Thursday, May 12, 2011

5. Get the tone right.
Some comics books are fun thrill rides. Some are grim angsty nightmares. Some have been both at various times. Many comic book characters have been around for 50 years now and are still in publication or at least appear in other characters' titles, and a few have been around for almost a century. That's a lot of moods to choose from. Pick one and stick with it. Also, the style of special effects matter. Bright flashy ones? Natural effects attached to people? Smooth transformations? The appropriateness of each varies.

Examples: This is one of the few problems I had with the Watchmen movie. It's a superhumanly-badass, holy-shit-that's-awesome movie based on a comic book that's actually a grim, down-to-earth deconstruction of superheroes. If people like this existed, it would suck, they would be completely screwed up, and the whole world would spin out of control. But that's not the impression you get in the movie. The viewer winds up exulting at scenes that should be hopeless, tragic struggles. Fun, sure, but misses the point completely.

And another interesting example is the recent one that inspired this post and the ridiculously long previous one: Thor. The style was unique, I'd say. Its world is not a smooth, high-tech place like Iron Man's, nor is it an organic living environment like the X-Men movies, nor is it the quaint world of Superman movies that forces all the focus back onto the hero. Instead, it really looked like myths. Odin's scenes in Jotunheim could have come out of the Old Testament. Thor beating up SHIELD agents could have been one of the Labors of Hercules. Asgard is not just another planet, it is quite clearly supernatural.

As for the story, it was good. Comparing it to any of the recent Iron Man or Batman movies would be comparing apples to oranges - there's no analogy to current political events in Thor, the hero starts out beating everyone up and has to go through the movie to learn why he shouldn't, only half of it even takes place on Earth - but the story is very much a family drama about a well-meaning asshole who needs to grow up and his passive-aggressive brother with something to prove.

Plus, of course, the whole "mythological" thing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to make a good comic book movie

1. Pick a character.
Pick a character or characters that have sustained an ongoing series for at least a dozen years. Longevity is a decent indicator of a character's star power. You'll want a built-in fanbase, or at least a bunch of people with fond memories of it even if they aren't all going to go on opening night. You'll also want a ton of backstory and side plots to reference and sift and pull together into one coherent narrative.
Examples: Basically every successful comic book movie did this and a lot of failed ones; it's easier to list exceptions. The comic books The Men in Black was based on lasted less than two years. The Mask was published irregularly for less than four years before the movie. In general, moviemakers seem to get away with movies based on comics with shorter runs if they weren't superhero comics, like almost anything by Alan Moore, who famously hates adaptations of his work.

2. The origin story.
When you think about it, this is more of a genre convention in superhero media than in other media. No one knows or really cares where James Bond comes from or why he does what he does, Bram Stoker didn't show us Abraham Van Helsing's first encounter with a vampire, Aragorn is one-dimensional, and Sherlock Holmes had been a detective for years when Watson and the reader first encountered him. But every comic book character on the movie screen gets an explanation on-screen of when and where and why and how they stopped being a normal person. Maybe it's because comic book characters tend to be so outlandish that the explanation is really needed.

Update the origin story as needed. Nuclear power has been around for 60 years by now with a conspicuous lack of superpowers. It does not make a few hundred pounds of biomass appear out of thin air, like apparently happens to Bruce Banner. As for genetic engineering or nanotechnology, on the other hand, well, who knows? Also, simplify it. In comic books, aliens, wizards and mutants interact all the time, but that's apparently taboo in movies.

Examples: except for sequels, I can't think of a movie that doesn't feature the origin story, and most of them try to tie it into what the character is doing now. The 2008 Hulk movie might be the closest there is, in which the origin is only shown as a dialogue-free flashback during the credits. As for simplifying, in the comic books, the Phoenix is a cosmic force that possessed and/or cloned a mutant during a near-death experience and lived as her for a while (it's complicated), and the Juggernaut is a guy wielding the power of a demigod of destruction. In the X-Men movie, on the other hand, they are just particularly powerful mutants.

3. Pick a villain.
This is more complicated than it sounds. Many comic book characters are best associated with villains that don't fit their own "theme"; see above about aliens, wizards and mutants interacting. Some comic book characters have really cool, interesting rogues galleries of their own while others are best associated with guys called Stilt-Man and the Owl. Also, it is apparently mandatory to work the villain into the superhero's origin. The fact that he can shoot lightning from his hands is not enough reason to feel threatened by a megalomaniacal sociopath, and the fact that he's planning to kill the Eastern seaboard for personal profit is not enough reason to hate him; he must also have killed the hero's parents, given the hero's best friend a lifetime's worth of psychoses, or at the very least caused the hero to lose his previous job. This is probably because the movie industry is higher-stakes. If you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie that's not guaranteed to succeed, you want every possible ounce of conflict and pathos and angst you can get.

