A previous subject of this very column discussed one of the oldest questions in comic book film history: how close do comic-based films need to stay true to the source material? The conclusion largely drawn from that piece is that moderate adaptations have become the norm in the wake of films like The Dark Knight trilogy and The Avengers, and that adapting specific comics stories may not be completely appropriate in the realm of superhero stories. While adapting specific stories has worked in the past for more finite, mature tales like Sin City, Watchmen and 300, superhero films have largely stayed away from adapting one specific story from the comics, or sharing titles with said stories.
Because superhero films, particularly those based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are designed to be told in an ongoing fashion (like their print counterparts), creating a big-budget feature film with the title of a specific story from the comics may simply bring with it too much baggage. If it deviates too much from the story it's based upon, what's the point of the title?
Nonetheless, in 2014 we'll be receiving two comic-based movies that will mark firsts in the genre. With the releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on April 4 and X-Men: Days of Future Past on May 23, these will be the first two outright comic book superhero films that will be titled after a specific comics story that first saw publication in ongoing titles. Will this bring with it an unnecessary amount of baggage to both films, or will the titles provide great jumping-off points for the films to then expand upon?
The Winter Soldier: A Modern Comics Classic Turned Superhero Sequel
January 2005 saw a new number one issue for Captain America, and the entrance of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting. Right out of the gate, the story that the team began to tell across the first 20 issues was the saga of the "Winter Soldier," a controversial return of a classic character that also reinvigorated the character and helped launch the highly successful Marvel career of Brubaker. "Winter Soldier" also helped to create an entirely new legion of Captain America fans, and the story is highly regarded as one of the best stories that Marvel has put out in the last 20 years, at least.
In July of 2012 at the San Diego Comic-Con, the Marvel Studios panel revealed that the title of the new solo Cap film would be Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Oddly enough, production staff haven't really gone on record about the story in the comics and how it will relate to the film in any substantial way, except for one comment by Kevin Feige who stated that the character of the Soldier would himself be presented true to the original story.
With the release of the first trailer for the film arriving last week, there doesn't appear to be many similarities to the original story, at least at first glance. There are several characters from the story that will be in the film, but they all appear to be fulfilling something of a different purpose, and the inclusion of new characters also sets it further apart. The tenor of the story is also pretty different, because the film will give us the first truly extensive look at Captain America in the modern era.
Oddly enough, the film version of The Winter Soldier seems to be taking the more moderate adaptive approach to the cration of it's story, despite the fact that it carries a specific story title from the comics. Because "Winter Soldier" is the character's name as well as the story's name, the film may not have had much of a choice if they were going to employ that character at some point anyways.
Writer Ed Brubaker was recently asked on Twitter whether or not he was troubled about the departures the film seems to be taking from his original story and whether or not he gets credit in the final film for helping to guide the story. He said, "I'm very happy the movie is called Captain America: Winter Soldier, since there's only one book with that title and I wrote it." He added, "I'm bitter about stuff in my career, certainly, but not this. Them using that story and that title for it is great."
Perhaps if the original writer expresses confidence in the film in both it's basis and it's new liberties, it's okay for devoted fans of the story to start getting excited. It looks like a moderate adaptation, with liberties taken to fit it firmly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the studio's track record thus far, we probably don't need to worry too much.
Days of Future Past: Classic X-Story Becomes Dual Reboot-Sequel?
Yesterday, the first trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past went live, giving fans their first look at Bryan Singer's attempt to "fix" the franchise that he started, as well as the one that basically kickstarted the superhero genre into what it is today back in 2000. The basis for this interesting experiment is the comic book story "Days of Future Past" from 1980, a time-hopping tale by the now legendary creative team of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. "Days of Future Past" is largely considered to be one of the stories that helped to truly give rise to the X-Men's meteoric popularity through the '80s and '90s, and the story today is now a hallmark and important pillar of writer Chris Claremont's entire tenure on the X-Men franchise.
Next year's film proposes an interesting "hybrid-sequel" of sorts, since the X-franchise has now gone through two distinct, yet connected iterations due to 2011's X-Men: First Class. While the original story took place in the "present" and a possible future, Days of Future Past will be set in a specific era of the past with the First Class cast and an alternate present with the original cast. This is already a relatively radical departure from the original story, which took place in the "present" and an alternate future. That, coupled with the extensive extended cast of characters, this one seems to have the makings of a loose adaptation instead of a moderate one.
The popularity of the original story and the potential baggage that the title brings with it may be a concern for fans who regard the comic book arc with a reverance level somwehere in between Citizen Kane and the Bible, but those X-devotees who have a great deal of devotion to the work of Chris Claremont on the characters may be calmed by the words and enthusiasm of a single person: namely, Chris Claremont himself.
While in the past the writer has had little more than heaps of praise on most of the X-Men feature films, you'd think that a critical eye might be more possible toward a film that shares the title of one of his career-defining works. Instead, Claremont is rather upbeat about the possibilities of the film, and the fact that he will be "consulting" on it.
In an interview with MTV Geek earlier this year, Claremont said of the comics and film, "Of all the arcs that I wrote, that’s probably the most popular with fans. I’ve been asked to kind of, maybe be around for a little consultation. I won’t have a lot of input at all, but it’s nice that they asked. I’m looking forward to seeing it on screen. It was fun to write, and fun to see what John Byrne and Terry Austin did, and now we get to see what it’s like on the big screen. So it will be fun."
In the end, although these two films will be sharing the titles with two beloved comics stories, like any adaptation they will have to stand on both their own merits and failures. When we begin to see reviews for them both in 2014 and actually see them for ourselves, we can determine whether or not the films live up to the titles that they've been given, and how true they represent the spirits of those original stories.
The biggest mistake comic book fans can make, though, is allowing any adaptation of a beloved work to retroactively diminish their love of the original story. Whether a film takes a character or a title from something you loved and messed it up, that doesn't change the fact that you opened that comic book and loved the material on the page that first time you read it. Even if the movies don't live up to our often lofty expectations of greatness, we can still go to our bookshelves or dive into our long boxes, pull it out and enjoy it all over again. Hopefully it'll be the same with these films, but if it's not, the great thing about old, beloved comics stories is that they largely read the same way on the 1,000th time as they do on the first.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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