Approaching The Super In Superhero

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.

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18 Responses to Approaching The Super In Superhero

  1. Tom says:

    I liked this.

  2. Robin Plante says:

    taking the fantastic seriously*

    And I need to see Thor before I completely agree or violently disagree with you, I’ll get back to you on FB when that happens.

  3. varun jain says:

    A very interesting point indeed… although my most favourite superhero film is in fact THE DARK KNIGHT , this approach might not work for most of the other superheroes …THOR was very fun , great fun to watch. Although i’m badly awaiting the Avengers ,
    i am much much much more enthusiastic about nolan’s dark knight rises … 2012 is gonna be the biggest year for superhero films so far … if anyone can better thae dark knight or take it to a great conclusion, it is Nolan…. And he’s already shown great signs of doing that by including the character of BANE… !

  4. AirDave says:

    Exactly! Excellent, and brilliantly put.
    Found this blog post through http://www.imdb.com!

    Unfortunately, Hollywood only makes a certain kind of film…over and over and over. It doesn’t really matter what the story or the character is, the formula is the same.

    But Thor doesn’t fight “crime” the same way as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man or Iron Man. Marvel is succeeding where DC is failing miserably in that they are approaching each of their characters as unique and individual from each other. And over a relatively short period of time, even their average films like Blade, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Daredevil have gotten nearly all of their characters exposure. DC is still trying to figure out their two biggest properties like it’s rifle assembly in basic training!

  5. Pingback: Hit List: May 10, 2011 | IMDb: All the Latest

  6. I think it’s a stretch to say Nolan “redefined” or “rewrote” the genre. TTBOMK, the only later superhero film to match or even approach that level of grit is Watchmen.

    • Fred says:

      TTBOMK????

    • Doug says:

      I’d also dispute the claim about Nolan, and at the same time the idea that Tim Burton’s Batman films were “campy.” If previous superhero movies were “campy,” then Burton’s first Batman movie was the one that redefined the genre, taking its inspiration from Frank Miller’s comic work on the character. Sadly, Joel Schumacher brought Batman right back to camp…

      But even Burton wasn’t a genre-redefiner. What about Richard Donner and Superman: The Movie? That was not “camp” (with the exception of Ned Beatty and, to a lesser extent, Gene Hackman). It was a sincere, genuine superhero movie with heart. And, as “The Donnor Cut” demonstrates, Superman II would have been along the same lines, had the producers not fired Donner and brought in notorious campster Richard Lester. As with Batman (but a decade before), the third movie in this series–fully directed by Lester–defninitely qualifies as camp; but in both cases the first 2 movies are anything but.

      • Holden says:

        Yeah, I agree. “Heavily stylized”, yes. But Campy? Especially BATMAN RETURNS is with its script, that is more interested in analyzing deeply disturbed characters, than showing colourful action scenes, far away from being campy.
        Nolan has probably given the franchise its dignity back after Schumacher ran it into the ground, but Burton was the one, who took the whole subgenre of superhero movies out of the Kindergarten, long before Nolan went into professional filmmaking.

  7. Shatter24 says:

    This article is a bit of an over-simplification of what’s been happening with superhero films. Marvel is including humor in its new films while staying faithful to the source material (but also modernizing it). Marvel’s films are not necessarily campy (though they don’t take themselves too seriously, finding humor situationally in the story) nor are they gritty/ultra-realistic like the Batman franchise.

    The original Batman from Tim Burton would not qualify as campy but it was also not faithful to the source material. Burton put his own gothic spin on the character, trying to create a serious, yet stylized, film from his own viewpoint. While the Batman franchise became campy when Schummacher took over the series the films of ’90s did not start out that way.

    Overall, you do discuss some interesting issues but I would have liked a slightly longer article to discuss the impact of films like Watchmen and Kick Ass on the superhero landscape.

  8. inning says:

    I’m going to have to disagree on a couple of points. While Nolan did help to start the dark, take-your-movie-and-its-character-seriously approach, he’s not the first to attempt it.

