Spirit, character key in page-to-screen transition

Adapting comics to the bigscreen is a practice almost as old as comicbooks themselves. But as any fan can tell you, making a pic that does justice to the source material is a rare and precious thing.

But that’s been changing in recent years, as pics such as “Blade,” “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Hellboy,” “Sin City” and “Batman Begins” have enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim from general audiences and die-hard fans. There have been missteps such as “Elektra” and “Catwoman,” but this is arguably the golden age of comicbook movies, as studios and filmmakers weaned on comics have zeroed in on the best ways to bring them to the screen.

Comics properties and the expectations for them come in two distinct classes. There are long-running iconic superheroes that are well known all over the world, such as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and lesser-known properties like “Constantine,” “Hellboy,” “Daredevil,” “Sin City,” “V for Vendetta” or “Ghost Rider” that are known only to comics fans. The former comes with extremely high expectations and intense media attention; the latter is more open to alteration and reinterpretation, and requires more in terms of promotion to introduce them to audiences.

Fidelity to the source material is of utmost importance to fans, and films that come closer to the mark generally have been better than those that deviate wildly. Films that strayed such as “Hulk” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” fell short of critics’ and auds’ expectations, while the spot-on “Hellboy” and “Sin City” exceeded them.

Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad says emphasizing character is the best way to approach Marvel’s beloved and quirky heroes. “We learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the scripts have to be about character development. People are really interested in seeing us get the powers, seeing us learn to use the powers, and that’s where the fascination is.”

Villains who go beyond the mustache-twirling world conquerors of old are as essential as the heroes, Arad says. “All our villains are connected to our heroes, one way or another. If Peter Parker doesn’t care what happens to this villain, why would you care? So we need to play that formula and we are pretty diligent with that formula.”

Deciding where liberties can be taken depends greatly on how well known the characters are and the intent of the filmmakers. In writing and directing “Daredevil,” Mark Steven Johnson adapted the character’s best-known stories, a run created by Frank Miller more than 20 years previously. “There’s pressure on that because then it’s which parts of Frank’s story are you going to tell or not tell?” says Johnson.

His current Marvel project, “Ghost Rider,” offered more freedom because the character, while a popular and appealing concept, is not as clearly defined and its popularity has waxed and waned among comics fans. “That frees me up to then try to figure out how can I help it, how can I strengthen the mythos, ask what can I bring to it, what’s it lacking?” Johnson says.

Making a good comic-based pic still requires all the normal ingredients of a successful movie, and the best pics have featured directors with strong visions and a passion for the characters. Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) and Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) are arguably the best examples of this, but the right match also helps pics such as “Hellboy,” for which director Guillermo del Toro had a particular passion.

“People are surprised that based on Guillermo’s vision we were able to get a $60 million-plus movie made around Ron Perlman,” says Mike Richardson, president of Dark Horse comics and exec producer on “Hellboy.” “But once you see Ron as Hellboy, there’s nobody else who could have played that role.”

Still, even lesser-known comic-based movies have an audience that guarantees a certain amount of attention, which helps studios’ marketing efforts. “Regardless of any other factors, if something’s based on a comicbook it’s going to have some cutting through the clutter that it isn’t otherwise going to have,” says Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, prexy of Platinum Studios.

Comics pics still come with pitfalls and being based on a comic is no guarantee of success. Arad says it’s a mistake to compare comicbook movies directly as though they’re a single genre, because films such as “The Punisher” have vastly different audiences and expectations than “Spider-Man.” Sometimes, as in the case of “Elektra,” the films just fail to come together. “We make different kinds of movies and some of them are dark and not for everybody,” Arad says. “Therefore we aren’t going to spend the same money on those movies.”

As comics movies move into sequel territory, opportunities to flesh out stories and explore underused areas of these mythologies develop. “We actually like going into (movie sequels) three and four, but it has to be a natural sequel,” says Arad, who cites “X-Men 3″ as an example. “We are not going to force a sequel if the story doesn’t warrant it. And on ‘X-Men’ we went though all kind of incarnations and then a story just popped.’

DC Comics prexy Paul Levitz cites the match of the Superman mythology and weekly TV in “Smallville” as a successful pairing. “I’m not sure that it would be possible to do a primetime Superman television show that had the impact on the younger generation today that the George Reeves Superman show had on my generation,” he says. “But ‘Smallville’s’ having an astounding impact on its generation.”

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