For a year now, I’ve been doing my comprehensive look at all the live-action movies based on superhero comics in Tor.com’s “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch.” I started with Superman and the Mole Men from 1951 and the 1966 Batman, continued to the TV movies of the 1970s, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies of the late 1970s/1980s, the Bat-movies of the late 1980s/1990s, the halting attempts at superhero feature films and TV movies in the 1990s, and the 21st-century renaissance of superhero movies that began with 2000’s X-Men.
Some highlights from the first year.
On Superman and the Mole Men and Batman (1966):
What’s most fascinating, though, is that these two movies are the reverse of what you’d expect, given the general histories of the two characters. When we think of Superman we think of a powerful being who can juggle tanks and whom bullets bounce off of. Superman’s enemies are guys who want to conquer the world or cause mass destruction. Batman, meanwhile, has often been the “dark knight detective,” but even in his goofier 1950s days (the comics that Dozier was riffing on for the TV series and this movie), his stories were generally a bit more street-level, dealing with colorful threats to Gotham City. Batman was always far less likely to save the entire world than Superman.
Yet in these two movies, those assumed positions are reversed. It’s Batman who is dealing with the fate of the world as the United World delegates are dehydrated and turned into dust, with world leaders hanging on his every move at the very end. It’s Superman whose case is remarkably microcosmic in scale. It’s just a small town at stake (a very small town), and while lip service is given to the macrocosmic issues beyond the confines of Silsby, they never get that far.
On the Christopher Reeve Superman movies:
We’ve got Superman giving up his power and responsibility so he can get laid, we’ve got Superman beating up a bully for no compellingly good reason except for an immature “gotcha” moment that is unworthy of him, and we’ve got Superman casually letting Zod, Ursa, and Non die in the Arctic—in Zod’s case, by his own hand.
And then we’ve got Superman altering Lane’s memories without her consent. Not just once, but twice. You can argue that the first one was to save her from the emotional trauma of dating Superman (though that’s damned presumptuous of him) but the second time? He does it just so he can go on a consequence-free joyride with her and get her advice. To say that’s appalling doesn’t begin to cover it.
On Captain America (1979) and Captain America II: Death Too Soon:
As for the movies themselves, they share far more DNA with various action-adventure shows of the era (both before and after they aired) than they do any comic book version of Cap. The hero who goes off and saves the world while working for a fictional agency that is either part of the government or at least vaguely sanctioned by it, with a couple of people (usually one man and one woman, but not always) as his support structure. It’s the same formula as Wonder Woman, The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, Airwolf, MacGyver, and others.
Which makes these decent action-adventure shows, I guess, but never at any point does this feel like Captain America. More than any other hero, Cap has always been tied to a particular time and place: World War II. A skinny, sickly kid from the lower east side of New York (NOT BROOKLYN!!!!!) who volunteers for an experiment to improve his physique so he can fight Nazis. Tellingly, every other adaptation of Cap into live action will have this (not just the recent Chris Evans films, which felt the need to move him to Brooklyn for no compellingly good reason, but also the 1990 film with Matt Salinger, all of which we’ll tackle in due course).
The basic plot of Supergirl is okay, but the details are a mess. Where is Argo City, exactly? How did it survive the destruction of Krypton? How do they know that Kal-El is on Earth, calling himself both Clark Kent and Superman? Why does Kara feel the need to enroll in a school? Even leaving the school aside, what’s the point of the Linda Lee identity? Why does she insist on being nice to Ethan when he’s a creep (even though he’s mostly a creep to her because he’s been magically roofied by Selena)? Why can’t Selena figure out that Linda Lee is Supergirl when she’s using her magic mirror to spy on her constantly, including at least two occasions when she changed from one to the other? How drunk was Peter O’Toole when he was acting in this, anyhow?
On Swamp Thing and The Return of Swamp Thing:
Most of what you need to know about these two movies is established by the director credit. Wes Craven is one of the great horror film directors, and most of Jim Wynorski’s credits are soft-core porn comedies. Also Wynorski got his start as a protégé of Roger Corman.
