Like many people, I started reading comic books as a kid, starting with Spider-Man and Metal Men, moving on to the Avengers and Fantastic Four before dropping the habit before high school. I started back up in college with X-Men (and New Mutants, X-Factor, etc.), Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns,” and anything by John Byrne (Superman, FF again, West Coast Avengers, Iron Man) or Walt Simonson. And then I dropped comics again (for good, it seems) in the early ‘90s.
Which is not to say that I dislike superheroes or have “grown out” of them (despite, I am sure, the fervent wishes of many an English teacher of mine). On the contrary, I try to see most superhero movies as soon as they come out, and this summer has been good to me. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve realized that I vastly prefer superhero movies to the comic books themselves. Here are a few reasons why.
The movies are less complicated. One of the big reasons (there’s another one I discuss later on) why I quit comics for a second time was because the storylines were becoming too convoluted and cumbersome (especially so for the X-Men books and their annual, overblown, insufferable crossovers). In contrast, the movies set up their story, tell it, and are done. If the film’s a sequel, it’ll usually reference the previous movie(s), and I’m all good with that. I’m a busy guy: when I want entertainment, I don’t want War and Peace in spandex. Just get me in and out of the movie theater in a few hours and leave me hungry for the next flick.
The actors often elevate their characters to new and magnificent heights. Six words: “Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark.” Before RDJ, Tony Stark was Bruce Wayne’s gearhead little brother, and no, his struggle with alcoholism wasn’t that interesting. It was RDJ (and, of course, the screenwriters) that made Tony Stark hip, smart-alecky, and charismatic.
And he’s not the only one: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Chris Evans as Captain America, Willem Dafoe chewing the scenery as Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin in the original Spider-Man movies (props also to Alfred Molina as Doc Ock). Jaimie Alexander as Sif: how did she NOT get cast to play Wonder Woman in the next Superman film?
Tom-frickin’-Hiddleston as Loki. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Christopher Reeve as Superman. And, of course, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.
This is not to say that every performance is cinematic gold: Jamie Foxx will not win Best Supporting Actor for Electro. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is…just there (though my wife and daughters enjoy the visuals). While Christian Bale and Michael Keaton both did fine as Bruce Wayne, I’m still waiting for a Batman like the one in my head when I read the books (I can’t imagine that Ben Affleck will be that, but I’ve been wrong before). But often, the movie versions are much, much better.
The costumes look better in the movies. Speaking of Electro, this is him from the books:
And this is him from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
X-Men from the comics:
Oooh, look at all the colors. And Colossus has mini-oil barrels on his wrists
X-Men from the latest film:
Batman on paper:
Batman on the screen:
The comics can be too dark and…oogie. “The Dark Knight Returns” set the standard for being “gritty” and “dark,” and since then, comic books have too-often skewed that way…or tried to up the ante. Resulting in books that were either numbingly derivative (“Oh, look, another psychologically tortured vigilante who’s barely morally better than the villains”) or just made me want to take a shower after I read them.
In the latter category, three titles spring to mind: the bleak, brutal, ugly “Dark Knight Strikes Again,” with its sleaze and the deaths of Martian Manhunter and Captain Marvel, as well as—SPOILER—Batman killing a psychopathic Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy Wonder.
You know what? Don’t ask me to explain what’s going on here
Then there’s the Joker graphic novel, where to punish one of his henchmen, the villain rapes said henchmen’s ex-wife in front of the rest of the gang, afterward telling them to take her away and “pay her what she’s worth.” In addition to the implication that a human-looking Killer Croc is a cannibal. Ugh.
Cannibalism is thrown in your face again and again in “Old Man Logan,” which also features dismemberments, disemboweling, buckets of blood (of course), incest, and implied rape. I’m not uptight, and I’m okay with comics being “edgy,” but “Old Man Logan” was probably the most vile comic I’ve ever read. Going through that was like eating a bucket of slugs.
In the movies, things change, and usually stay changed. Grotesqueries like “Old Man Logan” are fortunately not common. Much more prevalent—and wearisome instead of repulsive—is how comics will initiate much-needed change, and then all-to-soon go back to the status quo. If you’re a longtime comics fan, you’ve seen this a million times: heroes getting new costumes, or stepping down to be replaced by another, or even dying.
Those are just stunts to get media attention and sales—the latest one has Thor being replaced by a woman—but they don’t last for more than a year or two before the original hero puts on the old costume, or comes out of retirement, or returns from the dead. This was the other big reason (in addition to convoluted storylines) that really killed comic books for me.
Up until now, the movies have tended not to do this. Frigga dies in Thor: The Dark World, as does Gwen Stacy in AMSM 2, and I’m sure they won’t be back (as an aside, Gwen’s storyline would have been much more interesting if she had lived; in the comics, she died more than 40 years ago). Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, as does Tony Stark with Iron Man at the end of IM 3. S.H.I.E.L.D. is disbanded at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“Up until now,” of course, being the operative phrase. Stark will be back in the suit for Avengers 2, and possibly for IM 4. S.H.I.E.L.D. is being rebuilt in the TV show. Batman will return in the next Superman film, but it remains to be seen if that series is set in the same universe as the Nolan films. Odin is sure to be back on the throne at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. But for now, the movies are fresh and interesting.
Of course, not every superhero movie from the last decade or so has been great, or even good. The two Fantastic Four films were wretched, and I don’t expect much better from the one in production. Which brings up a failing of the movies: reboots that are too soon or unnecessary. If I have to sit through one more showing of how Peter Parker gained super powers from being bitten by a radioactive or genetically-engineered spider….
On a related note, I’m probably going to sit out Guardians of the Galaxy, opening tomorrow. While I don’t want my superhero movies too dark, GotG just looks too goofy for my tastes, and I endured those Seventies tunes back as a kid. But if I had to choose, I’d pick a film version of it over the comics. And I’m already revved for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Next summer can’t get here soon enough!
Kenton Kilgore is the author of DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Look for his next work, LOST DOGS, a young adult sci-fi novel, coming this September.