In my first piece, I noted the distinct shortage of women in leading parts. While there had been a variety of female-led comic-style fantasy action pictures, actual comic adaptations were quite scarce, even as comic-based productions were becoming ubiquitous. Since then, there hasn't exactly been a bumper crop but the situation has certainly improved.
In 2015, Marvel launched AGENT CARTER for ABC, starring Hayley Atwell in the title role as a woman trying to make it in the boy's club of post-World War II espionage. It was a fun show and Atwell was an absolute jewel in the part--a joy every moment she was on the screen--but Marvel played it safe with the show. Far too safe. It fell into a formula, with the plucky Peggy on the case and always ahead of her often-cartoonishly-sexist male colleagues, who can't see her as anything more than a coffee-fetcher and secretary. The basic first-season plot was solid enough, involving incredibly dangerous stolen technology but the way it was executed, it never really felt like there was much at stake, a common failing of many comic-book productions. The second season, which moved the show from New York to Los Angeles, was poorly promoted, its ratings dropped and it was cancelled. Since then, there's been recurring talk of reviving it in some form--it ended with some unresolved plot-threads intended to set up a third season--and Atwell has said she'd definitely like to return.
SUPERGIRL, which launched in 2015, has proved longer-lived. Bright-eyed Melissa Benoist is Superman's cousin Kara, sent to Earth from a dying Krypton to protect baby Kal El, her ship is blown off course and, by a jot of time-warping, ends up landing years later than intended, when Kal has already grown up and established himself as this world's greatest superhero. Initially debuting on CBS, SUPERGIRL was moved to the CW after her first season, her second ended last week and she's already been renewed for a 3rd. I reviewed the pilot of the series as entertaining but somewhat dramatically confused. Its creators quickly smoothed out most of the initial wrinkles and I enjoyed most of its first season but I've fallen behind more recently.
I hope it has been holding up, because at this particular time, SUPERGIRL is, for those of us who love this stuff, a rather important show, as it's the one current screen representation of the genuine Superman Family tradition and ethos at a time when the big-screen depiction of Superman--in MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE--has not only abandoned all of that but is openly antagonistic toward it. SUPERGIRL is bright, colorful, optimistic, its protagonist a good woman and a likable person, a friend who wants to help--a heroine. Unashamed of its origins, the series makes liberal use of the comic material and pays homage to previous screen Superprojects. Lost in an ugly, bleak, entirely inappropriate tone, Zack Snyder's recent cinematic atrocities are colorless, joyless, stupid and hopeless, starring an aloof, brooding, indifferent, even murderous character whose major similarity to Superman is the name. History will remember it as one of the blackest marks on the character, if it remembers it at all. In the meantime, SUPERGIRL carries the torch.
In 2016, SyFy, which should be neck-deep in these sorts of productions (but isn't), launched WYNONNA EARP, based on the comic of the same name. Melanie Scrofano plays the descendant of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, battling supernatural menaces in the modern West. It recently wrapped its first season, which was fairly well received, and has been renewed for a second.
Marvel's second Netflix series, JESSICA JONES, stars Krysten Ritter as a cynical, psychologically damaged and superpowered private investigator. Ritter is excellent, the show's themes are mature and quite dark and its first season--the only season we've gotten so far--features perhaps the single-best villain in Marvel screen adaptations to date. With the exception of IRON FIST, which wasn't quite up to snuff, Marvel's Netflix offerings have been spectacular, some of the best screen work Marvel is doing, and JJ is a strong contender for the best of the batch. The other series have introduced other significant Marvel women; Elektra turned up in the 2nd season of DAREDEVIL, Misty Knight in LUKE CAGE, Colleen Wing in IRON FIST and Sigourney Weaver will be playing the villain in the big DEFENDERS crossover mini, starring all of the Netflix characters.
Marvel has announced a Captain Marvel film for 2019. I'll confess that I've never been a big fan of the character. I thought it was both a strange and a poor choice for the company's first female-led feature and suspect it was chosen for intellectual property reasons--that "Marvel" in the title--rather than any real merit as a potential film. But it's also the case that I haven't read any of the recent Captain Marvel books, which are supposed to be good and may also have been a factor in this decision. Marvel has much better female characters. The She-Hulk, the best of them, may be tied up in the complicated deal Marvel has with Universal regarding screen Hulk rights. It just seems insane to me that after all these years and with Scarlett Johansson under contract to play the part, we still don't have a Black Widow movie, not even one on the drawing-board. Johansson is one of the biggest stars in the world, last year's highest-grossing actor, and the ending of 2014's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER provided a perfect set-up for a BW solo flick, which was just pissed away.
Disney, which purchased Marvel back in 2009, may well be a fly in the ointment in this matter of getting women on screen. "Disney does not care about Marvel's female market," wrote a former Marvel employee in a 2015 article in the Mary Sue. "Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm because they wanted to access the male market." The author recounts seeing "a deck circulated by Disney’s Brand Marketing team... [U]nlike the actual demos, the desired demographics had no females in it whatsoever." Forbes reports some of the practical effects of this:
"The arrival of the first Avengers movie marketed 'Be a Hero' to boys and 'I Need a Hero' to girls, while completely exempting Black Widow from certain merchandise. Disney’s already pushing products for the upcoming Star Wars films, but are excluding Princess Leia from action figures, and popular characters from its Star Wars: Rebels line. Gamora, likewise, was deleted from Guardians of the Galaxy products. With Age of Ultron, Black Widow is not only removed from myriad team shots and merchandise, but from her very own scenes. Instead of marketing Black Widow on her motorcycle [as was the case in the movie itself], Hasbro offers Captain America and Iron Man."
