Saturday, June 29, 2024

HORIZON: A Critical Saga of American Criticism, Chapter 1

The first chapter of Kevin Costner's HORIZON: AN AMERICAN SAGA, which opened yesterday, has taken a real critical drubbing, but having watched it last night, I would suggest that anyone who happens across its 39% "fresh" score on critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes--only 21% "fresh" among "top critics"--and gets the impression that it's the celluloid stink-bomb of historical proportions that implies and is thus dissuaded from seeing it will have become the victim of a crime against cinema.

To be fair to its critics, it must be acknowledged that the nature of HORIZON 1 just makes it difficult to review. It's only the first entry in a tetralogy. It isn't a finished franchise film with a beginning, middle, end and 3 planned sequels--it's basically just one-quarter of one big movie. We aren't going to be able to properly judge it until it has finished playing out. But someone who is paid to review movies can't wait until the last chapter hits the screens; they have to write about what they've seen.

What they've seen so far runs for 3 hours and is mostly just set-up. Aiming straight for a Sprawling Epic, HORIZON 1 is jam-packed with characters and plotlines, which are still being introduced virtually right to its end. The meat of the tale, when all of these elements begin to interact, will take place in the subsequent installments.[1]

This quarter-movie's professional appraisers know all of this. They've just often chosen to evaluate the project as if they didn't. While many of the specific criticisms they've dished out could eventually prove spot-on, they can't really be justified based on what we've gotten so far. Given the context, what's the point, for example, in complaining about the lack of "closure" for characters' arcs? Why accuse the quarter-movie of a lack of "focus"? When so much of the movie is setting up what's to come, is it really a justifiable rebuke to say the plot "barely inched forward"? Calling Costner "overindulgent" implies the film is padded with needlessly extraneous material that a more disciplined director would have reigned in and cut down, but again, that's something we can't judge until HORIZON's final chapter has played out. It feels like a lot of this is just complaining for the sake of complaining.

How is HORIZON 1 though?

Going into it, I was definitely on its side. I love a good Western. After nearly dying for a few decades, the genre has staged a notable comeback in recent years and an A-Western that was both good and successful could only fertilize the revival. I'm a fan of a lot of Costner's work, and my heart is always with these sorts of passion-projects (Costner has worked for decades to bring this to the screen and reportedly put a fortune of his own money into it). I was hoping it would be good.

I wasn't disappointed. The movie has a huge cast packed with top-shelf talent who offer up some great, sincere performances. It has a grand scale, done well (for those like myself who can appreciate that) and often beautiful, sweeping cinematography to match. The score sometimes feels old fashioned--Hollywood Epic Orchestral Score--but sometimes even that's good-old-days old-fashioned. There are some really good moments. A walk-and-talk by Costner and Jamie Campbell Bower, here doing a heel-turn, is a particularly great sequence. At the low end of the critical bell-curve, the flick has drawn adjectives like "dull" or "ponderous," but my usual dismissive grumbles about people without an attention span don't really apply here; HORIZON 1 moves at a steady clip (at 3 hours, it felt more like 2), there's plenty of action, always something going on and it's usually interesting. It's not a slow movie, and one wonders if those tagging it with the complaints that a more deliberately-paced flick may, to the ADD-afflicted, seem to earn are just randomly reaching into the cliche-bag with bad-faith fingers for any negative descriptor one could throw at any 3-hour movie.

Here's a cliche that applies: It isn't perfect. When I left the theater, I was pondering what appear to be some strange editing choices. At one point, Costner's character Ellison and Abbey Lee's Marigold are being hunted by a DARK VALLEY-style villain and pause on a hill over a settlement in order to allow their pursuers to ask around among the locals, satisfy themselves that their quarry haven't passed through and continue on. Ellison says that, in the morning, he'll go down and see about purchasing a tent, so they won't have to sleep on the ground in their ongoing flight. But when the movie returns to them, they've taken up residence, Ellison has a job, Mari has a beau (or at least trick) and it seems as if some time has passed. It was an odd place to put such a jump and it felt like there was something missing. At another point, Jenna Malone's character Lucy, who is one of the first recurring characters the film introduces, has been captured by those same villains, who have been looking for her and her child for years with orders to bring them back to that DARK VALLEY patriarch, but when they return to said patriarch, she's nowhere in sight. Unless she was killed and I just missed the mention of it--which is, admittedly, possible--that felt like another weird gap. Shooting the film in a 1:85 aspect ratio is a head-scratcher--if any project ever begged for scope cinematography, this is it. The decision to run the end-titles over a rendition of "Amazing Grace" was really bad (because, well, it always is).

Still, those are relatively minor faults--if they prove to be faults at all--and the impression of a GIANT CLAW-sized turkey left by Rotten Tomatoes is very unfair. My initial impression is that this was a good start. It has me looking forward to the next installment and, as it's set to arrive in August, I won't even have to wait very long.



[1] That so much of it was just set-up probably accounts for the somewhat questionable release schedule. Rather than releasing the first part then waiting, say, a year, the 2nd installment is coming out next month. Because viewers will likely be required to see every installment in order to make heads or tails out of it, this sort of limits the next HORIZON to a portion of the first's initial audience, whereas a longer gap would allow those who missed it to catch up on it via streaming or, for those of us who still engage in that arcane practice, home video. Perhaps it was thought that a set-up picture with a longer wait was a bigger risk.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em 3: Better, Not Bigger

This past August marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Stephen Norrington's BLADE. Starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire-hunting hero, the film was a big hit, nearly tripling its budget, despite an R-rating that conventional wisdom suggested would hurt the box office of a comic-based property. The film's success was the kick-off of the comic-book movie boom that has consumed Hollywood ever since--25 years now and counting. After a quarter-century of this, Marc Guggenheim, one of the creators of the CW's DC television universe, recently offered some remarks about "superhero fatigue." Are viewers just getting tired of comic-book movies?

"I question how much of this is superhero movie fatigue and how much of this is not-great-superhero-movie fatigue... One of the most successful movies of this year is 'Across the Spider-Verse'... and it's a huge hit. Why is it such a huge hit? Because it's done so well. I mean, it's so good. So, I personally don't think of it in terms of the audience is tired or not tired."
This writer has authored a pair of articles outlining various issues I've had with the many comic-to-screen adaptations. The ensuing years have seen some of those issues addressed, albeit with often mixed results, but the failure to address most of them is, in my view, a big reason why the phrase "superhero fatigue" is turning up more and more often, so it seems an opportune time to return to the subject.

Way back in "Comic Book Movies & What Ails 'Em," I noted that
"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... [T]he focus only on huge epics in the cinematic adaptations does real violence to the source material."
I made the case for smaller-scale projects, stories like we've gotten in the comics all along that fleshed out the characters more than is allowed in the few quiet moments between explosions and races-against-time in the bigger pictures, more intimate tales that don't necessarily have the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

While comic-based productions for television have allowed for some of this--and deserve praise for it--those for the big screen still haven't figured this out. The Avengers movies, which admittedly involves a team of uber-powerful characters, continued escalating until a galactic-level threat literally invaded the Earth then wiped out half of all living things in the universe. Then, the Avengers went on a time-spanning adventure to undo that, drawing in pretty much every character the Marvel Cinematic Universe had established. Good movies, but it's bigger, bigger, bigger, crowding out everything else.

Even street-level heroes have fallen victim to this tendency. In my original piece, I noted that Spider-Man is "primarily a street-level character" who "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... The same is true of the Batman."
It was a major mistake for Marvel and Sony to tie Spider-Man so closely to the Avengers. It was a marketing decision, but it did real harm to the character. Comic Spider-Man was just Peter Parker, a guy--in the beginning, a kid, really--who came from very humble, working-class beginnings, gained extraordinary powers, then fails to stop a criminal he could have easily taken down because he didn't want to be bothered, a criminal who then murders his uncle, Ben Parker, the man who raised him. "With great power must come great responsibility," and he takes up the mantle of street hero. Simple, brilliant. Parker's life was already a mess. Being Spider-Man makes it an even bigger mess. He was a self-made hero in a costume he'd also made himself, using gadgets he, himself, created, and he had to figure things out on his own, both in life and against a revolving gallery of villains that usually had him outmatched. This is what forged him. These are also some of the things that made comic Spider-Man so revolutionary.

