‘Animorphs’ and the Difficulties of Adaptations

Several weeks ago now, Michael Grant, the co-author of Animorphs, Tweeted something intriguing. At that point, I did not have the time to talk about it, and it soon became overshadowed by lots of other stuff, but now we have actual news to talk about!

Grant’s initial Tweet indicated that progress is being made towards an Animorphs movie. As of several days ago now, we have actual confirmation that one is in the works. I am somewhat skeptical.

As everyone that knows me knows, Animorphs is kind of my favourite thing ever. So I would love nothing more than for there to finally be an adaptation. But rumours of an Animorphs movie are not new. At all. This has been rumoured for years. and nothing has ever come of it. Even though this is much more substantial and promising than all the other rumours – Grant and Applegate have acknowledged it, the producers have made a statement – I’ve been burned before. As you probably all know from my other posts, I’m a DC fan. As a DC fan, I can’t help but remember the Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl movies that we were told were in the works. I can’t help but remember the Flash movie that went through multiple directors, scripts, and release dates, but is still nowhere in sight. So I’m going to be unconvinced until we have actual evidence of a script/casting/filming. However, as skeptical as I am that this movie will come to fruition, I’m also way less cynical about the quality than pretty much everyone I’ve seen talking about this.

I saw one person argue something along the lines of, “did you learn nothing from the TV show and the botched Artemis Fowl movie”, and I think that’s a ridiculous stance to have. That’s the question you ask once they’ve actually done something. They have not. So to ask it now is basically making the argument that the problem with the TV show and the Artemis Fowl movie was that they made an adaptation, not how they made it. That is not true. The problem with Artemis Fowl being turned into a movie wasn’t that it was done. The problem with AniTV wasn’t that it was made. The problem is that these things were done without respect for what the stories they’re purportedly based on are about.

When I was younger, I absolutely loved Artemis Fowl. Because of that, I am absolutely certain a movie based on it could have been both excellent and accurate. The problem wasn’t the source material being too hard to adapt. They didn’t have a shortage of money – the budget was over a hundred million dollars! The problem was a complete lack of regard for what they were adapting. Creative changes are one thing. A movie where if you change the names, no one would have any idea what it was is another. Artemis Fowl is a story about a twelve year old villain protagonist doing bad things, making friends, and begrudgingly becoming a better person. Artemis Fowl the movie…well. I normally try to hold off on judgement until I watch something. But having seen the trailer, summaries, and reactions from people whose judgement I trust? It was none of those things the books were. That was entirely unnecessary. The people behind the Animorphs movie will very easily be able to get around this simply by caring about the content of the story.

The problem with the TV show is trickier because it was bad writing hindered further by just how many constraints they had that they didn’t know how to get around. Some of those constraints are inherent to the work, which I’ll get back to, but the bad writing absolutely is not, and nor are other constraints, like the shoestring budget. When making the show, they had one Hork-Bajir costume, had to replay the same stock footage of animals over and over again, and as I understand it couldn’t even afford to have all the cast in the same episode. Of course it wasn’t going to look great! There are ways to get around that, even if this movie has the same nonexistent budget. Definitely if there’s better writing involved.

Now. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Animorphs is an incredibly difficult work to adapt. But that’s not because of the budget or visual effects or any such thing, but because the only reason it can be the story it is is because it was a long running series of children’s books. The length of the series helped convey the passage of time that’s essential to the narrative. That they were children’s books made this violent story about war accessible to children in a way that a show that faithfully adapted all those elements would not be, and enabled the story to be focused on children, as the themes demanded. Ethical dilemmas and the horrors of war were the cornerstones of the series. Converting that to a visual medium is no easy task. Anyone making an Animorphs adaptation must face a choice – tone down the graphic violence and themes to present a somewhat sanitized story, stripped of its horror elements, that’s far less bluntly about war and ethics…or present what’s in the text and in doing so, create an adaptation that’s inaccessible to the target audience. Either option is pretty bad, and not just because doing the first would miss the point, and doing the second is unfair. They’re bad options because they wouldn’t work to get more people to watch it.

If you make a lighter, softer Animorphs story, that’s basically the TV show. And it would not work for anyone. Animorphs is very funny, but it works because the humour and horror/tragedy are allowed to breathe on their own, rather than constantly breaking the tension of serious moments with dumb jokes, and changing that would mean losing what makes the story unique. Existing fans would hate it. Adults wouldn’t be into it because when you lose the heavy thematic stuff, you have a show about kids for kids when adults prefer material about adults. Even kids probably wouldn’t be into it because it’s based on a series that really isn’t that culturally relevant and most kids in the target demographic today probably haven’t read it. When I was reading them, well after all the books had been released, they were ubiquitous in classrooms and libraries, but they were never in complete sets, it was hard to track them all down, and I never knew anyone else that read them. Now? I taught chess classes for a bit in March in a second grade classroom, and I never saw any Animorphs on their bookshelves. Makes me very skeptical that kids are still reading them. Therefore, in order to get kids interested, I’m thinking they’d need to do much more than lean on the “kids turning into animals” angle. That clearly wasn’t even working when I was younger, judging by how I never knew anyone else that read them. So no nostalgia factor, no slam dunk in terms of the hook, meaning the people behind it will have to make sure it’s actually a good and unique story. Lighter and softer is not that.

