Who Am I?

Musings by an Elder Statesman of Geekery, including such topics as, but not limited to: Comic Books, Captain Action, Toys of the 1960's and 1970's, Vintage Action Figures, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Fantasy and Sci-Fi TV, Horror Films, Universal Monsters, Classic Movies, Film Noir, B-Movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Public Libraries, RPGs, Superheroes, Saturday Morning Cartoons, Dr. Who, and the History of Southern Illinois.

Monday, June 24, 2013

From Panel to Projector: Superhero Movies That Matter Part 2

Chapter 2:  Masks Take the Movies

We left off at a heady moment in comics-to-film history, with Superman: The Movie and Superman II bringing summer blockbuster returns to the Salkind's and a coup to DC Comics' image as a multi-media publisher.  Comics may have started out as 'funny books', but by 1978, funny books had turned into seriously big business.

By contrast, Marvel Comics made a few TV movies in hopes of catching a Hulk-assisted Thor or Daredevil foothold for the small screen and generally tried to avoid bankruptcy.  DC took a few years to finish mining (perhaps gutting is a better word) the Superman film franchise with a 3rd and 4th shockingly bad installment, plus a failed try at bringing Kal-El's cousin Supergirl into her own film dynasty.  Then they let the other World's Finest shoe drop and unleashed the next forward stride in theater-bound superheroes. Tim Burton's 1989 Batman introduced the Dark Knight version of the character (i.e., not the Adam West campy variety) to film-goers, a version that comics had been aspiring to ever since the 1966 TVing of the character left a bitter taste in purist's collective mouths. West's cowl will always be fondly remembered, but this film established itself with Burton's quirky goth stylings, very large budget, very experienced and talented cast, and the crowning touch of Jack Nicholson playing The Joker. The hardest sell for most fans was Michael Keaton (comedic actor, Beetlejuice for pity's sake!) playing that darker and more grim Batman. But it worked, and audiences identified with the fight for justice waged by a traumatized orphan without benefit of superpowers. If not for this film, Batman Begins would never have had a chance to continue the maturing of the on-screen persona into the even more modern and sophisticated tale of a one-mortal-man war against crime.

Success again breeds flattering imitators, and more comic book movies tried to make The Great Transition. Again, more misses than successes but practice makes better and film makers were starting to get a sharper screen image of what and what not to do.  For a time, it seemed the accepted industry view was to look back for more film-worthy material rather than forward...at least a spate of movies went for comics characters from an earlier time.  Disney tried their superhero hand again with a pulpish love letter to Old Hollywood based on Dave Steven's nostalgic comic The Rocketeer, and it made a small profit. The first superhero, The Phantom, did better in box office thanks to added ticket sales in Australia, where the character is considered nearly a deity and an adopted national treasure. The Shadow, third missile in the pulp- to-comics-to-movies salvo, also made a profit. None warranted a sequel, but each at least ended up in the black. Spawn, based on Todd McFarlane's Image Comics character, landed in about the same so-so boat while 1989's The Punisher was reviled by....well, everyone.  Dolph Lundgren ain't no Frank Castle, skull emblem belt or no. 


A different first was around the corner, though, and if people thought Tim Burton could serious-up a comic book hero, they hadn't seen anything yet. Up until now, big screen superheroes had been lifted from the pages of one of the Big Two Comics Companies...DC, since Marvel's day in the Hollywood sun had not yet arrived. DC, now part of the Time-Warner family, was like any large corporation: You exploited the product (a superhero) without taking too many risks or too many chances in a film treatment. Appeal to as many folks as possible, accentuating the profits. A few characters that started off being published by an independent company other than The Big Two were snatched up in lucrative deals when it appeared they could be opted for a film, and thus were also shielded by that same Big Company Mindset. But in 1994, the first independent comic book property to become a film franchise premiered: Caliber Comics The Crow. Driven by a heavy metal soundtrack and with Detroit as the urban war zone backdrop, this film mirrored its black-and-white, no frills independent roots perfectly. This wasn't about a hero out for justice. This was about a supernatural revenant rising from the grave to exact bloody, bullet-raining vengeance for the murder and rape of his girlfriend by the same punks who took his life, pure and simple. The dark hallmarks of Burton were traded in for a Gothic raw vision that spared no one, but most especially not the wicked. The tragic death of star Brandon Lee in the making of the picture did nothing to detract from the bleak, haunted spell it cast. Later independent comics film projects, from The Mask to Cowboys and Aliens to Red to 300 were built on foundations set down by The Crow.

The Crow was also parent to another very influential superhero movie from an independent comic producer, in this case Dark Horse Comics. DH had been publishing an irreverent send-up of traditional comics with Blazing Carrot. In the pages of that character's book there had appeared a group called Mystery Men...marginally powered costumed adventurers who banded together to fight crime and generally get a laugh or two out of the reader. From Mr. Furious, whose power stems from his 'boundless rage', to The Shoveler, a man with a scoop shovel and a mission to use it for good, to The Spleen, a one-man chemical warfare dispenser, to The Bowler and her mystic ball, to The Sphynx whose main power is being 'terribly mysterious', to the Blue Rajah who is a master of fork-flinging, these guys would be the B-Team of any given megalopolis's superhero faction. Maybe even C-Team. But they tickled comedian Ben Stiller, and he took on a script treatment to bring an abridged and tweaked version of the group to the silver screen. 1999's Mysery Men relied on witty dialogue, outrageously bizarre characters, and an ensemble cast to breathe life into these unlikely heroes. Only a film treatment of The Inferior Five could have taken the comics form to gently chiding task as well, and those rights from parent DC no doubt would have cost way too much to secure. So it was a small film, based on a small independent comic company series, but it was generally lauded as a quirky, fun comic book fable that made a tidy modest profit. So how is it groundbreaking?


