Why All of 2017’s Best Superhero Adaptations Worked


Illustration by Aria Dines

<comment>As someone who doesn’t buy into the notion that all superhero adaptations are inherently of the same genre, it can be hard to look at them holistically.

After all, there were several this year alone that had their own unique ambitions. The likes of “Runaways,” “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Legion,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” were certainly not all cut from the same cloth. Just because something is an adaptation of Marvel or DC property doesn’t mean it can’t find its own unique identity.

That being said, there is a thread that connects many of this year’s best superhero adaptations: they all know what stories their respective mediums ​makes them best suited to tell.

What many of these adaptations demonstrate is an understanding of the ethos of their original material. There is also an ability to distill that spirit and mix it into a cocktail more suited for a new medium or story. The best translations from comic book to screen in 2017 demonstrated an understanding of how the essence of their source material needed to be complemented, packaged, and/or evolved in a new way for TV or film.

"Runaways": Slowing the Pace and Dialing up the Angst

The most recent example of this trend is “Runaways” on Hulu [at the time of writing, six episodes have aired]. The show is based on the Brian K. Vaughan Marvel comic about a group of teenagers who discover their parents are supervillains — and then work to stop them while on the run.

The show is very much set up around the same premise as the comic’s first volume. In the pilot episode, the kids even catch their parents in the act (no, not like that) in much the same way as they do in the comic’s first issue.

Yet, as soon as the show hits its second episode the changes are evident and appreciated. The show foregoes the explosive pace of the comic’s first volume (it’s real fast), to flesh out the characters' parents with an episode centered around their point of view. As the show progresses, “Runaways” continues to dedicate time to those characters’ stories.

In the comics, the parents are more villains of the "mustache-twirling" variety, but in the show they are real people — well ... "real people" within the context of a soap opera.

By taking that time, the show dials up the angst and internal conflict of its teenage characters, too. The teens are given room to wrestle with doing the right thing and not wanting to believe their parents are capable of such wrongdoing. Even after believing they are, it is deftly conveyed that the teens still recognize the humanity within their parents. Because of these changes, the show — even more so than the comics — is about kids in conflict with their parents, rather than typical superheroes versus supervillains tropes.

“Runaways” demonstrates a savvy knowledge of what makes its source material click. It also has an ability to discern what elements could be evolved to make its defining traits more resonant — and make a better TV soap opera than a literal translation of the comic.

It also speaks to a keen sense of judgment which I — as a huge "X-Men" fan — wish was present in more of those adaptations.

“Logan” and the X-Men

Ever since the initial “X-Men” came out in 2000, there have been some baffling creative decisions when it comes to which parts of the franchise’s source material to lean into. It’s a dynamic that has only become more pronounced as time as goes on. 

For example, take what we know right now of 2018’s “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”. You would imagine in the right hands there might be an extremely contemporary story you could tell with the X-Men in 2018. After all, they are a group whose central metaphor — “Protecting a world that hates and fears them” — is meant to make them a stand-in for society’s marginalized people.

It is too soon to judge the film definitively as a whole, but “space-bound rescue missions" and "cosmic-level forces” do not seem like the parts of X-Men that are contemporarily resonant.

“Logan” came closer (or at least handled those parts better) than any previous adaptation. While not the principal focus of the film, it is notable how it told a story overtly sympathetic to the plight of refugees.

However, what that film more expressly does, is skillfully walk a very fine line with its indulgence of Wolverine: a character whose most compelling elements in the comics are also often overused, and made to be his most exhausting and insufferable characteristics.

Take the “Old Man Logan” comic arc which this film takes inspiration from, for instance. Wolverine’s "retired-gunslinger pacifism" in the story largely just serves to eventually dial up the reader’s astonishment when a “Unforgiven”-esque revenge rampage against a family of redneck Hulks happens.

The film instead commits to actually engaging with the "western" and "retired gunslinger" tropes, which are too often just trappings in the comics. Logan is legitimately weary of fighting as an X-Man all of his life. The film gives the character room to examine what little he has left in his old age, despite all his efforts, and the loneliness of being a survivor.

Furthermore, it doesn’t feel at all superficial, as it is made explicit early on that Logan does not have very much time left to live. In fact, that might get to the heart of “Logan’s” most self-aware and additive choice regarding adaptation. The movie commits to having real stakes for its central characters.

Similarly Self-Aware

There were certainly other cases this year, like “Wonder Woman” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” that had a similarly apparent self-awareness.

After two amazingly misguided takes on Spider-Man centered around an unwanted conspiracy with Peter Parker’s dad and Paul Giamatti doing a terrible Russian accent, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a very welcome reprieve. It was justly lauded for being the first film take on Peter Parker that recognized the most resonate aspect of Spider-Man’s mythology: the high school melodrama. Still, it deserves commendation for recognizing and adapting it in full "John Hughes" style.

When people think back to “Wonder Woman,” I imagine they recall the emotional crux of the film as Diana crosses "No Man’s Land." It’s certainly not subtle, but it is still just as much an exercise of that keen sense of judgment regarding what elements of one’s source material should be played up when. And as another film ("Professor Marston and the Wonder Women") illustrated this year, the entire creation and inspiration of Wonder Woman has strong feminist roots to be translated and accentuated.

Considering that the president is a serial sexual harasser 16 times over, I think many are tired of subtlety when it comes to broadcasting a feminist message. It only makes “Wonder Woman’s” decision to not shy away from it — at least in that scene — that much more effective of an adaptive choice.

Being the Best Possible Version

This year’s most resonating superhero adaptations cannot all be grouped together within one genre in a traditional sense. They all set out to tell different stories, each with their own purpose in mind and through an acute recognition of the most resonate aspects of the material they were working with.

The best DC or Marvel adaptations this year indeed had their own identity, distinguishable genre-wise from one another. Yet, they also had a strong enough sense of self that made it so they weren’t just their own source material verbatim. Instead, they were the best possible version of that material, and in some cases, something greater than the sum of its parts.