Continued from last week’s survey of the history of the superhero movie.
Today, Marvel has the upper hand in big screen superhero adaptations. However, DC has long ruled the small screen with both live-action and animated productions. DC’s “Superboy” series (1988-1992) was actually written by comic writers (imagine that), producing a critical and popular success.
Trying to compete with their rival, Marvel issued The Punisher (1989), and the film was as inherently dull as the character itself (they proved this point again in a 2004 reboot).
In the wake of 1989’s hot Batman, executives launched the short-lived TV series “The Flash” (1990). Somehow, it took awhile for them to realize that the Red speedster’s appeal lay in his flashy nemeses. By the time they figured it out, the potential audience had given up after seeing Flash square off against one too many bland burglars. This was unfortunate because later episodes, two of which feature Mark Hamill as the Trickster, were among television’s most psychedelic comic book adaptations.
Warren Beatty produced, directed, and starred in Dick Tracy (1990), which ranks among the best of its kind, self-consciously conveying a delightfully alternative synthetic universe despite uneven writing and an off-kilter performance from Madonna.
Foolishly, Warner Brothers sackedfrom its Dark Knight franchise (a testament to the influence of a mighty McDonald’s Happy Meal deal) and committed hara-kiri by turning the reigns over to perennial hack Joel Schumacher.
Not surprisingly, on TV “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995), the animated “Superman” (1996-2000), and “Justice League” (2001-2006) found the original comics’ pulse far better than most of their feature film counterparts. Like the earlierincarnation, ‘s “Spiderman” (1994-1995) also became a much sought after cult favorite. Semper had a simple rule, which one think would be obvious to everyone but producers: “It does not matter who Spiderman is battling. What matters is Peter Parker has girlfriend problems and struggles to pay the rent.”
DC’s “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman” (1993-1997), shared Semper’s commonsense ideology. Again, DC met with critical and popular success, despite its less than dignified final season.
Marvel had a trio of hits in Blade (1998), the even better Blade II (2002), and Blade Trinity (2004), although as super-horror none of the films could compare to Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan’s long-running cult comic book “Tomb of Dracula.”
DC’s “Smallville” premiered in 2001 and had an extraordinary decade-long run until 2011, although it consistently had mixed reviews.
Smartly, Marvel briefly learned from mistakes made by DC and hired visionary directors, imbued with a sense of personal style.‘s X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003), along with ‘s Spiderman (2002) and Spiderman 2 (2004) were everything audiences could hope for. Metallic Goblin aside, Raimi adroitly patterned the look of Spiderman off the eccentric prismatic look of the Steve Ditko originals. Still, these films succeeded, in part, because the production teams’ primary goal was to make pulp sagas for a broader audience than the character’s pre-existing fan base.
With all that dyed green paper pouring in, Marvel repeated the mistake made by DC. Instead of doing the smart thing, working around Singer’s schedule and waiting for him to return to the X-Men after helming Superman Returns in 2006, the execs huffed, puffed, yelled “traitor” and instead hired a hack (Brett Ratner) to dismantle X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Meanwhile, Singer’s interpretation of Superman proved too reverential. Essentially, his approach to the character was what one would expect from a fanboy. He subdued his own voice, genuflecting to the character, and the result was uneven (although it is somewhat better than its reputation).
Released the same year was Alan Colutier’s Hollywoodland, with Ben Affleck playing the tragic George Reeves as Superman. It was a commendably small film that flew under the radar and would potentially shut up all the raging fanboys screaming for blood upon news of Affleck’s casting as the next Caped Crusader (one is tempted to point to Affleck’s three solid directorial efforts as well with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo). Fanboys should be more worried about lackeydirecting, but communicating with fanboys is about as productive as attempting pragmatic correspondence with a school of histrionic televangelists.
One would think that after delivering two critically successful, box office hits, Marvel and Sony would roll out the red carpet for Raimi and leave him the hell alone. Instead, the executives interfered and, in wanting to appease fanboy appetites, forced one too many villainous subplots into Spiderman 3 (2007), which ended with a disgusted Raimi understandably washing his hands of the entire mess.
A plethora of Marvel and DC movies were produced from 2003 to 2007. They ranged from good (Ang Lee’s underrated Hulk, Batman Begins—although it did take2 hours and 20 minutes to say what Burton had said in a five minute scene in Bruce Wayne’s armory) to mediocre (Daredevil, V For Vendetta) and awful (The League Of Extrordinary Gentlemen, Catwoman, Man- Thing, 2005’s Fantastic Four, Elektra, F4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, The Spirit, Punisher: War Zone).