Not that there’s anything wrong with soft-core porn comedies in the right context, but The Return of Swamp Thing is just a slog. Every bad 80s movie cliché is present and accounted for: bad guy with foreign accent, cheesy dialogue, dumb guys in mullets, attractive women with big hair and tons o’ cleavage, a not-really-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think animal that comments on the action (in this case a parrot named Gigi), two nowhere-near-as-cute-as-the-filmmakers-think children, a high body count, and tons of explosions.
Swamp Thing is much more fun to watch, mainly because for most of the movie, it isn’t really about Alec Holland or Swamp Thing, it’s about Adrienne Barbeau’s Alice Cable, who is awesome. She holds her own and more with the dumbass men around her (who either drool over her or dismiss her), she manages to stay ahead of Arcane for much of the film, and she frees herself from Arcane’s clutches without help.
On Batman Forever and Batman & Robin:
My impression upon reawtching these two movies is the same one I had in the mid-1990s when I saw them the first time: these two movies have absolutely no relationship to the human condition. There are no people in this movie, only cackling caricatures. Goldsman’s dialogue is uniformly awful, the plots are overstuffed, overcrowded, and incoherent, the lines meant to be funny are groan-inducing, and the attempts at in-depth characterization are half-hearted and lame. In Tim Burton’s movies, Batman was a mysterious vigilante who was needed to keep a corrupt town in order. In Schumacher’s, he’s the celebrity hero that we saw Adam West play—he’s even got an American Express card! (Quite possibly the stupidest moment in any superhero film is when Batman declares that he never leaves the cave without it.)
On The Incredible Hulk Returns:
And it especially makes no sense that the bad guys would shoot the younger Lambert. Seriously, these guys are mercenaries and thieves. Murder is a more serious offense than thievery, and one that will bring more attention from law-enforcement down upon one. Plus, of course, shooting someone and not making sure he’s dead before you walk away runs the risk of him, say, telling someone where you’re hiding out and going after you. (This is made worse by the fact that he might tell someone who turns into a big green rage-monster, but one can understand their inability to predict that ahead of time.)
On the four Crow movies:
There’s an AM radio station here in New York called WINS. Their motto is “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” The first car I owned was a 1977 Ford Pinto, and the FM radio died at some point when I owned it, and so all I had to listen to was AM radio. I tried listening to WINS, figuring I may as well be informed, but doing so, I discovered the implied second part of the slogan: “You give us 44 minutes, we’ll give you the world twice.” Listening to news radio for more than 20 minutes is not a good use of one’s time, as you just get the same stuff over and over again.
Watching the four Crow movies in a row is very much like listening to news radio. The four movies all have basically the same plot, and the variations between them are minor and irrelevant. It’s all the same damn plot: man and person man loves both die at the hands of four people, plus a few extra others. Man comes back as spirit of vengeance thanks to a crow. Man takes super-powered vengeance on the killers, taking them on one at a time, culminating in the big boss. Lather, rinse, repeat.
On The Crow: Wicked Prayer:
David Boreanaz is the type of actor who usually got cast in the title role of a Crow movie. In fact, he was on the tail end of that broody, dark, oh-god-I’m-so-tortured phase that he was starting to age out of on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and about to transition into his current mode as action/procedural dude on Bones and now Navy SEALs. He chews lots of scenery here, but the role is a dud.
On the 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies:
But the movies are still as much fun to my 48-year-old self as they were to me in my 20s, despite being horribly dated. The turtles make several pop-culture references that would go over the heads of most folks who weren’t alive in the early 1990s, and there are moments, particularly in The Secret of the Ooze, where the turtles spend too much time goofing off when they should be in the middle of a fight. The worst offender is the club scene in Ooze with Vanilla Ice (a performer about whom I have not dedicated a single brain cell since about 1993 or so), but you see it throughout the three films, and while it can be cute, it grows tiresome.
On Barb Wire:
Barb Wire also has plot issues, but they’re much simpler and more fundamental: the story is basically a dystopian science fiction version of Casablanca, with many of the genders reversed.
Here’s the thing—there are several reasons why Casablanca is a classic and considered one of the great movies of all time, but none of those reasons are the plot. The actual story of Casablanca is kinda dumb. What makes it work, though, are the performances, the romance, and most especially some of the finest dialogue in any film ever.
