~This post contains spoilers for Batman v Superman, and The Flash~
As a comic book fan, I realized long ago that I am winning the current pop-culture landscape. It seems that every day there is a new adaptation announced of these characters and stories I love, from the almost sickening amount of big-budget blockbusters released since 2008, and scheduled for release through the end of the decade, to almost every channel on television looking for their own comic to adapt. And as I consume more and more of these new films and shows I find myself wanting these adaptations to stray further from the source material.
Like many of my generation, my introduction to comic book adaptations came before my introduction to comics. I was raised on Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s DC Animated Universe, and to this day I hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s voices when I read their character’s voices in the comic. The DCAU, from Batman to Justice League Unlimited is such a successful and complete adaptation of the comic books that they became the base that I measure all other versions of those characters, including the comic books, against. This is less true, but still applicable for Spider-Man, who I first experienced in cartoon form on Saturday Mornings, and on the big screen in the early-2000’s movies directed by Sam Raimi, before falling in love with the character in the comics.
And while both the DCAU and the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy were both brilliant adaptations of their respective comics that took the characters, symbols, and some plot elements of their source material; neither are direct adaptations of any particular stories. Instead, they took the familiar elements of the comic, and told their own stories in their own worlds. And the artistic liberties each of those adaptations took became some of their strongest elements. The characters of Harley Quinn and Renée Montoya were introduced in the DCAU and then put into the comics; and the line-up of the DCAU Justice League made the team more diverse and capable to tell different stories. And the Spider-Man films’ treatment of Doctor Octopus made him more sympathetic than in the comics, while the organic webs worked as a visual metaphor for themes of puberty and self-confidence.
An adaptation that strays even further from the source material, and arguably achieved even greater success because of it, is Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. Nolan’s Batman was far from the Batman of the comic: he was not a detective, polymath, did not build his own equipment, or have sidekicks. However, the differences in Nolan’s Batman, and the world he inhabited allowed the movies to tell stories about defense, terrorism, and morals that the comics could not tell in the same way. Nolan used the familiar character elements, symbols, and even lifted some scenes directly from the comics; but told completely distinct stories with distinct characters.
And even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arguably the most successful adaptation of all time is not a direct adaptation of any specific comics stories or plots. Again, the MCU takes all these familiar elements, but arranges them in new ways to tell new stories inspired by, but distinct from the source material.
An adaptation has very little to gain by sticking completely to the source material. The biggest strength in the case of direct adaptation is also its greatest weakness: telling a story that has already been told before. And while it’s almost always fun to see a favorite comic book come to life in animation or live-action; in a strict adaptation, it’s always a story you know the plot to. It’s one whose expectations are easy to set and harder to reach because the audience knows how it’s supposed to be done.
But sometimes, the knowing how things are supposed to go is fun in itself. There’s part of me that loves hearing a character name on something like The Flash or whatever the newest MCU movie is, and knowing that character’s arc, or why they’re important before anyone else. There’s a reward in the dramatic irony afforded for nerds who know the story before the story wants them to because of the investment they already have with those characters. However, because of the internet, that sort of trivia is no longer necessarily so hardly won. Now, anybody with the will can go to Wikipedia and spoil themselves on the plots of the comics and have just as much knowledge of the story without the emotional investment.
But in cases where audiences, nerd or not, expect a new story; the emotionally invested still have expectations that the adaptation should live up to the heart and legacy of the source material. And it’s here where adaptations are really made or broken. Because there are some things that no adaptation can change and still have work.
Take for example Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Nobody (myself included) hated that movie because it wanted to tell an original story. Nobody hated it because it dared to have Batman fight Superman, and have Superman die. The reason I hate that film isn’t because they change the story, but because they change the spirit of the characters. I wouldn’t care if Superman were Black, Female, came from Neptune, and spoke Russian; but I do care that they made Superman a character that seemingly doesn’t care about doing the right thing. I care that they made Batman into a character who seemingly delights in murder and uses guns.
Another recent example is the treatment of Jay Garrick in season two of The Flash. The show is one of my favorite on television, and one I generally feel adapts the spirit and tone of the comics to screen very well, even as it tells its own stories, introduces new characters, and changes some existing ones. However, one recent change that soured me on the show was the reveal that Jay Garrick, who through the season had been helping The Flash and his team, was really the villain Zoom. The show already had a history of bait-and-switching people who knew the comics trivia when it came to their villains, but telling us that Jay Garrick, who in the comics is the original Flash, is Zoom in the show felt like a step too far. It feels like the show prioritizing telling a story with a twist over respecting the source material. It took a character who is one of the greatest heroes in the comic universe, and turned him into the show’s biggest villain, seemingly just to create a twist for viewers.
And no matter how far an adaptation wants to stray from the source material; respect for that source material is a line that should never break. The audience wants new stories, but they’re expecting those stories to be told with the characters that mean so much to them intact through the adaptation. That expectation of familiarity is why an audience will watch an adaptation in the first place: because they know they like this character – who they are, what they stand for. And as many advantages that playing and straying from source material provides, if a creator wants to tell a story that breaks that expectation for narrative purposes, maybe it’d be better if they come up with something original.