Because major studios were watching with keen interest. This included 20th Century Fox, who had bought the screen rights to Marvel's The X-Men in 1994 and had gone through turnaround hell with scripts and ideas for a movie ever since. Given the powers of the mutant heroes involved and the sheer number of team members, the budget would be considerable. And 20th was just none too certain what the prospects would be for box office on a superhero team film. This would be the first of its kind in that respect, and the first large, serious attempt to bring a Marvel Comic property to the screen. There was just nothing that had gone before to give them an indicator of how much they should commit to such a project, or if they should let the option expire altogether. But then came Mystery Men, a team superhero film albeit not a very serious one in tone or scope. But it made a profit. And with that assurance, the green light flared bright.

In 2000, X-Men premiered. And it made a profit, a big profit. And turned Hugh Jackman into a star. And Halle Berry into a bigger star. And Patrick Stewart into a bankable movie actor. And brought what had been elusive fame and accolades to Ian McKellan. It also proved that Marvel properties could vie for box office bucks as well as any DC property, finally bringing mainstream movie treatments to a succession of characters afterward: The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Punisher, Punisher: War Journal, Fantastic Four, & Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. None were as successful as the X-Men film trilogy, but neither were they failures. Combined with Columbia's big business Spider-Man film in 2002, Hollywood at large began to take note. While DC had enjoyed the backing of parent company Warners for several years, Marvel was still relegated to whatever studio shot them the highest offer for properties. That changed in 2010 when Disney bought Marvel. Disney's Pixar division had (finally!) had their own masked hero success with a wonderful big screen animated superhero epic, 2004's The Incredibles, and they were ready to get into the live-action superhero biz.

                                                       "I'm King of the Realms!!!"

Which in turn led to successful big screen, updated treatments by the House of Mouse for Marvel's Iron Man. And then Captain America. And then Thor. And even though The Hulk's two previous big screen movies had been pretty tepid, each success brought Disney a step closer to trying something totally unprecedented: Taking the main characters from 4 franchise movies and putting them together in a team film. Backed now by people who knew a thing or two about promotion and film production, the Disney-backed Marvel flicks began to have brilliant drop-in scenes during or after the credits, with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury showing up to recruit various heroes for something called 'The Avengers Initiative'. Fanboys swooned. Buzz became fever-pitched and ear-shattering. And 2012's The Avengers, helmed by Joss Whedon, did not disappoint. It was the. Single. Biggest. Film. Of that year. Period. As with the individual movies leading to it, each comic book character was given a bit of an update to better fit in the modern world, but in storylines lifted from the early, great comic book exploits of those heroes. Thus the films escaped some of the darker tones running rampant in some books and superhero movies, while retaining a realism and humor that worked to keep said heroes heroic. Still, Earth's Mightiest Heroes might never have 'Assembled!' even once onscreen without the debt owed to little, quirky and endearing Mystery Men.

In 2003, 20th Century Fox went to the comic book well and chose an Alan Moore (writer of the Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell graphic adventures) property that had been published by America's Best Comics, and thus was born the movie take on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  The comic and movie premise is simple:  It's the end of the 19th Century, and in this parallel world, all the characters from what we know as written fiction are real historical figures.  This includes Allan Quatermain, from 'King Solomons Mines', Dr. Henry Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde),  Mina Harker from 'Dracula', Captain Nemo from '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', Dorian Gray from 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', and Rodney Skinner, Gentleman Thief, who had 'liberated' a formula from a deceased scientist to turn himself into an Invisible Man like the story of the same name.  The story follows a pending world crisis brought about by a mysterious villain bent on starting a World-Wide War such as the Earth has never seen (WWI and WWII still being decades off), and a shadowy British government project to bring together several extraordinary individuals to function as a team and thwart the madman.  Think of it as a 19th Century Justice League.  Critics slammed it.  It hemorrhaged money with poor ticket sales.  Fans who loved the ripping and humorous original comic book reviled it for being too loosely based on the original material, and for the studio decision to add in US Secret Service agent Thomas Sawyer (grown into a young man since his Mark Twain story days) to cement a better reception in America.  I've read the series.  Love it.  I've watched the film, many times.  Love it.  The film is guilty on all fandom sin counts.  BUT...despite all that, the fun of the comic translated to fun on the screen.  It works as a movie even with the changes necessary to make it cinematic.  It even found an appreciative audience as a cult film with Steampunk fans.  And, the best thing of all, it challenged its audience in a way few films dared.  I have a rep as a comics fan.  And as a reader.  So as the movie debuted, and long after, I get questions about this film and they generally go like this:  'Saw LoEG yesterday....I liked it! (sound of surprise in the voice)  But I didn't know who all the characters were.  Who the heck is _____________??? (usually referring to either Quatermain, Dorian Gray, or Mina Harker)'  When the question is answered and the particular literary source named, the follow up is, 'I'm going to have to read that book...'cause I -liked- that movie!'  Any film that turns viewers into potential readers of classic literature is doing something very right in my estimation. 

And so the current landscape of superhero movies has battle lines drawn at the box office. DC's Batman Begins, Dark Knight, and Dark Knight Rises were critical and box office successes overall and brought to a receptive public a vision of serious, adult, dramatic costumed heroics that matured childhood icons into living, breathing people while dimming some of the altruism, heroics and humor of earlier treatments. Man of Steel seems to have very, very successfully done for Superman what those other three films did for Batman, and in the same darker, grittier vein. Forays into DC's other properties like Catwoman and Green Lantern were dramatically less well received and bled money. Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man re-launched the movie webhead franchise in a more emo fashion to keep with the times, and barely before the dust had settled on the first triple-movie franchise. While Ghost Rider, the nigh-unwatchable Ghost Rider 2, and an X-Men Origins: Wolverine film did less business, X-Men: First Class delivered a dandy second-tier movie owing more to the original version of the team than the previous films. And in the Big Box Office ranks for Marvel properties, their updated versions of Avengers and the individual team members, continues with a more traditional, kid-friendly comics blend of drama, humor, friendship & team work for the greater good to bring in audiences by the droves. Two ongoing, vastly different celluloid superhero visions, done LARGE, with movie-goers in different camps about which they prefer...but both visions making consistent Hollywood homers. 