Unfortunately, these are the things that were almost immediately dumped from the MCU/Sony Spider-Man, who, when he first appears (in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR), is already with the Avengers. In the subsequent SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, his first solo MCU movie, the Uncle Ben backstory is implied but is absent, probably because it had already been depicted in two previous movies featuring two previous versions of Spider-Man in only a 14-year period. And the MCU/Sony creators immediately gift the character with a billionaire mentor/benefactor in Tony Stark (Iron Man), a fancy, mega-million-dollar spider-armor suit[1] and shows him with very little interest in the kinds of activities his uncle's death in the comics drove him to undertake. He, instead, pines to join the Avengers and his primary motivation is a desperate desire to impress Stark, who is presented as the kind of character--an arrogant, wealthy bigshot who throws his weight around--that working-class comic Peter would hold in abject contempt.

It's not Spider-Man.

And as the "Spider-Man" movies continue and become stuck in that same huger-than-huge epic-itis cycle, this only gets worse. In FAR FROM HOME, the 2nd solo movie, the Idiot Plot Syndrome typical of most Hollywood tentpole pictures kicks in really hard, and teenager Peter is 1) left in charge of a weapons system of off-the-scale destructive potential, and 2) almost immediately turns control of it over to another character he barely knows, who turns out to be a villain. Lots of bigger-than-the-first-one, CGI-filled effects sequences ensue. NO WAY HOME, the 3rd movie,
makes a hash of its "Spider-Man's" origin. Whereas it was earlier implied that the familiar Spider-Man origin had happened off screen some months before the movies, the 3rd film seems to erase this, bringing in other Spider-Men from the multiverse who tell their own Uncle Ben stories, while the MCU Spider-Man is without one until--in that movie--his Aunt May is killed and assumes that role, 6 movies into his story. Why has he been doing this all this time? Who is this character? The Idiot Plot Syndrome is on steroids here too. Peter's secret identity has been compromised, he goes to Dr. Strange to learn if there's a way to use magic to make people forget it, both he and Dr. Strange are written as complete idiots who not only decide, rather casually, to cast a reality-altering spell but then goof around while doing so and, as a consequence, unleash a hex that cracks open the multiverse and, by the end, nearly destroys the world.[2]

The street-level Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man who, in intimate tales, takes on both the problems of ordinary life and meta-human jewel thieves, bank robbers, muggers and gangsters has completely disappeared under all of this Bigness.

The end of the movie erases from the minds of everyone on Earth any knowledge of Peter Parker or Spider-Man, in effect erasing everything that has happened up until then. This twist has the effect of making everything we've seen feel meaningless. If, on the other hand, it's immediately undone, it makes the radical twist itself meaningless. While the twist could theoretically allow the creators a soft-reboot of the character that would let them fix some of the issues with it, it raises the specter of having to re-cover the same ground to, for example, reestablish the supporting cast. NO WAY HOME burns every bridge and leaves no entirely satisfying path forward.

Both NO WAY HOME and FAR FROM HOME are, as noted, movies built around solving a problem the protagonist himself has caused by doing something incredibly stupid. This raises some interesting issues. A superhero is supposed to protect his part of the world, often from menaces that are so big, the community needs a superhero to deal with them. If, instead, the superhero is creating problems--particularly if the problems are major menaces that cause losses of life--it's an indictment of the character's very existence within that framework. A potentially rich vein of story material but one these movies' creators haven't really been willing to fully explore, so we're left, instead, with the Idiot Plot version--characters just being written as acting far dumber than they should be as an excuse to have a big spectacle on the screen, which is resolved in a couple hours then has few or no real consequences. In Spider-Man's 3 solo movies, we've had, in succession, the "hero" placing millions of lives in danger then the entire world in danger by being an idiot. This same Idiot Plot was there in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, in which Tony Stark creates an android that, in turn, decides to eradicate humanity and must then be stopped. In David Ayers' SUICIDE SQUAD, a U.S. government operative assembles a team of villains to carry out missions for the government, and the movie's villain plot merely involves a member of the team going rogue and the others having to be sent to stop her from destroying mankind.

But in this particular subgenre, no movies put the "idiot" in "Idiot Plot" like Zack Snyder's DCEU projects. I've dealt with a lot of this in the past. To cover some of the highlights...

--In MAN OF STEEL, Zod and his Kryptonian minions--the villains of the piece--are granted godlike powers by the environment of Earth but seek to transform that environment into a replica of Krypton, which will strip them of those godlike powers. The Kryptonians' powers are said to be the result of a combination of Earth's atmosphere and its yellow sun, but the villains walk around through most of the movie in space-suits that fill their lungs with their native air and still have all of the same powers as Superman. But when Superman goes aboard their ship and breaths Kryptonian air, he loses his powers instantly. Zod explains that he wants to transform the Earth's atmosphere because it would take years of pain for Kryptonians to adjust to it, then when his space-suit is damaged, he adapts to Earth's atmosphere on the spot. The villains' Kryptaforming gear would presumably work on any planet but they want to transform the Earth and kill off most of its population, their motivation solely being the screenwriters' desire to give their "hero"--basically just a bystander in the movie named after him--something to oppose in the final act.[3]

--In BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, Lex Luthor wants to kill Superman and, in possession of Kryptonite, has the means to easily do so but instead of just doing it, he embarks upon a convoluted scheme--lacking any point at all except adding to the screentime--to get Batman to do so instead. He's able to arrange the titular grudge match solely because the two heroes are written as complete idiots who are so busy being all Snyder-style Edgy & Brooding that they never opt to have an adult conversation before trying to liquidate one another. Batman doesn't snuff out Superman because, in a scene executed in so legendarily stupid a way it seems destined to live on in internet memes for all eternity, he learns their mothers have the same name. Luthor, who hates, fears and wants to kill the Kryptonians, decides to create another one in Doomsday, a godlike monster. Luthor touts his own genius throughout the movie, then unleashes the creature in hopes that it will kill Superman. Had Doomsday succeeded in this, the creature would then have destroyed the Earth and everyone on it, including Lex Luthor.

"Save Martha!"

--ZACK SNYDER'S JUSTICE LEAGUE is serious competition for the dumbest movie in this run. Darkseid, it's ultimate Big Bad, was once defeated in trying to conquer the Earth and is only now, many centuries later, getting back to it because, well, he forgot where it was. Youtuber Mauler (among others) has already created a feature-length dissection of many of its offensive idiocies, and I'll defer to him on it.

Over the years, Snyder has developed a particularly rabid (and particularly toxic) cult following, but his DCEU movies are just terrible--some of the worst, most misguided comic-book movies to come out of this comic-book-movie era--and to the extent that history remembers them at all, it will be as some of the most embarrassing, "WTF were they thinking?!" creative misfires in the long histories of these characters. The efforts by multiple executive regimes at Warner Brothers to salvage them and build a cinematic universe with those swamps as the foundation are, collectively, one of the most remarkable examples of studio mismanagement in Hollywood history. Basically just a big dumpster fire that burned for a decade because, instead of just bowing to the obvious, extinguishing it and starting over, every new suit insisted on continuing to dump more and more money on it. It's good that the DCEU has now ended. It's astonishing that it took so long for WB to end it.

