Monthly Archives: June 2007

Third Generation Comic Book Adaptations (1998-2007)

Now that there’s an 11-month gap between adaptations of comics (the longest in five years?) until Iron Man comes out in May, followed in June by The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, and by Hellboy 2 in July, I think it would be a good time to assess the past ten years of adaptations, which I consider the “third generation” of such films.

The Three Generations

The first generation of comic book adaptations is represented almost exclusively by Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, accompanied only by Wes Craven’s adaptation of another DC property, Swamp Thing (1982), their cash-in Supergirl (1984), and Marvel’s notorious Howard the Duck (1986). As far as I’m concerned the beginning of this era is open-ended, so the 1968 adaptations of Diabolik and Barbarella might as well be included, but its end was undoubtedly brought on by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987.

The second generation was sparked by the cultural event that was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Along with its own sequels and the animated Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman inspired adaptations of period stories like Dick Tracy (1990) and The Rocketeer (1991), as well as the Ninja Turtles (1990, 1991, 1993) and Crow (1994, 1996) franchises. Besides a couple of horror adaptations — The Return of the Swamp Thing (1989) and Dr. Giggles (1992) seem hardly worth mentioning — other attempts to exploit the trend included The Mask, Richie Rich, The Shadow, Timecop (all 1994), Tank Girl, Judge Dredd (both 1995), Barb Wire and The Phantom (1996). In 1997 the adaptation of Men in Black proved a rare success — the first comics-based movie since Batman to make $250 million domestically — but this second generation of adaptations was drawn to an inauspicious close by the three strikes of Spawn, the Superman-spin-off Steel, and of course Batman & Robin.

The current renaissance was sparked by 1998’s Blade — the first R-rated adaptation of a superhero from either of the Big Two comic book publishers, not to mention the first theatrical release of a Marvel property since Howard the Duck — and its profitability was proven by 2000’s X-Men. But it wasn’t until Spider-Man broke practically every box-office record in 2002 that studios suddenly focused their attention on comic books in a furious search for the next blockbuster. Of course, as they greenlighted every available comic book property, none managed to duplicate Spider-Man‘s success except its own sequels.

But regardless of their financial successes or failures, Hollywood’s eagerness to exploit this newly rediscovered mine of source material gave the fans of that material an unprecedented opportunity to see a raft of their favorite characters finally depicted on film. Marvel Comics in particular seized the moment (perhaps recognizing that after the fad has passed Hollywood may never again be so well disposed to superheroes) and managed 16 productions in the last ten years, or 46% of American comic book adaptations in the period. By contrast, DC and its imprint Vertigo managed a total of six.

The List

I’m rating only theatrical releases, so the TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (1998), and direct-to-video releases The Crow: Salvation (2000), The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2004), and Man-Thing (2004) don’t count, but Blueberry and Immortel: Ad Vitam do even though their theatrical runs did not include the US.

And I’m rating only adaptations of comics, not original superhero movies, so Unbreakable (2000), The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002), The Incredibles (2004), Sky High (2005), and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) do not qualify either.

I’m not an absolute completist, however. Of the 38 comic book adaptations in the last ten years, I haven’t seen Virus (1999), From Hell (2001), Catwoman (2004), Les Chevaliers du ciel (2005), or Son of the Mask (2005), so I’m just going to rate the movies I have seen.

It should go without saying that the primary consideration is a movie’s quality independent of its fidelity to the source material, which may or may not contribute to its success as a film. So now, in order from worst to best:

The Bad (when Hollywood jumped the comics-adapting shark)

33. Bulletproof Monk (2003)
32. Men in Black II (2002)
31. Elektra (2005)

The Ugly (entertaining enough but nonetheless disappointing)

30. Fantastic Four (2005)
29. Blade: Trinity (2004)
28. Blueberry (2004) a.k.a. Renegade
27. Ghost Rider (2007)
26. The Punisher (2004)
25. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
24. Spider-Man (2002)
23. X-Men (2000)
22. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
21. Hulk (2003)
EDIT: V for Vendetta (2005) not a great sign that I totally forgot about this one

The Good (respectable adaptations)

20. TMNT (2007)
19. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
18. Daredevil (2003)
17. Blade II (2002)
16. Sin City (2005)
15. American Splendor (2003)
14. Immortel: Ad Vitam (2004)
13. Hellboy (2004)
12. Blade (1998)
11. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The Best (good movies in their own right)

10. 300 (2007)
9. Superman Returns (2006)
8. Mystery Men (1999)
7. Constantine (2005)
6. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
5. X2 (2003)
4. Road to Perdition (2002)
3. A History of Violence (2005)
2. Ghost World (2000)
1. Batman Begins (2005)

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Surf Bored?

