Heroes Never Rust #25 by Sean Ironman
The Important Stuff
When adapting a work into another medium, let’s say for the sake of this column adapting a comic book into a film, one can’t include everything. That’s understood by most audiences, I believe. What the adapters strive for, however, is to keep the important stuff, the stuff that makes the characters who they are. I find this especially true for the origins or the characters, and I say origins not just about what gained the character their superpowers but also when they decided to fight crime. For example, Krypton must explode in a Superman film. Batman’s parents must be gunned down in front of him. Uncle Ben must die in a Spider-man film because Peter Parker didn’t stop the gunman when he had the chance. Even with all the changes in the X-Men films, they are still sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them. That’s what makes them the X-Men.
One of the best adaptations of recent years was the first Iron Man film. One of the reasons the story was successful is not just that the filmmakers kept Tony Stark’s imprisonment and injury with shrapnel near his heart, but it gave him a character arc with starting him as a weapons manufacturer, like in the comics. It gives the character something to do other than get in a suit and fight bad guys.
There have been a few bad adaptations over the years, of course. A few I think, might have had problems with special effects or acting or the entire third act, but to me the most aggravating aspects of an adaptation is when the characters’ reasons for being are changed. To make this easier to follow, I’ll concentrate on three characters across four adaptations—The Punisher starring Thomas Jane, both Hulk films, and The Fantastic Four. I think these films suffer from the same problem. The characters are made to be too good. They want to save people, something bad happens to them even though all they want to do is help, and they become superheroes.
Let’s start with the Fantastic Four film starring Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis. At the beginning of the film, Reed Richards, who later becomes Mr. Fantastic, wants to research some clouds of cosmic energy in space to study how evolution was triggered. He makes a deal with Dr. Victor von Doom to use Doom’s space station. For this, Doom gets the majority of the profits from whatever this experiment yields. Right away, Richards is the good man and Doom the greedy evil one. The experiment goes haywire and everyone gains superpowers. Richards continues being good and Doom continues being bad. There’s no meaning to it all.
There’s no character arc.
Plus, it simplifies the guilt Reed Richards has over Ben Grimm’s transformation into the Thing. If Grimm becomes a monster because Richards was trying to better mankind, it makes the transformation more of a bad accident and something one can forgive Richards for inadvertently causing.
In the comics, which take place in the 1960s, Richards is hell bent on beating the Russians into space. His mission has nothing to do with the betterment of mankind—only himself and America. The four sneak past guards to get to the shuttle, which has nothing to do with Doom. They steal the shuttle and blast off into space. The Fantastic Four are created due to Richards’s pride and selfishness. When Ben Grimm is transformed, the reader feels for him, not just because he’s grotesque, but because it was for a stupid reason. It was a mistake. The comic isn’t just about the possibilities of science, but a cautionary tale. It’s a morality play.
The Hulk adaptations go through something similar. In Ang Lee’s The Hulk, David Banner attempts to mutate DNA to allow soldiers to heal quickly in battle. He’s denied permission for human trials and puts himself through the process. This mutated DNA is passed on to his son, Bruce Banner. Bruce grows up and researches nanomeds, which he hopes can used for medical purposes. Things go wrong and he’s exposed to gamma radiation, mutating him into the Hulk. In The Incredible Hulk, while the film doesn’t cover the origin, there’s mention of the purpose of Banner’s experiments being immunity for humans to gamma radiation, as well as Thunderbolt Ross’s secret to continue the super soldier program that created Captain America. In both of these instances, Banner is made the victim of a laboratory accident while trying to better mankind.
But that’s not how the Hulk was created in the comics. Bruce Banner, in the comic book, was testing a nuclear bomb that produced a high gamma-radiation output. His goal was to kill people. Sure, he went out into the testing field to save Rick Jones, but the bomb didn’t go off by accident. His colleague, Igor Starsky, who was a Soviet spy, set off the bomb in an attempt to kill Banner and end the project. I understand you can’t have a Soviet spy in a time period when the Soviet Union doesn’t exist. The Hulk, though, is a metaphor for the result of our warmongering. It’s the result of our messing with nuclear power in an effort to kill. We have unleashed this beast onto the planet, a beast we cannot control. It’s not just good person has shitty luck.
The Punisher starring Thomas Jane is in the same category. My good friend Jeff Shuster recently covered Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher, so I’ll cover the Thomas Jane one. Plus, I love Thomas Jane and will watch anything that man is in. In the film, like all three Punisher films, Frank Castle’s family is murdered and he becomes the Punisher. This is the only one of the three that spends time with the family, instead of beginning after that event has already occurred. Castle pisses off a mobster played by John Travolta, so Travolta has Castle’s family killed. Something similar occurs in the Lundgren version, with the family being murdered in a mob hit. It’s sad, yes, but at the end of the day the film becomes a revenge flick, making the Punisher like every other vigilante.
I love the Punisher. If I ever make a name for myself in writing, I want to write the Punisher, comic or film. I find him to be one the most fascinating fictional characters of the last few decades. But he’s far from a simple revenge story.
First, his family isn’t killed because Frank Castle pisses someone off while being a cop or other member of law enforcement. They were killed randomly. The family was having a picnic in Central Park and two rival gangs had a shootout. It had nothing to do with Frank Castle. It could happen to anyone. Second, Castle doesn’t just want revenge. He snaps. He’s a veteran of the Vietnam War where he witnessed atrocities that stayed with him long after the war. Read Garth Ennis’s and Darick Robertson’s Born when you get the chance for Frank Castle’s last tour in the war. Castle is a man who can no longer accept the gray area of the world. There’s no inbetween with him. He’s a psychopath who believes the bad members of society should be punished. While on one hand I may agree with him, storytellers need to balance that feeling with the other hand that says he’s a mad man and I should be horrified by his actions. I find the character sad. He’s witnessed the horrors of the violence we inflict on one another and lost his family, his future. He damns himself in an effort to say it’s not right, not fair.
The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the Punisher are all characters who get caught up in something greater than themselves—the weak parts of ourselves—our aggressive sides and the violence. Like the mythology before them, they are morality tales. While we’re glad they end up doing some good, they are not what we strive to be. They have two purposes. First, to serve as reminders of the bad things we can do to others and ourselves. Second, that no matter how badly we messed up, we can turn things around. Reed Richards fucked up. Ben Grimm is a monster. But they can help. They can do good. All of these characters are more complex than what adaptations have shown people. Sometimes it’s not the flashier sides of the characters that are important. I couldn’t care less if the Hulk wears purple pants or Johnny Storm is white. But who they were before their respective tragedies and what they do after is important. That’s worth keeping.
Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.