Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Revisiting BATMAN BEGINS And Ends

Shared in various internet forums, my article on "Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em" drew a variety of responses. One item of marginal significance to the overall piece that nevertheless persistently elicited a strong reaction was my identification of BATMAN BEGINS as one of the stinkers in the current comic movie boom. This wasn't any surprise, of course. The cult of the Christopher Nolan bat-flicks has always been strong, and I've been the subject of its criticism ever since I first suggested that the original film is significantly less than the greatest thing since sliced bread and that its director doesn't walk on water. Every time I've ever raised the issue I've gotten pushback, and looking over it now, my original article on BATMAN BEGINS is rather sketchy, more like a series of impressions of the film assembled immediately after having watched it the first time. I've seen it again since then. The subsequent viewing only hardened my initial impression of it--I think I was originally too kind to it. I've also seen most of the third Nolan bat-flick, which is even worse than BEGINS.[1] The reaction to the comic movie article seems an opportune moment to revisit and expand upon my original evaluation.

Adam West's uber-campy '60s television Batman casts a very long shadow over both the character and comic-based productions in general. Its popularity catapulted it from an amusingly stupid diversion to a thing that, in far too many quarters, defined a screen adaptation of a comic book as some cheap, way-over-the-top, insultingly stupid piece of shit that was not to be treated seriously as drama or, indeed, regarded as anything more than dumb, shallow, entirely disposable fun for those who find such things fun--a coffin-shaped box for the genre. Even the appearance, years later, of quality items like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and the INCREDIBLE HULK tv series couldn't exorcise this particular demon, which stood as an obstacle to quality comic adaptations--to comic adaptations, period--for decades, and, in fact, continues to haunt them to this day.

The Batman was particularly haunted by it. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989), which was based on the original Golden Age comics, was very good, still the definitive live-action treatment of the character, but the franchise it touched off immediately collapsed into full-blown, full groan Adam West-ism with BATMAN RETURNS and never looked back. Every entry went further in this direction than the last, every entry was far worse than the last. I've always believed a lot of the accolades poured over BATMAN BEGINS were a consequence of its moving away from this. It didn't quite move as far from it as its fans pretend though.

Conceptually speaking, Marvel's major characters have always been much stronger than those of DC Comics. The Batman is the exception. As a child, Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a mugger in a bad section of town and from that moment forward dedicates his life to an endless crusade against crime. He is the avatar of vengeance--crime had created what would become its greatest scourge. His years to adulthood are spent singlemindedly honing his mind and body to the task. To strike fear into his enemies, he becomes a bat, and the bat, rather than Bruce Wayne, is his true identity. With the fortune inherited from his parents, he launches his private war. From here, his tale takes a new turn. Over the years, he encounters an entire rogue's gallery of villains who are like twisted reflections of himself, also obsessively devoted to making over the world in their own image. The question is raised as to how much their appearances are a consequence of his own. It's simple and brilliant; a powerful modern myth and a goldmine for any storyteller.[2]

And, of course, BATMAN BEGINS pretty much abandons all of it. The film is as entirely uninterested in and unengaged with the source material as was the later (and also dreadful) MAN OF STEEL. BEGINS was released after the first two SPIDER-MAN films had become successful, and it tried to ape those pictures by making Bruce himself somewhat responsible for his parents' death and having him blame himself, rather than the criminal element. Instead of dedicating his life to a crusade, Bruce seems to entirely waste his youth. He's directionless, overly emotional, and goofs off enough to be kicked out of half a dozen colleges. In the comics, the murderer of his parents was unknown until years into his crusade as the Batman, which was a significant part of the myth--the murderer's anonymity meant that crime, rather than just a man, had killed them. In BEGINS, the killer--a hood named Joe Chill--is apprehended immediately after the murder and sent to prison. He's killed in a mob hit when Bruce is 23, at a time before Bruce has even started down the path that will lead him to becoming the Batman. The film's central character is entirely severed from his origin myth by that point--it's a completely different story about a completely different character, not the Batman. For five years, Bruce takes to wandering around the world, lost and without purpose, studying crime and "fear" for reasons he, himself, says he doesn't even understand. In my original piece, I wrote that the babbling about "fear" never comes across as overly pretentious; upon rewatch, I feel as if I understated the pretension factor, but my real objection to it, then as now, was that it's used to fill the vacuum created by abandoning the character's backstory. If one can come up with something better, one can sort of justify this kind of thing. The creators of BEGINS couldn't come up with anything better--they just abandoned the story of the Batman and threw out a cloud of pretentious squid's ink to try to cover that fact. The result is a "Batman" with no core, lost in a production as unfocused as the character.

In the film, Bruce is eventually recruited into the League of Shadows, a secret society of ninja with a hazy anti-city ideology headed by the mysterious Ra's Al Ghul. He spends two years in extremely rigorous training with the League without, apparently, ever even bothering to ask what the League is all about. His time with it abruptly ends when the man he takes to be Ra's Al Ghul looks him in the face and says the order's goal is to "destroy" Gotham and other cities. The reason offered is that cities are "corrupt," which is, of course, no real motive at all. The real reason is because those in the League are the designated villains in the film and designated villains need something villainous to do, whether it makes any sense or not. Delivered deadpan, this big "reveal"--if it can be called that--is the sort of thing one immediately expects to be followed by one of the dramatic "shock" music cues from the old Adam West Batman. Upon first watch, I laughed and shook my head in utter disbelief that the film had gone in this direction. It didn't improve upon rewatch.

