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Part 3: Sequelitis

By Owen Jones (2005-09-17)

With the Spiderman name becoming an excuse to print money, executives quickly turned to other comic book franchises to find their next big monster hit.

  X-Men 2 was one of the first to follow, performing strongly in the box office and also proving that many heroes were equally as good as one. Unfortunately the ensemble fell flat on it’s face with the dire League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a Sean Connery vehicle that strayed from it’s somewhat twisted roots into a PG-13 film, which bombed atrociously behind a non-existent story and characters that had audiences scratching their heads. A clear message was being delivered – you must, must, have an origin story as your first movie. As savvy as movie-going audiences had become there was still an inherent gap between mainstream and niche, characters needed to be explained and explored before it was acceptable to make the assumption that the majority of people viewing any given comic-book movie knew who they were watching.

Hulk attempted to follow this recipe to the letter, telling the story of Bruce Banner who, when exposed to Gamma rays, gains an alter ego, the gigantic, almost indestructible green character of the title. There will be many who will tell you that Hulk is a bad movie – it isn’t, but with Ang Lee behind the camera neither is it a comic book Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. What Lee attempted to do was give a deeper interpretation of the Hulk, using the symbiotic relationship of man and beast to show the struggle in the heart of every human being. Lofty as this goal was, it fell flat on its face because audiences had come looking for action – which was fair given the main character turned into a twenty foot tall lump of muscle that was eternally pissed. Action was sparse on the ground and the film lacked a balance between storytelling, Lee’s philosophy and adrenaline-charged action. Even a quality cast of Hollywood new boy Eric Bana and Oscar-winner Jennifer Connolly couldn’t generate enough interest to quash poor reviews and early word of mouth. It was a brave attempt by Ang Lee but unlike Spiderman helmer Sam Raimi, Lee’s lack of knowledge of the character and arguably the genre too, meant that the Hulk wasn’t done the justice such a dynamic, sympathetic character should have been given.

More passable fare was the order of the day at this time. Daredevil was a much maligned film similar in mould to Hulk,except the problems seemed to be more with Ben Affleck’s personal life than the actual movie. Although recent rude comments at ComicCon suggest that many DD fans were also upset at the film, I think they are a little off the mark. Daredevil seemed to have the prerequisite mixture needed of an origin story; establishment of character, environment, action backed up by decent effects and Jennifer Garner. Truthfully I’d like to pinpoint for you where this film went wrong but I think it’s highly under-rated. Sure Ben Affleck doesn’t top many favourite-actor lists but he did well enough in both the action department and in his chemistry with Garner (they’re now married and expecting their first child – if that isn’t chemistry I don’t what is). Colin Farrell totally over-hammed Bullseye but then it’s a comic book movie, there will, after all, be stereotypes and lunatics in amongst the Logans and Peter Parkers of this world we call comics. The menacing frame of Michael Clarke Duncan was more than acceptable as the Kingpin, he wasn’t a 500lb bald-headed white man but then have you see any guy matching that description who can act?, and there was also Jennifer Garner. Gorgeous women in leather do something to a guy and Garner, running hot with Alias at the time, was smoking. So much so that she gained her own spin-off film Elektra (which I’ll get to shortly). Despite what could have been, Daredevil sunk at the box office and the studios learned something they should already have known from making all kinds of movies, you aren’t going to hit the ball out of the park every time, not even close. Comic book movies were doing this more regularly than other genres though, which, more than any other reason because the green dominates Hollywood, meant that comic book movies just kept on coming.

Punisher was next up to the plate and barely made it onto the radar of many movie-goers, for one simple reason – it was unapologetically violent and gained itself an R rating, normally the death of movie in a genre considered family entertainment. Now surely people inside and outside the industry must have seen this coming, here we have a genre with characters who have SUPERpowers. They can fly, shoot heat-rays from their eyes, jump tall buildings in a single bound yadda yadda yadda, you get the picture. So with all this testosterone kicking about no-one thought to question what would happen if a darker, more vicious character from one of the companies back-catalogues was to appear. As mentioned in Part One, Punisher was originally made into a movie starring Dolph Lundgren in the late 80’s and echoed many of the action movies at the time. Step forward twenty years and the action movie has morphed into a less blatant genre, so Punisher must have seemed a touch anachronistic. That is to say a knife through the jaw, being blown up by explosives and shot through the head didn’t go down too well with the conservative element of society. So why the problem? To me it all comes back to perceptions. Comics are fun, we see them on TV, we read them in the newspaper everyday – good old Charlie Brown or Calvin and Hobbes and it’s light-hearted humour. Yet this is not what the comic book industry is, rather this is a very small part of a huge and varied media form. It is a sanitised version, a media friendly face that allows for fond memories of childhood to be revisited and nostalgia to set in. Certainly Punisher was a kick between the legs for anyone expecting such material, the age rating should have been a warning right out the door. Instead Punisher reflects what the comics are about – violent action, Punisher fans didn’t pay to see Thomas Jane and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos play tonsil tennis and make the beast with two backs(though I’d bet good money Jane wished it was in the script) they didn’t go there to see happily ever after. No, what they went to see was violent action and they got it. The film wasn’t great and with so many good actors involved the studios may aswell have stumped up for cardboard cut-outs instead, but that’s not the point – the point is audiences got what was on the tin. They didn’t walk in blind and they got plenty of bang for their buck, like I said, none of these comic book movies are going to win Oscars, they won’t all be Spiderman or X-Men and there will be significant expansion into all areas of society. If people pitch a fit at the Punisher, heaven help them if the Authority, Preacher or other adult pieces get made – could society handle a gay Superman/Batman couple? Indeed.