Except for the last entry here...a unique amalgam of BOTH those visions which surprised even the seasoned tinsel town set by raking in quadruple what the film cost to make. Kick-Ass hit screens in 2010. Technically a Marvel property, it's part of their Icon imprint...which means the stories are not part of the larger Marvel character universe and canon. Not that many of the larger Marvel universe characters are actually part of that canon anymore in print, either, with each title kind of existing in its own pocket dimension. The story follows Dave Lizewski, an altruistic teen and comic book fan who sets out to become the world's first real superhero. In a very, very real world. In the printed version, writer Mark Millar pulled no punches in that respect. Dave had set out on an admirable quest, but he was only a kid and life, and The World, had some harsh lessons in store for him. The film has heaps of violence and bad language, just like you'd find in everyday life, especially if you lived around the seedier elements of society and decided to battle criminals while wearing a mask. Dave quickly finds himself nearly killed while trying to dispense justice, his non-lethal intentions and tactics no match for street brutality. Then he meets two other people who are also living masked, secretive lives with a backstory straight from a comic book. Police officer Damon Macready refused to cave to the bribes and corruption his position on a big city force required, so his wife was killed and he was framed for drug crimes and sent to prison. His infant daughter was looked after by a fellow cop, and turned back over to Damon on his release. Macready began a plan of vengeance, plotting to kill the men who had taken his wife and career, and training his daughter from the time she could walk to be his helper. As Big Daddy and Hit Girl, they use heavy ordinance, lethal force, investigation and military/police tactics to kill drug runners, steal their cash, and use it to fund their crusade. And they were getting closer to the crime bosses with each mission. Hearing about another masked vigilante on the streets, they set up a meeting with Kick-Ass, Dave's costumed identity, to see if he would be a worthy addition to their duo. His tasers and batons and heroic notions leave them pretty cold. But their fates are now twined, and against all odds they do become allies in the ongoing war for justice. Comic book backstories, noble ideas of making the streets safe, wilting amounts of gun and blade violence, filthy language...all surrounding a film and a theme with a lot of heart.


Not since Stan Lee imagined half a century ago how a real kid with powers could face the challenge of being a masked mystery man in the real world of New York City has there been this kind of fresh take on the mythos. While not emo, there's plenty of teen angst to go around, and the charm of the fourth wall being broken is also part of the formula: These characters know they are at least acting like heroes in a comic book, and taking those steps into the real world. If I was 15 again, I would so identify with the yearnings, reasonings and emotions Dave goes through on his journey from comics nerd to silly vigilante wannabe to semi-capable street fighter bent on making a difference in an indifferent world. Add to the mix an endless ability to turn the standard comic trope upside down, and another facet of the film and comic's charm shines. The kid sidekick is usually a source of kid-in-distress plot devices, but in this case is the most bloodthirsty and dangerously violent of the heroes. The strongest and most competent of the vigilantes are waging a war on crime, but they have no lofty fantasies about doing it honorably; they have no code against killing. A lot of people. Often. The teen hero who pines for his High School crush in his nerdish civilian ID is pretty common, but here when the girl discovers his costumed identity, she ravishes the kid. A lot. Often. And is ravished by him in return. Who says teen hormones only rage in the male gender?

So what's the future going to hold? Movie options for the Fantastic Four and Daredevil have reverted back to Marvel, nee Disney. The first post-Avengers flick, Iron Man 3, proved a financial success and, more, proved that Marvel/Dis has more stories to tell and the deep pockets and talent pools of creative folks to take it the the screen well. From far left afield and stage right, they plan their next major panels-to-previews project, Guardians of the Galaxy to be released in 2014. And per contract, Joss Whedon is set to launch the first non-animated Marvel-based TV series in many a year, Agents of SHIELD, in late 2013. Still playing catch-up in successful movie productions, DC/Warner has been no stranger to letting TV host their live-action properties and their ratings have been solid. Smallville held a decade-long run that surprised me, and it served as a perfect platform to introduce non-comic geek audiences to characters never before brought into the mainstream including Zatanna, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Cyborg, Black Canary, Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and, God love 'em, The Legion of Superheroes and the Justice Society of America. And while a Wonder Woman pilot was not picked up for a series, Arrow got a green light for weekly status and went on to be named the Best New Television Drama in its freshman year. Rumors fly wildly on the thermals from Man of Steel receipts that DC would love to do a Justice League film project.

Despite serious reservations about the course both of the Big Two have taken in the last year regarding the image of their characters, i.e., 'Let Watchmen be dark and gritty and let mainstream icons be a cut above that.', I find it's the greatest time yet to be a comics fan. And even considering the niggling about the Big Two, independent comics companies are currently publishing some of the best work to be found anywhere, and in greater volume than ever before. Only someone my age (read, Old Comics Guy) can appreciate the contrast between those lean, early years when a Sesame Street segment with Superman and Batman or a fair labor law PSA with some of the 1966 Batman show cast members caused excitement, and the rich comic book-embracing environment we live in today.

Still, like a fan missive in a letter col page of comics long ago, to express only the positive would seem unduly sycophantic. So the cynic in me demands a counter weight to end this entry, and after researching so many superhero and comics-birthed films, it's not a hard task.

