Thursday, February 3, 2011

Preamble #4: A Discussion Series on Modern Myth!

What is your destination? Papers please.

Why Cap? Why now? Major comic characters are being pitched to the movies and for TV all the time. Is there a concise listing somewhere indicating all the heroes that have burst onto the media scene? I am sure someone is keeping track. It used to be a rare event when superheroes got a movie or a show but several factors have moved in their favor.

First, time has passed. Kids who read comics in the sixties and seventies are now firmly entrenched in all levels of media. This is important because it creates a tacit level of acceptance to the idea of comics and heroes.

Second, special effects have become so easy to do that creating the powers of a superhero using CGI is really effective. I defy you to walk into any film or TV art department and not find it infested with comic readers.

Third, the positive qualities of superheroes - honesty, courage, loyalty, persistence and valor creates stories with an easy to follow narrative. Good versus evil will never go out of style and audiences have clamored for this kind of tale more than any other.

Fourth, as important as the other factors, a string of blockbusters featuring superheroes have created a "jump on the bandwagon" atmosphere. There is money to be made and studios/production houses are all to willing to go for the gold.

Thaw in case of emergency -- Cap is the subject of rumor and conjecture by the Allies and has become mythologized by the Germans. He rallies the troops by bolstering their patriotic fighting spirit. To the Germans he is like a ghost, a wraith, an unstoppable force said not to exist but causing even hardened generals to pause. Field troops often surrender to him personally. -Rick

Halt! Who goes there?

What is a hero? What makes his or her quest a story worth telling? Deeds rather than words are what make a hero. Popular writer and thinker Joseph Campbell, who's influential books include Hero With A Thousand Faces, was said to have inspired George Lucas and countless other filmmakers. He asserts that a hero is someone who undertakes a hero's quest or journey. By using comparative examples of myth, dreams, fairy tales and folklore across cultures, Campbell traces the journey that a common man must take in order to become a hero.

A hero must be called upon to undertake a hazardous journey, leaving all that is safe and familiar behind. In the Cap story, the call is that of war. Although it is improbable, Steve Rogers must fight evil in the form of Nazis. The hero must be tested and fall short only to be aided by either a timely gift or help from a wise stranger. In my mind, Cap gets the gift of the shield, the new round shield which serves to protect him against most dangers. The hero must be victorious only after having faith in something he can not see. Blinded in the snow, Cap must have faith in order to garner strength against the superior Red Skull. Having won, the hero is now imbued with new confidence and secret knowledge which he returns home to share with those who stayed behind and did not face the danger. Okay. at this point, victorious, Cap becomes frozen in a block of ice and can not share his wisdom of battle until thawed, eventually shouldering the mantle of leader of the Avengers.

In Cap's situation, the fictional character of Steve Roger's is beset with the herculean task of defeating evil in the form of Hitler and the Red Skull. In the opening of the narrative, Rogers is a weakling unfit for combat and could not be more ill-suited for the task ahead. Through the use of "magic" in the form of a Super Soldier Serum, Rogers is able to transform his body into that of a supremely strong, agile, super human soldier. Now all that is stopping him from carrying out his mission and achieving his goal is his mind/spirit which will be tested repeatedly in the forge of battle. Each time he is near his end and is about to give up, he finds hidden resources which allow him to overcome.

Campbell make clear that though the external struggle may seem physical, the important task is one of spiritual birth and resurgence. Cap inevitably meets a force that is too great for him to triumph over and by gaining special knowledge he reinvents his spiritual/mental self and is able to obtain victory. Changed by the experience and given a great boon, Cap returns to the regular world as a hero where he shares his blessing. The return is delayed in his case by that block of ice. It was actually a writer's gimmick to propel the Timely Publishing Captain America forward into modern times and reintroduce him into Marvel Comics with other heroes. Pretty crafty.

Cap in Trade

I suppose that a few words about the nature of comics and film are in order. Cap's long career, running from 1941 to present has been a lot like many other comic characters. No matter how fantastic the initial stories are, in comics, the reality is that stories are created on a monthly schedule. New writers, artists and editors come aboard and leave all the time with tenures of only a few years or months. The serial nature of the publishing schedule lends itself to both short works and longer dramatic arcs while the overarching themes of a particular title writhe like a snake under the inconstant direction of those charged with the telling. Cap's history with Timely and Marvel is one of stops, stalls, immense popularity and searches for relevance in new eras. Injections of new talent bring new viewpoints and different perspectives. Unlike, say a popular author writing sequels to a hot novel every year. Comics grind out the soapy drama month after month using different writers and artists to tell staggeringly different types of stories.

In film, no matter what film it is or what it is about, the experience is singular, complete and tidy. Despite what DVD "extras" would have you believe, a movie fits into the time frame it is given (2hr 12min for example). Even if it has sequels, everything you need to know is compartmentalized into that frame of time. The writing or acting may suggest actions that occur both before and after but the reality is that the film, pinched by opening and closing credits is like a sausage link. You get what you get. In this way, it is a concise form of communication the interpretation of which might be personal but the record of which is singular.

I bring this up because the never-ending-pick-up-almost-anywhere nature of serial comics creates an endless narrative. The discussion about "overall" plot becomes a twisted, impossible to explain jumble of characters and events. Only the main themes return again and again. Justice. Revenge. Good v. Evil. Etc... Film is an entirely different beast and its power in using images to pull emotional chords in the audience is unparalleled. If you ever laughed, cried or screamed during a movie then you may understand some of the power of watching stories unfold on a screen.

Converting one form to another is not always a good idea. Turning long strands of comic narrative into short, concise film language can be a difficult if not impossible task. Easier to turn a three hundred page prose novel into a film than adapting most comics. Cap does not pose any special problems in that regard. His narrative is tangled and contradictory with no satisfying trajectory on a whole, like many long running comics. In film, when confronted with material that does not make sense in the format, those are your choices. String together snippets or create something entirely new. This is why film never stays too closely to comic history.

Hey, why don't they just turn XYZ graphic novel into a movie? It is perfect as is. I used to think that way and sometimes still catch myself. Adapting a single issue of a comic to screen sounds great... yet even before problems with budgets, casting, shooting and special effects can rear their head, screenwriters need to condense everything into two hours AND make it interesting while being practical minded. That graphic novel sure is great but there are 46 speaking parts, 119 scene changes, calls for 16,200 effects shots plus the need for model makers to craft working prototypes of 170 different weapons.... the list goes on. Yeah, that was a great graphic novel. As a movie, it is just too costly to make.

1 comment:

  1. Cap, endless narrative comics, the hero's journey and adapting comics to film. There is a lot to chew on in this post. Much will be discussed in more leisurely fashion later on. The seeds are being planted however. The blog will discuss Cap and comics being adapted to screen from all angles and dissect the stories and themes needed to make a great film. How DO you take all of Cap's history and decipher it from a film standpoint. The answer is character.