Like every other self-respecting fanboy, I was outraged by Anthony Lane’s review of the new Spider-man movie. But my reasons are idiosyncratic — I don’t care that he disdains geek culture (to each his own), and I don’t care to defend my ilk against his charges of emotional immaturity (that’s a fool’s errand). No, I’m pissed because Lane tosses off an observation that I’ve been meaning to write up ever since it hit me during the drive to Ezra’s bachelor party:
If you are a twenty-year-old male of unvarnished social aptitude, those movies will seem like much-loved classics that have eaten up half your lifetime. They beg to be interpreted anew, just as Shakespeare’s history plays should be freshly staged by every generation.
I’m not in my twenties anymore (does that make this better or worse? probably worse). But he’s right: I think the best analogy for understanding superhero reboots is new stagings of Shakespeare. Lane mentioned this dismissively, but he’s more right than he realizes.
For a while I was confused on this point: why were these franchises being remade so quickly? Why did the plotlines (if not the spectacle) become unsatisfying as soon as the origin story was concluded? I left X-Men: First Class thinking the movie was a promising sign of these films evolving — of the audience becoming conversant enough to dive into the non-origin plots that fascinated me through my childhood. First Class had a decent story, and more importantly it felt like a comic book story. Yet it wasn’t an origin story — well, not wholly. Given the now-consistent commercial success of tights-and-capes movies, maybe it wouldn’t be too long before we got that Secret Wars or Infinity Gauntlet movie after all…
Now, though, I realize that this was stupid. In fact, the innovation of X-Men: First Class was its setting. Sure, they fudged things by picking some particularly venerable and/or long-lived mutants. But this was just an excuse to move the X-Men origin story into a “Greatest Generation starts fighting the Cold War” atmosphere. My favorite scene had Xavier and Magneto tweedily philosophizing in a Cambridge club.
This happens all the time with Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet in 1950s Cuba. The Merchant of Venice with Christians in post-Saddam Baghdad. King Lear in space. Whatever. Or hell, just different stagings in roughly traditional time periods, with different actors, performances and directorial choices. These are perfectly fine reasons to revisit a work.
Of course, the reasons for new adaptations of Shakespeare are different from those motivating endless Hulk movies. If there’s a spectrum of dramatic specificity, with George Lucas deploying nebulous Jungian archetypes at one end and, at the other, Prohibition-era gangsters talking about mercy droppething as the gentle rain, comic books sit somewhere in the middle. Exactly where is up for debate: how much of the experience’s value lies in the canonical text (“organic webshooters are an outrage!”), and how much is in the archetypal gesture (“yeah, Uncle Ben didn’t say ‘with great power…’ but the theme was there”)?
Although different adaptations can and should make different choices, my own sympathies tend to lie with the latter camp. The details of specific comic plotlines are satisfying to crazed obsessives like myself, but it’s the broad themes — myths set in the context of the modern world — that make these franchises compelling. Even the comics themselves have realized that the characters, broadly understood, are the important thing. The retcon has always been a necessary tool to scrape away peskily accreting continuity, letting creators once again show the smooth lines of their franchises’ lovely archetypes. This process has recently managed to drop most of its shame and self-hatred, as the consolidation of universe-wide plot-planning at the publishers’ executive level has allowed reboots to become well-branded corporate events rather than cringe-inducing disasters that individual writers cobble together from clones, Skrulls, secret robots, alternate dimensions and cosmic energy beings.
But although I think the correct dramatic approach is clear, it’s hard to say how these efforts will actually evolve. There are commercial reasons for pushing audiences toward the specificity of costumes and theme songs and collectible Slurpee cups. I don’t think Avi Arad earned a penny from Chronicle, but it can certainly be understood as a stripped-down adaptation of any number of Marvel origin stories. I count that film’s creative and commercial success as solid evidence for this being the most promising direction for such films: to continue to use superpowers as a way of telling stories about alienation, duty, agency and the limits of human identity. These are all excellent themes for the digital age, and mixing CGI with a spandex-heavy wardrobe department turns out to be a surprisingly good way to investigate them.
It’s this thematic level where further explorations will pay off. I’ll be personally happy to see deep-continuity stories that I remember from my childhood* translated to the screen. But the moviegoing public is never going to hit the back catalog for the education in Claremont and Morrison that they’d need to join me in giving a damn. Screenwriters tend to be geeks, and the movie industry tends to not understand how to adapt comics successfully, so I do expect these backstories to be mined out. But I don’t think many of these adaptations will succeed. It’s the myths that matter; their recitation through creative adaptation is what needs to become a tradition.
* I should probably note that my childhood comics budget was pretty meager, and so I absorbed a lot of the backstory through the efficient-but-bloodless medium of old issues of Marvel Universe. I’ll admit that this might color my thinking a bit.