Examples: Superman gets away with a villain in the movies with no ties to his origin (and even in his case, the villains of Superman 2 are Kryptonians), but everyone else needs them. In the comics, Spider-Man encountered Electro, the Vulture and Dr. Octopus before the Green Goblin, but the Goblin is Spider-Man's most personal foe, so he's the one in the first movie. In the comics, Kingpin first appeared as a Spider-Man villain, but in the Daredevil movie not only is he Daredevil's first big enemy, he's connected to Daredevil's origin like the Joker to Batman. (The Joker to Tim Burton's Batman, that is, because that's another example of this kind of thing.)

4. Continuity Nods: include them.
This is part of why you want a long-running comic, so you have more to draw on. In addition to minor characters or scenes or plot points from the comics, you can also include nods to the creators of the comic, by naming characters after the writer or artist. It'll make the fans go "squee" and gush to their non-fan friends they dragged along to the movie. Hopefully you'll be able to use it as a Chekhov's Gun in a later movie in the series, but if not, no big deal. Incidentally, it also lets you include more character actors in meaningful roles and make bit parts memorable. Absolutely no one would ever remember the name of the assistant police constables in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, but in the X-Men movies practically every extra in a school scene was named after someone in the comic, and most of them have decades of history.

Examples: Like I said, they're practically omnipresent. A couple are noteworthy, though. In Tim Burton's Batman, do you remember the cameo appearance of Harvey Dent, the villain of Batman Forever? No? Probably not, because in Batman he was played by Billy Dee Williams, not Tommy Lee Jones. (That's actually kind of appropriate, if you think about it, but anyways.) Likewise, Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Curt Connors in Spider-Man 2 were fun to see, but actually made it harder to give those characters bigger roles in later installments.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

I've been reading the Merchant Princes series recently, and it's been downright harrowing.

Partly that's just because this is an unusually good series of books, I'd say. It's a fantasy/sci-fi (blurs the line) series about a normal person from the real world (sort of) who stumbles on another world where magic is real (sort of) and gets caught up in that world's power politics and becomes royalty (sort of) herself. So when I put it like that, it's a very standard plot. Narnia, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Harry Potter, plus dozens of fantasy stories that don't actually have multiple worlds but do have the same "rags to royalty" idea, like the Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time series where they all start out as farmers and wind up as ruling monarchs. I like fantasy books in general, and this one seems to have unusually smart, plausible characters, and an interesting premise (I phrased it vaguely above, but there are lot of twists), and a good mix of action and intrigue and a little humor here and there. I had heard and read good things about the author, Charles Stross, and when I found myself in a bookstore I gave a book of his a try, and really liked it, so I went on to this.

So why do I call it harrowing? Because the main character has been threatened with rape dozens times, it actually happened at least once and got her pregnant, and no one cares about that, even herself and people who really, really should.

That summary is overly simplified. And long before Miriam's fertility was a plot point the series was making it clear that the other world is close to hell for commoners and women of all ranks, like real-world feudal societies and unlike the societies in a lot of fantasy fiction. Kudos to the author for not chickening out on the premise. And there was a period in the books that was really uncomfortable to read because it seemed that everyone but Miriam knew and condoned what had happened, but by where I am now in the book, it's much better. For a while, though, I was fully expecting her to go postal or even go Lizzie Borden (since her mother, ostensibly a perfect parent until the second or third book, was definitely involved in the rape somehow), and I'd still find it believable and her a likeable character if she does. It was uncomfortable to read, but at the same time, hard to put the book down just because I had to see what would happen next.

My extreme reaction is partly just general modern sensibilities offended by a Dark Age culture, especially one contrived to put a particularly sympathetic character in a particularly bad situation. But now that I've thought about it, another thing that bugs me is the fact that she seems to be adapting for the sake of her family, the Clan. She never knew her biological family until the events of the story (sort of). They've treated her like shit by the standards of the world she's familiar with, and even a person from a feudal culture would probably be paranoid and gunshy after what she's gone through. She knows that even the "likeable" Clan members can be incredibly cold-blooded. But because they apparently need her, she is apparently willing to live like a medieval lady 90 percent of the time with all the hardship that implies. This is bizarre to me. I seriously think that I'd take the money and run, money optional. As cynical as I am about the U.S. government, with reasonable precautions I'd feel slightly better about throwing myself on their mercies than on those of the super-Mafia, and she has half a dozen other options as well.

I get that family is important, and that in a feudal culture it's a lot more important than it is in real life today, and also that in the story Miriam has few good options right now, but even considering all that it boggles my mind how easily Miriam is accepting being treated like a brood mare just because she is assured she can leave whenever she wants. Either there are big twists to come in this area or I'm unusually callow about and unsympathetic to family ties or Stross really screwed up on the characterization.