Comic-inspired properties are nothing new. First there was movie serials and a then a few decades later, we had television series based on popular characters. Within a few years of their public debut, many concede it as an almost automatic part of the business. Paraphrasing the great Jim Steranko from a recent interview, he rightfully said technology has finally caught up to comic creative teams’ imaginations and can credibly present live versions of their visions with relative ease. But as with any genre, there are hits and misses, ranging from the mega-blockbusters to the “so bad they’re good” cult classics a majority of viewers don’t even know exist. Which leads to the question: why do some properties encounter wild success while others fail and get forgotten?
As usual, before I begin, I have to kick out another Watchtower disclaimer: there’s no way this is a comprehensive look at the development of comic properties and their success or lack thereof. That’s not just a series of columns; that could easily fill a few websites! To narrow it down further, take out animation. Look up all the series devoted to Batman and Spider-Man alone (or have fun debating the merits of Super-Friends vs. Justice League with someone) and there’s already a backlog to critique. Today it’s about who has done a nice job with “live action” versions and the constraints that come with that; not with the carte blanche of a drawing board and computers. To stay on a simple path, we’ll also stick with super-heroes and their ilk. The Walking Dead is based on a comic book and continues to pull in massive viewing numbers (and make Robert Kirkman a very wealthy man). But the popularity of that ties in with the popularity of zombie culture/survival fiction in 2014 and is a very different essay.
Finally, sequels (not to be confused with re-boots) and high box office numbers are excused as factors. Even if they really get off the rails (see Spider-Man 3 or X-men 3), it’s in a film universe that’s already been established and is further improved or tarnished (unfortunately usually the latter, see the first Batman quadrilogy) by subsequent production teams. At this point, they also already have a built-in loyal fan base that will blindly buy a ticket and get stuck with complaints and disappointment after the fact. If that sounds condescending, sadly it’s coming from a fellow sucker that’s been there.
The final big consideration before judging something you have at least a passing familiarity with is how much you’re willing to let go of an old continuity and deal with a newly revamped or curtailed one. This used to be heresy to an old-school purist like myself but as these are being made for general viewing as well as comic fans, I accept there needs to be a clean starting point for a novice that is both quickly learned and enticing to stick around for despite what could actually be daunting. Even more so for group projects – being a professed die-hard Avengers fan, for example, there are other characters I might prefer to see in their big-screen line-ups. But to connect groundwork that’s already been laid or is coming (see Marvel’s huge “Phase” strategy), or maybe some shortcomings translating certain powers to the big screen, I understand why certain omissions/alterations are made. Giant-Man/Goliath should be there as an original Avenger but while Hollywood has mastered extra-large robots and dinosaurs, I don’t know if a 50-ft. tall human still won’t look kinda silly – although the decision to make Galactus a cloud instead of humanoid in Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer was even worse.
There’s also the contentious issue for some of the multi-cultural recasting of characters who have originally appeared in print as Caucasian. Folks need to deal with the fact that while once upon a time these characters may have been created by predominantly white artists for a similar audience, changing their ethnicity/gender/religion/orientation to reflect some of the diversity in today’s wider audience does not alter a strong underlying story or premise.
Alright then, now how about discussing a few? We already brought up the FF, so let’s start there. There’s an early 90’s bootleg out there that deserves to be seen if you’re a comic reader and then just as quickly memory-wiped. The next time you hear about anything you’re a fan of that’s coming out and wonder why it’s taking so long – don’t! Car wrecks like this are the result. I still giggle that the sound effect of the Thing punching his palm sounds like a catcher’s mitt instead of bricks hitting each other. But even the pair that came out in the 2000’s as Marvel Studios found its’ groove and became a money-printing machine didn’t seem to resound with the public. However, the powers-that-be still believe in their potential as a franchise, so a third kick at the can is planned with-yep-an all-new cast. While we’re here, what’s up with casting someone who’s already played a notable hero as another one? I’ll admit I’ve gotten used to Chris Evans and even think he is a pretty decent Captain America, but for the longest time I saw him as the guy who played the Human Torch and wondered why they couldn’t find another blonde dude in Hollywood to play the part and avoid that involuntary cross-referencing.
