Five major big screen changes to superhero canon everyone seems cool with

Whenever a book, play or even theme park attraction is adapted into a film, there are invariably changes made to the source material. It’s a natural part of making something that works in one medium work in another, and nowhere is this more prevalent than when comic books are brought to life on the big screen.

While many changes made by filmmakers are met with outrage from comics fans, some of them have met with no opposition to speak of. Heck, at least one has even come full circle and appeared in the comics it was based on!

Here, I take a look at five widely-accepted major changes to comic book canon that have appeared in film adaptations, and offer my take on why these changes were accepted by fandom at large.

5. Thor is just… Thor

Don Blake in Thor

Ever since Thor’s first appearance way back in 1962, it was established that the God of Thunder lived two lives here on Earth: one as Donald Blake (a medical doctor) and the other as Thor Odinson (a godlike being who smashes things with a magic hammer). In keeping with Marvel Comics’ tradition of physically frail alter-egos, Blake was mildly disabled and required a cane to walk. Conveniently, this cane was also Thor’s magic hammer in disguise, and when Blake struck it upon a hard surface, the enchantment would lift and both man and cane would be transformed into their otherworldly equivalents.

Later stories would expand upon this basic set-up, including the revelation that, in an extreme example of tough love, Thor’s father Odin was the one responsible for exiling Thor on Earth in a mortal body. But revisions and expansions aside, this was more or less the status quo going forward. So, while other identities and host bodies would come and go over the next 40+ years, the idea that Thor had a human alter-ego, and that this identity was Don Blake, was a fairly persistent one.

All this changed with the arrival of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor in 2011, however. Sure, the basics of Thor’s classic origin story are retained (Earth still serves as Odin’s naughty corner), Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is never confined to a human host body, but rather simply stripped of his godly power. Gone too is Don Blake, who is – aside from a cute gag involving a name tag – pretty much absent from the film.

This is a massive deviation from the canon – so why does everyone seem pretty cool with it? Probaby because it’s pretty obvious that including the Don Blake aspect of the mythos would only have made a busy origin even busier. By excising Blake from the story and depowering Thor himself instead, Branagh and the screenwriters elegantly captured the spirit of the character’s origin and emotional arc (arrogant god is forced to live like a mortal and learns to be a hero) without having to deal with the baggage of an extra character, which was clearly enough to keep fans happy.

4. Like Batman’s style? Thank Ra’s al Ghul

Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghul training on the ice

The Batman of the comic books is unquestionably one of the greatest crime fighters the world has ever seen. Over the last 75 years, it’s generally been accepted that the young Bruce Wayne travelled the globe to receive the education he needed to wage his one-man war on crime from masters of martial arts, detection, gymnastics and stealth (to name but a few fields; dude learned a lot, you guys).

While Bruce has been shown to have had a multitude of teachers – seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he studied burger flipping at the feet of Ronald McDonald – it wasn’t until 2005 flick Batman Begins that he was shown to have trained under bitter enemy Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins (or League of Shadows in the film).

Naturally, director Christopher Nolan’s choice to have Christian Bale’s Dark Knight learn from Liam Neeson’s al Ghul could have led to fan outrage. After all, their four-colour counterparts historically didn’t meet until much later in Batman’s career, but I never really hear any grumbling from Batman aficionados – and it likely boils down to how efficiently it works from a storytelling perspective.

By having Batman train with the League, we’re not only able to view the majority of Bruce’s training in combat, stealth and theatricality (just… just take my word on that last one) in a relatively short period of time, but Nolan is also able to weave the main villain and his scheme into the plot early on. It also allows him to establish the key themes of fear and justice versus revenge that will dominate the film going forward, so it really is a clever bit of business.

Faced with the benefits of such an economic display of storytelling, most fans probably just figured, “Bruce Wayne needs to learn ninja skills; does it really matter who teaches him?”

3. Jarvis is actually J.A.R.V.I.S.

J.A.R.V.I.S.

An elderly British butler with combat experience who serves as the loyal confidant to a billionaire superhero – who else fits that bill in comics but Batman’s loyal manservant, Alfred Pennyworth? Well, as it turns out, we could just as easily be talking about Iron Man’s valet, Edwin Jarvis! First appearing in 1964, Jarvis started out as Tony Stark’s butler and soon became the dedicated servant of the Avengers, after Stark donated his mansion to the supergroup.

Over the past 50 years, Jarvis has developed into a full-fledged supporting character. He’s had his own heroic adventures and developed paternal and romantic bonds with other Marvel Universe characters (although his romance has since been erased from reality as a side effect of a deal Spider-Man made with the Devil; this is something that actually happened). Throughout it all, during the highs and the lows (did I mention the bit about the Devil?), Jarvis has remained steadfastly one thing: a flesh and blood human being.

