When you come into a comic book movie expecting adaptation, you shortchange your ability to enjoy it for what it is.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released to American film audiences on May 3, 2002, a fact that has taken a few moments to sink in for me since it means I was still in seventh grade at that point and I could have sworn I’d been at least a couple years older. Clearly, my memory of the time is unreliable, though of two things I am certain. First, there was Spider-Man-branded cotton candy available at the concession stand which I greatly enjoyed. Second, seventh grade me thought the movie was incredible.
Prior to 2002 I was pretty naive about comic books writ large. I had sporadically read Sonic the Hedgehog comics (courtesy of Archie) for a few years, and even dabbled in what I considered the tremendously edgy spinoff comic Knuckles (it had dating and kissing and teenagers! So mature!). Of course, I’d seen all sorts of covers and collectibles in the local Comic Corner (the oversized closet that was the town LCS which, in the very center of the town’s only real strip mall, was very much not in the corner of anything). But unlike my friends who’d spent many a Saturday watching X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series, I remained oblivious to the import of names like “Marvel” and “DC.” I went to the Comic Corner for two things — Sonic comics and Pokémon cards — and that was pretty much it.
Yet in early spring, one slightly thicker book caught my eye. It featured a slick-looking red and blue hero swinging past realistic skyscrapers. On the bottom right corner of the book were the words “Power and Responsibility.” That book — the first trade paperback of Ultimate Spider-Man — would be the first Marvel product I owned. It also ended up acting as a kind of gateway for me: not long after, I would want the omnibus hardcover for my birthday, and I began buying single issues of Spidey instead of Sonic.
The movie I saw in theaters shortly thereafter felt pretty true to the comics I’d been reading. If you’d complained to me that a Spider-Man origin story ought to have, say, Gwen Stacy in it, I’d have sincerely told you there was no one called Gwen Stacy in the comics, and that the film was faithful to Parker’s story, and that you should shut up. I was still too ignorant to know the difference between Earth-1610 and Earth-616. I didn’t know that comics feature alternate universes. I didn’t know there were other versions of Peter Parker, and even if I had been told I probably wouldn’t have cared. My Spider-Man was the only one that mattered.
I’m not sure whether the Sam Raimi films were ever officially declared adaptations of the Ultimate universe version of Spider-Man. I do think it’s fair to say that the first film was a much closer telling of Power and Responsibility than of the earlier Amazing Spider-Man stories. Still, the film has its differences, too (Look ma! No web-shooters!), differences which would become more pronounced and exacerbated as the trilogy unfolded. Even if Sony began with the intention of filming Ultimate Spider-Man, the movies quickly became a different universe in their own right.
Really, they always were.
Last weekend, another Marvel property was brought to cinema audiences in the form of the spectacularly panned Fantastic Four (the film currently boasts a whopping 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and a not particularly more encouraging 27% on Metacritic). I’ve not yet seen the film, but I had been optimistic about it in spite of all the controversy surrounding its production. Much of that controversy can be boiled down to a complaint which gets applied in the wake of every new comic-to-film adaptation: they’re not being true to the comics.
Not long ago, I probably would have been in the group screaming in protest of the perceived bastardization of a beloved story. I have long maintained that, given the cost of these productions, fans who may only get one shot at seeing the characters they love brought to life on the big screen have a right to demand that that be done properly. Fans ought to recognize the thing they have supported in these movies; after all, were it not for fan support, the franchise would likely have never been deemed film-worthy in the first place.
There is, to be sure, an element of truth to that argument. At the same time, I think about what made Ultimate Spider-Man so great for me as a young reader, and I think a major part of it was that the creators of that story did not feel tethered to the life and times of the original Peter Parker. Responsible handling of the spirit of Spider-Man was still there, but the actual execution was wildly different. And that was OK, because this was a different universe.
I think a major driver of aggravation directed towards film adaptations is that despite names like “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a lot of people are still treating the movies more like remasters of the universe they know than as if the movies legitimately constituted a separate universe. Which, according to the Marvel Wiki, is precisely what the MCU is: Earth-199999. (And yes, I know that the FOX and Sony films are not part of the MCU. That’s beside my main point here.)
In fairness, I do think there’s a bit of unnecessary trolling going on that contributes to some of this aggravation. Using titles like “Civil War” and “Age of Ultron,” which are specific titles of major comic book events, sends the message of adaptation even if in reality the film will share little more than the name. It’s not clear to me what the benefit of, say, Age of Ultron as a title really was, since the name (as opposed to any other name) will only meaningfully attract the comic readers who already have specific associations with that title. In other words, you confuse or aggravate the readers without any perceivable benefit for all the non-readers. What’s gained?
Naming conventions aside, however, the general point still holds: people do not think about the MCU as its own no-strings-attached-to-616 universe the same way they have thought about the Ultimate universe. For some reason, changing media also changes perspective; the fact that one of the universes also has actors and sound has clouded the fact that it is still, at its core, an alternate universe where only some characters or events should be expected to mirror their counterparts in another universe. And I think that’s a shame, because it greatly dilutes the enjoyability.
Most people I know who enjoy the so-called Nolanverse Dark Knight films are able to do so for one of two reasons. Either they are ignorant of the comic books, and thus have no expectations to be lived up to or dashed, or else they perceive those films not as an adaptation of some existing Batman story but rather as an elseworlds/AU that is not meant to be compared to or compatible with any extant Gotham tale.
To be sure, you needn’t be fond of something simply because it is an alternate rather than an adaptation. It’s fine to say “I don’t like that version of Batman” or “I prefer a different take on Harley Quinn.” But saying that the film universe version of a character is bad is really just the wrong way of saying it’s failing at the adaptation it was never intended to be. Moreover, people who prefer a film version of a character to that character in the comics aren’t wrong or deceived to do so, and I see far too many people acting otherwise. “You don’t really like Loki. You just like the film version.” Why not be more accurate? Liking the Earth-199999 version without knowing the Earth-616 version is no greater a sin than only knowing or liking an Earth-1610 version.
Probably a significant part of this is that people confuse their disappointment that a movie isn’t what they were expecting with their appraisal of what the movie actually tried to be. A long-time fan of Amazing Spider-Man could easily have hated the first Spider-Man film purely because it was not the motion picture 616 story she was looking for, thereby never appraising it as an adaptation of 1610 (or, better yet, as a standalone version with its own idiosyncrasies). When you come into a comic book movie expecting adaptation, you shortchange your ability to enjoy it for what it is.
The whole purpose of an Ultimate universe was accessibility, to make it possible for people like seventh-grade me to enjoy something called Spider-Man without having to first know decades’ worth of backstory. The MCU, and developing DCCU, are just new variations on that theme. Some will be awfully familiar and rewarding, while others will be completely unrecognizable. Love what you can, leave what you can’t. And let these new universes be the first or only universes some people know; the universes you love aren’t going anywhere.
Well, until the next Flashpoint or Secret Wars, anyway ^_^
What do you think? Do you struggle with treating non-comic versions of characters/stories as their own beast? Should films be reserved for faithful adaptation of existing stories? Have you ever preferred an alternate version of a character to the original? Let’s chat!