But at least Evans was a relative unknown. After a mediocre Daredevil, Ben Affleck gets the call to give Batman a try? If you go with a star that big, you’ll always have the problem of seeing ____ playing ____ instead of just watching the story unfold. And while FF gets another crack at theatres, DD also gets a do-over, by joining the trending zone of independently-produced network material as a series slated to appear on Netflix (and in this case, the casting of Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin looks like an awesome choice!).
Going a little more recent, let’s focus on DC for a while. Yes, aside from the triumph of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, DC still has a long way to go before threatening Marvel’s movie supremacy; who are now confident enough to develop B-list properties like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, and still expect to crush it at the gates. But where DC’s at on television, that’s another story. After reaching a 10th season nobody probably expected, the CW’s Smallville successfully concluded and paved the way for Arrow.
Following the same template, Arrow started by taking liberties with its’ source material (even ignoring the establishment of a firm alternate Green Arrow character & history in Smallville and discarding Justin Hartley to start fresh by casting Stephen Amell) and freely borrowing heroes/villains/storylines fans recognize as “belonging” to other series to cut and paste into this one (the Atom & Rha’s Al Ghul, anyone?). But no one seems to mind, as once again like for Smallville, a spin-off series comic has even been created to meet the demand of new material for these particular fans to consume. Arrow has performed strongly enough that it was used to lay the groundwork in their season two for this season’s big spin-off hit, The Flash. And a hit it is; I don’t think there’s any worry in exec-land if this one will get renewed. I’ll date myself, but I’m old enough to remember watching the first attempt at a series (1990) of the same name crash and burn. Unfortunately, I can’t give it the “ahead of its’ time” defense either; re-watching some of those old episodes show they were actually pretty terrible and don’t age well at all.
So why does the new one work while the first one didn’t? That’s a tough one to nail down and as a semi-informed comic reader I was prepped for both debuts. It would be interesting to hear the initial impressions both versions left on “cold” viewers the first time they saw them. But aside from access to superior FX tech that can make the various facets of having a power like super-speed appear visually awesome, this new series comes into a world where super-hero properties are a genre unto themselves versus a novel oddity, with viewers who have grown up inundated with it and hungry for more. Getting people to buy into a comic-based show’s world is no longer a tough ask. It’s now about how cool that world is and how good it looks. So far, The Flash delivers on all counts, while familiarizing us with interesting characters we want to follow and constantly introducing us to intriguing new ones on both the good and bad side of the fence.
Lending more credence to the “right time” theory is DC’s Constantine on NBC. I don’t know what the long-term future holds for this one, as the character isn’t as well-known as DC’s upper tier Justice League-level heroes, but I like what I’ve seen so far. It all starts with common sense, having the lead played as a blonde, run-down, chain-smoking, fast-talking Brit-just like in the original Vertigo (DC’s “mature” imprint) comic. Maybe the studio was banking on his post-Matrix heat, but was there any wonder that casting brunette Keanu Reeves with an unaltered American accent in the part for the 2005 movie started it off on a wrong foot it couldn’t recover from? Beyond that, a general increase in popularity for things supernatural and a slackening of restriction on what can be shown on regular network t.v. – thanks to it’s trying to stay on par with an ever-growing cable competition – makes for pretty graphic, entertaining television that looks like an un-compromised version of the comic brought to life. Another case for good supernatural-tinged adaptations would be both Hellboy flicks, with a third film of the Dark Horse character slated for production.