Snyder's DCEU movies continued the Bigger, Bigger, Bigger-ization of the Batman. Back in 2017, I wrote:
"[I]n 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 [JUSTICE LEAGUE], 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," I noted, "they're a very small part of the larger Batman picture." The Batman is primarily a street-level crimefighter, a detective, his iconic rogues mostly criminals, gangsters, killers. The Batman was created by crime but becomes the scourge of crime. He has the countenance of a villain and uses terror as a weapon, yet he's a hero. His headliner foes are sort of like distorted reflections of himself, often born in tragedy, often not exactly right in the head, they adopt some outlandish gimmick, just like the Batman, and try to make over the world--or their part of it--in a way they find more suitable, just like the Batman. Maybe even inspired by the Batman? There's all kinds of meat there for good writers, but it's meat that was being left to spoil while his screen adaptations were limited to these huger-than-huge spectacles.

Relief on that front fortunately arrived in 2022 with Matt Reeves' THE BATMAN, which radically deescalated things and gave us a Batman more like, well, Batman. In that older piece, I suggested bat-projects like "the Batman investigating a SE7EN-style serial killer" or "trying to crack one of the Penguin's criminal schemes," and Reeves' picture--set in yet another continuity--showed its creators were thinking along similar lines (Reeves even directly cited SE7EN as an inspiration). And it was really good.

Not perfect. There was some ill-advised first-person voiceover by the Bat. Not badly-conceived, just badly written and executed. Reeves could have used a little more SE7EN in his ending. The villain--a radically reimagined Riddler--is apprehended and the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion then takes a left turn, as we learn the villain has been plotting something else along the way. This sort of thing works when it's Gweneth Paltrow's head in a box delivered to a remote desert location to complete some twisted master scheme. In THE BATMAN, it's a pretty lame plan in which the movie's creators, in trying to tip the hat to the Bigger, Bigger, Bigger trend, end up tacking on an extremely underwhelming and, honestly, rather stupid second final act that really doesn't add anything of merit to the proceedings and just served to balloon the budget and make what had been a good movie drag on beyond its welcome.[4]

Rubbish final acts are a recurring problem in comic-book movies, and that push to make things Bigger, Bigger, Bigger is usually the culprit. A quarter-century ago when BLADE was in production, the film's original final confrontation had the villain Deacon Frost mutate into a giant, gelatinous CGI creature that Blade had to defeat, but the filmmakers found that, in test screenings, the audience, which had become very invested in the Blade/Frost conflict, simply checked out once Frost became a giant, unidentifiable mass of blood-jello, so the much-better Blade-vs.-Frost ending used in the theatrical release was created. That lesson didn't carry over to other comic productions, in which, for years now, there just seems to be this baked-to-diamond-hard Conventional Wisdom that the final act has to be some huge, epic CGI-filled donnybrook.[5]

That sort of finale can be earned and, in fact, is often earned by these films. THE AVENGERS certainly earned it, not only within its own running time but with pieces of the build-up to it scattered across five movies preceding it. The other side of the coin is BvS, where, as noted earlier, the creators had Luthor make the staggeringly irrational--suicidal--decision to create a world-destroying monster and sic it on Superman solely because they felt they needed a big CGI-suffocated Final Boss fight (and as with THE BATMAN, that too was a 2nd final act, needlessly appended at a point when the movie was basically over).

The finale of WONDER WOMAN drew widespread complaints, even from those who liked the movie. Diana leaves her home on Themyscira for Europe, convinced that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for the then-ongoing World War I. A theme of the movie--and something Diana was originally supposed to learn by the end--is that sometimes, people just do bad things, no intervention by evil gods necessary. But the studio wanted a Final Boss, so this was scrapped near the end of production and, instead, Diana finds Ares (presented as a hammy, mustache-twirler), engages with him in a long, awful CGI cartoon, kills him and, upon his death, his spell over the soldiers fighting the war is broken and it turns out he was responsible for World War I after all! Who knew, right?

It's really bad.[6] This studio imposition completely obliterated the character arc the movie was building. That it eliminated the intended reason Diana essentially went into hiding for a century and didn't replace it with anything--raising, along the way, a a literal infinity of problematic questions about that century--didn't help. Because the movie, while in production, had always ultimately been aiming to deflate Diana's belief that Ares was responsible for the war, the Ares confrontation was never properly established; narratively, it just sort of comes out of nowhere.[7]

A similar thing happens in the final act of Destin Daniel Cretton's SHANG-CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. The movie's central conflict is between the title hero and his supervillain father. They have it out at the end, but then things proceed into yet another of those 2nd finales, this one in which the Dweller-In-Darkness, a Lovecraftian monster barred from this world via a portal guarded by the inhabitants of the mystical village of Ta Lo, is released and must be beaten down. What follows is another CGI cartoon full of dueling dragons and ridiculous aerial acrobatics that is just allowed to go on and on but that--crucially--has almost nothing to do with anything that preceded it. An entire sequel--or, for that matter, this movie--could have been spent building up this menace. Instead, it's treated as virtually an afterthought, then used as a Final Boss in a movie that wasn't about it--a bad idea that is then done badly.

Shang-Chi is also an example of General Big-itis and the often-excruciatingly narrow notion of what these comic-based projects should be conspiring to befoul what could have been a lucrative run of pictures. Comic Shang-Chi was a Master of Kung Fu, the son of a supervillain who turned against his father. His formative stories were moody adventure tales, pulling from pulp fiction, martial arts movies, Gothic horror, espionage pictures. Those are the stories that made the character popular enough to bring to the big screen in the first place but the movie almost entirely disposed of the best years of the source material, which would have been far cheaper to turn into movies, in favor of a flashy superhero movie that reportedly cost between $150 million and $200 million--enough to fund multiple films closer to the comic.

Mood in "Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu"

The same thing happened with SUICIDE SQUAD. In the original comics, the group was intended as a black ops team. They carry out covert missions--taking out a terrorist cell, extracting an important dissident from political imprisonment in an adversary nation, assassinating a drug lord in a Latin American nation where he has political connections that give him protection from official action, etc.--and because it's a matter of public record that they're criminals, the U.S. government has plausible deniability regarding their activities. It's a perfect premise, one that would yield an endless array of relatively low-cost spy/adventure/action pictures, but the film's creators wanted Big, Big, Big, so in the movie, the Squad--mostly street-level villains, including a marksman, a guy who is good at climbing things, a thief who uses boomerangs, a mentally-ill woman with a baseball bat, etc., most without any superpowers and who have already been apprehended by law enforcement or by superheroes--are assembled into a team to defend the world from Superman-level threats. Somehow. What could have been a string of great $30 million to $80 million flicks turned into one really awful $175 million mess. James Gunn's reboot, THE SUICIDE SQUAD, restored the premise and was a vastly superior movie in every way, but it included, among other things, an expensive CG character and a final-act showdown with a world-threatening, King Kong-sized Starro the Conqueror--much bigger stuff than an SS movie closer to the comics would usually need--that pushed the budget up to a really hefty $185 million.

The sort of changes wrought on many of these properties were meant to conform them to a Big Superhero Movie template--what the creators of these adaptations think they should be--in pursuit of a billion-dollar box-office hit.

Our present comic-movie boom furnishes a great example of both how this can help lead to a very bad screen project and how, to the contrary, doing the same character properly can make for a very good one:

20th Century Fox spent $78 million on Mark Steven Johnson's godawful 2003 DAREDEVIL. Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN had just been a mega-hit and Fox executives looked at it and, with no consideration for the differences in the characters and their worlds, said "I want one of those!"
"...[T]he studio suits... [turned] 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."
No Jet Li in that picture. Daredevil, who is, physically speaking, just a normal, albeit very athletic, ninja guy, drops down what looks like 40 stories off a building, lands on a fire-escape and just keeps going. Characters who definitely don't have spider-powers nevertheless bounce 35 feet into the air like cartoon grasshoppers. The movie was a stupid, horribly written, horribly directed, often horribly-cast mess, pillaging--Snyder-style--moments from years of comic stories, removing them from the context of all of the years of development that gave them their power on the page and jamming them into a little over 2 hours of time.