As with a lot of old films of camp value, BEGINS wasn't in on the joke--it presented that moment as something we're supposed to take entirely seriously. In explaining the film before its release, Nolan was ever so serious about how ever so serious his movie was to be. From Variety (8 Feb., 2004):

"Batman will be more realistic and less cartoonish. There are no campy villains... Humanity and realism, says Nolan, is the crux of the new pic. 'The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,' he says... 'Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.'"

After the film's release, this sentiment was dutifully picked up and parroted by many reviewers (which can't help but make one wonder if they ever even saw the picture). Holding to this as a goal is another way in which Nolan's project was fundamentally misguided, and had the director rigorously pursued that path, one could legitimately say it was yet another way in which the film is fundamentally at odds with the source material. The Batman is a blatantly romantic fantasy awash in heaping helpings of glorious expressionism. What Nolan actually did, though, was, as I noted in my original review, try to paste together two diametrically opposed strains of story, great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" and the sort of shallow, overcooked, and silly kid's stuff one got from DC comics--and Adam West Batman--decades ago. The two destroy one another; every element of the latter in the film is ludicrous, yet it's treated with the same humorless gravity as the rest of the story.

"Year One" had presented a dark and utterly corrupt Gotham. Throughout, there was the theme that this was a town that badly needed a Batman. In its first act, BEGINS taps into that again and again. The film is missing a Bruce that needs to be a Batman though. After leaving the League, Bruce doesn't really have any reason for becoming the Batman. Rather than following an urgent psychological need to wage a war on crime after a childhood trauma led to a lifetime spent preparing for it, BEGINS' Bruce takes up the fight idealistically, simply deciding Gotham needs him. That this radical change renders extraneous and irrelevant everything leading up to that point never seemed to occur to the filmmakers. Following "Year One" and "The Long Halloween" (another tale of the early Batman), the film sets up Carmine "The Roman" Falcone as Gotham's biggest crime boss, a guy with a massive criminal empire, with his fingers in every crooked pie and protected on all sides by corrupt officialdom. Invincible to everyone but a costumed vigilante who doesn't play by the rules. Unfortunately, having spent a lot of time setting up Falcone in this way, the film immediately disposes of him. The Batman roughs up some thugs (in an exceptionally poorly directed action sequence),[3] ties up Falcone, hands over to officialdom some evidence that wouldn't be admissible in any court in the U.S., and that's the end of the Roman. It takes only a few minutes of screentime. So much for Gotham's profound corruption and its need for a Batman.

This, of course, entirely discredits what little motive there was behind the big villain plot, to which the film then returns. Gotham was said to be irretrievably corrupt, yet the Batman decimates its central crime figure with near-effortless ease (Falcone is only ever seen again in one brief scene). As that central villain plot plays out, it proves to be an incredibly elaborate, impossible, completely ridiculous motive-free scheme--a meaner, more dour version of the sorts of things the giggling no-goodniks of the Adam West Batman used to do twice a week.

Ra's Al Ghul's plan to "destroy" Gotham is to fill the city's water supply with a chemical that, whenever vaporized, drives people insane and makes them kill one another. He isn't introducing it by poisoning the reservoirs; he's having it poured from drums into a pipe leading into the city. No, that's no joke. Not an intentional one, that is. His henchmen have been pouring it in for weeks. To note the obvious, water in such a system doesn't sit in a pipe; it's constantly rushing into the city in the way we're shown because it's being used. New York, the comic model for Gotham, uses a billion gallons of water a day. Even if some idiot could introduce enough of a chemical into the system in this way to matter--and he couldn't--everyone who has a hot shower or who boils water should have been going insane for weeks. To activate the chemical, which has magically stayed in the lines all that time, the villains have stolen a microwave device that, when placed on a hijacked train, will, we're told, vaporize the city's entire water supply. No one apparently informed BEGINS' creators what makes up most of the human body. No one apparently informed Ra's Al Ghul that the easiest way to destroy a city would be to simply set off a big bomb or a few big bombs.

BEGINS, like so many other comic adaptations, suffers from epic-itis. The Batman has been through as many versions and permutations as any character in comics, but while in various forms, he's certainly tackled his share of population-threatening menaces, his finest moments tend to come as a street-level crimefighter. It's hardwired into the character by virtue of his origin. In that respect--as in so many other respects--the BEGINS project was fundamentally at odds with the nature of the character. The Batman isn't just some ninja. He's a scientist, a criminologist, a master detective, among the many core facets of the character entirely excluded from BEGINS. To the others in his world, he's a very mysterious figure, which is impossible to portray on film if, as happens with BEGINS, we're constantly following his every move, in on his every trick. And for all the talk of "fear" in BEGINS, we're never allowed any sense that the criminal underworld ever develops any real fear of him--the point of his becoming a bat in the first place.[4]

As a Batman film, BEGINS is an utter failure. As a standalone film, it's insultingly idiotic. Like the event that makes up its climax, it's a train-wreck. Like MAN OF STEEL, it's a film whose creators had no real interest in the character or his world and who didn't show the material any respect. Like train-wrecks, MAN OF STEEL and most adaptations-in-name-only, it sucks.



