didn’t have executive meddling. Flash‘s execs interfered with casting, to the point where de Laurentiis’ wife picked out Sam J. Jones from the lead role from a game show. Everyone involved in the making of Captain America had the goal of making the film a success.
Casting wasn’t the only item that got attention. Little details about Cap appeared. The shield he used during the PR tour was based on the original one from Captain America Comics #1, which had to be changed because of a similarity to the one carried by Archie Comics’ The Shield. The First Avenger also had links to the previous movies in the Avengers Initiative, with Yggdrasil, a Norse artifact, and possibly the fate of the Red Skill calling back to Thor and Tony Stark’s grandfather Howard a supporting character. These connections may be the first time a comic book movie acknowledges the rest of the original comic’s universe. Usually, multiple studios have rights for the different characters in a setting. In Marvel’s case, Sony had the rights to Spider-Man while Twentieth Century Fox had the X-Men. With the Avengers Initiative, though, all the movies are being created by Marvel Studios and being released through Paramount. Just as important, many elements of the Marvel Universe were introduced. Hydra, a secret society out for world domination, with the Red Skull and Arnim Zola, could easily be the antagonists of a Captain America sequel set in the modern day.
Was the adaptation accurate? Not completely. Bucky Barnes became Steve’s childhood friend and a sergeant in the US Army instead of being a kid mascot. The Howling Commandos appeared, but without Sgt. Fury. Philips became a colonel instead of a general. Small details. However, the feel of the movie, aided by the direction, by the music, hit the right note.
Next week, on the nature of remakes.
* Prior to the US officially getting involved in World War II.
** As in, the day of publication.
Summer 2012 is shaping up to be the summer of the super-blockbuster. Marvel’s The Avengers already made its expenses after the opening weekend and is seeing people returning multiple times. Why are superhero movies becoming popular of late?
As always with adaptations, the main reason for using an existing property is that the work is already known to the general public. Superheroes have been around since the 1930s, with the creation of Superman, and pulp heroes go back even further. The current crop of superhero movies isn’t a new idea; Batman was featured in several serials in the 1940s and Superman had his own radio show. Cartoons featuring the supers since the 1960s also help with brand recognition. But getting people into theatre seats the first week is just part of the puzzle. As seen many times here at Lost in Translation, success doesn’t come from simply adapting and hoping for the best.
A Geek Renaissance
Along the way, geeks infiltrated Hollywood. People who grew up on the serials of the 40s, the B-movies of the 50s, the exploitation films of the 70s, found jobs within the studios. These geek insiders worked to get their ideas into production. And, unlike earlier eras, these insiders wanted to make sure that the characters they grew up with were treated properly. Again, that there “respect” thing. Still, there were some misses. Daredevil and Elektra didn’t perform as well as hoped at the box office. Changes of tone hurt Batman & Robin. But that didn’t stop more adaptations from being made. Marvel, now owned by Disney, had a plan for The Avengers.
Even in the late 90s, if you asked the average person, as opposed to a comics fan, to name five superheroes, the answer would probably include Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and either the X-Men* or the Incredible Hulk. Each of those heroes have had a number of animated and live-action adaptations throughout their history. The Avengers, though, were a group of A-list supers that were well-known to comic fans but not so much outside fandom.** Marvel’s plan was to introduce each of the Avengers in their own movie, beginning with Iron Man.
The plan worked.
Marvel’s approach was new. Instead of just introducing the Avengers and possibly getting bogged down in every character’s origin, the studio gave each character a spotlight, whetting the appetites of audiences. The lead-up films weren’t treated as filler but were major releases. In the meantime, Marvel also kept working on the X-Men franchise, releasing origin movies for the main team and for popular character Wolverine.
Over at DC, the Batman franchise was rebooted. Christopher Nolan was given three movies to develop featuring the World’s Greatest Detective. Once again, the product produced was of high quality. Meanwhile, a new television adaptation of Superman, this time as he grew up in Smallville, was well received and lasted ten seasons. A similar series is in the works for the Green Arrow, simply titled Arrow.
The biggest reason the new super-movies are doing well is the backing of the studios. None of the Avengers-line of movies were cheap. The Dark Knight trilogy of movies showed an eye for detail. Instead of just assuming that only children will want to go to these films, the studios ensured that both fans and non-fans will enjoy what’s on screen.
There’s still room for a movie to bomb at the box office. Indeed, a series of poorly attended movies may spell the end to the current adaptation craze. But, for this to happen, the studios would have to completely miss the point of the characters, something that both Marvel and DC’s studios have so far avoided.
Next week, something will be here.
* Yes, the X-Men are a group of heroes.
** The exception being the Hulk, who remained with the team for the couple of issues before leaving.