None of those elements are present in Barb Wire. The script is pedestrian, the romance is nonexistent (there’s plenty of lust in this movie, but Anderson and Temuera Morrison have absolutely no chemistry), and the performances are almost uniformly terrible. The only actor who shows up for work, as it were, is the always-reliable Xander Berkeley as Willis. Just as Claude Rains almost stole the show in Casablanca with his gleefully corrupt Inspector Renault, Berkeley completely steals the show as the similarly corrupt Willis, only this time it’s by process of elimination, as there’s nobody else in this movie who can actually act.
On The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:
Making Harker a vampire, and also a secondary character—she’s more or less the main character, along with Quatermain, in the comics—is a disservice, and Peta Wilson—who was superb in the title role in the USA TV series La Femme Nikita—is undercooked here to a surprising degree for someone who’s supposed to be a vampire. Re-casting Dorian Gray as a bored immortal doesn’t entirely work, nor does having him be an unrepentant villain (it doesn’t help that Stuart Townsend doesn’t really have the chops to elevate the role beyond the don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful mode that is all the script provides). Tom Sawyer adds nothing to the movie—it was done so there’d be an American, which was pointless, especially since there’s no relationship between Mark Twain’s character and this person.
Worse, because Sawyer and Quatermain are thrown together for most of the movie, we’re denied the much more interesting pairing of Quatermain with Naseeruddin Shah’s regally dignified Nemo. (Their exchange on Nautilus is delightful: “I may have been overly rude, earlier, when I called you a pirate.” “And I may have been overly charitable when I said I wasn’t.” The movie needed more of that, not less.)
On Steel and Spawn:
I have to confess to always having had a fondness for the John Henry Irons character. His monthly title, which was written first by his co-creator Simonson, and then by Christopher Priest, was one of my favorites. And of all the pretenders to Superman’s mantle in “Reign of the Supermen,” he was the one I liked best (though Superboy was fun, too).
I can’t really say the same for Spawn, which I could just never get into. McFarlane’s art has always been superb, if a bit stylized, but it was stylized in a way that worked. However, his writing has always left me cold. (I still shudder every time I remember the caption box from his Spider-Man #1 in 1990: “His web line—ADVANTAGEOUS!” Say what?)
But, holy cow, did both their live-action movies suck the wet farts out of dead pigeons.
On Howard the Duck and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
Both the subjects of these two movies were very much products of their time. Howard the Duck was created in the very cynical and bitter 1970s, an era when the guarded optimism and tumult of the 1960s gave way to the disastrous end to the Vietnam War, fiscal crises, oil crises, hostage crises, and the first time in the country’s two-hundred-year history that the president and vice president both resigned in disgrace. Howard came out of that time: obnoxious, cynical, bitter, sleazy, cigar-smoking, lewd, crude, and slimy. Meanwhile, Nick Fury was a curious mix of two popular 1960s archetypes: the gruff World War II soldier and the secret agent fighting a high-tech war against the bad guys.
Neither of those were good fits for the eras in which their live-action movies were made. Howard the Duck was made in the 1980s, a decade that ran as far away from the 1960s and 1970s as possible. That era was all about bright primary colors, big hair, optimism, and “morning in America.” Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was made in 1998, which was one of the worst times to do a spy thriller, as the genre was at its low ebb in the era between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers.
So I went into these movies with low expectations.
Those expectations were greatly exceeded.
On Fantastic Four (1994):
Speaking of embarrassingly awful, we have Fantastic Four, which is one of the most pathetic exercises in filmmaking you’re ever likely to see from a professional movie studio, and that’s even knowing that it was executive produced by Roger Corman, who never met a budget he couldn’t slash.
I will say this much: the one special effect they actually spent more than a buck and a quarter on, the Thing’s rocky body, worked very well. It would’ve worked better if the stunt person in the Thing outfit, Carl Ciarfalio, wasn’t so obviously shorter than the 6’4″ Michael Bailey Smith, who played Grimm.
