'Big Hero 6' strays far from its source material -- and that's great
Big Hero 6 is the first Disney film based on a Marvel comic, but the marketing campaign isn’t making a big deal out of it. That’s by design—the studio intentionally sought out an obscure property so they could make it their own, free of any sort of expectation from audiences. This strategy shows in the final product: While the film’s characters do have comic book counterparts, they are very, very different from their predecessors. And the film is so much better for it.
The super-team known as Big Hero 6 only ever appeared in its own comic book series twice—first in in a 1998 three-issue miniseries called Sunfire and Big Hero 6, by Scott Lobdell and Gus Vasquez (although the team was created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau), and again in a 2008 five-issue miniseries by Chris Claremont and David Nakayama titled Big Hero 6.
While both series are about the same team, they’re radically different in style and tone. The first is a pretty straightforward ’90s superhero book—and since the team includes Sunfire and Silver Samurai, it actually has some pretty strong ties to the X-Men.
It’s the second series that more closely resembles the movie and stands on its own as a distinct work, thanks to David Nakayama’s manga-style artwork. You can read this story in its entirety on Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited service, if you’re a subscriber (the first one, unfortunately, is pretty hard to find). But it’s more interesting as a case study in adaptation—as the movie proves, there are some great ideas there, but the comics leave much to be desired. Let’s break down some of the biggest differences, and how they made for a better movie.
Location. In the comics, Big Hero 6 is a state-sanctioned Japanese superhero team. The film, however, is set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo—which is wonderfully realized and one of its most interesting facets. In addition to creating a beautifully distinct setting, swapping out Japan for San Fransokyo allows for the film to sidestep one of the comic book’s biggest problems…
The codenames. Hoo, boy. So, as Japanese superheroes, the members of Big Hero 6 should have suitably Japanese names, right? Unfortunately, the creators of Big Hero 6 decided “suitably Japanese” meant “name them after kitschy sushi restaurants,” because that’s exactly what the team’s roster reads like. Someone thought giving these heroes names like Go-Go Tomago, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi-No-Ginger was a good idea. Granted, some of these names were dreamed up during the ’90s—a dark time for comics generally. But come on, man. It’s almost like naming the Avengers after fast food chains. The film neatly sidesteps this problematic bit both by virtue of its new, fictional setting and also by ditching the latter, more racially-tinged halves of most of the nicknames—providing an in-story justification for each one.
The ages. While I’m sure The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe has this bit of trivia hidden away somewhere, there’s no real in-story confirmation of any of the character’s ages outside of the boy genius Hiro Takachiho (Hiro Hamada in the film; he’s 13 in the comics, 14 in the movie) — particularly in regards to the female characters in the team. They’re definitely older than Hiro, and not in school. But later in the story, they’re sent on a mission where they’re required to pass as American high school students—which becomes wildly problematic when Honey Lemon succumbs to the villain’s mind control, becoming a sexy vixen. Hey, there’s a good segue to…
The portrayal of women. Not only does Honey Lemon appear in her underwear the moment she’s possessed by the villain (who’s also a woman), but the female characters in the Big Hero 6 comic are really sexualized on the whole. Part of this is due to the manga stylings David Nakayama is paying homage to; part of it is because this problem is just as persistent in American comics. Still, not stating the characters’ ages in-story makes it all very uncomfortable. There’s also this subplot where Honey Lemon learns not to depend on her Power Purse, which seems like a bit of well-intentioned girl power that’s also hopelessly tone-deaf. We’ll take Go-Go’s new “Woman up!” catchphrase instead, thank you very much.
Baymax. The comic book version of Baymax isn’t nearly the scene-stealer he is in the film. A more traditional mecha-styled robot with the ability to change its appearance to look like a very large man (and maybe a dragon?), comic book Baymax is also Hiro’s invention, not his brother’s (who doesn’t exist in the comics). Everything about movie Baymax was invented whole cloth; Disney effectively turned a cool robot into a huggable beating heart of a character, elegantly externalizing the film’s themes of grief and loss.
Science, bro. While the comic book versions of Go-Go and Honey derive their powers from tech, their mastery of technology or science isn’t integral to their characters—and others, like Wasabi and Fred, are in fact straight-up superheroes, with their own innate powers. Making every member of the team a science student who builds his or her own superhero identity creates a more consistent team—and makes its members all the more admirable.