[1] I still haven't seen THE DARK KNIGHT, the most hyped film of the run. The first film left me with no desire to see it, and the third did absolutely nothing to spur my interest either.

[2] It must be said that DC Comics, the Batman's owners, have often been terrible stewards of this myth. In the Batman's earliest days, he was entirely unconcerned with preserving the lives of the scum with which he tangled. As his primary readers were children, DC editorially imposed a mandate that the character wouldn't kill anyone anymore (the same as happened with Superman). Initially, this was carried out by simply not putting the character in a position where such a thing was necessary. Later writers, unfortunately, grafted the no-killing parameter on to the personality of the character itself, which simply can't be done in any logical manner. Worse, they made the Batman very self-righteous about this, then made a regular practice of rubbing readers' noses in it in such a way as to make a joke of the character. Several years ago, there was a story in "Action Comics" (#719, "Hazard's Choice") about the Joker poisoning Lois Lane. She's dying. Superman and Batman go to see the Joker and ask how they can save her and he tells them that they can inject him with a chemical that will mix with one already in his blood and provide an antidote. The rub? Injecting him will kill him. Back in the good ol' days of the early Golden Age, the only question that would arise next is whether the two of them would have injected the Joker before they killed him. The meek, pathetic characters DC has made of them, though, won't even consider it--they simply slink away, returning to Metropolis to watch Lois (Superman's wife at the time) slowly die while mouthing self-righteous platitudes. The writer then chose a cop-out ending wherein the Joker's joke was that the poison wouldn't kill Lois after all, but even that helps make the point. Characters who think that decision amounts to a "moral" one are pathetic and useless, and bereft of any real sense of morality.

A Batman who, when placed in such situations, becomes a principled advocate of the health-and-safety-at-all-costs of mass-murdering animals like the Joker and self-righteously denounces anyone who doesn't share his enthusiasm for their continued-existence-at-all-costs--and this happens all the time in the books--is violating one of the most basic rules of the archetype. Given the circumstances of his creation, it's literally impossible to imagine the Batman making the argument that the lives of Thomas and Martha Wayne (his parents) are no more valuable than that of the thug who shot them down in cold blood. If he really believed that, he wouldn't be the Batman. Yet that's exactly the argument his writers routinely have him make.

[3] All of the action sequences in the film are poorly shot.

[4] Underscoring the terribly unfocused nature of the production, the film spends a great deal of time on the theme of "fear," includes the Scarecrow, a villain primarily associated with fear, then does basically nothing with him. He's given almost no screentime and no opportunity to do much of anything.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em

For comic books fans, the last 16 years have been a pretty plum time for screen adaptations of our beloved sequential artform. There have been comic book movies almost as long as there had been comics but it was the success of BLADE in 1998 that established comic movies as a major A-list genre, one that shows no sign of fading away in the near future. Since then, we've gotten a few great movies (HULK, X2, THE AVENGERS, SIN CITY, WATCHMEN, etc.), quite a few good ones (SPIDER-MAN, THOR, X-MEN, IRON MAN, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, etc.), and a whole pen of turkeys (V FOR VENDETTA, DAREDEVIL, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, BATMAN BEGINS, MAN OF STEEL, SPIDER-MAN 2, etc.).[1] That's pretty much the pattern with any other genre, but comic adaptations have so far managed a better record than most. Sturgeon's Law says "90% of everything is crap," and I only depart from it in thinking the number closer to 99%, but the comic pictures have somewhat bucked this trend.. The crap probably still dominates, pound-for-pound, but the good-to-great stuff occupies a much larger percentage of the whole, which is remarkable in itself and positively extraordinary when one considers that most of these films are huge-budget Hollywood tentpole features (a category that, these days, generates almost nothing but crap). Even if I wasn't a lifelong comics fan, the significantly better-than-usual success rate of these pictures would make them something I'd want to see continued.

There are still some things missing from this boom, though. Pretty noticeable things. Things I would argue this genre needs if its going to survive and thrive. I've been rattling on about them in various forums for years now, haranguing friends, spinning out posts on internet message boards, etc. And for all the years, they're still missing from the films.

The first big omission, one I'm far from alone in noticing, is the women. Lady superheroes, or even lady supervillains. They aren't entirely missing in action. They feature in the team movies, but they're often barely even a presence. Storm in the X-Men films is probably the most glaring example. In the comics, Storm--Ororo Munroe--is an excellent, well-drawn character. She's a Kenyan princess, the daughter of a witch priestess and an American journalist. Her parents were killed in a bombing when she was very young, and, buried alive in the resulting rubble herself, she became terribly claustrophobic, a condition that plagues her for the rest of her life. She becomes a child thief in Cairo and when her mutant powers manifest at puberty, she uses them to set herself up as a goddess among an isolated native tribe in the Serengeti, which is what she's doing when Charles Xavier recruits her for the X-Men. She could carry a film or even a series of films by herself. In the X-Men movies, all of that is stripped away and she's barely even given any lines. A viewer who only knew her from her screen representation wouldn't know much more about her than her physical appearance (in the films).