    Richard Donner took the Superman mythology and its history seriously. He made a very strong and dramatic film for 1978. Tim Burton did the same and added his own style of darkness with Batman in ’89, and the reason it came out a bit campy was because of Burton’s own personal style at the time… but even that style is toned down for Burton. David Goyer (who wrote Batman Begins) has been trying to take his characters seriously since Blade in 1998, and Bryan Singer took a mutant story and tried to make it seem as grounded in reality as possible.

    Raimi’s Spider-man was easily inspired by Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman. And again in this case, the little bit of camp comes from its director’s own personal style.

    In fact, all 5 of those films I think are inspirations for how Batman Begins and The Dark Knight ended up. Nolan just took it further to make sure no one doubted the stories lived in the Earth we know.

    I think all of these filmmakers took their characters and stories seriously and didn’t intend to go “campy.”

  9. I have to echo what was said before me. Tim Burton’s non-campy Batman and fairly non-campy Batman Returns are what made movies like Batman Begins possible. Burton took the camp of the comics and the 60s television show and turned it into a dark, realistic world, making this comic book adaptation palpable for many non-comic readers.

  10. Grif O' The Wisp says:

    I have to disagree with your most basic premise – that of campy films emulating the cartoon style rather than the gritty tone. If we look at the history of Batman as both a comic book and it’s live adaptations you can see an ebb and flow. Batman started in Detective Comics and did follow a truly gritty storyline; it’s hard not to when the main character’s parents are murdered in front of him. As the character progressed the comics themselves started to fall away from the gritty realism of the Dark Detective and moved towards the funny pages. When the Adam West Batman series arrived it did mimic the comic books of the day. The Batman and Robin mythos was campy in both mediums.

    Soon sales started to wane and DC revamped Batman by sending Robin away to college and making the crimes and violence darker again. The sales didn’t fully recover and Batman was close to being canceled until Frank Miller came out with “The Dark Knight Rises.” The comic had hit it’s gritty peak. The movie adaptation three years later did the same. Tim Burton created a gritty, film-noir world of gothic spires and shadows. “Batman” and it’s sequel, “Batman Returns” had outlandish villains but that is what makes Batman so popular – the villains.

    Again the tide shifted and after Miller and Burton finished their respective runs the comics and the movies slid back to campy. Alas, this resulted in Batman’s nipples.

    Now we are seeing Chris Nolan’s reality inspired “Batman Begins” and, other than a recent death/time-travel storyline, the same reality is infused into the comic. The movies have very much mimicked the comics rather than diverging from them.

    Marvel has done a good job keeping their movies tonally consistent with their comics in the modern movie era, that much I agree with. I just don’t think comic book adaptations are campy despite their source material but because of it.

  11. Fairportfan says:

    I’ll point out that “The Green Hornet” is only tangentially a comic hero – the character originated on radio and had its main success there.

  12. Irving 143 says:

    Um…y’all realize Batman is a DC character, right? So what’s with all this emphasis on Marvel’s films when everyone seems to be declaring that the Batman flicks—just to reiterate, Batman is a DC character—are leading the way here?

    And did I mention that Batman is a DC character?

  13. specimanYak says:

    Two of the best comic book adaptations to hit the big screen so far have been ‘Watchmen’ and ‘A History of Violence’, both stay true to the tone and themes of their respective comic books and neither dumb down or camp up for an easy watered down iteration. Also of mention are ‘Ghost World’ and ‘American Splendour’, i know neither are ‘superhero’ movies, just wonderful movies based on comic books.

  14. Tigrer says:

    While Nolan did of course redefine the genre with the realistic portrayal he attempted in his Batman ventures, there’s another film which came much earlier, that also stands as a pretty much opposite to the campyness of earlier superhero films: The Crow.

    The dark and dirty world of drugs and nihilism that flows through the black veins of The Crow, makes the polished streets of Gotham city and its flamboyant supervillains, look reminiscent to the full out cartoon-caricature approach of Dick Tracy.

    http://www.cultcinema.net

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