Disney's indifference (which, in the aftermath of articles like that, it's allegedly taking steps to remedy) may be reflective of a wider trend, a corporate "conventional wisdom" that, contrary to the available demographic data, insists comic-based properties are for a male audience. A similar "conventional wisdom"--that lady superheroes don't sell at the box-office--poisoned Hollywood on such projects for years and, one suspects, still holds powerful sway. But, of course, it's nonsense and always has been, derived from the failure of substandard movies like ELEKTRA, CATWOMAN, even SUPERGIRL way back in 1984. Instead of concluding that those movies failed because they weren't very good, the women took the blame.
|From Ms. Marvel vol. 1, #1|
Obviously, none of these are particularly original observations but as widely as they seem to be understood, the problem persists. Things are getting better. They're certainly better than when I wrote my first article. More work is needed.
As I'm writing, we're only days away from the release of WONDER WOMAN, the first big-screen solo adventure of DC's iconic Amazon--the most recognizable superheroine of all time. I spent years doing whatever little part I could to shame Warner Brothers for failing to bring this property to the screen, as the studio half-heartedly--and half-assedly--launched one proposed WW project after another, only to let each die before it could come to fruition. Given this and what I've just been writing, it may come as a bit of a surprise that my feelings toward the current WW film are distinctly ambivalent.
I've written here before about WONDER WOMAN's troubled production history. Nothing inspiring in that, although Patty Jenkins, the director on which the studio finally settled, is by far the best director to work on any of these DC universe projects to date. Jenkins didn't get to participate in casting the lead in her own movie; that decision was made a year-and-a-half before she was attached to it by Zack Snyder, the clown who, more than any other single person, has so royally ruined the current effort at a DC movie universe. And boy, was it a doozy.
Comic fans often kick around ideas about who would be most ideally cast as various characters. This is Wonder Woman:
Tall, athletic, rippling with power--a formidable presence.
Wonder Woman charges right into fights with giant monsters:
Wonder Woman holds up collapsing suspension bridges:
Wonder Woman can put down Superman himself:
Wonder Woman is awesome.
And this is Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot, who, in December 2013, was cast by Zack Snyder as the new screen Wonder Woman:
Physically, this is casting Woody Allen as Superman, a self-evident absurdity--a non-starter that looks and will look completely ridiculous on screen no matter how much padding, CGI or quick edits are applied to try to sell it. Gadot had three FAST & FURIOUS movies under her belt at that time but one must be quite charitable indeed to describe anything she did in them as "acting."
This is far worse than just a really bad casting decision in some comic-book movie though. Wonder Woman was intentionally designed as a character to be idolized. When it comes to such idols for girls, she's the ultimate one. She's wise, beautiful, caring, a strong, independent woman, a warrior, not some ditzy dame or shrinking violet or damsel in distress who always has to be rescued by some guy. If someone needs rescuing, she does it herself. She's a crusader for justice and human rights. A hero out of myth. Today, we live in a world where young ladies do themselves a great deal of harm pursuing the impossible notions of "beauty" that are constantly blaring at them from media, images of airbrushed, emaciated, heroin-chic models that have little to do with the real world but are packaged as an ideal. At its most extreme, this manifests itself in a rash of eating disorders but its wider effects--much wider--are in the psychological harm it causes, which runs a gamut from quite significant to just making women overly critical of themselves, insecure in their own skins. It's been a problem for generations now. Everyone knows it. I think it's a crime that we, as a culture (and in particular, men), allow it to continue and do so little to address it. In casting yet another frail mannequin as Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers has coopted this great icon and role-model, the one representation that should stand as counter to all of that and belong to everyone, and turned it into just another impossible, oppressive image. This casting is a profound insult. It has poisoned the entire WW project; if the movie works and finds success--and despite some questionable internet rumors, I think there's a strong chance it could be quite good--it just becomes a bigger megaphone for that same oppressive image, which will then continue into further productions. I found that infuriating in December 2013. I find it just as infuriating now.
After years of advocacy for a WW movie, part of me thinks it would be better if WONDER WOMAN bombed, even if that did feed that poisonous meme about lady superheroes not selling. It would, of course, be almost impossible for WONDER WOMAN not to turn a profit. Unless it's a major stinker--and I find it impossible to believe Jenkins would make a WW that bad and difficult to believe she wouldn't make a good one--it's likely to be the beneficiary of both that audience of hero-starved girls and disproportionate critical approbation merely by virtue of not being as godawful as the three previous DC universe productions. Those films--MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and SUICIDE SQUAD--are part of why part of me thinks it would be better if WW just failed: it would help take this entire run of pictures down the drain with it. In any current discussion of comic book movies and what ails 'em, this franchise must occupy a prominent position. It's been an unmitigated disaster on every front. It has already ruined its Superman and Batman and it did so beyond repair. It wasn't just a matter of sticking them in lousy movies, in which case one need only make a better one. The characters themselves were blackened in fundamental ways from which there's simply no coming back. I've already touched on Zack Snyder's cinematic rape of Superman. I wrote a longer piece here a couple years ago. The signature image of MAN OF STEEL is that of "Superman" indifferently zipping through the sky while helping to kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. While comic Batman is one of the smartest characters in the DC universe, a trait taken to some pretty cartoonish extremes at times, Snyder's Batman is a murderous dunce, a xenophobic, Dick Cheney-quoting Punisher who spends most of BvS being entirely outwitted by a grinning, mugging, utterly unimpressive caricature of a villain plucked straight out of the old Adam West Batman series. To add further insult, that villain is slapped with the name "Lex Luthor," though he bears no resemblance to any version of that character.
