REEL LIFE ANDREW COLMAN ranks the good, the bad and the indifferent from the vast crop of comicbook movies which have been released between 1992 and 2013
Ah, comic book movies. Movies based on comic books. Two-dimensional four-color images beloved and treasured by baby boomers turned into bombastic two-dimensional celluloid merchandise aimed at the children they used to be. The fuel for countless chat room arguments, the commercial apotheosis of the medium, the inevitable and invariable disappointment. So many fans with their unique vision of how the film should be, and the gulf between their transcendent imaginings and the cold, mechanical version hastily assembled by a retinue of disinterested journeymen, helmed by an overpaid auteur director (more often than not) who may not have ever been concerned with the source material in the first place. Or even like comics. And yet fandom unquestionably would rather they were there. Until as recently as the early noughties there had been very little in the way of high-production event movies featuring our favourite comic characters – diehard fans had until then been starved of such entertainment, being forced to make do with sitting through the two decent Christopher Reeve Superman flicks, as well as Tim Burton et al’s increasingly shambolic and ludicrous Batman franchise. And where in Midgard was Marvel? Apart from a particularly pedestrian (and no-budget) Spider-Man film the publisher didn’t seem to care about the commercial possibilities of a properly made screen transfer. And shoestring, mostly straight to video offerings like Dr. Strange, 1990’s Captain America, the Punisher and Howard The Duck certainly did the company no favours either. Clearly there was a demand for a big budget version of a Marvel hero, and with technology having finally caught up with the concepts outlined in the comic version, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man from 2002 raised the bar and proved to be the watershed, the catalyst for a decade’s worth of comic-based projects to come. The muchmaligned medium was finally to be the belle of the cinematic ball, its supporters and enthusiasts validated for their long-term marginalized devotion. Not that it was that monolithic an art form of course – there have been a raft of excellent non-spandex movies, a few of which, such as Ghost World, will be spotlighted in the lists that follow. And these lists are far from comprehensive – there have been far more comic movies released since 1992 than you would assume the marketplace could stand. Whittling the list down to thirty meant focusing on those movies that represented the best, the most archetypal, and indeed the very worst of the crop.
Elektra (Rob Bowman, 2005)
Another spin-off that never should’ve seen general release, this production concerns itself with Daredevil’s love-interest (Jennifer Garner) being revived only to assume her career as an assassin for a cartel she quickly betrays. Regardless of all the elements imported from Frank Miller’s Eastern-influenced comic series, this film never rises above the level of a T.V. movie, with wooden, arch performances, a stilted script, and the usual amount of coincidences undermining credibility. At the time the lowest grossing Marvel film since Howard The Duck, the production is quintessential in its humourless, generic blandness – like many a superhero film it’s a study in logistics, but unlike other features, it has nothing else to speak of or recommend it.
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)
The first Iron Man film was a breath of fresh air for super-hero films – an instantly entrenched franchise, coupled with a top tier actor in the lead role and a deft,knowing script meant that the entertainment on offer was always going to be decent. The follow-up however suffers from the usual sequelitis – Favreau clearly assumed that audiences would want more of the same, and to be fair he was right. But what was produced was lazy, workmanlike and far too reliant on (and indulgent with) sfx and overwrought action sequences. The lead villain, played with some relish by Mickey Rourke, is presentable enough yet his motivation is never made clear, whilst the battle segments between Stark and his friend Rhodes or the finale between him and Rourke’s Vanko have all the brio and cinematic splendour of a video game, and are confusing with it. Meanwhile Scarlett Johanssen’s functional Black Widow is little more than a plot device, as if you didn’t know. Not as bad any of the other films on this blacklist, but with such dashed expectation it deserves its place amongst the turkeys.
Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005)
Marvel’s breakthrough title has remained second only to Spider-Man in terms of importance in the publisher’s canon – a classic Silver Age series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that helped redefine comics and dazzled the reader with ambitious concepts and realistic characterization. And yet the movie version, wellmeaning and moderately faithful as it is, is as flaccid, childish and empty as those shoestring Saturday morning cartoons of the super-team so unbeloved by fandom. Again, this is a case of the filmmakers simply ignoring the differences between the two media and slavishly re-enacting the first several issues of the title, with a cast forced into emoting dumbed-down dialogue that only fleetingly captures the spirit of the comics. Like all super-hero films, convention dictates an origin retelling, but that essentially is it. Michael Chiklis’ Thing mooches around like a punch drunk boxer, Jessica Alba is quite definitely not the Invisible Girl, and Ioan Gruffudd is barely given anything to work with. Only Chris Evans, playing the Human Torch, looks to be enjoying himself. A film exclusively for children then – and maybe that was all it ever could be.
The Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003) Lee’s decision to
take on Marvel’s monosyllabic behemoth seemed like an excellent idea on paper – an arthouse director, fandom assumed, would provide a layered and considered representation of the character, lending weight to the Banner / monster scenario. What ended up on multiplex screens however was a predictably mannered and languid affair, culminating (after a decidedly long wait) with some admittedly excellent special effects that could not prevent the film descending into a weak and muddy climax. The cast, especially Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott as the leads, are all passable, but the expository scenes between them eventually pall, and by the time our jolly green giant makes his entrance you sense it’s all far too late. You can spot the loose plot strands and rewrites when at the end of the film Bruce’s dad David, played by a somnolent Nick Nolte, morphs first into one villain from the comic title (Zzzax) and then another (The Absorbing Man) with no explanation whatsoever. A missed opportunity.
Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995)
Tank Girl rode onto cinema screens on a wing and a prayer, an amateur project that ignored cinematic and commercial concerns and precepts. Adapted by the original comic’screators, Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, the somewhat overhyped movie was so desperate to come across as both likeable and hip that it forgot that those two components are generally bestowed by the viewer. Left behind in all the bluster and flashiness were a decent script andpacing, the actors hamstrung hopelessly by the creators inability to see the distinction between newsprint and celluloid (rather important, that) which left us with a superficial lead, resplendent in dystopian chic, muttering cheesy inanities at the rest of the cast. Difficult to be harsh with this homegrown project nevertheless, as the comic certainly had its followers, but its wholesale failure meant the end of Deadline.
Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)
Despite the generally positive reviews this production received on its release, including from Rotten Tomatoes, Tarantino and other leading lights, this film is a stultifyingly bland exercise that fails even as an homage to its more illustrious late 70s forebears. Despite all the talent and megabucks, the project resolutelyrefuses to come to life, with broad set-pieces, wafer-thin characterization and a lead actor (Kevin Spacey) clearly phoning it in from his Old Vic fiefdom. A shame as with a charismatic lead, naturalistic dialogue and a worthwhiledenouement (Superman and Luthor are onscreen together for about one minute) this could’ve worked. Overlong, with a half-baked, unwieldy plot, (Luthor steals Kryptonite to create a new continent in order to destroy the rest of the world) one wonders just how bad a film has to be before it is concensually panned.