I never read, I just look at the pictures – Andy Warhol
Finally! The mainstream is starting to understand the untapped potential of alternative comic books and graphic novels. With the recent success of The Boys, which had a second season greenlit before the release of the first, it got me thinking about the long road that lead up to us getting this awesome adaptation, based on Garth Ennis’ books. Not only film but TV studios are also starting to trust source material, instead of a committee of people who just have the right connections in the industry.
They‘re also discovering that their adaptations can be based on other properties than just the well known heavy hitters. Some of the authors are even involved in the production personally, as they should always be if they are so inclined. This way you know that the original vision is being honoured. Writing comic books and graphic novels is a different ballgame to scripts and maybe this is why it has taken such a long time for studios to slowly gain faith in them. However, this is the way it should’ve been from the start and I’m overjoyed that they’re finally getting there in recent years.
The Blueprints for Success
It was Kick Ass (‘10) that really got the ball rolling and was the first of a new breed. Based on Mark Millar’s book, this was the first film that had mainstream success and the idea of heroes with no powers operating in a real world scenario. Alan Moore created the blueprint for this idea with Watchmen all the way back in ‘88 and the film adaptation beat Kick Ass to the big screen and arrived a year before. However, the Watchmen (‘09) film was, much like the original source material, for the fans and didn’t make much at the box office. This, unfortunately, meant that it didn’t really reach the public consciousness or have much of an impact on the zeitgeist.
Watchmen is a deep, complex dive into a dark comic book universe. The main issues are ones of moral ambiguity and politics. The characters in this narrative are constantly weighing up their own personal idea of what a hero is compared to how their world perceives them. Their problems are psychological, emotional and physical. We’re talking psychosis, imperialism, megalomania, apathy and even impotence. These are just some of the issues tied up with sexual assault, aging and depression. This might sound terribly bleak but the characters are so well-written and the stylised world Moore creates is so realistic and compelling. Nothing that’s tackled in this narrative feels forced or contrived, it’s always essential to the plot and adds substance.
It also resonates more with comic book fans in general, who can pick up on the subtle way it deconstructs classic hero archetypes and their backstories. The original book became the first graphic novel to win the Hugo award, this was one of the first signs that both critics and fans wanted sophisticated superheroes with more depth. Watchmen laid the foundation for The Boys and it’s no surprise that it has a new TV series of its own. If you want to know more about each individual character, profiles have already dropped on our site and coverage will continue throughout the show.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The Watchmen film adaptation arrived within a year after The Dark Knight (‘08) and was informed in terms of style by its predecessor Batman Begins (‘05) and V for Vendetta (‘05, another great Moore adaptation). Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a turning point in superhero culture. They were the first films, since the original Tim Burton Batman films, that were crafted by an auteur who took the subject matter seriously and brought the character into the modern era.
He did a masterful job of creating the most realistic world where this character could exist whilst staying true to the source material, a world where he had to come up with believable methods to stop terrorism. He was still facing off against his arch nemesis Joker but instead of trying to gas the city, which is sinister enough when you think about it, he was threatening to blow up a hospital and ferries full of people. It’s always been Batman’s mission to save Gotham but we’d never believed the stakes and felt the tension more than in this narrative. This is why, along with some career-defining performances, this film is not only considered to be one of the best superhero films but one of the best films, period.
I believe the reason that TDK resonated with so many, is because it’s a film that people could invest in wholeheartedly. I remember describing it to a friend at the time as Fight Club with Batman as the main character. The trilogy was a gateway for everyone who hadn’t considered superheroes to be serious subject matter before and paved the way for things such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The highpoint of the MCU for me personally, was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is because it’s the most grounded and the film least charged with powers of the whole series. It was informed by espionage thrillers from the ‘70s and even had veteran Robert Redford on hand to play a great villain.