For a dissenting opinion on FF2 and subsequent discussion see Jim Roeg’s always insightful (and spoiler-filled) analysis.

On a related note, I was reading an interview with Brian De Palma about his oft-mocked film Mission to Mars, which I finally saw recently, and think his comments are equally relevant to the Fantastic Four who are themselves, after all, astronauts:

Bill Fentum: I think it’s one of those films where it’s best to go in viewing it in the same way that the children in the audience are able to see it.

Brian De Palma: Absolutely, absolutely. And the thing about it is — that’s what these guys are like. I mean, I know it’s hard to imagine a world with men like astronauts, who have this purity about them, but that’s what I experienced in the times I spent with them.

And also, they have that kind of starry-eyed look, because they’ve seen things that we will never see. They’ve been out there, hanging off the shuttle somewhere, fixing something on one of the satellites, and they’ve been looking around the universe.

They come back with this look in their eyes! There’s something magical about it. And that was what I was attempting to show, with Gary Sinise’s journey through the material. These guys have been somewhere and done things that no man has ever done before.

One of my favorite moments in FF2 was when the general asked Reed what he thought about the silver UFO, and Reed passed the photo to the Thing for his opinion. I did a double-take because it took me a second to remember that Ben was himself a test-pilot-cum-astronaut, a fictional equivalent of Alan Shepherd.

I think the fact that the FF is a family of astronauts — that unnaturally optimistic if not naive breed — somewhat accounts for the characters’ upbeat attitude (and the film’s tone) despite the impending doom of the planet. It also possibly excuses the do-goodism of their Team America-like day-saving from London to Shanghai.

FANTASTIC FOUR: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I’ve never been a fan of the Fantastic Four in particular, but in many ways the new movie perfectly captures the comic: breezy, light-hearted fun that mixes cosmic menace with family squabbles without ever taking itself too seriously. I think Kevin Maher’s review best captures the film but let me offer a few additional notes.

I loved the globe-trotting quality of the sudden shifts in locale, and after the running times of Spider-Man 3 and Pirates 3 this year, the movie’s 90-minute length feels like a revolutionary innovation.

The Thing featured prominently in the first one so his step back feels appropriate to allow a slight focus on the Human Torch, always the most fun character. Like Kurt Russell in Sky High, Chris Evans embraces the role wholeheartedly and always looks like he’s having fun rather than being embarrassed by the absurdity of the material.

The primary negatives I thought were the CG of Reed’s stretching abilities and Alba’s make-up which is sometimes so dark you can’t tell if she has a monobrow or no eyebrows at all. Rachel McAdams would’ve made a better Sue Storm.

But everything else falls away whenever the Silver Surfer is on screen, who looks absolutely perfect. Though FF2 is by no means the best superhero movie, the Silver Surfer is probably the most visually faithful translation of a character from comic book panel to cinema screen, ever. Unlike every other superhero, he actually looks BETTER on film than on paper, more like an animate sculpture than a silver-colored human.

I reckon the Surfer will emerge the favorite new character of 2007 at the MTV Movie Awards or comparable public poll. As someone who always thought the character was a cynical Poochiesque gimmick– after all, his surname is “Radd” — I’m simply compelled to credit Tim Story and especially Doug Jones for finally convincing me of the elemental dynamism of a character whose primary activity is striking poses.

NASA: Back with a Vengeance

I consider space research self-justifying with no need to generate special excitement for it, but apparently NASA has realized that nowadays if something doesn’t have an intense trailer with dramatic music, it’s not worth caring about.

So what feels like a new Transformers preview disappointingly turns out to be just a publicity notice for a return-to-the-moon initiative:

In case you’re in a library and can’t hear the audio that accompanies the innocuous visuals of this inspiring promo, Clive Thompson at Collision Detection captures the effect perfectly:

There’s all this creepy, minor-key horror-movie music, combined with bleed-in text that ominously proclaims: “We took a giant leap … we stopped … we’re going back.” Then there’s a shot of a lunar vessel approaching and impassively snapping pix through its single HAL-like eye.

Then boom! It’s all action, with a bunch of rovers thundering across the lunar surface like beetles while launch-ships swirl overhead, all set to unsettlingly thumpy action music.

I’m not sure what the term is for this kind of bizarre reverse-influence from Hollywood to the space program, but Justine at Film Fatale wonders:

“We took a giant leap…We stopped…Now we’re going back” To do what? Finish off whatever we didn’t kill the first time around?