There's nothing that makes one's geeky heart skip a beat than watching a film version of a beloved character that does right by the comic, the fans, and the rest of the audience. Conversely, Hell hath no fury like 1. A woman scorned, and 2. A fanboy or fangirl treated to their favorite character onscreen in a lousy, ill-conceived and poorly realized adaptation. And remember, every character in comics is somebody's favorite. When Hollywood forgets or disregards this rule, these happen. Plus, drama careers are ended, producers file for various Chapters, and executives join the ranks of the unemployed. As a cautionary public service, here are my personal picks for the Comic Book Movie Hall of Shame. If you must watch these to see just how wrong a comic book film treatment can go, wait until discount dollar day at your local video store. Then, go find it for free at your local library instead.

1. Catwoman - Apparently, someone at the studio thought it would be a good idea to pay DC no doubt ungodly amounts of cash to license their popular villainess character, and then make a movie about someone else, in some other costume, with some other backstory. Halle Berry looks good, the costume looks bad, and the film was worse. So many bad, obviously bad, and stupendously bad calls were used in the making of this picture, it should have been a Bizarro World Production, made in accordance with the Bizzaro Code.

2. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance - Take anything that worked even marginally in the first film and get rid of it. Then take anyone who brought their acting chops to display onscreen with Nicholas Cage in the first movie, and don't invite them back. This not only hurts the film, but alienates folks like Peter Fonda, Sam Elliot, and their fans. Also, don't replace those interesting characters and their experienced actors with anyone of interest. Finally, take the redeeming 'Deal with the Devil' vibe done in a Southwestern US setting and move the whole thing to Europe. Mix, bake, release in theaters for 10 minutes and one week later slap it onto DVD before word or odor spreads.

3. Steel - For the same reason that Robin or Nightwing has never rated his own movie, the same reason you don't make a Hero for Hire film with Iron Fist as the hero and no mention of Luke Cage, and the same reason you would be hard-pressed to make a Mon-El movie without involving Superman somehow, you shouldn't make a Steel flick without some Superman vibe and reference in it. It robs one of the coolest, noblest African American superheroes in existence of the reason he became a superhero to start with. Plus, notice how Marvel cast an athlete instead of an actor to play War Machine? No? Next time, follow their example.

4. Elektra - When comicdom, comics pros, and the comic character creator all think bringing back that character from the dead is a Bad Idea for a comics series, one might think twice, thrice and then fifty more times before making a film based on the same character who, incidentally, died in the first film just like she did in the comics. The first film, Dardevil, was none-too-well received anyway, and was unable to lend any of the positive elements (except for Jennifer Garner) from it to help boost this sequel. If only Halle Berry could have escaped from the third reel of Catwoman to swing by and rescue Garner from reel one of this fiasco....-that- scene would have had more entertainment value than either film! Then the two could have combined forces to make a Storm & Psylocke: Sisterhood of Mutants movie instead.


5. Vampirella - I had limited the movies mentioned here to theatrical release films involving superhero characters (thus no dwelling on films like Roger Corman's Fantastic Four since it was never released, and DC's Jonah Hex as he's not a superhero).  But Vampirella was direct to video, so people -did- pay money to see it, and it's so perfectly wretched, I'm stretching the guidelines a little to include it.  For a film like this to work, it generally has to follow the spirit and intent of the comic its based on or else fans will not be pleased, and you risk losing cohesion enough to alienate the rest of the viewers as well. Thus, when bringing to life a character so sensual and violent that she had to first appear in a black and white Warren publication to avoid getting rejected by the comics code of the 1970's, don't skimp on the skin and the action. And don't skimp on a budget since this is actually a sci-fi story at heart. The way this turned out, it must have been directed by Alan 'Skimp' Smithee. So combine a plank-like leading actress who refused to wear the traditional costume (and was incapable of filling it out),  numbingly bad plotting, and effects that set the standard for excellence 30 years prior, and you get this drek.  The slam-dunk low of this entry is simple: how hard could it have been to make a fun, titillating little film about a scantily-clad sci-fi/supernatural heroine that would have tickled the hearts of geeks around the world?  Apparently too hard for the 'creative' folks here to pull off. 

6. The Spirit - See 5. above, re: 'follow the spirit and intent of the comic' in bringing it to the screen. The Spirit is supposed to be a little funny, a little racy, and a little concerned with what realistically would happen to a regular joe who decided to go first-to-fist against 1940's crooks. This movie -could- have been a lighter, pulp fiction version of Kick-Ass. Instead, it became a Lost Sin City Episode with no fun, no raciness, and no realism at all including the filming technique, look and style. Will Eisner, revered creator of the character and legendary comics innovator, deserved better.  And Frank Miller should have known better.

 Film Critic prepping to pass judgment on The Spirit film.

7. Howard the Duck - Including this almost seems like smacking the skinny kid square in the glasses because it's been so reviled for so long. BUT it makes my list because it's not only badly written, badly acted and poorly presented effects-wise, it also breaks the Spirit of the Book rule of 5. and 6. I read Steve Geber's comic's writing as a kid, and though not all of it scored with me, a lot of the absurdist and humorous element did. Here was a guy who delighted in making villains like Bessie the Hellcow (the Bovine Bloodbeast, no less!) and Dr. Bong to fight his equally unlikely hero, Howard the Duck. Gerber, like the best humorists, wasn't afraid to take chances. Some worked, some didn't, but it was always gutsy. The movie was made in such a 'safe' and gutless fashion, it still angers me.

8. Captain America - Not the First Avenger one, the 1990 one. This flick suffers several ills that, like all the little mistakes in real life sagas that defy odds yet come to pass, add up to one great disaster. I'm not sure where Casting was the day of the auditions. Apparently, taking a long lunch break after which they spread out publicity photos on a table like the famous All-Star Squadron #1 cover and picked actors at random. Writers, producers and/or the studio decided, in the spirit of political correctness, to avoid the whole N-a-z-i issue despite this being a movie about a WWII war superhero and make the Red Skull Italian instead of Hitler's right hand man. And this dog gets one final smack because of all the heroes making it to the big screen, Cap deserved his due. His serial bore little resemblance to the comic character, not even his signature shield. The 1970's TV movies with Reb Brown were awful. Not cheesy-fun awful like MST3K, just plain offal. This movie could finally have done Cap a little justice. Instead, it took another 20+ years.