The "plot" of BvS--the word is sorely taxed by applying it here--is as idiotic as that of MoS. Its "Luthor" wants Superman dead and as he acquires a cache of Kryptonite, that would seem rather easy to accomplish, but instead of just using it, he embarks upon a convoluted effort to get the Batman to steal the material and do the deed for him. He eventually kidnaps Superman's adoptive mother and tells Superman to go kill the Batman or she's a cooked goose. Superman tries to talk to Batman instead but the bat just attacks him and they spend a few minutes having an entirely pointless fight. The resolution, meant to be an engrossing moment of high drama, is dramatically inept and hilariously stupid--the words "Save Martha," which have been a running joke on the internet since the film was released, are likely to become a permanent synonym for dramatic misfire. Then for no other reason than that the movie is stuck in convention and its creators feel they simply must have a big CGI-filled action climax, "Luthor" creates and unleashes Doomsday, a nearly indestructible monster who, if it had succeeded in killing Superman as was "Luthor's" intent, would then destroy the world and everyone on it, including Luthor himself. While Marvel had set up its cinematic universe via a series of films featuring the individual characters, WB was unwilling to put in this legwork. The studio had, in fact, spent years trying to launch their series of DC films via a Justice League movie that would have jammed in all of the major characters--an expositional nightmare. This impatience helps further cripple BvS, which is a bloated mess (2 1/3 hours in its theatrical release, over 3 in its longer form). All of the League characters are shown, the movie bogs down in, among other things, multiple dream-sequences that are present for no other purpose than to set up future movies and Wonder Woman's appearance isn't connected to much of anything; after being established earlier in the film as Diana Prince, "antique dealer" involved in some cloak-and-dagger, she just randomly shows up at the end to help fight the monster.
SUICIDE SQUAD didn't really defecate on any icons but it was insultingly stupid, badly made and lacked any courage in its own premise. In the comics, the Squad was a secret U.S. government project that recruited villains to carry out black ops. It was a perfect cover. If anything went wrong, they're criminals; no one would believe they were officially sanctioned. Politics figured heavily into the Squad's operations. Its missions were things like destroying a metahuman terrorist cell in the Middle East, facilitating the defection of a prominent dissident from the Soviet Union and liquidating the operation of a politically-well-connected drug-lord in South America. A great property for screen adaptation but WB wasn't interested in it. The film version dies in idiocy with its premise; the Squad is assembled as a counter to Superman-level threats. A marksman, a guy who is good with boomerangs, a petite, mentally-ill woman with a ballbat, etc.--criminals who have already been apprehended by lesser heroes--are going to save America from beings who can rip apart the planet with their bare hands. As with BvS, WB's unwillingness to properly build its universe is a major liability here. Exposition is one of the most dreaded foes of quality screenwriting but SUICIDE SQUAD has to introduce its large cast from scratch and wastes much of its running-time on it. Who is this character? Who is this character? Who is this character? We're at the halfway point of the movie before the final member of the team is introduced and the plot finally gets underway. Stripped down, the basic "bad people forced to do good" is a solid premise but aiming for a PG-rating and assiduously trying to avoid anything nasty that might alienate middle America, the creators weren't interested in it either. We never see any of the Squad do anything particularly bad and, in fact, they're shown as trapped in a sadistic system that makes them look far more sinned-against than sinners. To establish their bad-guy-ness, the creators considered it adequate to have characters repeatedly say "we're bad guys." The film's central villain plot involved a member of the Squad itself going rogue, which is particularly egregious, as it means the entire thing could have been avoided if the Squad had never been started in the first place. During the big existence-threatening showdown, which takes place, in the heart of a major city, none of Earth's more capable heroes are anywhere to be found.
All three of the current DC movies have adopted a dark tone that's very familiar to longtime comic readers. It's the relentlessly juvenile "darkness" of the comics of the early 1990s, where what seemed like everyone in the industry started trying to do half-assed pastiche of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. BvS is, in fact, full of elements pillaged from Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and the movie feels just like all the third-rate trash that was coming out back then and trying to ape that style. And their pathetic imitation of that style is all it and MoS have. Marvel places its characters in the center of every movie it produces. Its protagonists are well-developed people, they have character arcs, they change and grow. This focus on characterization is one of Marvel's major strengths, something that allows it to get away with some otherwise pretty substandard movies at times (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, IRON MAN 2, etc.). Viewers like the characters and that's what keeps them coming back. WB's DC movies don't do characterization. At all. There isn't a single well-defined character or genuine character arc in any of them; the filmmakers have never even tried. Viewers are given no reason to care about anyone. Motives are sketchy and typically so entirely illogical that they feel like some kind of resented chore dropped in as an afterthought merely to tie together the explosions and fight-scenes. The Snyder movies are particularly bad in this respect. They're choppy, badly assembled and banish all levity, all humanity. The central characters are joyless automatons.