And then 2008 rolled around, and with it Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Here, Jarvis was re-imagined as J.A.R.V.I.S. – a disembodied artificial intelligence voiced by Paul Bettany (so he kept his British accent, at least) who assisted Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark with both his civilian and vigilante roles. Despite being a pretty radical departure from the source material, most fans seem to care this change about as much as Tony Stark cares about the consequences of undertaking hostile action on foreign soil: not very much at all (full disclosure: I barely even registered the change when I first saw the film).

I’m pretty certain the team at Marvel Studios were let off the hook for this revision for the reason hinted at up front: Jarvis shares so much in common with Alfred that audiences would feel like they’re watching something they’ve seen before. By making Jarvis an A.I., Favreau provided a fresh spin on the well-trod “superhero with a butler” trope which even comic-savvy filmgoers seemed to enjoy. Many fans also quickly figured out another benefit of the J.A.R.V.I.S incarnation of the character: it provided Tony with someone to have expository conversations with, without having to constantly cut back to an elderly gent in a control room.

Oh, and if there were any dissenters, most of them have since been mollified by the recent inclusion of a human Jarvis (presented as the inspiration behind the A.I., natch) as a character in Marvel’s Agent Carter.

2. Superman goes to Jor-El for advice

Marlon Brando as Jor-El

When Superman first burst onto the comics scene in 1938, one of the key elements of his origin was that he became Earth’s ultimate champion of justice thanks to his human upbringing as Clark Kent. For the first 40 years of Superman stories that followed, it was taken as a given that Jonathan and Martha Kent were the only parental figures responsible for Clark’s education on morality and social responsibility. His biological parents Jor-El and Lara didn’t come into it, and the young Superman didn’t really know either of them, let alone learn anything from them.

Things would change dramatically in 1978 with the release of Superman, in which Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel would receive extensive tutelage from Marlon Brando’s holographic A.I. Jor-El, as part of Richard Donner’s re-imagining of the comic book mythos. This revision proved popular enough that Bryan Singer would incorporate actual footage of Brando into quasi-sequel Superman Returns in 2006.

Even when Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel gave the franchise a full reset in 2013, he still kept the idea of Jor-El as the ultimate long-distance dad, with Russell Crowe filling the robes on this occasion. In fact, the “Jor-El as mentor” concept is so popular that it was even added into the comics canon (or at least, it has come and gone; Superman’s origin has been revised roughly 4,000,000 times over the last 30+ years).

So why has this change been so well received? Part of it probably comes down to the fact that the both Brando and Crowe have great voices which play well over trippy space visuals. But I think a bigger part of it is simply that most fans (or at least, those over the age of 25) grew up with the Reeve-era films, so Jor-El’s role in Superman’s upbringing is not something they’ve ever really questioned.

1. Professor X has an evil step sibling – Mystique!

Professor X and Mystique

A few years after the X-Men were introduced to the world in 1963, readers were shocked to discover that team founder and mentor Professor Charles Xavier had a supervillain for a step brother: the unstoppable Juggernaut. Since then, this familial relationship has been one of the few facets of comics canon that (to my knowledge) no creative team has ever bothered to revise, revoke or reinvent in some way.

When it came time to cover Xavier’s early years on screen, however, director Matthew Vaughn and the team behind 2011’s X-Men: First Class decided that it was time for a change. Early in the piece, we learn that James McAvoy’s Xavier does indeed have a morally dubious adopted sibling, only this time, it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, and he adopted her himself!

There’s probably an element of fandom that does hate this change, but I’ve not encountered it, and I think the reason why this one got over the line is mostly because it was so well executed. Like the comics its based on, the core X-Men film franchise concerns itself with the ideological battle between Xavier and former ally Magneto, as they try to deal with the persecution of their fellow mutants by the humans who hate and fear them.

Xavier is portrayed as the benign figure pushing for peaceful co-existence between humans and mutantkind, and Magneto is the more nefarious of the two, promoting a “screw all humans” agenda. To help add some shades of grey to the black and white arguments of these lead characters, the series has relied on a morally ambiguous character to round out the main cast of each film, with Wolverine filling this role in the first three films, and Mystique taking over for the newer instalments.

By making Mystique into a child of both ideologies, Vaughn was able to flesh out her relatively flat earlier characterisation, as well as continue to explore the themes of prejudice and alienation at the heart of the series. For my money it was this – along with the stellar performances of Lawrence and McAvoy (as well as Michael Fassbender as Magneto) – that ultimately sold the change to fans.


Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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