Lost in Translation continues its retrospective with a fresh look at comic book adaptations.

There has been some uproar in the past few years about the number of adaptations being made by Hollywood. Looking at the past decade, there were no original works among the popular movies, with fourteen adaptations. Of those adaptations, eight came from comic books. Chances are good that if those eight were from a more literary source, which also excludes such genres such as science fiction & fantasy, romance, and all of young adult, there wouldn’t be an outcry.

But comic books are low brow, and thus are looked down on. Comics are for the masses. The studios, though, need the masses to be profitable. Some obscure yet acclaimed literary work just won’t hit screens outside specialty theatres. This isn’t to say that a comic book movie can’t be deep or moving. The issue is accessibility to the general public.

However, superhero movies, separating them from other comic book movies, are spectaculars. They’re big, loud, and filled with explosions. And they’re not going away, not anytime soon. Marvel is having a renaissance with its cinematic universe. DC is having success with the Arrowverse on TV. Until both Marvel and DC have a run of flops, they’re going to keep creating movies and TV series.

The advantage of comic books is that they are already a visual medium. The books can be used as a storyboard; this is what essentially happened with Scott Pilgrim vs the World. There’s no need to hunt through a tome to find descriptions of characters; they’re all there on the page. Superhero comics are built on action and drama with some titles having soap opera levels of intercharacter conflict. Everything that a work would want to have.

The disadvantage, though, is that comics have a lot going on that just can’t fit into a 2 to 2.5 hour movie. The more characters there are to spotlight, the less that can be showcased. Finite time requires details to be dropped. With a TV series, there is more time to expand beyond the basics, but the budget per episode can’t match what a studio can throw at a blockbuster. There’s give and take.

One problem that’s starting to creep in, plaguing long standing ongoing comics is continuity lockout. New readers can find that details a story leans on is in a hard-to-find long out-of-print issue. Crossovers bring their own problems. A storyline that requires readers to search for the other titles involved is a marketing move to generate more sales by introducing new readers to other titles. The drawback is that if a crossover goes on too long, the regular stories in a title get shunted to the side, especially in a company-wide crossover. Too many interruptions in the regular storyline will drive readers away.

With the Marvel movies, if someone missed a film leading to an Avengers movie, they may not know who a character is and why that character was there. Thanks to some deals made, Marvel Studios doesn’t have access to every Marvel character, most notably mutants related to the X-Men. Yes, there are exceptions, thanks to how fluid teams are in the Marvelverse, which causes headaches in lawyers and writers. Right now, most of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are origin stories, so not knowing how, say, Ant-Man became a hero isn’t important. Missing Captain America: Civil War could affect how a viewer sees the subsequent Avengers film.

It’s a balancing act. A shared universe means that characters can and will interact. Fans will try to get out to all the films, but it is possible to miss one, either due to timing, budget, or pandemic, and audiences shouldn’t feel like they’re missing a chunk because they weren’t interested in or able to see a specific film.

As with anything, if something is popular, Hollywood will exploit it. Right now, superheroes are big and are in no hurry to leave. They’re filling the role that the Western and the police investigation used to have, with none of the baggage of either. Non-superhero comics can and will slip in with some members of the audience none the wiser. There is plenty of depth to plumb from the medium. We should expect more adaptations and works inspired by comics to keep appearing for some time yet.


This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.

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Thanks to our friends at Seventh Sanctum for letting us share this content.

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