Breaking All my Comics Rules – Watchmen

I spent a few weeks exploring the general rules that seem to permeate comic book movies. From there, I explored all of them at once – as they all show up during the X-Men franchise. But as the phrase goes – the exception that proves the rule? How about a little Watchmen, then?

Generally regarded as the greatest of graphic novels, this twelve-comic series is a commentary on the entire comic genre, while itself being in the form of a comic. This meta-commentary is a large part of the success of the story, and it’s a similar situation as you see in other great comics commentaries – The Dark Knight Returns, The Incredibles, and eventually in this vein, Marvel’s Civil War.

Seriously - that is some strong praise.

Seriously – that is some strong praise.

The heroes get too big, work outside the law for too long, things go too far, and they have to hang up the cape. And then things get too big, and the world needs its heroes to save it once more. That’s the story in an extremely short nutshell. In the end, it’s not the story that’s my point here. The point is in the comics themselves, and the movie that eventually came from them.

Because by and large, these break my rules, while also containing the rules — as you might expect in a meta-commentary. And then, when you finally get to the present day,  some of the rules start to fit again, in an obvious way.

The Origin Story

For one thing, Watchmen as a comic does not open with an origin story. It dives right into the action – well, right after the action. The Comedian is dead, and it’s being investigated. We start with Rorschach narrating — ever the unreliable narrator. We aren’t given insight into this world, as much as disinformation. And it’s a mystery from the start.

Rorschach’s opening-page monologue also works really well as the main dialog in the amazing trailer:

Sure, origin stories are explored throughout, but they are weaved throughout the plot and serve the purposes of the plot. They serve as part of the larger exploration and revelations of the mystery.

I had three rules about origin stories. For one, start at the beginning. Watchmen does nothing of the sort. Well, the movie does a bit – giving us some history in the opening sequence. These set the scene of this as an alternate reality to our own, while placing the story in its place in history. The comic takes its time doing this.

For another, pick one origin story and run with it. That doesn’t quite apply to a one-off story like this – it’s the only option to choose. It’s also full of the origin story of two teams of superheroes, and many of the members of these teams. It’s not focused, but instead explores the whole idea and existence of superheroes.

And for a third, stick with a writer – generally the one from your origin story. Again, it might be cheating to say that this applies – of course they stuck with Alan Moore. However, Alan Moore was not supportive of the movie, as opposed to someone like Frank Miller who has been involved in a number of movies based on his comics. It’s just not the same.

Sequels, Villains and Changes

My second set of rules had to do with a larger franchise — with the comics leading to a larger universe that keeps going, that has a life of its own, and in the movies they keep going with sequels, full of more and more villains, and increasing changes from the comics.

This is it - 12 comics, one collected edition: the whole story!

This is it – 12 comics, one collected edition: the whole story!

These things just aren’t true of Watchmen. The story hits its end, is finished, and doesn’t need to go anywhere else. The comics didn’t go anywhere else, and the movie can’t really either. It will stand alone as a single thing.

And while it’s normally the sequels that have lots of extra villains, if we only have Watchmen to look at, it only has one villain. There is Molloch, who serves the purpose in the mystery of the Red Herring. In terms of my rules, he also serves the purpose of the “second villain,” there to distract our heroes. However, he is actively framed and used this way by the actual villain, so this is more of a meta-commentary on this type.

In the comics, it’s not a world full of villains that needs a hero. It’s a world at war, ready to explode. It doesn’t need a hero – it needs a miracle. Or a massacre.

Which leads to the last point — to changes. By and large, the movie is considered to actually be pretty close to the comics. Sure, some of the secondary story that the comics tell (like The Black Freighter) don’t make it onscreen, but most of the story does, mostly in comics order. It’s from Zack Snyder, who before this made the incredibly faithful 300. So maybe it’s no surprise.

The one main change that you see is in the ending, which bothered me at the time, but when you get down to it, it’s not much of a change. It exists more for time, and still keeps with the feeling and purpose of what happened in the comic. So I would say more that this should almost have seen more changes, as a movie, than it did. It looks and feels like it is a comic book turned into a movie, with occasionally some really awkward scenes because of that faithfulness.

Since the Movie

There are some things worth mentioning that have happened since the movie. For one thing, a bunch of new Watchmen comics have come out. For another thing, Alan Moore has happened.

Not both at the same time. Nope, the comics aren’t by Moore. And what types of stories are they? What could they possibly be? Why, prequels, of course – there’s nowhere to go with a sequel, as I said. And these are not just any prequels, but of course, origin stories. For, what it looks like, just about all of the characters.

This just seems like a ploy to make money, so someone had the rights to release more comics — I’m sure there were people who wanted to actually make the comics — and they fell back to what the default always seems to be. Origin stories.

But no, not by Alan Moore. He has some pretty choice things to say about the movie, superheroes, and comics in general. Oh, and Hollywood. Not favorable. I’ve been thinking about it, and it feels like he never really picked up on the joy of these stories, the speculation, the triumph, the escape, the wonder.

