"Best. Movie Decade. Ever!"
The pulchritudinous proprietor of The Android's Dungeon, the comic book store on The Simpsons, is an opinionate of honed-razor articulation. But he and his less fictional counterparts must be emitting porcine squeals of satisfaction at the current cinema verite. Behold, mortal cinematophile: the Age of Superheroes!
Okay, okay. I can only write that kind of gibberish for a minute or two and my brain starts to frizzle. What can I say? It's the geek in me, trying to escape.
Comic book movies. They're all the rage. Discuss.
Honestly, up 'til a couple of years ago, had most of you ever heard of the X-Men? Those of you without kids, I mean. For the majority of the population (read: non-geeks) their exposure to comic book superheroes was probably limited to cultural icons like Superman and Batman. Maybe Wonder Woman or the Hulk, if you liked bad TV back in the late 70s. Maybe Spider-Man if you watched "The Electric Company" on PBS. And, of course, who can forget the Superfriends cartoon?
Actually, I'm trying really hard to forget the Superfriends cartoon. Because, yeah, I watched it. Before the Legion of Doom. Before the Wonder Twins and Gleek, back when, inexplicably, there were two non-super teens, Wendy and Marvin, and their pet, Wonderdog, who used to pal around at the Hall of Justice with Superman and the Flash, and...
Okay... Yes. I watched them. I watched them ALL. I admit it. Are you HAPPY?
Not as happy as me, I betcha. Because finally, after decades of hiding our secret stashes, our longboxes filled with mylar-jacketed modern-day mythos, we comic book geeks are coming out of the basement and basking in the flickering light of movie projectors all 'round the world. Those are our friends up there, our stories, our adventures. You other folk, you uninspired masses who couldn't be bothered to shell out a quarter for 48 pages of mind-blowing excitement back in the day -- that's fine, you can shell out $8 now to learn what we always knew: comics rock.
Hollywood understands it, too. Spider-Man pulled in over $806 million at the box office. That doesn't even start to scratch the revenues from DVD and video sales, cross-promotional partnerships and merchandise sales. Success like that breeds sequels and imitation. And we've got both, oh glory.
Bringing heroes to the big screen isn't particularly new. In 1978, our eyes were still unadjusted to blue screen technology, and we believed a man could fly. Looking back, Superman: The Movie is quaint. Christopher Reeve in cyan spandex, stiffly zipping around an Earth where physics didn't seem to hold sway. But all too soon, he was saving the world from Richard Pryor. Similarly, Tim Burton's take on Batman was dark and rich and fantastical...but then came Bat-nipples and Jim Carrey. It may as well have been Adam West up there in the cape and cowl.
Time passed. Superheroes were again relegated to kids' cartoon shows, although some of those were cranking out stylishly drawn, provocatively scripted stories. Still, a cartoon is a cartoon, and if you're lucky, you might sell some Sugar Smacks or Kool-Aid to the kiddies, but that's it.
Then this upstart hotshot wunderkind named Bryan Singer comes along. His first real movie was the some quiet little thriller, The Usual Suspects. There wasn't much action. In fact, it was mostly a bunch of guys talking. Then he did some creepy flick starring some relatively unknown Brit actor named Ian McKellen as a dusty old Nazi. Lots o' fun, take the kids.
Then, outta nowhere, he pulls off X-Men. Comic book fans knew about the team of superhuman mutants; the X-titles were the top-selling comics at the time. A fair number of cartoon-watchers knew the characters, too, following a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon on Fox. But that's all. But with a cast of B-level actors -- and a bunch of unknowns -- Singer created a franchise. A very lucrative franchise. Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen suddenly found themselves inundated with job offers. 20th Century Fox started hauling the money in with bulldozers. Did all those geeks out there have that much disposable income?