After the furore had died down over one violent comic book movie, a tidal wave was spotted on the box-office horizon. Cinema managers began rubbing their hands in glee as Spiderman again dominated the genre and made a whole lotta bank in the process. Sequels, in the main, don’t do as well as the original, with obvious exceptions, but Spiderman 2 broke several records and posted figures sufficient to gain the franchise a third film, due to screen in 2007. If it was needed, the spider sequel was proof that ‘sustainability’ was a word that could be used in the same sentence as ‘comic book movie’. Sadly this also lead to studios believing that Catwoman and Garfield would make good movies. Now on the surface a pitch involving the first African-American actress to win a leading actress Oscar, an intriguing character that was a factor in making Batman Returns successful and a script that attempted to update a fairly well known comic franchise don’t seem like a bad combination. Little did we know that the evil Razzie imps were at work, setting the whole production up for a fall and fall it did. No doubt in her oft-remembered nightmares there is a special place reserved in Halle Berry’s mind for that suit and the grief it brought. Nothing more will be said about the film and it’s title will be struck from our tongues, never to be issued again lest as a warning. While we’re on the subject, I’m a huge Garfield fan, I have books and books of the comic strip from when I was younger but who in the blue hell thought a lazy, fat cat who rarely leaves the house was going to make a good movie choice, huh? Ninety plus minutes and the only amusing moment was a computer generated cat out-acting Jennifer Love Hewitt, I mean really.

All of which meant neither film was a hard act to follow and audiences were looking for something a bit tastier. First, for the family and big kids (there is after all a young person inside an old person’s body wondering what the hell happened) there was the Incredibles. Beating the Fantastic Four to the punch by quite a distance, the Incredibles was the evolution of Toy Story. Witty, fun and at times downright hilarious this animation movie took the segment of comic books I have just been bemoaning and invested it with a mixture of action, humour and storyline that many live-action movies would do well to pay attention to. It did exceptionally well at the box office and kick-started the flagging animation genre, green-lighting films such as Robots in the process.

Hellboy was the next live action comic book movie, dealing with one of the more fantastic franchises – a beer swilling, stone-handed red demon summoned by the Nazis during World War 2. Helmed by Mexican director and long time Hellboy fan Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy, like Raimi’s Spiderman, was a labour of love from the offset and this shines through in the movie. Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the movie is the casting of Ron Perlman in the lead role. At this stage in the regeneration of the comic book movie, studios were looking for big names to base their franchises on – Tobey MacGuire smashed into the A-list with the two Spiderman films, Ben Affleck was cast as Daredevil alongside Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman, in a highly impressive ensemble cast, had made Wolverine his own in X-Men (gaining him a spin-off film in the process) and then along comes a relatively inexperienced director demanding that a hard-working, small-part supporting actor play the lead. Del Toro and Perlman had worked together ten years previously on an underrated gem of a movie called Cronos and from the very beginning Del Toro has said he could never imagine another actor playing Hellboy. Such loyalty to both the comic and his cast made certain that everything possible would be done to make Hellboy a hit and once Perlman showed up in the Hellboy make up and appendages for the first time, there was no doubt the casting was spot on. When you factor in Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s influence on the movie, all the elements existed to make a strong movie, which they did. The subject matter was a bit obscure for many but Hellboy did well enough at the box office to justify a sequel (due 2007) and what seemed to stand out the most from any other comic book movie, was the humour. It’s a silly movie and, played straight, it would have flopped, but Perlman’s grizzled self-loathing, dry wit and knowing voice never allow the movie to take itself too seriously and instead produce several moments of great humour.

Once again the comic book movie was on the rise, this time it was a rise in quality to match the astonishing quantity that was being produced. Blade gave birth to a third, and probably final film, aptly entitled Blade Trinity. With so many comic book movies for movie-goers to choose from Trinity suffered, it wasn’t as fresh and new as it’s predecessors and despite an attempt at adding extra humour and cool through the Nightstalkers group, Trinity had missed the boat. Not to say it was a bad film, rather it had all been seen and done before, especially during the saturation period after the original Blade and the R rating didn’t help. Jennifer Garner’s Daredevil spin-off Elektra also made an appearance, unfortunately a rushed effort that, given Garner’s popularity from 13 Going On 30, the studio saw fit to water down the comics into a digestible PG-13 rating that hamstrung a sentimental storyline out of place in the story of an assassin. Again, another moderate effort at the box office and a film unlikely to gain a sequel. Thankfully, the best was still to come.

Owen Jones © 2005



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