Similarly, if they were to decide, hey, kids these days don’t read these and so we need to target adults other than the nostalgic ones, let’s do that by making this a hard R horror, it wouldn’t actually work. To explain why, let me use the example of the Animorphology podcast that, despite my general disdain for podcasts, have been listening to since they first started. The host that did not read the books as a child talks quite frequently about how she wishes the adults in the story had a bigger role. When answering a listener question about how the series would be different if targeted at adults, she started talking about how the characters would be older and there’d be more romance and sex, before realizing that the question had been if the series were targeted at adults, not about adults. Then she made the case that it wouldn’t have been written for adults, because adults don’t often want to read books about children. So doing the typical gritty reboot – aging up characters until they’re high school or college age, adding gratuitous sex and cursing, leaning into the violence and gore would probably not appeal to adults, who can look it up and see that it’s based on a series of children’s books. An that’s on top of how it would lock out the audience that it’s meant for.

But none of this means it can’t be done, because fortunately, it’s not a binary choice. It’s a scale. There are ways around what makes it difficult. The movie can be scary and dark without making it rated R. Lean into the psychological horror of it – scary without gore, or at least, less gore. Show the aftermath of the violence, rather than Cassie ripping out someone’s throat with her teeth. It can very much be done. It will be enormously difficult. But it is possible. It just needs some creativity.

Another argument I’ve seen is that it has to be animated to work, and while that seems a more fair argument to me, I also don’t think that would solve any of the core issues of making an Animorphs movie/show. I don’t know enough about the industry to say this with any degree of certainty, but an animated adaptation seems likely to be just as expensive and even more time consuming than a live action one. It could theoretically look better than a live action one, but that’s certainly not a fact. There would be studio interference and pressure to tone it down there as well – probably even more so, because animation is so often targeted towards young children. Most importantly, animation would get caught up in what I argued earlier is the core dilemma of an Animorphs adaptation: faithfulness to the theme. So how exactly would animation be a better way to handle it?

Animation can be good. It can be beautiful. It can be powerful. But by necessity, it absolutely brings in a distance. By its very nature, it would be a somewhat sanitized version of the story, because an animated person losing a hand – the Animorphs cut off a lot of hands – is much less gruesome than a non-animated person. I’m sure an animated Animorphs adaptation would be good. But I’m not at all convinced it would be better than live action. In fact, I think my main reservation to a live action movie is…a movie, animated or otherwise, is not the best format for Animorphs. That is, for the core series.

As I’ve been saying for years now, I think the best possible way to handle this would be to make The Hork Bajir Chronicles and The Andalite Chronicles a two part movie series, and follow up with a TV show with the series if the movies are successful. Those two novels are the most self contained stories within the series, while also leading into each other and the main series. Given that it’s the main series that’s going to be adapted – judging by what the article breaking the news said about how the producers are excited to be bringing the Animorphs (as characters, not a series) alive for a new generation – there are just a few pitfalls they have to avoid, because as I’m saying, this is going to be hard for them.

  1. Aging up the characters for the sake of appealing to an older audience/avoiding having to make a story about child soldiers
  2. Toning down the dark themes
  3. Cramming too much into a single movie

If they do any of these things, they’ve already lost. There are other areas that probably aren’t automatic losses, but are dangerous enough to best be avoided, too – for example, updating the story from the nineties to present day is unlikely to make it more relatable or appealing and very likely to introduce many, many problems that would turn the story into a complete idiot plot where it’s entirely luck that keeps the good guys alive. And these are just the things the powers that be can control – they also have to find good child actors.

The Animorphs fandom is a little strange sometimes. We love these books, but we also often come across as embarrassed by them. We leap to talk about how the writing is simplistic or poorly paced or any number of such criticisms just to make it clear to whoever we’re talking to that we know they’re children’s books. And they are. But that in no way means that they’re bad. I don’t think the writing is all that simplistic, either. These are amazing books that we love for a reason, that are amazing even with so many things working against it – they came out at a pace of a book a month as a means to sell merchandise to children. They’re the epitome of trashy sci-fi, and they’re glorious. So while the movie might be terrible…here’s to holding out hope that it follows in the books’ footsteps and is awesome, instead.

The Goddamn Snyder Cut

So here’s the thing: I have not once posted in long form about the Justice League movie since before it was released in theatres. Sure, I’ve commented on social media and to friends, and yes, I have a number of drafts with thoughts on different elements of it. But because I was so disappointed with the released product, and because I knew full well it was not what Zack Snyder had intended to release, and because I just didn’t have it in me to write a full blown critique for the studio sanctioned version, I just…never actually wrote about it in depth. I never spoke about it on this blog again after I saw it. It was a big change from my level of excitement in 2017. It’s very different from how I can never ever shut up about Batman v Superman. But finally, that’s going to be able to change. 2021 on HBO Max. Finally.

I watched the Vero live stream two days ago and immediately began geeking out once Snyder made the announcement. This was and is a huge moment. 2020 has been a rough year, but this? A director getting to finish the project that was derailed by a whole lot of stuff? Awesome. Good news! Yay! Everyone loves that. But if we set aside all conversations of creator freedom and artistic vision and all that for a second because other people have undoubtedly expressed that better than I ever could…I’m just delighted at the prospect of this three and a half hour movie as chock full of allusions and literary references as BvS coming out because Giant Nerd is my middle name.

