Batman and Ra's al Ghul

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 it more prevalent than when comic books are brought to life on the big screen.

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

In the following list, I take a look at five major changes made to comic book canon in film adaptations, and suggest why I think these changes have been more or less accepted by fandom at large.

(I’m sure that many of the more die-hard fans among you will take issue with my simplified synopses of comic book continuity below; but c’mon, it’s comics – this stuff gets really confusing really fast if you try to cover it all!)

5. Thor is just…Thor

Don Blake in Thor
Thor won’t be needing it anyway

Ever since Thor’s first appearance way back in 1962, it was established that the God of Thunder lived two lives here on Earth (or Midgard, if you must): one as Donald Blake (a medical doctor) and the other as Thor Odinson (a godlike being who smashes things with a magic hammer).

In the Marvel Comics tradition of physically frail alter-egos, Blake was mildly disabled and required a cane to walk. This cane was in actuality said 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, feeling that his son needed a lesson in humility, but that was more or less the status quo going forward.

Other identities and host bodies would come and go over the next 40+ years, but 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.

While the basics of the 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. I think the reason everyone seems pretty cool with this change is simply because it’s pretty obvious that including the Don Blake aspect of the mythos would only make a busy origin even busier.

By opting to excise Blake from the story and depower 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, and this was 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
Liam Neeson pretty much trained all your childhood heroes

The Batman of the comic books is unquestionably one of the greatest crime fighters the world has ever seen.

Over the course of the last 75 years, it’s generally been accepted that the young Bruce Wayne traveled 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 Batman Begins in 2005 that he was shown to have trained under bitter enemy Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins (League of Shadows in the film).

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, given that their four-colour counterparts historically did not meet until much later in Batman’s career, but I never really hear any grumbling.

The reason why I think everyone appears happy to let this one slide 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, as well as establish the key themes of fear and justice versus revenge that will dominate the film going forward.

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?”

(It also doesn’t hurt that the failed student-teacher relationship between Batman and Ra’s in Batman Begins isn’t a million miles away from their relationship in the comics, where they function as something akin to the Edison and Tesla of the crime fighting field: both promoting the same product and both prepared to have a knock-down, drag-out brawl over their preferred means of distributing it.)

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

It’s like Siri on steroids

An aged 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 found his duties expanded when he 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, and he has 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 remained steadfastly one thing: a flesh and blood human being.

Then 2008 rolled around, and with it Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, where 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 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 of existing lore mainly for the reason hinted at up front: Jarvis shares so much in common with the much more well-known 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, which makes for a smoother viewing experience (again, the comics faithful seems pretty onboard the whole “streamlined storytelling” bandwagon).

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

2. Superman gets his advice from his father: Jor-El

Marlon Brando as Jor-El
“30 is too early to be making life choices, my son”

When Superman first burst onto the comics scene in 1938, one of the key elements of his origin was that he was an alien with superhuman powers who 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.

(The Man of Steel would eventually go on to travel back in time to his home planet Krypton as an adult, during which time he befriended his parents and also got engaged to a famous Kryptonian actress; yes, comics in the Silver Age were both insane and amazing in equal measure)

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 (along with the general continuity of the Reeve-era films) into quasi-sequel Superman Returns in 2006, and 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 went down so well 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 the majority of 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.

I’ll admit it’s something I used to be rather fond of myself, largely for this very reason (until I decided that having Jor-El on teaching duties really undermines the whole “godlike-being raised by mortals to become most human superhero of all” side of things.)

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

Professor X and Mystique
Next time, maybe don’t adopt a random home intruder?

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 really 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 who do 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.

More than even the comics on which it is based, the core X-Men film franchise concerns itself with the idealogical 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.

In order 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 installments.

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, and this, along with the stellar performances of Lawrence and McAvoy (as well as Michael Fassbender as Magneto) really sold the change to fans.

There you have it; my thoughts on five pretty major big screen changes to comics lore, and why I think most fans have accepted them. There are plenty more out there, so please let me know your favourite, either in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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