Given the volume of comic movies we've seen since BLADE, the lack of big, prestige comic pictures with women as the principal stars is astonishing. To date, there have been only two: ELEKTRA and CATWOMAN. The first, spun off from the awful DAREDEVIL film, was almost unwatchable. The second had some good ideas, the right star, and wasn't as bad as its reputation suggests,[2] but it certainly wasn't a very good movie.

A particularly dark gaze of disapproval must fall upon DC (Warner Bros) in this matter, as it holds the rights to the best-known, most iconic lady superhero ever created. Wonder Woman is a princess of the Amazons of Greek myth, a tribe that, in the comic telling, was once enslaved then, when freed, retired from the world of men to immortal lives on a mystical island. Wonder Woman--Diana--was created from a clay effigy of a baby crafted by her mother Queen Hippolyta and given life via supernatural means. She grows up to become a powerful warrioress and eventually a kind of ambassador to the outside world, dedicated to combating injustice.[3] The character has been revamped several times since, with both good and bad results. Any potential film project has a rich vein of mythology 70 years deep from which to draw. A WW feature was announced a few years ago then fell through. A new WW television series made it as far as the pilot stage in 2011 then was rejected. The CW tinkered with the idea of a new series as well, a sort of prequel called AMAZON, then, in January, dropped it. Israeli model Gal Gadot has just been announced as the new screen Wonder Woman.[4] She isn't going to star in a WW movie, though. Rather, she's been relegated to a guest appearance in the upcoming MAN OF STEEL sequel pitting Superman against Batman, a project each new piece of information suggests has as its goal becoming the world-champion turkey of the comic movie canon.[5] The lack of a Wonder Woman movie so far into this boom is an absolute scandal, one that shows no sign of being redressed in the near future.[6]

The list of supergals who would translate well to the screen is quite lengthy. Everyone has their favorite picks. Marvel has already established the Black Widow in their cinematic universe, and, essayed by the most excellent Scarlett Johansson (who can certainly carry a picture), she seems an obvious choice. Dazzler, a mutant whose body converts sound into energy; is arguably better suited to the screen than to the page. The villainess turned sort-of heroine Emma Frost appeared, while still villainous, in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but, as usual, was barely even a presence. She would be a great subject for screen treatment. Supergirl is a young, petite girl who battles overwhelming forces of evil--what's not to love? She was used to often good effect in SMALLVILLE; I definitely want to see her return to the big screen in a film that does her justice. I've long thought a Tigra flick would be a worthy project for the right filmmaker. That seems, at first blush, a somewhat odd choice,
but when it comes to great, endlessly quirky movie material Tigra has everything. It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde story, it has magic and super-science, a banished race, an ancient legend, odd sexual fetishism (when it comes to her dealings with Kraven the Hunter, who would almost have to play the villain of the piece)--a great, conflicted character who was a superhero cat (The Cat) before she ever became a superhero cat-woman. For a project willing to veer a bit off the beaten track, she's a goldmine. And, of course, the big one in Marvel's stable--or at least the big one as far as I'm concerned--is the She-Hulk. Jennifer Walters, the shy and reserved cousin of Bruce Banner--the Hulk--is gunned down by vengeful mobsters and to save her, Banner must transfuse her with his own gamma-irradiated blood, a process that eventually transforms her into a big, green Amazon with super-strength. Unlike her cousin, though, she doesn't become a raging brute. She retains her full faculties in her Hulk form and her real transformation, it turns out, is more personal than physical. Becoming the She-Hulk makes her shed her shyness and gain confidence in herself. A lawyer, she comes to love being a superhero on the side, and to prefer the She-Hulk to her own form. Being a Marvel character, of course, she's far from perfect. Those old insecurities can creep back in, her life can become quite complicated, and she doesn't always make the best decisions when trying to sort it all out. Her writers have given her a great deal of depth over the years--she's probably the best-realized, most human superheroine in the Marvel stable, a great, great character who is long overdue for feature treatment.[7]

Shulkie became a subject of some controversy earlier this month. David Goyer appeared, with a few other screenwriters, on a podcast called Scriptnotes. At one point, the discussion turned to the She-Hulk and got pretty ugly. Host Craig Mazin said "the real name for She-Hulk was Slut-Hulk. That was the whole point. Let’s just make this green chick with enormous boobs." Goyer joined in, among other things calling the character "a giant, green porn star" who was created to sexually service the Hulk. The response from Stan Lee, comics' Allfather and She-Hulk co-creator, was swift and to the point: "Only a nut would even think of that." Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, more extensively unloads on Goyer in a piece that mostly hits the mark. Goyer's comments could just be dismissed as juvenile dumbassery (which is what they are), but it's also rather telling that, prompted to randomly bullshit over a subject about which he clearly knows nothing and to which he's given no real thought at all, this is what comes out of him. And Goyer is the fellow who is going to be writing the new screen incarnation of Wonder Woman.

