WandaVision, Watchmen, The Boys, And The Cycle Of Comic Book Storytelling
As above so below, they say. And so as it is on the flat plane of paper, it is on the flat silver screen.
The new Disney+ show WandaVision welcomes its viewers with an innovative new world of comic book storytelling: introducing meta-fiction by showing that the show the viewers watch is a literal show that other characters are watching. But to us loyal comic book readers, this trope is nothing but familiar, only previously expressed on a different 2-dimensional medium.
The same thing can be said more aptly for The Watchmen HBO show of 2019, representing a hybrid of historical and science fiction with a touch of vigilantism, expressing the problems in society from a fictional light. To readers, the original Watchmen graphic novel far back in 1986 was arguably the origin of superhero subversion (that we are only now experiencing on the silver screen), implementing history, political tensions, and realistic super-heroics in beautiful 9-panel grids.
The last case in point being Amazon Prime’s The Boys, a more direct adaptation of the comic book with the same name, displaying a gory satirical dark comedy about capitalistic corporate-owned superheroes (not that far-fetched from our reality it would seem).
As above, so below
These 3 pillars of superhero shows could not have come at a better time. For in the realm of comic book paper, they too had arrived after the drawn out jovial sci-fi fantasy stories of the 60s and 70s. Saved by Watchmen, alongside The Dark Knight Returns and their more underrated ilks, the comic book genre was reinvented, and it would never be quite the same again. It is quite similar to our present circumstances, where camp is no longer in fashion, and crossovers are unsurprising. One may argue that it all started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, subverting the superhero genre from just a fun romp, to “cinema.”
Comic books, like any entertainment medium, have always been reactionary. 9/11 means hyper-serious tragic stories, success in DC means an unremarkable facsimile at Marvel, and success in Marvel means an uninspired replica at DC. And so it is with their film and television. Although I’d like to give them credit where it’s due, the Netflix Marvel shows are the grim grounded ones where DC usually stands, and the CW DC shows are more lighthearted sci-fi dramas where Marvel usually lies, reversing their trope on the big screen.
These shows, along with the end of Avengers Endgame and Justice League, made way for the rise of superhero subversion that we know today: Watchmen, representing societal realism, The Boys representing satirical realism, and WandaVision representing meta realism. These fresh takes on the genre came right after the Marvel boom and DC dark age, making great use of their tropes and subverting them for inspired original storytelling.
But no idea is wholly original, it is their way of developing these past ideas on a different medium that makes them a critical and commercial success. The idea of breaking the 4th wall and reality distortions started with books such as Animal Man from 1988, with another form of realism, where the characters in the comic are literal characters in a comic, breaking the walls between fiction and reality. Skipping ahead to the 2000s with overly grounded stories, heroes dealing with “real world” things like rape and tragedy, The Boys comic and show intentionally hyper-enhanced these aspects, including the hyper-muted colors of late DC films. And so in our post-Marvel renaissance era, where crossovers between characters are no longer a surprise, they still find a way to make things interesting. The cycle continues. What came after the subversion of tropes in the comic books?
What’s next on the big and silver screen?
I guess we’ll just have to keep watching.