Love (and Hate) in the Time of Comic Book Adaptations

We look at the new Fantastic Four and what it says about our relationship with comic adaptations

I’m going to lose each and every one of you from the start. Ready for it?

I didn’t mind Fantastic Four.

I know. I can’t believe I admitted that either. But it’s true. For the most part, the Josh Trank directed, Miles Teller and friends starring Fantastic Four movie was more undercooked than bad. At times it was even entertaining. Some of the performances were fun, too.

Was it what we all recognize as the Fantastic Four, the First Family of Marvel? No, not really. There were wild divergences to their story and the reason they get their powers is, if I’m being totally honest, hilarious. It couldn’t be further from a Fantastic Four movie – plot wise – if it was trying. The main things they got right were the amount of members on the team and most of the character names.

But to me, that’s okay.

I lost you again, didn’t I?

You see, I have a very specific vision of adaptations that most don’t agree with. For the average fan of something that is being adapted – whether that’s the Fantastic Four or the Hunger Games – accuracy is the primary aim. That’s why the first conversation fans of a book or comic series have after they step out of a theater or watch the premiere is a breakdown of what the creators did or didn’t get right, story wise. “Oh, that was different in the book” or “they didn’t get their powers that way” are muscles we as fans love to flex. There’s an inherent insider angle we get to reveal in those situations. Our lives have been building to that moment, and by god, we’re going to take advantage.

I can’t really say too much. I’ve said things like that in the past. However, those elements are color to me, not what defines the success of an adaptation. For the most part, I love comic adaptations. A big reason is the aforementioned expectations I have for these works. Things like “reverence to the source material” or “character origins” are secondary to “did the adaptation entertain me?” and, most importantly, “did it capture the spirit of the story?” That last part is everything to me. I’m not beholden to things like plot or ensuring every character gets their time, preferring the adaptation to simply capture the heart of its source material.

For example, I love the Harry Potter movies. I think they’re remarkable achievements in that they managed to turn very long novels into coherent (and well made) films that aren’t ten hours long. Many fans left those movies and only saw what was omitted, and sure, a lot was. You could write a book about what was missing. In fact, you could write seven, as JK Rowling did. If you want to read the stories in full, read those. But the films brilliantly reduced the novels into a narrative built around the core elements, like Harry, Ron and Hermione’s relationship and the good side of the wizarding world’s struggle against Voldemort. That’s all it needed to do, and it succeeded greatly.

For comic adaptations, I’m the exact same way. How can any writer, director or showrunner be expected to encapsulate 50+ years of story into one experience that pleases everyone? You can’t. It’s a lost cause, and the best adaptations know that. The most successful adaptations aren’t beat-for-beat translations, but Elseworlds tales. These films and TV shows exist on Earth-TV, Earth-619 or whatever universe designation most pleases you, and they’re entirely their own beasts. It’s like when a new creative team takes over a comic – they should be given the right to tell their own story. That said, the one thing any creatives behind a production should try and do is capture the spirit of the source material. If they can do that while making a movie or TV show that entertains, then that works for me.

Man of Steel

All of this doesn’t mean I love every comic adaptation. Far from it. Despite an exceptional score and a superb Superman in Henry Cavill, Man of Steel is one half successful movie and one half flaming pile of garbage. Its climactic battles are the playbook for what not to do with a comic adaptation, as Superman’s casual disregard for human life is the adaptation equivalent of taking that “spirit” I’m talking about and lighting it on fire. Conversely, Watchmen – also directed by Zack Snyder, curiously enough – is so faithful to the plot of the story that it strangles it to death. It loses everything that makes Watchmen special by thinking the plot was what moved people.

And Fantastic Four. It didn’t exactly capture the spirit of the source material, but in its strongest parts, it modernized it in a way that worked – or at least it did in a “screw it, we’re doing it how we want” sort of way. At its best – like much of the first act where the team is getting together to challenge the unknown through science – it really does feel like the origins of a new version of the Fantastic Four. It doesn’t have a lot of reverence for the specifics of the source material, but the kernel of who they are and what they are all about is there. And it is a fantastic watch at times because of that.