It was heartening to see the furious reaction to this incident on the internet--pretty much outrage all the way around. It must be acknowledged that, in the overly Puritanical U.S., bringing any lady superhero to the screen involves (or can be seen as involving) navigating a sort of minefield of sexual politics. If a superheroine is sexy or shows any hint of libidinous impulses, there's an unfortunate tendency in some quarters to find this exploitative and unacceptable and in others to find the character slutty and unadmirable. Either attitude is pretty much indifferent to superheroes as a fantasy of superbeings who are still recognizably human, and neither seriously engages with it. One stems from unvarnished sex-is-bad Puritanism, the other from a range of other concerns having to do with the portrayal of women in a distorted, inappropriate or negative way, the reduction of women to commodified sexual objects, a media culture that presents only such women as models, and so on. And there's a lot of crossover between the two.[8] The She-Hulk is a character that definitely brings all of this to a head. In addition to everything else, she's also sexy and she knows it, and, as Rosenberg writes, "a swashbuckling heart-breaker." If someone portrayed her as some "brain-dead courtesan" (also Rosenberg), there would be outrage,[9] and when Goyer and Bazin go Beavis-and-Butthead on her, there is outrage. There are still knuckle-draggers and Puritan tight-asses in the world, but most people usually come to the right conclusions on such matters.

An obstacle in getting the ladies to the screen in feature roles is no doubt the perception that they fail at the box-office, but, to point out the obvious, they've never really been given anything remotely approximating a fair chance. The very few efforts there have been in the past bombed because they weren't any good. I've made getting comic-book-style supergirls to the screen a sort of mission within my own film work, but my micro-budgeted productions are certainly no solution to this vacuum. They do, however, point in a possibly useful direction and provide a segue to the other missing ingredient in the current superhero boom.

Behind the comic adaptations, there is, unfortunately, an increasingly entrenched tentpole mentality at work. Everything has to be some huger-than-huge, mile-a-minute effects-laden epic with the fate of the world resting on the outcome, and each new picture has to top the last one on this score. And we need the huge-scale epics, to be sure, but they need to be supplemented with smaller projects that give the characters room to live and breath. The ability to tell such tales in the comics and develop the characters at length is what has made them survive and thrive over the years. When an epic tale came along, readers had a good understanding of the characters and it gave the story more meaning and greater impact.

On the other hand, the focus only on huge epics in the cinematic adaptations does real violence to the source material. Le Beau and partner-in-blog Daffy Stardust recently began a regular podcast over at Le Blog, and their second, which deals with comic-book movies, involves a relevant discussion of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. As they (Daffy, primarily) note, Cap, in the comics, blamed himself for the death of his sidekick Bucky during the war. It was a psychological scar that gnawed at him for years, constantly showing up in the background. When it turned out Bucky was still alive, that long history gave the revelation a real impact. The movie comes in the midst of a series of films that have done absolutely nothing to establish that Cap feels any guilt over Bucky's death, and in trying to cut that corner in the service of scale, sacrifices that impact. A smaller Cap project, tucked between THE FIRST AVENGER and AVENGERS or between AVENGERS and WINTER SOLDIER, could have been used to lay the necessary groundwork (it wouldn't have hurt to delay tackling the Winter Soldier story until later, either). In the pages of "Iron Man," the conflict between Obadiah Stane and Tony Stark was an elaborate tale full of twists and turns that went on for about two years and involved Stane ruining Stark and taking over his company while Stark gives up his Iron Man identity and ends up reduced to an alcoholic shell of his former self. He has to put himself back together from almost nothing and confront Stane in what becomes an epic duel to the death. The first IRON MAN feature, while good, wouldn't even qualify as a Cliff's Notes representation. One of the worst examples of this sort of harm is the handling of George Stacy from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. In the comic version, Peter Parker becomes paranoid that Stacy, a police captain and the father of Peter's girlfriend Gwen, is starting to suspect he's Spider-Man. Over time, Stacy even drops hints to that effect. It goes on like this for a while then, one day, Spider-Man is battling Dr. Octopus atop a building and a big section of brickwork is knocked loose and falls to earth. Stacy, on the scene below, charges in and rescues a child from the falling debris, but he's crushed beneath it. Spider-Man swoops down, pulls him out of it and tries to get him to a hospital. It plays out like this:

As with all the rest, the moment is dependent upon all that preceded it. In the movie version, it's all just thrown away. Stacy is a rather unlikeable Dennis Leary who, only appearing in parts of one film, never develops any real history with Peter, unmasks Peter then, as he's dying, extracts from Peter a promise to stay away from his daughter. Not only do the filmmakers sacrifice what could have been a powerful moment, they have Stacy use his dying words to be a prick.

