So I don’t know if you guys were aware of this, but there are people out there who actually adapt funnybooks into movies and TV shows.
I know, right?
I was shocked, too, when I heard.
Now, the whole idea sounds crazy to me. But comics are a visual medium by nature, so you never know. Maybe it’ll work. And that’s why I decided to sample a couple: that new Captain Marvel movie that’s out in theaters, and the TV adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s Umbrella Academy.
I figured that would serve as a nice juxtaposition for me, since I’m more familiar with one of those comics than I am the other. Because while I’ve read a good number of Captain Marvel comics over the years, I haven’t read them all, by far. I love the Jim Starlin run, and I’ve read a bit of the Kelly Sue DeConnick stuff, but there’s 50 years of comics out there, by different people with wildly different approaches, that this movie could draw on. So I didn’t feel like I’d be going in with too many preconceived notions about what it could or should be. In contrast, I’ve read all of Umbrella Academy, and it’s more like a novel, in that it has consistent theme and subject matter, all developed by the same writer and artist. I know exactly what that story’s supposed to be, and so I feel well-qualified to judge how good an adaptation it is.
So! With that as our baseline, let’s dive in and see how this strange idea of adapting funnybooks to the screen is working out. First up:
Quick review, right off the bat: This was a fun movie with a strong cast that didn’t insult my intelligence very much. And that puts it ahead of most big-budget sci-fi action flicks out of the starting gate. Which is not to say that it’s a great film. It’s not. But it is a good popcorn-muncher with a strong female protagonist. It gives little girls a great super hero role model, if nothing else, and that makes it worthwhile all by itself.
Which, yes, means that they’re going with the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel here, a fact that seems to have pissed off a bunch of fanboys with easily-threatened masculinity. I mean, I understand the disappointment if you’re a fan of the Starlin run. Those are great stories, and Mar-Vell is a great character. But a lot of the complaints here seem to be coming from guys who are offended just because Carol’s a woman. And that’s a stupid reason to be upset about anything.
I don’t get the arguments that Carol Danvers “shouldn’t be Captain Marvel,” either. At this point, she’s been a super hero for something like 40 years. No disrespect intended, but that’s a lot longer than Mar-Vell lasted. And though he came before her… he’s dead. He’s dead, and he’s got maybe the best death in super hero history, one that you can’t reverse without undermining how great it really was. So he’s not gonna be using the name. And Carol’s a pretty great character in her own right. She’s come a long way from her super heroic beginnings as a gimmicky “women’s lib” character with a belly button hole in her outfit…
…and I think she’s more than done enough to deserve the mantle after all this time.
Plus, you know… As a fan of Starlin’s work on the character, I’ve got to think that Hollywood would NOT have done it justice. What makes those stories so great is the psychedelia. They were all about changing the character from a soldier into an enlightened cosmic warrior via acid-trip imagery and soul-deep mind fucks.
And, yes, they were awesome. But I’m not sure a big-budget Hollywood film would be very interested in those elements. And doing Starlin’s Captain Marvel without the head-trips would be like doing a Thanos movie where he’s not a cosmic nihilist in love with death. Strip out the philosophy, and you’re betraying the character.
Plus, Starlin’s Captain Marvel ends with him dying of cancer. And somehow, I just can’t see a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster adaption of The Death of Captain Marvel.
So going with Carol Danvers was probably a wise move. She works better for the sort of straightforward hero story they were shooting for in their big-budget popcorn flick. And since this movie will be a lot of people’s introduction to Captain Marvel, they’re able to cherry-pick things from both Carol and Mar-Vell’s origins in a way that honors both characters. We’re introduced to Our Hero as a Kree warrior who slowly comes to realize that she’s working for the bad guys. Which is Mar-Vell’s story, right down to his old nemesis / commanding officer Yon-Rogg. But she has suppressed memories of a life on Earth as a military pilot, a life taken from Carol Danvers’ history in the Kelly Sue DeConnick run (where she updated Carol’s 1960s origins to make her sort of a “female Chuck Yeager”). The dichotomy between those two lives forms the film’s central mystery: Who is Captain Marvel?
I don’t want to spoil how that mystery plays out, so I’ll just say that I’m impressed with the way the filmmakers managed to have their cake and eat it, too. Nicely-done.
