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From Comics to Video Games: How Well Do Superheroes Translate?

July 9th, 2014 by Marc Comments

Throughout history, ancient civilizations grand and small have worshipped epic pantheons of gods and goddesses. Their stories litter our history books, where tales of heroes, villains, struggle, sacrifice, and the supernatural often combine to illustrate legends and lore.

Modern times are no different. With three films charted in the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time and two to four films regularly debuting every year, the superhero genre has become the new, modern mythology. Scrolls are replaced with comics and video games.

Stewards of these new superhero media platforms often ignore the source material; others embrace it.

Story 101
Comic books and video games, as storytelling units, boast a number aspects that keep them distinct from each other and most other types media (film, television, books, others).

Comics, regarding story, are both episodic and long-form. Four issues of a series maybe amount to one episode of television. But series last anywhere from four to several hundred issues, depending on a series’ cancellation.
Iconic heroes, like Superman and Spider-Man, have stories spanning decades. Their histories are near infinite. Video games, on the other hand, are not. Their stories are integral, secondary, or altogether irrelevant.

Comic book superheroes grow and evolve with time

Comic book superheroes grow and evolve with time

Most often, video game stories are finite and layered. Some comic stories continue for years; most video game stories last several hours at best.

These stories are layered, however, in that some games reward players who play optional content with extra, optional story. The games don’t deprive unambitious players of the core story; they just reward the ambitious with more.

Faithful story adaptation varies from game to game.

The Batman Buffet
Some video game writers refuse to stick with one story and prefer to sample many. With Batman: Arkham Asylum (for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC), writers embraced the vast mythos and created a storytelling quilt.

Featuring nearly a dozen of Batman’s greatest foes and a handful of his allies, the game condenses each character’s narrative into an easy-to-digest package. Aspects absent in comics, like voice acting, motion animation, and an enormous budget, afford games this opportunity.

Batman's greatest enemies in Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman's greatest enemies in Batman: Arkham Asylum

Not beholden to any one storyline, the game samples many Batman comics and even television show Batman: The Animated Series, bringing along its iconic voice actors. Every villain face-off evokes the character’s best singular story, so Arkham Asylum (and subsequent series installments) serves as Batman’s “Greatest Hits” album.

This anthology-style storytelling matches well with the open-world gameplay and ensures justice is exercised by the Batman universe.

X-amining the X-Men
On a scale of War and Peace to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, web browser games like Iron Man 2 Slots fall somewhere beyond the caterpillar side of the scale regarding story. Games like this don’t need a story; they just provide a cinematic dressing for a classic gambling game. Iron Man’s portrait might be accurate, but an absent story obstructs any faithful adaptation.

Iron Man inspires games like the Iron Man 2 Slots game

Iron Man inspires games like the Iron Man 2 Slots game

Other games, like X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (for Gamecube, Playstation 2, Xbox, and PC), take the “loosely based on” approach to storytelling. The original comics story “Age of Apocalypse” spans nearly one hundred X-Men comics and features alternate universes, time travel, and endless backstabbing.

Gameplay in X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse

Gameplay in X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse

A wholly faithful adaptation of the story would be a mess for the video game, so the writers boiled it down to its key parts. The game keeps the primary villains, Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen, and some core elements, like the turning of some X-Men into villains. It ditches the time travel and alternate universe for sake of clarity.

Although not replicated exactly, the story still features heroes like Storm, Wolverine, and Professor X acting heroically in character. Its faithful adaptation adjusted for a new medium.

The Cinematic Spider-Man
The final example, Spider-Man 2 for Gamecube and Playstation 2, examines the cross-section of comic books, video games, and film.

Spider-Man 2 stays faithful to the comics and movie

Spider-Man 2 stays faithful to the comics and movie

The movie, also titled Spider-Man 2, is very loosely based on the comics. In the movie, Dr. Octopus is a sympathetic role model for Peter Parker; in the comics, he is pure villain, among other changes. The film does, however, capture the underdog spirit of Spider-Man and his struggling responsibility to those he loves. The film is not an adaptation to the comics’ text, but an adaptation to their soul.

Likewise, the movie-based video game (featuring the voice actors) takes the plot of the movie and peppers in more of the comic book. Characters famous from the comics (Black Cat, Mysterio, Shocker) take center stage and expand on the cinematic universe. These decisions enhance the game’s textual and spiritual connections to the comics.

Video games absolutely cannot replicate comics. But, by honoring the adage “with great power comes great responsibility,” many superhero games pay tribute in new, interactive ways.

Marc is a self-confessed nerd. Ever since seeing Star Wars for the first time around 1979 he’s been an unapologetic fan of the Wars and still believes, with Clone Wars and now Underworld, we are yet to see the best Star Wars. He’s a dad of two who now doesn’t have the time (or money) to collect the amount of toys, comics, movies and books he once did, much to the relief of his long-suffering wife. In the real world he’s a graphic designer. He started Following the Nerd because he was tired of searching a million sites every day for all the best news that he loves and decided to create one place where you can go to get the whole lot. Secretly he longs to be sitting in the cockpit of his YT-1300 Corellian Transport ship with his co-pilot Chewie, roaming the universe, waiting for his next big adventure, but feels just at home watching cartoons with his kids….