Last week I introduced some characteristics that make up a modern superhero or comic book movie. Winning strategies that you can see used again and again. I focused mainly on the idea of the origin story: something they tend to always go back to, every time they start up with another hero.
So they start with an origin story, and tend to pull it from a comic that includes the origin story… and more. Often with the origin in a flashback, or just as a part. Then, they tend to continue with the stories connected to this origin story – generally by sticking with the same comic writer.
The reason for sticking with one writer makes a lot of sense: there’s decades of character development and history, based on countless writers and ideas of the characters. How do you adapt a character with that much baggage? By picking one vision of the character, and going with that.
However, once established in an origin story, they move on. Generally, these movies aren’t being made to tell us the origin story. They’re being made to have fun with the characters, as tends to happen in sequels. To include more, to tell more of the stories. To do more. To make a franchise, to bring the larger scope of the characters to life. Or, cynically, to make more money. But hey, all of these things are accomplished, so: here’s three more rules of making a comics movie!
Aim for Sequels – or a Franchise
I think it’s safe to say that just about every comic adaptation movie is shooting to make more than one movie. Part of the reason to tap into a known world, a known franchise, to deal with licensing this instead of something new, is that you can expect to be tapping into an existing fan base. This also aligns very neatly with the fact that so many comic adaptation movies are announced well in advance of release – you can already see them lining up for next year!
Of course, it’s easy to look at the big franchises and see this. And really, the success of The Avengers building off of Marvel Phase 1 can help explain why we’re seeing things like Days of Future Past tying together old-and-new X-Men movies, and then spin-off Spider-Man movies like Sinister Six and Venom. And why DC is working hard on finally actually getting a Justice League movie to the big screen. The franchises are only going to grow, until eventually one falters majorly.
Hopefully that’s not for a while.
But heck, look past the big name titles, and in recent years you still have Kick-Ass 2, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and more. Ghost Rider got a second movie, Blade got 3 movies, and even a movie like Daredevil got an Electra movie spin-off… Meaning I would not at all be surprised to see a Green Lantern 2, an R.I.P.D. 2, or a Hercules 2.
I find it important to note that many of those titles aren’t even directly based on comics! The movies went beyond the simple graphic novel it spun from, like 300: Rise of an Empire, which sounded terrible… maybe it would have helped to have had some source material to work from. But then you take Red 2, and it was great, even though the comic was really only related to the first film.
In short, expect a sequel at least when it comes to a comic adaptation movie. Usually they try to tie up most of the loose-ends and plot-lines in each movie, but still, there’s generally more to come. If done well, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!
Pick Multiple Villains
It happens so much of the time – a comic-book movie has two villains in it, or a villain and a maybe unrelated bad-guy organization. There’s rarely a team up, though of course Batman Forever exists to make that not true. But look at the movies before and after it: Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns not working together, and Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane, not necessarily as a trio in Batman and Robin.
You have Loki and the Frost Giants in Thor, Loki and the Chitauri in The Avengers, and Loki and Malekith (and friends, like Kurse!) in Thor: The Dark World. You have whole rogues galleries the various Batman and Spider-Man movies, you have Magneto and the Brotherhood and other villains in the various X-Men movies – or say, for The Wolverine you have the Silver Samurai and Viper both.
I could go on with more and more examples, but let’s just look at the exceptions. Generally, when there’s only one villain, it’s an origin story. So you get the Fantastic Four with their origin story and them coming to terms with their powers, and then you fight Dr. Doom. You get the second movie, and now we have Doom, plus the Silver Surfer, and then Galactus. While the later Spider-Man movies have multiple villains, the first one (in both recent iterations) has only one villain. Tim Burton’s Batman just had the Joker, but I mentioned all those villains in the later films.
Sure there are a few outliers, but it seems like extra villains are often thrown in to fill the time that in other movies would be filled with the origin story. You sometimes get villains who really just feel like a throw-away, and are dealt with earlier in the movie, or are a gateway to getting to the “real” villain. Think of poor Sandman in Spider-Man 3: why was he really there? Filler, which is kind of a shame, because Venom could have used more time.
One Last Thing: Be Willing to Make Changes
The last thing that constantly happens, and bugs the fans to no end, is changes. Little things, big things, lots of things. For making a movie, there are realities that happen, like actor contracts, other projects, timing, what have you. Directors changing or leaving. Sequels green-lit then canceled. Lots of these Hollywood realities in the news.
But there’s also internal changes, changes to characters, or storylines, or exact events from the comics. A big one recently was changing who does the time traveling in Days of Future Past. In the comics, it’s Kitty Pryde, the young new mutant, an awesome young female character. However, there were a lot of realities of the movie universe that made this difficult. For one thing, three different actresses played Kitty Pryde in the original X-Men trilogy, so there wasn’t one specific representation of the character to get behind. For another thing, they were traveling back in time to an era when Kitty wasn’t alive, because the timeline had been so changed from the comics timeline. Yes, they could have changed the method of time travel, but then, the fans would still be upset!
At some point, if you’re not perfectly adapting the comics, you’re probably going to annoy one fan or another. In which case, the most important aspect is to keep the movie universe itself internally consistent, to make choices which make sense with the existing story. Preferably awesomely.
For instance, Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed a lot of the past and reality of the organizations within: SHIELD, Hydra. They have a brand-new, different-from-the-comics story. And it’s awesome, it allows them to do unexpected things, to surprise new fans and long-standing fans alike, in a way that is in keeping with the idea of the organizations and characters themselves.
The comics adaptations that end up having far fewer changes are the ones that are more of a one-off, graphic novel adaptation. A movie like Sin City or 300 or Watchmen is a lot closer to the comic, because there is a discreet story to adapt. And even these have a number of changes for a number of reasons. Making changes as you change media is inevitable – and more than inevitable, necessary. They are different ways of telling stories, made by different people (usually… Frank Miller has been involved in a number of his adaptations), and differences will happen.