One might think that with superhero blockbusters continuing to dominate at the box office, and each new film carrying the potential of a brand new franchise, studios would be wishing to play it safe. But over the past months, we’ve seen that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, audiences are still waiting to see a comic book superheroine anchor her own film (from either DC or Marvel); but issues of race, gender, and simply risky direction seems to be a daily topic of conversation.
Comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis is no stranger to bold creative decisions, and at San Diego Comic-Con 2014, we got the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on the fan backlash that seems to await nearly every decision made about a comic book adaptation, be it film or television. Unsurprisingly, he’s less interested in the risks than he is in the potential payoff of a bold creator.
With some comic books having existed (and being beloved) for the better half of a century at this point, some fan criticism is always to be expected. But in the world of comics, Thor can be given a new female lead in the title role, and characters like Batman and Superman can be re-imagined by new creators every few years. And few creators have found as much success in either comics or beyond as Brian Michael Bendis.
As the mind behind “Ultimate Spider-Man” and overseer of the launch of Marvel’s entire “Ultimate” universe – which provided the rubric for most of the company’s Cinematic Universe – Bendis’ gamble paid off. Now, casting an African-American as Johnny Storm, casting a former model as Wonder Woman, or simply casting a divisive actor can be received by fans as an abomination, with little redeeming value.
With Bendis now seeing his comic series Powers adapted into a live-action series in partnership with Sony PlayStation, one of his leading characters has also undergone a change in ethnicity. After expressing his belief, as part of Howard Stern’s Marvel/DC Town Hall, that the best talent should be sought after above all else, we asked Bendis how he felt when seeing the negative responses to some ‘risky’ moves made for film. As usual, he didn’t mince words:
“I do think that in comics, it’s almost our obligation to push and pull, and try new things… I said online – people are kind of upset about Thor or Captain America, and things that are happening – I remind them politely that the best things you remember about your favorite character, in the history of this character that you’re so worried about holding onto… the best things about that history are the craziest things that some creators decided to do.
“Granted, some of your least favorite things are the craziest things that some decided to do. But you don’t know until it’s all over what those things are going to be.”
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of Bendis’ sentiment: few actors were as openly criticized as Heath Ledger when he was cast as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The example has become the most often cited case of fans being short-sighted, but with good reason: Ledger would go on to turn in one of the best comic book movie performances in history. But the decision to re-cast Chris Evans from a Fantastic Four hero to Captain America, or Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in The Avengers are also valid.
Now, fans of Batman can look forward to seeing Zack Snyder (apparently) adapt large portions of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” – a comic book series that was about as risky and divisive as one can get, and would go on to define the hero for decades.
With DC Comics’ co-publisher and artist Jim Lee (also on hand at the event) having endorsed Zack Snyder by claiming no film should be a literal adaptation of a comic, and some of the most famed “Batman” writers giving Nolan’s version their blessing, it seems creators tend to stick together. Bendis went on to clarify that it’s no coincidence – while making his stance on enraged, aggressively negative fans quite clear:
“Our favorite things that any creator ever did that made us want to be in comics was, you know, Frank Miller on ‘Daredevil.’ That was not what that book was about before he got on that book… I think of that while I’m writing: that the boldest things are the things that I loved. And not just imitate their bold move, but then make my own bold moves. I just politely remind people [of that].
“The people who are just agitated to the point of rude… f*** them. I don’t care about that, and that noise.”
It’s easy to understand Bendis’ stance, having enjoyed a fair amount of criticism with his decision to not just return Peter Parker to high school (thus kicking off the hero’s greatest renaissance), but help launch an entirely new take on most of Marvel’s biggest names (now raking in billions at the box office). The risk of a potential miss remains (*cough*Green Lantern*cough*), but Bendis warns that trying to stifle a creator’s desire to do something new is never – ever – going to solve the problem:
“I will tell you, almost across the board for comic creators, if you yell in their face they’re just going to do it more. That is not the way to stop them from doing whatever they’re doing with Emma Frost. Do not yell at me. I’ll do it more, I’ll lean into it. And I won’t even realize I’m doing it.”
Seeing how superhero adaptations will only increase in regularity on both film and TV, it’s hard to know if fans will start to realize that it might be best to let creators… create, or use a failure to justify their concerns. Neither side is wrong, but Bendis’ point that the only stories or characters worth remembering are the ones that tried to stand out is just as true on film as it is on the page.
We welcome comments or responses to Bendis’ statements in the comments below. Do you think he has a point, and writers shouldn’t be forced to follow the same old formula? Or do you disagree with he and Jim Lee, and think that comic books should be adapted just as they are?
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce for updates on Marvel as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.