Explosions, CGI and action are, of course, the things on which the Hollywood studios depend to sell most of their tentpole movies. I've made my own general contempt for such films well-known here. As I wrote in one tirade a few years ago, a self-styled Hollywood "blockbuster" is typically "made by a committee, filled with computer-generated effects spectacles to ooh and aah the bumpkins, plotted, shot and edited in Attention-Span-Optional mode, watered down to a PG-13 rating so as not to keep the kiddies away and dumbed down to serve the needs of the dumbest son of a bitch who may wander into a theater to watch it." And since, in Hollywood, nothing succeeds like success (and, more to the point, there's an extreme allergy to anything even perceived as risky), it's usually going to be a rehash of something that has already proven itself. And proven itself. And proven itself, a trend of milking past successes made worse in more recent years by the expansion of foreign markets--new folks to batter with the old formulas. As I wrote in my previous essay, part of Hollywood's ideology is that in tentpole films, "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." That studios, when looking at comic-based properties, only seem to see potential tentpoles has proven a major limitation on these projects. While its extraordinary that so many of them have bucked the relentless race to the bottom that characterizes most tentpoles and have actually been good, they've also been severely tempered by being forced into that box. They're rendered too conservative, too safe and the scale of the tentpoles is often inappropriate and works against what made these properties so successful and long-lived on the page.
Three years ago, I used Spider-Man as my example of the latter, noting that "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... The same is true of the Batman." To pick up on that, in three of the last four Batman movies (existing in two different continuities), the Batman has tackled, in this order, a plot to destroy the denizens of the entire city of Gotham, a plot to blow up that city and a world-threatening menace. When next we see him on screen, he'll be working to thwart a full-blown alien invasion and he's already been set up for a storyline in which he will resist a Superman who has become a godlike dictator and has conquered the world. Though stories like this are told in the comics, they're a very small part of the larger Batman picture. Making them the focus over and over again isn't just formulaic repetitiveness, it's a pretty significant misrepresentation and once things on screen are allowed to balloon in this manner, it is very difficult to deescalate, because the (fallacious) institutional thinking begins to go like this: After an audience has seen the Batman battle and help defeat Doomsday, a world-destroyer, how much impact can then be wrung out of a story involving, say, the Batman investigating a SE7EN-style serial killer (something I've wanted to see on screen for ages) or trying to crack one of the Penguin's criminal schemes? It becomes a Conventional Wisdom that it's unwise to make a flick in which the Batman does what he does on the page most of the time, the stuff he exists to do. It's notable to me that the live-action Batman adaptation with by far the best reputation is THE DARK KNIGHT, which simply has the Batman matching off against the Joker and Two-Face, no universe at stake.
The tentpole scale is appropriate for some properties. The Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes, a formidable force, and it makes sense that a major threat--in their first screen adventure, an alien invasion--would be used as a rationale for their coming together. SUICIDE SQUAD, on the other hand, was crippled from conception when Warner Brothers tried to force it into that same big-team tentpole movie box. The movie incarnation of the Squad, as noted earlier, is assembled to battle Superman-level threats, described as "a taskforce of the most dangerous people on the planet" and ends up confronting a potentially world-ending menace. That's just not the Suicide Squad; it's directly at odds with the source material. And suggested sequels with a story more in line with that material will be perceived as a major step down from the original and are less likely to be made.
Though some of the screen adventures of the X-Men have been very good--X2 and in particular DAYS OF FUTURE PAST--even those top x-flicks are tentpoles that, when made to represent the x-franchise, squander most of its potential. Marvel's mutants and their satellites are a rich mine of great, well-developed, fascinating characters. On screen, most of that is lost and only a handful get much of the attention. Wolverine, the most popular of the X-Men, has also been the most overexposed, not only being made the central character of nearly all of the team flicks but spinning off into a series of solo films. The second solo movie was supposed to be based on a miniseries that is widely regarded as the greatest Wolverine story ever told, a samurai-epic- and film-noir-inspired piece about Logan pursuing his love, Mariko Yashida, to Japan and becoming entangled in a feud with her crime lord father and a potential love triangle with an assassin. It was Logan's first solo adventure outside the pages of the X-Men, goes deeper into the character than anything that has ever been published and is largely responsible for the popularity he has enjoyed ever since. "The original mini," I wrote in my previous article, "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." The movie that eventually emerged turned out, instead, to be a great example of how the tentpole mentality can fuck up even a wet dream, as "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." The simple, beautiful story became a distended, moronic mess that was made to span 70 years and involve the atomic bombing of Japan, feature a snake-woman who can steal mutant powers (though she steals Logan's healing ability, he doesn't die or even slow down very much after a steady barrage of what should have been deadly wounds) and conclude with a big CGI-overloaded battle between Logan and a giant mechanical monster. Awful.
|Hollywood looked at this...|
|...and saw this.|
I've long suggested supplementing these larger-scale screen adaptations with a regular slate of smaller movies with more intimate stories and greater depth than is usually permitted by the constraints of the bigger spectacle pictures. This would provide a screen milieu more appropriate for the characters that don't really operate on a save-the universe level, one that gives characters from the bigger pictures a place to go to do the sort of smaller stories that have always played a key role in their success on the page (I ran through several examples of such smaller stories in my previous article) and that could act as a laboratory that will allow for a much broader range of movies, with the added benefit of being low-cost, thus low-risk.
The considerable move into television in the years since my first piece has been, in some ways, a step in this direction.
