One of the delights of comics is being able to build subplots into plots into roaring climaxes. I can, therefore, understand that when working on a comic adaptation for a film or limited series, one might feel a strong impulse to do the same. After all, if Thanos might be a cool villain for the first AVENGERS movie, imagine how much cooler he might be if we tease him for six years as a puppet master before letting him cut loose all over those fools.
Unfortunately, in practice, it rarely works out this way. That’s why I am declaring on this day, at this time, adaptations need to stop building to cool things and just deliver the cool thing upfront.
Let No Interesting Evil Enter My Sight!
Green Lantern lacks an iconic villain on the level of Joker. What he does have is Sinestro, an opposite number type ala Iron Monger or Killmonger. Besides the fact that Sinestro had been the best of the Corps turned bad, he is also charismatic, dangerous, and manipulative. Plus, his existence offers a repudiation of the Guardians’ way of thinking. He is great to put against a new naïve Lantern in an adaptation. He can introduce doubt into our protagonist’s mind by revealing hidden truths about the Guardians while trouncing him in combat.
Instead, GREEN LANTERN selected Hector Hammond and, briefly, the Parallax Worm as villains. Put another way, the film pitted GL against a man with a giant immovable head and a barely defined piece of CGI.
Can someone tell a good story with these villains? Certainly. But it made an uphill battle for GREEN LANTERN from the jump. While Hammond arguably — and I do mean arguably — can be used well in stories, making a villain that ridiculous looking to work in a film means creating an absolute mountain of suspended disbelief.
Parallax, on the other hand, simply does not work without Hal Jordan’s corruption. We all know it.
While saving Sinestro for GREEN LANTERN 2: The New Batch could have made his turn powerful, that only works if you get two GL films. If your franchise shuts down after one, as happened here, you never get a chance to show off that actually cool antagonist.
An Infection That Never Blossoms
I believe a safe assumption is everyone found IRON FIST Season 2 a marked improvement over Season 1. That said, finding out it was canceled was not a crushing blow. My interest in the show had increased, but that first season was so ROUGH. Thus, even after the superior second season, my mourning could only go so far. However, I do find myself wondering about what might have been with Typhoid Mary.
See, in this adaptation of the character, we get two of her three personalities. We see the sweet Mary Walker, kind and lonely, searching for support and comfort. We also met Walker. A hard-nosed, violent protector, Walker believes she’s the only element that keeps an ingenue like Mary safe.
We never met Typhoid, however. There are hints of her, true. We learn an alter even more violent and dangerous than Walker saved Mary in Iraq. Water becoming steam as she tries to calm herself hints at Typhoid’s pyrotechnic abilities. That is about it. There is an implicit promise of Typhoid in the future, but that’s the future. And IRON FIST now has no future.
Of course, Alice Eve’s Mary may show up elsewhere in the small screen MCU. As it stands now, though, IRON FIST offered us 2/3rd of the villains, holding back what makes her the most interesting. Once again, they left the coolest element on the table for future use without the promise of that future.
Steppenwolf As An Opening Act
Steppenwolf? Well, he is not.
However, in JUSTICE LEAGUE, the decision was made to back pocket the ruler of Apokolips in favor of this underlings. Steppenwolf, one assumes, exists to whet our appetite for the darkness to come. If Steppenwolf would whup the team something fierce, imagine what his boss could do?! You can practically hear the high fives in the pitch meeting.
Except, well, Steppenwolf turned out to be a sort of nothing villain. Steppenwolf comes across as bland bordering on generic. His only hook seemed to be, “He’s like the guy you are waiting for but less.” I know you all are aching to say, “but Thanos,” and we’ll get there. For now, though, consider that while Loki was a sort of emissary of Thanos, the God of Mischief had already established himself as a character and only came more to life in AVENGERS.
Even in AGE OF ULTRON, the mad robot’s adaptation had no connection to the Mad Titan. We knew Thanos was still out there somewhere, but Ultron’s desires and drives had nothing to do with him.
Steppenwolf, unfortunately, never gets any such distance or development. He’s big, he’s bad, he’s connected to Darkseid…and that’s it.
Now it is unlikely we will ever get a Darkseid as part of this incarnation of DC films. A future adaptation may well bring him on, but JUSTICE LEAGUE’s rough reception all but guarantees that this is another case of holding something back when the card needed to be played.
Still On the Table
DAREDEVIL Season 3 hit last month and it was EXCELLENT. As covered elsewhere, I’m an easy sell for the adventures of the Man Without Fear, but I’m still going to go ahead and declare just INCREDIBLE. Kingpin’s arc from redemption to master puppeteer to beaten man was pitch perfect.