It was not until 2008 that both rival comic companies delivered authentic big screen successes in Iron Man (directed by Jon Favreau) and the Dark Knight (Nolan). I may be in the minority in preferring the Marvel entry over the DC one here, mainly because Nolan (as usual) overwrites. There are a half dozen subplots too many and it never would have worked without Heath Ledger’s Joker. Iron Man was 2 hours and 6 minutes of unabashed fun, aided tremendously by‘s charismatic performance, which almost made up for the lack of a memorable villain. Both films set a new bar for cinematic comic book adaptations.
Alas, like Disney’s revival, the cinematic superhero comeback was short-lived. The Incredible Hulk (2008) proved to be a pointless reboot, which cemented a new fad in endless reboots and sequels. Iron Man 2 (2010) and Iron Man 3 (2013) offered nothing new and merely chose to rehash the original’s recipe. Understandably, star Downey divorced himself from the character in solo films and vowed only to play Tony Stark in future Avengers titles, and only as long as director Joss Whedon remained on board.
X-Men: First Class (2011) was a rarity, a good X-Man film without franchise director Singer, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Wolverine (2013) had many of us begging, please stop.
Although ultimately a futile reboot, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spiderman (2012) conscientiously tried to avoid the mistakes of Spiderman 3, and had a modicum of charm. However, 2014’s The Amazing Spiderman 2 went into -esque overload and short-circuited. It went the distance proving its predecessor was a fluke.
With attention to period detail, Joe Johnston was the right director for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) but, amazingly, the script managed the impossible in rendering one of Marvel’s most colorful antagonists into a complete, one-note bore.
Less surprising was Thor (2011), which at least stayed true to its alarmingly pedestrian source material. Thor: The Dark World (2014) was an even more sluggish affair.
DC topped Marvel in producing three consecutive bombs in Watchmen (2009), Jonah Hex (2010), and Green Lantern (2011). The first, directed by Zack Snyder, was a muddled mess. It is almost a miracle that such a sour production could spring forth from an idiosyncratic comic book western as “Jonah Hex,” but director Jimmy Hayward and a battalion of writers managed to do just that. Even an accomplished director, Martin Campbell, could not overcome Green Lantern‘s corps of writers, which revealed it to be an office production.
“Green Lantern: The Animated Series” (2011-present) succeeded where the Warner Brothers film utterly failed. This is keeping with tradition. More often than not, the animated versions are far superior to the feature films.
Marvel fared no better in 2011 with their production of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which shockingly made its predecessor look almost good by comparison.
Marvel was smarter in assigning Joss Whedon to direct the long awaited The Avengers (2012). Whedon had already proven adept at handling ensemble casts (in TV’s “Firefly” and “Serenity”), but executive interference was felt in its finale, which erred in shifting concentration away from character interplay in favor of noisy thing-a-ma-jigs flying through the sky.
Christopher Nolan indeed proved that his last Batman endeavor would not have flown with the Joker in his epically disappointing follow-up, Dark Knight Rising (2012). An illegiblecombined with ‘s dual role as a raspy-voiced flying rodent and bore of a playboy Wayne, made for an endurance test that I failed to pass.
The Green Arrow (who was always more interesting than Green Lantern) made his small screen debut in “Arrow,” (2012-present). It was and remains a hit with both critics and viewers.
Superman finally returned to the big screen in one of his worst depictions in Man Of Steel (2013). When Zack Snyder spends an hour retelling the Krypton origin, discovering that he missed the simplistic pulse of the character is not at all surprising.
In 2013, Frank Miller’s legendary comic “Dark Knight Returns” was finally made into an animated feature (divided into two parts for DVD release). Fortunately, it remained true to its source material and was rewarded with good reviews and elated fans. Reportedly, it is also the primary inspiration for Snyder’s upcoming Batman vs. Superman (2016). From the available trailers, it looks like Snyder actually has been able to capture the flavor of Miller’s saga.
2014 was a good year for Marvel. Tackling bigger themes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier surpassed the original, but was overshadowed by the superior Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which thankfully (and finally) returned original director Bryan Singer to the franchise.
It was also a good year for DC, albeit on the small screen, beginning with their second stab at a “Flash” TV series. It is a spinoff of the successful “Arrow,” and likewise, has earned enthusiasm from critics and audiences. “Gotham” premiered later that same year, and it also looks to be a running success.