9. Superman III - Some would say that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is more deserving of this spot, and it's a close call. But while both were silly, pointless shadows of the first two quality films, this one wasted some major talent on the road to doofiness. Namely, Richard Pryor, Chris Reeve, Annette O'Toole & Robert Vaughn. Costuming, if you can't at least get Clark's glasses straight, hang it up. And it may have been fun to have Superman put a bully in his place in the second film, but it's pretty mean-spirited to have Supes making sport of an alcoholic in this one. Worst of all, the creative folks knew this was bad, thus the ploy of using Pryor to prop it up in a stilted, silly comedy role that wasted his talents and still didn't achieve a box office win. Why not a villain from the Superman rogue's gallery instead of this inane plot? Still, plumbing the rogues to make a good continuation of a franchise doesn't always work either, as we see in....

10. Batman Forever - Again, most say Batman & Robin deserves this slot, but again, I disagree only because of the WTS (Wasted Talent Scale). George Clooney, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger v.s. Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Drew Barrymore and Tommy Lee -freaking- Jones. Otherwise, it's a close call. The jarring loss of Tim Burton's style is even more jarring as this is the first film lacking it...but still trying to carry on business as usual in the hopes the audience won't notice. It doesn't work, nor does the direction as a whole if the performances are any indicator. This solid cast seems to have had a read-through, voted to all phone it in, and headed to the bank to deposit their checks.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

From Panel to Projector: Superhero Movies That Matter

Chapter 1:  Mystery of the Box Office Bonanza

While the merits and shortcomings of Man of Steel continue to be weighed and measured all over the internet, the box office returns indicate a verdict of success so far as the ticket-buying public is concerned. For the 2013 summer cinema season alone, profits from both MoS and Iron Man 3 are solid indicators that more superhero movies will be offered up by Hollywood in the foreseeable future. The span of target audience ages may have changed, the box office receipts and the costs of production most certainly have, but our costumed alter-egos have been a silver screen staple since almost the day after they debuted in their native two dimensional, four color venues. Some adaptations and reimaginings for the big screen have been good, more have been disappointing, and a select few have ventured into greatness. Despite varying levels of financial success, critical acclaim and audience acceptance, many have been landmark projects, setting the stage one way or another for future filmmakers to tackle the task of bringing our modern mythologies to life.

As Fate (Dr. Fate, by the Helm of Nabu!) would have it, the first true superheroes to throw their capes into the cinematic arena did so almost at the same time though each took different paths. In 1941, Republic Pictures took a flying leap of faith and produced the first live-action, serialized theater film to star a traditional superhero: The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Production values were fairly high given the time constraints and limited budgets of serials in general. Tom Tyler made a convincingly powerful World's Mightiest Mortal, and if his flying was mostly low-tech (Tyler was quite athletic, and allowed himself to be catapulted and spring boarded at backdrops and screen villains) it was still pretty exciting and impressive stuff, especially for the legions of matinee-going kids quite familiar with the good Captain and his secret identity, young orphan Billy Batson. There were some pre-Comics Code Authority gaffes; did Cap -really- need to swat the villains manning the machine gun nest aside, turn the turret, and fire onto the hordes of oncoming nogoodniks when he had the strength of Hercules and the invulnerability of Achilles at his disposal? Not so much. But all was forgiven, and the way was paved for other serials of the same sort. In the years following, Captain America, Batman & Robin, The Green Hornet and Kato, Blackhawk, Spy Smasher, The Phantom, The Vigilante and Superman all took a shot at the silver serial screen. Sometimes multiple shots. But before all that...there was the first big-screen Man of Steel.

Between 1941 and 1942, the Fleischer Studios produced a pilot and eight episodes of the now-famous animated Superman cartoons for feature film release. Beautifully rendered and stylishly, painstakingly animated, they were the first cartoon adaptations in the superhero mold. The flying segments were so good that, fearing they couldn't equal them in a budget-constrained live action format, the studio used them in the Columbia Kirk Alyn serials that followed. The Fleischer folks really took advantage of the animated art form to put the Last Son of Krypton through his paces, pitting him against mad scientists, death rays, arctic monsters, giant mechanical death-bots and more. Such comic book compatible daring-do would not be seen on the big screen again until the advent of serious sfx 30+ years in the future, and the advent of CGI in the decades after that. 


In cinematic art imitating comic book life, in 1941 it was National Periodical's Man of Tomorrow vying for bragging rights with Fawcett's Big Red Cheese. Interest was certainly there, and profits were to be made. If Walt Disney could make fanciful animated movie-length features, how could more established studios not follow the same course with superheroes? They might have done just that, if not for the overall drop in superhero popularity after World War II, and the Kefauver Hearings that followed. Since it was apparent that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, the Comics Code went into play and publishers obligingly reduced a blossoming graphics art form into kiddy-friendly, throwaway entertainment. Creative, inspired and fun throwaways, but not the sort of material studios were willing to back with hefty budgets and aim at any movie-goer over the age of 9.

One semi-'superhero' film worth mentioning from this time, however, is the 1955 Paramoiunt musical comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Artists and Models is considered a milestone in movie satire for its mockery of mid-1950s pop culture. One scene satirizes the Kefauver hearings themselves as regards the dangers of violent comic books, and other targets in the film include the Cold War, the space race and the publishing business. As usual, comedy holds up a funhouse mirror first to those presenting a slanted, skewed personal bias as the basis for dictating how society should behave and what they should find acceptable. It would take everyone else decades to come to the conclusion that the only one who had a problem with most comic books and their impact on youthful readers was Kefauver. Plus, comic book fanboys find the first character we can empathize with, Lewis's young adult male hero, the comics-infatuated Eugene Fullstack. And our first crush, in a pretty and curvaceous Shirley MacLaine who plays a model that dresses as The Bat Lady to assist her artist room mate in her comic book rendering job.

