We’re currently experiencing something of a golden age of comic book adaptations both on the big and the small screen. As a longtime comic book reader, I’m thrilled about this, though I realise not everybody is.
For example, I just saw some coverage of the Berlin film festival (the list of winners is here BTW) wherein some German dude – probably Andreas Dresen, but don’t quote me on that – waxed poetic about HBO-style dramas like Breaking Bad and Homeland, because they feature broken characters, whereas Hollywood cinema is just concentrating on putting out silly comic book and superhero movies with zero depths. And I yelled at the screen, “Dude, you can watch predictable muslim bashing and the pains of a white middle class dude facing mortality and reacting by becoming a fucking drug dealer, but I’ll be over here watching one of those silly comic book stories tackle sexism instead of more white dude pain.”
As a matter of fact, the German cultural press is sticking with its traditional hostility to anything genre to the point that our oh so highbrow cultural journalists are fawning about Fifty Fucking Shades of Grey, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival instead of e.g. Jupiter Ascending, which would’ve at least been interesting, and calling it the highest grossing movie of the year. Now Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t even have made highest grossing movie of the year in a regular cinema year, especially not since it is widely expected to be terrible. But in a year that will see both Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Force Awakens, i.e. long awaited new installments in two of the most popular franchises on the planet? Forget it, Fifty Shades doesn’t even have a fighting chance.
Though interestingly many German friends have problems believing that both Age of Ultron and The Force Awakens will thoroughly trounce Fifty Shades, because “lots of people want to watch Fifty Shades” and “well, maybe you want to watch this other stuff, but no one else has even heard of that.” Because many of my German friends live in a world where Fifty Shades still cannot be avoided unfortunately, but where neither Star Wars nor the Marvel Cinematic Universe are something that is on their radar at all. Ditto for Game of Thrones, as evidenced by the fact that Sibel Kekili, who plays Tyrion’s lover Shae, was in the Berlin Film Festival jury (well, she is a former winner of the Silver Bear) and yet none of the journalists even thought to ask her about her Hollywood success in Game of Thrones.
However, the German cultural press and what passes for a cultural elite in this country are wrong to focus on Breaking Bad and Homeland and squinting very hard to figure out just why Americans like this stuff so much (because if they are honest for once, very few Germans see the appeal), while ignoring the very interesting work that is currently done in genre and particularly in comic book based film and television. Marvel is ahead of the competition this time and it pains me that the German cultural press is so slow to take notice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe phenomenon (which is interesting and something new for movies, whether you actually like the films or not). DC so far seems to be focussed mainly on giving as 57 flavours of Batman and/or Superman with some Arrow and Flash thrown in for good measure.
In fact, it just struck me today how much this new wave of comic book based media differs from the works we had before. Because let’s face it, we’ve had comic book based film and television for a long time now. We had serials in the 1930s and 1940s, we had Adam West’s Batman and The Green Hornet on TV in the 1960s, we had the Christopher Reeves Superman movies in the 1970s and 1980s, we had the Tim Burton and later Joel Schuhmacher Batman movies in the 1980s and 1990s, we had Blade and Spawn and Spider-Man and the X-Men on the big screen since the 1990s and we had The Flash and various versions of Superman (Superboy, The Adventures of Lois and Clark, Smallville) and even Birds of Prey on the small screen. We even had more or less successful attempts to adapt Watchmen and Sin City and V for Vendetta and From Hell and Road to Perdition and Ghost World and Kick-Ass and 300 and so on… So yes, we’ve had a lot of comic book based media, including good comic book based media, in the past 25 years to the point that I can understand why it would bother people like Andreas Dresen, who is from East Germany and thus had less chance to develop a connection to these characters even if he had wanted to.
But then even many people who are not traditional comic book fans are finding something to enjoy in the current flood of comic book based media. Case in point: My Mom is not a comic book fan and didn’t even want me to read them, when I was a child because of some misguided ideas about comic books harming reading skills. Yet she happily watches Marvel’s Avengersverse movie on DVD with me (except for The First Avenger, WWII not being a cool setting for those who’ve actually experienced it) and has enjoyed the X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies with me in the past. Regarding comic book tales on the small screen, she’s very fond of Arrow.
Now the current surfeit of comic book adaptations has also reached the small screen and the US is currently enjoying no less than six comic book based live action TV series, namely Arrow, The Flash, Gotham and Constantine for DC and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter for Marvel with more on the way. And three of those series, The Flash, Gotham and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. just had their German TV premieres in the space of a week.
I made a point of watching them together with my Mom, just in case it’s necessary to explain some comic related bit to her. Though the films and TV shows usually are perfectly understandable even without comic book background knowledge, since they are aimed at a general audience.
Now my Mom thoroughly enjoyed The Flash, but then I thought she would. Though she was a bit confused when Arrow showed up in the pilot, since she had already forgotten Barry Allen’s guest appearance in that show and both shows are sadly not running on the same network in Germany.
