8 Superhero Films With Comic Adaptations That Differ Slightly from Their Source Material
1. Batman (1989)
I started collecting comics in the early to mid-1980s, a prime time to be a fan of comics and of movie adaptations in particular. Aside from the ongoing series based on popular film franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones, etc.) you had the “official” adaptations of the big (and not-so-big) blockbusters of the day. It was easy to see the appeal of these adaptations; they were a low-cost way for studios to maintain fan interest in their films and score a little extra licensing cash in the process, while for comic publishers it was a chance to turn fans of the films into comic buyers.
Then there were the movies based on characters that originated in the comics themselves. The adaptation of Tim Burton’s Batman had some beautiful Jerry Ordway art that captured the actors’ likenesses quite nicely… but as a kid I was more interested in the ways the book deviated from the film’s script.
It was all about the timing; you didn’t want a film adaptation to come out before the movie’s release date for fear of spoiling the plot, but you also didn’t want the book coming out too far after the film’s opening date, either. Given the long production lead times for most books, the people behind the comic would have to produce their pages while the film itself might still be in post-production, meaning they often worked from earlier scripts, production stills, maybe some clips of filmed scenes — but rarely (if ever) the finished product itself. This led to some interesting variations between the films and the books if someone on the studio side made some last-minute changes.
In Batman, for example, the rooftop scene at the start of the film sees Batman roughing up a mugger who squawks: “Who are you?”…. to which our hero replies “I’m Batman” before disappearing. But in the comic, which was likely working off an earlier version of the script, there’s a different exchange in which Batman says: “I am the night.” Evocative, for sure, but I think I prefer the final film version better.
At the end of the film, events move rapidly after the Joker’s death; police find the laughing-bag gag on his body, Batman and Vicki Vale pull themselves up from the ledge, and then we cut to another day when Commissioner Gordon unveils the Bat-signal at a press conference. But in the comic, there’s one extra “gag” after the film’s climax involving a prone Alexander Knox found underneath Batman’s cape.
I put gag in quotation marks because it was obviously meant to be a lighter moment immediately following the climax — but I’m kind of glad it didn’t stay in the final cut. Nothing against Robert Wuhl — he brought the right amount of smarm to what was clearly written as a smarmy role — but I never felt Knox was 100% necessary in the film, and having a quick scene where Batman throws his cape over Knox to divert attention from his tip-toeing away from the scene… I don’t know, something about it doesn’t say “Batman” to me. We know the guy knows how to slink into the shadows; we don’t need to see this bit of Three’s Company-level misdirection to show us how it’s done.
2. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
The fourth film starring Christopher Reeve’s Superman has a special place in my heart because its comic adaptation is the first movie comic I remember buying with my fistful of coins from my newspaper route. The film it was based on was also the first time my younger self channelled my inner Krusty the Clown at the movie theatre: “What the hell was that???”
I’ve talked before about the many problems with the film. I’d love to see a documentary about the making of The Quest for Peace because from what I’ve heard about the behind-the-scenes chaos — including a slashing of the production budget from $36 million to $17 million in the middle of filming — I bet there are a lot of great stories to be told.
For instance, a documentary might help shed more light on the decisions to cut some of the scenes that didn’t make it into the final print, like Luthor’s creation of a prototype Nuclear Man. In the comic based on the movie, Luthor actually creates two nuclear men, the first one a dark-haired being with limited speech and childlike behavior who “dies” in battle (to the extent that it was ever alive) with Superman after hitting the scene at Metropolis’s “Chic Disco.”
According to writer Mark Rosenthal’s commentary on the film’s 2006 DVD, these scenes were part of about 45 minutes of deleted scenes cut from the film when Cannon slashed the budget. (British actor Clive Mantle would have starred as the spiky-haired brute.) Would it have made a difference to how the film was received if these scenes had stayed in? It’s hard to say; I’m leaning towards “maybe not question mark…?” Either way, at least their inclusion would have given us — in spirit if not in name — Bizarro’s first big-screen appearance.
3. Catwoman (2004)
If you’re shocked to learn DC published an adaptation of the infamous Catwoman film, imagine how shocked I was to find it. It’s not the kind of project I imagine DC was keen to publicize.
A film starring Catwoman had been in development ever since Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic performance in 1992’s Batman Returns, ever since that film’s ending left open the possibility of future Catwoman outings. Aside from Pfeiffer, big names like Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman were attached to the project over the years. But when the film was finally released in 2004, it was Halle Berry in the title role, with Benjamin Bratt as the love interest and cosmetics company CEO Sharon Stone as her beauty-obsessed nemesis.