As anyone that reads my posts knows, I adore Batman v Superman. I rewatch it all the time. But I have not watched the theatrical cut since the ultimate edition was released, because the ultimate edition is just such a better movie. I used to write about it all the damn time. Two and a half years after the release of Justice League, I have still only seen it once. I originally had tickets so I could watch it with a friend after seeing it for the first time on opening night alone, but I didn’t go. I didn’t want to see it again. But now we’re going to see the version that we were sold initially.  And that means my nerdiness is coming right back to where it was in 2017. So…you know how I promised I was done talking about philosophy, mythology, and religion as it pertains to superhero movies? PSYCH. Turns out that next year, all of that will almost certainly be coming right back.

‘Batman v Superman’, ‘Young Justice’, and a Contemporary Lex Luthor

I’ve talked a lot about Batman v Superman before, including this post about how much I love its version of Lex Luthor. And I’ve talked about Young Justice plenty as well. But I don’t think I’ve ever actually discussed the differences between the two different interpretations of one of the few elements they have in common – Lex. That’s a shame, because it’s important. Especially as of season three. So here goes.

Let’s start with the reminder that Young Justice took eight years to release its three seasons. That is extremely important to this, because the first two seasons were very different from the third in a lot of ways. I…didn’t really enjoy season three. You might have noticed that from the fact I never actually wrote anything about it. Sure, episode four was the best episode of anything ever. But the season as a whole was trying too hard to lean into the cultural zeitgeist. It was trying so hard to be relevant to today that it a) felt instantly dated and b) didn’t actually delve deeply into any of the political themes it seemed to think it was exploring. A bunch of teenagers used social media as an organizational tool; there was a fissure between the heroes based on what they believed they should do; no one appeared to learn any lessons from the previous seasons and continued to lie, deceive, and abuse their powers to be met with no real consequences. None of that really went anywhere meaningful. They were just disconnected points without a coherent narrative connecting them and driving them forward. And arguable the biggest victim of that was Lex.

A very vocal group of people expressed a lot of hatred for the BvS incarnation of the character. He’s not physically intimidating, they said, he’s too goofy, he’s more like the Riddler than Lex! Let’s for a minute accept that premise. So BvS Lex is “too goofy”. And yet…season three Young Justice presented Luthor as an goof, blathering about fake news and far less competent and intelligent than the versions we saw in the preceding seasons. I didn’t see nearly as many complaints. How is that different? Well…I think that goes to what people really expect to see out of Lex. Just as with Superman, we’re talking about a character that’s been around for decades. There are many possible interpretations, each as valid as the last. Others might disagree, but I personally believe the version that’s best in a situation depends upon which version of what character he’s being pitted against. That’s something Batman v Superman did extraordinarily well. It’s something Young Justice didn’t really do at all.

Young Justice leaned into the idea of Lex as a fictionalized version of Donald Trump. It was the pinnacle of how season three sought to tell a more political story. And it’s understandable. Of course it is. We’re talking about a villain known for his hatred of an immigrant, real estate ties, and brief tenure as president of the United States. The problem isn’t the interpretation. What is…Trump is a symptom, not the real problem. Trump is not the be all, end all of racism and villainy. So taking shots at Trump is fine…but without actually taking that somewhere, in terms of him as a counterweight that reflects something in a different character, it doesn’t end up meaning anything.  And Young Justice placed him in opposition to Gar, not Clark or Halo or M’gann, and did so without leaning into the idea that Gar doesn’t quite fit in. So making him a Trump analogue fell flat for me, because it didn’t mean anything, didn’t explore what’s actually terrible about Trump. Trump == Bad. Sure. True. But that’s not anything challenging. It’s not a real argument or a political stance. It’s lazy. It’s the easiest shot that can be made, the argument that there’s one bad guy that’s the real problem and not the systemic issues that led to that one guy. It’s the equivalent of Resistance Twitter, those signs at protests claiming that if Hillary won, we’d all be at brunch and reminiscing about Obama, professing to have strong opinions about politics when those strong opinions can be summed up as “I hate Trump”. It’s shallow. It’s empty.

This kind of political story does nothing to challenge some of the worst abuses of power in today’s world – CEOs paying starvation wages to workers whose labour built the companies in question while raking in millions themselves; tech companies that disregard all data privacy laws; the fossil fuel executives that gleefully set the world on fire and are doing everything in their power to stop anyone from putting it out. That’s what I love about the BvS interpretation – at its core, it’s a story about power and corruption.

What makes this version of Lex scary is he’s not over the top. He’s not at all laughable. He’s not a direct parody of any real world figure, but he brings many of them to mind. He’s unthreatening looking, but powerful beyond comprehension. Because it’s not about physical appearance or public image or any such thing. It’s Lex Luthor broken down to his base components – hatred for Superman, wealth, power – and an exploration of what that actually means and how those parts connect. That leaves us with someone whose money leaves him able to do pretty much anything he wants and threatened by the very existence of someone with a different kind of power. It gives us someone who can hire mercenaries and actors, bribe senators and kill them, do pretty much anything he pleases with no oversight…until people start to stand together in opposition of that. It’s a villainy that goes beyond a person and into systemic corruption.

