Tomorrow, in theaters in Europe, The Avengers (titled Avengers Assemble in the UK) will release at the end of a long, frankly improbable road that began with Nick Fury tossing out “the Avengers Initiative” in a post-credits stinger for Iron Man. As a comic book fan and as a cinephile, this is a day I never really expected would ever come. The Avengers, as a concept for a movie, just never seemed like it could work in a film environment. There’s too many characters, all with too much backstory, there’s the creation of a credible threat that would bring said characters together, there’s the sheer financial cost of such an epic in scope superhero movie, and there’s about a thousand other reasons why, a few years ago, I would have easily told you that a shared movie universe was never going to work.
Now, with The Avengers nearly upon us and near universal acclaim coming in from overseas (Xander will have a review up sometime tomorrow), I’m finding myself in the happy position where 2008 Alex is going to be eating a heavy dose of crow, happy because no matter what, a full-scale, big budget Avengers movie has the potential to be one of the coolest summer movies imaginable.
All this has caused me to wonder, though. What other comic book properties are as unadaptable as I thought the Avengers were? I found ten properties I think can’t, or simply won’t, be made into feature films. Let this serve as yet another reminder that just because a property might be good doesn’t mean it needs to be a movie.
This one’s kind of a no-brainer. Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, is widely regarded as one of the great works of unadaptable literature. Right off the bat, Sandman would require a ridiculous level of CGI work, to the point where it may be better served through traditional 2D animation, if not 3D animation on a Pixar level. Almost every panel of the comic has some weird, surreal imagery, the sort of imagery I can’t see a film studio trying to replicate any way but through CGI. At that point, the film’s already fighting an uphill battle against the quality of its own digital animation. Look at the ass-tastic Green Lantern movie. Even if it had had a solid script, the immersion was ruined by CG attempts at surreal-lite, alien creatures that never really jelled. Sandman would have a similar fight, and with much more challenging material to work with. There’s such a rich, labyrinthine density to the entire series that even condensing it into a long-form television show would be a problem.
Speaking of which, as recently as 2010, Neil Gaiman was actively attempting to get a Sandman television series off the ground. I figure this is the best chance the series has of seeing some sort of adaptation, but that runs into the same CGI problem I outlined above. Each episode of Sandman would likely need a ridiculous budget, if attempting to shoot at all in live action. You’ll notice a lot of my talking points so far have largely to do with the practicalities and business side of making Sandman. The actual creative aspect would make things that much worse. It’s frankly a hell of a testament to Neil Gaiman’s talent as a writer that Sandman is even legible, let alone a great work of art. On paper, this is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, and the stories you’ll find in Sandman range so wildly in terms of style and tone that I just can’t see any small group of screenwriters even making something remotely close to the virtuosity on display in the books from both writer Gaiman and the stable of artists that made the book the powerhouse that it is.
Squirrel Girl and the Great Lakes Avengers
Squirrel Girl is probably one of my top ten favorite comic book characters of all time, and she’d never succeed on the big screen. She’s a fourteen year old girl with the power to control squirrels, aided by her faithful squirrel companion Monkey Joe. Squirrel Girl has bested, usually by herself, such supervillains as Dr. Doom, MODOK, Thanos, and Fin Fang Foom. For those of you that aren’t Marvel fans, know that each one of those guys is capable of all kinds of world domination/destruction plots. She’s even defeated Wolverine, and he’s supposed to be one of the most badass killers in the Marvel stable. I feel like I need to reiterate, this is a girl whose only power is the ability to control squirrels. Think about how many squirrels live in even a medium-sized park, and you can start to see how powerful that could really be. It’s a “death by 10,000 paper cuts” sort of scenario. Squirrel Girl is the occasional leader of the Great Lakes Avengers, who are basically remedial school superheroes. There’s Mister Immortal, who learned he couldn’t die after trying to kill himself in a bout of depression, Big Bertha, a Blob-esque woman that can also make herself super-thin through copious vomiting, and Flatman, one of a small number of openly gay superheroes that is completely two-dimensional and can stretch himself out, sort of like a Mister Fantastic lite.
These could are basically the comedy superteam in the mainstream Marvel universe, popping up for a one-shot or mini series during Marvel’s big events to take the piss out of whatever universe-shattering events are happening yet again. They’re great for parodying superhero comics and playing around with the tropes (there’s an miniseries of GLA that promises ONE MEMBER OF THE GLA WILL DIE EACH ISSUE!), and I can’t really see that translating too well to film. Comic book tropes don’t have the same sort of cultural penetration that, say, horror movie tropes have, so it could make for a fairly dissonant experience. They could just be simplified as a team to bring some humor to the Marvel movie universe, but I’m pretty sure Tony Stark’s doing that anyway.
Also, if they ever do try to bring Squirrel Girl to the big screen, she needs to be played by Ellie Kemper. Just needs to happen.
