With the blockbuster success of Spider-Man all the way back in 2002, we have seen a myriad of superhero films released each and every summer since. From universally known heroes, such as the X-Men to the little known Green Hornet, studios are buying up the rights to just about any comic property they can get their hands on. With the wide ranging material and box-office trends, studios are constantly shifting their approach to adapting these heroes to the big screen. Directly adapting source material to please hard core fans or watering it down to appeal to the masses is a constant tradeoff facing directors. As most major superheroes have had books written by many writers and drawn by many artists, the tone can be different in every issue. This makes adapting a comic book a difficult process, with many possible approaches.
Until just several years ago, the goto approach to adapting superheroes was to make the film campy. In a way it was trying to emulate the cartoony nature of the medium instead of the actual tone of the comic. Of course this began with the classic Adam West Batman TV show from the 1960s, and was continued with Tim Burton’s Batman film as well as the many sequels that followed. This approach would be taken up for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man with great success. However, this success would not work as well for many other superhero films, which were unable to capture audiences with their campy nature. Fantastic Four is an example of a film which instead of feeling fun and light like Spider-Man, felt cheap and juvenile.
Ironically, the franchise that built the campy approach, has also been the one that has redefined the genre. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did not only reboot the series, but also rewrote the superhero genre. Batman Begins, and to a larger extent The Dark Knight, did not aim to reproduce the cartoony nature of comic books but instead to emulate the dark tone of the hero’s adventures. Feeling more like a gritty film noir than any superhero film to date, the approach followed by Nolan is still a contentious issue with film and comic book fans when it comes to its true genre. This gritty approach is one which works for a character like Batman but can lead to dangerous waters when working with certain heroes.
Most comic books are fantastical, with elements of magic, mythology and supernatural creatures. This leads studios to take the campy approach as they believe this is the only way to convey the inherent silliness of comic book films. While it may be more difficult, a different approach is available, one which studios have only now begun to use regularly.
As these stories are more often than not fantastic in nature, the most obvious yet risky approach is taking the fantastic serious. Thor, for example, is a film heavy on mythology. It is because of this that audiences may be less inclined to see the film. Luckily, with positive reviews coming out early, it now seems that Marvel has taken the right approach which is not watering down what makes Thor such a great character. They are not making it campy but instead opting for a serious approach. To make this film gritty and realistic would be near impossible, and to make it campy would lose any artistic merit that the film could have. It is something that Marvel Studios started with Iron Man and are continuing with their riskier films, such as Captain America and Thor.
Marvel is making a huge gamble this summer with Thor, and to a lesser extent Captain America. With The Avengers already shooting, the studio, as well as comic book fans, are crossing their fingers in hopes of huge box-office returns for Marvel’s summer blockbusters. If their gamble pays off, we may see this approach taken more often, leading to more faithful superhero films. At times the other style of comic book films can be great, as Nolan proved twice over, yet with characters like Thor and Green Lantern, gritty and realistic simply don’t fit the bill. Superhero films may be one of the least respected genres of film, yet if Marvel’s new serious approach pays off, we may just see these characters get the justice they so badly deserve.