She also thoroughly enjoyed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., of which I wasn’t quite so sure, because that show needs quite a few episodes to get really off the ground. Coincidentally, I also enjoyed watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. again, even the slower early episodes, because upon second viewing I was able to catch all sorts of sly hints at what is to come, such as Ward mentioning his SO (Hydra agent pretending to be S.H.I.E.L.D. agent John Garrett, who is as close as the first season has to a Big Bad), Coulson lamenting that they failed to cut off Centipede’s head (and since Centipede is Hydra, that’s an interesting statement), someone mentioning Journey into Mystery, the 1960s Marvel comic wherein Skye’s father Dr. Calvin Zabo debuted (so did Thor BTW), Skye saying that since the rest of the team is just as inexperienced as she is, she might just as well be director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which her comic book counterpart actually was for a while). Indeed, I frequently found myself exclaiming, “Oh, Joss Whedon, you are good”, much to my Mom’s confusion.
However, much to both our surprise, my Mom and I also found ourselves enjoying Gotham. Now I didn’t watch Gotham when it had its TV premier last fall. Partly because it was just another of the 57 flavours of Batman DC has been dishing up regularly in the past 25 years (Batman – now 100% Batman free) and partly because the trailers looked so uninspiring. However, the German network in its infinite wisdom scheduled Gotham after The Flash, so we started watching it and actually found ourselves enjoying the show.
Now my Mom knows who Batman is, who Catwoman is, who Robin is and probably also who the Joker is, but she doesn’t know much about the background of the character. And so, when that robber shot the Waynes in that alley, she actually flinched. “Wait a minute”, I said, “Don’t tell me you didn’t see that one coming. Cause it wasn’t just totally obvious, it was also an iconic moment in comics history.”
My Mom said that she had never read any of those comics (though she has seen at least the Tim Burton Batman films, if not the Nolans). “The little boy…”, I told her, “…the son of the murdered couple is Bruce Wayne. He’ll grow up to be Batman and this is the moment that inspires him to become a superhero.”
Since she didn’t even recognise Batman’s origin story, my Mom of course didn’t get all the other cameos by future Batman friends and villains either, though I pointed them out to her. All right, so she did get that homeless teen burglar would grow up to be Catwoman one day. “Oh, look it’s love at first sight with her and Batman”, she said, “And she’s actually older than him.”
From the POV of someone who’s familiar with the comics, I felt that Gotham was maybe a bit too blatant with giving us future Batman villains before they were villains. I mean, even in the first episode we had the Penguin (even namechecked), Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler (also namechecked) and a potential Joker in the hapless comedian auditioning at Fish Moony’s bar. I also have a feeling that the big suspect Jim Gordon was tackling might turn out to be Bane. On the non-villainous side (I’m leaving Catwoman on the villain side for now), we had Jim Gordon, Barbara Gordon (though I suspect that the future Batgirl/Oracle will be her daughter rather than this Barbara) and Alfred Pennyworth, who – though a shining beacon of a good superhero parent figure later on – is actually very much at a loss regarding what to do about the grieving child he suddenly finds himself in charge of. Though I did enjoy seeing where all those familiar characters come from and also the fact that young Bruce actually seems more troubled than some of his future antagonists and the resulting implications that Batman is as psychologically disturbed in many ways as the villains he fights, which will surprised absolutely no one who has ever read a Batman comic or seen a Batman movie.
However, since I was watching with my Mom who didn’t recognise any of the rather blatant hints dropped about the “Before they were evil” personnel of Gotham, I also envisioned what Gotham must look like to someone who has either no knowledge of Batman or at least not enough to make the connection. To such a viewer, Gotham looks like a cop show with a slight retro feel*, more Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes sans coma and time travel than Batman. And amazingly it works on those terms.
That also got me thinking what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter might look like to someone who is not familiar or at least not intimately familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (e.g. I don’t think my Mom would necessarily have recognised Coulson from the Avengersverse movies without prompting). And at least Agent Carter‘s connection to the Avengersverse is actually more tenuous than Gotham‘s to Batman. However, both shows are still perfectly watchable and enjoyable without that connection, though you’ll get more out of them, if you spot the many little links and Easter eggs.
Without the Avengers connection, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a mixture of the various flavours of NCIS and “hunting down the supernatural/alien artefact or monster of the week” shows in the vein of The X-Files, Torchwood and Fringe. If anything, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks and feels more like NCIS (which is probably why my Mom enjoyed it so much) than like Torchwood or The X-Files.
Meanwhile, Agent Carter is stylish retro-sexism in the Mad Men vein with added buttkicking. It doesn’t even matter that Howard Stark’s stolen tech is futuristic/fantastic in nature, nuclear secrets or indeed any old Macguffin would have done just as well. In many ways, Agent Carter is more Mad Men with spies than it is “Whatever happened to Steve’s girlfriend” or “The Secret Origin of S.H.I.E.L.D.” I also think it’s actually a better take on the retro sexism theme than Mad Men, because it’s told from a female POV, but then I’ve always felt Mad Men would have been a better show, if it had focussed more on Peggy Olsen with Don Draper as her mysterious boss, which would also have cut down on the draggy Don Draper family and marriage drama. It’s also interesting that both shows just happen to have a protagonist named Peggy.
