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 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 to 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.

--j.

---

 [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.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Depth of the Dead

When it comes to favorite movies, in general and in particular, numbered "top" lists are very popular on the internet but as I've noted here before, they're something I don't really do. Even I could never create one with which I wouldn't find cause to rather vehemently disagree and if the movies are all great anyway, what's the point in pitting them against one another like that? The closest I come to any such list is in my picks for my favorite horror movies. It's a list two items long, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), both directed by Mr. George A. Romero.[1] My all-time favorite between the two is usually whichever I've seen most recently.

I first saw NOTLD as a teenager when a local station in my hometown broadcast the newly "colorized" edition created by Hal Roach Studios. This was in the earliest days of colorization[2] and if you've never seen any of those first efforts, they're a dreadful sight to behold. Amorphous blobs of sickly color randomly splashed about the screen like some old two-strip Technicolor process gone very wrong. I'm sure the colorized NOTLD looked just as bad as all the rest. I have to assume that, because I first saw the film via a broadcast on a UHF channel that aired it during some pretty bad weather and in such atmospheric conditions, it was virtually black-and-white. I recorded it too, which was fortunate because I fell terribly in love with it. The crummy reception immortalized on the tape became part of its charm and I sort of missed its quirks the first few times I saw a cleaner print. It was pretty much my favorite horror movie from the end of that first screening, the undisputed champion by a knock-out, and it remained so right up until, some time shortly after, I first saw DAWN OF THE DEAD on video. In my head, the two have been in contention for the title ever since.

In the abstract, it seems a bit odd that I'd pick those two as the best while a teen and then so many years and so many, many more movies later still judge them as sitting at the top of the heap. Nostalgia can prove a potent addiction to those who, with age, succumb to it but I've never let it dictate my tastes in movies. With me, if a flick in which I once delighted doesn't hold up, it just doesn't hold up. I may still find it charming but I ain't gonna' call it good. NIGHT and DAWN have stayed with me for so long because they really are as good as I initially took them to be. Better, even.

NOTLD launched what became a wave of superior horror pictures in the years that followed it. Mostly made up of indie features, this wave ran parallel with and sometimes intersected Hollywood's "decade under the influence," capturing the same cultural zeitgeist and transforming it into some of the finest work the genre has ever seen. Brutal, nasty, pitiless movies that broke every rule; intelligent horrors that were actually about something, something more than merely making viewers start and that, as a consequence, were disturbing then haunting for reasons far beyond the visceral surface scares they tried to inflict. The wave rolled for a little more than a decade before crashing on the dull, grey rocks of the slasher films in the early '80s.[3]

Horror hasn't seen another age of its like but its legacy has lived on in various ways. The modern zombie picture introduced by NOTLD is one of them.

There were zombies in film and literature long before NOTLD, mindless creatures resurrected by magic and that served some living master. EC's great line of horror comics in the 1950s delighted in things like ghastly, putrefying corpses that returned to life to right some wrong done them while they yet lived. Richard Matheson's 1954 book "I Am Legend" introduced the idea of humanity being overrun by the victims of a plague that turns them into non-supernatural vampires. Pieces of what came together in NOTLD have a varied lineage (and all of the ancestors I've just mentioned have been acknowledged as inspirations by the film's creators) but as a package, the rotting, self-propelled corpse that returns to life, consumes the flesh of the living, can only die via destruction of its brain and that overruns civilization belongs strictly to NOTLD.

Critics read much into the film and, indeed, there was much there to read. Its creators, George Romero, John Russo and co., have denied they'd set out to make any big social statements. NOTLD goes where it does because of the temperaments of those who created it and because of the times in which it was made (which it reflects). The basic concept was original and solid and in the execution it was well-written, well directed, well played--a great, dark, relentless pressure-cooker of a horror picture show about the world coming to an end.

The world didn't though,[4] and eleven years later, Romero set out to continue the end with DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that picked up NIGHT's theme of social breakdown,[5] added a critique of consumer culture and created or significantly expanded upon a host of metaphorical uses of the living dead. It was larger in scale than its predecessor, longer and much gorier and whereas the first film had been more of an Expressionistic nightmare, DAWN was like a comic book brought to life, full of action and vivid colors and woven through with a wickedly black sense of humor. A great, great movie.

