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Lost in Film Translation: Mining Alt Comic Narratives for Costumes, not Meaning

August 5, 2011

The super hero film has traveled a substantial distance to the mainstream before it finally burst through the celluloid ceiling and became the contemporary definition of cinematic blockbuster. Comic books have traveled along a reverse trajectory, from mainstream to subculture. In a strange confluence, the comic books that gave us All-American avengers in the forties, fifties and sixties, have spent the last two or so decades reinvigorating their franchises by looking back on that legacy, and often redefining their heroes as the ideological opposite pole from whence they came. Both Marvel and DC, careful to guard the marketing gold that is their classical super hero branding, take great care to maintain the more radical shifts as non-continuity formats designed for adult readers. In 2000, Marvel committed itself to full time reinterpreation–a literal parallel series of comic books featuring its heavy hitters–in the Ultimate brand.

I remember thinking when I read the first issue of the The Ultimate, the analogue of the Avengers in The Ultimates version of the Marvel Universe, that the person who conceived the idea must have really hated the Avengers. All of the Ultimate versions of the characters were portrayed–joyfully by the writer, it seemed–as self-interested, corrupt and vain. The group itself was a literal boy band put together by a realistically nefarious version of Shield, complete with marketing friendly phony and cloying origin stories. Thor was a hedonic pacifist; Captain America a deluded, anachronistically self-rigtheous patriot; Iron Man a nihilist and alcoholic.

Certainly, not all of the Ultimates lines were subversive revisionism. While the Ultimate Fantastic Four sought the reverse of the mainstream brand, with a teen group, the adventures remained at their core similar to the older stuff. Likewise, until recently, when Peter Parker was replaced by an Afro-Latino Spidey, Ultimate Spider Man has been pretty faithful to the original, with simple retellings of the popular story arcs made for people who remember them fondly–Goblin, Venom, Lizard, etc.

While both Spider Man and FF films both conspicuously avoided the Ultimates story lines, other film versions seem inordinately interested in many of the more superficial apsects of the most subversive Ultimates brands. The film-version Captain America costume, for example, is an obvious lift from the Ultimates series. The reconstruction of the absurdly costumed 1940’s Captain America, into a commando-unit leading, gun toting and Kevlar padded special operative, is also an Ultimate’s trope. But the similarities end there. The Ultimates Captain America is the thesis of American exceptionalism, a swaggering John Wayne who even inspires the origin of a revenge-seeking “Captain Middle East” due to his imperialism and chauvinism. The celluloid Captain America is a nuanced human protagonist, fighting in an extra-military battle against a secret society; Cap and his merry band of Howling Commandos have a completely non-military attitude, dressing as they like, coming up with their own missions. Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is a panel to frame transplant from the Utlimates, a product of a diagetic joke from the creative team about who would play the characters in a movie version of the Utlimates [it could have been worse, with Steve Buscemi as Bruce Banner and Brad Pitt as Steve Rogers]. But cinema Fury is forthright, and unlike his skulldegerous Ultimates version, fair to the team he is constructing. The Tony Stark of the Iron Man films has much more in common with that of the Ultimates [and coincidentally, Morton Downey Jr.] than the boring billionaire control-freak of the mainstream series.

The films consistently fail to imprint the darker narative commentaries on the nature of the super-hero narrative–the self deluded, self-righteousness, the indelible connection to cold war values and conservative capitalism, the sexism, the racism, the curiously homoerotic homophobia. To a certain extent, this dichotomy is a product of the different goals of comics and film. Comics today have a gigantic history to sort through, and an ideological mess to make sense of. That is, in fact, half the fun for the comic book fan of today, and what inspires so many non-canonical limited series. But for many viewers, the film version will be the first time they come into contact with the superhero’s narrative, outside of the cultural iconography that they’ve absorbed by osmosis. Film super heroes, in fact, are little more than dressed-up traditional blockbuster action heroes for the most part. And in the mainstream blockbuster world, there is no similar popular tradition of narrative revisionism.

This leads to a glaring dichotomy between the source material and the film. Iron Man, for example, has a problematic and war-linked origin that’s eliminated completely in the Ultimates. Though the film transfers a good deal of the plot devices and narrative from the Ultimates version of the Avengers, it simply redefines the seat of the character’s mainstream origin from Vietnam to our current imperial adventure–just as “right” today as Vietnam was in the early sixties. The film does attempt to deal with the war-profiteering legacy of Stark Industries with Tony Stark’s attempt to turn the company away from the defense industry. But in the second film, we’re told that Iron Man has solved all of the US’s defensive needs, while we still apparently occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. What emerges is a muddled perspective on Afghanistan in the first film, and a schizophrenic and delusional view of the US’s military posture in the second.

The confused political environment of Iron Man is, in fact, a testament to what happens to celluloid super-heroes that linger too long gazing at their own paradigmatic contradictions. In the unsuccessful Superman, reboot, for example, we find a reluctant Clark Kent channel-surfing cable news images of global crises, trying to avoid his apparent responsibility to the world. But when he finally suits up and gets back on the horse, his first job is foiling a fairly conventional bank robbery. Likewise, Batman, as many have commented, can’t escape seeming like an adventuring billionaire lunatic, more invested in his own ego and morose self-aborption than actually interested in helping people. Where adult comic readers now find such innocent portrayals comical and immature, the same tropes are welcomed by adult audience in the action genre, where heroes have shared many of the same clueless–and often, offensive to progressive sensibilities–relationships with their social and political environment for generations now.

What’s ironic is that the biggest blockbuster super-hero films of the past five years are products of the post-modern movement of revisionist history in comics; all of them non-canonical. The Batman films—even the pointless blockbustering of Tim Burton—were spawned by the Dark Knight. Nearly the entire stable of current Marvel films are from parallel continuities–Iron Man, Captain America and [one assumes] the Avengers are the product of the Ultimates from the 00’s. And even the new X-Men reboot originates in the First Class limited series, which isn’t part of the X-Men continuity. What made these stories attractive to adult fans, was their critical retrospective nature, allowing fans to look back on the innocent icons of their childhood, with a mature and culturally and politically [relatively] sophisticated lens, and to ask such questions as: can a super-hero be socialist and anti-war? Would it make any difference if the person under the mask were Black? Or Gay? Wouldn’t Professor X be a terrifying and authoritarian figure, rather than a kindly father-figure? And doesn’t Captain America seem like an overbearing, asinine fascist?

This seems to be the opposite dynamic of what’s happening on screen, where super-heroes are pretty much the same type of character they were in the sixties, with updated gadgetry, costumes and haistyles.

All this to say: don’t count on an Afro-Latino Spider-Man on the big screen any time soon.

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