Years later, after reacquiring the rights to the character, Marvel turned it into a series on Netflix, giving it a proper scale, tone and focus--a Daredevil that was like Daredevil. Thirteen episodes were shot, the equivalent of 6 1/2 feature films, for only a little over 2/3 of the cost of that shitty movie, even with 11 years of intervening inflation. It led to 2 more seasons and a crossover with other Marvel Netflix shows, and it was the best thing Marvel has ever brought to the screen.

When those Netflix projects were announced, there were to be 4 series, DD, JESSICA JONES, LUKE CAGE and IRON FIST, and a crossover miniseries featuring all of them--appropriate, since these were street-level characters that, in the comics, often interacted. The Punisher was introduced in DD season 2 and then got his own series. The 1st season of JESSICA JONES was a rousing success, another contender for the title of all-time-best Marvel adaptation, and it was another argument for staying true to the spirit of the source material.

Some of these other adaptations didn't fare as well.

--IRON FIST was plagued with behind-the-scenes difficulties. Comic Fist slays a huge dragon with his bare hands. A moment central to the character, this was apparently well beyond the show's budget and happens off-screen. The show introduced a fairly significant supporting cast, then, despite spending far too much time with them, didn't really seem to know what to do with them. Underplotting, a lack of focus and pacing issues abounded, problems that only grew in the 2nd season.

--Jon Bernthal was incredible as Frank Castle, THE PUNISHER, but Marvel, having established the characters' simple, straightforward origin story in DAREDEVIL, has him repeatedly--and inexplicably--retire his crime-killing persona, requiring that every new season give him a new reason to bring it back. The character appears in DD, then 2 seasons of his own show and is given, in effect, 3 different origin stories, which could make the often-still-good shows a bit of a slog (the 2nd and 3rd "origins" weren't very good either). When he finally decides to continue being the Punisher, Marvel pulled the plug on all of the Netflix shows.

--Maybe the biggest creative misfire of the Netflix Marvels happened with LUKE CAGE. Comic Cage began as a fugitive; incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. He escaped from prison after an experiment-gone-wrong gifted him with steel-hard skin and superhuman strength. For many years before his name was cleared, he had to lie low. Cage is a working-class hero; he goes into business as the Hero For Hire. Got a shipment of jewelry that needs protection in a Marvel Universe full of all kinds of metahuman nutbags? Hire Cage and sleep soundly. Luke later befriends Danny Rand--Iron Fist--and Rand becomes Luke's partner, the venture expanded to Heroes For Hire. The Heroes For Hire comic--Power Man & Iron Fist--is much beloved, letter-perfect for the screen (buddy action/adventure/comedy that was, in its time, years ahead of its time) and when the Netflix projects were announced, there was much excitement that the shows would eventually join together, along with JESSICA JONES, who, in the comics, eventually marries Luke. In Mike Colter, Marvel found a good Luke Cage. The show's creators kept the fugitive angle and their 1st season, particularly the first half of it, was quite good, but they were apparently completely uninterested in the Hero For Hire business so central to the comics. And then they didn't replace it with anything. Cage just sort of becomes a local celebrity to whom things happen. Season 2 goes off the rails pretty badly; it's slow, often dull and ends with Luke deposing a crime boss and declaring himself the new boss--a plot taken from the Daredevil comics (where the character doing all of this was Daredevil). The only ep that feels remotely like Luke Cage is one in which Finn Jones, who plays Iron Fist, makes an utterly random fan-service guest-appearance, which just underscores the "WTF were they thinking?!!!" impression of the show's taking this other course--if that word can even be applied to the aimless direction in which CAGE went--instead of pairing them up.

Disney ended all of the Netflix shows and though all were set in the regular Marvel continuity, Disney, for a time, signaled they were no longer canon. While this would allow Marvel to fix some of the issues with the other shows, this was an incredibly short-sighted decision when it came to Daredevil. Why exile from the MCU the best thing Marvel has ever brought to the screen? Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio, who played crime Kingpin Wilson Fisk in DAREDEVIL, returned to the MCU in the HAWKEYE show, then in ECHO, while Charlie Cox reprised Matt Murdock/Daredevil himself in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, ECHO and SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW, and Disney announced Daredevil, essayed again by Cox, would return in a new series, BORN AGAIN.

And then, those connected to that new series began trying to dampen expectations for it, saying it wasn't a continuation of the Netflix show and would have a "lighter tone" than its predecessor, which was noted for its dark, mature tales, psychological complexity and violence. As if to accentuate the last, Daredevil appeared in SHE-HULK wearing a version of the yellow uniform he wore in the earliest comics,[8] rather than the more familiar deep-red gear. Cox said the new show was intended to "appeal to a slightly younger audience." There was even the suggestion by a Marvel producer not working on the reboot that the new series could be based on the execrable Mark Waid run of the comic, a goofy creative sewage-line rupture that Marvel had cruelly allowed to spew all over fans and lay waste to their favorite book for 4 long years.

There was every indication that this--again, a sequel to one of Marvel's most beloved productions--was a fandom-alienating disaster in the works. Fortunately, whatever all of this was intended to sell isn't, it seems, the BORN AGAIN we'll eventually be getting. It's perhaps odd to characterize as "fortunately" executives finally realizing that a string of pretty obviously bad decisions had resulted only in a turd--an expensive waste of time and money--but Marvel seems to have come to its senses in time on this. When higher-ups reviewed the new show--several episodes had already been shot--they came away with what the Hollywood Reporter described as "a clear-eyed assessment: The show wasn't working." Marvel fired basically the entire creative team and started over. Then January officially brought the Netflix show back into continuity.

THR said the abandoned BORN AGAIN had been intended, at least in part, as a "legal procedural," and Marvel's last stab at that particular format had gone as badly as anything Marvel has ever brought to the screen.

SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW was, in theory, a thing for which this writer had been agitating for years, including back in my first "What Ails 'Em" article:
"Jennifer Walters is the shy and reserved cousin of Bruce Banner--the Hulk--who 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."
But I assumed a Disney-fied Marvel, which is sexless anyway, would likely judge navigating the perceived minefield of sexual politics lain by the character to be more trouble than it was worth and was cautiously pleased when I learned they were going to make the effort.

The pitch for SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW was a legal procedural comedy--a far-from-ordinary lawyer/superheroine dealing with some of the nutty legal issues that arise in a world of superbeings, a great approach to the material. The show had the potential to be one of the MCU's all-time triumphs.

That, alas, wasn't what was delivered.

Though this was only made public later, the problems behind the scenes began almost immediately. The show's head writer Jessica Gao revealed that the writers, once assembled, discovered that none of them could write good courtroom scenes! Which immediately raises the question of why these writers were hired in the first place and why, when this came to light, they weren't replaced or didn't at least try to do a little homework on this. SHE-HULK was a half-hour show and there were only 9 episodes but it was going to be a very pricey one, thanks to another very bad decision--to make She-Hulk a fully-CG character, instead of just hiring an actress to play her. Photo-realistic CG characters are insanely expensive and if the series was even going to resemble the comics, it was going to be She-Hulk Jen, not human Jen, on the screen most of the time. A bigger price-tag makes it even more important to get writers who could actually do this kind of material. It's bizarre that these particular writers were kept on.

Everything that happens in every courtroom scene in the series painfully reinforces how bereft of any understanding of law the writers were and how little effort they made to acquaint themselves with the subject--a laymen who had never gotten any closer to an actual court than some reruns of PERRY MASON could have done better. And it turned out courtroom scenes weren't the only thing they couldn't write. Most of the show's "comedy"--the other leg on which SHE-HULK was to stand--is painfully unfunny, which is particularly unforgivable given the limitless comic potential of the material. These "writers" couldn't really write anything.