A noteworthy but little noted feature of these films is that, though the dead overrun the world and rip to pieces anyone who falls into their clutches, they never really kill anyone. They're just dumb creatures following some instinctual imperative. It's really the living who kill themselves and one another. The living are stupid and shortsighted and polarized and self-concerned and distrustful and, perhaps on a less negative note, too damned civilized to properly address the growing crisis, and these qualities, again and again, are what actually get them killed. The devil isn't in the walking corpses besieging from outside. It resides, instead, within us. And the reason it's all so horrifying is that, when one sees this, one recognizes it as true. The only way dumb, slow-moving ambulatory corpses could overrun the world in the first place is because we, who on the surface have every advantage, failed to come together to stop them. The dead, then, are, on one level, the ghosts of our own tragic--or damnable--shortcomings, rising to overwhelm and perpetually haunt us.[6]

On another, they're also, collectively, a representation of death itself. In the zombie apocalypse, the shuffling ghouls are slow and they're dumb but they're also everywhere and into everything, forever creeping up on you, inexhaustible, inexorable, inevitable. If you're quick and smart, you can get away from them, maybe for a long time, but as time goes by, you become a little less quick-witted, a little less fleet-footed and they're still there, still patiently trudging along after you. They may not get you now or next week but against death, you're in a no-win scenario--they will get you eventually. The excellent Ford brothers movie THE DEAD (2010) makes particularly good use of this element.

On still another level, "they're us," as Peter says of the dead in DAWN. Twisted reflections of people driven by degraded versions of the memories and instincts that guided them through life, a shadow of both what once was and of what they once were. In DAWN, they all want to go to that paradise of capitalist consumerism, the mall--exactly where the living characters want to be.[7]  In one scene, the pregnant Fran draws the attention of a zombie in a baseball uniform. Separated from her by plate glass, the creature doesn't try to get at her as all the rest have. He just sits and watches her, looking sad, making childlike noises and invoking images of safe, wholesome childhoods filled with little-league games; for the expectant mother, both a mournful reflection of the world that's been lost and a mark of the awful new non-kid-safe one that has been born. In the excellent pilot to the less-than-excellent WALKING DEAD tv series (2010), a man who didn't have the heart to kill his wife after she died and reanimated is haunted by her zombie, which, nightly, returns to his front door seeking admittance.[8] "Bub," the featured creature in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), still experiences rudimentary emotions--he reacts with clear agony at finding his keeper murdered and even goes on to avenge the killing.[9] When we first meet "Big Daddy," Romero's central zombie from LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), he's still hanging out at the gas station at which he worked in life, still coming out to pump gas whenever the lot bell rings. On the other side of this, the brilliant opening credit sequence of Edgar Wright's SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) shows people who, in going about their daily routines in mind-numbingly stupid service jobs, look exactly like zombies; by the end of the film, literal zombies are being used to do the same jobs.

This, the dead as an in-the-rotten-flesh commentary on us, is the element that makes zombies so wonderfully malleable. I've long maintained one can use them to tell just about any kind of story. Filmmakers have taken this ball and ran with it in a multitude of directions. DEAD SET uses zombies to comment on "reality television," DIARY OF THE DEAD to cover the impact of "new media" in the Information Age. Brian Yuzna's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III (a zombie version of Romeo & Juliet), gives us sympathetic zombies. A teen resurrects his girlfriend, killed in an auto accident, using a chemical at a military facility. She seems herself at first but her mental state begins to deteriorate beneath an overwhelming urge to kill and consume human brains. The military in the film launches a program aimed at turning the risen dead into bioweapons, experiments that, in light of the remnants of the creatures' humanity, seem Mengele-esque. Is the zombie lass in DEADGIRL (2008), discovered, captured and abused by sadistic teens, just dead flesh or a rape victim? The central protagonist of I, ZOMBIE (1998) is a fellow infected with zombie-ism and the film uses the condition to study his isolation and loneliness as his humanity progressively disintegrates. THE LIVING DEAD GIRL (1982), directed by French fantasist Jean Rollin, works from a theme of friendship strong enough to survive beyond the grave. Carl Lindbergh's SHADOWS OF THE DEAD (2004) offers a fellow infected with zombie-ism who then infects his girlfriend in a sort of parallel with AIDS. As the title suggests, Michele Soavi's excellent DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (1994)[10] uses the rising dead as a vehicle to explore existential questions of life and love. And so on. There's no limit to these sorts of uses of the living dead.

The diabolically black humor that runs through DAWN is a descendant of a literary tradition that extends back beyond the Brothers Grimm but it comes to the film most directly from EC Comics. Through books like "Tales From the Crypt" and "Vault of Horror," Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and the rest of the EC gang spun out terrifically twisted, relentlessly irreverent and gloriously ghastly tales full of creepy critters, pungent puns, gory excess and the roughest possible justice to wrongdoers, a scare souffle sufficient to swiftly set to brisk heel its kid consumers at the mere appearance of a graveyard on their flank. Among those irrevocably damaged by these damned digests was none other than DAWN's director George Romero. Three years after DAWN, in fact, he teamed with fellow EC victim Stephen King to create CREEPSHOW, a direct homage to those bedeviling funny-books of their youth. Zombie films picked up a mean streak of EC-ism, from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) to the RE-ANIMATOR series to the EVIL DEAD films to FIDO (2005) to POULTRYGEIST (2006) and on into infinity (and EC and the species of horror it bred became a major influence on horror cinema in general).