Joker (‘19) picks up where TDK left off in this fashion. It’s a period piece and an intimate character portrait in the style of Martin Scorsese’s films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy with Joker as the main character. The film is even more steeped in brutal realism, perhaps more so than in TDK in some ways. Although some critics have taken an affront to it, the film won the highest honour, The Golden Lion, at the Venice Film Festival and is widely adored by all the other critics and the mainstream alike. For better or worse, people are viewing it through the same lens as classic films.
The extremely positive response form the public is perhaps the strongest evidence that this is what the mainstream wants, along with fans who love the character but also appreciate proper films as well. The only ones losing out with this film are some comic book fans who say they feel cheated as this is not a comic book film per se. But haven’t we had enough of those? Especially in recent years? I think it would be difficult for anyone to say that we haven’t.
New Kids on the Block
This brings us back to the aforementioned Kick Ass (‘10), which dropped a couple of years after TDK. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, this is a brutal, gory, yet humorous story of an ordinary teenage geek who decided to don a mask and try to be a hero. He is stabbed and subsequently ran over whilst trying to prevent his first robbery and narrowly avoids being killed multiple times and would have been if it wasn’t for the highly trained Hit Girl. The film doesn’t shy away from showing what punishment can come along with interfering with the business of organised crime.
It was a step closer to a more realistic superhero film and it’s lighter tone made it even easier for the mainstream to digest than TDK. I feel it’s sequel is very underrated, which progresses the narrative of the first film well and has an amazing performance from Jim Carrey playing against type as Colonel Stars and Stripes. Kick Ass is very close in spirit to The Boys, the main differences being that there are no superpowers in Kick Ass’ world and the characters are generally much younger. This kids-playing-dress-up vibe gives it a kind of charm that’s balanced by it’s extremely gory moments. Vaughn would also go on to adapt Millar’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (‘14) into a fun, cheeky spy romp, that has a similar light-hearted charm.
It was around this time that studios turned their attention to television. One of the first and mostly forgotten comic book shows of this period was the Constantine (‘14) TV series. It’s a shame because it’s very entertaining and more accurate to the source material than the film (which is also great and very underrated). It was the perfect character to adapt for TV because there’s no costumes to try and translate and the action is not based on fight choreography.
A lot of shows steer their plots towards supernatural elements and magic but this is usually an obvious cop-out to avoid any proper action but in this case, it was what was required for the character. This was a great first foray into comics for TV in this period, as it took place in the real world and there wasn’t very much that wasn’t believable when you give the supernatural a pass.
The Man Without Fear
It was a year later that Marvel dropped the first and best of their many collaborations with Netflix in the form of Daredevil (‘15). This fantastic show was the Batman TV Series that DC never had and still don’t have the balls to make. This is why we keep getting shows based in Batman’s world but without the main character; such as Gotham (‘14), which follows Commissioner Gordon in his early career and Pennyworth (‘19), which does the same with Alfred. I can’t fathom why anyone would be interested in these shows. That’s not to say they can’t be good, it just feels like a massive tease to produce shows based in this world without its hero.
It feels to me like DC don’t trust their own people to be able adapt their wealth of source material well to TV, which is a shame because they have the best characters and stories available to anyone. Titans (‘18) is a big step in the right direction but still needs to rid itself of the last of that god awful CW vibe. Daredevil gets it in one. Marvel chose the perfect, street-level hero to adapt for TV and it’s gritty, authentic world is what sells it.
The action and fight choreography are also incredible; it’s actually better than in most movies. The fighting style, moves and shots are all complementary of each other; reminiscent of the brutally realistic, one-shot hallway fight from Oldboy (‘03), another brilliant, alternative comic book film. This adds another layer to the realism and solidifies its appeal. It surpasses the early noughties movie in every possible element, especially in the way it utilises characters like Kingpin and illustrates just how far comic adaptations have come along since that time.
