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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Adaptations, Comic Book Movies, and Quality, as Seen in Iron Man 3 Versus X-Men 3

We just passed the one-year mark on the release of Iron Man 3, and it’s still generating strong opinions on the internet. IGN just ran this (spoiler-laden) interview with one of the film’s stars, Guy Pearce, about the major change to the Iron Man mythos the film made.

If you’ve seen the film, I probably don’t have to tell you this, but just on the off-chance that I do: in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Mandarin, classic Iron Man foe for decades, doesn’t exist. Well, technically, he does; he’s just, a fictional character drawn up by Pearce’s Aldrich Killian to use as a front for his terrorist schemes.

I actually loved this plot twist. It genuinely surprised me, something that I can’t say about many adaptations where I know the plot (to some extent) going in. What I haven’t loved is the reaction that the twist has inspired. By which I mean: it’s almost impossible to have a serious conversation about how good of a comic book movie Iron Man 3 is, and for reasons that I think are ridiculous. The two big ones that I see are: 1) Tony didn’t spend enough time in the Iron Man suit, and 2) the film “ruined” the Mandarin.

I just can’t take these complaints seriously, because they just didn’t affect the quality of the movie in any tangible way for me. However, to some, it apparently “ruined the movie”, and I just can’t comprehend this.

My stance on film adaptations of existing works is that they are their own work, separate from the source material. Yes, it can be good if the film is a faithful adaptation, but that’s not because being a faithful adaptation makes the movie better; it’s just that generally, people want quality things adapted into movies.

However, there’s more to it than that; comic books aren’t even always faithful when adapting themselves. In fact, comic books are unique among mediums in how much they relish re-adapting and changing stories. It’s why this Wikipedia Page exists. Hell, it’s why the entire Ultimate Marvel Universe exists. What exactly makes the fact that the movie universe is separate from the main universe different from the fact that the Ultimate universe is separate? (In fact, it even has its own classification number, if you’re in to that sort of thing, so it is a fully-recognized Marvel universe.) All it does, in my mind, is make it easier to separate the adaptation from the source.

And yet, people hate Iron Man 3 for ruining the Mandarin, or not featuring Tony Stark in the suit enough, and I just can’t see either of those as complaints. I mean, for the latter: Tony is still Iron Man, regardless of whether he’s in the suit. I mean, that’s the last line of the first movie, “I am Iron Man”. Maybe he’s not in costume as much as he is in the comics (I doubt that, as every comic features their star’s civilian life, but Iron Man wasn’t something I read as frequently, so there’s a chance it true). But at the same time, he’s not out of character at all; he’s still acting like Tony Stark, and he’s still in costume for significant parts of the movie. Plus, the buddy-cop parts of the film that serve as action (possibly in their place?) still seemed enjoyable to me. There’s a taste aspect to whether you enjoyed it, but I think these things were handled well. 

Meanwhile, in the former, Movies Mandarin has no bearing on the Comics Mandarin or Ultimate Mandarin or anything; they still exist. Him being different in the movie doesn’t make the others worse (and in fact, I would say that it was one of the better parts of the movie-Ben Kingsley was both terrifying and hilarious, as appropriate, so I would say the quality argument still holds).

I mean, in each case, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone argue that those parts (the Tony Stark elements or Kingsley) were bad, just that they weren’t exactly like in the comics. Why complain about something that isn't bad? It just makes no sense to me.

Meanwhile, the flip side of this exists, for example (back from when X-Men: Days of Future Past was released), a defense of X-Men 3: The Last Stand. It’s absolutely misguided, in that its main thrust seems to be that it’s more faithful to the comics than X-Men or X2. Maybe, but at the same time, it is undoubtedly a worse movie. I would argue that the main purpose of a movie, even a comic book movie, is to be a good movie first and foremost. I don’t know that there’s any other case where faithfulness to the source takes precedence of quality.

I have been an X-Men fan, so I feel like I have grounds to critique those films as adaptations more than Iron Man. And I do have serious complaints about the films. For example, Scott/Cyclops (my favorite character in the series) is given very little to do in all three films, despite his status as one of the main character of the series.

Am I upset that they sort of just ignored a solid character for the films? Yes, to an extent. But it doesn’t factor into my evaluation that X1 and X2 were good and enjoyable and that X3 was neither (maybe I’ll write a full rant about that sometime later, but now is not the time).

Maybe it’s the fact that comic books invite new adaptations. Fans will always hate adaptations of their favorite storylines that are already perfect in their heads. Myself? I’ve always been more interested in the heroes as characters, or the world that’s built around them more than any specific storylines, and adaptations that change important things around have always been interesting. Sure, there are storylines that I think are decent, but I’m not really attached to them; I just think they’d be good places to start if you happened to be looking for a basis for a script. As long as the story in the film is well-told, I’m all for it, regardless of whether it originated in the comics.

Although if someone does manage to write a good X-Men film that heavily features Cyclops, you know, I’m all for that as well. Just, first things first.

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