Now spin-offs are nothing new. We’ve had both TV series spinning off each other as well as TV shows spun off from movies for decades now. However, the old spin-offs always stuck to the same genre and usually told a variation of the same story the original had told. The various flavours of CSI are always shows about forensics specialists solving crimes in various US cities. The various flavours of NCIS are always shows about investigators of the US Navy solvings crimes and hunting terrorists and exchanging banter, while they’re at it. There might be the occasional shift in tone, e.g. Deep Space 9 was darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation, Angel was more adult than Buffy and The Originals is more adult than The Vampire Diaries, but spin-off and original always stayed in the same genre. Meanwhile, TV shows spun off from movies usually retold the same story with different actors. In many cases, the TV shows also expanded upon the movies that spawned it, e.g. the various Stargates and Highlander vastly expanded their respective worlds, which is also why the TV shows are often better remembered than the movies.
In contrast, Marvel’s TV spin-offs generally keep the same actors as the movies and instead focus on a popular supporting character like Phil Coulson or Peggy Carter. DC, on the other hand, seems to prefer to keep its movie and TV universes separate and even offers different versions of the same characters on film and TV. For example, the Suicide Squad movie that DC has planned for 2016 has entirely different cast than the Suicide Squad we saw in Arrow. Personally, I prefer the Marvel approach of having one big universe to DC’s of having several universes coexisting. In fact, we don’t even know if the TV show Gotham exists in the same universe as either DC’s big screen Batman movies (which don’t exist in the same universe either – in fact, we probably have at least two different Batman movie universes) or Arrow and The Flash. IMO it just adds useless confusion, but DC seems to want big name stars in its movies rather than the actors who successfully played these characters on TV.
It is also notable that comic book based TV series are not necessarily in the same genre as their parent movies. True, The Flash and Arrow are superhero shows, but Gotham is a cop show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spy thriller/action show, Agent Carter is a Mad Men style period piece. What is more, neither Gotham nor Agent Carter even directly feature any superheroes (Bruce is still a kid in Gotham, while Captain America merely casts a shadow upon Agent Carter), while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. only features superheroes tangentially for much of its run. And this is something new, because in the past movies and/or TV shows set in the same universe generally also belonged to the same genre.
The five Star Trek TV shows were all variations on the theme of spaceships (and a space station in the case of Deep Space 9) in space exploring strange worlds. The three Stargate shows were all variations on the theme of intrepid explorers stepping through a portal to visit new worlds or receive visitors from there. The X-Files, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen were all variations on “Weird shit happens, our hero(es) investigate, it’s probably a conspiracy”.
Examples where parent show and spin-off drastically vary in style and genre are fairly rare and don’t seem to exist at all before 2000. Buffy and Angel are on such example. Buffy was a highschool drama with added vampires, while Angel was a supernatural detective tale in the vein of Lee Killough’s Blood Walk series, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files and the TV show Forever Knight. Doctor Who and its two spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures are not just drastically different from each other, they are even aimed at different audiences. But then Doctor Who usually cannot even decide what genre it wants to be from episode to episode and Torchwood‘s four seasons are so different from each other that they might as well be four different shows. And indeed, hardly anybody likes all four seasons of Torchwood – most people like only one or two seasons and loathe the others**. The 2005 Battlestar Galactica and its spin-off Caprica finally were also two very different shows (and neither had anything in common with the original Battlestar Galactica). The new Battlestar Galactica was faux relevant political drama in space, Caprica was something about scientists creating androids apparently (I’m not sure since I never watched it).
Marvel has done these shows one better by giving us a universe of interconnected stories that – as I’ve pointed out before – are very different from each other and often not even in the same genre, although they all have the same core story about becoming a better, more rounded person, superpowers optional, though they help (interestingly, Phil Coulson explicitly states this Marvel mission statement near the end of the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and finding friends, a new family and true love in the bargain (Marvel mission statement 2 is uttered by Skye in the second episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and also by Jarvis to Peggy in an episode of Agent Carter) and often the same plot as well, namely let’s all hunt the glowy cosmic thing that will eventually be revealed as an Infinity Gem.
What happened is that somewhere along the way, Marvel and to a lesser degree DC realised that they have enormous fictional universes built up over more than seven decades. They also noticed that there are a lot of stories to be told in those universes and those stories are not always about superheroes. Instead, the supporting casts of those superheroes, the cops and spies, reporters and butlers all have stories of their own, stories well worth telling. And as a result, we don’t just get an unprecedented bounty of superhero tales, we also got Gotham, Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which are not really about superheroes at all.
*I did like the retro feel of Gotham, though I wish the producers would have settled on what time this was supposed to be, for the sets looked Art Deco (well, it is Gotham City, world capital of Art Deco), the cars looked 1970s, the cell phones looked 1990s and the costume design was all over the place from a vaguely 1950s feel to a 1980s feel. All right, so time probably does move differently in the DC Universe, but I doubt it oscillates along a 60 year span from approx. 1930 to approx. 1990.
**I was a big fan of season 1 of Torchwood and am still bitter about the fact that a mix of white male geek entitlement and American prudishness killed the great show we might have had.