Superhero Adaptations As Completely Separate From Superhero Comics: Why Adaptations Can Tell Different Stories

I’ve made multiple posts about the nature of adaptations of superhero comics – one about why we don’t need word for word translations, one about the impact they have on how we perceive characters,  one about how adaptations sometimes displace the material they’re based on in public memory, and a few more. But now I have to make yet another, because a while back, I saw a post saying that you can’t make comic adaptations realistic without completely changing the heart of the comics, and I disagree with all my heart. Because I think that’s why adaptations are nice. By their nature, they’re not going to continue for decades. And that lets you explore topics that will, no matter how good the writing or the art, always end up falling flat in the comics themselves.

You cannot really delve into certain topics in comics because the nature of the medium means they’re never going to change. Take Robin. Obviously, I adore the concept of Robin, the characters to have borne the mantle, and all that. I think Robin is so essential to Batman, that you cannot have a Batman story that rings true without them – or, at least, one of them. But I’m also well aware that, if you apply that to a real world setting, it goes from being a lovely concept of a found family of misfits and strays that don’t fit in anywhere but with each other saving other people so that no one has to suffer the way they did to a frankly disturbing story of reckless child endangerment. This is especially true when you consider the not-Dick Robins, because Dick’s case was unique. He had skills that the others most definitely did not, and the same anger/grief/what have you that Bruce did. By the end of it, he came out shockingly well adjusted. This combination makes it easy to believe that Bruce did more good than harm, and that Dick would have got himself killed had he been left on his own. The others? Not so much! They didn’t have the same skills and training. They didn’t have the same motivation where they were going to do it regardless of what he did or said. They were brought into vigilantism because of the precedent Dick set…and the fact they looked up hugely to Batman. The person that was supposed to be the responsible adult telling them, no, you most certainly cannot go out at night and fight supervillains, these guys are killers. However, Robin – as a concept – is so much part of the foundation of DC that it’s not going to die anytime soon.

My feelings about the oversaturation of the Batfamily aside, Robin as a legacy matters, no matter who’s using the nameSo you can’t have meaningful stories questioning whether or not the legacy should exist. Not really, because even if you have a great story challenging how heroic someone can be if they’re taking a child into combat situations…it’ll fall flat, because nothing changes. It doesn’t matter. It’ll be a forgotten Aesop in a month. You probably think I’m exaggerating, right? After all, we don’t forget about Jason! But even though he’ll always be remembered as the Robin who died and his death had a huge impact on Bruce and Dick, it didn’t really last, because Death In The Family and Under the Red Hood didn’t end the Robin mantle. Court of Owls and all the unflattering parallels drawn between Bruce and the Court didn’t end the Robin mantle. So despite how great those stories were, themes alone don’t really mean anything unless there’s follow through.

You can make plenty of arguments as to how Tim, Steph, and Damian were different from Jason. Sure, Bruce tried to dissuade them more than he ever tried with Dick or Jason. Tim knew full well what he was going into. Stephanie, like Dick, had personal reasons motivating her and was already in costume before she became Robin. Damian was raised to be an assassin. But the fact of the matter is that Robin continues to exist, not because the post-Jason Robins were different from Jason, but because the legacy is too iconic to let die.

Comics work because they’re not set in a real world. They’re in a fantasy where people can have problems that are either like ours or just similar enough to be relatable, but where the solutions they have are not the solutions that should work in a real world. They’re in a world which is just different enough that when something seems weird, we can just shrug and accept that that’s how this other universe is. Comics can delve further into topics like, how healthy is it to deal with your trauma by going out at night and beating up criminals? or is training a sidekick the same thing as using a child soldier? but the second they do, the whole damn universe falls apart, because once you start trying to apply real logic, you can’t stop until there’s nothing left. Once you start trying to ask these questions, more and more will arise. You simply cannot try to apply comic book tropes to a real world setting.

That’s what’s nice about adaptations. Things like Titans and the Under the Red Hood  movie can contextualize comics. They can apply the issues raised to a real world setting. And that’s okay, because they end. When we’re watching an adaptation, we can see things change for the better, we can see characters learning lessons, without having to deal with the fact they’ll inevitably forget those lessons so that the story can continue, because in adaptations, the story isn’t supposed to continue! I talked about something similar in this post about how Jason isn’t a sustainable character. My reasoning revolved mostly around how I didn’t think he had a place to go as a character while still being a vigilante, and I think the heart of that argument is basically the same as this one: conclusions give stories weight. That post is largely about how Jason’s character development keeps getting reversed because he can’t really exist without the angst over his death, and this one is about how in adaptations, he doesn’t need to. In an adaptation, we can have a character that completes an arc, then doesn’t go back on it, because it ends. We can have a story that means something continue to mean something, because it doesn’t continue on only to for the moral of the story to be forgotten.

Death doesn’t mean much in comics. Not just in terms of people coming back, but in terms of the impact on other characters. It can’t. Not when there’s so much going on. It’s not that a death will never be brought up again. But it’s rare that it has a consistent, continuous impact on others, unless it’s relevant to the story being told, like Bruce’s after Final Crisis. And deaths and resurrections are now so common that they lose their impact on the reader. The greatest comics are those that have a point, and when the story is endless, those points almost inevitably get confused.

Furthermore, the writers of adaptations thinking critically about the source material and making changes keeps things fresh and interesting. It gives us things that are different, stories of which we don’t know the outcome going in. That’s not a betrayal of canon. The specific changes made might demonstrate a lack of love for the source material, but it might also demonstrate an enduring love for it. Take Gotham. A lot of people used to – not so much anymore – complain about how it “messed up the chronology”. To be fair, I used to kind of agree. Gotham was sold as a gritty crime drama about the mob families. As a prequel that would tell the story of how Gotham got to becoming the city that needed Batman, the city where supervillains thrived. And that was great. Except that, with a few exceptions, most of the villains that are traditionally around Bruce’s age were aged up so that they were already fully grown adults at the start of the series, while Bruce was only twelve. Meaning that, if the writers followed the traditional timeline, the villains would be well into middle age by the time Bruce put on the cowl, and by the time most of the Batfam showed up, they’d be fighting senior citizens. Which is why it was so great that by seasons two and three the writers had completely abandoned that premise. It became very clearly an Elseworlds tale, because instead of being a Batman prequel, it became what was, essentially, a Batman story, if Batman were a teenager. It’s about Bruce having to get his training from within Gotham, not outside it, and finding ways to help well before developing fighting skills. It’s an awesome take on the mythos and a sign of writers that care about the long history of Batman and telling a good Batman story while also making something we’ve never seen before.

Comic fans are impossible to please, and we all know that. You have people that complain about Gotham being too little like the comics and people that complain about Watchmen being too much like them. So the best way to tell a story based on superhero comics has to be embracing the new medium. As great and universal as the characters are, comics are different from animation are different from live action, and different stories are best suited for each medium. The more that idea is embraced, the better stories we can get.

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