The weekend brought two interesting pieces about the state of the superhero movie, following up my earlier analysis on the form’s underwhelming performance this summer at the boxoffice.
The New York Times offered a think piece by Alex Pappademas, who concludes that the genre needs more input from auteurs, a la what first Tim Burton and then Christopher Nolan did with Batman, as opposed to being bound by slavish devotion to the original material. He makes some interesting points, but he lost me when he came close to endorsing Ang Lee’s turgid take on “The Hulk.”
A day earlier, the Los Angeles Times’ Ben Fritz wrote a piece about how studios are undaunted by the summer’s disappointments, with Warner Bros. even saying it hasn’t given up hope on a “Green Lantern” sequel. To which I say, “In brightest day, in blackest night, when pigs fly, such a sequel will alight.”
There’s something to be said for not being completely boxed-in by the comics, especially because what works on a four-color page doesn’t always translate directly to film. Then again, 50 years of success (in the case of the big Marvel titles) in one medium does suggest that there’s something there worth preserving.
The truth is, though, an auteur’s touch offers no more of a guarantee for success than calling upon someone with strong fanboy credentials, like “300’s” Zack Snyder, who will direct “Man of Steel;” or Bryan Singer, who did a terrific job on the first two “X-Men” movies before stumbling on “Superman Returns.” The real key — which was true in the case of both “X-Men: First Class” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” — is to treat the characters respectfully and still be able to have some fun with them.
That is, as Pappademas suggests, a rather delicate balancing act, though why an auteur would be any more adept at walking the highwire remains somewhat puzzling. As he states, Kenneth Branagh was an unorthodox choice for “Thor,” and while I liked the movie more than he apparently did, he didn’t exactly blow the lid off the formula. (To his credit, though, Branagh and the writers did make the Asgardian dialogue — which could have been fatal — reasonably convincing, or at least not unintentionally hilarious.)
My conclusion, I guess, is there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for adapting comic-book movies, but I also think studios are being delusional if they think there’s not a lesson to be gleaned from this summer’s setbacks. Warner Bros., for one, must grapple with the truth that DC Comics’ stable of characters might not translate as well as Marvel’s heavyweights, while Marvel has the disadvantage that the rights to its best titles are generally tied up elsewhere.
As we’ve seen, making solid superhero epics isn’t an insurmountable challenge, and one suspects next summer — with A-list titles back on the menu — will eradicate some of these concerns.
Still, in terms of adapting the B-list characters, perhaps the studios should ask themselves WWCND — you know, “What would Christopher Nolan do?”