Yes, and no. Opening weekend numbers were certainly geek-laden. But where X-Men broke it open was word-of-mouth. Hampered by a shoestring advertising budget -- the studio didn't want to risk much -- X-Men found its legs when all those comic book geeks persuaded other people to see the film, and those other people realized: "Hey -- this is an exciting story!" And those other people told their other friends. And soon people who wouldn't have thought to see a movie based on a comic book were doing just that.
Speaking of which, did you see, The Road to Perdition, with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman? Guess what? It was a comic book first. Snuck it by you, they did.
Then came Spider-Man, which broke box office records. Like X-Men, it relied on telling a story about extraordinary people in an ordinary world. Gone were the camp and the tongue-in-cheek humor, the rubber nipples and padded codpieces.
After that, the dam burst. Now the list of upcoming movies with comic book ties is incredibly long. Daredevil, in spite of so many wrong, wrong, wrong things, most of which were called "Ben Affleck in red leather," did boffo box office, too. They're already planning a spin-off with Jennifer Garner's character, Elektra. X-Men 2 held up remarkably well against The Matrix Reloaded, with over $200 million in box office and there's already buzz on X-Men 3. Ageless wonder Sean Connery takes command of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen later this summer. Never heard of it? It's a comic book, trust me. And the sequel to Spider-Man is filming in New York right this minute.
But wait -- am I forgetting something? A certain lurking green behemoth? How can I? The Hulk is everywhere. I mean EVERYwhere. Hulk has been partnered with products an 800-lb. radioactive monster simply shouldn't be partnered with. At 7-Eleven today, I saw Hulk jelly-pops and Hulk cotton candy. Hey, there's the Hulk clutching a Fla-Vor-Ice bar. Oh, and there's the Hulk contemplating a jar of Tucks medicated pads.
You think I'm joking? Two Sundays ago, our coupon inserts in the paper had Hulk-endorsed products and recipes using all sorts of products. The one that stood out to me was the "Secret Ingredient Baked Beans" from Van DeCamp's. What's the secret ingredient? Gamma radiation? Seriously, can you imagine the inherent danger involved if the Hulk were to eat baked beans? A radioactive living creature producing methane. That's a weapon of mass destruction three times over.
What really makes me laugh about Hulk, though, is that Ang Lee is directing it. From the man who brought us Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility comes the summer blockbuster with toilet hurling, tank spinning mayhem, gamma dogs and Nick Nolte. What's more, the acclaimed director decided he should be the one in the motion capture suit that guided the movements of the CGI-created Hulk. According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, "Lee performed everything from the raging 'Hulk smash!' to a swooning Hulk in love."
What's next? Martin Scorcese's The Punisher? The Merchant/Ivory production of Aquaman: The Motion Picture?
Hey. It might happen. What's more, it might be good. A-list directors and writers have been stepping up for consideration on some upcoming comic book adaptations. The best could be yet to come.
There's a whole lot of crap floating around out there, too. New Superman and Batman movies are stuck in development hell. And a whole slate of poorly-known comic titles are being bandied about as possible movies: Deathlok. Iron Fist. Ghost Rider. Brother Voodoo. Word has it, Nicolas Cage is going to write, produce, direct and star in all of them. You bet, Nic. Good on ya.
Okay, I realize I've gone from delight to derogation. Fanboy's privilege, y'know. I'm the first in line with the biggest expectations, and the first to excoriate 'em when it all goes south. I've known these characters, loved their adventures, bought the action figures, the lunchboxes, and issue on top of issue of comics.
But I never -- never! -- wore the Underoos. A geek's gotta draw the line somewhere.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.16.03 @ 1:53a
I am a comic book geek. I'll admit it. So I'm usually thrilled when a film version of my favorite comics hits the screen. BTW Punisher was a film. Not a very good one, but a film.
I want that Aquaman film, and I want the Green Lantern. I'll admit some of the films should stop at one or two, because I feel it's the third in the werise that always mucks things up. The stars have gotten all crazed, and demand more money than the film will ever make.
I'm glad three differet guys played Batman, mostly because it prevented too much star tripping. Now the X-Men is different. You can't go around changing actors, because the general un-interested public will never keep up with the characters.
