“Man of Steel was a bad movie that didn’t capture the essence of the superman I grew up watching on cartoons; Thor the Dark World was too similar to Man of Steel…Asgard is like Krypton…Thor wears a cape like Superman…Ben Afleck will never be as good a Batman as Christian Bale was…Superhero movies are for children…”
These are some of the sentiments I have seen expressed in Kenyan Newspapers relating to Superhero movies. Some express dissatisfaction about the way they are portrayed and others are just made in ignorance of the nature of the medium from which superhero movies are adapted ie. Comic books.
My estimation is that people’s first encounter (especially Kenyans) with some of these characters has been through cartoons broadcasted on TV. A majority of people who even go to the cinema to watch the movie adaptations scarcely if ever have read a comic book. Irrespective of my wild aspersions about that fact, the statements I have above quoted attest to that truth.
If you have never read a comic book as much as I have then the statements such as I have quoted won’t shock you that much. The purpose of this article without claiming to have complete knowledge of the statements it is about to make is to attempt and shed some light on some aspects of these films that will seem confounding to the uninitiated viewer whose only source of critique is an uninformed or at best biased newspaper article.
Before going further it would be prudent for the reader to be aware that Comic Books have a history that spans longer than a century. The superhero type comic books are more recent than for instance the cowboy, science fiction and pulp magazine counterparts, the earliest known as most popular being Superman which appeared in Action Comics no.1 in 1938 under DC Comics. Marvel Comics another comic book company had some of its more popular characters such as Thor and Spiderman appearing in the 1960s. Although the birth of these characters can be traced to certain individuals e.g. Batman was created by Bob Kane and the Fantastic Four were created by Stan Lee who also created a number of Marvel Characters, their design, stories of origin, values, foes and costumes have been re-imagined and adapted many times.
These re-imaginations have been both a response to the state of the American society and partly informed by the idiosyncrasies of the various comic book artists, editors and companies. The picture presented is thus a “rainbow fantasy world” with varying storylines and styles of depicting various characters. For instance the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern are markedly dissimilar from those portrayed in the 60s, 70s and recent adaptations.
DC Comics has even much recently began a rebirth of its superhero world with the rolling out of its new line of “new 52” comic books, depicting both Batman and Superman without briefs.
As such movie Directors have had the scripts, props and ethos of the characters informed by a patchwork of ideas picked from various comics. The Man of Steel (2013) was partly informed by Superman Birthright; Man of Steel 2 being informed by ‘Batman Noel’ and Frank Miller’s “the Dark Knight Returns”. That will tell you that these movies can never be tailored to just one view of what these characters stand for, what their appearance is like or much less how they were previously portrayed in Cartoons or In TV series such as “Lois and Clark” or “Smallville”.
Secondly creators of these characters (focus being on Thor and Superman) were informed or motivated by different ideas, methodologies and company ethos. From that it already starts to appear to the reader that claims as to the similarity between Thor Movies and Superman movies are unfounded. That is further vindicated by the fact that Thor as a superhero character was adapted from Norse Mythology (the Vikings) and Superman was a creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who were more motivated by notions of a Jewish Messiah sent from the stars and adopted by human parents. In fact the world of Thor has more similarities to J.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books than they do to Superman. The realm of Humans, middle earth in Lord of the Rings is similar to ‘Midgard’ in Norse Myths which translates loosely to middle earth. Ygradsil the world tree is similar to the King’s Tree. Further Norse mythological creatures such as dark elves, light elves, fire demons, frost giants and gods all find comparable equivalents in the Lord of the Rings. The assertion that “Asgard” a heaven-like Kingdom paved with streets of Gold and home to the all father Odin and the gods is similar to Krypton (A planet with a core like earth and an atmosphere inhabited by mortal humanoids with advanced technology) is entirely misplaced.
Complaints have also been abound that directors have altered characters too much without staying true to recognised templates. Having already explained the fact that there can be no single template to the appearance or dogma as to the mentality of anyone of these characters due to the contribution of various editors and artists to their re-imagination I would state further that some of the movies that are more agreeable to viewers have been to comic book enthusiasts a total anathema to comic book enthusiasts. The most recent one that comes to mind is the ‘Batman Trilogy’ which portrayed characters like Ra’s Al ghul, Bane, the Joker and Talia Al Ghul and Robin in ways completely alien to any imaginations that have ever appeared in comic books. For instance the joker has never been portrayed in comic books as wearing make-up and dying his hair. The most accurate portrayal of the joker was that done in the 1989 Batman Movie with the joker correctly depicted as having pale skin and green coloured hair because of having fallen in a vat of chemicals. Spiderman as portrayed by Toby McGuire in Spiderman 1,2 and 3 as having the spider webs come from inside his body is actually not in good standing with the character as created by Stan Lee. The webs are shot from a device from his wrists that fictional Peter Parker created called ‘web shooters’ or ‘web spinners’ which are filled with ‘web fluid’ that when ejected comes out as a spider web. This is correctly depicted in the most recent Spiderman movie ‘the amazing Spiderman’.
Claims as to the appropriateness of superhero movies for adults are neither here nor there since a non-Lord of the Rings enthusiast would hardly be expected to fully appreciate or make sense of Tolkien’s world. However I must admit that presently commercial sense and views of most comic book enthusiasts are swung towards more concrete plots rather than your run of the mill bad guy good guy movie. Perhaps that is why the Batman trilogies were so popular. Viewers everywhere have also developed a taste for a darker or more mature take on some of these characters and I am not surprised by Zack Snyder’s take on Superman on Man of Steel. In fact I was thoroughly impressed by it and that gives me reason to believe (both as a comic book enthusiast and movie viewer alike) that Man of Steel 2 will be a success.
by Daniel Kobimbo
(All images courtesy of Marvel Comics or DC Comics)