Two comic book adaptations have hit the small screen. One is filled with superior writing, sharp dialogue, witty banter, dramatic stakes, and villains who may well defeat our protagonist. The other is the usual crap CW pumps out. Let’s take a look at how comics can be successfully adapted, and how you can kill an entire genre in our versus segment – Superman and lois v. Resident Alien.
Similarities? They are two aliens, crash landing to Earth, adopted by Earthlings, who use their powers for good, while attempting to assimilate and learn to be more human.
And then it all goes wrong…
Superman has always been a difficult character to write.
A character with god-like powers but only a few weaknesses, one of which is Kryptonite. Irradiated pieces of his home world that was destroyed in whatever cataclysm the writers decide to make up that fits the story arc. Easy Bake oven left on high too long led to the destruction of the planet? Been there, done that.
And if you took the sum total of all pieces of kryptonite that have appeared on Earth and put them together, you could rebuild Krypton and have enough left over for a small moon.
Kryptonite was created when Superman became too powerful and the stories just became boring. Superman himself was known to yawn a time or two during his tales because what was the threat to him?
All stories require conflict to move forward. Imagine a 2 hour movie of sitting beside an idyllic river then, roll credits. Conflict gives us drama and something to root for. A protagonist cannot always win or it is not conflict, merely a series of escapist fantasy scenes. Weaknesses and flaws make the protagonist vulnerable, give the villain the upper hand, and give us something to root against. It’s Pathos, the emotional connection we need to immerse ourselves in the story.
And it was at this moment…I knew…the show was going to suck. Badly.
See, this Superman now has no weakness. He took a chunk of kryptonite to the lung and pulled it out looking no worse for wear. The writers could have had Luthor put it around his neck like a medal, stuffed it down the front of his belt, or superglued it to his forehead, but they didn’t. They purposefully chose to have him stabbed in the lung with poisonous irradiated material and to immediately recover. Even his uniform heals.
Kryptonite has always leveled the playing field for everyone fighting Superman to make the conflict two sided. It made him vulnerable to other attacks, such as Batman kicking the crap out of him. And a Kryptonite spear is enough to kill him, even if it is not to a vital organ. Kryptonite gave us, the audience, that distinct possibility that Superman could lose. It made the villain more dangerous and gave us something to root against.
Weaknesses are critical to story telling. But now Superman has lost one – this new ability to be stabbed in the lung by kryptonite and just pluck it out like an inconvenient splinter, leaves us with no threat, and therefore nothing to root against. Worse still, there are no stakes (picture of steak) and, therefore, no conflict, making the character boring and dull.
Look, even Superman is yawning again.
After all, when you have a character that can create diamonds out of chunks of coal, why would there ever be financial hardship? See? No stakes, no drama, no story.
Some will say “His wife and kids” fill that slot, they are now something to threaten him with. Congratulations you’ve now recreated the damsel in distress trope and you should have to take a 6 month break from the internet as penance.
Besides, with writing so childish and immature do we truly believe there is anything they won’t sink to save them? With so many time travel, alternate realities, and robots running around, any death is met with a yawn these days.
And how lazy are the writers? Well, they managed to recreate one of the worst scenes from one of the worst Superman movies.
Here he is flying into a nuclear reactor. Here he is flying OUT of the nuclear reactor to superfreeze a chunk of water. Here he is flying the ice back into the reactor.
I’m going to straight up ignore the physics of what would happen if you introduced frozen water at 0 centigrade to a melting reactor at 2000 centigrade. That actually made my brain hurt.
Here is the classic Superman III and Superman seeing the chemical lab on fire. Here he is flying OUT of the lab to a nearby lake. Here he is freezing the water with his super breath. Here he is flying the ice back into the lab to put out the fire.
Here I am asking the same thing I asked with I saw Superman III in theaters in 1983. Why didn’t he just use his superbreath IN the lab or the REACTOR.
Apparently another of Superman’s weaknesses is that he’s not the brightest bulb in the box.
I’ll tick off the remaining issues I have quickly. We’ve always been told that his costume is critical because it can perform with his abilities without sheering, tearing, puncturing or being destroyed. IN this case it appears to be puffy. He seems to have one of the those airjets on his belt that makes his constume look like one of those Halloween blow up ones.