BvS presents a much more compelling, nuanced, and meaningful take on a Lex Luthor for the modern age than Young Justice does.  And it does that through not trying so hard to be relevant. By not giving into the temptation to reference current events through politicians or businesspeople, it yielded an enduring take on a villain. It’s one that was relevant when the movie came out, relevant now, and will continue to be meaningful as time progresses.

How The Crisis of Confidence Speech Informs ‘Batman v Superman’

I’ve long been fascinated by Jimmy Carter, which is kind of strange, given that he had been out of office for nearly seventeen years by the time I was born. I’ve read every one of his books. I’ve listened to countless speeches. And somehow, it still took me a bizarre length of time to recognize the parallels between a quote from his most famous speech and a quote in my favourite movie.

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.

The first of these quotes is from Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. The second is Perry White in Batman v Superman. Now. There’s an obvious reason why I didn’t immediately recognize the connection between these two quotes. That reason is that Batman v Superman draws a lot of inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns, down to several pieces of dialogue, some verbatim and others paraphrased. And in The Dark Knight Returns, the phrasing of the equivalent quote is much closer to the BvS quote than the Carter quote is: “The American conscience died with the Kennedys.” So when I heard that line in BvS, I didn’t even stop to consider whether there was a different quote that connected the rise in American cynicism to three deaths that changed the face of the United States , rather than two. Once I did…well, it explained a lot about BvS that I’d considered, but hadn’t really understood.

What Carter (slash his speechwriter) realized in the 70s and Terrio realized when writing the BvS script that Miller did not understand when he wrote TDKR in the 80s was that these three deaths defined the United States in the post-WWII era. John Kennedy. Robert Kennedy. And Martin Luther King Jr. Including MLK in the BvS quote was hugely important because one of the main differences between BvS and TDKR is that BvS takes Clark’s side in the story rather than Bruce’s. It does that by presenting a story of immigration and bigotry where people hate what they don’t understand. BvS is all about xenophobia and how dangerous it is when people treat each other as the enemy. It’s about two millionaires waging a war against a journalist that came to the planet as a refugee. It’s about the refusal to acknowledge the humanity in another person. It’s about hatred based on nothing. All this means that MLK had to be included in the quote in order to get the full impact out of the idea because his role in American history is essential context for the story BvS tells (While it’s difficult to say for certain, I suspect that the ballot and bullet part of Carter’s quote refers to the very famous Malcolm X speech of the same name. That part isn’t quite relevant to BvS, but still, it’s interesting).

Carter’s speech goes beyond that single line. And the message of the entire speech is reflected all throughout the movie. Perry’s quote takes on the defeatist message that people remember that speech to have had. It’s cynical. It’s tired. It’s, “no one cares any more, there’s no point in writing about it”. But what’s funny about that speech and how we remember it is…in the 70s, that speech energized Americans. Carter’s approval rating jumped ten points in response! The American people recognized it as the “yeah! We can improve the world ourselves!” message it had been meant as. And it’s that which is the real message of BvS:  “Men are still good”. People can do better and we have to. It’s about seeing the world and everything terrible in it and being motivated by it to be better, to do better, and to fight for better.

Now, does this change anything about the movie or make me regard anything in it as meaning something other than what I had previously interpreted it to mean? No. Especially because there’s no evidence that this was an intentional reference and I think it’s more likely that Terrio recognized the same things that Carter did and that Miller didn’t independently than it is that he read the Miller quote, found it close to what he wanted to convey, and decided to fix it by using something Carter had sad. But it still is a cool thing to consider because of how so many people – without any actual justification – claim BvS to be rooted in a conservative ideology. While there’s a debate to be had about Carter’s role in shifting the country to the right, there was nothing conservative about this speech. It’s about social responsibility and the power of every individual to make their world a better place. That there is the central theme of Batman v Superman.

‘Supergirl’, ‘Batwoman’, and the False Feminism of Replacement

I’ve seen a ton of comments about how the Supergirl movie that’s supposedly in development won’t work without Clark, and they frustrate me a lot, because I both agree with the idea that Kara and Clark need and play off each other in interesting ways and disagree with the idea that either of them is necessary for the other to have a story. Here’s the thing: as confused as her backstory is and as many different versions of her there are, Supergirl is not nor will she ever be Batgirl. It was Batgirl that was inspired by Batman, Batgirl who might have been a hero in a world without Batman, but certainly not one that went by a bat theme, Batgirl whose story cannot exist without Batman preceding her. That same principle doesn’t apply to Supergirl and Superman. Supergirl doesn’t need Superman to exist. He doesn’t matter for her origin story. The symbol is part of her family just as much as his. So a Supergirl movie can most certainly exist without needing Clark there as a character for Kara to look up to and want to emulate. The problem that actually exists is if any story tries to replace Clark with Kara because they’re both Supers. That’s a problem because they’re different people that fill different roles, their stories aren’t interchangeable, and whenever people try to substitute her in for him, they’ll get a pale imitation. That’s a large part of what’s wrong with the show.