I love the better zombie movies and there are a lot of them. Still, there are some trends of late within zombie cinema over which I'm not, in the abstract, particularly enthusiastic. The most debated among fans is probably running zombies. Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (which only technically wasn't a zombie picture) featured, as its apocalyptic avatars, hard-charging sprinters and this set off a vogue in galloping cadavers that continues to this day, most noisily in the most unfortunate WORLD WAR Z. Running zombies seem counter-intuitive--as SHAUN OF THE DEAD's Simon Pegg has noted, "death is a disability, not a superpower." More significantly though, supercharged zombies sacrifice much of the content I've just been outlining in favor of mere momentary visceral thrills. I dislike, for the same reason, the trend, in make-up effects for zombies of piling on the appliances and giving the creatures alien eyes. This can create ghoulish critters, to be sure--important for a horror production--but when overdone, it robs the creatures of their humanity. Buried beneath so much rubber, paint and stuffings, they may just as well be evil Lectoids from the 8th dimension or invaders from Mars. The zombies of DEAD SET are a triple whammy--they run, they're make-up-heavy and have animalistic eyes and they emit utterly inhuman screeches. They couldn't be any further removed from humans or apparitions of humans if they grew tails and coats of fur. Most horror filmmakers, of course, are just looking to create what they hope will be a scary monster to rage across the screen. Zombies of this particular make and model though are at best a pretty superficial kind of scary. Some fans can be quite dogmatic in their objections to such things, particularly running zombies. I'm certainly not. There's no rule-book for fictional creatures and I'm certainly never one to put movies in little boxes. If a movie with running zombies works, it works and those running zombies aren't worth a moment's fretting over. I do, however, think zombies, when handled in that way, lose a lot of what makes them special and gives them real power.

When they're treated properly, there's a lot of depth to the dead. As zombies have, in recent years, become an ubiquitous feature of pop culture, the "treated properly" part has unsurprisingly proven a pretty significant caveat. The number of productions has skyrocketed, but most zombie pictures, like most of any kind of picture, are terrible, made by people who neither have anything to say nor the talent to effectively say anything if they did. Still, over time, we fairly regularly get great work out of this particular subgenre and that will likely continue, even if--as I think likely--the number of productions soon drops off as a consequence of oversaturation. I think its potential is nearly limitless and I think talented people will continue to recognize this and to line up to try their hand at it and take it in new directions. Their visions of the dead will continue to rise, treating us to a smorgasbord of screaming, meaty treats. Maybe one day, there will even be one that comes along and settles my indecision between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD by eclipsing both.

Well, maybe.

--j.

---

 [1] And George is one of the finest filmmakers the genre has ever produced. He's caught a lot of flack from segments of fandom for his last few films. That just means we don't deserve him. But I'm damn glad we have him.

 [2] From a technical standpoint, colorization has come a long way, but it will never be anything other than a disgraceful vandalization of b&w movies.

 [3] The period is given favorable coverage in the excellent documentary THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE.

 [4] Or in it either. By the end of the film, it looks as though the zombie plague may be on the verge of being contained. Thankfully, it got out of hand again.

 [5] A theme that, in the meantime, had also been the central focus of Romero's 1973 non-zombie flick THE CRAZIES.

 [6] The impression of the zombie as apparition is tied to its being a creature that slowly drifts along through the world, offering only the occasional emotional moan to mark its passing. This is only one of the many wonderful tropes thrown aside by more recent productions featuring hard-charging sprinter zombies.

 [7] At the same time, the zombies aren't constantly raging against one another and don't kill or plot against or screw over one another, which makes for quite a contrast with the living.

 [8] Frank Darabont, THE WALKING DEAD's original showrunner, understood the potential power of this kind of metaphor and introduced it into the series. It had been virtually non-existent in the comic; its writer, Robert Kirkman, has signaled his disinterest in it. Unfortunately, Darabont was fired after the first season, and one need only read my interminable articles on this blog to see where the series went in his absence.

 [9] "Bub," essayed by Sherman Howard, is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest movie monsters since Karloff's in FRANKENSTEIN. Like the other great elements in DAY OF THE DEAD, it's mostly lost beneath the embarrassingly poor acting of everyone else involved.

[10] Better known, in the U.S., as CEMETERY MAN.