In the first ep, Jen and her cousin Bruce are in an auto accident when a random flying saucer suddenly appears in their path and she goes off the road. She's exposed to Bruce's blood, transforms and Bruce takes her away to an island where his efforts to teach her to Hulk, so she doesn't have to go through the nightmare he did after his change, are treated as unreasonable, annoying, paternalistic mansplaining. The key scene--and the one that particularly upset a lot of viewers--happened when Jen decided to "girlsplain" her life to Bruce:
"Here's the thing, Bruce. I'm great at controlling my anger. I do it all the time. When I'm catcalled in the street. When incompetent men explain my own area of expertise to me. I do it pretty much every day because if I don't I will be called emotional or difficult or... might just literally get murdered. So I'm an expert at controlling my anger, because I DO IT INFINITELY MORE THAN YOU!"

That last delivered with full neck-veins a-poppin'--a character who has a successful career, a supportive family and lives, from all appearances, a very comfortable life angrily trying to outperform Bruce Banner in the Oppression Olympics with mostly minor annoyances in her otherwise-sheltered existence (the writers throwing in the melodramatic "might just literally get murdered" part perhaps in recognition of how badly their scene plays). Bruce probably doesn't get "catcalled in the street," but he did suffer horrendous abuse as a child, watched his father murder his mother at a young age, spent his life accumulating horrors and becoming more and more bottled up until an experiment made all of that repressed stuff dramatically rise to the surface as a big, green, unstoppable, nearly indestructible rage-monster.[9] He wasn't "called emotional or difficult"; his life was completely destroyed, he was feared and hunted, he lost, in succession, both the women he loved. He wanted to die; he tried to kill himself and the Hulk prevented it. He became such a danger to the world that he felt compelled to leave everyone and everything he'd ever known behind and exile himself in space. His life has been a descent into blackest darkness, and he wears his past traumas as flesh, his body a living, anger-fueled weapon of mass destruction. Jen's rant at him, after he's learned to master that degree of rage and is able to sit calmly before her, is not only visually absurd, it makes her look terrible. She even morphs into She-Hulk and back at a will, just to underscore her "point" and taunt Bruce.


Minutes before delivering that rant, we'd just seen Jen become so unhinged by some boorish misbehavior by a group of guys at a saloon that she hulked out and attacked them--probably would have murdered them on the spot if Bruce hadn't been there to wrangle her down. Later, she further belittles Bruce as someone who wound up "alone, hiding away on some remote beach with no friends, no relationships, never seeing your family and definitely not dealing with a decade's worth of trauma... You're a cautionary tale."

That was viewers' first impression of the character.

Comic Jen is a genuinely good, likable person. She's kind, nurturing, fiercely loyal to her friends, has a strong relationship with her cousin. She's a good lawyer, loves doing the superhero thing and her persona in that role is, as one writer described, that of a swashbuckling heartbreaker. She makes bad life decisions at times and finds herself in goofy, undignified situations but readers root for her.
The Jen the show introduces is an obnoxious, judgmental, self-centered, dangerously reckless, vapid hypocrite, throwing out snide remarks about others while, herself, behaving terribly. Getting viewers to overcome that initial negative impression would be heavy lift for even the best creators but the writers here--none of whom would ever be regarded as falling into that category--never even try, as they seem genuinely unaware that they're making their protagonist behave terribly in the first place and think audiences will sympathize with her. They, in fact, have the characters in Jen's orbit repeatedly talk about how great she is, instead of showing us a great Jen. While Jen complains about those "incompetent men" who explain her own area of expertise to her, she's revealed at every turn to be a terrible lawyer, then, as the show nears its end, the writers have a legal group give her a Female Lawyer of the Year award. This Jen doesn't even want to be the She-Hulk or even called that, except when--utterly randomly--the writers decide to give her the exact opposite view for a moment. That's how pretty much everything works on the show: randomly. Often contradictory within the same ep.

It's necessary to say a few words here about a much-discussed--often misdiscussed--aspect of SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW, the writers' decision to make an ugly, in-your-face misandry a central focus of the series. Ep after ep is just an endless parade of cartoonishly sexist male characters behaving in cartoonishly sexist ways, dimwitted men behaving in dimwitted ways. The "men are shit, men are shit, MEN ARE SHIT!" messaging is absolutely relentless and quite off-putting, not just to rightist trolls scouring every nook and cranny for "wokeism" to inveigh against but to any conscientious viewer.
Strictly an innovation of the show's creators, this doesn't reflect any incarnation of the comics but it's one of the show's central foci, a thing to which nearly everything else is made to take a back seat. Entire "characters" exist for no other purpose than to act as ambulatory billboards for it. Dennis, a lawyer colleague of Jen's, may as well have been named Joe Stupid Sexist Male Caricature Esq. That's how he's written, not as someone who is supposed to be a real person but as a one-note joke that is never even once funny. Jen's misadventures in dating, in which she ends up with one sleazy loser and asshat after another, could have been, in more skillful hands, the amusing comment on the difficulties of dating in one's 30s the writers wanted it to be, except in the context of the rest of the show, it just comes across as more ugly misandry. "MEN ARE SHIT!" for the 150th time. Jen had drawn in these fellows by creating a dating profile as the She Hulk, and only after the fact do we learn that on it, she had answered the question, "What are you looking for in a partner?" by writing "A sturdy back and reinforced king-sized bed." Hard to believe this didn't draw the cream of the crop, right?[10] The writers anticipate the negative response their shoddy work--and particularly their relentless misandry--will generate among the regular fans of screen Marvel and preemptively indict their critics as a bunch of misogynistic dudebros, who are revealed, near the end, to be the series' villains.

In the end, the She-Hulk is so appalled by the stupid story that has played out that she breaks the fourth wall and goes to confront the show's creators over it. Jen demands that the ending be reorganized in a way meant to make it less dumb but her version is just as nonsensical.
For the writers, it's a self-indictment, but a very poorly conceived one because it leaves viewers with nothing. There's no story, just a bunch of stupid shit that happened then didn't go anywhere. The whole series was an exercise in trolling its own target audience.

Wouldn't it have been better to just get good people to work on it and at least try to make a good show?

It certainly would have been cheaper. The punchline to this--the low-point of the MCU to date--is that Marvel spent $225 million to make SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW--more than was spent on most of Marvel's feature films. The good news is that this likely means this is the last we'll see of this show. The bad news--and it's very bad news indeed--is that with it, Marvel thoroughly wasted its best superheroine, who deserved a hell of a lot better than this.

The show wasted other characters as well. Titania is a good character, not always treated well in the comics, but who went from a bullied girl to a villainess to sometime anti-heroine. Her backstory seems rich for screen adaptation.[11] Here, she's reduced to a venal "internet influencer," swiping the She-Hulk's name to sell beauty products in a show that used nothing of the comic character except her name. The Wrecking Crew, a superpowered gang of beefy bruisers who have taken on some of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel universe, are here just a bunch of scrawny losers the She-Hulk takes apart with minimal effort. All the characters in the show had to be was a random gang of thugs (one of them later a repentant one). Why make them the Wrecking Crew?

The Wrecking Crew...

The "Wrecking Crew" from SHE-HULK: AAL.

Don't even get me started on what they did to Man-Bull.


Man-Bull in SHE-HULK: AAL.

Wasting characters in this way is a regular problem with comic-to-screen adaptations. Wasting villains is a particularly acute problem for screen Marvel.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER was a terrible movie but one that introduced a great Red Skull, essayed by actor Hugo Weaving. For decades in the comics, the Red Skull was Captain America's major nemesis, a brilliant, resourceful, megalomaniacal fanatic chosen by Hitler, during World War II, to be the Fuhrer's right hand and successor and devoted, after the war, to bringing back the Third Reich and achieving mastery over mankind. He'd certainly be an excellent pretext for topical tales about the recent rise in fascism in the U.S. and around the world, but THE FIRST AVENGER chucks all of that and has the Skull declare war on the Nazi regime--only one of that film's infinity of WTF? missteps--then takes him off the board in a way that would allow for his later return. And then, of course, he never returns, except for a minor appearance as the guardian of an infinity gem.