Comics Kara Zor El knew both that she was Kryptonian and what it meant to be Kryptonian because she spent more of her life on Krypton than on Earth! She was a genius by the standards of this hugely technologically advanced society that was on track to join the science guild. She was a teenager that had lost everything she knew – her planet, her species, her culture – and landed on a planet so different from her own that she had to learn everything from scratch. What did the Supergirl show do with that? Why, it completely ignored her scientific background, added a bunch of original characters to give the scientific knowledge to so they could erase her intelligence, and aged her up so they could make her a reporter for no actual reason.

I stopped watching the show somewhere in season two. But from what I remember, this erasing of Kara’s scientific background was a large part of the reason why it felt like CW Kara was pretty much just female Clark, rather than actually Kara. She has his job. She has the same personality. There’s very little that distinguishes her as Kara. And since they aged her up, there’s not even any reason for her to be called Supergirl. So much of her show-verse background was so ill-conceived, it ended up seeming like the people responsible for the show didn’t actually want to be making a show about Kara.

Batwoman looks like it’s going to be similar. As controversial an opinion as this might be, Kate is not a member of the Batfamily in the comics. She’s Bruce’s cousin, sure, but that does not mean they were ever close (for all that it was revealed that she comforted him at his parents’ funeral, that closeness had never been brought up before or since). She operates alone, with her own supporting cast and own villains. She didn’t even know Bruce was Batman. She is absolutely not the person Bruce calls when he needs help or that takes responsibility for Gotham in his absence. But in the show, she’s apparently going to be facing off against multiple Batman villains, including Thomas Elliot – you know, the guy whose whole schtick revolves around being obsessed with Bruce.

I’ve seen attempts at justifying this by saying things like, “of course Bruce’s villains didn’t just leave when he vanished! It makes sense with the premise of the show that she’s fighting them!” To that, I kind of have to say…well, yeah! That’s the problem! This isn’t a Batwoman show! They’re making her replacement Batman, and there’s frankly no point in doing that. Taking an existing character and turning her into female Batman defeats the purpose. Doing that will always get you a pale imitation of a character, not a real one. With Kate, it ends up seeming even worse than with Kara. With Kara, the missteps and verging into Clark territory come across as accidental, as people that did genuinely want to write about Kara, but didn’t spend much time considering what makes her unique. The Batwoman writers – judging by what we know about the show before the release – aren’t actually interested in Kate. They like the bat image, they like the idea of tapping into the idea of feminism as a part of the cultural zeitgeist rather than actual feminist themes, they like Gotham. Kate as Kate? Not so much.

There was a time in comics where the next generation was leading the Justice League. Dick was Batman. Donna and Kara had replaced Diana and Clark respectively. And you know what? It most certainly wasn’t that they were just acting as the symbols, because what mattered was the Dick, Donna, and Kara of it. It was a very deliberate writing choice to have a Bat, a Wonder, and a Super on the team. It was an even more deliberate choice to have them succeed by being themselves. That was a cool exploration of what it means to step up to fill your mentor’s shoes, to represent a symbol that means a lot to a lot of people, and it worked as it did because it let characters that had an important relationship with their predecessors and the symbols they wore embrace those symbols on their own terms. None of that holds true for Kate.

Kara and Kate are both amazing characters with a lot to love about them. Kara has decades of deeply, deeply confusing material that can be pulled from, including a different but just as valid understanding of what the symbol she wears means to her. Kate doesn’t have as much history or as many stories, but she has her own set of villains and a supporting cast and a rich backstory featuring a healthy amount of her own motivation that has nothing to do with Gotham as a city or bats as a specific motif. Those are all things that can be drawn upon to create great stories about women becoming heroes. Having Kate and Kara replace Clark and Bruce, though? That doesn’t a great story make. That fails to understand who these characters are and pretends as if the only thing separating Superman from Supergirl or Batman from Batwoman is gender. That’s untrue and does an enormous disservice to all four characters. Writers…you can do better than that.

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.

World Building And Lived In Universes

When the second episode of Titans – “Hawk and Dove” – came out, one of the things I thought was that it felt like Batman v Superman. Coming from me? That’s about as high of a compliment as I can give something.

It’s strange, because in a lot of ways, they’re very little alike. Batman v Superman was a sequel, not the start of a new universe that Titans is. But they still feel similar, because they’re both set in already established worlds. In Titans, there were obviously the big details, like how Dawn, Hank, and Dick all knew each other prior to the series and the fact that Dick isn’t working with Bruce anymore. But there were the smaller things, too – Dawn’s Superman T-shirt. The photograph of what was presumably this universe’s first incarnation of Titans. Dick’s contacts list, which included not only Bruce and Alfred, but Donna Troy and Lucius Fox, as well as an assortment of minor characters – Bridget Clancy, Bonnie Linseed, Lori Elton. This is a continuation of the same pattern in the pilot, where Dick’s coworkers are talking about how he’s from Gotham, and how it’s anybody’s guess what happened to his old partner – he could have even been gassed by the Joker. That’s how everything about Gotham feels in BvS.

Like I said, Batman v Superman was a sequel. But while it continued plot points from Man of Steel, it introduced Batman as an already established hero that’s gotten much more brutal recently. He’s twenty years into his career. Losing everyone that’s ever mattered to him has left him jaded and brutal. We don’t see much of Gotham, but we know it’s a crime ridden cesspool with a pretty bad reputation. The Joker doesn’t play a role, but we know that Gotham has a history with him. Even in regards to Superman – we know how he started off – we saw that in Man of Steel. But we weren’t shown all the details of his life since then. We see the gist of it, not the details – he saved a bunch of people, moved in with Lois, is in a good place.

