Superheroes: From Comics to Movies – What Social Business Can Learn

by Admin on February 22, 2013

JLA - Alex Ross It may be of no surprise to those that know me – I loved comic books in my youth.  Still do.

I grew up in the same town that brought us Kurt Busiek of Astro City and Scott McCloud, known for ZOT, the industry opus Understanding Comic and helped found the Creator’s Bill of Rights.   While these names may not be part of every ones comic book creative lore as Kirby, Lee, Miller and Moore – they helped shape the storytelling, history and ethos of the industry as we know it today.

Alas, my other passion is movies – and I’ve seen the migration of comics / graphic novels to the big screen through out the years, their cross-generational, iconic titles, cult like story lines, and larger than life characters.  Some have successfully been brought to life – capturing the essence of the characters, the conflict and generational issues that made them iconic – a reflection of our culture and human history.

And I’ve witnessed the disappointments and disasters – where everything that was special to the original material become lost in the transition to film.  Where the only hype and marketable element of the movie is that it was based on a comic book or brand you once knew.   Yes Spirit –  I’m looking at you, among others.

Yet – I see an evolution of the Comic Book, super hero movie.   They are no longer spewing out the same ‘ole – same ‘ole origin storyline and in the sequel where the Hero / protagonist question their commitment, sacrifice and struggle with her/his plight in the part deux retelling of the original tale.

These past few summers, we had the Cold War, personal rights, espionage thriller with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class.   The Shakespearian trials of a son, carving out his own path under the shadow and living legacy of his father in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.  The Hero of a Thousand Faces personal transformation in the World War II movie with Chris Evans in Captain America and throughout Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

What Brands Can Learn When They Engage Social

And I only wish I saw the same commitment in the evolution with companies and brands in their transition of their voice, their value, community, customers and brand promise through the social medium. Hopefully this isn’t too much of a stretch of a comparison.

But, as with too many benign and horrific comic book based movie adaptations, their sole promotional brand value is – “Hey, it’s now a movie, based on something you may have enjoyed and known as a good comic book or graphic novel.”

Too many companies and brands do the same thing when they go “Social.”  Hey approach Social as a broadcast medium and take great efforts to promote, “Hey, Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter,” and have forgotten to take along with them the essence, the passion, the engagement, storytelling and commitment they had with their brand.

Yes, it may be difficult – because it takes commitment.  More importantly it takes an understanding of your voice as a brand and a commitment to infuse it throughout every touch point of your company.  Not only through your social, communications and marketing programs – but incorporate the brand culture into the very DNA of your product, services, sales, design, research and customer care programs.   Distill the core value and character of who you are want to be as a brand and let it take root, nurture and grow through out your employees, partners and customers.

Characters Matter
One of the core reasons why the 2008 Iron Man movie resonated with audiences and did so well at the box office was because the producers and director knew it wasn’t a Super hero movie.  It was a Character driven movie with action.  Iron Man rocked because Robert Downey Jr. rocks.  He carried the movie through his wit, charm, humor and sense of self-deprecation, ego and approachable humanity and vulnerably.  The same complex, character traits found within Tony Stark himself.  

(Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Photo Source: ~ Marvel Desktop Wallpaper)

But what helped establish the solid foundation for the storyline and character driven movie itself, through every touch point of the film, was a creative cabal comprising of some of the original writers of the Iron Man comic book series from its most successful run and transformative age.   This group became the creative guiding light, touchstone of authenticity and muse for the film – helping to ensure the DNA of Tony Stark, Iron Man and his role within the Marvel universe were infused into the heart of the storyline and characters.

Outside of the Avengers, most of the superhero films that came out in the last few years were mostly cookie-cutter, unimaginative, misfiring non- adventures.

So does that mean we’re going to be buried in super heroic clichés, from the reluctant hero to the all-important “with great power” lesson?  Are we going to be flooded with samey films in which an ordinary schmoe gets power and then has to grow as a person, finally confronting a super villain who’s his/her mirror image?

