A new year is upon us, and it's a year that has some major new superhero films coming out. Four of them have jumped to the front in terms of attention they're getting - Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight. What strikes me about all of these four is that they represent four different approaches to comic book characters and how they're handled in film: Original Adaptations, Rebooted Franchises, Sequels, and a Sequel to a Rebooted Franchise.
Comic book fans are no stranger to reboots and re-interpretations. Marvel Comics and DC Comics seem to reinvent their major characters every few years. But with films, breaking away from an established series isn't something we have seen until recently. So, what does a filmmaker consider when deciding how to approach a character in film?
The original adaptations, like Iron Man, obviously have it the easiest. When a character hasn't been handled on film before, then there are few decisions that need to be made. Jon Favreau had to decide on his approach to the armored Avenger (and if rumors about the cross-over scene with The Incredible Hulk are true, then he had to figure out how to make that moment mesh), but he didn't need to worry about what other directors have done with Iron Man in the past. His Iron Man will be the first exposure many people have to the character.
Conversely, movies like The Incredible Hulk have it a bit harder. With the previous film (or franchise) fresh in audience's minds, filmmakers dealing with a reboot need to figure out what to keep, but they also need to establish a new world for their characters. The one advantage that most re-boots have is that usually the franchise they are replacing was either poorly received (or devolved from a good original film to a series of unfortunate sequels), or the last film in the franchise was years ago. In some cases, such as Bryan Singer's reboot of Superman in Superman Returns, you even get the advantage of both factors! The Incredible Hulk may have a bit more difficulty distancing itself from Ang Lee's Hulk due to how recently that film was released - it'll be interesting to see how they manage.
Direct sequels in a series, especially when they are handled by the same creative team, also have things fairly easy. In fact, in some ways, they have it easier than the first film in a series. Guillermo Del Toro won't need to re-establish the origin of either Hellboy or the BRPD in the upcoming Hellboy II: The Golden Army, any more than Sam Raimi needed to do so in the two sequels to Spider-Man.
Sequel to a Rebooted Franchise
Similarly, sequels to a rebooted franchise don't have it that difficult either. The hard work of establishing the new universe was already handled, and therefore the sequel to a reboot is similar to the sequel to an original series. Christopher Nolan had to differentiate the universe of Batman Begins from the series started off by Tim Burton's Batman - but he won't need to repeat that effort in The Dark Knight. Movie audiences who come out this summer to see Christian Bale and Heath Ledger do battle as Batman and the Joker already know that this film is tied to Batman Begins, and that there is no need to worry about lingering influences from Joel Schumacher. (Why we needed to suffer through bat-nipples is something I will never understand.)
Come back next week for another look at what's happening in superhero film and television that goes beyond the surface. Until then, "Hi-yo Silver, Away!"
Which superhero franchises need a good rebooting, and which ones were rebooted before their time? Leave your thoughts on our forums! And if you have a topic you'd like to see explored here, leave an idea on the forum, or e-mail me at [email protected].