I wouldn’t call him a fan, a geek, or any part of that. He’s a critic. He’s outside looking in. So while he maybe gets it in some ways, he misses it completely in others. I am pretty much good with his story, his world here. I will happily disagree with him, and continue to enjoy comics, and the movies that they make from them. He made a story which does not fit that mold, which critiques it, and that’s good. It needs to exist. But I think I’ll stick with my comics full of joy and fun. Avengers: Age of Ultron, anyone?

How to Make a Comic Book Movie – Part 3

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
One of the 25 covers from Empire 25 for X-Men: Days of Future Past! I used this on

One of the 25 covers from Empire 25 for X-Men: Days of Future Past! I used this on

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 DeadpoolGambitX-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.

Cover from Uncanny X-Men #139… 2 issues before Days of Future Past. I used this on

Cover from Uncanny X-Men #139… 2 issues before Days of Future Past.
I used this on

No, really. They just used this design on a comic released last week:

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. Continue reading

How to Make a Comic Book Movie – Part 1

Comics. I love ’em, and they’re turning into movies left and right. There are continually ups and downs, good ones and bad ones. Movies and comics both, I suppose! There seems to be a formula to adapting a comic to a movie, as well. Not that they are all alike, or formulaic – but the adaptation happens in pretty similar ways.

I have been doing a series on Comparative Geeks called LitFlix – where we read the source material first, and then see the movie. My wife (@CompGeeksHolly) has been covering the books, and I have been covering the comics. So I guess in a way, these are some of my observations from doing that.

I suppose in particular I’m going to focus on the superhero films. I’ll try not to pick on any particular films or franchises, because I know there are people who like all of these different characters, and the different films as well. There are also critical eyes which would find problems with all of them, and fans who might find no problems with them at all. And what I have to describe aren’t necessarily problems – but patterns. So I hope you like comics, because it’s comics time!

Start at the Beginning

Yes, ha ha, start at the beginning. One of those basic storytelling ideas (and the definition of “beginning”…). However, it means something different when it comes to comics movies: start with the origin story.

Let’s look at a couple of reboots. Say, The Amazing Spider-Man. One common complaint was that we were going back to a character we know, pretty well and pretty recently, from other movies. And not continuing the continuity, but instead a new one. Which, it seems obviously, had to start back at the origin story. We couldn’t just have a Spider-Man movie where he’s going around being Spider-Man. For whatever reason, we have to tell the origin story first.

Or how about the Dark Knight movies? As much or more than Spider-Man, Batman is a known character with a known life, story, and origin. And a series of movies – different creative teams though they might have been – had ended not that long before Batman Begins. But again, back to the origin story.

It might be that it shows you are a different story. Clearly, when you repeat, re-do, and change a known event (like the origin), you are showing that you are telling a different story. And sometimes, you want and need to create that distance – I can understand them wanting to distance themselves from the previous Fantastic Four films, so I’m sure the new one will be an origin film.

So many more examples I could give! The origin stories keep coming up. But maybe the example to turn to is one that shows that going back to the origin stories is a really good idea. Superman Returns. They tried the idea of making a movie, years later, still in the same continuity as the previous films – like a Bond film might (except even Bond has dipped into origin-story territory of late!). For a variety of reasons, this film was not considered all that good, and ended up being the end of that continuity.

And so they made Man of Steel: new continuity, new tone and look and feel. Going back to the origin shows us it is new and different, and we accept its difference as the audience.

Pick a Good Origin Story

So while origin stories are an incredibly large percentage of superhero movies, not so with the comics themselves. A lot of big anniversaries have been hitting lately: 50 years of X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four… 75 years of Batman… and largely, these comics are still working in the same universe continuity as when they started.

Sure, there was an origin story at the beginning, but since then, they have to tell a different story. Often, you end up with short-stories or alternate realities, where they can re-tell or re-explore these things – sometimes going back to the origin in these. Like one short story I just read, Batman: Year One, which steps back to the very beginning of Batman. Or the one I read before Man of Steel, called Superman: Birthright.

However, I think the best example is Iron Man. This film, though I didn’t know it at the time, was at least in part based on the comic Iron Man: Extremis. In this comic, Tony Stark is remembering back to his beginning, remembering designing his first suit, in a cave, and just really a lot like the first Iron Man film. But then, this shows my second point about picking the right origin story: pick one that is a gift that keeps giving.

Because Extremis was not just the idea behind the first Iron Man: it was also the baseline plot to Iron Man 3. Far more obviously. But still, part of those comics, as I found and was amazed, was what they tapped as the origin story. However, you can’t really start with Extremis as a plot, so they ran the origin – and then returned to it later.

I’ve noticed this effect in some of my other LitFlix reading as well, such as for Thor: The Dark World. This is based in part on the comics introducing Malekith as a villain. Except, the mythical object that Malekith was involved with wasn’t the Aether from the movie: it was the Cask of Ancient Winters, from the first Thor.

Pick a good origin story comic, and milk it. Which leads into my next point. Continue reading