I think the comic book movie generation is great. I just hope I can someday cash in on it.
6.16.03 @ 2:04a
They're ignoring that other Punisher movie. Anything featuring Dolph Lundgren is apocryphal. I mean, hey, they made a Dr. Strange TV movie, a little-known Fantastic Four movie back in '94, and three theatrical (and two made-for-TV) movies about Captain America. And they were all crapfests, because no one had a clue how to pull them off as anything but low-budget, grade-Z schlockfests. It's amazing Superman: The Movie got made at all.
6.16.03 @ 11:34a
Max Allen Collins is, obviously, a hero in Iowa. I've read some things about his comic development of Perdition and it would be interesting to be able to see that. Do you have a copy of it, Russ?
Hey - Val Kilmer's rubber Bat-nipples were hot.
It's not that I dislike comics. I just don't take the time to read them.
I'm surprised you didn't mention Spawn. Thoughts?
6.16.03 @ 11:54a
Spawn opens up a whole big can o' worms. Actually, maggots. I'm not a McFarlane fan for so many reasons, not the least of which is, he bought Mark McGwire's #70 ball. Spawn (the movie) has one good thing going for it: It's hilarious to see Martin Sheen's breakthru performance. Things were pretty lean before Jed Bartlet came along...
I don't have a copy of Perdition, but I'd love to get it. There are a lot of good, thoughtful stories out there, getting overlooked because they're told in illustrated form.
6.16.03 @ 12:06p
I'm with Tracey - I just never really got into comics for whatever reason. And I have the same problem getting into comic book-based movies. They all seem to have such weak plot lines and cliched characters.
I mean, name a really good comic-based movie. (I know...you'll all say X-men 2, which I haven't seen.) But other than that, the Hulk looks mediocre at best, Spiderman was so-so, the original X-men sucked if you were unfamiliar with the franchise, Daredevil was a joke, etc., etc.
6.16.03 @ 12:26p
You tell him, Steve-Dave.
Actually, I've been rewatching the "Spawn" cartoon on HBO on Demand. Damn, that was good. Even more reason why the movie was disappointing. I always liked The Maxx, too.
I've also heard they've been trying to make "Watchmen" for years.
6.16.03 @ 12:32p
The "Watchmen" movie's troubled history makes all of Terry Gilliam's problems seem minute. It's mythic in its impossibility to be made. And personally, that's a really good thing. I don't think most people are ready for it.
6.16.03 @ 12:42p
I loved The Maxx, too. I thought the writing was excellent and the animation style was pretty cool, too.
6.16.03 @ 3:10p
I just never really got into comics for whatever reason. And I have the same problem getting into comic book-based movies. They all seem to have such weak plot lines and cliched characters.
This from the guy who knows "the words Apache Chief says to grow bigger (Ineck-Chuck!)" and "can name all six members of the original Justice League of America."
Geek, you are outed.
6.16.03 @ 3:17p
That's all from the cartoon, my friend. I remember Wendy and Marvin, too!
No, the big problem I have with superhero movies is, there's absolutely zero suspense. You know exactly how the story is going to go from the beginning. And since there's rarely room for character development, all that's left is a lot of special effects.
6.16.03 @ 3:23p
Hey - The Phantom had plenty of character development. And a man in purple tights, which I know you like.
6.16.03 @ 3:40p
Quote from The Daily Show recently - Guy Pearce: "Chris Nolan seems to think I'd make a good Batman." Jon Stewart: "When did you turn that down?" Guy Pearce: "I haven't yet."
Matt, I really think you might find room in your heart for X-Men and X2. They're not as predictable as you might expect. Especially X2. Not in comparison to straight-ahead stuff like the Superman or Batman movies.
6.16.03 @ 3:50p
I saw X-Men and didn't like it. I felt like there was so much I was missing. It didn't seem like it was talking to me.
I've heard X2 is great, and I'll probably give that a shot.
