I have a whole long screed on the amalgam principle, but for those of you who don’t feel like clicking the link and reading/reviewing right now, the basic idea is this – for long-running characters in serial media, individuals view those characters as amalgams of all the incarnations and characterizations that individual is familiar with. What this comes down to at worst are fights between geeks debating on what story is canon and which stories don’t really reflect who Iron Man is.
This got me thinking about how Marvel/Disney and DC/WB (and to a lesser extent Fox and Sony) decide on which amalgam for the adaptive media (that is, media adapted from the comic books as source material) is most likely to be well-received by their target audience. I’ve also mused on the faithfulness of adaptations, and passing down the cape to different characters, so I’ll try to be joining up these ideas. I’ll admit I haven’t quite worked through this thought, so I apologize if this gets a bit rambly (as opposed to my completely cogent entries…).
a) The source material is the comic book(s) that were current at the time the adaptive media was released.
b) I’ve divided this entry between DC and Marvel characters and not by which studio handles what, although I will go over that a bit.
c) I’ll be examining the differences between the source material and the target amalgam of the adaptive media (as far as I can recall) and theorizing on why that choice was made.
d) This is my opinion. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
1) Batman – I’m starting with Batman because Batman but also because I think most people have the same amalgam of Batman. This is pretty remarkable since the character is what, 70+ years old and gone through so many writers, artists, editors, Elseworlds, and reboots. But Batman does have the benefit of being the same character (Bruce Wayne) through most of his history. Batman is a dark, brooding, emotionally disturbed orphan who has been so broken by his parents’ murder he decided to become a vigilante fighting for justice using his vast technological resources and all of his physical and mental talents. I think we can all agree on that, yes? I’m assuming you’re nodding your head or saying “yes.”
a) Live-Action – What’s interesting to me is that the most successful live-action adaptations of Batman (be it movie or TV) were actually quite faithful to the source material. Granted, the 1960s show is well out of sync with the current amalgam, but was in sync with the time. In other words, the target amalgam of the media was in fact the most common amalgam of the fanbase and the populous in general. While financially successful (unfortunately), the second, third, and particularly the fourth original “Batman” movies were less successful with the fanbase because they failed to reach that target amalgam.
b) Animated – Again, I would say the most successful animated adaptations were fairly faithful to the comics. Obviously the ’60s was a sillier time, and hence the cartoons were as well. But the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series was right on the target amalgam. Honestly, I would say that the original DCAU (or the Timm/Dini-verse) really understood that target amalgam which hooked both the fanbase and the general populous who only knew of Batman in a peripheral sort of way.
However, the New 52 DCAU seems to be pretty faithful to the New 52 source material and that is not the target amalgam (at least what I’ve seen of it). In some ways, Batman is better off than his fellow Justice Leaguers, but this Batman is not just brooding and stand-offish; he’s outright a(n) [expletive]. I fear this is going to be the direction of the live-action movies, and I don’t think DC/WB understands that New 52 is not the target amalgam that’s going to get them the most money (but then again, there’s a lot WB doesn’t understand nor care about DC’s properties).
2) Superman – A lot of what I said about Batman is true for Superman. This is both fortunate and unfortunate. Superman is an orphan alien raised as a human by the loving Kents to become an incredibly kind and caring superhero who really wants to save everyone without ever hurting anyone ever if at all possible, which is really good since as probably the most powerful being on Earth he could really mess things up otherwise. Agreed? I’m going with “yes.”
a) Live-Action – I’ve gone over my issues a bit before, but I’ll summarize and say that I think the original Superman movie understood the target amalgam, and the second a little less so (although I’ve heard that Zod was not originally supposed to be killed but that there were issues between the director and the studio), and the third and fourth reduced Superman to comic relief and a flat, unconvincing mascot for world peace or something, respectively. Superman Returns got the character more or less right but couldn’t figure out what to do with him, so the movie ended up too cerebral/boring, depending on your point of view. In that case, I think the amalgam was right on target, but the story was inadequate to support that amalgam.
