Saturday, May 21, 2011

Myth, Progression, and the Future of a Genre

I plan to do something this summer that I don't think I've ever done before: go to the movie theatre four times. With rare exceptions, I only see movies based on comic book franchises, so with Thor, Captain America, The X-Men, and Green Lantern all getting blockbusters, I'm making an unprecedented number of contributions to the box office. Factor in a couple of animated direct-to-DVD movies (another Thor and another Green Lantern) and the two hour (before commercials) series finale of Smallville, and I'm feeling sufficiently catered to.

As with any movie based on source material, it's interesting to make note of how and why filmmakers chose to deviate from an original narrative. But there is a difference between comic adaptations and most all other kinds. Movies based on literary works or even on ancient myths are working with a structured narrative with a clearly defined endpoint. Although any given comic book story can have a resolution, the universes that spawned these characters are ongoing. And it wouldn't exactly be lucrative to end them. But aside from the fiduciary interest that corporations (Disney and Time Warner now own all Marvel and DC characters) have in keeping the characters stories from ending, there is a cultural argument for their continued existence. If, as some have argued, characters such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man are our culture's answer to the Greek myths, the continued addition to a tapestry indicates a continued cultural vitality.

But that also creates a rather unique challenge for the creators (or caretakers) of the characters. How do you progress characters through a narrative that does not end? The only other medium that comes close to facing such a dilemma is the television soap opera. But soaps are built around ensemble casts and even the most iconic characters are phased out or de-emphasized over time.

A practice in the industry that has arisen in response to this challenge over the last several decades has been termed "illusion of change." In the early 1990s DC Comics killed Superman, eventually replacing him with four different Supermen. It was a bold move, resulting in lots of media attention and renewed interest in the comic. After some time had passed, the original Superman returned to life and assumed his old role, with the replacements fading into the background. And this general process has been repeated with almost all superheroes since then. Almost all of them have been at some time or another replaced, only to return and claim their old job back. Occasionally some other radical change occurs: Spider-Man's Aunt May dies, Superman splits into two separate energy beings, Batman's butler Alfred quits his job, or Wonder Woman starts wearing pants. But eventually things revert to a "classic set up," until the next time the status quo is temporarily disrupted.

Of interest to me, then, are the unusual instances when some change to the status quo sticks, and when it becomes so enmeshed in the ongoing comic narrative that it also becomes part of other media adaptations. Perhaps the best example of this is the marriage of Superman and Lois Lane. For over 50 years, according to conventional wisdom, one of the things that made the Superman myth work was the concept of a love triangle that actually involved two people. Clark Kent loved Lois Lane, but Lois loved Superman. It was thought that if you would destroy this dynamic, you would destroy much of what makes the Superman story appealing. But more than 15 years ago, Lois irrevocably learned that Clark and Superman were one and the same man, and she married him. Since then, two separate television adaptations, including the recently ended Smallville, also had the two of them walk down the aisle.

Another example of a change that sticks can be found in the bat mythos. As a general rule, superheroes don't age. But Robin grew up. In 1984, Dick Grayson moved out of Wayne Manor and adapted the identity of Nightwing. Subsequently, a number of other characters have fought alongside Batman under the name Robin, but the original Robin never came back to the nest...until recently. When Bruce Wayne returned from one of those deaths that superheroes tend to come back from, he found that Grayson had shed the Nightwing costume and had honored his legacy by becoming Batman. And the erstwhile Robin was actually doing a pretty good job in the role. So rather than force his ward to regress, Bruce allowed Dick to continue watching over Gotham City, while he decided he would also put the cape and cowl back on and patrol the rest of the world.

Whether that particular change to the classic Batman set-up will stick is anyone's guess. The track record of the industry would seem to indicate that it won't. But I hope it does. Comic book movies have been going strong for over 10 years now, and the next couple years will continue to see some high-profile projects. But as the initial wave of trilogies starts to wind down, it will be interesting to see if these iconic characters stay in the public consciousness. The X-Men franchise has reverted to prequels. The next Spider-Man film next year will be a "reboot," supposedly retelling the origin that was established in the 2002 film. Batman's director has said that after the next movie, his franchise will be ending.

The first real decade of comic book movies has drawn heavily on multiple decades of comic book stories. But if this genre is to be sustained, I think the source material needs to continue to expand, evolve, and explore new terrain. If the majority of the changes to our myths continue to be illusory, I doubt that I will have a summer like this one in a long time.


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