I’ll give Berry her due; given the ludicrous script she had to work with she threw herself into the role, and she was game enough to appear at the Razzies in person to accept her Worst Actress award with her Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball in hand to thank Warner Bros. for giving her a chance to star in a “a piece of shit.” But outside of that… there’s not much to recommend in this film, which didn’t even make back its $100 million production budget at the box office.
One of the many problems with the film is that it’s “Catwoman” in name only; the story centres on Patience Phillips, a timid graphic artist who’s mysteriously revived by a cat after someone tries to kill her. An eccentric researcher with a beef against “male academia” explains that she is now one of a long line of “catwomen” through history who are blessed and cursed with catlike powers. (Fun fact: the only connection to any version of Catwoman known and loved by DC fans is a photo of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character among the pictures of past Catwomen the researcher shows to Patience.)
While film plays fast and loose with the Catwoman canon, the film’s official comic more or less hews closely to the script… with a few tweaks. Writer Chuck Austen dispenses with the film’s cliched “The day I died is the day I started to live” opener and most of the office scenes at the start of the film, and also skips the part where Patience-as-Catwoman gets revenge on the noisy neighbors keeping her awake at the start of the film.
But for the most part, the comic plays it straight, with a few differences. For instance, in the film Patience is flushed into the river by the villain’s main henchman, while in the comic she’s shot at by a uniformed guard and her limp body falls into a vat to be swept out into the river. Plus the book skips the sleeping on a shelf/eating tuna from cans montage the film uses to show she’s now reborn as a cat-woman.
The book’s biggest sin, though? Cutting out the big Ferris wheel rescue scene. Because you can’t call yourself a Catwoman film without a big Ferris wheel rescue scene, is why! /s
Verdict: It’s a close enough adaptation of the film for any fans who might be out there, and artists Tom Derenick and Adam DeKraker do a fine enough job capturing the actors’ likenesses. It’s probably the best a cat-astrophe of a film can ask for.
4. Richie Rich (1994)
The arrival of Warner Bros.’ Richie Rich in theatres in late 1994 was a bittersweet moment for fans of Harvey’s poor little rich boy. While the film starring Macauley Culkin was the character’s first-ever live-action outing, it also came out the same year that Harvey ceased publishing its few remaining titles (it had ceased publishing its comic line before in 1982 and resumed publication in 1986 with a smaller number of titles, including a revived Richie Rich book).
With corporate troubles keeping Harvey from capitalizing on the publicity surrounding its flagship character’s first-ever film, the task of printing the official adaptation fell on Marvel, which had taken over publishing and distribution for Harvey in 1994. (This explains why Marvel also published the companion title for the Casper movie that came out the following year.)
Marvel did two very smart things when it approached this project. First, instead of drawing the characters to resemble Culkin and the rest of the real-life cast, the editors chose to go with the characters’ “classic” look from the comics — a nice touch that gave fans of the older Richie Rich books one last hurrah while also making some of the “cartoonier” aspects of the film’s script easier to accept.
Second, they brought in the great Ernie Colón — a prolific Harvey artist, among many other things — to reacquaint himself with one of his more popular characters. There is never not a good reason to bring more Colón art into the world, and his elegant and expressive lines elevate the frankly mediocre source material that he and writer Angelo Decesare had to work with.
There are a few other, smaller differences between the film and its official comic. Cadbury and Professor Keenbean both appear in the film as major figures in the plot, but the other members of the Rich household staff appear only as extras, with Irona the robot maid notably absent (presumably for budget reasons). The comic brings them back, albeit in non-speaking cameos.
The film’s product placement (most notably scenes showing the mansion having its own McDonald’s restaurant) is also nowhere to be seen in the comic, plus the celebrity cameos by Reggie Jackson and Claudia Schiffer are MIA (thankfully in Schiffer’s case — I’m not immune to her many charms, but having a not-of-age Culkin make a pervy face when Schiffer shows up in his bedroom as his personal trainer is… unsettling).
Then there are the smaller changes that I presume were made because they weren’t “on brand” for the characters. In the movie, for instance, there’s a subplot where Cadbury, framed for the murder of Richie’s parents, shows up at the end of the film wearing a biker gang member’s clothing for reasons we needn’t go into here. In the comic, though, he never appears without his classic butler’s uniform, and the slightly slapstick way in which he saves the day is replaced with his usual comic-book efficiency.