Ex Machina, from Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris, is set in an alternate reality where there is a single man with extranormal abilities, Mitchell Hundred. He gains the ability to talk to and control most machines after a strange device found under the Brooklyn Bridge explodes in his face, inspiring him to become the superhero known as The Great Machine, named after a Thomas Jefferson quote. He also happens to be the mayor of New York City, having retired as a superhero to run for office, and helped save one of the Twin Towers from falling on 9/11. There’s a constant subplot in the book about the nature of Mitchell’s powers, how he got them, and, more importantly, why he got them, but that normally takes a backseat to some of the most gripping political drama you’re likely to find outside of an episode of The West Wing. Mayor Hundred spends his days not flying around in his jetpack but dealing with some of the big political questions of our day. In the book, Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris tackle gay marriage, terrorism, religion, and more through Mayor Hundred’s fairly moderate political platform.
I just can’t see someone taking turning this series into a film and not taking out the political heart of the thing. Sure, there’s superhero action and weird transdimensional theories, but the heart of the book is watching Hundred grapple with more complex, far-reaching ideas and how it affects him as his one term of office as mayor of New York City draws to a close over fifty issues. This is another instance where a television adaptation may be the only way to properly adapt the material, but a film of Ex Machina can’t really give the entire series the treatment it deserves.
Grant Morrison’s Animal Man
Some of the entries on this list, as I’ve said, could possibly work on television in a long form series. Grant Morrison’s legendary run on Animal Man is just straight unadaptable. As a character, Animal Man’s pretty straightforward. Buddy Baker encounters some alien weirdness, it explodes in his face (innuendo!), and then he can use the traits of animals around him. He can access the flight of a bird, the strength of a rhino, and so on. Initially, when writer Grant Morrison began writing Animal Man in 1988, the series tended to deal with pretty simple issues. Animal Man would deal with animal cruelty, eco-terrorism, vegetarianism, and a few standard kinds of supervillains. It’s well written, but reasonably safe. This goes off the rails when Animal Man takes peyote to try and unlock the potential of his powers, meets past versions of himself, and becomes aware he is a character in a comic book. This is actually one of my favorite reveals in comic book history. You can see it for yourself below. Sorry for the small-ish text.
He goes on to visit a limbo where the forgotten and unused characters of the DC universe when writers stop using them anymore, eventually coming face to face with Grant Morrison himself, who waxes poetic on the overly violent nature of comic books.
Yeah. I don’t really think I need to explain why that’s not going to make it into a movie anytime soon. I just don’t think a lot of screenwriters have the sheer chutzpah to pull off such a move.
Crossed is writer Garth Ennis’s quasi-zombie apocalypse story. A mysterious ailment, spread through bodily fluids, causes people to develop a cross-shaped rash on their faces and go completely, utterly insane. These aren’t the rage zombies of 28 Days Later or Left 4 Dead, however. The Crossed are semi-intelligent, capable of speech, and have an insatiable desire for rape and torture. Literally every single issue of Crossed and its several spin-offs features one or more people violently gangraped, dismembered, and disfigured, often at the same time. Men, women, and children alike all suffer horrendous fates at the hands of the Crossed.
There’s a moral in here about the terrible ways people change after the apocalypse, and “ooh, maybe we were the real villains all along, societal commentary” but a lot of it veers towards violence for shock value and little else. I’d like to share some with you, but it’s completely, utterly, irredeemably not safe for work, possible not safe for your mind. Do a Google image search for “crossed comic,” and you’ll find any number of reasons why this is never going to make it off the printed page.
If you took the complete works of Hunter S. Thompson and let William Gibson reimagine them, you’d probably wind up with Transmetropolitan. Spider Jerusalem is a gonzo journalist in a quasi-dystopian United States city, known only as “The City,” and it chronicles his reporting and his small attempts to keep the shitty world from getting even shittier in his devotion to The Truth (capitalized as he usually does himself). He deals with sci-fi issues like transhumanism, he also delves deeply into politics, with a presidential election making up some of the key storylines throughout the story.
Transmet has an amalgamation of the issues Ex Machina and Sandman have in terms of a potential adaptation. The world of The City might be too much for what something with a fairly limited appeal, unless there’s been a massive surge in cyberpunk Hunter Thompson fans that I wasn’t told about. Every cityscape is chock full of futuristic technology, from people that are mostly cybernetic to people who have transferred their consciousness into a nanotech fog to a talking mutant police dog. There’s also a television show on nearly always in the background called Sex Puppets. That’s not part of why the series can’t be adapted; I just wanted to share that because it’s awesome.
At the same time as the massive budgetary concerns, every storyline has this surrealist political angle. Spider may go after a certain candidate for office, but instead of learning that he’s a brainless, party-backed strawman, he learns that he’s a brainless, party-backed strawman that’s been grown in a vat to be a perfect political candidate. It’s future-realpolitik, a phrase I’ve just invented, that’s made interesting because Spider is such a flamboyant, colorful character, drinking, smoking, snorting, and shooting up anything in sight with a voracity that would have given Raul Duke pause. While stuff like Shameless and basically anything based off of a Bukowski book proves that people can enjoy a thoroughly deplorable addict of a main character, Spider can take things to the point of parody, and I don’t see a filmmaker getting that balance right the same way Warren Ellis managed it.