The only problem I foresee for DC at this level is being spread around so many networks (three if you remember to count Gotham over at Fox). Ownership rights and greed will continue to win out over finding a middle ground to reward loyal, patient fans who made these shows popular in the first place and prevent characters owned by the same company optioned by different networks/studios to team up. Taking this little section full circle is noting that’s the reason why Green Arrow was developed as Clark’s vigilante friend in Smallville instead of introducing him to a certain playboy socialite named Bruce Wayne – thanks, Warner Brothers. et’s hope when Supes & Bats finally meet on-screen, it’ll have been worth the wait…
But to shoot that timing thing right back down, all you have to do is go back to DC’s movie track record. It’s trouble when their ultimate A-lister, Superman, has stumbled with two attempts in seven years to re-capture the glory years of Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal with both films missing the mark. Brandon Routh had a physical similarity to Reeve but that was about it. Henry Cavill’s Superman who kills (?) is still being processed by fans; hoping the saving grace comes in the much anticipated 2016 team-up. It feels like all the eggs are being put in one basket even though there are other projects on the go. Word that Shazam is coming with Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam should be exciting but I can’t help but think of Green Lantern a few years back. What should have been a slam-dunk of an entrance into the upper echelon of cinema heroes fell flat, even with big names involved and the ability to make a power ring’s capability look really good.
I know DC wants to stay on par with The Avengers franchise by setting its own heroes up for a Justice League movie, but there’s already been an outcry over choosing Gal Godot to play Wonder Woman. Sad because on its’ third try, DC got that one right with the casting of Lynda Carter to play her in the late 70s series. That’s right – third try! Some of you might remember a blonde, skirt/bodysuit costume-wearing Cathy Lee Crosby in a very different early, early 70s t.v. movie. But there’s YouTube gold to be found if you track down an unused 60s (circa the Batman series) pitch for what was going to be a comedy series where Diana Prince lived at home with her mom – yes, really.
Marvel hasn’t been immune to the timing bug either and is subject to questioning on some recent decisions. Marvel has a three-attempt trifecta of its own with The Punisher. First getting by the laughable Dolph Lundgren version, where the trademark skull was only found on his knife handles (well, at least he rocked black hair), many including me were satisfied with the incarnation played by Thomas Jane. So imagine the surprise when an unheralded round three came out with Ray Stevenson playing the lead. And aside from dollar signs, what was the driving force clamoring for a re-boot of the Spider-Man franchise a mere five years after the first trilogy wrapped? Although I will give thanks to a return to Spidey’s webs coming from wrist-mounted shooters and not, uhhh…inside him. That always seemed kinda wrong.
Having worse all-around luck are properties that are mined from the early 20th century, going as far back as the era of the Sunday funnies and the pulps. tarting with Flash Gordon and Popeye in 1980, anything from that time period has had trouble catching on with modern audiences, even if it originally experienced moderate success as a radio show or in cartoon, serial or television format. The Shadow and The Phantom were barely blips on the radar. Even The Rocketeer, Dave Stevens’ homage to that age, came and went without any impact. The Lone Ranger and Tarzan still struggle to find a new generation of fans. Dick Tracy was mistakenly marketed as heavily as the first Batman movie (including a major fast-food tie-in promotion) and the public was not interested. The last Green Hornet was re-imagined with a comedic slant that was never there before; so not surprisingly, the public had none of it. I’ll break my own rule I made at the start of this article and point out that Starsky and Hutch had the same idea with the same dismal results. Their producers would claim their numbers proved otherwise, but by dismal I mean a product that disappointed true fans and was an insulting disregard to the great source material it came from.
If you’re stubborn like me, you probably still need to see it for yourself, no matter how much praise or shit gets heaped on it. And that’s totally cool, as your definitive arbiter of what works for you should be your own personal sense of taste. My humble offerings of picks & pans here comes from my own suggestion barometer in the hopes it might save you some wastes of time; or better yet, turn you onto something if you weren’t already a fan planning to check it out…
Well, it seems the next time we meet will be after December 25th, so I hope your holiday season is fun and safe; and that your friends & loved ones know where all your haunts for acquiring pop culture goodies are! One of my gifts came early and continues as I’ve had the chance to keep on writing this column for an audience that seems to stick with reading it. Have a merry freakin’ GEEKmas and see ya next year!
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!