Spider-Man is ill-suited to epic-ism in general. He's primarily a street-level character. He doesn't often face potentially earth-shattering threats. His bread-and-butter involves dealing with much more down-to-earth problems. His rogue's gallery is mostly made up of street criminals who have gained extraordinary powers--Electro, Mysterio, the Vulture, the Kingpin, the Sandman, Shocker, the Enforcers (who I'd love to see on film). The same is true of the Batman. It's especially the case with Daredevil, whose finest moments usually involve entirely mortal adversaries. Among the legion of things the 2003 DAREDEVIL film got terribly wrong was the decision by the studio suits, in the aftermath of SPIDER-MAN's mega-success, to turn it into a huge-scale, effects-laden blockbuster picture--totally out of character for the material. Daredevil is film noir. Daredevil is crime-stories full of bad luck and savage ironies told in smoke-filled rooms with light filtering in from outside through venetian blinds. It's THE USUAL SUSPECTS and CHINATOWN and ROMEO IS BLEEDING and DRIVE. You don't need $78 million in bad wirework and CGI to do Daredevil. You find a Jet Li and put him in a red suit.

One could, in fact, theoretically do a great Daredevil movie in which Matt Murdock never even puts on that red suit. One of my favorite DD stories is "Badlands" from "Daredevil" #219. It's a sort of modernized HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER in which Murdock, dressed just like Brando in THE WILD ONE, wanders into a dingy little town in New Jersey, rights a wrong that had been done in the past, then leaves. Not only does he never don the uniform, he never even says a word. He's never identified as anything other than some drifter. That's not, by itself, a feature, but it has the right spirit.

One of my favorite Hulk stories is a simple little Bill Mantlo tale from "Incredible Hulk" #262. It's almost like a Twilight Zone episode about a mysterious woman who lives in a glass house by the sea and almost looks as if she's made of glass herself. She finds Bruce Banner washed up on shore and takes him in. She's an artist who works in glass--her entire home is filled with her sculptures. She says she wants to sculpt him. He stays for weeks and becomes her lover. By the end, it's revealed that her "sculptures" are real people she's turned to glass. She has the power to do so, but only by the light of a full moon. She lures Banner into her studio and not only wants to turn him to glass but to capture him in mid-transformation to the Hulk. Needless to say, things don't go as she planned. The final image is a wonderful ghost.

That same issue features another great, small tale, also written by Mantlo, called "Foundling." Banner, after the business with the sculptress, seeks a job at a research institute. When he arrives, he sees a fleeing hysterical boy ran down, tackled and sedated by a fellow in a lab coat and a woman. The boy is screaming about how they're not really his parents. The man explains the boy is his son, who has severe psychological problems and must be kept heavily medicated. He's the doctor who runs the research institute and Banner goes to work for him. Banner learns from others at the institute that the boy has had problems since hitting puberty. One night there's a ruckus on the grounds and it's revealed that the boy is a Dire Wraith, a shape-shifting alien monster who fell to earth years ago and was raised by the doctor and his wife as their own son. Since hitting adolescence, he's begun realizing he's different in some way--a realization the couple have tried to repress--and when he assumes his Wraith form he begins to remember his programming. He attacks Banner, who becomes the Hulk and the two fight it out. The alien is no match for the Hulk, but just as the jade giant is about to put him away the doctor rushes between them. He says the boy is still their son and insists the Hulk back off. When the Hulk notes the boy is nothing but a a monster, the doctor angrily throws it in his face that he is nothing but a monster and has no right to pass judgment on them. With a look of anguish at the doctor's words, the Hulk leaps away, leaving the couple nursing their now-re-sedated "son."

The comic Hulk is hated and hunted, constantly tormented by a world he can't understand. Another Hulk favorite of mine, this one widely recognized as a classic, is "Heaven is a Very Small Place" ("Incredible Hulk" #147). Authored by Gerry Conway, this is about as stripped down as stories come--only a few pages. In the story, the Hulk is leaping through a desert and sees a town form before his eyes. The people seem friendly and at first, the Hulk thinks this kindness is directed toward him. The town is like a ghost, though. No one seems to see the Hulk. He realized they're immaterial. Eventually, through, he comes upon a little girl in a wheelchair who apparently does see him. They chat, they get along, she calls him a friend and then she and the rest of the town abruptly vanish. The Hulk is anguished, screams for the town to come back. There remains nothing but empty desert, though, and he strikes the ground with sufficient force to generate a minor earthquake.

Another stripped-down gem is "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" ("Amazing Spider-Man" #248). Authored by Roger Stern, it's about a meeting between Spider-Man and his biggest fan, a kid who has collected everything he can about the wall-crawler. The two have a nice little chat--the kid seems to know everything about Spidey's career.And then the boy asks him who he really is. And Spider-Man unmasks and tells him! He tells of how his inaction led to his uncle's death, how this led him to do what he does. The two part on good terms and the big reveal at the end is that the boy was gravely ill and dies from leukemia a few days later.

Still another keeper: Tom DeFalco's "Time Runs Like Sand" from "Marvel Two-In-One" #86. An exhausted Flint Marko, the Sandman, wanders into a bar and orders a drink. The nervous bartender, recognizing him, calls for the Fantastic Four, reaching Ben Grimm, the Thing. Grimm rushes to the saloon, bursts through the door and calls out Marko. But the Sandman doesn't want to fight. Instead, they have a seat, order drinks and Marko relates to Ben the story of his life. He's tired of being a hood and just wants to leave that all behind. At the end he surrenders to Ben and volunteers to go quietly, but Ben, now finding him sympathetic and impressed with his willingness to reform, decides to cut him a break and lets him go free.
(Like Mantlo, DeFalco could sometimes spin offbeat stories with haunting endings. His "An Obituary For Octopus" from "Spider-Man Unlimited "#3 is such a tale, and, by my estimation, the second-best Dr. Octopus story, behind only Mantlo's Owl/Doc. Ock war from "Spectacular Spider-Man" #72-79. Read about it here.)

