Monday, April 29, 2013

Universal Comics Movieverse 1

1: Analyze the Source Material

Saddening as it is I suppose I have to bow to reality and accept that comic books are less and less likely to be the primary vehicle for super-heroic adventures. The blockbuster movies that we had hoped for for so long have swallowed the comics whole and now much of the Marvel and DC heroes are much better known for their screen exploits than their page ones. (Plus as a child of the 70’s it’s been a long time since the big two publishers have produced something that strikes my fancy he way that the mid 70’s to late 80’s comics did – too much of it is decompressed and occasionally incomprehensible to me. Call me an old fuddy-duddy if you like.) Those movies, increasingly popular and no longer sneering at their source material, have become the way new gamers know the genre, and so I must turn my attention to adapting that to gaming.

OK, “Must” might be a little strong, but I’m going to anyway. Not least because I once got blindsided in a game that I’d pitched as being “Like the X-Men” and several of the players only knew the movies and had a very different genre sense.

Which movies am I talking about films that actually made it into ‘series’; the operating premise being that if it didn’t spawn a sequel then it probably wasn’t terribly good. That means:
Superman I-IV, Supergirl, Superman Returns
Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin
Batman Begins, the Dark Knight, the Dark Knight Rises
X-Men, X2, X-Men First Class
Spider Man 1-3
Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: the Rise of the Silver Surfer
Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: the First Avenger, The Avengers

There are several key differences between the comic book and movie versions of the supers genre based on these:

1) Focus: While the comic books have wild and wooly shared universes with overlapping origin stories the movies don’t. In the movies there is one type of origin for all super-type people. Let’s go back to the modern granddaddy of the super-hero movie, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies: every super-human thing in those films came from Krypton. Even the absurd evil witch from Supergirl was powered by the Kyrptonian Omnihedron. Even the execrable Nuclear Man from Superman IV was grown from a strand of Superman’s hair. (The only thing that might qualify otherwise is Gus Gorman’s computer programming skills, and that’s a real stretch.)

This pattern will hold true for all almost all the others: everyone in the Batman movies is traumatized with tech; everyone in X-Men is a mutant (no Shi’ar for you!), Doctor Doom got cosmic-ray powers in the same outer space event as the FF, and so on. Unless I’m missing something the only stand outs are the Sam Rami Spider-Man movies where Spider-Man siddred from genetically altered spider venom, Green Goblin is tech and bio-chem exposure, Doc Ock falls victim to a flawed microchip, Venom is an alien and Sandman is a radiation accident. Then again, Sam Rami is a bona fide comics geek.

“But what about the Marvel Avengers movies?” you may ask. Nope, those all have ‘high tech’ origins, and most of them tie back to Asgard. Tony Stark is son of Howard Stark, who did weapons research with the SSI reverse engineering the Asgard powered tech from Arnim Zola and Red Skull. Bruce Banner’s work was part of the super-soldier projects that were trying to recreate Captain America, as was Abomination. Rather than being a nurse Jane Foster is an astro-physicist who spends all of Thor explaining how the Asgardians, including Loki, are merely using tech that we can’t (yet) understand rather than magic. Hawkeye, rather than being a carnival archer who was lured into crime and then turned to heroism is a professional SHIELD spy/ assassin, and SHIELD itself is the outgrowth of the SSI from its time fighting Hydra. Mandarin classically gets his power from 10 ‘so high tech its magic’ rings salvaged from an spaceship and with Marvel’s desire to focus the next set of films on the cosmic parts of their franchise they’ll stray too far from that; more likely they’ll tie that in with the Thanos teaser from Avengers.

Mind you I am not necessarily complaining. This uniformity can make the world feel more real, which seems to be a big issue in the movies where the producers see a limit on how much the audience is going to accept, so everything from the heroes’ broader background is shifted into a single theme or metaphor. (More on that later.)

2) Team Rules: Marvel’s the Avengers shows that the movie team (of which this film franchise is a new paradigm) has the same issues that such a team has in comics: to wit, the team is made up of heroes of differing power levels and the heroes don’t use all of the resources they had in the solo movies in the team movie. I have some methods to address this that apply to games designed around both comics and movies.

