Whenever there’s a new superhero film coming out, my friends who know my interest in superhero comics ask me if I’m excited about it. My non-geek friends assume I’m automatically interested, and my geeky comic friends assume I’m as interested as most of them seem to be.
Not so much.
For the most part, I don’t like them at all. There are some that I actively hate, some I’m indifferent to, and only a very few that I like.
But they all have the same flaw, which is that live action special effects can’t compete with sequential art in portraying superheroes.
Nothing can imitate that art. Very little comes close.
The two movies that I own, Batman Begins and Iron Man, have this flaw but strong storytelling in other areas overcame my objections. Batman Begins did an amazing job of why Batman does what he does. The movie makes you care about the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
The second is Iron Man, the one superhero movie that absolutely nailed the casting of the main character. Robert Downey Jr. makes that movie worthwhile. It’s also, as a friend pointed out, one of the best portrayals of a gifted child then adult that exists on the big screen. It’s no surprise all my kids like these two movies, especially Iron Man.
But take the X-Men movie franchise, which is generally viewed as a success.
Be warned: spoilers below for X-Men comics and movies.
In the X-Men movies, Jean Grey’s transformation from hero to uber-powerful Dark Phoenix is caused by her sacrifice during a cataclysmic flood. It’s a dynamic sequence and a poignant moment.Then in the third movie, Jean begins stalking around in black, consumed by power, and dissolves people with a thought. The final confrontation is against the U.S. Army and then the various X-Men. It ends when she lets Wolverine kill her.
Nice, but it’s no comparison to what happened in the comics. And I’m not talking storyline or if the movie writers got the characters right. I’m talking about the different in scope.
In the comics, Jean Grey originally becomes Phoenix when she pilots a badly wounded space shuttle down to earth. This should have killed her but it instead seems to have released her Phoenix powers. A flood does not compare to the art of a seemingly doomed Jean piloting the shuttle back down to earth, engulfed in fire.
In the movies, Jean’s slips completely into the dark side when she kills Professor X.
In the comics, Jean becomes so uber-powerful that she EATS a planet. In a stunning sequence, she consumes an inhabited planet with millions of souls in a ball of fire.
The final fight to save Jean occurs in the movie as the X-Men try to get through to her and make her come back to humanity. The final fight in the comics occurs on a moonbase as the X-Men desperately struggle against the forces of justice that want to punish Jean for destroying that planet. It ends with Jean dramatically committing suicide before her Dark Phoenix powers take hold of her again.
Space shuttle. Eating a planet. Moonbase fight among a whole cast of superpowered beings.
Special effects in a movie don’t compare.
Even Batman Begins can’t hide the fact that a real-life Bat-costume–complete with cape–looks more than a little silly.
It never looks silly in the comics. Neal Adams or Marshall Rogers can take that cape and use it in ways that live action cannot.
Iron Man the movie has something of an advantage over other superhero movies because armor is something that special effects can do fairly well. Tony’s flight sequences are pretty damn thrilling, as is the scene where Pepper has to literally restart his heart. But the final fight with Iron Monger? It doesn’t measure up to what John Romita Jr. or Bob Layton could do with sequential art.
Animated movies are a different story, to some extent. The Incredibles is my favorite superhero movie. The superheroes don’t look silly in animation, they look cool, and there’s no limit to the kind of backgrounds artists can imagine.
Still, there’s something special about sequential art and superheroes. It’s not that sequential art isn’t suited to other subjects. It is. It’s that superheroes are uniquely suited to sequential art. Capes become atmosphere, a man wearing a silly costume inspired by old-style professional wrestlers becomes Superman. By letting our imaginations fill in the movement, sequential art makes these things real and believable.
As good as animation can be, it doesn’t allow the reader to fill in the blanks and use their imaginations like that.