Saturday, May 03, 2003

Criteria for Rating Comic Book Movies

Roger Ebert make a statement in his review for "X2: X-Men United" that he can't quite fathom how Wolverine aka Logan, the claw popping mutant with extraordinary healing gets to be the main attraction in the film, since his powers really don't rate as being all that amazing. This is the same man who spent most of his review for "Pearl Harbor" going on about the lack of historicity, and for "Fellowship of the Ring" bemoaning that it didn't seem to stay true to the book in some aspects.

I suspect that most of the reviews you'll read about X2 that are negative go something like, "I just can't see how..." and then fill in the blank; ...mutants would be hunted, not made into celebrities, guy with steel claws gets top billing, any of this could actually happen, blahblahblah. Reality check - this movie is not about reality, so quit bitching about how it isn't possible for things to happen. I swear some of these people never played pretend.
If Ebert had done some more research, he could have applauded Brian Singer and his crew for doing what the movie world has finally realized is the key to comic book movies; stay true to the source. In the early 80's, we had Superman doing a mattress dance with Lois Lane which cost him his powers; as a child, I remember feeling cheated, partially because I had to watch so much kissing and pink sheets, but also because I didn't ever recall that being one of the rules about Superman's powers - magic, which is why Captain Marvel aka Shazam can kick his ass, and of course, the oft-sung about Kryptonite. Then in the late 80's and on into the 90's I endured Tim Burton's vision of Batman, which was only true to the comics insofar as the names and personas of the characters. Plot devices be damned. The Joker might have been skinny in the comic but we're going to get an overweight man to play him, 'cause it's Jack. And the Penguin might have been a cavalier-gentleman-thief in the comic, but we're going to have him be a deformed mutant who nearly bites someone's nose off. And sure Freeze should sound like an emotionless automaton which is something Schwarzenegger actually built his career on doing, but we're going to have him mug for the camera and deliver asinine dialogue. And Catwoman is a really adept thief with a few screws loose upstairs, but...oh wait, they got one right. Two, counting the Riddler.
The rules for comic book movies are simple.
1. Don't reinvent the wheel. In other words, stick to the source material and USE IT. If Superman has villains you haven't used, don't make up dumb ones like the Nuclear guy in Superman 4. Pointless.
2. Visual Storytelling is a comic medium which film should use. Show me don't tell me. If you need to waste screentime with expository language, you shouldn't be making a comic book film. For a good example of how this ISN'T done, rent The Phantom with Billy Zane.
3. If you can't make the costume cooler than it was in the book, don't change it. I think one of the reasons The Punisher sucked as much as it did was that Dolph Lundgren didn't have a big skull on his chest. He just looked like The Terminator with a lot of Brill Cream in his hair.
4. Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. If Bruce Wayne really had sex as often as the films implied, his arch-nemesis would be an STD, not the Joker. Superheroes are supposed to be good. The only one whose getting some is Spiderman, 'cause HE'S MARRIED. (Okay, I know that isn't completely true, but let's face it; gratuitous sex belongs in suspense thrillers, not superhero movies.)
5. Keep Joel Shumacher the hell away from your set. The man's some sort of neon and black light fetishist. He will turn Gotham into Las Vegas in no time flat. Do not let this man work on your movie.
6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Like history buffs, we're lurking in the theaters, noticing when Marvel comics guru Stan Lee makes a cameo, or telling our wives that "the girl who can walk through walls and other people is Shadowcat, whose real name is Kitty Pryde and she was real popular during the 80's when she was Collossus' girlfriend...."
7. If you are reviewing a comic book movie but know nothing about the comic, reserve your comments about plausability and plot until you DO know something. Saying that it seems silly that Wolverine be such a central character betrays an enormous lack of knowledge about how incredibly popular that character actually is. To make him fifth billing would be career suicide. And, it would be like saying Titanic would have been a better movie if the ship hadn't sunk.
Very few comic book movies have succeeded, and I think it's because they broke my rules. Sure, it could be argued that only digital effects have really allowed for these sorts of movies to be made and made well, but my issue was never the blue screen lines around Christopher Reeve's cape. It was the way he could kiss Lois Lane in the fourth installment and make her forget they did the humpty-hump. Use chloroform to achieve the same end and they put you in jail. Superman would just never do that.
Then along comes the first X-men movie, and they stayed pretty darn true to the source material. Sure, Rogue didn't join the X-men outright and was actually a team-mate of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants for ages before she ever came in, but the same guys who quibble over those details are the ones who are angry about Liv Tyler being in Lord of the Rings. The point isn't the details; it's the heart of the matter. For example, Hugh Jackman is a good six inches taller than Wolverine is in the comics. Do we care? No, because Jackman is Wolverine. Cyclops was a dork, Storm was aloof and goddess-like, Professor X was...professorial, and Jean Grey was...well, telepathic and not all that impressive, which is what Jean Grey was in the comics.
Now, in the second movie, the whole mythology of the X-men comic book series gets a tip of the hat; the script is not reinventing the wheel. A lot of the movie is culled from the whole "Weapon X" storyline. I remember reading how they got the adamantium into Logan, and feeling a little sick; suddenly it didn't seem so cool to have an indestructible skeleton. So or me it was haunting to have him walk down into the room where they first injected the adamantium into him. There was even the Barry Windsor Smith imagery of Hugh Jackman naked, having escaped the operation and slaughtered the base's security, staring at his claws, covered in blood and screaming in horror.
They let Nightcrawler keep his faith, his charm and wit(Alan Cummings portrayal of Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler is one of the best things about the new movie)and he looks like he did in the comic. Collussus shows up, changes into his metal form, and kicks some ass, and he looks like he did in the comic! We even saw Hank McCoy, the Beast in a cameo, that ever so necessary fanboy/girl moment. In addition (!!! SPOILER AHEAD !!!!) throughout the movie we are seeing Jean Grey's transformation into the Phoenix, and by extension, likely Dark Phoenix.
In the romance area, while it looked like they were going to break my rule about superheroe's shagging when they didn't, X2 gets full marks again. The Visual Storytelling I've already alluded to, but it was awesome. And near as I can tell, there was none of Schumacher's neon or blacklighting.
It was like watching a comic book. Lots of reviewers said that, and I would agree.
This is normally reserved as a derogatory comment in many of the reviews I've read on the film. Like that's a bad thing in this case. It's like having someone review Tora!Tora!Tora! and say with derision, "It's a historical film, and that's about it." Or "Star Wars" and say "It's a sci-fi extravanganza, if you like that sort of thing." Where do these reviewers get off in not reviewing the movie for what it isn't, instead of what it is?
When I say to someone, it's a comic book movie, what I mean is that it has multiple plot threads, the impossible happens, people spout one-liners and I enjoy myself thoroughly. This film is a perfect comic book movie. I personally liked it better than Spiderman, because Spiderman broke my rules of comic book movies and gave Green Goblin a big stinking helmet, hiding Willem Defoe's face and thereby performance from view. In X2, I got to see all of Nightcrawler's emotions through the makeup.
"Of the many comic book superhero movies, this is by far the lamest, the loudest, the longest." This from the Washington Post. I'll let you be the judge, but in my esteem, X2 may have been long and loud, but the lamest award still goes to Batman and Robin. And if you went to X2 and were a little confused, think of how I felt watching Tora!Tora!Tora! Wanna know more? Go read the comics! In the meantime, I'll be in line for X3.