The spiritual father of Marvel's Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk aren't necessarily who you might expect. At today's Adapting Comics To Screen panel, Stan Lee may have been happy to accept his share of the glories, but Incredible Hulk screenwriter has someone much more recent in mind: Ultimates writer Mark Millar.
The secret to successfully taking superheroes into other media, according to everyone on the panel - Lee, Penn and Iron Man screenwriter Mark Fergus - was to treat action as secondary to character; a lesson learned by Lee during the 1970s Spider-Man TV show:
That was the worst thing ever made! When I saw the first episode, I called a meeting at CBS and said "There's no characterization, there's no way you can care about the characters," I said, "There's no story there!" The next day, the director sent me a note and said "I very much appreciate the things you said, but I cannot fly by the seat of Stan Lee's pants." And the show got cancelled. You have to believe in the characters.
Sadly for moviemakers, Penn still thinks that the comics get it right more often than the movies - One comic in particular:
I have to be honest, when I read The Ultimates, that really changed my thinking. When I read that stuff, I thought, wow, we're really not giving this stuff enough credit. There's a whole other level of realism that we're not getting at. I thought Mark Millar had somehow tapped into what Stan was doing all those years ago and made it real.
Millar may, in fact, be helping out on the next few Marvel movies; Penn made reference to a group of Marvel writers that he couldn't name (but were "the guys who I admire who are writing the great comic book stuff") that are working with him and Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige to plan the story arc lacing through Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, which are being planned with a strong continuity and storyline running through them. Such experiences, he explained, are unusual in an industry that still, for the most part, doesn't understand comics:
It's incredibly frustrating to deal with some studios who don't like the comic books, who don't like the fans, who don't like me... Or themselves. In Hollywood, when you talk about comic books, they think you're talking about Archie. A lot of these people think that comic books are silly, and they think they're supposed to be silly. And then you get people like Sam Raimi who come along and say, that's comics pre-Stan Lee, you obviously haven't read comics in the last thirty years. It's just stupid, they don't really know the form. And if they did, they'd know that they could make it as smart as possible because the comics are smart.
The ever-enthusiastic Stan Lee, however, sees the future of comic book movies as being very bright:
People ask me, how long will there be superhero movies. As long as there are writers like these two guys who write this stuff like it's Citizen Kane and not like some silly fluff, there will always be superhero movies.
'Nuff said, Stan.