The rest of the film looks like a 1950s B-movie, only with worse effects. The uniforms look like they were sewn together by a suburban parent who saw a picture of the comic book once, maybe. Richards’s stretching is laughably pathetic, and the gray at his temples looks like it was painted on by anyone other than a professional hair-and-makeup person. Johnny’s flames are beyond silly looking, and von Doom looks like a little kid in a knockoff Dr. Doom Hallowe’en costume.
On Justice League of America:
Green Lantern is a weird combination of Hal Jordan (looks), Kyle Rayner (costume), and Guy Gardner (name), yet doesn’t actually match any iteration of GL, since he’s a software salesman, making you wonder how, exactly, he contrived to get his hands on the ring. (It’s supposed to go to someone who knows no fear; Jordan was a test pilot, John Stewart a Marine, Gardner a football player and teacher. Maybe, like Rayner, he got it by accident…) Atom is inexplicably changed from a renowned scientist to a high-school science teacher, Fire is an aspiring actor, losing the comics character’s espionage background (and the fact that she’s a native of Brazil), and Allen is an unemployed loser instead of a crime-scene investigator. And they spend a tiresome amount of time on personal problems (Allen’s inability to find a career, Gardner’s girlfriend issues, etc.) than they do actually superheroing. And when they do suit up and act heroic, we see very little of it and it’s very badly done. (Seriously, the best GL can do against a normal guy standing on a catwalk is threaten him with a chainsaw? That’s it?)
On The Spirit (2008):
When the Macht film was released, I remember reading a comment on a friend’s blog that it would’ve been simpler if Frank Miller had simply dug up Eisner’s grave and pissed directly into his skull.
And he wasn’t far off. Back in 2008, Miller was quoted as saying this on Sci-Fi Wire: “Will Eisner was my mentor, and The Spirit was so awesome a property that I at first thought I was not worthy to do it.” All I can think is that he should’ve gone with his first instinct.
There are several problems here: the disjointed pacing, the too-dark lighting, the incoherent scripting, the mediocre acting from the lead… It’s just really poor, and not even poor in a good or fun way, just a sort-of stare-at-the-screen-and-go-“buh???” way.
We start with the visuals, which are just wrong. The stylized flat noir style that served Sin City so perfectly is an abject disaster when adapting The Spirit. For all the noir trappings of Eisner’s comics, the art was always fairly bright. Muting the colors doesn’t do the Macht movie any favors. (Neither did covering Spirit and Octopus in mud for most of the first half-hour. First time I saw this movie on DVD in late 2009, I almost stopped watching after the conking on the head with the toilet, which remains the perfect metaphor for this mess.)
On the Blade trilogy:
First of all, we’ve been hearing a lot the last couple years about how Deadpool was supposedly Marvel’s first R-rated feature and how this weekend’s Black Panther is the first black Marvel superhero to get a movie, when in fact, Blade accomplished both those things already twenty years ago. And we’re not talking an obscure, forgotten film, we’re talking a big international success that spawned two very successful sequels! Good job, entertainment journalists!
On X-Men: The Last Stand:
Back in 1961, Akira Kurosawa did a film called Yojimbo. Like many of his films up until 1963, it starred Toshiro Mifune (they had a falling out during the filming of the excellent, underrated Red Beard) as a samurai who hired himself out as a bodyguard. The movie—which was also the basis for the Clint Eastwood film A Fistful of Dollars—was very successful, and spawned a sequel, Sanjuro. They are still considered two great films, among the many gems in Kurosawa’s crown.
There was a third film with Yojimbo, called Incident at Blood Pass, but Kurosawa wasn’t involved, and that film is justifiably the forgotten stepchild of the Yojimbo films. Only the ones by the great director are remembered decades later.
I think you can guess where I’m going with this, especially since Days of Future Past basically erased this film from the timeline and will take a mulligan on the Dark Phoenix saga and try it again later this year.
On Superman Returns:
The decision Bryan Singer made to abandon the X-franchise in favor of a new Superman movie is one that did lasting damage to both the X-Men and Superman movies. We examined the former last week, and now we see what he did to the latter. What should have started a new era of Superman films (the way Christopher Nolan started a new era of Batman films a year previously with Batman Begins) instead has become the red-headed stepchild of Superman films, neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t iconic the way the Christopher Reeve films are, and it isn’t the vanguard of a new series of connected DC films the way Henry Cavill’s films will be in the next decade.