But there’s a lot of nice touches in the adaptation here. They do a variation on Carol’s super hero origin story, but the powers she gets are less like the basic physical enhancements she got from Mar-Vell and more like the energy-blasting powers she had as Binary.
The Kree are also well-done here, coming off like the self-righteous authoritarian bastards we know and love from the comics. The Skrull are on-hand, too, complete with the paranoia that comes with their shape-shifting abilities and tendency to disguise themselves as people you know and love. The movie does some things with the Kree/Skrull conflict that I wasn’t expecting, and ultimately I don’t know if I like it or not. There need to be more shades of gray to it, I think. But this is not a film that’s super-interested in moral quagmires. It is, as I said, a popcorn movie. Not the kind of film that wants to make you think.
But it’s good at what it is trying to do. The script is light without being too glib, and it does a nice job planting incidental details that wind up becoming a bigger deal later on. I won’t say that it’s a SMART script, exactly. It never made me work as an audience, and I sincerely doubt that repeated viewings would enlighten me on any deep hidden meanings I might have overlooked the first time through. But it at least trusts its audience to remember things without hitting them over the head. And that’s better writing than a lot of these things get.
I like the cast a lot, too. Brie Larson brings ample charisma to the lead role, deftly playing Carol as both the trained military officer and the mischievous brat. And Sam Jackson is good in everything, of course, but I especially like him as Nick Fury. He’s got the hard edge you expect from both the character and the actor, but he’s also able to step back and fill the sidekick role here without losing his bad ass edge. He and Larson play off each other well, their small character scenes (of which there are quite a few) feeling very natural. The two characters grow to know and trust each other over the course of the film, and that never feels forced or fake. I would have happily watched them riding around in a car together talking for two hours. But, again, that’s not the kind of movie this is.
The other thing I liked about Captain Marvel, as I mentioned at the top, is what a great “girl power” movie it is.
Little girls don’t have many adventure heroines to look up to. Or at least, not many who represent clear-cut heroism. There always seems to be some element of the femme fatale about adventure women, or they’re hyper-sexualized to appeal to that segment of the male audience that only cares about T&A. But Captain Marvel is a hero through and through. She’s troubled, certainly. She’s been jerked around and lied to. She’s been told all her life that she doesn’t belong in a man’s world, having adventures and being a hero. Life has knocked her on her ass a lot. But she doesn’t cry or scream about it. She doesn’t collapse into a heap or become a neurotic wreck. She gets up and she fights back. She fights the good fight, and she wins. And she does it without once shaking her ass or showing some leg or doing anything other than being a goddamn hero.
Which is as it should be.
So it looks like this idea of the “super hero movie” might be working out okay. Captain Marvel is hardly god’s gift to cinema, but then, most super hero comics aren’t god’s gift to sequential art, either. I’d have liked it better if they’d gone all prog-rock crazy head-trippy with it, of course, but big budget Hollywood extravaganzas are not generally known for being super artsy, so I guess that’s not something I should expect. For that sort of thing, you have to go lower budget. And these days, that means you have to go to television…
The Umbrella Academy
One disclaimer: Though I know all 10 episodes of this series are available to watch on this new-fangledy streaming video thing all the kids are crazy about, I’ve only watched the first two. Some people do this thing you might have heard of called “binging,” where they blow through a whole series in a couple of days. But that’s not something I really enjoy. After an hour or two, I’m ready to turn off the TV and do something else. Like reading or writing or going for a walk.
But maybe more importantly, I’m very sensitive to narrative flow. I can sit through a three-hour movie with no problem (assuming it’s good). But a TV show that’s made in hour-long installments creates a natural story break every 60 minutes. And that story break isn’t like chapter breaks in a novel. In a novel, the chapters are part of the whole, and often feel incomplete by themselves. But in TV, each episode (again, assuming it’s good) comes to a dramatic conclusion. Music swells. Credits roll. It’s done. Even if the story’s not over yet, that episode is. And that makes me want to stop and come back to it later.
To some extent, I’m sure that instinct to pause between installments comes from a lifetime of reading comics. Because comics have long since made an art of the continuing story, concocting cliffhanger endings that make you want to come back for more. I love serialized fiction, and part of the fun of it is that maddening, tantalizing wait between issues. It’s trained me against Instant Total Gratification. I like to take my time with things. Stretch them out. Savor the tease.
