Rant From Cliff, A
After my high hopes for Batman Begins were promptly dashed by watching that mess of a film recently I felt it was time for someone to say what surely more than a few of us have been thinking but haven't the gall to speak out loud. Yes, allow me to stand up on my well polished soapbox and be the first to declare that:
The Superhero comic-book film onslaught must cease.
I know, I know, there's always a chance that the next one is the good one, the one that makes sitting through near-misses and total messes all worthwhile. To some people that film is a Spiderman , or its sequel. To me it's X-Men 2 . Whatever it is to you, the chances are that film will remain your favourite foray into comic-book movies. The likelihood of another great adaptation is getting smaller and smaller as the spread gets bigger and bigger. And as a quick disclaimer allow me to point out that in this rant my spray is not meant to include the arguably more artful underground comic/graphic novels adaptations such as Ghost World or Sin City , which for whatever result, take just as much artistic license with the film versions and should be judged on different merits. No, I'm talking about the cape-wearing, telepathic, web-crawling, mutant superheroes from the mainstream DC and Marvel comic stables.
I spent a vast amount of my childhood digesting all the comic book adventures I could stand – which turns out was as many as my pocket-money could afford. Don't worry, I'm not going to go into a nostalgic discourse about how they weren't just pretty pictures to me (although they sure were) or jizz over my favourite artists like Ditko, Byrne, Kirby, Miller, or mention how I think comic book's archetypal battles between good and evil and the amazing framing of this action has largely shaped how I view the medium of film and was probably responsible for igniting my passion for it. No, instead I will just take this paragraph to illustrate, quite simply, that I loved comics. I was a proud ‘Marvel boy,' who went nuts on Spider-man and X-Men in particular, before Marvel went stupid and killed off all their heroes to be “re-born” in a bold move to gain new readers which ultimately just chased away the once-loyal readers they did have. Like me. But that's another beef for another time.
You can imagine that for a child who loved such comics and who was also increasingly losing his head in the movies that news of the two worlds coming together was treated as a cataclysmic event. However the 80's and early 90's film attempts of the comics I was reading didn't even pass the harsh judgment of the twelve-year-old critic in me whose only criteria at that age was that a film “has to be cool”. The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield with email star David Hasselhoff , Captain America starring a perfect nobody and Generation X starring a bunch of them and made for the price I paid to rent it, all failed that test miserably.
It was without any competition then that Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns stand out as the best comic book adaptations of my early life. (Sure, Richard Donner's Superman rules, but that was made before my time.) I wasn't a huge Batman comic fan, but I still knew that these films were good comic-book films, regardless of their faithfulness to the comics or camp television series (which I was blissfully unawares of anyways). The less said about the Joel Schumacher directed sequels the better. That sentence was even too much space devoted to discussing them.
Yes, it was another 8 years before another decent comic flick appeared in the form of Bryan Singer's X-Men , (sure the first Blade had already appeared, and maybe a passable vampire flick, but a great comic-book movie it was not) kick-starting the common trend by the studios to try and be seen as taking these kiddy comic-book franchises serious by hiring art-house and remarkably non-commercial favorites to helm their valuable properties. Thus Sam Raimi was allowed to marry his distinctive style to the Spiderman name, and Nolan was hired for Batman Begins . Raimi's Spiderman truly started what X-Men fans had hoped but dared not say: Comic Book Films had truly arrived. Floodgates = open.
Yes, in the last few years we've had dozens of comic-book films appear and disappear just as quickly; Daredevil , Electra , Hulk , Catwoman , The Punisher (a new, non Dolph version), made the superhero genre into a certifiable epidemic – to the levels where Pixar cleverly sensed the movement early and jumped on board with The Incredibles , an animated film that features a very Fantastic Four-ish family. Now we have an actual Fantastic Four film emerging after the fact, along with a new Superman by X-Men 's Singer (that frankly sounds stranger by the detail – including Marlon Brando footage as Supes's dad???) and Nic Cage, once hired and paid for a Superman role he never played, finally getting a superhero gig in Ghost Rider . On top of this there are third outings already in the works for X-Men and Spiderman that should be with us soon.