And that’s because we didn’t get what we were promised. We were told we’d be getting a Bryan Singer Superman film, but instead we got Richard Donner fanfic.
If the movie had actually started twelve minutes in when Bruce is bicycling to the lab, it would’ve been perfect. The stuff that happens (for very generous definitions of the verb “to happen,” as it’s horrendously paced, boring, uninteresting, and tiresome) in the first twelve minutes should have been saved for later in the movie when Bruce himself remembers it—let the audience go on the same journey as our main character. And then, we’re treated to more backstory as we get Harper, Betty, and Bruce telling us about Bruce and Betty’s past relationship rather than actually showing us their relationship. (Also why is Harper named Harper when he should be named Rick Jones?)
So fifteen minutes into the movie, and we’ve already got two classic storytelling mistakes: not starting at the actual beginning of the story and telling rather than showing. Not encouraging.
On Spider-Man (2002):
The thing that impressed me the most watching this movie, both then and now, was how perfectly Raimi adapted the source material. He understands what makes Spidey tick, but he also understands what makes big summer blockbusters tick. The best adaptations are ones that are true to the spirit of the source material, but also work in the format they’re being adapted to, and Spider-Man is a master class in this generally, particularly in how it handles Spidey’s origin.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, Spidey is even more arrogant than he is in this movie after the wrestling match. The robber runs past and Peter just stands there, and when he’s castigated for not trying to stop the guy, Peter shrugs and says he’s only looking out for number one now. Then when he goes home, he finds out that his uncle’s been killed during a break-in and he tracks down the killer, only to find that it’s the same guy.
Raimi keeps the basics, but he tweaks the details in such a way that it works magnificently. The wrestling promoter basically cheats Peter out of $2900 thanks to a loophole, and when Peter complains, the promoter smiles at him and says, “I missed the part where that’s my problem.” When the thief steals the box office receipts and the promoter yells at Peter for letting him go, Peter retorts, “I missed the part where that’s my problem.”
I saw Spider-Man the first time in 2002 in a packed theatre in Times Square in New York. About half the audience cheered when Peter threw the promoter’s line back in his face, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. That moment, where the hero gives a jerk his comeuppance by repeating his own dialogue, is always a crowning moment of awesome for the hero in an action movie.
The other half of the audience—who’d actually read Amazing Fantasy #15—were just shaking our heads and wincing. Because we knew what was coming.
When Peter corners the carjacker who killed Ben, we see that it’s the same guy, and it’s devastating—more so because Raimi’s brilliantly used the tropes of action movies to make the point hit even harder than it did in the original comic.
It’s bad enough that Daredevil murdered Quesada in cold blood, a moment at which I lost any interest in the character. But to make matters worse, DD only went after Quesada after the latter was declared innocent in a rape case against Matt and Foggy’s client.
Here’s the thing: victims of crimes don’t have lawyers in criminal cases. The district attorney’s office prosecutes the alleged perpetrators. The only way for Nelson and Murdock to be representing a rape victim in a courtroom is in a civil case, where the burden of proof is far less than it is in a criminal case.
And Matt and Foggy still lost. Which doesn’t mean that the justice system failed, it means that Matt and Foggy failed as lawyers. And because Matt and Foggy are shitty lawyers, Matt decided to suit up as DD and commit murder.
At one point, DD tells a little kid that he isn’t the bad guy, and he repeats it, hoping he can convince himself. He never convinced me.
Without the craziness of the comic, without the sleazy overtones of the costuming, this defangs the source material to an extreme degree, resulting in a movie that is just another dull genre show filmed on the cheap in Canada, of which there were about seventy-four billion in the 1990s. It boggles my mind that this relentlessly mediocre nonsense inspired a TV show that lasted two seasons—and would have gone on longer but for its star’s alcoholism.