Maybe not. What we’ve learned thus far about the summer’ films makes it seem we might have tossed the old cookie cutter away.

We were already thinking about this after reading a Guardian article that claims the movie Kick-Ass has “made a profound and lasting impact on the world of comic-book films,” by showing that comic-book movies can be more ironic, and a bit self-mocking, without going full-on Joel Schumacher campy.

And then, in a comment on our earlier post about mold-breaking superhero movies, Zack Stentz (co-writer of Thor and X-Men: First Class) wrote:

Superhero movies are already moving away from the conventional “origin story-gain powers-powers are awesome-powers are troublesome-fight villain who’s an even more powerful version of the hero” template, which is already beginning to wear thin. The perception at the studios is that 10 years into the latest cycle of superhero movies, audiences are familiar enough with the form that filmmakers don’t have to start from scratch and explain what a superhero is in every movie.

The main way they’re doing that right now is taking the superhero form and grafting it with other genres.

So Captain America is a World War II drama with superhero elements,
X-Men: First Class is a 1960s spy drama with mutant intrigue, Thor is a big mythological Wagnerian / Shakespearean opera thingy with superheroics added in. Of the year’s big superhero films, the two Greens both seem more like traditional origin stories, where an ordinary guy gets power. But in the case of Green Hornet, it came with a dose of indie slacker comedy, plus there’s the whole “pretending to be bad guys” storyline. And in the case of Green Lantern, there’s a huge helping of space opera – that alas never materialized.

As usual, movies are following in the footsteps of comics, which have long since stretched their big-money characters in a million different directions. You can’t possibly do something more off-the-wall with DC’s characters than DC’s own Elseworlds graphic novels, which included Soviet Superman, Victorian Wonder Woman and Hippie Batgirl, among many others. This past year, Grant Morrison gave us Cowboy Batman as well as Pirate Batman and Ultra-Corporate-Franchising Batman.

So will this be the year that superhero movies break the mold once and for all? Outside of the hightly anticipated Iron Man 3 and maybe – just maybe THOR 2 – The Dark World, I had to guess, I’d say no.
They’re going to stretch the mold, but not break it.

A few things come to mind, after thinking about this.

First, superhero movies (and almost all comic-book adaptations generally) are just a subset of action movies, which have their own conventions. And second, superheroes are barely a genre — they’re really just a hundred other genres shoved together and wrapped in spandex. Third, superhero stories on film provide a very specific type of escapism that has to be delivered in a pretty specific way.

Taking these one at a time:

1) Superhero movies are just a subset of action movies.
This seems pretty obvious, on the face of it, but what it means is that even if superhero films break out of the “origin story” and “grappling with power and identity” bubbles, they’re still going to be mostly trapped in another, slightly larger bubble. There’ll still be three to five action scenes in the movie, with a big boss battle in the final act. There’ll still be the troubled-but-wisecracking hero. People will still walk away from explosions and fall from great heights without any injury. Various modes of transportation will crash or collide with other modes of transportation. There will be an improbably hot chick in a skintight suit, whose only personality trait is that she knows kung fu. Etc. etc. All of which is fine — we love action movies, for the same reason we love horror movies and kung-fu movies, and it’s not for the creative storytelling.

If superhero films, in particular, do bring something that’s not an ingredient of standard action movies, it’s the fact that they talk about the uses and abuses of power — even the Batman films, where he supposedly has no superpowers. We’d love to see a superhero film that takes this theme to some new places.

2) Superheroes are barely a genre of their own.
What do the Spectre, the Incredible Hulk, the Punisher, Superman, the X-Men, the Question and Green Lantern have in common? Almost nothing. They don’t even all wear costumes, and they don’t even all have superpowers. Really, superheroes, as a genre, stand for “larger than life action heroes who either appeared in comics first, or are loosely based on a comic book idea.” You’ll notice that whenever Hollywood does a superhero film that isn’t based on comics, the film-makers are much more careful to adhere to conventions like the costume, the secret identity, the wacky origin, and so on — because otherwise, you won’t know this is a superhero at all.