So, yeah. I’ve only watched two episodes of Umbrella Academy.
But I think that’s enough. Because… well… You know how I said up top that I felt qualified to say whether or not this is a good adaptation? Well, now that I’m actually sitting down to write this, I have to admit… I don’t actually remember much about the comic. It’s mostly character and tone in my head. The basic skeleton of a plot is there, but it’s missing a few bones.
Actually, it’s missing a lot of bones.
Like, most of them.
I’ve got maybe the skull and the rib cage. But the limbs are evasive. And the spine… The spine, I don’t have a very good grasp of, either. A vertebra or two, maybe. But, yeah. I don’t remember a lot about how the book goes, or even quite where it ends up. There’s something about an apocalypse… time travel… secret powers… It gets fuzzy much past that. But I do remember enough to think that they’re not going to put Ellen Page in a white body stocking before this thing’s done…
…and that’s probably for the best. Not that I think she’d look bad in it, but… in live action, that would probably be a bit much. With or without the violin motif.
Otherwise, though… I got nothin’. Nothin’ but characters and tone. Which, when I really think hard about why I liked the comic in the first place… That’s the real draw. The characters and the tone. Story is secondary, and easily forgotten. So two episodes is plenty for me to decide if this is a good adaptation. If they get those two things right, as far as I’m concerned, they’re golden.
And TV was probably the only place you were going to get that done right. I mean, they could have maybe convinced Tim Burton to tackle it on the big screen, I suppose. But Burton films often lack depth in favor of tone, and to tell this story correctly, you need a bit of depth. Plus, he probably would have wanted to cast Johnny Depp as Klaus, and…
Y’know, actually, Johnny Depp might have been really good as Klaus.
So scratch that as a negative.
The Umbrella Academy comic is, as much as anything else, about dysfunction. It’s about dysfunctional parenting and the scars it leaves on the children. It’s about dysfunctional siblings who don’t know how to interact with each other, much less the world around them. But it’s also something of a hothouse flower of a comic, one with a very specific gothic-retro-funnybook tone that needs to be captured exactly right, lest it wilt on the vine. I mean, just look at this cast shot from artist Gabriel Ba:
So, yeah. Tim Burton. Except not, because the heart of the thing is really more Wes Anderson.
And thankfully, hey presto, that’s exactly what the Umbrella Academy television series is trying to capture. Right down to the talking monkey.
But the show just feels right all the way around. There’s plenty of pitch-black humor, the cast is properly messed up, and the atmosphere is simultaneously dreary and wondrous. Number Five is the underage killing machine he should be, but with all the cynical pathos of the 58-year-old man he actually is beneath the surface. And you just don’t know how happy I was to see this:
I mean, the assassins with the giant cartoon masks is kind of an iconic Umbrella Academy image. You almost have to do it. But it’s also the kind of surreal detail I could see them pulling back on so as not to freak the squares in the mass audience. So it was gratifying when they popped up on-screen. Reassuring, even. It made me feel like the show was on the right track.
Of course, since I can’t really remember the plot, FEEL is all I’ve got to go on.
And this feels right.
So there you go! Super heroes in movies and TV!
And y’know, now that I’ve sampled some of this stuff, the idea actually doesn’t seem quite so crazy to me anymore. Remove all the convoluted decades of continuity and worries about which take on which character is the “correct” one… tell a straightforward, entertaining story… update the concepts for new generations and audiences… and even a character as relatively obscure as Captain Marvel (whiny sexist fanboys aside) can attract the same kind of mass audience super heroes had back in the 1940s.
Of course, part of their appeal back then was also that they were a comforting fantasy of power and safety in a world gone mad. Which doesn’t say nice things about where we are these days. But, hey. At least Umbrella Academy‘s out there, too, asking us to consider our collective trauma rather than simply escape it.
But I guess that’s the way it works with funnybooks, as well: the bigger, dumber stories create a large enough market that the smaller, weirder projects have an ecosystem to grow in. Actually, that’s not just comics, is it? It’s pretty much every entertainment medium, from music to movies to books. So really, putting funnybooks on the screen isn’t crazy at all, is it? It’s just the same thing with a bigger audience.
You learn something new every day…