I could spin these into infinity. Most I've rattled off are particularly stripped down, but even the standard-issue superhero material typically takes place on a much more intimate level than the epic features allow. Such stories are what comics have been doing for decades and what helped make them popular enough to jump to film in the first place. The movies rarely even touch these kinds of tales though.

To me, the most exciting news about upcoming Marvel projects isn't ANT MAN (particularly since it just lost Edgar Wright) or the second AVENGERS picture or any of the other features that have been discussed. It's the Netflix material Marvel is developing. A 13-episode Daredevil series, followed by a series devoted to Jessica Jones ("Alias"), one for Luke Cage, one for Iron Fist (whose story could be a feature epic), and then a miniseries teaming all of the above. With competent people at the helm, the street-level heroes can be done well and on what, by Hollywood tentpole standards, are microscopic budgets. Hopefully, the series format will scale back the productions to something more closely approximating the comics and allow the characters and storylines to breath and to develop at a more natural pace.

There needs to be a place among the features for the smaller-scale, more intimate productions as well. The first X-Men movie is what made me begin to think about this, then the second one cinched it. If the tentpole epics leave Storm's background on the cutting-room floor, put her in a movie of her own. Hers is a story that can definitely carry one, and at a minor fraction of the cost of a full-blown X-Men epic.[10] Lower cost means less risk, and such films could be used as a way to get the ladies into starring roles. A regular schedule of smaller pictures could also act as a more general proving-ground for some of the lesser characters. BLADE is the point of reference here. It took a fairly obscure character, dropped him into a film of, by Hollywood standards, medium budget ($40 million) and not only turned him into a massively bankable property but kickstarted the current comic movie boom. The bigger-name characters should, from time to time, be put into these smaller productions too.[11] The opportunity to build better, longer, more detailed narratives and characters of greater depth doesn't just enrich the bigger projects, it lets filmmakers tell the kind of great smaller stories that make up the bulk of the comics that built these properties but that aren't being told at all via the huge-scale tentpole pictures.

I hope some of what I've written points to what I see as the third necessary but absent element: a more ambitious and varied approach to the material. When it comes to comic adaptations, Marvel leads the pack by a mile--other than WATCHMEN, DC hasn't really done anything worth the time during the present boom. But Marvel tends to be rigorously conservative, mainstream, and safe with their films. No edge, PG-rated content,[12] very little quirkiness or anything that wanders too far afield, and they're all basically the same kind of story told in the same way. The other studios who handle Marvel properties do the same, and this really needs to change. The comics on which these films are based have told every kind of story there is to be told. Dramas, horrors, swashbuckling adventures, comedies, spy stories, love stories, war stories, political thrillers, coming-of-age tales, Twilight Zone-ist fantasies--you name it, the books have done it, and the films need to start better reflecting that diversity.[13] Broaden the field. Mix it up a bit. Take some chances. The recent departure of Edgar Wright from ANT MAN doesn't bode well. Wright has exactly the kind of quirky vision one wants to see applied to such a character, and after having worked on the project for 8 years and with filming imminent, he's fired over "creative differences." Is there any doubt a far more conventional product will emerge in his absence? It's just not healthy. Conservatism in such matters is a path to stagnation, eventual box-office failure then death. The comic adaptations work from too rich a field to allow that to kill them.

A rather long post. A short version for the "tl/dr" crowd:
Women, damn it!
Bigger isn't better; better is better.
Smaller can be better.
Innovate, damn it!

'Nuff said.



 [1] Parenthetically carving up the individual films in this way tends to smooth over the differences in their quality in a way I dislike. To note the obvious (in the service of my own neurosis on this point), each of those categories represent a broad group of films of often wildly varied quality. I feel I should offer examples, if just to lay my cards on the table).

 [2] Certain films (like certain actors) achieve, in the critical press, a sort of official designation as a turkey, and bashing them becomes a fad. CATWOMAN fell victim to this.

 [3] Wonder Woman was originally a project of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist and one of the co-inventors of the lie-detector test, who believed that women would one day rule the world and created the character as "psychological propaganda" for this eventuality. He intended her to be a living embodiment of all that is great in Woman. His early stories are a fascinating stew of fairy tale narratives, odd symbolism and bondage and domination themes.

 [4] About that choice, I'll say only this: This is the comic book version of Wonder Woman, laying a no-doubt well-deserved smackdown on a certain boy in blue...

...and this is Gal Gadot, chosen to be the new screen Wonder Woman:

 [5] Starting with the fact that it's a sequel to MAN OF STEEL, an abomination ground out by people who seemed to have no interest at all in making an actual Superman film and who didn't. MOS is a cretinously stupid, noisy, explosion-filled sci-fi action picture--the epitome of upbudget "blockbuster" trash--about a war on another now-extinct planet carried over to Earth. A tale in which the alleged central character is virtually a guest-star in his own movie. Henry Cavill, who has a great look for Superman, probably doesn't have half a dozen lines in the whole of it, and the utterly inappropriate efforts to darken his backstory at the expense of that backstory leave nothing of the original character. Certainly nothing worth continuing in follow-up films.

