Saturday, April 24, 2004

Criteria for Comic Book Movies Revisited

NOTE: This muse was originally published here at Gotthammer in May of 2003. I've reposted it in light of some new thoughts I had on the subject, and have updated the posting with what I think are the top 10 best superhero films as well.
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. Make sure you've got good villains. And by good villains I'm not talking about jamming three different villains into one film, as the Batman franchise became fond of doing. We're not talking about Arnold saying "freeze heroes." We're talking about Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jack Nicholson as the Joker (even though he wouldn't have been my pick, he still did a great job), and Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin. No hammy villains please. Camp does not cut it.
Bottom line for reviewing comic book movies: If you are reviewing a comic book movie but know nothing about the comic, reserve your comments about plausibility 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 never do that.
For the record, here's my take on comic book movies that followed my rules and rocked.
1. Superman the movie - not the sequels. The sequels broke the rules, big time. Superman getting it on with Lois Lane, losing his powers, chucking his "S" around, firing a laser beam from his finger...come on. The original however, was phenomenal, and remains nearly 30 years later, a classic piece of film, with maybe the exception of Margo Kidder as Lois Lane.
2. Spider-man - the first sign that Hollywood not only understood the concept of a comic book film, but the movie I had to eat crow about. Initial previews made me think it was going to suck. It didn't. And with the exception of the web shooters being a mutation, it stuck to it's source material very faithfully.
3. X-men 1 and 2 - both great films; Wolverine realized on screen...amazing. Someone might say they broke rule #3 - don't change the costume, but remember, that's only if you can't improve on it, and to quote Cyclops in the movie - "would you rather have blue and yellow spandex?" Also gets demerits for that atrocious line about lightning and toads.
4. Hellboy - this could take X-men out once I find out how faithful it was to source material. Hell, it might even knock Spider-man down a notch. Just a great piece of comic book movie. Breaks none of the rules to my knowledge.
5. The Hulk - everyone says, "they changed everything!" But what they're referring to was the TV series, which broke rule #1. The movie restored it. Sure, the origin was a little different, but the gamma radiation was still there, the villains were baaaaad, and the romance precarious but precious. I personally think Hellboy did a better job of the Hulk-like mayhem, but I enjoyed Ang Lee's take all the same.
6. The Crow - it broke it's connection with the source material in the final moments, but was overall a spectacular portrayal of O'Barr's dark vision.
7. Blade II - way more fun than the first, and way more like a comic book in it's visual style. Sort of seems like del Toro was flexing to prepare for making Hellboy.
8. Batman - sits at the bottom even though it's a great movie just because of the whole "revealing your secret identity in the first movie" thing. Stupid. Wouldn't have happened. It's a franchise. Do it NEXT movie. As for the sequels...there were high points, but mostly there was neon and overacting.