By contrast, there are shows like Gotham. That’s my favourite comic book show. I love it with all my heart. And it has a very different vibe. The city feels like one with a lot of history, like a city that was holding on by a thread until the Wayne murders. But the show, the characters…that all feels fresh and new. However lived in the world may be, there’s a new world order coming and a new status quo that the residents will have to live with. That’s because the show is a prolonged origin story, and over the seasons, we’ve been there for just everything that makes Bruce Wayne who he is.

We were there when he watched his parents’ murder. We were there when he failed to deal with it. We were there when he met Jim Gordon, when he met Selina Kyle and found a reason to smile. We saw him train and grow and confront villains, saw him regress and pick himself back up and start fighting crime for the first time in a world where the new phenomenon of supervillains is emerging. That’s not at all what it’s like in Titans or Batman v Superman, because they start in the middle, not at the beginning.

Sure, we see the basics of Dick and Bruce’s lives and traumas in those stories. In the case of the former, we’ll probably see more as Titans progresses. But how we see that is very different. In both cases, it’s through flashbacks, not what’s occurring in the present. More than that – with many shows and movies, flashbacks are just regular scenes set in the past, sometimes with a different colouring to indicate that it’s not the usual timeline. Not so in Titans and BvS. There, there’s a separation. Stylistically, it comes across as a memory.

In Titans, the first flashback to the Flying Graysons is from Rachel’s perspective, not Dick’s. We hear voices as echoes, we don’t see every detail of what happens, it’s more like flashes of images than a scene. And in one of Dick’s very first scenes, we see him years older wearing a costume we never saw him put on, much less for the first time, and confronting criminals who already know who he is, even though we didn’t see when he got that name. We know that he had a life before this show, one that we’re never going to know all the details of. In Batman v Superman, it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s a compressed telling. It’s stylized. We don’t hear voices or see every frame, we just hit the main points – what Bruce is never going to forget.

This particular brand of storytelling appeals to me so much – sure, it’s great to be with characters through the entire journey, but when flashbacks are a major part of it, I like not seeing all of it, or piecing it together slowly. It’s not all thrown at us at once. It’s enjoyable.

‘Aquaman’ and a Fresh Take on the Classics

So today the second trailer for Aquaman was released, and all I could think was, holy shit.

What I find most interesting is that it’s not at all pushing the idea that it’s somehow “unique”. By that I mean that when it comes to a lot of movies’ marketing, there’s a lot about what’s special about it, what it’s doing that has never been done before. Aquaman  doesn’t seem to be doing that. Instead, it’s focusing on presenting the same classic tropes we’ve seen really well.

From what we’ve seen so far, it’s a textbook example of the hero’s journey. There’s a call to adventure and a refusal of the call. There was the unusual circumstances surrounding Arthur’s birth – which may have gone a little out of vogue, but is still very much a part of the classic hero’s journey. There’s Mera acting as a mentor. There are a series of trials that they go through together. We understand the arc of this type of movie going in. It’s not about plot twists and surprising the audience with what happens, it’s about using the tools and plot elements we’re well acquainted with to tell a compelling story. It looks like it’s going to do an amazing job at that.

A hero’s journey. A protagonist torn between two worlds and deciding for himself the kind of man he wants to be. Two separate love stories that I’m sure will be great. And all of that wrapped up with spectacular visuals and a probably brilliant score. I seriously cannot wait.

The X-Men Movies And The Case They Make For Self Contained Stories

The X-Men film universe gives me a headache.

I know intellectually that I should take them in in the same way I do comic books – not worrying about the timeline, just relaxing into the story and not questioning it – but there’s something about having an adaptation, live action or otherwise, that makes that harder. Even though I know it doesn’t make sense, I find myself questioning timelines, questioning how the thing that happened in one movie ties into what happened in the previous one, trying to find in-universe explanations for retcons or inconsistencies. I get a little tired of the constant debate of how different things – even those that are explicitly not in the same universe, like The Gifted and Legion – fit into a timeline that at best can be interpreted loosely. And that doesn’t even get into how exhausting continuity lockout can be. A movie should be a complete story on its own. It should stand alone without needing to watch three other movies and read all the companion material. A multiple part story is one thing, but even then, that story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, based on a pre-existing plan, not an endless number of instalments tacked on, because comic book movies are not comic books. Having more self contained stories, rather than pushing the idea of a “cinematic universe”, would solve all these problems.

Having a predetermined number of movies with a clear overall arc would lessen the debate of how things fit together, because there’d be a clear answer: they don’t. If it floats your boat, you could make a case for how they could, but when it comes to the actual story, the answer is they don’t. It would allow for viewers to just go in and watch the movie or the series without having to watch a bunch more movies to avoid confusion. It would allow for more creator freedom, because their work would depend on, at most, a couple other movies in a series, not a dozen of highly variable quality and comprehensibility. For the viewer, it makes it easier to just reject what you didn’t like. It seems to me like a much more enjoyable experience.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t enjoy Logan. From my perspective, it relied too heavily on existing fondness for the Hugh Jackman Wolverine and Patrick Stewart Xavier, because neither of them were very sympathetic in the film itself. It was more manipulative than well written. I didn’t like the concept, because it felt disrespectful to all the other X-Men and Old Man Logan doesn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t particularly well thought out, either, because when asked if it was in its own universe, everyone involved gave a different answer. But you know what? If it had been explicitly an separate story – with different actors, maybe, something to show that it’s a different universe – all that could have changed.