Then we get to New 52 and the latest attempt to reboot Superman with Man of Steel. Again, I think this adaptation of Superman is pretty faithful to what I’ve seen of the New 52 comics (and I’ll grant you I don’t read much of them because I don’t like the characters and grimdark storylines). So while this adaptation was faithful to the source material, I think it completely missed the target amalgam. I know there are comic book fans who would disagree, but in my own small world, every comic book fan I know would say, “That’s not my Superman.”
As for television, there was the old black and white version that seemed to get the character (for the few episodes I’ve seen), Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which managed to miss the target amalgam of both characters (in addition to turning a show about adventures into a watered-down romantic comedy), and Smallville, which in the good seasons also understood the target amalgam of Superman and perhaps just as importantly, the Kents.
b) Animated – The old cartoons from the ’40s featuring Superman rescuing a hapless Lois Lane and punching out Nazis were faithful to the source material. They’re not easy to watch now for obvious reasons. “Superfriends” was pretty faithful, for better or worse. The DCAU adaptation was also faithful to the source material and the target amalgam.
But the New DCAU is not kind to the target amalgam because the New 52 strays so far from it. So it’s a faithful adaptation, but not really on target to the common amalgam.
3) Spider-man – Again, I think most people have the same amalgam of Spider-man. The character is a bit younger than Batman, true, but has had to endure plenty of writers, editors, artists, What Ifs, the Clone Saga, and of course (sadly) One More Day. Peter Parker is a well-meaning everyman who learned that superpowers do not make your life easier and struggles to balance out his desire/guilt to do right using his powers and his desire to have something of a normal life. He’s only partially successful, but we love him for his human frailties and root for him to succeed anyway (this is true of 616 and 1610; and while Miles Morales hasn’t been adapted [and someone should get on that], he often struggles with the same issues). Again, I’m assuming you’re with me here.
a) Live-action – Like Batman, I think the most successful live-action adaptations have been most faithful to the source material, which is turn generated the target amalgam. I know there was a pretty bad short-lived TV show (or made for TV movie; I forget) but I don’t count that. Mostly I’m considering Sony’s Original Spider-man and Sony’s Amazing Spider-man. As I documented already, I think the Original Spider-man is superior because that shows the character of Peter Parker the best. Bluntly, Original Peter Parker is kind of a loser, and Amazing Peter Parker is kind of a jerk. These things are not the same.
b) Animated – Again, like Batman, the animated adaptations have really worked. And I have seen most of them. Really, quite a lot of my available brain-space is devoted to memories of cartoons. This may already be obvious. Anyway, different studios at different times have gotten that target amalgam.
c) Other – So I’m playing through the LEGO Marvel Super Heroes game, and of course Spider-man is a playable character. You can unlock his FF costume as well as the multi-armed clone version. Spider-man has speaking lines, and even this game managed to effectively capture that target amalgam. This is a better characterization than Sony’s Amazing Spider-man.
4) X-men – Yes, I went there. The X-men has a huge cast, the chronology is hopelessly tangled, and there have been numerous writers, editors, artists, and soft retcons. To me, this is the most interesting case study of a target amalgam. I think the target amalgam of the X-men is the team from the late 80s/early 90s (with the Jim Lee costumes) featuring a core of Cyclops, Phoenix, Wolverine, and Storm, and some rotating perennial favorites like Nightcrawler, Rogue, Gambit, Psylocke, and Shadowcat, and of course Magneto and Mystique.
a) Live-action – the movies do a decent job hitting the target amalgam. “X-men 2” is actually the best, and “X-men 3” is the worst. While “Wolverine Origins” is an awful movie, it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Wolverine. All the movies did mess around with ages (like Iceman and Angel, who were supposed to be the same age as Cyclops, Phoenix, and Beast), and so “First Class” got quite confusing as obviously none of the core group were actually part of it. “Days of Future Past” did have some of the core group and in the end reset the whole thing. The original X-men was made before Phoenix died in the comics and Cyclops turned into Magneto. Emma Frost showed up in “First Class” but as a villain and not part of the team as she was in the comics. So it could be argued “Days of Future Past” just wrapped up the loose ends of the other movies, but it’s also interesting to me that the creative team chose to highlight so clearly that the target amalgam was alive and well. That is, the movies were faithful to the target amalgam and not necessarily the source material.