But for my money, the most baffling change involves Lawrence van Dough, the film’s villain. Played by John Larroquette with the actor’s trademark snideness, in the comic the character is portrayed as an emotionally volatile schlubby guy who’s far shorter and chubbier than the actor’s lanky frame. And yes, I know I just finished praising Marvel for not capturing the actors’ exact likenesses, but… why did he have to be schlubby, guys? Haven’t we schlubs suffered enough without being stereotyped as cartoon villains? Will no one speak for the schlubs?
When Batman Returns proved a little too dark for the studio’s liking, Warner Bros. decided to go in a different direction for 1995’s Batman Forever. Joel Schumacher — then best known for directing thrillers like The Client and Falling Down — was brought in to direct, and he took the franchise in a direction that was more reminiscent of the 1960s Batman TV show. Despite lukewarm reviews, the film (thanks in large part to Jim Carrey’s box office power at the time) scored the highest-grossing opening weekend that year, and it was the first film ever to gross more than $50 million in one weekend.
A follow-up was inevitable, and Warner Bros. fast-tracked development for Batman and Robin. Schumacher returned to direct and A-listers Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mister Freeze) and Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy) signed on as the villains while George Clooney replaced Val Kilmer in the lead role.
It’s tempting to view the film as a giant “F.U.” by Schumacher. Everything derided by critics as campy in Batman Forever was cranked up to 11 in Batman and Robin, from the infamous “butt shots” in the opening scenes to the insane, neon-drenched production designs featuring giant muscle-man statues propping up every Gotham landmark. (You can almost hear Schumacher hissing in each shot, “Oh, you don’t like camp in your Batman? EAT THE CAMP! EAT ALL THE CAMP!”)
Regardless of Schumacher’s intentions, the end result was a movie that was clearly more interested in selling toys than telling a good story. (Chris O’Donnell later explained the difference between the two movies he was in: “On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.”) Box office receipts nose-dived 63% in the second week, and a proposed fifth film was scuttled, killing the franchise until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins revived it in 2005.
So, here’s the part where I’m going to say something nice about the film: Batman and Robin works far better as a film than as a comic book. Without the frenetic movement, swooping camera shots, over-the-top musical score and scenery-chewing acting competitions to dazzle the senses, the book itself falls flat, with the film’s flimsy excuse for a script stitched together by Freeze’s constant cold puns (though some of his better lines are skipped entirely, like when he grouses “I hate when people talk during the movie” as he freezes an interrupting henchman).
An example: when I first watched the film in 1997, I completely missed the line in Alfred’s illness subplot about him being at “Stage 1 of McGregor’s Syndrome.” This was apparently the most serious stage of the fictional disease, as he was literally on his deathbed before he’s saved. (So I guess Stage Two is, what, driving his corpse to the funeral…?)
Denny O’Neil does what he can with the story he’s given to adapt, and for the most part the book is a faithful rendering of the film. He does add one little extra, though: skipping the “bat-butt” opening credits entirely, his first page leans into the artificiality of the whole affair by starting with a director on a soundstage crying “Action!” while actors dressed at Batman and Robin recite their lines in front of a giant greenscreen.
I doubt Mr. O’Neil will ever cop to this if asked about it, but framing the story in this way — as a product of Hollywood completely divorced from the classic Batman stories told by O’Neil and other great Batman comic writers — is a very subtle way of disowning everything that follows. And it may be the most gentlemanly “F.U.” I’ve ever seen put to page.
6. Daredevil (2003)
Sometimes, it’s easy to figure out why there are differences between a movie and the comic based on that movie. Sometimes scenes that are cut from the film at the last minute end up in the comic. Sometimes the comic has to condense or omit certain parts of the film to stay within its page count. Sometimes the differences are stylistic — for instance, if the film is based on a comic, then the creators behind the comic adaptation might choose to tell their story using the characters in their original form, as we saw with Richie Rich above.
These types of creative decisions are easy to suss out. And then there are the adaptations where you don’t know what the hell was going on behind the scenes.
I’ll cop to it: I didn’t think 2003’s Daredevil was terrible when it came out. It was the early 2000s and we were all a little giddy about having any superhero flicks at all, so I don’t recall being too upset about the excessive brooding, over-the-top nu-metal soundtrack or questionable script choices like making Matt Murdock a most malevolent murderer of men. (Mercy!)
Looking back, though, Ben Affleck’s stint as a superhero (the first and only time, as he once swore) hasn’t gotten better over time, and it doesn’t help that another cinematic Daredevil (“Now with 100% fewer sensory deprivation tanks!” – Netflix) has since appeared to show fans how it’s supposed to be done.