So far, 2015 has not proven to be a follow-up banner year. Both Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man show signs of fatigue. Surprisingly, Ant-Man is the better film (which is not saying much). Both films are rehashes of previous Marvel Universe hits, but the ensemble piece took the worst thing about its predecessor (excess) and enhanced it. The smaller moments, along with Whedon’s directorial disposition, are hidden under all that franchise gluttony. It is unsurprising that both films are “hits.”
The contemporary audience is predominantly composed of people who do not even know how to watch a film. Born and raised on the undemanding medium of television, and subscribing to the Star Wars/Matrix/Transformers school of movies as merchandising blockbuster events, the bulk of the ADHD audience lacks the essential tools to process anything less than hyperkinetic pacing. About the only thing that pre-exists them that they can approach is Star Wars (1977). That is because this is where the rot set in. With this invention of a shameless George Lucas, movies as an entertaining art form received their first deathblow. It is no accident that the only film from the Star Wars franchise that holds up well as a film is the one that Lucas did not himself direct, The Empire Strikes Back, by Irvin Kershner. As expected, most people tend to forget that, because Lucas takes the lion’s share of credit.
Lucas has a pre-existing role model in Stan Lee. While Lee undoubtedly was an explosive creative force in his youth, the bureaucrat within him soon took possession. His 1970 business divorce from artist Jack Kirby is public knowledge. Kirby remains the classic ideal in comic book illustration, but he understandably became fed up with Lee, that multi-millionaire model of unfettered capitalism gone amok who consistently declined to give proper credit to artists, refused to offer a health insurance package, and under paid his employees. Kirby left for DC. His tenure there was brief, and he returned to both Marvel and Lee, only to find conditions had not improved. Kirby went rogue in his final years, but his relationship with Lee remains an archetype of executive vs. artist.
Like Lucas (and contemporary Hollywood production executives) after him, Lee primarily became interested in the immediate sell. He might as well have been merchandising cologne or tennis shoes and when the two creative giants met, the result was Howard: The Duck (1986). One need not be a fly on the wall to predict the Sony board meeting for Spiderman 3 or the Marvel Studies meeting for Age Of Ultron: “If we throw in just one more arch nemesis and one more landmark explosion, these can generate a whole new toy revenue stream.” Rather than encouraging authentically creative talent to produce good films, or—God forbid—good films that might actually have something to say, the studio governing bodies (who are more accountants than creators) hand out a “recipe for success” straight off the conveyor belt. This recipe has been the dominant food supply for Western moviegoers for thirty plus years.
The jaded audience, who knows nothing else, lines up for easy feeding by anything marketed to them. It wants comfy imagery, unchallenging narratives, and Dolby explosions to ring in their ears to assure them they have felt something in the experience.
To such audience members, movies from a mere forty years ago (or even fifteen years ago) are like something that must have fallen out of the sky. It is highly unlikely that their attention span could even digest the pacing of Francis Ford Coppola’s pulp melodrama The Godfather (1972). It is just as conceivable that the early 1970’s sensationalistic, pulpy message comic “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” (by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams), would be deemed “pretentious” by the majority of a 21st century comic book audience. Why? Because they have chosen a limited palette. Something too original, or God forbid, something challenging is “too much spice.”
The defensive excuse we often hear for such laziness is “that is my taste and I am stuck with it.” To the contrary, taste is important because it is a reflection of openness. If we view these superheroes for what they are—a dynamic mythology—then the filmmakers, their films, and our absorption of them, have the potential to expansively process, enjoy, and utilize the symbology of myths and discover the virtues they may offer. Yes, even pulp can be imbued with aesthetic spirit.
Unfortunately, repeating the errors of fudamentalism, the sole inheritance actually accepted by today’s comic crowd is the misogyny of their forefathers. No shock, then, that the bulk of the dumbed-down “Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am” attention-span audiences is male. Not only are they completely at ease with genuflecting only to patriarchal deities, but also are prone to hurl Neanderthal-like insults at female reviewers or naysayers who have the audacity to actually dislike the latest cinematic masterpiece featuring one of their objects of worship. Inevitably, the only harvest is yet another ripped celestial enshrined in a phallic temple, defended, to the gums, by infantile, rabid disciples, even when they know it to be mythmaking.
Next week will see yet another reboot of The Fantastic Four. With the percentage of superhero movies being as bland and anonymous as contemporary comics, perhaps producers would fare better dipping into the well of inspiration by going further into the past, with its far more original source material. Hope for the best, expect the worse, as the saying goes. I am making a concentrated effort to contain my excitement.