Talking Movies

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

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May 9, 2010

Saving Superman – Some Suggestions

Christopher Nolan has been formally entrusted with ‘mentoring’ a new Superman film for Warner Bros (before 2012 in order to avoid nightmarish legal complications). This means he’ll be inundated with inane ‘The Dark Man of Steel’ scripts, witless nonsense featuring a fight with a giant spider in the third act (yes, Jon Peters, we’ve all seen Kevin Smith’s routine about your idée fixe), and disastrous attempts to follow on faithfully from Superman fighting a giant island in the third act… So, here are some suggestions for angles that might help make the original superhero soar again.

Clark Kent is the base of reality on top of which you build the fantasy of Superman, creating what Richard Donner carefully described as verisimilitude rather than realism. Why not really go to town with world of the Daily Planet so that it comes off as a bustling amalgam of His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men? Clark’s ability as a journalist has propelled him into the world’s leading newspaper – he doesn’t have to bring down the President but have you ever seen him do anything at that office besides fall over the furniture? It would be nice to see Clark file some copy… It would also be refreshing to see Lois Lane engaged in investigative journalism rather than just being in peril – how typical that she won her Pulitzer in Singer’s film for an Op-Ed piece. Jeph Loeb and Darywn Cooke write Lois terrifically because in their stories it’s her overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop that always gets into her danger: Lois is a ‘newspaperman’, she lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you.

Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. Lois sneered at Superman’s motto ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in 1978 but he reclaimed the phrase for righteousness – it didn’t have to mean Watergate in that film, and it doesn’t have to mean the War on Terror now. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics. Superman was released after the disaster of the Nixon years, surely any new film would tap into a similar shift in the zeitgeist of American self-perception?

As for the other side of the Supercoin enough with the shady land deals of Lex Luthor already! We don’t need a new rendering of Superman’s origin myth but it would be nice to re-imagine his first encounter with Lex Luthor to cinematically introduce Lex not as a dodgy estate agent but as a billionaire bent on world domination. What makes Lex the best nemesis for Superman is his challenge to Superman’s code. Superman could snap this puny human’s neck in a fraction of a second except he would never do that. Equally Lex would never be sloppy enough to leave any incriminating evidence of his wrongdoing. It would be nice to see Superman’s immense and growing frustration from being unable to expose or punish a white-collar criminal who he knows to be corrupt and depraved while the world only sees and sympathises with a noted philanthropist being unjustly victimised by an alien with the powers of a god. This is to say nothing of the potential for dramatic conflict if Lex Luthor was to run for President testing Superman’s code to the limit as the greater good would be imperilled by his moral insistence on bringing Lex to legal justice. As for sequel villains, Singer was unwilling to stray from the Donner template of General Zod, but if the preposterous Smallville was able to pull off a fine Brainiac when Steven S DeKnight wrote the part for James Marsters in T-1000 mode as the Kryptonian A.I., surely a similarly styled Brainiac can work as a filmic villain too?

All anyone talks about when it comes to re-launching Superman are the problems – from the blandness of Superman, to the weakness of Lois, to the dramatic inertia of invulnerability, and the scarcity of traditional super-villains with universal name recognition compared to Batman’s extensive Rogues’ Gallery. Would it not then make sense to hire comics writers who deal with these problems on a monthly basis? Mark Millar alleged two years ago that he had an outline for a re-booting trilogy. Ask him for that outline! Hire Jeph Loeb to do a draft of a script. Beg Darwyn Cooke to write a treatment. Contact Paul Dini, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Round up all these guys and stick them in a writers’ room in the Warner back-lot. Hell, even see if Alan Moore could stop filing law-suits for long enough to contribute some ideas.

Superman is tricky to pull off cinematically but if the thought of writing

INT. DAILY PLANET-DAY Clark moves towards the window and opens his shirt.

doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of some of these writers then and only then will the possibilities of re-launching Superman have been dwarfed by the difficulties.

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