For me, the biggest issue with the film is that it’s not sure what it’s supposed to be about. It hits all the highlights in Daredevil’s origin story and crams one of his most celebrated story arcs (Frank Miller’s Elektra saga) into the plot, but there’s no sense of what the story is really about.
Example: at one point, Affleck says “I’m not the bad guy” (first to the kid, later to himself) when he accidentally scares a little boy while beating the boy’s father. Dude… you’re wearing a devil costume while beating up his dad. In that kid’s eyes, you ARE the bad guy. The stark dichotomies underlying Daredevil’s character — sworn upholder of the law vs. vigilante, good Catholic boy vs. devil-garbed brawler, “helpless” blind man vs. terror of Hell’s Kitchen — has always been part of his story, but in the film they’re barely even touched on except as excuses to brood before it’s off to the next scene.
The official comic adaptation suffers from the same “what is it about” affliction (Affleck-tion?). Again, we get the same story beats: Matt as a kid, Matt loses his dad, Matt becomes a blind lawyer (he must have “blind lawyer” printed on his business card given how many times people call him that), he meets Elektra, and so on. But while the film (and book) takes Murdock from one plot point to the next, there’s no sense of hero’s journey, no introspection, nothing that tells us how this character grows because of what happened to him in the film.
Which is too bad, because having something to ponder might distract us from the more puzzling aspects of the book. For instance, why did Marvel decide to render all the main characters (Matt, Foggy, Ben Urich, etc.) as they appear in the comics — except for the Kingpin, who still somewhat resembles Michael Clarke Duncan? Why did they cut all the little bits of humor, like the way movie-Bullseye silences his nattering seatmate on the plane? Why did the comic leave out some of the more visually arresting parts of the film, like the flaming “DD” that Daredevil leaves at the subway station or Elektra’s training sequence?
Perhaps most puzzling is the final fight scene. In the film, Murdock and Wilson duke it out in Wilson’s office, a room that uses vertical, water-filled columns as decor. This works to Murdock’s advantage when he smashes one of the columns, drenching Kingpin and allowing Murdock to “see” him be means of the sounds of the water drops hitting his massive body. But for some reason, the comic has Murdock smash a large aquarium to achieve the same effect.
Artistic licence? Last-minute change in the film script? Lack of communication on the finer points of the story between the studio and the publisher? It’s hard to say. Either way, the end result supports the idea that — at this point in its history, at least — Marvel was still less than thorough in ensuring some quality control across different media channels. That would change soon enough.
My theory is this: I don’t think the guys in charge of the Superman comics in the early ’80s were big fans of Superman III. Why do I think this? Because I’ve read DC’s official adaptation of the film, and it’s interesting in the sense of what it doesn’t show us from the film.
As far as I know, the first two Superman films didn’t get adaptations from DC. Official “making of” books, yes, but no comics adapting their scripts. But in the early ’80s, with several other big-budget films getting their own comic adaptations, DC clearly wasn’t going to let the third movie starring its flagship character go by without a tie-in comic.
All the right people were in place for the Superman III Movie Special, with longtime Superman editor Julius Schwartz in the editor’s seat, longtime Superman writer Cary Bates handling the script chores and longtime Superman artist Curt Swan on pencils. Together with stalwarts Sal Amendola (inks), Ben Oda (lettering) and Carl Gafford (coloring), it was hard to argue that DC wasn’t putting its A-team talent on the project… which makes it all the more puzzling when you look at the ways in which the comic turned out differently than the film.
Just to be clear, Swan is in fine form, altering the look of the characters just enough to resemble the cast and doing a deft job of it while adhering to his inimitable style. And Bates earns his paycheck by hitting all the major plot points of the film — and dropping a few of the necessary ones, like the Daily Planet‘s wacky vacation sweepstakes.
But a casual glance at the Superman III comic suggests — to me, anyway — that someone in DC’s chain of command had a few notes about the “right” way to represent the film in comic-book form.
Exhibit A: While the first two films showed the iconic swooshing space credits, Superman III’s opening credits show a series of wacky accidents on a Metropolis street that eventually take us to a car crashing into a hydrant. The book skips the flaming toy penguins, tripping mimes and Clark Kent honest-to-God pieing someone in the face and instead goes straight to blaming the driver’s misfortune on an oil slick.
Exhibit B: In the film’s bowling alley scene, Clark helps young Ricky look good by “sneezing” in Ricky’s direction as he throws his ball, causing it to smash the pins into splinters. In the comic, the pins are only shown getting knocked down (which is, if you think about it, a more realistic outcome if Clark was serious about keeping his alter ego a secret).
