I’m on a bit of a comic book binge this week (it helps that Hollywood is churning out so many of the damned movies), and I couldn’t help but not with a wry smile on my face the internet response to the first pictures of Mickey Rourke as the villain (or “a” villian, given the ambiguous roles played by Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson as a business rival and catsuit-wearing spy) in the new Iron Man film. There had been a lot of gossip about whether the loud-mouthed Oscar-nominated actor would be playing Whiplash or Crimson Dynamo. From what fans are saying about the image (appearing below), it appears he’s playing a weird amalgamation of both… and a few more to boot. Though most of fandom appears to have taken this pastiche in their stride, there are a few cynical souls remaining out there who are a little ticked off to see these characters revamped in such a strange way. However, mixing and matching and distorting is by no means anew thing when it comes to adapting iconic characters to the big screen.
Just to start us off on the right note, here’s a list of all the characters (allegedly) composited into Mickey Rourke’s villain: his name is Ivan Vanko, which is the name of the villain Whiplash, who has energy whips (which may be visible inshot); he will apparently build himself an Iron Man style suit (evidenced by his glowing arc reactor heart), in the style of Russian legacy hero Crimson Dynamo; visually, he looks quite like Wolverine foe Omega Red, with his metallic harness; and his arms come out in metal contraptions quite like the weapons of Hulk opponent the Constrictor. This isn’t the only villain to which Iron Man 2 is offering a remix: Justin Hammer, a business rival of Tony Stark, is meant to be an old age pensioner, but in the movie he will be portrayed by Sam Rockwell (without prosthetics).
Understandably playing with established characters is a risky gambit and has fans a little uneasy. It’s very easy to look at the amalgamated opponent (a mix of abusive Daddy Banner and The Absorbing Man) in Ang Lee’s Hulk (for example) and say that it doesn’t work. Or to look at Tommy Lee Jones’ blasphemous Two Face and wince in pain (unless you’ve repressed the memory, in which case we congratulate you). Hell, Batman & Robin featured a depiction of Bane that still haunts my perception of a perfectly adequate Batman rogue. And then there was the Deadpool fiasco in this year’s Wolverine. However, I for one don’t mind that Mickey Rourke isn’t playing a character as exactly rendered on the printed page. I’d make the case that the movies you point to who have sucked even if they featured entirely faithful characters. Hulk would still have been too long and ponderous, Batman Forever would still have been too cartoony.
Perfectly faithful adaptations can be equally terrible. Arnold’s Mr. Freeze retained what is commonly-regarded as one of the best backstories in comic bookdom, but is still a horrendous performance. Dominic West’s Jigsaw is a relatively faithful adaptation of the former beau, but still chewed the scenery. Those movies were still incredibly dodgy despite their fidelity.
On the other hand, attempts by movie-makers to adapt familiar characters to the world of cinema (which is intrinsically different to the world of comic books) have on many occasions been well-regarded. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker didn’t have the bleached skin of his counterpart, but maintained his essence – with the character altered to fit within the confines of Nolan’s Batverse. The William Stryker of X-Men II was a military man with a link to Wolverine, rather than a televangelist pastor, but he still remains one the franchise’s stronger villains. The Doctor Octopus of Spiderman II was given a more tragic origin than he’s had during his time in comicdom, and most fans embraced it as the origin story that they prefered. Sure, the fan-favoured Mr. Freeze origin quoted above was retroactively added to the comic when it was drafted for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
Even those ignore the truly risky changes. Take the Penguin as presented in Batman Returns. There’s a reason many Batman fans don’t treat that movie as a Batman story. Still, I think that Tim Burton created an iconically creepy and unique villain that worked within the world he had established. I consider DeVito’s Penguin to be one of the actor’s most interesting creations and found that the presentation added depth to what had been one of the more shallow of Batman’s A-List rogues (he’s short… and fat… and wears a monicle… and he carries an umbrella… and he likes birds?). I was quite pleased when this model carried over on to other onscreen representations of the character. Yes, I’ll acknowledge that the changes ticked off the fans, but these were wholesale changes that are nothing like those that appear to have been made to Mickey Rourke’s character. If he has a squadron of Iron Monkeys, maybe you have a case.
I guess it all boils down to trust. Christopher Nolan has changed the presentation of nearly all of the rogues he presented in his Batman series (Ra’s Al Ghul trained Batman and is caucasian? The Scarecrow ran Arkham? Mr. Zsasz worked for the mob? The Joker applies his make-up and robs drug dealers?), but nobody really cares – because he has the trust of his fandom. I expected that Jon Favreau would have held the faith of his own fanbase, but I suppose it’s in the nature of fans to freak out.
Sure, remember the furore when hunky Heath Ledger was cast as the Clown Prince of Crime?
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | adapting characters, backlash, batman & robin, Christopher Nolan, comic book movies, crimson dynamo, iron man 2, jon favreau, Mickey Rourke, Movies, mr. freeze, the penguin, whiplash