Despite some flirtation with the new home entertainment sensation of television, superheroes were absent from any screens for more than a decade. The Adventures of Superman was a small screen success, but not one that the networks seemed keen to try and duplicate after the death of star George Reeves. It would take a nation needing wholesome distraction from the violent news footage of the Vietnam war before networks again turned to the cape and cowl set for inspiration. But when the time was right, the impact was felt around the globe. 1966's Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward may have done campy disservice to The World's Greatest Detective, but it brought about a bonanza of similar products. Captain Nice, Mr. Terrific, and in a more serious vein, The Green Hornet lit up TV screens during the week while Filmation's Superman/Batman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure graced Saturday morning television. Marvel Comics rallied with the static Marvel Super Heroes syndicated package, and eventually the animated Fantastic Four and Spider-Man toons on ABC. Hanna-Barbera, known for their anthropomorphic funny critter cartoons, jumped on the superhero band wagon with Space Ghost, Birdman, The Mighty Mightor, and other caped and winged crimefighters. The Batman live action show also led superheroes back to the big screen.

Flush with ratings success on television, a theatrical film starring mostly the same cast of characters and actors was rushed into production, and Batman the movie hit theaters in late 1966. Largely dismissed by critics and loved by kids, the film did break some new ground...hard, infertile 1960's ground...with a budget that allowed for such coolness as a Batboat, a Batcopter, and a Penguin-themed supervillain submarine for the heroes to play with. The first big screen, non-serialized adaptation of a superhero had arrived. But it was still pretty silly stuff, an absurdist piece with plenty of BAMS! and POWS!, but not a lot of substance. Still, the soil was tilled.

The first seeds planted and the first harvests reaped were, being kind, pretty scrawny. Spanish and Italian filmmakers combined their budgets and their themes to present a superhero/wrestler/espionage agent for world-wide B-movie distribution in 1966's Superargo. After accidentally killing an opponent on the ring, masked wrestler Superargo quits wrestling and, following the advice of his friend Col. Alex Kinski of the Secret Service, becomes a secret agent, using his superhuman abilities (think Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt monk and mind magicks as taught by a handy guru/spiritual guide) to stop villain Diabolicus' plans to wreck the global economy by turning uranium into gold. Let's face it, for a kid of that era, this one had everything -except- a budget. Familiar comic book origin (could have been lifted, or more generously, inspired by Bill Finger's classic Golden Age hero, Wildcat, a prize fighter who killed an opponent in the ring and had to take on a masked identity to elude police while he found the ones actually responsible for the death), masked wrestler as the hero (in these pre-WWE days, the masked villains of the ring were a staple and a source of fascination for kids), and an espionage plot that made the already cool hero into an International Man of Mystery to boot (while helping itself to a thinly disguised version of the James Bond Goldfinger script). It had lots of action, a fairly effective costumed guise for the hero, and it didn't play the theme for laughs...though many audiences snickered at the overall production values. Nonetheless, it made enough money to merit a sequel, Superargo and the Faceless Giants by 1968.

But with the 1970's, TV decided to give superheroes a shot in prime time. With sci-fi themes picking up in popularity, and with hits like the plainclothes but superheroic Six Million Dollar Man in prime time and Shazam! & Isis live action fare for Saturday mornings, ABC and CBS decided to test the more serious superheroic waters again. They hit Nielsen's pay dirt with first TV movies and then series based on The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman. Less successful were tries at Spider-Man, Dr. Strange & Captain America. But the four-color die was cast: adult audiences were open to more sophisticated and more comic book-accurate depictions of superheroes. DC Comics took the plunge for a big screen, big budget revisiting of their Favorite Kryptonian Son.

Superman: The Movie sold a lot of popcorn in 1978 cinemas. And a lot of tickets. With a script that was fairly true to the source material, some humor but not at the expense of our hero, and said hero portrayed in charmingly downplayed fashion by Christopher Reeve, and a lot of special effects for the time, Superman led the way for all serious and big budgeted superhero movies to follow. It promised audiences would believe a man could fly, and we did...with grace, speed and a wake of appropriately gaping onlookers. SPOILER ALERT It's somewhat lost today, but the film has some truly shining moments that you had to be present, in the theater of 1978, to appreciate. When asked by Lois Lane why he was 'here', Superman says earnestly, 'I'm here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,' and people cheered. Three years after the fall of Saigon, after Watergate, after a decade of dirtied, destroyed and tattered dreams about America and the national identity, it took Chris Reeves as Superman to deliver that message of hope and not to be laughed at, but cheered. By contrast, in the currently successful Man of Steel, the sound of a character's neck being broken elicited cheers from some audiences. Therein lies the difference in both film and in audience. END OF SPOILER ALERT Superman II delivered the goods again, with even more action and an aerial Kryptonian dog fight over Metropolis. The two films broke the superhero screen image forever from 'only kiddy fare' to 'box office blockbuster'. They almost made up for the dreadful Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and Supergirl. Almost.

But the floodgates had been opened, and what followed was eventually the torrent of comics-to-films that we are used to today. Most of that expanded first wave were misses, and some were just unusual choices. Sheena, The Return of Captain Invincible, and Disney's try at combining comics with secret agents a la Superargo, Condorman, may have had some moments, and probably didn't cost tons to make. But the road from a comic or original comic character to screen riches was still pretty much a pig path, and these projects got lost along it at some point.