Exhibit C: In the film, Surly Superman slugs back drinks at a dingy bar and smashes bottles with flicked peanuts before heading to his big battle scene in the junkyard. The comic skips his time in the bar entirely. (Similarly, the scene where Gus bribes a Smallville security guard with a suitcase full of alcohol to gain access to a satellite’s computer system is omitted, with readers instead shown a page where Gus does his hacking in a Metropolis office, with nary a booze bottle or giant cowboy hat in sight.)
Exhibit D: In the film, Pryor does a comedy bit where he’s regaling his criminal cohorts with stories of Superman’s exploits — a bit that ends with him skiing down a rooftop hill and off the side of a skyscraper while wearing a pink tablecloth for a cape. In the comic, Gus still wears a tablecloth but the scene is moved to his evil boss’s office, far away from any fake snowflakes.
Separately, any one of these changes to the script might suggest a simple desire to keep the plot moving in an allotted amount of space. But when you look at these omissions and changes as a whole, it supports the idea that someone at DC bristled at the more slapstick aspects of the film, and likely didn’t like their most valuable property — an idol to millions of children — presented as a drunk. I never knew Schwartz personally, but I can easily imagine him putting his foot down about that.
Honest? I think the resulting comic story works better than the film. It still suffers from the lack of a credible villain, but it feels tighter, Gus doesn’t come across as a buffoon mugging for the camera, and the focus is more on Superman than zany schemes to destroy Colombian coffee fields or control the world’s oil supply — and considering whose name is on the marquee, that’s not a bad thing.
8. Supergirl (1984)
It’s not really fair to compare a TV show to a movie. A movie generally has more money to invest in big stars and special effects, but a TV series — whatever other constraints it operates under — has the luxury of time to flesh out a character’s universe.
Take the Supergirl TV show, which recently wrapped up its fifth season. Over 87 episodes (not counting crossovers with other CW shows), the show has done a fine job positioning Melissa Benoist as the definitive live-action Supergirl, while also incorporating a lot of the Superman/DC mythos (including a few cameos from the big guy himself) into its storyline while staying true to the character’s roots as a symbol of hope and empowerment. That’s no small feat.
By comparison, 1984’s Supergirl is… a complete mess. While the filmmakers clearly took a few notes watching the first two Superman films, someone apparently swiped all the pages from their notebook after “blow big money on the opening credits” and “hire big-name actors for your mentor and villain roles.”
In his review, Roger Ebert praised Helen Slater’s portrayal of the Maid of Steel, noting she shared with Christopher Reeve the rare ability to wear a superhero costume and not look ridiculous doing it. But the rest of the movie, he said, trivialized itself with suicidal glee: “We look around her and we see the results of a gag-writer’s convention.”
That’s putting it mildly. The movie’s main villain, Selena, is an amateur witch portrayed by an over-the-top Faye Dunaway, who also moonlights as a Scooby-Doo caricature (a witch living in an abandoned amusement park with her sassy sidekick) even before the magical MacGuffin falls into her lap. This MacGuffin — or “Omegahedron” — is a source of immense power that just happens to sustain all life back in Supergirl’s home… town? planet? dimension? Does it matter?… and it’s absolutely vital that Supergirl find it before time runs out and everyone back home dies. So of course, once she arrives on Earth she decides she has time to enrol in school, hang out with Lois Lane’s sister and turn the table on teenage pranksters while her entire civilization has literally days to live.
Anyhoo… DC’s Supergirl movie special adapts the film’s script for comic readers, but discussing where the comic differs from the film gets a bit tricky when you consider the different versions of the film that are out there. The U.S. theatrical version clocked in at 105 minutes while the version shown overseas was 124 minutes (and that’s not counting the 138-minute “director’s cut” that came out in 2002), with those extra minutes devoted to such scenes as Selena hosting a party for her coven friends.
Then there’s the “flying ballet” scene, which happens when Kara first arrives on Earth and wordlessly revels in all her newly acquired super-powers. It ran longer in the non-U.S. version, but in both versions there’s no dialogue, just Supergirl dancing in the air and crushing rocks in her hand. The film could get away with having no dialogue in this scene because Supergirl’s movements and the score (composed by Jerry Goldsmith) carried the load; by contrast, the comic (which couldn’t use motion or music) fills the scene with Kara’s interior thoughts and spoken words to help readers understand her joy in the moment.
Now if only some of those spoken words could help explain where her costume came from…