6.16.03 @ 4:53p
X2 is certainly better than the first. But if you didn't "get" X-Men, I doubt you'll get X2.
6.16.03 @ 4:56p
I never got into comics either, and a lot of my friends are surprised when they learn that. But I love superheroes.
Matt, the first two Supermans are good movies. The first Batman is good. Spiderman and X-Men are pretty good, X2 is good. I like Unbreakable a lot too, that's an interesting take on a superhero.
6.16.03 @ 5:39p
Unbreakable had its flaws, but was a pretty good movie. At least that one had a good plot, and some character development.
I think there are several superhero movies that are good, solid, fun, movies. But I've yet to see a great superhero movie.
6.16.03 @ 5:46p
Where's the Wonder Woman movie with Kate Beckinsale as Princess Diana?
I'd go see that 25 times.
6.16.03 @ 6:14p
I'd be right there with you, you'd better believe that! Of course, not literally "with you", since I hate you, but you get it.
6.16.03 @ 6:17p
Well, I'm not in the geek class, but I enjoyed Spiderman and Batman thoroughly. I also enjoyed the Batman with Val Kilmer, but for entirely different reasons. They're fun, but I've never seen them as exceptionally done work.
Hulk, X-Men, Daredevil, etc... Yeah, you lost me there, kids!
6.16.03 @ 6:29p
Hulk ain't even out yet. I think it has potential to be very good, froma dramatic standpoint, regardless of the CGI. Good cast, good director, potentially intersting storyline and conflicts. I think it has a chance to be more than a superhero movie. I hope.
6.17.03 @ 1:43a
I liked the Dr. Strange made for TV film. It was good for 1970s. And don't forget Supergirl. Faye Dunaway psychotic is always a fun show.
I still want an Aquaman film.
6.17.03 @ 9:46a
What is it with gay men and Aquaman, anyway? Robin, I can understand...he's running around in an orange vest and a green Speedo. But Aquaman? He talks to fish. That's about it.
6.17.03 @ 3:18p
I know. It's his one power and he keeps forgetting that he can do it.
6.17.03 @ 4:04p
He can live underwater too, that's a power, right?
6.17.03 @ 5:08p
I'd call that more an "ability." Lots of things can live underwater. How many have "marine telepathy"?
6.17.03 @ 5:09p
Well, how many pseudo-humans can live underwater? ONE: Aquaman.
6.17.03 @ 6:36p
Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. (Aquaman is DC's counterpart to Namor, to be accurate. Namor's been around since the 1940s.) And just to hop back on topic, there's a movie in the works about him, too. Only he doesn't have marine telepathy. Just tiny little wings on his heels and pointy ears.
6.20.03 @ 12:59p
Speaking of comic book movies, I just read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, and one of the standout lines for me was Pollyanna (in a cameo, as most of the roles are) saying "Although I've been manhandled by a demon, I'm determined to remain optimistic, no matter what."
6.20.03 @ 1:00p
I guess we'll know on Monday whether Hulk continues the trend or not. I'm hearing lots of backlash, but y'know, Titanic had pre-release backlash too, and it seemed to do all right.
6.20.03 @ 1:00p
Right, Russ. Sub-Mariner and Human Torch were the first two Marvel characters, yes? (See Kavalier & Clay: "Timely's got a fire guy. And an underwater guy" or something like that.)
6.20.03 @ 1:01p
Did the Human Torch exist before the Fantastic Four, then? I thought he was one of the four.
6.20.03 @ 1:04p
He is, actually. But in a grand comic book tradition, there are at least two different versions.
6.20.03 @ 1:11p
Great link! Thanks for the info. Previously my knowledge of the Human Torch mostly came from the fact that my brother dressed as him for Halloween sometime around 1978.
6.20.03 @ 1:52p
That always reminds me ot the SNL skit about dangerous kid's toys and Mr. Maimway.
"This is one of our most popular kids toys - Johnny Human Torch."
"Mr. Maimway, that's just some oily rags and a lighter!"