Marvel's Netflix series, which are among the best screen work Marvel has done, also provide a point of comparison between this sort of approach and the big spectacle pictures, as DAREDEVIL, the first series released, had previously been adapted to the big screen in 2003 in a film starring Ben Affleck. The feature version tried to jam in years of complex stories and characters from the comics, running roughshod over all of them in the process. It became so crowded and unfocused that it's virtually plotless. Seeing dollar-signs in the wake of SPIDER-MAN's monster success, Universal moved to ape that film and the movie filled up with CGI, wirework, inappropriate feats that looked a whole lot like Spidey but not much like DD. The Netflix series, by contrast, centered on the characters, as is usually the case with Marvel. Its first season offered a very human, very grounded Daredevil/Matt Murdock, a fellow struggling to build a law practice while still trying to figure out the nocturnal vigilante thing and progressively coming into conflict, in both vocations, with a plot by a gangster who will become his greatest enemy. The show is able to spend time with all of its major characters, give them storylines, go into what makes them tick. It does all of this over a span of 13 hours that cumulatively cost significantly less than that one 133-minute movie. I wouldn't want to overstate the comparison to the feature film--that movie was an inept creative abortion, no nicer way to say it--but one can say any good Daredevil production is going to look a lot more like the Netflix series than the movie. Evaluating Netflix DAREDEVIL through the lens of what I'd prefer in the way of smaller-scale productions, I suppose my major complaint about it--and this is true of all of the other Marvel Netflix series as well--is that it's so heavily serialized. Every installment is tied to the one central story, with no time for any episodic interludes not connected to it.
Most of the other comic-based tv productions do both extended storylines and episodic tales, sometimes creating an overarching premise as part of the former that allows for the latter. The shows tend to be of wildly varying quality. They're subject to the usual limitations of weekly television series such as stricter budgetary limitations, content restrictions and viewer expectations that act as pressure against anything overly bold or challenging. The CW aims at a particular young demographic and its DC shows (like the Netflix Marvel shows) are made by a relatively small handful of creators, which can lead to a certain sameness. The Marvel-produced Marvel shows are all set in the same universe but they form segregated enclaves within it, sometimes acknowledging the other portions but never really interacting with them. The Netflix Marvels only work together, the ABC Marvels only work together, the Marvel films only work together. There are obvious reasons for this--the outlets on which these are featured wouldn't want to advertise a competitor--but it creates a new set of problems. The most obvious is how it renders an ever-increasing portion of the source material unfilmable. Spider-Man and Daredevil become close friends in the comics and feature together in decades of stories that would, because of this system, probably be impossible on screen; Daredevil and the Black Widow were lovers and crimebusting partners for years, same problem. The Kingpin, the Punisher, Cloak & Dagger were all Spider-Man characters--lots of stories there too, none doable. Luke Cage's long run as an Avenger is out. And so on. When one enclave uses characters or other elements, they generally become exclusive to that enclave, which means a successful project like AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. only amplifies this problem, because it uses more and more characters over time. Big-screen characters can't go to these shows to have the smaller-scale adventures denied them on the big screen while small-screen characters can't go to the big screen for bigger ones. Other than the Marvel Netflix shows, which are specifically devoted to street-level stories featuring street-level characters, most of the other comic-based tv shows also do large-scale adventures.
While the tv shows do serve an obvious need, they are, in their current form, no substitute for that slate of smaller pictures I've proposed. Something that comes close is LOGAN, released in March, a scaled-down film that takes the overexposed Wolverine out of the tentpole till and presents him as a sick old man in a futuristic world from which most mutants have been exterminated. Caring for a dementia-stricken 90-something Charles Xavier, he's reluctantly pulled into one last adventure and gets a taste of something he'd missed in his long life. It's a marvel of a movie and though not exactly tiny, it gives a taste of what these pictures can be when they move away from the tentpole mold.
LOGAN appeared a year after DEADPOOL, a similarly stripped-down (but otherwise very different) flick starring Ryan Reynolds as the "Merc With a Mouth," an asshole adventurer who amusingly deconstructs the tropes of comic-book movies while making his way through a madcap addition to the genre. Both films went for an R-rating, which allowed Wolverine to finally not be very nice at what he does best and Deadpool to layer on the irreverent, raunchy humor with a trowel. Going outside the box paid off. Adjusting for inflation, these were the two least expensive films in the x-franchise yet worldwide, DEADPOOL was the highest-grossing film in that 17-year run, while LOGAN was the third-highest. They're the most profitable x-flicks of all time, by a very wide margin. It remains to be seen whether they'll just be another man-bites-dog story or if they'll spur some movement toward these sorts of smaller productions. Factors that may be working against the latter include branding concerns--that tentpole mentality could perceive using these characters in smaller productions as cheapening the brand--and a concern with oversaturating the market, though it would seem much more logical to worry about that when there isn't sufficient diversity in the available product--people get tired of the same old thing. The smaller pictures, managed properly, help fix that.
Speaking of which, "the comics on which these films are based," I wrote in my previous essay, "have told every kind of story there is to be told. Dramas, horrors, swashbuckling adventures, comedies, spy stories, love stories, war stories, weird tales, political thrillers, mystical vision-quests 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." Though they continue to be basically conservative, some of the tentpole movies that have appeared since have integrated a wider range of these elements, something else that shouldn't be overstated but is nevertheless still worthy of note. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is very much in the vein of the political thrillers of the 1970s and featured Robert Redford, the star of two of the better-known flicks of that particular species (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR). Its tale is a nightmare of our time, the cynical manipulation of a War On Terror[tm] ideology to mask and carry out horrors, and there was some rock-solid drama--great characterization of Cap, the Black Widow and the Falcon. A top-shelf comic-boom movie. The forthcoming WONDER WOMAN is reportedly a story of World War I. Hopefully, a much better war picture than CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, which entirely lost the Second World War--and a golden opportunity for a good movie--in a silly alternate history so extreme it may as well have been set on another planet (and I don't say that in a good way). DOCTOR STRANGE was the major screen introduction to Mystical Marvel but was seriously hampered its conservatism--the tentpole ethos strikes again. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY introduced Cosmic Marvel. It is, at heart, a misfit-heroes-save-the-day movie but it really revels the oddness of that particular milieu.
