Superheroics and Cinema
You will have noticed that in recent years almost every major film seems to have been adapted from a book, a video game or a comic book. I switch on the television; Jennifer Lawrence is promoting her new Hunger Games film. I open up a magazine and the first advert is for the highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The process of Hollywood adaptation is by no means a new thing (The Godfather and Goodfellas are both adapted from books and Superman: The Movie was a smash hit in 1978) but the sheer volume of adaptations has led some to argue that Hollywood has run out of original ideas and has turned its back on new material.
However, although many people criticize this apparent lack of originality, I think that film adaptations can offer a new look into the already established story, and more importantly, bring it to a wider audience. A prime example of this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
2008 saw the start of a multibillion-dollar film franchise that would change the face of superhero comic book film adaptations forever. Ironman, staring Robert Downey Jr, was the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and since then Marvel Studios has released nine single superhero films and two ensemble film with all the characters from the single Marvel films.
However, comic book adaptations aren’t a recent phenomenon, they have been around for a very long time with the first being made in 1906. So for actors and directors, being involved in a contemporary superhero film is widely regarded as the fastest way up the ladder, and a guaranteed payday. Every film that has been released through Marvel Studios has achieved instant success, making millions of dollars, and shooting the actors into immediate stardom.
So why the great success?
In comic books, the only limit is the artist’s imagination. Film and television struggled for a long time to compete with the visual splendour and excess of comics. However, thanks to incredible advances in special effects, and the seamless incorporation of CGI, live action superheroes finally look believable. So it would seem that the reason for the great success is that comic books lend themselves perfectly to adaptation with regards to the hyper-real effects of CGI. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fitting example of how comic books, especially those comic books about superheroes, lend themselves to the big screen.
Captain America: Volume 5 was first released in 2005, with Ed Brubaker taking the role of lead writer. Brubaker changed Captain America and sent the comic in a completely different direction. Captain America had always been a dull character to me, until Brubaker came along and opened my eyes to a whole new prism of storytelling. Brubaker seeks out and identifies a specific tone and certain themes from his very first issue.
Themes such as espionage, conspiracy and emotional torment, and he continued this up until his departure from the title. In 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released under the direction of the Russo brothers. In my opinion, The Winter Soldier is by far the best adaptation of a comic book to date. It is not 100% accurate by any means but in relation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe it works perfectly and has the best blend of new material for the cinematic audience and the original source material from the comics.
To start the adaptation process, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and the screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, first highlighted Brubaker’s themes and started to build the narrative of the film from there. The Winter Soldier isn’t quite a direct adaptation of the original story, but it hits the main emotional and tonal beats.
As you already know there is never going to be a true, ‘direct’ adaptation of any source material. It just wouldn’t work. The Harry Potter films would still be in production if the screenwriters wanted to fit in every bit of speech, plot development etc. from every single book. Instead of trying to fit everything in, which will hinder the filmmaking process, the directors and screenwriters of The Winter Soldier have identified the tones and themes of the source material to begin the correct, best and nearest possible adaptation of the film.
It is a matter of showing respect for the spirit of the original without necessarily having to duplicate the exact details. Instead of the film being a verbatim adaptation, involving certain storylines from the comic book – such as The Return of Red Skull, and the involvement of the cosmic cube – some scenes were scrapped in order to make the narrative of the film more in line with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the previous Captain America film, the Red Skull appears to have been killed by the cosmic cube, so the explanation of the return of him would have been proven difficult, and taken up much needed time in the film for other strands of storyline to take place.
Comic books have a long timeline (Captain America first appeared in 1941), which is inevitably difficult to translate onto the big screen. In reaction to this, certain aspects of the source texts must be left out. However, other source materials are added alongside the main one, to expand the storyline and give it body.
We can see this in The Winter Soldier, where certain characters, such as Sharon Carter, have been replaced from the source material. In the comic book Sharon is an established agent who has quite a history with Captain America. In the film she is still present but takes a marginalised. The character that takes her place is Black Widow, a character who the audience are already familiar with and with whom they already have a relationship.
A key problem with adapting anything into film is getting the right actor to play the part.
This can be a gruelling process, as casting directors will want to get the person best suited to play the character at hand. In the past, there have been incidents where big name actors have been cast in a role, simply because they have a high profile in the business which can consequently affect the character and the film itself. One of the best examples of bad casting was the choice of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in the 1997 film Batman and Robin. I have nothing against Schwarzenegger, his acting capabilities – or even his god-like attributes, but the character of Mr. Freeze was changed drastically to fit Schwarzenegger’s acting range. This resulted in a camp performance in what was a disastrous film, and most importantly, that painful over use of bad puns.
‘Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well. For it’s the chilling sound of your doom.’
Thankfully, this wasn’t the case in The Winter Soldier which has a far more nuanced and realistic level of dialogue. This is because it’s more of the imagery that is translated from the comic book to the screen rather than the dialogue. The Winter Soldier also draws upon other cinematic genres. It what might seem like a strange for a film that is in part aimed at a young demographic the film draws upon 1970s conspiracy theory films such as The Parallax View. This demonstrates that comic book films are more malleable than some might think and able to tap into contemporary debates such as the use of surveillance and personal freedom. Recently, geek guru Simon Pegg has caused a twitterstorm by positing a view that comic book movies are dumbing down culture for capitalist gain. However in my opinion, The Winter Soldier demonstrates that complex ideas with some heft can coexist alongside action and adventure whilst appealing to a vast audience.