MODOK was another major comic villain, one of Jack Kirby's strangest creations, who, as head of the group of evil scientists who created him (Advanced Idea Mechanics), has menaced nearly every major Marvel hero for decades--an incredibly formidable foe. ANT-MAN & THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA disposes of the characters entire backstory, keeping only his name and very general appearance from the comics and reducing him to a pathetic joke.

Jack Kirby's original MODOK design...

...and the QUANTUMANIA version.

In the comics, the Mandarin is arguably Iron Man's arch-nemesis, certainly one of his most persistent foes, and the two have engaged in many epic beat-downs over the years. IRON MAN 3--dreadful, like its predecessor--introduced the villain, only to reveal that he was a cowardly English actor being used as a front by the real villain of that movie. While SHANG-CHI isn't a very good movie, I did appreciate that it fixed this particular mess, introducing as its central villain Xu Wenwu, a composite of the comic Mandarin and Fu Manchu and explaining that the actor in IM3 had been, in effect, impersonating the Mandarin--something Wenwu didn't appreciate. It at least restored some dignity to the Mandarin. Unfortunately, the movie then killed him.

Villains, of course, aren't the only characters wasted by screen adaptations. Marvel introduced T'Challa, the Black Panther, but after a single solo film setting up the character and some appearances in other Marvel movies, Panther actor Chadwick Boseman became ill with cancer and died. Instead of just recasting the role, Marvel foolishly opted to kill off and replace T'Challa, throwing away over 50 years of great stories featuring the character. While the Netflix DAREDEVIL was a great show, it wasted the character of Ben Urich. Comic Urich was a perpetually down-on-his-luck reporter who manages to deduce Daredevil's real identity--a dynamite story but one he can never publish. He and DD become allies, and he's an integral part of DD's stories for decades. The Netflix show killed him off in the first season. As with the Panther and so many of these other examples, that move didn't just waste Urich; it also wasted all of those decades of great stories featuring Urich that could have been brought to the screen.

Even a good movie like the first IRON MAN not only wasted villain Obadiah Stane, it wasted one of the major epic tales from the comic. Comic Stane took over Tony Stark's company and and ruined the hero, leaving him a broken, drunken shell of his former self. In a storyline that ran for 2 years and saw Stark replaced, for an extended stretch, in the Iron Man armor by his pal James Rhodes, Stark had to pull himself back together, rebuild his life and, in one of the all-time high-points of the comic, take down the villain. The movie just makes Stane a scheming businessman out for a buck and disposes of him in 2 hours. In 2019, AVENGERS: ENDGAME disposed of Iron Man himself, along with most of his then-nearly-60-years of adventures. His end was well-played but it threw away a lot.

Unfortunately, comic-to-screen adaptations waste storylines at an alarming rate. To note a few more, BATMAN BEGINS pillaged elements of the great "Batman: Year One" comic, pissing them away on a bad movie. Snyder's BvS stole moments from both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Death of Superman." My second "What Ails 'Em" article dealt with the travesty that was THE WOLVERINE, which had, in a Wolverine mini-series it alleged to adapt, a perfect film storyboarded on the page, threw it in the trash and gave the world a rancid shit-stain of a movie. THOR: RAGNAROK, on the other hand, was quite entertaining but it needlessly lifted from the "Planet Hulk" storyline from the comics for a movie that had nothing to do with it. "Planet Hulk" saw the Hulk exiled from Earth because he'd become too dangerous to keep around. He was marooned on an alien world, captured and imprisoned there, made to fight in gladiatorial games and eventually led a Spartacus-style revolt, overthrowing a corrupt government, falling in love, taking a wife and settling down as a leader of this world and its people (and then--because it is the Hulk--losing it all). It would make--forgive me--an incredible movie. Instead, pieces of it were just needlessly pillaged for a project unrelated to it.[12] This kind of thing doesn't just travesty the comics; for any future filmmaker who may want to do justice to those neglected comic stories on screen, it spoils the story elements and moments these "adaptations" do use.

"Planet Hulk" was, it should be said, just the tip of the iceberg of great Hulk material--in that case, misused but in most cases, completely untapped. For years, the Hulk was sort of like a comic-book version of THE FUGITIVE, with the angry green goliath bopping around every corner of the Marvel Universe, meeting all kinds of weird characters and getting into odd, existential fantasy adventures ("Planet Hulk" itself emerged and drew from this very tradition). I covered a few examples of this in my first article on comic book movies. It would be great to see this brought to the screen. The comics also established there are multiple "Hulks" in Bruce Banner, products of his Dissociative Identity Disorder, and each emerge at various points and have various adventures (one, who uses the name "Joe Fixit," even becomes an enforcer for the Las Vegas mob). Again, a nearly endless reservoir from which screen tales could be drawn. There is, unfortunately, an issue of divided rights to the character between Marvel and Universal Studios. Marvel can't do solo Hulk movies without a profit-sharing deal such as was worked out for THE INCREDIBLE HULK and because the Hulk is expensive to bring to life, that's apparently been judged economically unfeasible. It's rather frustrating that Disney, which has made a bloody fortune off Marvel projects, hasn't worked out a deal to just get these rights back.

The Hulk can, however, be used in non-solo movies, and I'm really surprised that Marvel has shown no interest in creating a Defenders franchise, opting, instead, to waste that title--THE DEFENDERS--on the crossover mini featuring the Netflix characters. While the tagline of the Avengers comic has long been "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," it's the Defenders to whom that title rightly belongs. Led by Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth, they included, at first, Namor the Sub-Mariner, who was the baddest thing in the sea, and the Hulk, the baddest thing on land. When the Silver Surfer became involved, they had the baddest thing in the air too. The Defenders are the "un-team," an ad hoc alliance of, primarily, solo heroes who have little in common and who come together, initially by circumstance then, later, at Dr. Strange's initiative, to face various --and often quite weird--menaces. The Defenders were social misfits, shaped by trauma, beset by various neuroses and having, for various reasons, no real place in the normal world. Their stories were quirky, imaginative, funny, full of strange twists and creative, often bizarre uses of the characters. There's much in the Defenders to appeal to screen Marvel's affection for Bigness;[13] the team squared off against everything from a serpent-themed group of white nationalists to world-conquering aliens from a thousand years in the future to Hell on Earth--a literal invasion of Earth by the forces of Hell--to (one of the more notorious examples) an Elf with a gun! (Needs that exclamation-point for the full effect). The Avengers/Defenders War was a major storyline in which the two teams came into conflict. The property represents an endless playground for ambitious filmmakers.

The Hulk was part of the Defenders for over a decade, the only substantial association of that kind in the primarily solo--and solitary--character's long history. In the MCU, the Hulk is an Avenger but in comics, he was really only ever a member of that team for 2 issues, 60 years ago.

For most of the MCU's existence, Marvel has insisted on tying nearly everything it puts on the big screen to the Avengers. The MCU divides its features into "phases." It was halfway through Phase 2--six years and 10 movies old--before the first non-Avengers-related movie was produced (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in 2014). There were 23 movies in the first 3 phases, and only DOCTOR STRANGE and the Guardians weren't Avengers-related.[14] The Avengers-centric focus was, as noted earlier, a marketing decision, but it's one that created its own set of problems for the MCU going forward. Those first 3 phases were essentially one big Avengers story, into which even the few non-Avengers-related characters were roped.[15] But if the MCU is all (or nearly all) Avengers, that becomes, for an audience, what the MCU is, the Avengers and satellites. That's the thing in which audiences become invested. Then Marvel basically took out most of the original Avengers, the characters in whom the audience had become invested. Iron Man, who had been the anchor of this version of the MCU, was killed off, the Black Widow was killed off (and never got the solo movie set up by THE WINTER SOLDIER until she was already dead), Captain America was aged out of action and the Hulk was domesticated--currently going through one of his "smart Hulk" phases that tend to be the least interesting for that character. The Black Panther, one of the later-generation characters who could have taken up some of the weight of the MCU after all these losses, was killed off as well.

