Jul 16 2010
One of the commenters responds:
While critics in general are happy to give approval to comic book films (and, I think, many critics do treat them fairly), I think there’s no question that there are elements of bias in many critics’ reviews.
First, look at the language many critics use. When giving a positive review, many will say things like “despite its comic book origins,” or “leaping beyond comic books,” as if being based on a comic book is in some way a handicap.
Actually, I think being based on a comic book (or a novel or TV show or anything else) is a handicap for a movie.
1. It’s harder to surprise viewers with an adaptation. Whether you’re adapting Spiderman or the Bible, 90% of the audience knows 90% of what is going to happen. In particular, readers will know about any substantial failures/setbacks in advance, such as the death in Kick-Ass. In contrast, it’s much harder for somebody watching The Incredibles to guess whether it will end with a stereotypically happy conclusion or something more bittersweet. (For example, the health inspectors close the rat-staffed restaurant in Ratatouille and the boy’s family is just as screwed up at the end of Up as it was at the beginning).
2. The studios usually want sequels, which badly limits the screenwriters’ options. This just in: Batman will survive every Batman movie, the villain will lose, and the villain (probably) won’t even accomplish anything important enough to get mentioned in any of the subsequent movies. When a villain DOES accomplish something meaningful in an adapted movie (such as Ozymandias vs. New York), it’s almost always known to viewers beforehand. Most cinematic adaptations can only surprise us with execution and concepts that don’t have much bearing on the arc of the plot. Is Spiderman going to marry Mary Jane in this movie or the next? Which national landmark will Magneto attack this time?
3. The original material may not be well-suited for cinematic adaptation. For example, you might have to gut the story to get the movie short enough. Avatar’s first season has 21 episodes totaling ~7 hours of running time but the movie was 94 minutes long. The first six Harry Potter movies had ~2.5 hours each to cover an average of 150,000 words of source material. In such cases, I think the best-case scenario is to make serious cuts to make a coherent, well-developed movie rather than try to gloss over everything that happened in the original. Subplots and perhaps even some characters may need to go. Some people will still be unhappy because they’re attached to what got cut. Although a movie might somehow come up with a coherent, unbloated plot without shortchanging fans that want a straight retelling of the story, I think it’s clearly harder than just creating your plot from scratch for the movie.
Movies since the early 2000s have generally performed quite well in Rotten Tomato ratings, as Jim Emerson noted. If superhero movies did that well despite the adaptation-related handicaps above and the critics generally being prejudiced against the concept, that would be quite remarkable. I think the most plausible explanation is that critics are receptive to good movies whether the hero wears bright tights or not.