But every character in this is a tiresome, idiotic stereotype, from the square-jawed hero to the eccentric weirdo to the compassionate schoolteacher to the slimy-yet-charismatic primary bad guy to the yokel thugs working for the bad guy to the abstruse Native who talks in riddles and mystical warnings. It’s a spectacularly lazy script over a spectacularly boring and predictable plot.
It’s bad enough that this movie is literally a long slog. I mean, seriously, all people do in this movie is slog through the swamps outside Sydney (pretending to be Florida, complete with a fake gator) over and over and over again. And the title character doesn’t show up on screen until the movie’s almost over, and when it does, you’re kind of sorry, because holy shit, the CGI is awful.
On Fantastic Four (2005):
Julian McMahon does an excellent job of playing an iconic comic book villain, but the one he’s playing is Lex Luthor, which is a problem insofar as he’s been cast to play Victor von Doom. It’s frustrating, because this version of von Doom makes a much better Luthor than Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey, or Jesse Eisenberg.
On The Dark Knight:
There’s a lot of talk of heroism in this movie, with Batman insisting that he’s not a hero, and Gordon agreeing with him, saying that instead he’s a guardian—and maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. These three movies in general and this movie in particular tries to look at Batman-as-hero from many different angles. However, he’s not the biggest hero in the movie. That distinction goes jointly to the prisoner and the civilian passenger who choose not to blow up their fellows. And yes, the asshole who changes his mind is a hero because he thought it through. He recognized what responsibility he had taken on, to kill a boatful of people. Yes, most of them were criminals (though there were also guards and cops on board, not to mention the boat’s crew). But he would not kill them. And the prisoner who unhesitatingly tossed the detonator in one of the great misdirect scenes of all time was an even bigger hero because he knew the score. Both boats agreed that the prisoners “deserved” to die more, but the truth is that nobody deserves to die, and death is something that should be put off as long as possible, because you can’t take it back. That’s why Batman won’t kill—a rule that Nolan mercifully keeps intact, to the point that Batman is thrice tempted to kill Joker but refuses.
On Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance:
I loved the bit in the movie when Blackout is in his stolen ambulance and rummages through the EMT’s lunchbox. He pulls out a sandwich, which decays to nothing instantly. He grabs an apple, same thing. But then he pulls out a Twinkie and nothing happens, so he eats it. I’m telling you, Twinkies will outlast the heat death of the universe.
I was also relieved to learn that the two-millennia-old wine wasn’t actually any good, proving that the writers weren’t complete idiots. Wine doesn’t last that long—certainly the bottle and cork wouldn’t—and there’s no way wine that old would be remotely drinkable. Hell, most of it would have evaporated…
And the reason why I’m talking about junk food and booze is because it beats talking about this monstrosity of a movie.
On V for Vendetta:
The biggest negative about this film in my own opinion is that way too many people see Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol of heroism and resisting fascism when, in fact, it’s the symbol of a religious zealot who tried to commit mass murder and install a totalitarian theocracy. We’re supposed to remember the 5th of November because Fawkes failed.
When you adapt a longer work into a shorter work—like, for example, adapting a 300-page novel into a 100-page screenplay, or a twelve-issue comics miniseries into a three-hour movie—you have to, in essence, boil it down. You get rid of the subplots, the extras, the grace notes, the character bits, and focus on the main plot. You excise Tom Bombadil from the story, you get rid of the flashbacks detailing Domingo Montoya’s life, you combine Dubois and Rasczak into a single character, and so on.
Here’s the thing: the reason why Watchmen is so appealing is because of the subplots, the extras, the grace notes, the character bits. The actual plot is, bluntly, dumber than a box of hair. You can forgive that in the comic book because it’s been such a great ride up until then. Well, mostly. I still remember the “wait, what?????” moment I had reading the graphic novel in college when I got to the part where Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion to bring the nations of the world together. But I was captivated by the world building and the characters, so I forgave the dumbshit climax.
Harder to do that in a movie. Snyder tries his best, but in truth the ideal format for a Watchmenadaptation is to go along with the structure of the comic: a twelve-part TV miniseries.
But that’s not what we got. Instead we got this mess.
Look for the start of year two of the rewatch with X-Men Origins: Wolverine on Friday…..