For the last couple of weeks, I have been exploring some general rules that, for the most part, comic book movies follow – especially superhero movies. In part 1, there was a focus on the origin story, which seems to be a constantly recurring element of superhero movies. In part 2, there was more of a focus on the sequels and franchise that comic movies tend to always have in mind. Here are my six general rules:
- Start at the Beginning – they always seem to go back to an origin story, and when they don’t (Superman Returns), it doesn’t always go very well.
- Pick a good Origin Story – while origin stories are a huge percentage of comics movies, they’re a much smaller subset of the comics themselves. However, they’re often told a few times in different ways – picking a good one is key!
- Pick a Writer and Stick With Them – a lot of people have had their hand at writing about these characters, with DC and Marvel spanning back decades. You can’t adapt all of it in a handful of movies – so generally, they pick one writer and go with their interpretation and storylines.
- Aim for Sequels (or a Franchise) – comic movies are like potato chips – hard to have just one. For studios, this makes sense – you make these movies to make a lot of them, and thus a lot of money. For fans, this makes sense – there are so many stories to be told, you can just keep going!
- Pick Multiple Villains – it rarely fails: if it’s not an origin story, then you’re probably going to see several named villains, often a distraction or a red herring in the bunch.
- Be Willing to Make Changes – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but changes are inevitable with these adaptations. Especially, the longer the series, the more that choices have to be made to keep with movie continuity, rather than comics continuity.
You don’t necessarily see all of these rules in one movie – can’t, really, as some deal with the very fact that there’s more than one! However, the more you can look at, the more apparent these rules become. Not convinced? Then allow me to explore a case study: the X-Men franchise. Now at 7 movies spanning decades of history, this series has more movies slated and even more in the talks: titles like Deadpool, Gambit, X-Force, and the sequel X-Men: Apocalypse.
While a rule like “aim for a franchise” might seem obvious here, are the rest? How do they hold up? Read on, and then let me know what you think in the comments below!
The Proof is in the Pudding: The X-Men
But wait, you say, the first X-Men didn’t include an origin story of the X-Men. It wasn’t necessarily based on a specific comic, although maybe the aesthetic of Ultimate X-Men at least is a part… except that comic came after the movie!
However, in large part, these comics all owe a lot to the work of Chris Claremont, and his run of X-Men comics in the 80’s. Because these comics first gave us Kitty Pryde, whose origin story has become a staple of the X-Men.
No, really. They just used this design on a comic released last week: http://marvel.com/comics/issue/48535/all-new_x-men_2012_32
It’s hard to introduce a new character in comics, it is. And to get new fans buying in, to give them their own life. It happened with Kitty Pryde. She joins the team, and then almost immediately after, we are shown a dystopian future: with Kitty Pryde still alive. She’s powerful and skilled enough to survive the genocide of the mutants. Then she comes back in time and saves them. It’s just a little two-comic story called Days of Future Past.
However, this idea – of introducing the young, female mutant to the team, to introduce the character, to bring in a new audience, to re-introduce the X-Men and do a mini-origin story – they’ve done it a number of times, in different media.
Remember the 90’s X-Men animated series? That opened with Jubilee, the new young female mutant, introduced to the X-Men and who they are and what they do. They fight the Sentinels, deal with the mutant rights issue, and you spawn a TV show. Or there’s the amazing video game, X-Men Legends. This game opens with the new mutant Magma, a young girl who is recruited to the X-Men, trains, and joins the team. She’s who you play in-between missions, back at the X-Mansion.
So then, there’s the first X-Men movie. There’s our young Rogue, origin-story in tow, joining the X-Men, getting caught up in the rights issue, coming under Wolverine’s wing. Oh, because that seems to generally be part of it too: they end up as Wolverine’s sidekick. In all of these cases.
Okay, so I’ve drawn a line to the first X-Men. But the run of comics in a row (Uncanny X-Men 125-142) is more than the introduction of Kitty Pryde and Days of Future Past: it’s also Proteus (X-2), and the Dark Phoenix Saga (X-Men: The Last Stand). All by Claremont, all running in the comics within a few years of each other. Oh, and Claremont also wrote Wolverine, the basis for The Wolverine.
That’s now a pretty solid connection to five of the X-Men movies, out of the seven. I think this meets my rule of picking a writer and sticking with them.
But wait, what about X-Men: First Class? Oh. It’s an origin story. Like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Stepping back from tapping the well that is Claremont’s run of comics, they went back to the default mode for a comics movie: the origin story. With mixed results: Origins: Wolverine is pretty universally reviled, and First Class is generally loved. So much so that great lengths were gone to in Days of Future Past to unite the origin story in First Class with the later continuity… and to erase the existence of Origins: Wolverine.
But despite being based on these comics, they are not slaves to them. For instance, these Claremont-comics plots are going on through the movies, but they’re happening at the same time as Magneto-versus-Xavier ideology battle plots, which flow through the original trilogy, and then into First Class and Days of Future Past. And there’s dealing with changing all of the comics timelines, which has led to different characters being present at different times, and changing things like the “original” X-Men teams, or who time-travels in Days of Future Past.
Speaking of the villains, I haven’t really touched on my rule for them. And with the X-Men, which is a group of heroes and not just one, it might be unfair to consider a group of villains like the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as multiple villains; they are collectively one villain. However, after the original X-Men (our origin story), we got the Brotherhood back in X-2, as well as the plots of Striker, and his son (based on Proteus). Then in The Last Stand, we got the Brotherhood again, as well as the Dark Phoenix. I could define things in various ways in the other origin-story-like movies, but how about The Wolverine? Silver Samurai and Viper. Days of Future Past? Beyond past and future Sentinels and Trask, there’s also still Magneto and Mystique and their plots.
So there we have it, the now 7-movie X-Men franchise fits the rules I have observed for adapting a comic-book movie. It started with an origin story, based on an idea from the comics. This same idea led them back to the plot from these comics for movie 7. And, in-between, they used extensively the comics by the same writer to inspire their stories. When in doubt, they turned back to origin stories. And, to keep their existing movie universe internally-consistent, they made tons of changes as well. And they kept the plotline of Magneto vs. X-Men going, while also including other villains to distract and draw attention and drive the plot.