Meanwhile, Clive observes:

The whole segment appears to have been shot not from the point of view of us optimistic, yay-for-space-exploration geeks, but from the point of view of some nameless, gentle race of peaceable moon inhabitants who are about to get totally vaporized by a ruthless horde of colonizing, gibbering humans.

My blogless friend Beady Eyes Al (i.e., AL not A.I.) finds it entirely of a piece with the nature of the space project itself:

The pomposity and sheer pointlessness of that advert, like absolutely everything NASA and every other space exploration organisation have ever done, is astounding.

I take his point and admit that I love space exploration precisely because it is 100% gratuitous and therefore — like poetry, music, art, and even sport — uniquely human. To put it too glibly, only pursuits with no survival value give value to survival (cue the Sphinx).

So although I style myself a supporter of minimal government who would prefer public services be limited to road maintenance and a standing defense, I admit space exploration is the one item of unnecessary expenditure I fully support draining gazillions of tax dollars into.

I’m always astounded by the fact that within 66 years we went from not being able to keep our asses off the ground to landing on the moon (and by “we” I mean humans not necessarily Americans). By that rate, frankly, the last 38 years have been an extended embarrassment. At least the Cold War motivated us to accomplish things.

As a kid in the 1980s I was promised flying cars and settlements on the moon by the year 2000, but what do we have instead? Mobile phones and the internet. Tell me, what good is a portable phone if I can’t place a call from the moon? I want my darn moon base!

I appreciate the fact that technological advances shifted focus from distance transport to microprocessing, but considering that we reached the moon with a computer less sophisticated than a basic student calculator, by now we should have colonies on Pluto.

For the first time in the history of the species we have an opportunity for guiltless colonization. By all accounts our celestial neighbors host no animals or plants, much less sentient persons with rights to violate. So unless human rights are extended to minerals, we could satisfy the imperialistic impulse whilst redefining it as the benign cultivation of uninhabited wastelands.

When I started this blog I promised never to let it become political, but on this issue I think we can leave our disagreements behind us (on Earth) and support planetary enfranchisement:

–> Partisan American politics would become a historical footnote. “Red states” and “blue states” could relocate to a red planet and blue planet, so Hollywood actors and New York magazine elites would no longer have to share the same ecosystem with the public they despise.

–> The overpopulation lobby can get behind it. China and India can start having baby girls again to rectify their gender imbalance, finally giving feminists and pro-lifers a common cause.

–> Each religion could have its own planet, so Islam could finally establish a universal caliphate (as long as “universal” isn’t meant literally), while Jews could finally live on a planet off the map of which nobody wants to wipe them.

–> The UK could even solve its prison overcrowding crisis by establishing an Australian style penal colony on Neptune’s terrestrial moon, which could inspire an awesome TV series called “Triton Break.”

–> As we’re always reminded, the environment would be better off without humans anyway. So let’s get our rears in gear and get off this rock!

SAVE THE EARTH:

MARS OR BUST!

Bespoke Film Festival, London

I visited London last weekend just to attend a Sunday lunch for alumni of my alma mater living in Europe, and it somehow turned into a cinetastic three-day field trip.

Saturday afternoon I saw Conversations with Other Women, which played at some film festivals in 2005 and had a limited US release last year, but was just released last month in the UK. Functionally a two-person play with Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, it uses a continual split screen to reflect the disconnection between the characters — a boundary occasionally breached by one or the other — and their fractured memories. Frequently one side of the screen will show a flashback, like a marginal gloss on the primary text, and the details of a paratextual sequence are sometimes altered as a character’s memory (or account of their memory) becomes clarified.

Saturday night I went to a preview of the new stage production of Lord of the Rings, which is curious as a novelty — how would LOTR be staged? — so its moments of pure “spectacle” are fun: Galadriel, the Ents (on stilts), Shelob (a giant puppet), Mt Doom. But as a musical unfortunately it’s not very memorable.

The problem with distilling three novels into three hours (cut down from its original length in Canada!) is that most of the dialogue is reduced to simply moving the plot forward. Furthermore, “action scenes” on any stage are necessarily tedious and unexciting. For me, film is a better medium for pure narrative while the stage is best reserved for comedy and musicals (because they should be experienced live) and for characterization-based drama with psychological insight.

Thus the best (or only good?) scene in this production of LOTR is the metafictional conversation, accompanied by a song, wherein Sam and Frodo discuss themselves as characters in a Story, and the subsequent struggle of Smeagol over whether or not to betray his master.

