Jul 16 2010

Do critics hate comic book movies?

Published by at 10:23 pm under Comic Book Movies,Movie Review

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Over at the Sun Times, Jim Emerson argues that “critics seem to overwhelmingly approve of the current crops of comic-book, graphic-novel and superhero movies.”

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.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Do critics hate comic book movies?”

  1. B. Macon 16 Jul 2010 at 10:49 pm

    COMMENTER: 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.

    B. MAC: Actually, I think being based on a comic book (or a novel or TV show or anything else) is a handicap for a movie.

    That said, I’d find it refreshing if more critics mentioned being based on a novel as a handicap. I’ll look into this later, but my initial guess is that comic book-adapted movies over the past ~10 years have performed as well or perhaps even better than novel-based movies on Rotten Tomatoes.

    There aren’t too many comic book movies as wretched as Battlefield Earth, Cheaper by the Dozen, Gods and Generals (one of the most hilariously bad movies of the decade*), the Twilight movies, Sahara, Eragon, the Golden Compass, A.I., The Man Who Knew Too Little, or anything from Dan Brown. Hell, being based on a GOOD novel or epic poem wasn’t sufficient for Beowulf, Troy or Journey to the Center of the Earth.

    *Paraphrasing one review: “General Jackson bursts into prayer like characters in a musical burst into song.”

  2. Contra Gloveon 17 Jul 2010 at 4:46 am

    Basing films on novels has one major weakness: the novels’ length.

    Films are the equivalent of short stories, and novels are the equivalent of limited-run television shows. Novels, like television shows, can spread things out and develop them, whereas films, like short stories, have to wrap it all up in a short time — neither form can go off on tangents (to be fair, films can squeeze in a little more because they don’t have to describe scenes with words, but the limitations regarding plotting still stand.)

  3. Wingson 17 Jul 2010 at 10:41 am

    I have always disliked adaptations of books, mainly because (a) they’re just another way to try and steal the money of readers and (b) they tend to suck horribly and taint the book for me forever. True, there are exceptions, but all the other failures just poison it for me.

    – Wings

  4. B. Macon 17 Jul 2010 at 4:57 pm

    “…Wait a moment, I just noticed you said “start”, not “end”. what I said apply or not?” Ack, good eye! I meant to say “end” and have corrected the article.

    I think the boy’s family is largely just as screwed up because:
    1) A friendly and supportive retiree is not a substitute for a real father. Will he even survive to see Carl through high school?
    2) The relationship between Russell and his mom’s boyfriend isn’t improving.
    3) By the end of the movie, the mother still hasn’t figured out her problem: she picked a loser and her son’s suffering for it. (Poor judge of character).

    However, let me clarify that it’s not a bad thing that Pixar decided not to completely resolve the family problems with a magical Hollywood ending, like Russell’s parents get happily married or, even worse, Russell’s mom getting happily married to Carl. I appreciate that Pixar mixes it up once in a while to keep us guessing and most works based on adaptations are at a major disadvantage because they don’t have that option.

    PS: I apologize if any of my recollections of Up are incorrect. It has been quite some time since I’ve seen it.

  5. Wingson 17 Jul 2010 at 9:45 pm

    I think the story with Russell’s family is that he had a Missing Mom, his dad didn’t interact with him much, and he spent most of his time with his father’s wife/girlfriend (Carl: “Phyllis? You call your own mother by her first name?” Russell:”Phyllis isn’t my mother.”), wasn’t it?

    – Wings

  6. B. Macon 17 Jul 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Oh, whoops. I thought it was the father he called by his name. My mistake.

  7. B. Macon 17 Jun 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Oh, I thought of at least one obstacle for comic book movies rather than, say, novel or TV show adaptations. I feel it’s substantially harder to adapt a comic book’s visuals into live action. In a cartoon or comic book, it’s not THAT hard to make an incredibly ugly or freakish character look somewhat appealing (or at least not like a total eyesore) in 2-D form. However, when viewers see the character in a live-action movie, I think it’s harder for viewers to keep it out of their mind that the character(s) look REALLY ugly and/or REALLY goofy.

    I think this makes it harder for comic book movies to handle deformed villains, nonhuman species and (to some extent) flamboyant costumes. For example, here are some comic book and cartoon versions of Kilowog, the main mentor character in Green Lantern. He’s definitely never won any awards for huggability, but I thought he turned out pretty well in some of his comic book and cartoon renderings. He’s not so disastrously ugly that he’d distract many readers, I feel.

    Comic Book:
    Kilowog (Comic Book)

    Cartoon:
    Cartoon Kilowog

    He’s definitely not winning any awards for huggability, but I feel like he’s not SO ugly in these formats that he’d distract readers.

    Live action:
    Kilowog Concept Art for Green Lantern Movie
    I dunno. I haven’t seen the new Green Lantern movie yet, but my initial impression from this still is that he’s so ugly that he probably would distract me.

  8. Phoenixon 18 Jun 2011 at 1:05 pm

    More than just the length of a is the detail that can be packed into it. Novels and films and comic books and short stories are different storytelling media. Things look different and stories must be told differently from one to another. There are stories I’ve seen in comics that I thought would be great to see on-screen and there’ve been those that I figured would be difficult to adapt. Not all should be.

    I don’t think most critics hate comic movies. I’ve always felt that they have a bias that originates in a lack of respect for comics themselves. What many comic fans don’t realize is that outside the bubble of fandom most people don’t give comic books a thought in their lives. To the average citizen, comics are for children. That citizen might have looked at them as a child or had friends who did, but they are a thing of their distant past. I remember a lot of people taking the news of Superman’s death in battle with Doomsday with great surprise. A lot of those people were also very surprised that comics were still being made.

    It’ll probably be a while before they see the comic book (originally collections of Sunday color comic pages stapled together like a cheap book) as the graphic novel it has grown into and respect it as a legitimate storytelling alternative that Hollywood runs to as a credible source of material and not just some lunatic choice brought up at a desperate staff meeting.

  9. Crystalon 29 Jun 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Movies based on a TV show…
    What’s the point? I mean, it’s already on TV. Movies based on novels I can get, based on comic books…well, maybe…But TV shows?
    I mean, c’mon, all you’re gonna do is take it and, for lack of better words, un-cartoon it.
    (Yeah, I know that there are better words, but…That pretty much describes how I feel, at least. 🙂 )

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