They only want you when you’re ‘17
It speaks volumes that Daredevil and The Punisher (‘17) that followed it are the best of this bunch that includes multiple heroes with major superpowers like super strength and invulnerability. The latter is a harrowing, no-holds-barred take on the character in the same vein as Punisher: War Zone (‘08, yet another forgotten gem). These are the first examples of comic book heroes in real world scenarios on the small screen and they are far more interesting than their more powerful teammates. TV lends itself well to this setting as well because it has a much slower pace than a film and has the time to get more in depth with its characters.
This year was an important one for superhero culture. On top of this we finally got the first female lead superhero film Wonder Woman (‘17) and the Wolverine film that everyone has wanted from day one with Logan (‘17). Fox had thrown everything at the wall to see what sticks to try and do justice to the character since the millennium, getting a tiny bit closer each time but it wasn’t until they turned to the comics fully that they finally found the nerve.
The film was R-rated and heavily based on the comic book “Old Man Logan.” It’s a stripped-down movie that takes place in a dystopian world that seems to be separate from the other X-Men films and is shot like a Spaghetti Western. It also had great British actors like Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant and a returning Patrick Stewart. The themes are ones of aging and family. Fans finally got to see claret when those claws cut flesh and the action is finally as ruthless as it needed to be. It’s a tidy, simple story with plenty of heart, something that was lacking in previous iterations. It’s easy to why it struck a chord with so many.
The New Mutants
Logan was made possible by the R-rated Deadpool (‘16) that came the year before. Ryan Reynolds deserves a lot of respect for believing in this character as he was in the comics and not the way he was portrayed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (‘09), possibly the worst superhero movie ever made. He personally leaked test footage that he knew loyal fans of the character would love and it went from there. The film went on to break all kinds of records for an R-rated film, despite the fact that Fox sliced its budget nearly in half due to a lack of faith in the project. Reynolds had to actually trick the studio into buying into the source material and the rewards were vast for both them and the fans.
The best thing about that year, however, was probably Legion (‘17). The show is based on the trials and tribulations of another mutant, Charles Xavier’s son David and like Logan, seems to exist in a slightly different universe. I was so surprised to see such an obscure character get his own show but I’m so glad he did. David is possibly the world’s most powerful mutant to date. So much, in fact, that he is unable to control the power and it drives him to insanity…possibly. You see, nothing is for certain in David’s world. Is his psychosis caused by his powers or by himself and his upbringing? Is the parasite villain who has hidden himself in David’s mind responsible? Or is it all of the above?
What we do know is that he suffers from some kind of multiple personality disorder and each one seems to grant him different abilities. There are many different realities in the show, we see what’s happening in David’s mind, in the Astral Plane and worlds that David can create by warping reality around him. These manifest themselves in many different and increasingly bizarre ways, including dance numbers with awesome songs. The trippy nature of the show is what makes it so appealing, fresh and unique. This series makes me wish that more would do a deep dive into the history of big franchises to uncover more hidden treasure like this.
The Boys are back in Town
This brings us all the way up to the current year, which had a great start with the excellent Umbrella Academy (‘19). This darker, more humorous take on the X-Men blueprint was just as fun as it was macabre. The highlight of the year, however, will of course be The Boys. It’s a show that feels like a culmination of everything that has come before it and has taken in every lesson they have offered as well. The idea of Superheroes taking on the role of celebrities is one that has been visited before but only for laughs in Mystery Men (‘99), The Tick (‘01) and No Heroics (‘08). The live action TV series of The Tick was the only one of its kind at the time and some 13 odd years ahead of the curve.
It’s a genuinely funny show about an overly enthusiastic yet infantile superhero who lives in a world where there are so many heroes, that they have developed their own society and hierarchy. The show had a reboot in 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios, who are also behind The Boys. The Tick reboot did a great job of modernising the character but didn’t quite strike that same funny chord as the original. It did, however, develop the idea of the superhero hierarchy into that of corporate business, something that The Boys really runs with. In The Tick (‘16), it’s done in a humorous way, although a conspiracy within the main corporation is eventually exposed. One villain also uses its own inadequacies to remodel herself as a hero undetected, much to the frustration of the few that notice but are unable to prevent it.