One small, quiet film in the aftermath of the Superman film phenom ends up as one of my all-time favorite Guilty Pleasures, though. Is it a great piece of cinema? Nope. Does it have special effects wizardry that oooohs and ahhhhhs? Nope. But it has the heart of heroism taken from comics characters and distilled into a story that made me weep as a teen. Now I can be sappy nowadays. Age grants passes for a little heart-string-tugging sappiness. But I wasn't a sappy teen. I was like most teens, which means getting acclimated to the School of Hard Knocks and girding for the tests of the Real World. I liked fantasy, sure. But I didn't -feel- the higher ideals of the fantastic very often. This movie hit me with a double barrel of Why I Love Comic Book Heroes, and I never even saw it coming.

1980's Hero at Large drew me in thanks to John Ritter. I thought he was funny on Three's Company, and I figured he'd make a funny superhero after watching the previews. Basically, Ritter plays a struggling actor who takes a job playing 'Captain Avenger' along with a host of other 'Captain Avengers' sent to theaters across New York city for 'personal appearances' at the release of a movie about the fictitious superhero (OK, they're all fictitious, this one was just made for the film and wasn't based on any actual comic book hero). But unlike most of his costumed cohorts, Ritter's Steve Nichols is a decent guy who enjoys playing the role and signing autographs for the kids....some of whom disdain him and the film-within-a-film and the whole spandex hero thing in general. Knowing what I know now about the gregarious and giving nature of Mr. Ritter, this may have been his most true-to-life role, an actor always eager to take on challenging roles and even more eager to help friends and fellow actors whenever he could. (Billy Bob Thornton and others credit him with giving them a start in the business by guiding them to roles he was offered, but which he thought they would perform better.) A scene in the film reflects this as well. Nichols is having lunch with his agent when a fellow young actor drops by their table to thank Nichols for suggesting a part in a commercial, a part the other actor got. 'Schmuck! I sent that audition to you!,' the agent growls. 'Yeah, but he needed the work more. He's a nice guy,' defends Nichols to a refrain from his agent of, 'Double schmuck!' Part of HaL's charm is that the world isn't a fantasy one...it's New York in all its gruff, concrete and big city native splendor. Which makes the unlikely tale ring truer and shine brighter by contrast.

One night after a Captain Avenger appearance, his costume still on under his trench coat, Steve stops to get a snack at his neighborhood Mom & Pop grocery store. When two men come in to rob the place, he doffs the coat and surprises them from the back of the store as...Captain Avenger! A few fists fly and two robbers are scared away. But the media picks up the story, and everyone begins to wonder...who -is- this real life hero? Is there really a Captain Avenger watching over the harried inhabitants of the Big Apple and trying to protect the city? Seeing the hope his actions instill, Nichols begins to go 'on patrol' as Captain Avenger. Eventually his identity is deduced by an unscrupulous local politician looking to get re-elected, and he gives him the choice to do a few heroic deeds on his behalf, or get outed and sued by the film company who owns the rights to the character. An eventual public fall from grace takes place, and he has to flee from an angry crowd. Everyone thinks his actions were all part of a publicity stunt, his strings pulled by City Hall, his altruism just another phony front foisted on gullible citizens. Packing up to leave town and the acting life once and for all, Steve, still in his torn and dirtied costume, sees an apartment fire down the block. With the ceiling and walls dangerously weakened, police and firemen evacuate all the people they can find, but there are still some unaccounted for. The word goes out: It's too dangerous for anyone to risk going inside the collapsing structure to look for anyone else. Then, a spotlight finds a man on the rooftop, running toward the flames. A man in a bright costume, braving the inferno to re-enter the building. Nichols manages to free survivors, but a wall falls in leaving him trapped. Inspired by what he's done, cops and firemen defy orders and in turn rush into the burning building and rescue the hero. Because heroism, bravery and selflessness...even in a place like New York City...inspire others to be heroes, too.

Told you it was sappy. Budget had to be a concern, because it's short and the cast is modest. It's not even a great piece of cinema art, overall. But no movie has ever captured the soul of the selfless masked hero, and the man under that mask, better than this film did. It didn't make much money at the ticket window. It's not easy to find a copy. But if you can, it's worth a watch.

Coming in Chapter 2....a World's Finest follow up...Independent's day at the movies...the Adventures of Marvel Mouse begin...and a Hall of Shame in which we induct some of the worst superhero movies ever!


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Daddy Issues


My father was born in 1899. When I shared that with a co-worker recently, he found that unbelievable. But he was. And 62 years later, he and his 3rd wife (he outlived the first 2), had a 'whoooops' moment and I was the result. Thus, two generations spanning the 19th and 21st Centuries.

My father lived a colorful life, given his rural roots. Inducted for service in WWI, he shipped east for training and before he could be deployed, the war ended. He contracted the Spanish flu that went global in the aftermath of the war and nearly died anyway before making it back home. He worked as a coal miner when the most advanced equipment deployed besides manpower was mule power. The 20's were a roaring time for him, from the tales told, and an alcohol-enhanced wild automobile ride in that era resulted in the loss of all digits on his right hand except for the index finger and thumb. He spoke of local gangsters and of the Herrin Massacre (Union miners v.s. strikebreakers, death toll 20+) from what sounds, in aftermath, first-hand perspectives. He made moonshine and likely supplied one of the local gangs, led by Charlie Birger. He also got pinched for the 'shine when a neighbor sneaking into his corn crib to steal some roasting ears uncovered his still.