6.20.03 @ 2:03p
Awww....you guys are the best!
Actually I knew a guy in high school who would rub Brut deodorant on his clothes and light himself on fire. But we wouldn't call him the Human Torch. Mostly we called him "dumbass."
6.20.03 @ 2:26p
My brother and his friends grew fond of lighting aerosol breath spray.
Surprisingly, they survived.
6.20.03 @ 6:41p
Kavalier and Clay is awesome, at least the first half.
And Matt, that skit rules. Old school Ackyroyd. He's got that and Grosse Pointe Blank and little more.
6.23.03 @ 11:27a
...the original X-men sucked if you were unfamiliar with the franchise
I disagree. I didn't know anything about X-Men when I saw the movie, and I loved it. The second one was fantastic - and much better paced than Matrix 2, I might say.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is already setting me up for disappointment. The comic is rife with literary allusions, sneaky subplots, and subtle humor, all of which I bet will get overlooked in the interests of making a blockbuster action movie. Sean Connery being their first mistake and revealing Miss Murray's real identity being the second.
6.23.03 @ 2:01p
How long is Miss Murray's identity hidden in the comics?
I read part of Sandman in the store yesterday. Freaky-ass Neil Gaiman stuff, there.
6.23.03 @ 2:24p
I can merely confirm that in the first volume (issues 1-6), only oblique references are made to Miss Murray's past.
Sandman has its ups and downs. Sometimes I appreciate the character design more than the writing. And the Midsummer Night's Dream issue works very, very well.
6.23.03 @ 2:44p
I highly recommend "Death: The High Cost of Living," also by The Neil.
6.23.03 @ 2:45p
A friend of mine has been BEGGING me to read Sandman for years now. But I don't read comics/graphic novels. Although I did recently try out Batman:Year One. That'd be a good movie. Speaking of Batman, Nolan wants Pearce (YES!) and the studio wants Kutcher (NO!!!!).
6.23.03 @ 2:47p
Pearce. Pearce. Pearce.
Kutcher has all the depth of an oil slick on hot blacktop.
6.23.03 @ 2:48p
6.23.03 @ 2:55p
Also, since when is Batman 23 years old?
(I guess the obvious answer to that is since Year One, but you know what I mean. And Batman 5 isn't Year One anyway.)
6.23.03 @ 3:00p
I know it's not. Aronofsky was gonna make Year One but that's on the backity burner now. I'd love to see that.
Hopefully negotiations will drag on long enough that Kutcher's star will have burned out by then. Say, two more months.
6.23.03 @ 3:02p
For anyone who wants to read Sandman, I'd reccomend Dream Country (the collection with the Midsummer Night's Dream story). It's the best I've seen.
6.27.03 @ 2:49p
I would've been interested in the new Punisher movie, but now that I see John Travolta's in it, I'm out.
However, they've added Laura Elena Harring (from Mulholland Drive) and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, X-Men, and Femme Fatale), so my absence won't be missed when all the teenage boys are crowding the doors to get in.
6.27.03 @ 4:44p
You'd pass on the chance to see Travolta die? Violently?
6.27.03 @ 10:24p
In answer to Russ' question about gay men and Aquaman, speaking for myself Aquaman was just drawn very sexy. Plus he's blond/reddish haired. The Sub-Mariner was drawn looking more sinister. Aquaman is a twinkie who swims. He's much hotter.
And Brian, I thought Captain Marvel was the first Marvel character. The one who said "Shazam" in order to change into his super identity.
As for superpowers, they are much more sophisticated now. As I remember, most of the early superheroes were about strength and invincibility. Wonder Woman had a magic lasso of truth (talk about not so subtle sexual innuendo).
6.30.03 @ 2:07p
I saw a girl dressed as Aquaman for Halloween. Not quite sure how that ties in with Robert's comments.
7.1.03 @ 12:22a
See. Even girls want to be Aquaman.
Jael, I can eventually manage to tie everything into something else.