Part of the reason it bothered me so much was because of what it means for other X-Men movies. It wasn’t all of it, but it was certainly some of it, because it meant we were never going to see the original cast again. They’re never going to get the sendoff they deserve, that I was hoping for after we saw them again in Days of Future Past. So I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like if Logan were in a different universe and hadn’t slammed that door closed. In that case, it wouldn’t have turned a whole franchise into something even more annoyingly Wolverine-centric. It wouldn’t have turned the whole franchise into a giant Shoot the Shaggy Dog story where nothing the X-Men did in past movies or will do in future ones matters. It wouldn’t have presented Logan as the most important X-Man, despite the fact he’s arguably barely an X-Man and doesn’t fit at all with the metaphor for the oppressed that they’ve been since Chris Claremont defined them. Saying, hey, this is a movie about Wolverine and Professor X that has nothing to do with those other movies about them would mean it could be judged as a story, not as an entry into a franchise, on its own merits, rather than being Hugh Jackman’s swan song. In that case, we could have learned if it was actually good beyond the emotional manipulation. I might have actually liked it.

On a similar note, we have Days of Future Past. Now, I love this movie. I think it was one of the peaks of the franchise. But it also has a lot of glaring flaws. Some of these, I think, would have been fixed by making it and First Class a separate duology, or maybe even adding a third movie to put it into a trilogy that had nothing to do with any other movie. What’s one of the biggest complaints about that movie? That’s easy: Kitty Pryde being sidelined from being the lead character of the story to being Wolverine’s Uber driver. But every time that gets brought up, people jump to defending why it “had to be Wolverine”. There are two ways they use to argue this – Watsonian or Doylist. Intradiegetic or extradiegetic. In-universe or real world.

The in-universe answer is that Wolverine was the only one alive at the time they had to go back to that could handle the trip and for the way the story’s version of time travel worked, they couldn’t send someone else. For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that the writers could change those time travel rules. Setting it in a separate timeline from the other movies could make that not true – boom, done, Kitty was alive in the time she needed to go back to, she could go.

The other argument for why it “had to be Wolverine” is the real world answer – people were attached to Wolverine, not Kitty, who only had about fifteen minutes of screen time in the series. So sending back Wolverine made for a more poignant story. You know what that indicates? Precisely my problem with Logan – a story that’s manipulative and relying on existing fondness for a character, rather than actually giving them an arc that we can be invested in. If DoFP was a “standalone” (though part of its own, shorter series), none of this justification for not sending Kitty would be valid, because Wolverine wouldn’t have any more history in the story. All history would have to be built in the movie itself. Every minute would have to count. And that’s how you can tell a good story from something that’s not – a good story can make the audience sympathize and root for and feel attached to the character on its own. It doesn’t need a whole preceding series.

It’s funny – the original X-Men trilogy was hugely important for the development of superhero movies. They demonstrated how great sequels to these movies could be. They very probably paved the way for shared universes as it pertains to superheroes, all of them existing together. Without them, there would be no MCU or DCEU. It doesn’t matter whether or not you love them, you have to acknowledge that they matter. But I think they also have reached a point, eighteen years in, where they make it clear that this really isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Logan  and Days of Future Past clearly demonstrate the value of standalones.

It reminds me of something that there was a lot of debate about which on Twitter recently – Zack Snyder’s comment that, in his five movie plan, he would have killed Batman. A lot of people were shocked and glad that didn’t come to pass. But I think that’s just another indication of what Snyder’s preferred method of storytelling is. And I think that method of storytelling would work amazingly for the X-Men.

Snyder believes in story arcs, not universes. He draws inspiration from various sources, blending them into one coherent story, where instalments connect to each other, but there’s also an end in sight. His movies have very little excess bulk, with every minute of footage serving a specific purpose. He makes bold choices, such as killing off iconic characters like Bruce Wayne, in a way that all Snyder fans know would be respectful and poignant. Some people were talking about how Dick Grayson could become Batman after Bruce’s death- an idea which I love, Dick as Batman is one of my very favourite things – but I don’t think that’s the point here. The point is that Snyder’s vision wasn’t more and more instalments with more and more characters that ended up all sharing the screen. It was thinking through all the details, planning ahead, and making a story that doesn’t go on forever. It’s not really a style loved by executives in this age of sequels and remakes. It’s very different from the MCU brand. But it’s fascinating to watch. It’s a beautiful style from someone that believes in self contained stories, the kind that would be perfect for the X-Men.

The X-Men movies have felt a bit like the result of a bunch of unplanned sequels being tacked on to a finished product, for no reason other than they make money. For someone that loves the X-Men and loves quite a bit of what’s in the X-Men movies, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I know they’re going to reboot. And presumably pretty soon. I just wish that when they do, it would be in a way that follows the tradition of self contained movies or trilogies, rather than the MCU brand of sticking everything together, because who cares about art when there’s money to be made.