Sunday I mostly sightsaw and intended to go to We Will Rock You in the evening because I assumed West End theatres were dark on Monday like Broadway and LA so I was surprised to discover they’re dark on Sunday but not Monday. So instead I went to Ocean’s 13 at the Empire to see what a movie is like in a Leicester Square cinema.

It was a pretty boring movie and it’s become axiomatic that Clooney and Pitt are playing themselves not their characters (Damon being the exception), but I was still surprised by the degree to which the story was a fictional projection (literally) of the actors’ well publicized charity work.

Rather than stealing for their own benefit, the primary recipients of the gang’s new scheme are ordinary pathetic casino patrons. “It doesn’t matter if we win as long as the house loses.” In his movie alter ego, Clooney has become a Robin Hood whose Merry Men trick greedy Casino barons into giving to the poor, whether naive gamblers or a children’s charity.

On Sunday I discovered the Tate had an exhibit on Dali & Film, so I stayed an extra night to spend some time there. Rather than another night playing the hostel game I upgraded to a B&B on Tavistock Place, which I didn’t realize till the next day was literally around the corner from where the #30 bus exploded on 07/07/05. At any rate my room smelled of mold and had the filthiest carpet I’ve ever seen so stay away from the “Goodwell Hotel” if you’re ever looking for lodging in Camden.

After visiting the burial place of Milton under the floor of St Giles Without Cripplegate on Monday, I spent four hours in the Dali exhibit which comprised only half of the fourth floor of the Tate Modern. It is an impressive exhibit of about 150 items from collections around the world, including eight films on continual loop: besides Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or, the three-minute dream sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a satirical video collaboration with Philippe Halsman called Chaos and Creation, and a couple of Screen Tests by Warhol, the highlights were Destino, a recently completed seven-minute animation derived from records of the 1946 collaboration between Dali and Disney, and Dali’s only directorial effort Impressions of Upper Mongolia — Homage to Raymond Roussel.

When compared with Dali’s extensive storyboards and studies for the piece, also on display, the 2003 production of Destino appears to be a faithful representation of his intentions. The short film is a kind of Greatest Hits of Dali’s personal tropes, incorporating eyeballs, melting clockfaces, ants crawling out of a gash in the hand, bicyclists with bread hats, baseball, and double images into a seamless sequence. In many ways it is the most literal translation of Dali’s paintings to the screen.

Made for TV in 1975, Impressions of Upper Mongolia not only draws comparisons to F for Fake but is also a precursor of the microphotography used in The Fountain. Narrated by a magician-caped Dali who acts as both illusionist and exposer of truth, it begins with a pretitle sequence in which a moonlit landscape is revealed to be a detail of Hitler’s mustache and nose.

The rest of the film purports to document his search for a hallucinogenic mushroom native to “High Mongolia” and the basis of its society. We are given a tour of the people and places of this psychedelic Shangri La, but what had seemed to be his paintings of them turn out to be microstructures on the brass band around a pen — an effect Dali achieved by urinating on it for several weeks. Unfortunately I found myself opening my eyes periodically during the 70 minute film but I can only imagine that my sleepiness enhanced the dreamlike experience of the movie.

After four hours though I’d had enough of Dali and needed to get upriver to the British Film Institute at the Southbank Centre (formerly the National Film Theatre) to get my ticket for Lekce Faust, part of their Jan Svankmajer retrospective. It was a delightful adaptation worth missing Prison Break for, even though I’ll have to miss a party Friday night in order to catch the repeat.

Svankmajer’s Faust is an everyman, reluctant and motivated initially by innocent curiosity. The first act has no spoken lines except an invocation read by Petr Cepek out of a playbook, but his Walter Matthau ordinariness makes his every action interesting to follow. His creation of a claymation test-tube fetus into a baby golem is an early highlight but his interactions with life size marionette puppets depicting Mephistopheles and Lucifer — and Helen! — soon become the norm as stage scenery regularly descends around him irrespective of his geographical location.

The English dubbing, especially for Faust’s puppet servant/jester, sounded too similar to Team America for me, so I’d be curious to see it again with subtitles. Aside from the overdone voices however, the film is regularly humorous but the tragedy prevents it — even puppet rape — from ever becoming silly.

After three full days in London, however, I was not only done but done for, and just made the last train back Monday night.

Prediction

I don’t know if the internet will still exist in a recognizable form in twenty years, so mark my words now:

Sometime between 2020 and 2030, Cameron Diaz will star in a biopic of Hillary Clinton.

As cute as Cammy still was ten years ago before she fell apart and got duly dumped by J.T., I couldn’t watch Danny Boyle’s A Life Less Ordinary without being distracted by her rotation through every phase of the Hillary hairdo.