3) Easter Eggs: Movies will mine extensively from the comics for jokes and Easter Eggs but will repurpose anything significant to fit the movie’s origin story (see 1, above). This carries its own joys and frustrations: we get the nice joke of how Thor gets tagged with the name Don Blake in a way that’s meaningful to the fans who know who Don Blake is; it also means we never get to see any of the plots that grew out of Thor sharing a body with a lame (as in he needed a cane, not that he was a dumb character) human doctor. The latter is a somewhat goofy thing, already abandoned in the comics, of the sort of goofy that the more ‘serious’ movie versions of heroes can’t tolerate. While Rocket Raccoon will make an appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy I guarantee you that he won’t be a policeman from a world of uplifted animals created to tend to the amiable bedlamites of the starship Gideon, but we may very well see a Gideon’s Bible in his room.

4) Death: The movies are more likely to kill villains than the comic books are. For various reasons the comics chose to lock up villains and have them return while in the movies the villains die at the end with disturbing frequency. Not always, of course: Lex Luthor is sent back to prison at the end of each Superman movie, though the Phantom Zone Villains likely died at the end of Superman II. In the Batman and Spider-Man movies start running out of villains due to the corpses lying around.

In practical terms this just means that the GM should be amenable to the big villain’s big plan ending with the “moment of dawning realization of their upcoming death” that became such the thing to do in the 1990s. Or the villain’s Heroic, Noble Sacrifice once they, too late, realize the error of their ways. Or feel free to give the villain an ironic death. But the big thing to keep in mind is that players weaned on movies are much less likely to abide by the ‘super-heroes don’t kill’ rule – in comics we see Iron Man leave battlefields filled with unconscious foes, while the movie’s Stark leaves Ten Rings corpses in his wake.

5) Scope: There are no mid-range crimes. There are the big threats around which the movie is focused (Green Goblin’s explosive crime spree, Doc Ock’s city threatening mad science) and there are random street crimes that we see the heroes foil but there are no middle level “Shocker is robbing jewelry stores” level threats. If someone has powers, BTW, or is crazy enough to put on a costume, they are defined as the big threat, and their plan has huge city/world changing consequences (or is specifically targeted to destroy the hero). Thor stands out from this in that the thing at risk is a small New Mexico town… and the whole of Asgard and Jointenheim. Ok, scratch that.

This is very different from the comics where there are lots of second string villains who flesh out the heroes’ rogues gallery. They fill all the issues between the big stories, or act as ‘filler’ for the passage of time, unwittingly distracting the heroes from the big villain’s master plans. Movies don’t have that luxury, so while they will often have more than one villain (reason in #4) those villains will ultimately share a plan. Movies are just too big, limited in run time and costly for them to have a thrown away act with Shocker or Paste Pot Pete.

6) Origin Stories: the Movies love them some origin stories. Origin stories make predictable through lines for both the hero and villain. Since they don’t have the hero’s origin story to do in the second movie they flounder around and end up with introducing two villains so we can get a pair of origin stories. This tends to be a lot of screen filler and pushes together two villains who in the comics have little reason to work together and in the movies have even less of one – with one of the villains sometimes being a subordinate ‘hero’ of the film (the Catwoman through line in Batman Returns could easily be its own movie with Schreck as the prime villain… and have been miles better than the actual Catwoman film. But I digress). Screenwriters can also introduce new heroes to fill the origin story gap, introducing kid sidekicks, new team members or both.

Other times the hero has to redo their origin story through the second act, losing their powers and having to regain them in addition to the usual crises of faith that the heroes ‘must’ experience between the ritual ass kicking and the big comeback: Superman giving up his functional godhood to be with Lois in Superman II, Parker’s PTSD power loss in Spider-Man 2, Stark synthesizing a new power source for new armor in Iron Man 2. Comic books don’t do this. Yes, you can often find a sentence or two recap of the heroes’ origin each issue, or the creation of a new villain, but months can pass without the plot being centered around any sort of origin event. If we’re going to try to capture how supers appear on film we’ll have to work that in.

As with the last time I tackled Supers as a genre I won’t be building a new system because there are eleventy-skillion supers games. Being a die-hard Villains & Vigilantes fan I’ll work it out there (and building on my comments from February). I will also again be dual tracking it, this time the classic Hero Games Champions mechanics. I hope my ‘mechanics’ are a theoretical framework that can be layered over existing game engines rather than a Margaret Wies’ Productions media genre meta-rebuilds (Smallville and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying). No offense to those, but I prefer to stick to older supers engines. 

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