It doesn’t get there, of course. Its third act is about as tacked on as any ending you’ll ever find – it’s as if they remembered on the last days of the shoot that they needed to end the story – and it feels very rushed after the much more deliberately paced first act. But it’s not a horrendous movie, yet it’s being treated like the unholy lovechild of Manos: The Hands of Fate and Gigli. It isn’t anything of the sort. Realistically, its greatest crime as a film is it isn’t fully formed. That, and it’s a dark reflection of how many groups view comic adaptations.

It was destined to fail because of that last point. The hardcore fans hated it from the start because Michael B. Jordan – a great actor who does a fine job as Johnny Storm – was cast as a previously white character. The critics have been licking their chops for something like this ever since they started writing think pieces on there being too many comic adaptations. The casual fans wanted something to make fun of on Twitter. Bloggers saw weeks of content and the ability to write articles with clickbait headlines like “The ‘Fantastic Four’ Reboot Proves There’s No Way to Make a Good ‘Fantastic Four’ Movie.”

The amount of antipathy the movie earned was fine when it was just reviews looking at the actual merit of the work. But when every website had a different hot take – only to capitalize on the traffic that would bring, of course – it became apparent what Fantastic Four really was: a sacrificial lamb, and one that everyone was gleeful in destroying. To me, the punishment long ago outweighed the crime.

To paraphrase something comic writer Christopher Sebela said to me on Twitter, it’s interesting how there are now so many superhero movies that people are finding ones to actively root against. And he’s right. Every aspect of an adaptation gets dissected for our entertainment, from announcements and trailers to set photos and stories of in-production tiffs. By the time the movie or TV show arrives, we have a pretty good idea as to how much we’re going to love or hate it already. It’s incredible how much that has changed in the past 20 years.

When I was a kid, comic adaptations were a debacle. On the plus side, we had the Burton Batman movies. On the minus, we had almost everything else (but especially the Schumacher Batman movies). As a young comic fan, I felt like a Cubs fan waiting for that World Series win: it’s bound to happen at some point, but I wasn’t certain it would happen in my lifetime.

But then the X-Men movie came.

X-Men Singer

I was 16 at the time and I was desperately hoping for X-Men to be good. The day before it was released, I was refreshing Mr. Showbiz – a movie site I used to frequent – like it was my job. When they finally loaded their review, I yelped with delight because they gave it a 90% (which I sadly remembered from memory). I was ecstatic. Could a comic adaptation, especially of my beloved X-Men, be good? So it seemed. I went and saw it opening day, and it was…well, it wasn’t my X-Men. It was still pretty awesome. It was weird, for sure, and the black leather was odd. But it was the X-Men in a movie that (mostly) worked. It blew my mind I was able to see the X-Men on screen in a way that wasn’t (completely) ridiculous. The prospect of that was impossible to comprehend for me once upon a time.

We’ve now reached the other side. There are enough comic adaptations that we aren’t excitedly refreshing review websites to see if they’re good anymore. We’re doing so to find out if they’re bad enough to make fun of. Trailers are opportunities for derision. Set photos are there for the mocking. Part of that is societal – we’re snarkier than ever and in greater pursuit of things to dislike – and part of that is just the way comic fans have always been. We rip on comic adaptations for the same reasons we scoff at creators on Twitter for making continuity errors. It’s not right, and they deserve to know it.

When it comes to the new Fantastic Four movie, most people are right. It was not a great movie. It had flaws and major misses throughout its 100 minute run time. But it wasn’t as bad as all of the tweets, headlines and think pieces want you to believe. It wasn’t the instant Razzie favorite it’s made out to be, and the general hatred of the film may say more about how we digest media today than it does the movie itself. For me, I can’t help but be happy with the experience. After all, if it is as bad as comic adaptations get in this day and age, then it’s a pretty great time to be someone who still enjoys them. I’m happy to say I still do.