Batman-ish: What Comic-Book Movies Are Missing

by Ivan Brandon

Let’s start with my bias: I write comic book scripts for a living. As a kid, reading Batman for the first time, I was immediately drawn to the idea of a man dressing up as a Bat to prey on the superstitions of the wrong guy on the street. As bad as the bad guy got, Batman was worse. Like a living shadow, he scared his victims — and maybe me, too, a little bit.

It seemed a natural for the camera to try to bring him to the screen. And like a Frankenstein in tights, Batman was zapped to life in various states. First Adam West, with a game-show-host voice, fighting crime in broad daylight in a world made of bubblegum. Next, Tim Burton ignored the trappings of the real-world altogether to construct his city out of the cinematic kitsch of bygone eras. Later, Joel Schumacher invented the bat-nipple and was promptly run out of town. By 2005, we were all older, and Chris Nolan built his dead-serious Gotham, full of noir tropes and pathos. I finally recognized that human shadow, pulling bad guys into the dark. When he showed his face, the audience sat up straight and you could feel the menace in your teeth. And then he opened his mouth and Cookie Monster’s voice tumbled out. When Christian Bale said “I’m Batman,” a little part of me hoped he was wrong. I’d heard the voice of Batman in my head — it’d drain the blood from your face — I’d waited a long time to meet him and he didn’t sound like this. But let’s be fair: who can live up to a child’s anticipation?

Back to that bias: writing comics is a weird gig. Sitting in front of a blank page that can fill up however you want, your sense of scale, of what’s possible — all of that gets irreparably junked. And with three comic-book movies out in just one summer, you can get a really good look at their limitations. Go back to their inspirations, and you can see how the screen versions feel smaller. They feel like leftovers, reheated. At The Avengers earlier this summer, three minutes in when it all seemed lost for the good guys, the sky opened up and the first thing I thought was: Infinity’s too small.

Comic books and movies are now welded at the hip, and with adaptations at an all-time high it seemed a good time to go back and look at where we came from and maybe looking back we can get a sense of all that’s possible. And for me the best place to see that potential is in the legend of Jack Kirby.

Kirby hit the infant comic scene in the 30s like a storm of ideas and an army of men. Working under a half-dozen assumed names in every conceivable genre, he could’ve easily been mistaken for a squadron of frantic artists, each one faster than the last. He started exploring the superhero genre with The Blue Beetle and from there went on to have a hand in the creation of The X-Men, Spider-Man and almost every part of what would later become the Avengers franchise: Kirby co-created Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and even Nick Fury. He created more in any given year than any ten guys that would follow. When he got drafted into World War II, he stockpiled an entire year’s worth of work to be published in his absence.

Jack Kirby didn’t have a hundred million dollar budget. He had a long weekend in a basement in Brooklyn with a grubby pink eraser and enough cigars to burn the house down. And he had bills to pay.

If he wanted a thing to explode, he etched the fire and the impact by hand and the people in the scene were knocked a half-inch from their deaths, the cars careening through the sky close enough to poke your everything out.

Because the most important thing he didn’t have — past budget and focus groups and 3D glasses — the thing that couldn’t tie his hands was PHYSICS. If a real car flying through the air didn’t look as great as he imagined, he could fix it. It didn’t have to be possible in life, it just had to work in his head.

And in that head, anything could work. He could bend reality in his hands.

Buildings tall enough to cast the right shadow. Fists that could shake the earth. A planet with horns. If reality was less than he needed, he’d get under the hood and rig it to be more. He’d fix the world itself.

He was defining a language, a medium. He had a story to tell and that story was bigger than everything around him.

Big as these movies we’re seeing this summer are, (and they’re gigantic): they aren’t big enough. It’s a world of limits: you can see the confines of the sound stage. The actors fall and fly with as much implied abandon as the safety guidelines allow. The magic doomsday gadget rips a hole in the ceiling and the universe rains through, just exactly the size of the hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars that built it.

And by movie standards it’s a full-scale invasion. But by the standards of the comic books these characters have lived through for decades, it’s a tiny molded miniature version of its inspiration. A playset, perfect and contained.

Even Andrew Garfield’s charm can’t live up to what it really means to be Spider-Man. A real human can’t bend that way, real gravity won’t let it work. He’s as great as he can be, but it isn’t as great as Spider-Man can be.

Sitting in that theater with the sound up all the way, I realized Hollywood isn’t built to sit there in the puddle under the sink and go at it with a wrench. They don’t have the freedom and the malleability to tinker.

Today, the comics industry’s seen as a sister to the movie industry, but she’s the sister who carries the mop. Or to use another metaphor, comics are seen as a farm. Scraps of raw idea to be grown and processed elsewhere for “bigger and better” things. Look at last year’s top ten bestselling American movies, and you’ll see that nine of them were sequels. Seven were adaptations from another medium. Out of the top 10 biggest films in Hollywood in 2011, not a single one of the stories was created there.

Hollywood has become a lumbering mountain made of red tape that absorbs enormous other-media worlds like Kirby’s and then distills them down for viewing with Parental Guidance. It took 20 years to figure out how to make Spider-Man into a movie. A distillation of a single piece of literally thousands of stories told every single week in Kirby’s world. The act of emulation drags behind the speed of Kirby’s creativity.

Now more than ever entertainment is a snake scarfing down its own tail. As the box-office records collapse, the comics are imitating the movies that are imitating the comics. We size our giants down to fit in the world they were built to tower over. We’ve removed the escape from our escapism.

Jack Kirby didn’t have instructions. He didn’t have the luxury of knowing how many pieces were supposed to be in the box. He had the time and space in front of him, and if those didn’t do the trick, he had that eraser.

He had the agility to tell a story past the scale of any movie in a week. And if he didn’t stick the landing, he slept it off and did it all again in the morning. The agility to tell stories fast, and on the fly, not over a year, but every single day. To tell the biggest story he’d ever told. Until the next one.

Watching the comic-book movies at the theaters this summer — The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises — what stood out to me at the end is that, as fun as these movies are, comics will always be better at that. Bigger at that. These movies have started with the result and worked backwards. They take the same idea and repackage it. It’s just a new format, abridged. Comics are their own perpetual inspiration-collider. Where the movies reheat your pizza, comics builds you a new reality to eat it in, new senses to know it needs a little salt.

We used to make things. Now we just reheat the things they used to make. The big screen’s become a microwave oven.

I grew up wanting to make movies. Watching these movies, I want to make comics.

Related: How Much More Do Comic Books Cost Today?

Ivan Brandon has written words for Batman and Spider-man and most of the Avengers. He’s also the creator of OFFSET COMICS.