Your interpretation of Batman isn’t the same as mine, and neither is your idea of the Flash, Green Arrow, or John Constantine. We all read different comic books, and from those we each build our own impression of our favorite comic book characters. I’m very fond of the collage of impressions of these characters which has combined in my experience to build a complete portrait of each of them. Yet I am still expected to enjoy and become invested in the way these characters are being depicted on television and in movies.
Regular readers already know my feelings about the great TV interpretation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and I’m afraid to say that after months of trying to get involved in Arrow, it didn’t work for me as an adaptation of any comic book I ever read about Oliver Queen. In some ways the approach seemed too similar to Smallville, which might work for some people, but to me it was a show which had more in common with Dawson’s Creek than any Superman comic book I ever loved. That’s fine, for many people I know these shows are perfect and embody a great deal of the characters, just not mine.
So people keep asking what I think of shows like Gotham, Constantine, Arrow, or Flash. They expect me to be overjoyed about the recent movie announcements of Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, or Black Panther.
Have we forgotten the Green Lantern movie so soon? Admittedly this is a worst case scenario, but it it important to keep in mind that when we’re talking about superhero movies, things can and do go this badly. There is no point in getting emotionally involved in a movie before we've seen it, because all too often that leads to disappointment. Naturally I’m not saying that I’m not curious about a new superhero movie or TV show, because I am. I just keep my expectations reasonable and don’t get very excited anymore.
In many instances, my expectations are so low that I have no interest in watching some of my favorite stories be watered down to work for a general audience, particularly on television
John Constantine can’t smoke on regular TV, he can’t swear, he can’t shag, he can’t be resolutely left wing (socialist, even), and of course he can’t be the thoroughly evil bastard he always was in the pages of Hellblazer. So why would I watch a show about a random blonde dude who has some connection with the occult just because he bears the name of a character I used to love? I can't even read the new comic book about him, so I’m certainly not subjecting myself to a TV version of same. I miss John Constantine in Hellblazer, but this is no substitute.
In the last couple of days I’ve seen a lot of posts by male friends about the recent casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange which cite his female fans, saying that “at least women will be happy”, the assumption being that we all find him attractive (we don’t) and so we’ll all find him an ideal Dr. Strange (not necessarily), but we’ll see. I’m also meant to be excited about the Captain Marvel movie, because she’s a woman and I’m a woman, (see how that works?) Unfortunately I have about as much in common with tall, athletic blonde women as I do with miniature poodles. Maybe as a man you’re thinking that’s crazy, but just because we have the same sex parts does not mean we experience the world in the same way. In fact, I identify more closely with Doctor Strange as a fictitious character than I do with Captain Marvel (or I did with Ms. Marvel) as a fictitious character. Yes, it is a progressive step forward that Captain Marvel and Black Panther are being made and it's about time, but I’m only going to get excited on a personal level about that when I’m sitting in the theater watching them, not before I know if they’re any good just because they exist.
They might be alright. The films might be alright. These days that’s all I hope for; “alright”. I don’t go to superhero movies with very high expectations because “alright” is usually the most we get. In fact, when a superhero movie isn’t outright terrible, I’m quite happy with it. Once in a blue moon they’re actually good, unequivocally so (i.e. people don’t say “That was pretty good for a superhero movie”, they just say “That was pretty good!” without qualification), but that is a rarity.
One advantage which comic book movie adaptations for the big screen, in recent years at least, is that they’re not nearly as all-ages focused as their television counterparts. It is apparently standard in America to make almost all broadcast television shows safe for all-ages, (violence not withstanding), and it means that many complex emotional situations are simplified and dumbed down.
While I enjoy the mano e mano standoffs which are the crescendo of most superhero comic book movies, I prefer the more detailed way these are presented in my favorite comic books. Simply because of the complexity of the medium, a more thoughtful, layered depiction of a “fight” is possible. By revealing the thoughts and ideas of characters, fights can have be more than the sum of their parts, involving more depth and discussion than a simple violent act.
Then there is the pacing, in a comic book we have the luxury of reading quickly or slowly through a big fight scene and it changes the entire focus of a story. In a film we’re subjected to the creator’s vision of the comic book, which is often focused on big men hitting things and each other, sometimes in slow motion to capture every thrilling moment. This kind of physical action on it’s own doesn’t appeal to me, I’m more interested in other kinds of action.
Finally, another element of the superhero comic books which I enjoy is the ambiguity. The voice, movement, appearance, and even gender of a character can be up in the air, something we have to apply to the character as we read the book. A good writer can play on this and make it a strength in a comic book, involving us more deeply in the journey as we apply our own ideas onto the character.
All of these elements combine to create a more interesting experience reading than we can ever have watching, so screen adaptations already start at a disadvantage. Lastly of course, there is the old disposability of comic books. While they might be collectible now, many comic books greatest, weirdest story lines came about because no one cared what was in them. Being relatively cheap to make, and created by small teams of 2-6 people, comic books have been allowed to go into all kinds of strange directions over the years. I’ve written before about the Avengers strange approach to relationships in the ’70’s, when people had nervous breakdowns and tried to make sense of being sexually attracted to robots, it was an interesting and confusing time to be reading comic books, but we’ll probably never see such a checkered movie about franchised superheroes and that is always going to make me a little sad.