The 1990s were a terrible time for comic books in general, with shitty crossovers spawning dozens of new characters, the vast majority of which are killed off or forgotten inside of a year. Hitman is the product of one of those crossovers. Random people all over were being attacked by alien parasites and accidentally given superpowers. Tommy Monaghan is the only Bloodlines character that lasted for more than a few issues. He’s a professional killer that, thanks to the Bloodlines whammy, has limited x-ray vision and telepathy. He routinely uses the telepathy, though it gives him terrible headaches, and he really only uses the x-ray vision to look under Wonder Woman’s clothes. Hitman was a truly special book, in that it took place within in the larger DC universe while pretty much roundly rejecting all of the crazy trappings of it. When Tommy has to deal with superheroes, he takes the piss out of them at every opportunity. In the few moments where Hitman intersects with major crossovers, it’s handled in a way that always remains true to the blue-collar spirit of the books. There’s an entire story arc where Tommy and his friends fight zombie animals at an aquarium. Also, completely coincidentally, Hitman features one of the best Superman stories I’ve ever read. I’d tell you to go go go buy buy buy, but Hitman is largely out of print at this point.
So much of the fun of Hitman was its tangential place in the world of the Justice League, full of a cast of characters that couldn’t give half a shit about Green Lantern and cared about Catwoman because she’s a hottie in a skin-tight outfit. Without that, Tommy’s just a hitman with a vaguely-metahuman angle that’s basically abandoned a dozen or so issues into the actual series.
There’s a heart to Hitman despite some pretty deplorable characters that Garth Ennis is particularly good with. It’s why Preacher is such a masterpiece. What separates the likes of Hitman from Preacher, which I really do think could make a great Carnivàle-esque series on HBO, is this element of zany fun that executives aren’t going to want to touch along with a necessary R-rating. There’s the even bigger problem right there; if you try to take the teeth out of Hitman to make it more bankable, you take out so much of the fun of it.
It’s the Holocaust, but with mice and cats. It ain’t gonna happen, regardless of how critically acclaimed or culturally important it is.
That said, if Pixar got off their asses and made this, it would sweep the Oscars. No question.
Anything else from Alan Moore
Watchmen was a goddamned disaster. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was bungled so badly that it’s never going to get a revival. The man hasn’t written something good in fifteen years outside of maybe Top 10. What’s left is creepy fanfiction porn where the adventures of Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy Darling are translated into sexual escapades. Every time Hollywood tries to mess with what good he has done, he complains for a while, and Hollywood gets it wrong.
Just fucking quit it already.
Hear me out on this one.
I think that the opportunity for a real Justice League movie has come and gone, mostly because Warner Brothers and DC have severely shot themselves in the foot. DC has never really made a serious attempt at developing their characters for film outside of Superman and Batman. Aside from the myriad of Superman and Batman films, there’s been two Swamp Thing movies, both terrible, Catwoman, Steel, Watchmen, Jonah Hex, and Green Lantern. Even if you like Watchmen, when you add in all the bad Superman and Batman movies, that’s a ton of shit. With Marvel, even the worst of the bunch (Thor, in my opinion) isn’t nearly as bad as Green Lantern, and Green Lantern‘s an Oscar-caliber picture next to Superman IV: Quest for Peace.
In order to make a big-time superteam movie work, there needs to be some consistency in casting the main heroes. If Henry Cavill’s playing Superman in Man of Steel, he needs to be Superman in Justice League, and the same goes for Christian Bale as Batman. Otherwise, we’ve got multiple contemporary actors playing the same role in the same universe in films released less than a decade away from each other, and it’s all going to wind up confusing your average moviegoer. Even assuming that’s something people can get over, and I’ve got faith they can, there’s the tonal inconsistency of the films. Granted, I can’t speak to Man of Steel, but I can’t imagine you’ll be able to put Zack Snyder’s Superman universe and Chris Nolan’s Batman universe together and say, “Yep, these two heroes make sense living in the same universe. A living god completely could inhabit the ultra realistic world of Nolan’s Gotham.” I think maybe the Tim Burton Batman and the Richard Donner Superman might have made sense as being in the same universe, as both of them had a weird, slightly out-of-time aesthetic. It boils down to the fact that, if you stripped away all the little trappings and easter eggs for other movies, the Marvel films all feel like they could be in the same sort of world. None of the DC films, what few there are, can say the same.
Basically, at this point, with Nolan on his way out, DC needs to get their shit properly straightened out in terms of the films based on their universe. They’ve been killing it on the animated front, on TV and on direct to video releases, but they’re a full decade behind in terms of the sort of execution that Marvel’s managed to pull off in only four years. DC needs a Wonder Woman movie, a Batman movie, and a Superman movie, made in the not-too distant future, and there needs to be some editorial attempt at keeping them in a similar universe. Without that, the Justice League just isn’t going to happen.
People are constantly saying, every year, that this is going to be the end of the comic book movie boom for this reason. I think this year alone, with three incredibly high-profile comic releases in the summer, is proof positive that such a statement really isn’t accurate. With visual effects at the point where making movies like these is easier and more believable than ever before, comic book movies are pretty much here to stay. Let’s just hope that executives aren’t going to rubber stamp anything with a word balloon.