Soul-destroying, crippling PR and shameless advertising is all considered to be just part of the job in the world of The Boys. This frustrating realisation is seen through the eyes of Annie (aka Starlight), a wide-eyed wannabe superhero who has spent her childhood on the beauty pageant circuit in the hope to one day become one of The Seven, this world’s version of the Justice League. All she wants to do is help people but being this famous and important stifles her ability to do just that. The six who have been on the team for some time have settled into this lifestyle and accepted its terms. However, like many celebrities, they harbour dark, secret urges that their fame allows them to indulge behind closed doors.
This is where The Boys come in. They are a group of regular guys who make it their mission to make supers pay for their heinous acts by any means necessary. Just the premise alone had me hooked, it subverts tropes and has you rooting for the characters that have all the hallmarks of the bad guys. As the story progresses, though, you see that they are definitely the lesser of two evils by a long shot. When they include a #Metoo subplot and harrowing themes wrapped up in military applications, experiments on babies and narcotics, you get a nail-biting thriller that keeps you permanently on the edge of your seat.
Many of The Seven are a perfect perversion of the Justice League. Aside from maybe Stralight who is a general parallel of Super/Powergirl, Translucent is the only character who is an original take. He has the power of invisibility and uses it in the most perverse way, such as casually hanging out in women’s bathrooms and gynaecologist’s practices. Their Aquaman is The Deep, a repulsive hybrid of a dumb, American college jock and a surfer dude, who is the perp in Starlight’s #MeToo story.
A-Train takes The Flash’s spot as an annoying, idiotic junkie who is juicing to fend off challengers from his title of “Fastest Man Alive.” Their Wonder Woman is Queen Maive, an alchoholic, closet-lesbian who has had her spirit broken down over the years and now just feels conflicted as she goes along with the group. Typically, my favourite is Black Noir. He takes the Batman archetype to the extreme by being completely silent but is still just as capable in combat as he is willing to sign autographs.
Which brings us to their Supes, also known as Homelander. Of all the alternate names for Superman that people have come up with over the years (Captain Amazing, Excelsor, Superian), this is by far the best as it tells you everything you need to know about his character in three syllables. Homelander is a patriot who fights for the modern version of truth, justice and the American way; which is by no means a good thing. He’s a two-faced, manipulative sadist with severe mommy issues. He plays this role so well, that it’s hard not to like him at certain points for being the perfect villain.
As if these JL subversions weren’t enough, we also have the titular group of misfits, lead by the charismatic Billy Butcher. It would be easy to base the show just off the amoral supers but The Boys add a whole other layer by showing the viewer everything from their perspectives. As well as being deplorable, to them the Supers are untouchable, capitalist monsters and that’s a scary thing indeed. The characters, plot and social commentary all make this such a compelling show that could only be written by someone who knows the medium of comics inside out; in the same way that Alan Moore did with Watchmen.
We’ve seen the story of the superhero who has been chosen but doesn’t think they can live up to the responsibility more times than I can remember, I think fans and the mainstream alike want something different these days that’s more relatable. All of the projects mentioned in this article are proof of this and they’re increasing in number with each year. The most important, consistent element they all share is sticking as close to the source material as possible and I hope this is something that studios continue to do moving forward.
The MCU have perfected the mainstream superhero product and are planning a massive TV venture all of their own that starts next year. The project involves a multitude of various TV Shows that will match their movie output in recent years. This is clearly their big swing to try and stay relevant after Avengers: Endgame, which was the culmination of more than 10 years of their films and saw the departure of some of their biggest and best characters. It will be interesting to see how they tackle each show after we’ve been getting such alternative gems like Legion, Umbrella Academy and The Boys recently, it will make it difficult for them to make their familiar properties intriguing. The bar has been set very high indeed…actually, it’s more like The Boys have beaten them across the head with it.