In some ways, his life reminds me of something from the pulps, if  not comic books.
He was 4F for WWII, but worked in an ordinance plant making ammunition for the war effort. The post-war years were spent farming and mining simultaneously. A life lived so large takes a toll, however, as does black lung disease & diabetes. Despite siring a final offspring (for a grand total of 6) at age 62, his health was in sharp decline. By the time I was old enough to know him as 'Dad', he wasn't able to do the usual father and son things. He was barely able to walk, and not unassisted. He was elderly, feeble, and very unhappy with the sedentary and limited life style he was saddled with.
The Hong Kong flu was the second pandemic he'd experienced, and it proved too much for him. But he left my mother and myself with a steady income thanks to his hard work and the resulting Miner's Widow Benefit she received...so long as she never, ever, ever re-married. In those olden times, a widow who got a new husband was no longer eligible for a pension. My mother, both practical and faithful, did not intend to take the pension my father had worked so hard for and throw it away on a marriage that might or might not succeed. So I was raised without what I would call any sort of consistent male role model.

Except for maybe Clark Kent. And Bruce Wayne. Hal Jordan was in there, too, as was Barry Allen, Carter Hall, and Ray Palmer. Comic books were a key and consistent source of male role models for me in those early years. Later, I'd meet grandpas, too, like Ted Grant, Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, the inspirations for the 'Dad' generation of the heroes above. Maybe this is why, as modern versions of all these characters are marched out, re-imagined, re-defined, I'm a little resistant to the changes. It's like spitting on my Dad, you see.

As I've met other comics fans and read musings of still more, I find I'm not alone. There were lots of young boys in my generation who, in part or whole, felt their upbringing was impacted positively by male role models in comics. So, in honor of Father's Day, let's take a look at some of those mensch from the 4-color pages, as well as some series that incorporated Daddy Issues.

Superman...I could really identify with the Last Son of Krypton because he had lost not one father, but two. And what great fathers. One was a leading statesman-scientist on the far-flung planet Krypton, and capable of launching his infant son in a rocket to safety on an alien world when his homeworld exploded. The other was a humble, strong and moral man capable of adopting an alien son and loving him like his own. Not since Joseph told Mary, 'I've got this.' has there been such a display of guiding, gentle and accepting fatherhood.


Batman, in the days before he became a psychopath who goes through more Robins than the Children's Crusade went through rugrats, was a hero born of the loss of his father and his mother to a ruthless criminal. He was also the Darknight Detective who helped another grieving youth named Dick Grayson avenge the death of his parents, becoming the boy's adoptive father in the process. Darwyn Cooke in his excellent 'JLA: New Frontier' got this just right. It's a shame the power and nobility of the gesture has mostly been lost in the current comics milieu.

Ben Parker may not have been Peter's biological father, but when he took on the job of raising his nephew, he was the sort of Dad we all wished for. He molded the young boy into a decent human being, and his death forged that teen into Spider-Man. And arachnophobic criminals haven't stopped looking nervously over their shoulders since. 

A bit of an oddity in Dad-Son relationships came from DC with their product-tie in hero, Captain Action. Based on the Ideal action figure, the hero in comics was given a son to serve as 'Action Boy'. Clive and Carl Arno were one of the few father and son superhero teams, and -the- only father and son action figure set I'm aware of. Widowed archaeologist Clive Arno shared a cache of magic coins unearthed in an excavation with his son, Carl, and together they shared boy's nights out by dressing as fanciful Mystery Men and taking on crime cartels, alien menaces and madmen bent on world domination. Plus, he let Carl keep a black panther, faithful Khem, as a pet! Now that's my kind of Dad.

Kinder and gentler Dads weren't the only variety out there, though. Over at Marvel, Odin set the standard for displaying tough love. When his heir apparent, Thor, proved that being raised as royalty led to arrogance, willfulness and conduct considered rude, crude and mythologically unacceptable, he stripped him of his powers, his nifty Uru hammer, and his birthright, then cast him down to fend for himself on savage Midgard as a lowly, lame mortal. At least until he could learn some manners.

Professor Charles Xavier may not have had kids of his own, but his School for Gifted Youngsters was home for any mutant youths who needed one. And in many instances, he became their surrogate father and protector. While most of the examples herein have been lost in the shuffle of modern comic storytelling except as a flashback, Professor X's impact in the lives of his 'children' has remained a focal point of the series. And he wasn't above a little tough love himself. When the other mutants threatened to leave if he took in the former villainess, Rogue, he was ready to help 'em pack.

Outside the Big Two companies, fatherhood also found focus at times. I still remember the first time I picked up a copy of 'Lone Wolf and Cub'. Apparently, the family that slices and dices together, stays together!


'Invincible' also carries a strong sense of family in its stories. It just ain't easy having one of the most iconic heroes on the planet for a father, and when you develop powers of your own, it gets even harder. The creative team has done a great job of exploring home life behind the masks with their primary characters, while keeping the action consistent and all with a good sense of humor and something lacking in many, many titles these days: Fun!

In days gone by, DC has also had some fun with the generational theme of fathers and sons. One 'World's Finest' ongoing imaginary series (later shown to be some sort of Kryptonian computer program to determine how the offspring of the World's Finest team would drive their fathers crazy) was the Super Sons. Clark Kent, Jr. and Bruce Wayne, Jr. were more than willing to slip on their respective dad's costumes and take their more youthful crimefighting style to the streets when the old guard seemed to be taking too long to crack a mystery. Readers dug their hip lingo, and the way they would rebel and handle things their own way, sticking it to The Man! Hey, man, it was the 1970s.

There were other stories dealing with Superman and Batman parenthood, some 'imaginary' and some in the regular continuity but the result of a trick or a temporary crisis.

Maybe our real surrogate fathers, we of the generation left to find male role models due to mortality or separation from our actual fathers, aren't so two-dimensional after all. Maybe our surrogate fathers are the men behind the panels, the stories and the art. Men like Stan Lee. Joe Kubert. Jack Kirby. Julius Schwartz. Steve Ditko. Denny O'Neil.  Curt Swan.  Murphy Anderson.  Cary Bates.  Thanks, fellas. You made a world...infinite worlds...of difference in the lives of many lonely boys and girls. Happy Father's Day.