On the page, the Marvel Universe is a profoundly weird place, a story that spans the whole of time packed with gods, monsters, heroes, villains, demons, mutants, science freaks, sorcery, bizarre technology of every conceivable make and model, lost races, alien worlds beyond measure, microverses, parallel universes, dream realms, alternate timelines--as broad as the imagination itself.
Some images that help illustrate just how little of the scope and glorious weirdness of the Marvel Universe has so far carried over into the screen adaptations. The DC universe on the page is full of weird wonders as well.
It seems odd now that BLADE (1998) was the picture that touched off the current comic movie boom. In so many ways, it entirely runs against the grain of what it eventually wrought. The character came out of Marvel horror comics, rather than the company's much-better-known books, it reflected that origin with a strong horror element (something tentpoles try to avoid), it was, compared to the self-styled "blockbusters" of its day, made on a relatively modest budget ($45 million, the equivalent of about $67 million today) and it was R-rated. Most importantly, it was good, the first good Marvel movie, and led to X-MEN, which led to SPIDER-MAN which led to... and right on to the present. One of its only "safe" elements was established star Wesley Snipes in the lead. But even as the comic-based tentpoles integrate somewhat broader themes and influences, it seems likely something like BLADE would have a hard time getting made today.
BLADE also yielded BLADE II, which brought Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker of immense talent, into comic-book flicks, where he pulled up a stump and sat a spell, spinning us the excellent HELLBOY and its even more excellent sequel. Made on relatively modest budgets, these are, like the Mike Mignola comics on which they're based, wonderfully inventive fantasies, full of imagination, genuinely inspired moments and heart. It would be tricky to make a case for their being underrated, as they're met with pretty general praise all around, but I've always considered them terribly underappreciated. Looking back on them now, they're so much a product of the minds behind them they just sort of sit there in history, not really inspiring anything further in the comic-book movie genre, which, of course, just makes them look even better but it's also disappointing. The genre didn't need a string of HELLBOY knock-offs but it needed--and desperately needs--that kind of movie. James Gunn, who came out of the Troma school and had already made a great comic-book-style movie (SUPER) before he hooked up with Marvel, has brought that kind of quirky vision to the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY pictures, which take to the toys in the cosmic Marvel toy box with an infectiously mad glee. One wishes there were a great many more such visionary creators working on comic-book movies. Most productions, alas, are being handled by much more, shall we say, workmanlike figures. Too bad.
The comic-book movies produced so far aren't revolutionary. They don't typically challenge viewers in any fundamental ways, feature little that's transgressive, little that asks viewers to broaden their horizons or entertain heretical ideas. They do feature plenty of explosions, CGI and action. Still, a not-insignificant portion of them have overcome the pigeonholes in which they're so often stuffed and have managed to not only work but work well. While not even the best of those released so far will ever make Cahiers du Cinema's list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, there's no reason comic-based productions eventually couldn't. Those of us who are readers of the comics know they have that potential. One wishes those behind the movies could see it.
 It seems to be a common belief among filmmakers that making things seem too weighty spoils the fun but giving them too little weight makes the entire enterprise feel pointless. The most pernicious manifestation of this phenomenon is, of course, in the treatment of violence, where mass death is often sold as spectacle in movies that aren't about having fun with something like mass death. That's very bad filmmaking.
 Kara's adoptive mother is played by Helen Slater, the first screen Supergirl, her adoptive father is played by Dean Cain, Superman from LOIS & CLARK, Rhea, the current villain, is played by Teri Hatcher, Lois from that same series and villain Indigo is played by Laura Vandervoort, Supergirl from SMALLVILLE. The creators eventually introduced Superman himself as a recurring character.
 This leaves out others. Deborah Ann Woll is great as DAREDEVIL's Karen Page. Rosario Dawson has appeared in all of the Netflix Marvels as Claire Temple, a composite of both the comics' character of the same name and Linda Carter, the "Night Nurse," who undertakes an illicit practice of patching up wounded superheroes. Wai Ching Ho is the enigmatic and magnificently evil Madame Gao, a leader of the Hand in DAREDEVIL and IRON FIST.
 Along with what could have been a really good Nick Fury solo flick featuring Sam Jackson's Fury pursuing the remnants of Hydra to Europe and other parts of the globe.
 In 2015, a leaked email from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter described past failures of female-led superhero flicks, though as Time noted, "the context of the summer 2014 email is unclear: Perlmutter could be enumerating the films as proof that female superhero movies bomb at the box office, or he may be optimistically hoping to break the pattern."
 I have in my head a bit of a dream projects involving Storm of the X-Men, sort of artsy productions that would probably never be greenlit even if I was in any position to pitch them to anyone who mattered, and I'm not. I think it would be cool to bring Dazzler to the screen.
 I'd talked about these issues in the past with Lebeau from Le Blog. When I was preparing this article, I asked him about it:
"My youngest is named Kara which was at least partially inspired by Supergirl. As it turns out, she developed an interest in superheroes at an early age... It's great. It's obviously an interest we share which is always a good thing. We watch Supergirl together every week and love it. I feel like she gets the same thing I got from Batman and Superman when I was a kid. A sense of empowerment and a belief that you should do your best to help others. She can look to characters like Supergirl and Wonder Woman for inspiration. My oldest doesn't care for superheroes, but we have had similar experiences watching Star Wars and the Ghostbusters remake. Girls are starved for strong female protagonists."
