Comics, from page to screen
A rambling by Paddy O'Furniture

If you've been to the movies in the last few years -- or even if you haven't -- you're likely aware that we're currently in the middle of a glut of films based on comic books. So it stands to reason an unrepentant comic geek like me should be quite pleased with the state of summer cinema these days, right?

Well, not so much.

See, the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, a lot of these movies flat-out stink. On the other hand, a lot of them are so dramatically altered from their source material that, even if they're relatively well made, they've lost all resemblance to the comic I'm interested in seeing brought to life on the silver screen.

But even if the filmmakers have gotten it wrong, I still wish these movies well, as box-office success for comic-book films means more comic-book films will be made. And they can't all be bad.

Comic-book cinema got its start in the 1940s, when it made perfect sense to translate comic-book heroes to celluloid -- after all, the action serials that were shown before the main feature at movie houses were a perfect match for the serial stories of comic books.

Captain Marvel, Batman, Superman, the Phantom and Captain America all made their way into the cinemas of the 1940s. Their stories were cheaply made but honest and earnest, and they captured the spirit of their source material and the imaginations of moviegoers young and old. Then, a new decade dawned, and comic-book movies all but vanished for nearly 30 years.

Why? Well, probably for a lot of reasons.

The comics industry went through a dark time in the 1950s. A child psychologist named Frederic Wertham came up with the notion that comics were responsible for virtually any and all problems that might arise with children and teenagers. Drug use, sexuality, violence, crime, poor grades -- all of these ills could be pinned on the convenient scapegoat of comic books. Wertham nearly succeeded in shutting down the industry.

So those heroes of the '40s were falling out of fashion, and the nearly-defunct comics industry wasn't producing any new ones. And despite their appeal among adult servicemen in World War II, comic books were still seen as children's entertainment -- and in that era, children's movies didn't pull in the big bucks.

Whatever the reasons, comic cinema practically went into hibernation for all of the 1950s, all of the '60s and most of the '70s.

The only exception is the campy Batman of 1966, which most comic fans agree set the cause of comic cinema back at least 10 years. It is, however, instructive in terms of why it's hard to make a good comic-book movie.

Simply put, it's really difficult to make a serious film about crime-fighters who wear tights. Which means you've either got to work a lot harder on the script, scenery and effects to make things seem at least semi-serious, or you've got to run with what you've got and make camp -- which is what the '66 Batman is.

It took well over a decade for someone to remember that a comic-book movie didn't have to be campy to succeed.

That success came in 1978, with the release of Superman, starring Christopher Reeves in the role that would define his life's work. The film worked on every level -- it was true to its comic roots, it wasn't unduly silly and it looked as believable as it could with 1978-vintage special effects.

Superman was a huge hit at the box office and spawned a series of increasingly lame sequels throughout the early '80s.

It took until 1989 for another successful comic film to be made.

Batman is an interesting film, and it tells us a lot about what makes comic-book movies work. It's got a decidedly dark tone -- after all, it was released in the wake of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, a reworking of the Batman mythology that turned the entire comics industry in a darker, grittier direction. However, it's also lent a lighter, surreal air thanks to the whimsical direction of Tim Burton.

And, like Superman before it, it spawned a series of sequels, each worse than the last. But while those sequels were sullying theaters, something really interesting was going on.

People were making films based not on the high-profile comics that everyone knows, but on obscure independent-press titles -- black-and-white comics telling dark, adult tales with high intelligence and a low budget. Movies like The Crow, Vampirella, Tank Girl, Judge Dredd and The Mask hit theaters in the early to mid-'90s, with varying degrees of success.

So the stage was set for the current explosion of comic-based movies. But that doesn't mean everything has worked out perfectly for comic fans.

In the past five years, I've seen some of my all-time favorite comic books made into some of my all-time least favorite movies. Foremost among them was Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of the smartest, most literary comics I've ever read. "Smart" and "literary" are not words I'd use to describe the awful 2003 film adaptation of the story.

I've also seen weak adaptations of The Hulk, Daredevil and Hellblazer hit the screen, the latter under the name Constantine. When Elektra came out last year, I didn't even bother seeing it. And I loved that comic.

And that's really discouraging.

But there's always hope. The X-Men movies have been top-notch, and they've even cracked the barrier to the mainstream market, attracting not just audiences of geeks like me, but moviegoers from all walks of life. (They even did it with costumed heroes -- though the X-Men used to wear yellow suits, the movie puts them in spiffy black leather. They still dress up in matching suits to fight evil, but the suits are black, and that's cool, right?) And the Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst have been juggernauts at the box office.

Even the Fantastic 4 movie, while it drifted too far from the spirit of the comics for my taste, drew enough crowds to the theater to warrant a sequel (Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer hits theaters next year).

Plus, for every financial success, there's a comic film that does a great job with its source material, but doesn't do so well at the box office. Mike Mignola's Hellboy is a comic series that features concepts, characters and stories of startling quality, all conveyed through Mignola's ink-heavy art, which evokes a Gothic woodcut more than a comic book. It came to the screen in 2004, and ended up being one of my favorite movies of that year.

Not many people agreed with me.

But there's room in today's cinematic landscape for even the most offbeat comic works -- for example, the hyperviolent Sin City is anything but mainstream, and was a smashing success, with two sequels already in production.

So that's why I look askance at this current glut of comic films. There's some great quality out there, and some absolute dreck.

Now that filmmakers have gotten over the "costumed heroes" issue, people have realized comics aren't just for kids, and special-effects technology has caught up with the imaginations of comic creators, we're still left with the most basic problem facing the production of any movie: If the story, script and acting aren't up to snuff, it's a dud.

I remember being a comics fan in the late '80s, when Burton's Batman seemed to promise such great things -- I was a comics fan and a movie fan, and Burton proved those two interests could come together in a way that was smart, fun and high-quality. Plus, enough other people liked it to make it financially viable. Man, the future's gonna be great.

Not really.

When I look over the list of upcoming comic films (and there's a boatload of them in the next two years), I feel a mix of childlike excitement and adult cynicism.

Silver Surfer's one of my all-time favorite heroes. I wonder how they'll butcher him? We've got more Batman coming our way, plus Captain America, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Shazam, Wonder Woman, Wolverine and Magneto. And about a dozen others, including Alan Moore's Watchmen, possibly my favorite comic of all time.

The fact that I'm worried about it means my late-'80s optimism hasn't come to fruition. But instead of worrying about how to make a believable comic movie, or whether people will take it seriously, I'm worrying about the things all other movie fans worry about -- the acting, the directing, the script.

Which, I guess, means the comic-cinema genre finally has grown up.

by Paddy O'Furniture
2 September 2006