Thanks to a multimedia onslaught, I doubt there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know that The Avengers movie opens this weekend. Although I was torn at first, I’ve changed my mind, and I’m really excited to see The Avengers as soon as I can. I think it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.
That being said, if superhero movies are on the wane (and with the money The Avengers is looking to pull in, it doesn’t look like they are), I wouldn’t care. In fact, I don’t really care if any more superhero movies are made. I mean, I’ve liked the Iron Man movies a lot. Thor and Captain America were a hell of a lot of fun. And I’m apparently one of the few people who didn’t think Green Lantern sucked. But as much as I’ve liked them, all of these movies have made something very clear to me: live-action superhero movies will never be as good as comics.
Yeah, I know, people always say, “The book was better than the movie.” That’s not what I’m talking about. Books aren’t a visual medium. Comics are. Film is, too. Adapting superhero comics into movies is adapting one visual medium to another. And there are things you can do in comics that you simply can’t do in movies.
For one thing, as anyone who has watched the 1960s Batman TV show knows, people generally look really stupid in superhero tights. It’s why Batman’s costume in the movies has gotten to be more and more like armor, less and less like tights. It’s why the X-Men in the movies where black leather instead of colorful spandex. It’s why the Hawkeye of the Avengers movie doesn’t wear the purple costume he wears in the comics. Even Captain America’s traditional costume only shows up in the movie as a joke about showbiz glitz. I love colorful, goofy superhero costumes, but what looks cool in comics can look really lame in live-action.
Superhero stories in the comics frequently go from street-level gritty and slice-of-life comical to monumentally, cosmically epic. But with a few exceptions (the Thor and Green Lantern movies come to mind–and the Avengers movie looks to be pretty damn epic), filmmakers and studios shy away from the really big stuff. The first Fantastic Four movie has the team save Manhattan–but mostly themselves–from a snarky, small-minded Doctor Doom. Where was Doom’s time machine? His gadgets that shrunk the Four into a microscopic universe? His claim to be the rightful ruler of Latveria? Why is Superman always saving Metropolis or the U.S. from Lex Luthor when he could be saving the world from Brainiac? Why don’t the X-Men fight Magneto on Asteroid M, his rocky base that orbits the Earth, or battle the Sentinels aboard a vast space station? I like my superhero stories to be full of high-level imagination, crazy science, weird mysticism, and cosmic drama, and there are too few examples of this in superhero movies.
The nature of comics also allows for storytelling that has become a mainstay of superhero stories, things that don’t translate to film, like lots of smart ass quips and long bouts of dialogue in the middle of action-packed slugfests. Narration and thought balloons also don’t translate into film without being intrusive to the experience. The biggest way in which Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies fell down for me was in Spider-Man’s utter lack of smartass quipping during fights, something that is an essential part of his character in the comics.
I clearly like a good superhero movie. But even the best superhero movie is a poor substitute for superhero comics. For some stories, live-action film is the best canvas. But for superheroes, nothing beats the comics.