It’s unlikely that we’re going to go back to the age of standalones any time soon. Not after the MCU has demonstrated how much money there is to be made like this. But I hope someday we do. The cinematic universe model has been a great experiment, and it was fun while it lasted, but I really would like to go back to self contained series now.

The ‘Dark Phoenix’ Trailer: A Pretty Good Summary Of All My Issues With the X-Men Movies

The Last Stand was kind of a mess. Decent action movie? Sure. But it also had a confused plot, several different things crammed into what should have been multiple movies, and it had no respect for the source material. A major part of Days of Future Past was undoing that. When Logan went back, he gave Xavier his memories so he could avoid the mistakes he made the first time around. And he did. In Apocalypse, Xavier told Jean to unleash her power instead of trying to bottle it up. To not be afraid of who she was and what she could do. To embrace it. And yet, here we find he was making the exact same damn mistakes he made in the original timeline – lying to Jean and manipulating her for the sake of “protecting her”.

I mean, sure, that’s probably the closest thing to comics Xavier movie Xavier has ever been. Pretty much all his comics self ever did was lie to people and manipulate him. But said comics self also just blocked off young Jean’s telepathy temporarily, so she could focus on mastering her telekinesis first without having everyone’s voices in her head. I’m all for straying from the comics. But it has to be done in a thoughtful way. This? It feels more like it’s there because it was there in The Last Stand than because it’s a good storytelling technique that fits with the Dark Phoenix Saga.

I’m all for straying from the comics. I even wrote a post about it. Movies are movies and comics are comics. What works in a comic may not work in a movie and vice versa. And it’s more interesting to watch a story where you don’t know how it’ll end, or every plot point that’ll get you to that ending. But straying from the comics has to be done in an thoughtful way, in a way that has a clear purpose, whether it be for character development reasons or plot reasons. This doesn’t look likely to be that.

I can buy Magneto’s presence in this movie. While I can’t know until I watch the actual movie, I can imagine a lot of ways in which he could benefit the movie. Even though I would much prefer to see Utopia than Genosha, because this should centre around Jean and Scott, it makes plenty of sense that Erik’s reaction to Charles – someone that’s supposed to be helping mutants – lying to Jean and trying to block off her powers would be to create a place for mutants where no one can get to them. But Mystique? A Mystique that is absolutely nothing like her comics counterpart, played by an actress that never even seems like she wants to be there? A Mystique who took on a role of ” leading and training the X-Men” that absolutely should not be hers? I’m not into this at all.

I’m over all these endless movies of Charles telling Erik there’s still good in him, or the two being on the same side for about five minutes, or neither of them acknowledging that there’s a middle ground between sitting there and doing absolutely nothing and killing everyone standing in their way. I’m especially over their conflict happening in a movie that’s supposed to be about Jean – again. It’s gotten really repetitive. My investment in said conflict will be for one petty reason and one alone: that comics Xavier is the worst and I’m happy to see movie Xavier finally being acknowledged as a deeply flawed, manipulative person – though, going back to my first point, it really doesn’t work as part of a series and does a great job demonstrating why studios producing comic book movies should be making more standalone films and elseworlds tales, rather than instalment after instalment in a never ending franchise (that’s one of my many drafts. It…might get done).

My biggest worry about Dark Phoenix was that it was going to go the “crazy Jean that lost control route”. And from the trailer, that seems like a safe bet. I find that so unbelievably exhausting – they’re going cosmic. They’re bringing in the Shi’ar and the Phoenix Force. But they can’t avoid the gross sexism – that didn’t exist in the original comic – of “crazy chick with more power than she can handle”? I get not bringing in the Hellfire Club, but cutting out everything about Emma Frost and Mastermind manipulating her? It’s tiresome.

As I’ve said before – at this point, more times than I can remember – I’ve never been big on this idea. I love the X-Men and I love the Dark Phoenix Saga and I love Jean Grey, but I wasn’t a fan of giving this arc another try, even back when I first heard the rumour that it was going to happen. As much as I love the original comic, I have hugely conflicted feelings when it comes to everything else that’s ever pertained to the Phoenix. Maybe that means I went into watching the trailer biased against it, expecting it to be bad, and I should be more open-minded, but believe me, I’ve tried. Sure, it could be a great movie – we can’t know one way or the other until we see more – but for me, it’s kind of painfully reminiscent of The Last Stand, what with the focus on Charles and Erik and big action scenes that look awesome.

It differs from The Last Stand in a lot of ways – focusing on the Jean and Dark Phoenix story, rather than having an entirely different storyline thrown in; a different kind of action because it’s not 2006 anymore; thankfully no Wolverine – but there are still enough similarities that it seems to me like Simon Kinberg is trying to say something like I was so right back in 2006 and you all were just too dumb to see it, here, let me rework it until you get it. I wrote a post about the repercussions of misremembering the Dark Phoenix Saga on all kinds of X-Men material, and this trailer drove one thing home for sure: the public perception of the Dark Phoenix Saga as a story about a crazy woman that can’t control her powers and destroys a bunch of stuff and is manipulated by the people she cares about rather is about to be cemented, probably forever,