Superheroes are basically pulp heroes, from an era when comics creators were pulling inspiration from every possible source. Vengeful ghosts? Sure! Lensmen? Why not? Alien champions? Sounds good. And so on. The main thing they have in common, apart from having been published first on cheap paper, is the fact that they’re generally characters a teenager can identify with and fantasize about being. And they all exist in a zone of heightened reality, not unlike the one occupied by the movie version of James Bond.

So you can’t really break the mold too much with a superhero film, or you’ve just got a generic action movie about people with powers, like Push, or Wanted. Not that that’s a bad thing.

3) People want a very specific thing out of superhero films.
And it’s not that different from what they want out of Harry Potter or Star Wars and Star Trek (Disney /JJ Abrams controversy aside.)  It’s a particular type of escapism that speaks to their anxieties. And one reason why we love origin stories so much, it seems to me, is because we want to have it reconfirmed for us, over and over, that an outcast who gets pushed around in school could really become a titan, or a demigod. Or that a regular kid stuck in Kansas could learn to fly. Plus, we want to know why this person chose to do these larger-than-life, crazy things with that power, instead of just using it to get rich and get laid, like we would have. And that choice mostly happens in the first movie, although the second movie often imposes a fake version of that choice via the “hero wants to quit being a hero” trope.

The same goes for character, visionary and nerdy driven, open, transparent start-ups.   We love them because they are representative of the dream within all of us – to be something more – greater than we even thought we could be.  Along their journey, they showcased their vulnerability, their passions, dreams and fears with the possibility for amazingness.   We route for them because they are real – and the more authentically they represent themselves and become engaged from the onset of their origin  – the more supportive and involved we are.

And following the similar line of thought from comic book commentator Gerard Jones writes in the introduction to Men of Tomorrow, the essential book about the origins of superhero comics:

“Many of these young men lacked fathers, either in physical fact or in some emotional dimension. Most had not been permitted to grow as children ideally should grow, having been either forced prematurely into the role of an adult or held in the emotional world of early childhood, or sometimes both at once. They played at grownup power and independence early while still nurturing the fantasies of the nursery. They dreamed of tomorrow, but it was a fantasy tomorrow, compounded of boyish science fiction dreams and wild hopes for their own success. To a degree that shocked even them, however, they saw and shaped America’s tomorrow.

Their relationships with masculinity, sexuality, power, individuality, violence, authority, and the modern fluidity of the self were so tangled and so heartfelt that their work spoke to the anxieties of modern life more sympathetically, more completely than they could have foreseen in their most inflated summer daydreams.

Those anxieties — about how to be successful, how to be an adult in a confusing world — haven’t exactly gone away since, either for society or for the people who grew up reading superhero stories. And those are the anxieties and fantasies that superhero narratives are meant to address. They’re power fantasies.”

And one other ingredient in the classic superhero story comes to mind — at least since the Silver Age if not earlier, superhero comics are basically soap operas, in which relationship troubles and other real-life challenges interweave with the latest villainous plot to blow shit up. Because of the nature of movies, we’re never going to get that level of serialized, arc-driven, soap-operatic stories about Peter Parker’s struggles to pay the rent. A lot of what has made superheroes so compelling on paper can’t actually make the jump to the big screen — all that we’re left with is the skeleton of the story, the “nerdy outcast becomes a hero” splash page, in widescreen Imax with a thundering soundtrack.

Really, the best we can hope for is that we’ll continue to see the occasional superhero movie that rises above the mediocre pack and does what all great action movies — hell, all great movies generally — do: Tell a story that feels unique and yet timeless, in which the action feels like part of the story, and not just set pieces mandated by the toy companies. If we get one really groundbreaking superhero movie in 2011, that’ll be a victory for great justice.

Illustration Credit: Alex Ross

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