Somehow the show evoked BORN AGAIN without being a straight adaptation of that story. It brought forth some of the same emotions and nailed some of the same beats, but did so in a way that could still surprise and delight long-term comic fans and show only watchers.
We got an excellent birth of Bullseye storyline, but we did not yet actually get Bullseye. As the series ends, it seems apparent that is where things are going with the Netflix version of Lord Death Wind wrapping Bullseye’s spine in the Netflix version of Adamantium. I loved every beat of Wilson Bethel’s performance as the Man Who Can’t-Miss, but I want it all. The name, the costume, the obsession with Daredevil. Alas, we now stand on the precipice with no clear picture of whether or not that will happen or, once again, a favorite villain of mine will go unrealized, unrevealed in the name of “the build-up will make this sweeter.”
If that works out, great, I’m sure it will make it sweeter. But if it doesn’t? What a bummer to have this amazing villain in your hands and not pay it off.
The Delayed Adaptation That Worked: The Journey
Yes, let’s address the elephant in the room. Thanos. The wrench in the works. The exception.
To be clear, though, that’s what he is. The exception. Yes, six years of waiting did not prevent him from making his glorious feature-length debut. No, six years of anticipation did not render him a disappointment. That is a wonderful thing. It also could not have gone down like that.
Birthing the MCU was never a given. This writ large adaptation of the Marvel Universe is an amazing story of planning well and getting lucky every step of the way. At any moment, the whole thing could have collapsed. Not to rub salt in the wound, but one need look no further than the DCEU to see how quickly awry a shared film universe can go. Or the Dark Universe to see a shared universe fail to launch not once, but twice.
After AVENGERS we could have ended up with a couple of financial and critical bombs in a row, leaving him forever a brief cameo. Or stars could have exited contracts disrupting the flow. Or or or. So many possibilities, almost none of them ending with a film that puts Thanos front and center six years later.
The Delayed Adaptation That Worked: The Realization
Even if everything went exactly as it did until AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, there was no guarantee the Thanos we got was going to be a worthy adaptation or interpretation of the character. He could have been a too silly mastermind ala Christoph Waltz in SPECTRE (not a comic book film, but it captures what I mean). He might have been a terrible bit of CGI like Steppenwolf (sorry, I don’t mean to kick ones and zeros when they are down).
Or perhaps the adaptation would have completed missed the mark, giving us an unrecognizable version of Thanos in all but appearance like BATMAN & ROBIN’s Bane. Finally, and worst of all, he could have been stone-cold boring. Zero on a charismatic scale, zero on the intrigue continuum. A muscle-y lump of purple who walked the walk talked the talk but did not engage audiences. He dodged all those bullets, somehow, and ended up a success. That’s awesome.
Consider the journey and the realization, though. An infinite (pun not intended? Maaaaaaaaaaaaybe) range of ways it could have gone badly, only a handful of ways it could pay off. Just because Thanos does not make it more like for others. In fact, it probably makes it less.
For every Thanos, the landscape has been littered with the likes of GREEN LANTERN and IRON FIST. Unlike comics where serial storytelling has overwhelmingly become the norm in the modern day, it is still a relatively new approach to films. In fact, with the exception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no one yet has really managed to nail it. While doable, serial storytelling in a movie is a far harder trek than the typical sequel model. Increased difficulty equals increased likelihood of things being derailed before the bigger picture is realized. Things ending before the bigger picture is realized equals the characters or beats being held back on never actually make it to the screen.
On the television side of the things, the emergence of the 10 episode “movie” format of the Marvel Netflix shows has created a film situation on the small screen. Once again, creators are “tricking” themselves into thinking about another 8, 10, or 13-episode season is guaranteed so they start to hold characters in reserve for big moments in future seasons. But if the future seasons never come? Those characters never shine.
The solution is not to force the cool characters into storylines early or overstuffing movies or limited series. However, if you really want to, say, introduce Darkseid to your movie universe, start there. Do not wait for people to find Steppenwolf dangerous enough to deliver a signal. Instead, build a movie to make Darkseid the badass villain without several de facto prelude films.
As you build an adaptation, do you think that Sinestro is the best possible villain for Green Lantern? Great! Make him the first villain of the first film then, not the tease at the end. Every movie, every series has to count. Yes, Hollywood is all about superhero movies right now, but that doesn’t mean they have not forgotten that sometimes it is easier to end a franchise after a bad debut than try to retool the thing.
Life is short, art and commerce are fickle beasts. Stop saving the dessert for later.