Along the way, Marvel did begin using tv shows--the Netflix series, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., CLOAK & DAGGER, THE INHUMANS--to introduce non-Avengers-related characters but all of these were later declared non-canonical (until Marvel's recent restoration to continuity of parts of the Netflix shows). Because big-screen Marvel wasn't introducing and nurturing new characters all along, letting them go off on their own and build their own audiences and their own little portion of the MCU, it has created a viewership that doesn't expect that, and Marvel has really struggled to introduce new characters in the last 2 phases, which have continued to be Avengers-centered. A lot of that built-up audience can't help but view things like SHANG-CHI and THE ETERNALS as aberrations, anomalous side-projects that come out of nowhere.

The overall quality of the MCU has, of late, undeniably dropped,[16] and this has fed the now-oft-expressed sentiment that comic-based productions have 
so prodigiously proliferated that they're becoming a glut on the market. Marc Guggenheim is right though. A central theme of this piece and its predecessors has been an objection to, as I said before, the very limited conception, by those behind these productions, of exactly what these productions could/should be. It's no overstatement to say that the comics on which these projects are based have been used to tell every kind of story there is. They have a vast and fascinating history, a rich mythology, they take place in every conceivable setting, explore every kind of psychological and emotional terrain, cross every genre. Why, then are their screen adaptations so often cut from the same narrow cloth? The problem isn't too many productions; it's too little diversity in the kinds of stories being told. Too much of the same thing.[17] A slip in quality can't help but make this more acutely felt.

In Hollywood, the thinking is that nothing succeeds like success, so just do the same thing as often as possible, instead of anything different, which could be risky. If Avengers-related movies make money, make more Avengers-related movies. A tentpole picture with one of these IPs can make a billion dollars, so turn them all into tentpole pictures, whether it suits the material or not. The last movie was big and made money; make the next one even bigger to make even more and never deescalate. recently reported a rumor that Sony and Marvel have again come into dispute over the next Spider-Man movie. Sony wants to another huger-than-huge multiverse adventure and to bring back the Spider-Men from other dimensions, whereas Marvel is arguing for a  more modest, more grounded film. One would like to be encouraged by Marvel's part in this, except Marvel is reportedly using, as examples of what they'd prefer, the more "grounded" first 2 Spider-Man pictures.

This writer would like to see more creative intelligence brought to bear on how these characters and their worlds are brought to the screen. That can be a tough case to make to a Hollywood of bean-counters who only want to sell spectacle and only see things through the lens of the tried-and-true.

Among other things, I'd like to see more respect for the original material. That shouldn't be read as encouraging Comic Book Guy masturbatory raving against the movie changing the color of his favorite character's belt-buckle, but the original material is, after all, the stuff that made the properties popular enough to be turned into movies and tv shows in the first place. There needs to be a lot more consideration of whether a proposed change is for the better or the worse, or if it serves a higher purpose. The ending of WATCHMEN, for example--which was, overall, a very faithful adaptation of the comic--arguably fixed a problem with the ending of the original story (one of its only significant deviations from that story). There would have probably been no way to do X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST as a note-perfect rendition of the comic story on which it was based because so much of that story and its imagery had already been lifted by James Cameron for THE TERMINATOR. The movie that was made, which is quite good, changes most of the details of the story but very much keeps the spirit and the flavor (and even a lot of the structure) of the original. Another side of this is SIN CITY, where the comic creator Frank Miller teamed up with Robert Rodriguez to create a movie that basically just replicated the comics on the screen, scene for scene, line for line. Still another side is James Gunn's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, nearly every aspect of which wildly departed from the source material of the characters used but created a run of movies that rank among the very best of this long comic-movie boom. That's really down to Gunn himself, who is both a top-shelf creator and a comic book guy. [18] Before ECHO was released on Disney+, the series' producer Sydney Freeland offered a great example of how not to go about handling an adaptation (or public relations):
"'Echo's] power in the comic books is that she can copy anything, any movement, any whatever. It’s kind of lame,' Freeland told press at an event for today's trailer release (via Variety). 'I will say, that is not her power. I'll just kind of leave it at that.'"
I'm sure it was as shocking to everyone else as it was to this writer that the show built on that kind of "respect" for the character (whose abilities are actually pretty cool) turned out to be really terrible.

Why not a Batman that isn't some string of huge-scale spectacle but just lets him be a crimebusting detective? A Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man who faces off against his comic adversaries? A Suicide Squad or Shang-Chi franchise like the original comics, which would be cheaper to make and offer the potential for much healthier profit margins? Smaller, thoughtful, more intelligent character-driven stories where the stakes aren't the end of the world? The answer to all of that is "dollars." The tentpole mentality is always looking for the billion-dollar pay-off, which may make all this baying I'm doing here in vain, but I'd argue this long comic-movie boom has already furnished evidence for my part in this. Fox, for example, produced three Wolverine solo movies. The first two were unwatchable; the first was the most expensive and the least profitable. The third, LOGAN, was the kind of smaller picture I'm suggesting, was by far the least expensive of the trio and made far more money than any of the others. Spectacle isn't what made these comic properties sell on the page for so many decades; it's just one of the things they can do.

The tentpole model can eventually kill these movies if it isn't reigned in. If a string of very expensive flicks fail at the box-office, the studios will become less and less willing to gamble the big sums needed to produce the Bigger, Bigger, Bigger pictures--the only kind of comic movies they seem to want to make. There has to be more diversity in the kinds of stories being told. There have to be smaller pictures to let these characters live and breath and do what they've always done in the comics.

Martin Scorsese ruffled some feathers in 2019 when he said that Marvel movies aren't, as he sees it, cinema. The reaction to his initial comments sometimes cast him as a "get off my lawn" caricature, but he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times further explaining himself, and though Marty maybe overstates his case at times, he's basically right. These movies are treated by their creators as, in his words, "theme parks"--roller-coaster rides. Often made by talented people, they are, nevertheless, mass-produced corporate product, disposable entertainments cut to spec. Marty's complaints are aimed at comic-book movies as they're made now though, and he doesn't seem to see any untapped potential in them. If that's really his view (and to be fair, he doesn't really say enough to conclude this), I'd say that's where he's wrong. I could read before most kids my age even knew all of their letters, and I was into comics before I could read them myself. Into middle age now, I'm a lifelong fan of the medium and of Marvel and of cinema, and I'm grey enough that it's the same notion of cinema that Marty loves so much and enthusiastic enough in my affections for all of the above to be profuse in my praise of those things I like. But when even I reflect upon all these many, many comic-to-screen adaptations--covering half my life--nothing Marvel has made or had made in this quarter-century-and-counting boom would make any list of my favorite movies or tv shows. The same is true of all of the other non-Marvel comic adaptations. That seems extraordinary. It seems like something that shouldn't be the case. Comic-to-screen adaptations are sometimes bad, most often middling and sometimes--just sometimes--they're also quite good. They should be great. Longtime readers of the comics know their potential and know they can be. Those behind these projects need to figure this out.