 [6] After THE AVENGERS made over $1.5 billion worldwide, the suits at Warner Bros. decided to try to ape that success but without putting in the work on the individual characters as Marvel had. They wanted to use the MAN OF STEEL sequel to immediately set up a future "Justice League" movie, again guest-starring Gadot as Wonder Woman.

 [7] I've long found her second solo book, "The Sensational She-Hulk," to be a particular delight. John Byrne, who had written her in the Fantastic Four for a few years, made her aware of her own existence as a comic book character. She breaks the fourth wall and talks to her creator and her readers, and the series became, among a great many other things, an endlessly fun rumination on the nature of the medium-- in my view, some of the most wonderful comics ever published.

 [8] The latter stems from legitimate concerns with which I'm sympathetic within reason. It's unfortunate that I feel compelled to add that "within reason" caveat there, but those concerns are often based on a very unrealistic and unfounded evaluation of the overall culture, and in their more extreme forms--the forms that, for example, condemn any hint of sexuality in superheroines--are anti-human, and not worthy of serious consideration. As for the Puritans, fuck them. I couldn't give a shit about anything they had to say if I ate an entire package of Ex-Lax

 [9] This actually happened to Supergirl. By the end of the '60s, DC started trying to revamp and "Marvel"-ize many of their major characters, and Mike Sekowsky, who had just lent a hand to the revamp of Wonder Woman, was given Supergirl, then the featured attraction in Adventure Comics. Under his guidance and that of later writers and artists, Supergirl became a mature, well-written character and went through her most creatively rich period. It lasted 26 issues (minus some reprints), and became popular enough that she was given her own title for the first time. Then the new title debuted and nearly everything that had made the previous title work had been dropped. Supergirl was suddenly written as a witless Barbie-fied airhead involved in an increasingly ridiculous series of adventures. The reaction was swift and furious--after only 9 issues, the book was cancelled.

[10] Nearly all of the other X-Men have been given similarly short shrift.

[11] It looked as if Fox was going to do this with the X-Men Origins series. Then, instead, their efforts in this vein all became upbudget tentpoles again. The life of Magneto project grew into the much bigger X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which wasn't bad, but I would have preferred the project that was originally discussed. The Wolverine Origin movie, starring a character who had already been a featured attraction in every X-Men film, grew into a huge-budget--and borderline unwatchable--piece of shit that embraced all the worst abuses of the character's backstory from recent years.[*] Then Fox took up the single-best Wolverine story of all time, the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries from 1982. The original mini is a dark story of love, honor, and betrayal heavily influenced by Japanese cinema. Its imagery is simple and straightforward like a samurai movie, a perfect film already storyboarded on the page. The rights to turn it into a film was a license to print money. After early public braying that the film would be a faithful adaptation, the Fox suits chucked the original story in the trash and made another big, noisy and, often completely incomprehensible shitfest with virtually no connection to the source material. Throwing that story away is a crime. This was not the direction those projects needed to go.

[*] Wolverine, in his first decades in the comics, was initially just a fellow who aged like anyone else. His healing abilities took time to work, and as he got older, it began to work more slowly. His claws were bionic implants, mechanical devices grafted on to him during the same experimentation that laced his bones with adamantium. Later revisions turned up his healing power to 11--almost instant regeneration from even the most horrendous damage; the origin of his claws were rewritten--they became natural bone claws that were covered with adamantium like the rest of his skeleton; his backstory was changed to make him essentially immortal--a fellow who had lived for centuries and whose healing powers kept him forever young. So not all the bad decisions about these characters are made by Hollywood. Yes, this is a footnote to a footnote--sue me.

[12] BLADE, which launched this boom, was an R-rated picture, but most of the productions have gone for the PG-13, hoping to pull in the kiddies and snare a broader audience. There's a certain irony in this, in that comics have primarily been an adult's medium for decades and a significant portion of the material being tapped for screen adaptation is stuff people who are now in their late 30s-50s read when they were younger, but the persistent pursuit of the PG is also another factor significantly limiting the genre. From the Punisher to Blade to the Ghost Rider to Morbius to even Wolverine, Marvel has scores of characters that would make for magnificent screen adaptations but that would, handled properly, usually feature R-rated content. Warner Brothers destroyed DC's Jonah Hex, in part by forcing it into the PG hole. Corporate branding is a problem: the Marvel-produced films, which bear their brand, have all been movies to which one can bring the kiddies. If the Marvel logo draws the little ones, stepping outside that safe parameter can be seen as quite dangerous and harmful to the brand. Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS was safely PG-13 but still slammed as too dark and frightening for children (which led to the Joel Shumacher bat-atrocities).

[13] To bitch about THE WOLVERINE some more, the original story was, as I said in my earlier notes, very much like a samurai film. One of the many infuriating things the fimmakers did was rigorously jettisoned any hint of Eastern influence, both in the film's look and in its themes. They threw away what made it special and turned it into just another conservative superhero movie.