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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December 14, 2009

On Not Watching the Watchmen

Zack Snyder directing Alan Moore’s Watchmen raises the intriguing question – can a right-wing director successfully helm the work of a left-wing writer? Moore doesn’t seem to think so, but then Watchmen is very unrepresentative of his work, perhaps he resents its veneration because it’s the closest he’s come to Frank Miller’s shtick. The quintessential Moore is really the impossibly clever allusive universe and absurdist comedy of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Greg Garrett noted that Moore’s Batman in The Killing Joke was more interested in rehabilitating criminals than any before or since and that the Joker was given a more sympathetic portrayal; hence Moore’s writing is distinctly left-wing, especially when one considers his nemesis Miller’s splenetic fury at that work: “I disagree with everything Moore did in that book….My Joker was more evil than troubled; Alan’s was more troubled than evil”. Watchmen’s author is a left wing lunatic (read some interviews with Moore – full of the right spirit, but barking), so it’s deluded to think it could be done justice by a man who produced a completely faithful adaptation of 300. Snyder’s film works wonderfully, as a comedy, so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast. The DVD extras confirm Snyder is a right-wing lunatic, because he in all seriousness put it together as a straight down the line action about freedom, not preposterous nonsense – a sort of musical comedy without music. Moore refused to be drawn on Snyder’s approach to Watchmen, pithily dismissing 300: “I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase rather than reduce them: it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid”. Moore you see detests Miller for being a right-wing lunatic. Miller doesn’t do rehabilitation of criminals, or shades of grey, and as his career has progressed his obsession with whorish females and stylised violence has become ever more repetitive, distasteful and shallow, even as Moore’s work has become more playful, intelligent and optimistic. Miller and Snyder mesh in a way that Moore and Snyder patently do not, it is a question of worldview.

Rorschach was meant as a parody of Steve Ditko’s ridiculous early 1970s comics character Mr A, a vigilante who saw the world in strict black and white morality and delivered savage beatings to anyone who strayed. Moore was parodying this insane Manicheanism. An insistence on dividing the world into good or evil, not only denies political reality and the existence of ethical dilemmas it is also (as Ditko soon found out from falling sales) largely devoid of any artistic interest. Moore was not endorsing Mr A/Rorschach’s politics but if Snyder directed 300, which may in time be come to seen as the ultimate cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of the Bush zeitgeist, does he not believe in exactly what Moore mocked? Moore gave Rorschach peculiarly phrased dialogue, an aural equivalent would be rather high-pitched – hysterical and psychotic. Synder’s Rorschach growls like Batman, which renders him heroic rather than damaged. Does Snyder regard Rorschach’s interior monologue then not as reprehensible but merely colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview? Even Ditko when asked about Rorschach replied “Oh yes, he’s like Mr A, but insane”. Perhaps Snyder failed to realise that Nite Owl 2 is obviously Batman…

Moore’s comic is violent but the presentation downplays panels of violence in favour of panels of characters talking to each other indoors. Not exactly blockbuster visuals, so Synder amps up the violence. This elides Moore’s satirical point about the comic medium’s need for violent spectacle, which is even more pertinent to blockbusters. Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre’s rescue of people from a fire is intentionally seriously lame, making the sex afterwards even more pointedly pathetic and indicative of some heavy-duty psychosis on Nite Owl’s part. Why then film it with slow-mo heroic firestorms and Hallelujah scored sex? One could argue that Synder has only one style of directing – slow-mo ultra-violence – but when a co-writer/director hits so many wrong notes by applying a ‘previously winning formula’ it points more towards the politics of adaptation: it is possible to be faithful in replicating exact panels of a comic-book but miss the point, it’s called not getting irony.

But why deliberately not watch Watchmen? Here’s why:

CASEY: Snyder’s Watchmen will be rubbish.
LIBERAL: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t criticise it.
(Casey goes to cinema, resumes argument with Liberal)
CASEY: Fine I’ve seen it now and it is witless trash, but then I already knew that. Why the hell does Hollywood keep producing such dross?
(Enter a Hollywood producer)
DELANEY: We only make movies like Watchmen because they’re profitable. If people stopped going to them we wouldn’t make more. You’ve paid to see two of Snyder’s films now so blame yourself for his next one getting financed.
CASEY: Hang on a minute, so I can’t criticise the film without seeing it, but if I see it I just guarantee more of the same. (beat, turns to Liberal) Are you two working together?
LIBERAL: I have no comment on the matter…

And so I will have no part in encouraging Snyder.

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