 [1] Power-creep and the over-powering of characters is a regular problem in comics, particularly DC comics. Marvel movies have sometimes had a problem with it, and Spider-Man is Exhibit A. The heroes are supposed to be brave. Powering up one of them to the point that taking on a villain is--or should be--like squashing a bug makes them into something more like a bully. My review of Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN 2 goes into more detail about how that film's off-the-scale steroidization of Spider-Man amounts to a negation of the character. The Marvel/Sony Spider-Man pictures haven't been that bad on this, but the fancy Iron Man suit is, like some of the other things this article outlines, a step in a very wrong direction. THE WOLVERINE powered up its title character to the point that a Japanese crime lord who, in the comics, was able to nearly kill him with a wooden sword is so inferior to movie Wolverine that it's virtually a throwaway joke. And, of course, comic Captain America had no superpowers; the Super Soldier process simply made him a tip-top physical specimen of a man. Movie Cap can do things like rip the doors off cars and jump out of planes without a parachute. Robs of his bravery a character particularly noted for the quality.

 [2] Dr. Strange is acting grotesquely out-of-character throughout the film, becoming essentially a villain in his insistence on returning a collection of multiversally-displaced supervillains to other universes where they'll be killed instead of addressing the relatively simple-to-solve problems that made them menaces and led to their deaths. His unwillingness to even consider helping them escalates into a full-scale battle with Spider-man in a separate dimension--basically just an excuse to stage an extended--and absolutely pointless--CGI-effects masturbation session for wowing bumpkins.

 [3] Years earlier, Warner Brothers had hired Kevin Smith to write a Superman movie. The producer with which Smith worked dismissed Superman's uniform as "too faggy" and wanted him, instead, dressed all in black, wanted him to battle a giant robot spider in the finale and wanted the villain to send Doomsday to kill Superman. The project eventually died and a sequel, shorn of this rubbish but with its own problems, was produced as SUPERMAN LIVES. Kevin Smith used this experience for years in comedy routines, the fundamentally misguided nature of the demands put upon him drawing gales of laughter. But when Zack Snyder took on the character, he revived, in utter earnest, a lot of these laughably bad ideas. Superman's uniform was desaturated until it may as well have been black, then, in Snyder's cut of JUSTICE LEAGUE, was made literally black. Superman finally fought that mechanical spider at the end of MAN OF STEEL--it's the Kryptoforming equipment was made to look like one--and the villain finally dispatched Doomsday to kill him in BvS. Much of BvS was simply Snyder and co. looking at comic sales charts, seeing "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Death of Superman" have done great numbers for decades, pulling superficial elements of them, the parts Snyder thought were "SO KEWL, MAN!" and--stripping them of all of the context that made them work on the page--stitching them together into a movie.

 [4] An element of the writing of THE BATMAN that I intensely dislike comes at the end when it's presented as part of the titular character's arc his discovery that when it comes to being a hero, it isn't enough just to stop the bad guy. He also has to help people. Sometimes--and with a character like the Batman, most of the time--stopping the bad guy is enough, and even when it isn't, any Batman who has to come to the revelation that he should help people that late in the game isn't Batmanning properly. The Batman isn't Superman--he isn't some symbol of hope.

 [5] To kick the dog again, Snyder's MAN OF STEEL, in its final confrontation, turns into a bad cartoon that just goes on and on, as crudely rendered CGI characters--they look like a video game intro from about 1998--buzz around slugging one another, causing massive property damage and the deaths of thousands of people without consequence or even much of a thought toward the victims. Snyder's other narrative decisions--making Superman a brooding figure alienated from humankind, stripping away his humanity to align with Snyder's own preference for an aloof, godlike being, reducing Superman to a proxy in an entirely gratuitous 2nd "final" battle of a war that had nothing to do with him and that ended before he was born--collide with this finale as brutally as Superman smashing into a skyscraper. The battle is boring. The viewer hasn't been allowed any reason to care about this extended video-game footage, which is as stripped of humanity as the characters, and just has to wait--and wait and wait and wait--for it to end.

 [6] But so is the rest of that movie. WONDER WOMAN was a bad rehash of the already-pretty-bad CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. If one is going to rip off Marvel, why not rip off one of the better Marvel movies? WW threw in a little THOR as well, but not enough to save it.

 [7] In perhaps some dialogue held over from the original version of the shooting script, Ares even denies he's responsible for the war, which, upon his death, is shown to be false.

 [8] The comics ditched this within only a few issues--back in 1965--and never looked back. There's absolutely no constituency for a yellow-clad Daredevil.

 [9] The MCU-produced movies are vague on Bruce's pre-Hulk background; I'm using material from both the comics and Ang Lee's HULK here. It isn't clear how much of the Lee picture is considered continuity in the MCU. Gale Anne Hurd, who produced both HULK and THE INCREDIBLE HULK, described the latter as a "requel"--part reboot, part sequel. Both TIH and THE AVENGERS worked from elements of HULK. If that material is deleted, we don't even have a character anymore.

[10] Jen is shown to be quite embarrassed by all of this being broadcast in court, and it leads, a couple of episodes later, to the only genuine character moment of the show, wherein Jen expresses her desire to be accepted for who she is, not for being She-Hulk. This is entirely at odds with the comic character, for whom the She-Hulk and Jen are one--one she likes being--but it's the one moment that injects some humanity into the show. And, of course, nothing is done with it.

[11] The writers of the show initially made a very perfunctory effort at adapting She-Hulk vol. 3, before quickly inverting and abandoning it, and it's too bad they didn't bother to read it beyond the first issue, because #10 had a great story, written by Dan Slott and drawn by Paul Pelletier and Rick Magyar, featuring Titania, basically a biography of the character that offered a look at what screen Marvel could have done with her.

[12] The next Thor movie, LOVE & THUNDER, similarly robbed elements from the God Butcher storyline from the "God of Thunder" comic, an incredible time-spanning adventure that roped in Thors from multiple points in time and ranks as one of the best Thor stories Marvel has ever produced. LOVE & THUNDER mostly just wastes it.

[13] Though the Bigness of the Defenders may work against it as a screen property. The Hulk is a fully CG character, as would be the Silver Surfer, if he was included. Simply having a team containing those characters in the same room would be quite costly.

[14] One could count them slightly differently. CAPTAIN MARVEL, in her solo movie, wasn't yet an Avenger, but she becomes one in the comic, just as she joins the others later in the films. By any count though, the MCU has been overwhelmingly Avengers-centric.

[15] When it comes to failing to utilize good material, this has ground under a lot of it. Doctor Strange was problematically introduced in one solo film then immediately roped into that big Avengers story, but he's a character with a vast canon and universe of characters all his own. Captain America has been around since 1941; his Silver-Age-to-the-present canon alone is over 60 unbroken years long but he got one really bad solo movie, a great solo movie (THE WINTER SOLDIER is maybe the best movie in the MCU to date and drew from Cap's solo adventures) then a 3rd movie that bore his name but was basically just an Avengers movie. Then, in the next Avengers flicks, he was aged out of the MCU, his long history, all those great characters and stories, disposed of.

[16] Don't look at the earliest productions through rose-colored glasses though. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and the 2nd and 3rd Iron Man flicks are wretched movies; THE INCREDIBLE HULK couldn't hold a candle to Ang Lee's original HULK. The development of the MCU was a process of figuring out what worked.

[17] Part of this limitation, I would argue, comes from centering the Avengers. In comics, the Marvel Universe proper began with the Fantastic Four, who were a team of explorers. This offered an automatic premise for seeking out new corners of the world, new dimensions, new universes, a vehicle for constantly expanding the terrain of the Marvel Universe, which was done. The FF landed on the moon before real-life humans. Subterranea, the Negative Zone, the microverse, alien worlds, Atlantis, Wakanda, the Great Refuge of the Inhumans--all mapped by the FF. The Avengers are just a team of powerful heroes who come together to repel powerful menaces. It's a much more limited premise. The MCU badly needs the FF; it's good that it will soon get it.

[18] The current leadership of Warner Brothers was--for once--very wise to put Gunn in charge of their upcoming relaunch of a DC cinematic universe. One wonders if--and, unfortunately, doubts that--they'll be wise enough to stay out of his way in that venture.