Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Does Source Material Matter?


Michael B. Jordan- your new Human Torch
So last week saw the release of the new Fantastic Four Film’s cast. And it was pretty well received.

What?

What’d you say?

OH! That’s right; apparently there is a black dude playing Johnny Storm (AKA Human Torch), a guy who’s always been portrayed as white in the Fantastic Four comics.

IGN, in particular, has valiantly tried to defend this casting choice, pointing out other white characters who were given black film counterparts, and asserting that the character would be just the same if he were black. Sadly, though, there’s no pacifying a group of angry nerds, who claimed that Fox should have just stuck to the source material (I should note, though, that there has been less uproar about this than there was about Ben Affleck playing Batman).

Which got me wondering; when it comes to comic book films, how close does one need to be to the source material? I would argue that diverting from the source material for comic book movies is actually okay- in fact, it’s generally a good thing! Below are a few reasons why;

So much story, so little time

Most of the more popular superheroes have been around since at least the sixties. That gives characters like the X-Men, Batman, Superman and Iron Man a history of at least 50 years! What’s more, unlike books, which finish once the series ends. Comic characters have had their stories going for decades with no sign of slowing down.

So when you ask Warner Bros, Fox, Sony, or even Marvel Studios to pick the “actual” story for their characters, what are they going to say? Is the “actual” Batman story Detective Comics #27? “No, not without the Joker”, you’d say. Is the “actual” Avengers story in Avengers #1? “Avengers with no Captain America? No SHIELD? What are you smoking?” you’d ask. Everyone has their own ideas as to what stories define these characters. The only thing filmmakers can do is capture the spirit of these stories and somehow find elements that appeal to everyone.

So much in the Characters

There is only one Indiana Jones. There is only one Bilbo Baggins. There is only one Luke Skywalker. Comic characters, on the other hand, have been rebooted, retconned and repurposed for at least five decades! Nick Fury was once white; now he’s Samuel L. Jackson. Superman was originally designed to be an evil dictator of a far-away planet; now he fights for truth, justice and the American way. Deadpool was designed to be serious- I’m not even joking!

The characters in comics have changed so much over the last century that even trying to stay “true” to the character is difficult. You want the real Batman? Which one; the comedy one that DC tried putting in the comics, the Frank Millar Dark Knight, or the one from the 40s who carried a gun and had no qualms shooting people? Granted, there is always one prevailing interpretation of a charcter- usually the most contemporary one, but that hammers home my point about how these characters change to suit the needs of the creators. Maybe, for example, there is a legitimate, artistic reason for making Human Torch a black guy. I don’t know; I haven’t sat in the production meetings. But characters get repurposed a lot in comics and so long as we get a reason instead of “that’s the way it is- deal with it” I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine.

Comic book movies Re-interpret- they don’t “adapt”

If there’s one word I think needs to be banned when talking about comic book movies, it’s the word “adaptation”. People seem to be continually mistaking it for “word-for-word transition from print to film”. A better word for comic book movies would be “re-interpretation”.

See, that’s what these films do; they re-interpret stories. It’s essentially a screen reboot of your favourite characters. That’s why the X-Men wore black in their first movie. That’s why Bane was just a muscle-bound dude and not a druggie. That’s why The Avengers never featured the Hulk dressed as a clown juggling elephants as per Avengers #1 (side note: the circus he was juggling in called him a robot because that’s apparently less weird that green giant).

Understanding that, why is a black Johnny Storm any less viable than a white one? Granted there’s the family issue that I’m not sure will be resolved (the invisible woman Sue Storm is white), and I’m not going to go full idiot and claim that it’s one step close to diversity in comics (we aren’t doing a black character in his own film yet, after all). But we need to understand that these movies aren’t going to just regurgitate the comic story back at us- every comic book movie is a reboot, and if they make this new Johnny Storm interesting, who cares what he was in the source material? It hasn’t stopped us before.