It's getting to the point that regardless of how inspired the choice of director is on these projects, they're getting churned out so quickly that making a good film has obviously taken a backseat as all studios are trying to ride the same wave before it crashes and we have to wait another 10 years or so until someone takes a chance again on a comic book adaptation. The X-Men franchise started out a bit shaky but found its feet with the excellent X-Men 2 (ignoring some plot-device problems: they absolutely nailed the characters). The torch for X-Men 3 has been passed to the totally bland Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, who has essentially swapped films with Singer, as his was the name attached to direct the new Superman film not long ago before Singer stepped in and rescued it from development hell.
It is obvious, and not only to my former comic book loving self, that these films are getting worse. I don't want to start throwing around box office receipts figures (mainly because I cannot be fucked looking them up) but just think back to how quickly Catwoman or Electra vanished from the cinemas and you'll have proof enough. Public interest will soon start waning as the product quality stoops and stoops. Soon people will soon long for the “classic” action films of old and we'll see Segal and Van-Damme films rise again as they realise that perhaps these childhood superheroes should stay the domain of their children, and off their local cinema screen.
Sure, the fan, critical and general movie-going audience reaction to Batman Begins may have been overwhelming positive, but since they've had to sit through so many dud quick cash-in attempts they can be forgiven for latching onto something that is, in all honesty, half-decent. I see it as the same delirium that made Jar-Jar haters everywhere praise Revenge Of The Sith as “the one he got right”. Hey, when you compare it to Episodes 1 and 2, the third and last installment of Star Wars is pretty frickin impressive, and Jar-Jar-less.
We need a film to come along and provide the right example: a great superhero comic adaptation that still makes shitloads of money. Spiderman comes so close but has a few bad story and character decision issues I'm hoping they have learned to fix before the next film gets made (that was a pointed jab at how Spider-Man 2 started filming before a script was present). X-Men 3 was another hope that is fading as fast as each of Ratner's ideas and changes get announced to the press (the latest being an addition of a character he has made up: a mutant slut that uses her powers to seduce. How brilliant. ).
The main problem I have with the current crop of superhero comic flicks is, unsurprisingly, the story. The origin story, to be precise. They're all trying to tell them and it's getting tedious seeing how each and every superhero got his/her/their powers/identity. After so many films like this have passed through the collective psyche lately surely it's not asking too much that one film gives us some credit for our intelligence and realises that we as an audience will understand if a film features superheroes that we have not seen get their powers through a lengthy introduction or dodgy flashback – a backstory that always seems to have a half-assed link to the film's main villain. We are familiar with these worlds now. We know superheroes exist in them. No matter how ‘realistic' you try and explain it, it's a hard sell that a bite from a spider can turn you into a radioactive superhuman so just accept that we'll accept that such a thing is possible without actually having to see it, and move the fuck on. The only film that nailed it anyway was M. Night Shamalangadingdong's Unbreakable , and what comic book was that based on? Oh, that's right, none.
Batman Begins wasn't the savior I was hoping for, and it's a fair bet that The Fantastic Four film out next week wont be either. The joke is on me, however, as I will continue to help fund these disasters by going to see them. Brilliant promotion means people rush into films the opening week and thanks to the Internet we have (mostly) international simultaneous releases – there simply is no time for bad word of mouth to get around before the executives are masturbating over the first weekend's figures and signing off on twelve sequels immediately.
So why do I keep going back? Hey, I guess I figure that if someone's going to kill parts of my childhood I should at least be there to witness it. That's the least I can do for the years of entertainment and wonder my favourite comic books gave to me. Plus, there's always a chance that the next one is the good one, the one that makes sitting through near-misses and total messes all worthwhile…