Street clothes are not indestructible. Yet he’s flying at multiple mach speeds and his jacket is barely moving. I can’t run down the street without my jacket practically falling off my shoulders.
Here he is with kids, which raises a WHOLE level of questions that, quite frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Seriously. I’m not bothered he has kids. But that means his physical anatomy matches that of Earthlings, so when he’s stabbed IN THE LUNG IT HAS CONSEQUENCES.
But it’s what’s not going on in the story that has me so bothered. Violent crimes, such as rapes and murders, robberies and arson, happen frequently. This Superman is not the slightest bothered by it. There have been great stories written around the exhaustion and depression Superman feels that he can’t get to everyone, save everyone, but is constantly busy. Jim Lee’s For Tomorrow, The not that great but very interesting concept Superman: Grounded.
Speaking of great stories, John Byrne actually explored the origins of Superman’s powers. Hey, if you go lay in a pool and stretch your arms out, you won’t rocket to the other side. You need propulsion, so how is it Superman flies was a question Byrne was willing to take on and answer.
And in exploring how Superman’s powers work, Byrne arrived at a whole new crop of weaknesses and vulnerabilities that could be exploited that made for great storytelling.
But if you’re looking for real story inspiration, the greatest is Ultra Boy of the Legion of Superheroes who has the powers of Superman but could only use them one at a time. He has to strategically think what power to use in what order and win. Fly? But then he’s vulnerable to bullets. Lift that train up with super strength? Switch to invulnerability just before getting stabbed, but drop the train and kill the passengers. That would be an awesome Superman story arc. But not one you’ll see on the CW.
I guess what I’m trying to say is there are 83 years worth of great storytelling available to the CW for inspiration. And they ignore all of it.
So if Superman is so terrible, does that mean comic books just can’t be adapted for the small screen successfully? Au contrare mon frere, we have the amazing Resident Alien to show how you do comic book adaptations of fish out of water aliens correctly.
There is literally more plot development in the first 5 minutes of resident alien than the entire episode of Superman and Lois
The alien has only had a few months to practice in his new body and learn English from Law and Order television shows when police arrive on his doorstep asking him to help with a murder. It turns out that the human he has replaced is a medical doctor with experience in forensics and they are hoping he can help out the investigation.
In 5 minutes we are shown, not told, through action and natural dialogue that the Sheriff has a gruff exterior but not much to back it up, that the deputy is shy but intelligent and that the alien is under immediate threat of being discovered as he is forced to work with humans in a medical situation and has to bluff his way through a medical situation.
We are then introduced to the other major characters as the alien discovers that humans accept eccentric action at face value and don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s an alien as he fears.
One conflict resolved we are then introduced to two more. The first is that he needs to locate a device dropped from his ship just before it crashes and the second is a child who can see through his exterior.
This leads to the first moment of doubt in the series – can we root for a protagonist that is going to murder a child?
I’m going to kill that child.
This is not good for a protagonist. Killing children does not put you in …wait…what
Scene of kid cursing out Tudyk.
Does he have weaknesses? Yes, a lot. Not the least of which is his own ego.
We are introduced to the true villians of the series which are, quite frankly, the worst written and most two dimensional characters of the series. Which is odd because great series are made, usually, by great villians. But they appear merely as backgrop to the multiple stories, well fleshed out, and fantastically written.
How well written?
here are two exchanges:
watching body search.
Flawed characters who tried to escape a small town to pursue dreams but who were forced to return when those dreams did not work out. We want to watch them, care about what happens to them, and are engaged through rapid fire and realistic dialogue.
The tone of the show is an odd one, moving from laugh out loud comedy gold moments
To deep emotional character development
Crying in car
In the same episode without seeming odd or out of place.
And one of the most accurate portrayals of a native American reservation in recent memory.
And this is, ultimately, where CW fails every time. They do not invest in talented capable writers who can tease out character development and sharp engaging dialogue. They paint by numbers in broad strokes, dictated by story bibles written by middle school children of executives. If the writers of Resident Alien got ahold of a superman show, damn straight it would be well written, character driven and funny.
There was a time in CW’s past where that happened. We saw it with the first seasons of Green Arrow and Flash. Then it all went to hell and its just a lot of drama and connect the dots. And Superman is the latest victim to it.
Bad writing will have to be added to Kryptonite and Magic as another thing that can kill the man of steel.