When Kara became a Wonder Woman fan, he wrote, he had problems finding WW merchandise. When he'd look for something obvious like a Wonder Woman doll,
"there weren't any to be found. Here was one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture and it was difficult to track down quality merchandise with her image on it. She was excluded from Justice League merchandise because I'm sure there were concerns boys would reject her. If I managed to find anything, it was usually pink and either an article of clothing or an accessory. There were lots of Wonder Woman purses, relatively few dolls. If you ventured into online shopping you could find some Wonder Woman dolls that were either outrageously priced or inappropriate for a five year old."
Since then, he continued, "things have improved a bit" as some companies have started to realize "there is a huge market for these characters among young girls. Something we already knew, but I am glad toy companies have figured it out."
 I found it infuriating that those who objected to her casting on the grounds that she's physically totally inappropriate for the part were portrayed as a pack of drooling internet trolls bitching that "her tits are too small." I found it infuriating that those who offered thoughtful critiques were accused of "body-shaming." They're not body-shaming; the casting of Gadot is body-shaming.
 We've already seen a microcosm of this; Gadot's cameo in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE led many critics to describe her as the high-point of that otherwise godawful movie.
 The creators left themselves an out here as well by revealing that this Lex Luthor is a "Jr."
 This "Superman" doesn't really care about people but he's creepily attached to his mother and to Lois Lane, to the point that a dream-sequence in the film suggests this will lead him to become a brutal dictator in an "Injustice: Gods Among Us" future. One reviewer noted (and I regret I'm unable to remember who) that this element is a painful bit of juvenile melodrama; the guy who is supposed to be the world's greatest superhero, torn between his mother and his girlfriend.
 Many would point to Jared Leto's awful gangstah rapper Joker and disagree. It probably sticks out as particularly bad coming as it does so soon after Heath Ledger's near-universally-praised turn as the character.
 While there was little interest at any point in the source material, presenting an oddball gaggle of wisecracking heroes tasked with saving creation to the tune of one classic rock track after another proved that the creators paid attention to the box-office take of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. The movie's big CGI-filled pillar-of-light-to the-sky finale seemed to be an effort to get a jump-start on the then-upcoming GHOSTBUSTERS remake, something internet memesters have beaten to death:
 Surprisingly, given that the film shows so little interest in the source material, Harley Quinn is handled pretty well but her relationship with the Joker, who most definitely isn't, looks like flashbacks from a movie that should have preceded this one but didn't. It's hard to see that missing flick as a tragedy given Jared Leto's Joker, which is the worst version of that character ever brought to the screen, but there's a great story between those two, if anyone is ever interested in making it (and if the Leto version of the Joker can be abandoned). With Harley, who, without that story, is as without a character arc as everyone else in the picture, I'll concede I may just be looking too hard to find something praiseworthy in a failed flick I really wanted to like--I'm a fan of the comic and looked forward to the movie for a long time--but if there's anything positive one could say about the otherwise awful SS, Margot Robbie's Harley is it. Will Smith is theoretically cast as Deadshot but actually plays one of the only characters he ever plays anymore: Will Smith. Not good. The other members of the Squad are barely even a presence; the movie is focused primarily on Smith and Robbie. And Robbie's ass, which, as another reviewer noted, probably gets more close-ups than most of the other Squad members.
 That's a plot I've long associated with the Avengers, the comics, that is. On screen, it crept--crapped?--its way into AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON as well, where the big problem the heroes must solve is one they, themselves, created. This nullifies the premise of whatever story uses it.
 Zack Snyder sees nothing more in these elements he pillages than some empty "it's just so kewl!" visuals; he steals them while stripping them of everything that, on the page, gave them any meaning or impact. This also wastes these elements, spoiling them for anyone who may come along later and actually want to adapt the stories from which he's thieved them.
 That first flick, BATMAN BEGINS, introduced a corrupt-to-the-core Gotham ruled by an unstoppable crime-lord but though tackling this could have made for a great Batman movie, it was apparently judged insufficient; after setting it up, the film simply abandoned it halfway through the movie in a very jarring way in order to bring in a different, bigger villain plot involving a completely ridiculous scheme to make the inhabitants of Gotham kill themselves.
 Though one suspects the horrendous critical reception given BvS may have put that future project, represented as a potential future, in limbo.
 Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 2 offered a good example of bigger-is-better actively ruining a core element of the character. The thing that made Spider-Man so revolutionary on the page was his humanity. He's just a regular guy who happens to gain extraordinary powers. As I've written in the past, the movie, by contrast, presents him as an "all-but-indestructible juggernaut, with strength and durability so far beyond our frame of reference as to seem positively otherworldly." Whereas Spider-Man is a brave guy who pits himself against incredibly dangerous menaces, "it's difficult to imagine anyone giving too much trouble to the character with the capabilities we see in SPIDER-MAN 2, much less outmatching him. He's relentless, unstoppable, possessed of Hulk-like strength, and nearly impossible to injure; attributing bravery to him for what he does is like attributing it to a person who squashes a bug." This "Spider-Man" stops a speeding train with his bare hands. "[O]ne of the most celebrated moments from the [Spider-Man] comic came in 'Amazing Spider-Man' #32-33, when Spider-Man is pinned beneath a large piece of machinery in a room that is rapidly flooding. A few feet away is a new serum that will heal a dying Aunt May. If he can't free himself, he'll die, and, without the serum, she'll die. He's completely exhausted though. He's been running for days without a break. He'd just fought his way through a phalanx of hoods then gone 10 rounds with Dr. Octopus. The machine above him is massive. When he first tries, he can't budge it an inch. Between the two issues he spends seven pages--an eternity, by Silver Age comic standards--struggling to free himself, thinking of Aunt May, beating himself up again for Uncle Ben's death, insisting to himself that he won't let May die. And, throughout the course of this, slowly, ever so painfully, he manages to begin lifting the machine off his back and, with the strain so great he's on the verge of blacking out, he frees himself. The sequence is one of the greatest moments in the history of superhero comics and is widely regarded as Spider-Man's defining moment." And after we've seen him stop a speeding train--a feat that trumps that one on a galactic scale--it would just seem ridiculous if brought to the screen.
 The Joker and Two-Face are two of the Batman's most iconic villains. Either one of them could be the featured villain of a film or even of a series of films. Jamming both of them into the same film is an aspect of that pernicious tentpole thinking, wherein villain multiplication is seen as a way of making a picture "bigger." Villains typically multiply as sequels are produced. All of the Nolan bat-flicks jammed in multiple villains.
 For any readers of my original article who may decide I've gratuitously pulled out this movie for further abuse, I wouldn't necessarily disagree but a fuck-up of that scale deserves all the abuse it gets.
 To offer another (and plug a good current book while I'm at it), the current She-Hulk book, written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by Nico Leon, has featured a very good story about Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk, trying to deal with post-traumatic stress after a near-death experience. For Jen, becoming the She-Hulk was the best thing that ever happened to her. Now, she finds her troubled psychological state is threatening to turn that side of her into something she can't control, as happened with her cousin Bruce, the Hulk. Reflecting this, the title of the book is just "Hulk." Not the sort of thing that would even be considered for a film project at present but exactly the sort of thing that should be considered for a film project.
 And that move has been quite considerable. Since then, the "c" in CW has practically come to mean "comics," as the network has launched RIVERDALE (an adaptation of Archie), iZOMBIE, and its ARROW, which began in 2012, has spun off into a major DC television universe with four different live-action series, a 5th on the way (BLACK LIGHTNING, which looks awesome) and an animated series on Seed, the CW's online streaming platform. When NBC produced a season of CONSTANTINE about DC's snarky occultist of the same name, the series failed after one season but the character was then integrated into the CW DC-verse and will soon return as another animated series on the Seed. GOTHAM, about the pre-Batman characters in the title city, came to Fox; its 4th season is forthcoming. WYNONNA EARP, as mentioned earlier, came to SyFy. Fox's Marvel x-franchise has moved to television with LEGION, which launched on F/X in February, and THE GIFTED, which will air on Fox later this year. Marvel's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. which began in 2013, has put in a long run on ABC and was just renewed for a 5th season. It was joined for two seasons by AGENT CARTER and will be joined, later this year, by INHUMANS. Marvel is currently preparing CLOAK & DAGGER for Freeform and RUNAWAYS for Hulu. Marvel launched a Netflix mini-universe of four shows and a 5th plus a crossover mini on the way. On AMC, THE WALKING DEAD--as popular as it is terrible--will soon begin its 8th season and it's recently been joined by PREACHER.
 These limitations rendered AMC's very ill-advised PREACHER adaptation dead at conception, though it continues to infest the network and molest the material (and not in any good ways).
 To cover the gaps caused by this segregation, the enclaves have mostly resorted to lame substitutions. In the comics, Ben Urich is a reporter for the Daily Bugle, Peter "Spider-Man" Parker's newspaper; Netflix DAREDEVIL combined Urich and Joe Robertson, another Spider-Man character, into a new Urich and had him working at some other paper (presumably locking both Urich and Robertson out of the movie enclave where roams Spider-Man). In the comics, Hawkeye had a long relationship with Mockingbird; on screen, he's an Avenger in the movie universe while she's on AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., so the movie enclave just gave Hawkeye a different wife.
 The movie was inspired by "Old Man Logan," a miniseries by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven but didn't really adapte it, just swiped the general plot.
 Caveat: those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation because I'm running long and being lazy.
 The Thor pictures had introduced the Asgardians, who have one foot in mystical Marvel and the other in cosmic Marvel.
 Jack Kirby technology alone is something production designers on Marvel features should be horsewhipped for ignoring.
 Though I haven't put together a similar collection of images for DC, I feel duty-bound to offer at least one example. Here's the Element Man on a date from Metamorpho #1:
 Also disappointing, the fact that the long-awaited HELLBOY III was recently declared dead and the studio announced they'd be producing a recast remake instead, which also killed a planned spin-off of the original pair of films.
 SUPER is about a schlub who takes up a rather inept version of the superheroing business after his addict girlfriend runs away with a drug dealer. A great, screamingly funny comic-book movie that isn't based on an actual comic. In both this and my previous "What Ails 'Em" article, I've mostly ignored flicks that weren't adaptations, though there have been some real gems (CHRONICLE is another that comes to mind). They'll probably end up the subject of a future essay. I've also almost entirely ignored animated features, as they tend to be a very different beast.
 After he had worked on developing ANT MAN for a decade, Marvel fired Edgar Wright on the verge of principal photography, replacing him with Peyton "Bring It On" Reed. A travesty.