|Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews|
To me, comic books have always been designed for children with a short attention span. Their primary demographic was pre-pubescent boys with overactive imaginations and a toy chest full of laser weaponry. I'm willing to concede that this isn't really true, especially as the graphics and storylines have evolved and diversified tremendously over the years (think Neil Gaiman's The Sandman or Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Even so, comic books have simply never held any interest for me, and I couldn't understand what others found so damned fascinating. I never considered them artistic or intelligent, or even fun; they were just plain dumb. The chiseled physiques, flamboyant bodysuits, cheesy dialogue and transparent disguises were too ridiculous to be believed, even in places like Gotham City or Metropolis. I mean, really, could Clark Kent's glasses have fooled his closest colleagues for any longer than 5 seconds? How stupid do you have to be to buy into this crap?
ZONK!@* POW!#* As it turns out, not so stupid. Over the last 50 years Hollywood has been bringing comic books to life on both the big and small screens, and for some reason we anti-comic book folks love them. Well, some of them, anyway. Adapting a comic book is a hazardous venture; you have to please the fans, and convert new ones who may know nothing about the original comic. The writers, producers and directors have to make a lot of difficult choices about sets and costumes, not to mention 50 years of history from which to cull the storyline. The results range from fanciful and exaggerated (most of the TV versions) to dark and sinister (Blade and Spawn).
I may not have grown up reading comic books, but I was raised on comic book television. The first live-action TV show I remember seeing was the campy Batman classic with Adam West as the Caped Crusader. Gotham City was light and airy, a colorful 60's romp with Batgirl riding a lilac motorcycle. It was all very egg-citing! My brother and I ran around mimicking Batman's whiny elf-shoed sidekick, Robin, and his habitual use of the word "holy". "Holy dog poo, Batman!" we would cry, finding the vile pile while playing in the backyard sprinkler. "Holy mountain of homework, Batman!" after a rough day at school. You get the idea. The Wonder Woman series with Lynda Carter followed in the same vein. Heaven help us all, but that was a cool show for a little girl to watch. All I had to do was throw off my glasses and shake down my matronly bun to transform myself into a Nazi-fighting superhero princess! Even her boyfriend, a spy by trade, couldn't recognize her! The prim Diana Price's alter ego wore a daring costume that included an American eagle bustier with strategically placed wings, go-go boots, a boomerang tiara, bullet-bouncing bracelets and a gold lasso! The Plexiglas plane was lame, but who cares, Wonder Woman, you rocked! Both shows were hokey, but I was a kid, when bright colors and unsophisticated banter were the only essentials for great entertainment.
Then The Incredible Hulk entered the picture. A generation of young green mutants was inspired to strike the bodybuilder pose—you know the one—shoulders hunched forward, neck craned backward, arms in front to form a circle in a display of muscular perfection. (You know it, you've admired yourself in front of the mirror striking that very same pose when you thought no one was watching.) The Incredible Hulk, however, was markedly different from the tongue-in-cheek camp evident in Batman and Wonder Woman. David Banner wasn't a superhero setting out to save the citizenry of the world from evil formulaic villains, but a mild-mannered and compassionate everyman trying to come to terms with his powerful and dangerous inner beast. He was a three-dimensional anti-hero dealing with anger and sorrow, and the show itself confronted issues like child abuse and alcoholism. I was sometimes moved to tears watching The Incredible Hulk. The Technicolor sets, over-the-top costumes and zany situations were gone. The show brought real life to the TV comic book genre.
When talking about major Hollywood films, it's The Incredible Hulk's model of a strong background story and imperfect characters that make all the difference in terms of whether or not the movie will fly. Garish formulas can play well on television since the programs are short and usually meant to be a brainless diversion. The most notable movie versions of comic books delve more deeply into the heroes' lives, however, by putting their unique talents or powers in perspective, and explaining their drive to fight against evil. Sometimes even the villain is dissected and analyzed. The humanization of the superhero into someone we mere mortals can relate to is what makes a movie rise above. The best films tend to be more serious in their treatment of the comic, particularly in the dialogue and visuals, while still managing to be humorous action flicks.
Superman is an early example of the human background adding depth and soul to the hero. Superman's origins are not simply explained in passing, but instead form the foundation of the film's premise. A being who is not even human becomes the savior of humanity, a "super man". Christopher Reeves portrayed this larger-than-life cultural icon to perfection as a fumbling, romantically inept sensitive guy who occasionally sheds his outer garments in a phone booth to save Grandma from a runaway bus. Of course, a successful formula always includes a damsel in distress, but Margot Kidder's Lois Lane wasn't your typical doe-eyed bimbo. She was a no-nonsense, tomboyish love interest, and the romance was as significant to the plot as leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The hero's costume was still absurd, but hey, you can't mess with a classic.
