Serious things happen within comic books (deemed ‘serious’ on the comics’ own terms), and metaphorical conflicts are designed to reflect those in the real world, but to enjoy the average comic book suspension of disbelief is a necessity before even starting.
When it comes to adapting, then, writers and film-makers are faced with a choice: if consistency is needed for a successful adaptation, then either every ounce of the comic book reality can be lifted (keeping the fantastic and unrelatable world intact), or sacrifice the fantastic, unrelatable themes for the sake of the more serious and realistic elements.
One isn’t automatically better or more ‘faithful’ than the other, so we’re not picking sides. But Marvel made their decision clear from the start: adapt all of their comic book worlds’ many facets, villains, and magic to film, granting them the ability to keep characters intact, establish an overall tone, and build franchises that operate on the same terms.
Yet that decision comes with a price; consistency is key, after all. The absence of the “Demon in a Bottle” story line is one example of a very heavy-hitting and serious story not jiving with the more jovial or heightened tone of the film series, and Iron Man 3 is a far more recent case in point. Namely, the decision to twist the “Extremis” comic book arc by Warren Ellis from an exploration of technophobia into the means for creating an army of super-soldiers.
The changes are blasphemous to Marvel comic book fans for obvious reasons – but the truth is, what made “Extremis” so memorable is its uncompromising look at Tony’s drive to become more than just a man, and unite his armor with his own body. Brimming with introspection on the nature of genetic manipulation and technology, no matter how you cut it, that is some seriously heavy storytelling.
Storytelling that, given the rest of the Iron Man series’ tone and attitude, would seem completely unprecedented. Fans can debate how the story could have worked if faithfully adapted, and may have a flawless approach in mind – but mass audiences don’t associate the ‘Iron Man’ name with the same intense and cerebral themes that comic fans might.
In the end, it might be a worthwhile sacrifice: the Marvel films’ fiction steers clear of truly grounded and troubling issues and trauma, and the heightened reality lets aliens and talking raccoons hang around with walking trees and Asgardian gods. What results is a yearly (or seasonal, it seems) adventure into another world, free from the hardships and conflict that we all have to experience in our own lives.
The suspension of disbelief expected across the board also means that personalities can be just as heightened as the action; Tony Stark can fire off quips in the midst of a fight, Thor can fall in love with the first human woman he meets, and Captain America can go into a fight with little more than moxie, and come out on top. People want the fun and the far-fetched adventure, not a semblance of reality.
It’s the reason Joss Whedon can juxtapose Loki’s attempt to brainwash Tony Stark with a joke about erectile dysfunction, and we still like him. Where Joker making a witty remark about his victims or the carnage he’s unleashing on a city is twisted and perverse. This is our world, and the risk of innocent people being hurt is no laughing matter. In Marvel’s we expect Tony to come up with a quip, not think of the people being hurt or buried off-screen.
People will always love escapism, and Marvel’s box office success has proven that the trend is alive and well. If we’re honest, it’s hypocritical for any fan of genre or fantasy to criticize their decision, since Luke Skywalker seemed to take the death of his aunt and uncle at the hands of storm troopers pretty well.
That doesn’t mean nothing can be taken seriously, or audience investment in Marvel’s films is any harder to come by. Serious stories have taken place, and Phase Two will likely be adding to the drama. But where realistic films build drama and tension around walking through a dark alley, a bomb plot, or serial killer on the loose, Marvel can make viewers just as invested and concerned while remaining fantastic.
‘Serious’ in a Marvel film means an alien attack, super-powered terrorists, or a Frost Giant invasion. It’s worked so far (going by the box office numbers), but when Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer were charged with adapting Batman for modern audiences, they chose a fairly…different route.