b) Animated – When I think of the animated adaptations, the first one I think of is the ’90s Fox cartoon. A rather convincing argument could be made that it was the popularity of this adaptation that created the target amalgam of what was essentially this team (notably minus Shadowcat, who is a very popular and important character in the comics, and instead including Jubilee). But on the other hand, the comics of the time were selling very well with this team, especially X-men #1, so it made sense for Marvel to try to adapt and market what was likely their most popular characters at the time. There have been a few other animated versions that weren’t so popular, but they also made tweaks to the premise and thus the amalgam. “X-men: Evolution” put them back as high school age with of course the core and this time bringing in Nightcrawler as a regular, which I enjoyed (as I am a fan of the fuzzy elf). But a lot of the bright colors were toned down and if I recall correctly, there was no Cyclops-Wolverine-Phoenix love triangle, which I didn’t mind, but is part of that target amalgam. “Wolverine and the X-men” attempted to capitalize further on the popularity of Wolverine, removed some of the core characters, and replaced them with ones that appeared in the source material of the time. The farther Marvel has strayed from the target amalgam, despite being more faithful to the source material, the less popular the shows seem to be.
c) Other – this is where I think the situation gets very interesting and provides evidence for my theory of the X-men’s core amalgam. I finally had a chance to play the Marvel deckbuilding game. For those not familiar with this and don’t want a tedious explanation of the rules, I’ll focus on the relevant part: the main component of the game is to recruit heroes. You can only recruit heroes from the available hero deck(s). So the game designers looked at the vast expanse of characters in the Marvel universe and selected maybe nine or ten for the game. The designers were also looking for a mix of teams/affiliations to include as part of the strategy. So that means they only picked a couple of Avengers, a couple of X-men, and so on and so forth for the game. This is a pretty narrow pool. And I was pleasantly surprised to find not only was Cyclops included, but the character was very clearly the heroic ’90s version and not the current villainous version. This includes not only the costume but the kind of abilities in the cards. I’ll note here Storm was also included, although not in her ’90s costume but a more recent skimpy black w/headdress look. To me, that makes it even more compelling that Cyclops is not in a current costume.
I also, as I’ve said, am addicted to LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. Again, not to bog this down with details, but the game involves playing through a story mode with set characters and then unlocking a whole bunch of other characters to play with through free play mode. There are something like 150 unlockable characters in this game. However, there are only 30 missions to play through in story mode and I’ll guess maybe 15 to 20 set characters utilized in story mode. So again the game designers have a situation where they have hundreds of characters they can include overall in the game, but only a few who will feature prominently as story mode set characters. These feature the usual suspects like the Avengers and Spider-man and of course the X-men. The prominent featured Avengers are the ones from the latest movie. Of course Wolverine is one of the set characters (in yellow and black), but so are Storm, Cyclops, and Jean Grey. In fact, the mission at the X-mansion features Cyclops and Jean Grey trying to stop Juggernaut and rescue Storm (who then becomes playable; Beast makes a cameo). They also have roles in a few other story mode missions as well. And what do the mini-figs looks like? The ’90s versions. I’ll note that again Storm appears to be wearing a more recent skimpy black with headdress outfit (although the white ’90s look is unlockable). Cyclops’ alternative costume is the one with the mask that covers his hair, and Jean’s alternative costume is Phoenix, which not only looks different but has different powers. Is Emma Frost included? Yes, as an unlockable character like the rest of the X-men in the game. But she is not a main character, nor are her powers completely unique (so there aren’t missions that require only her to complete).
Why is this so compelling? Because Jean Grey has been dead for ten years real time in the comics, and Cyclops has been bad for at least five. For people who are current on the source material, and perhaps didn’t even read comics ten years ago, these two characters are virtually unknown. But the game designers decided that these amalgams were the ones that their target audience would want.
Conclusion (such as it is) – the current source material is not always the target amalgam being marketed in other media although despite this long entry, I’m not sure why. Maybe I’ll ponder further at another time.