The real winner in terms of plot depth and character development, however is Spiderman. There is a veritable web of complications within the story that adds emotion and irony. It's not your typical hero-fights-crime, hero-rescues/falls-in-love-with-girl, hero-defeats-villain pattern. The longstanding love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane and Harry gives a glimpse into an average guy's life. Peter is just a kid trying to get the girl in the shadow of a rich and charming best friend. Most of us can relate to Peter Parker, so we don't love him because he's Spiderman, we feel for him because he's one of us. His being Spiderman simply levels the romantic playing field. Go Spidey! The complex relationships among the film's characters make for an ultimately human superhero movie. Combine this with the spectacular special effects and a healthy dose of humor and the film was first rate. The sets were ultra-fake at times and I hated the Green Goblin's costume and flying skateboard, but let's not get picky.
On second thought, let's. The Batman film series improved upon the costume issue greatly, with stylish black leather replacing the unitard-cum-Underoos. It's about damn time! My undying gratitude goes to Tim Burton, who can create bizarre alterna-worlds like no one else can. I was sucked into his Gotham City, loved the Bat Cave and wanted the Batmobile for myself. Michael Keaton gave a wonderfully subdued performance as the hero, and no one will ever top Jack Nicholson as The Joker. The problem though was that the villains stole the show. The third and fourth movies hit a landslide and collapsed under their own weight. Too many characters, too many stars, too much sexual banter, not enough of anything of substance.
The later installments of the Superman and Batman movies are not alone in adaptation hell. The Hulk is another really bad comic book-based film, precisely because it is a comic book on film. You can almost see the dialogue bubbles when the characters speak. They threw Jennifer Connelly into the quagmire as the requisite love interest, but the entire role was extraneous. When dull and lifeless Bruce Banner (the name is different from the TV series) changes into the Hulk, he grows about 150 feet tall, swats pesky gnat-like helicopters and hops across mountain ranges the way I jump puddles. That could be okay, if it were an alien movie where the Earth laws of physics might not apply. But then he turns back into a normal guy. Where did all that extra weight and mass go? For that matter, where did it come from? Where did he find clothes for the Hulk? The worst part, though, was the film's direction. Sometimes they split the screen into 3 or 4 boxes so that it literally looked like a page from the comic. That little trick was extremely irritating, and far too much of a nod to the Hulk's comic origin than was necessary. As if we didn't know from watching! Maybe some fans of the comic thought the film was a stroke of genius, but I was bored, annoyed and skeptical.
The opposite was true for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Even before I saw the film I heard the rumblings of the comic book community (some of my best friends are comic book lovers, really!) about how they had massacred the sacred original. It's entirely possible that they did for all I know, but I still liked the movie, in fact, I was entranced. I loved the idea of bringing a group of social outcasts together, all of whom are 19th century fictional characters, to save the world. The general concept was intelligent and I daresay original. It's a credit to the film's creators that they could successfully adapt Alan Moore's strange world to the big screen in a way that convinced someone like me who never even read the original. The cast was fantastic, and I'd move into the Nautilus tomorrow if I could. Some of the sets of Venice seemed very artificial, but the whole atmosphere was so surreal I wasn't put off by it. To all of those comic book snobs, I say: get over it! The film wasn't perfect, but it was pretty damn good.
So, is there such a thing as perfection? Has any comic book been adapted into a terrific movie with an amazing cast, excellent special effects, great costumes, intriguing characters, plot depth, romance, humor and meaning? Hell yes! X-Men—both of them! I had never even heard of the X-Men comic book before the first film was released, and I was in awe. A parallel universe comes to life where humans with various powers live in fear and persecution within the mainstream, and two factions are developing within the mutant subculture who want to either destroy humanity or save it. All of this corresponds directly to our own world, making the story something we can relate to on a personal level, especially right now. The characters are likeable and well-developed, with an alluring mix of power and vulnerability. There is a lot of blurring between good and evil since the heroes and villains are, at their most basic, simply misfit human beings. A great deal of attention is paid to the evolution of Magneto and his unsteady friendship with Professor Xavier. Magneto is not a greedy megalomaniac, but a man who has suffered violently and wants to end the discrimination and persecution of "his" people. Professor X, however, still believes that mainstream opinion can be swayed by connecting with people and teaching mutants how to develop and control their powers to use for good. That these two leaders are cultured intellectuals make the entire story more intelligent, but there's action, romance and humor in the mix as well. It certainly doesn't hurt that Hugh Jackman makes a delicious Wolverine, even with the lamb chops (though thankfully without yellow spandex). The movie feels more like a sci-fi adventure than a comic book to me.
For those of us who do not get weepy at the sight of a June 1938 Action Comics #1, (the origin of Superman that Sotheby's sold for $82,000), comic book TV shows and films have the potential to be downright absurd. Of course, that could be said for any movie that requires the suspension of disbelief. Instead of slamming the underachievers, I should be impressed that so many films have depicted convincing comic book worlds that didn't insult my intelligence and were fun to boot. I plunked down $9.00 to see X-Men, twice! I own the Spiderman DVD. I am the most avowed anti-comic book snob you've ever met, and yet today I entered a bookstore and spent the last fifteen minutes before closing perusing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The irony is that I am now a comic book fan having never even read a comic book, and for that achievement alone Hollywood should feel proud. Now, if only they would stop feeding us utter crap like the Catwoman disaster this summer, they might win over legions of non-comic fans! (I know, now I'm just reaching for the stars, but a girl can dream, right?)