How Serious Can A Comic Book Movie Be? Discuss.

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A few days ago, Sound on Sight’s Michael Ryan posted “Why Kathryn Bigelow Should Direct Captain America 2(SOS 3/2/12). In a wonderfully deft essay (take a bow, Michael), he parsed the comic book history of the Captain America character and saw, in the superhero’s 1960s resurrection, some of the same themes of dislocation, psychological trauma, and alienation which course through Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraq War story, The Hurt Locker (2008). But among the comments the piece elicited was this one from “Anonymous”: “No No she needs to stay away from this movie (sic).”

Michael requested Anonymous to expand on that sentiment, and I, rather presumptuously, jumped in since I suspected I initially shared Anonymous’ reaction: that Oscar-winning directors of heavyweight material like The Hurt Locker don’t make comic book movies.

But then I kept mulling over Michael’s piece. I suppose a certain literary strata might snicker a little bit at Michael drawing connections between The Odyssey and The Hurt Locker on one side, and Captain America comics on the other, but that didn’t make his connections any less valid (at least I thought so). After all, symbolism, allusion, and allegory have long been the tools of what’s generally regarded as “serious” literature; is there any medium so ripe for the symbolic, the allusive, and the allegorical as the naturally hyperbolic milieu of the comic book (or, if you want to give it a more white collar name, The Graphic Novel)?

Melville dumped a boatload of symbolism on the broad back of a pissed-off white whale turning a proto-Jaws adventure story into one of the great heavyweights of Western literature in Moby-Dick; or the Whale. Turn Jaws’ (1975) shark into toxic water, and you come pretty damned close to Ibsen’s Enemy of the People (although, admittedly, Jaws is a lot more fun to watch).

But even if you stick to your guns and say Jack Kirby ain’t no Ibsen (or Melville, for that matter), fine; that doesn’t mean something deep and textured can’t come from something comparatively trivial. Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather is a lurid, potboiling lump of Mob pulp fiction the author wrote to pay off gambling debts, but that didn’t keep Francis Ford Coppola from turning it into one of the Moby-Dicks of American cinema — an all-time great; an epic, timeless American tragedy; true, cinematic art. Roll The Godfather, Part II (1974) in with it, and the combined saga is right up there with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941).

My point being, no matter what you think – or don’t think – of comic books as literature, that doesn’t mean the potential for something great doesn’t lie within those four-color panels.

Consider what Christopher Nolan managed with Batman Begins (2005) and especially The Dark Knight (2008), the latter’s creative achievement so widely-respected that its failure to gain a Best Picture Oscar nod was one of the igniters behind the Motion Picture Academy’s expansion of the category. Nolan demonstrated that “serious” filmmaking and Graphic Novel storytelling didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

But, in all that re-thinking and re-evaluating I’ve been doing, I also recognize there may be limits to the thesis.

As much heart and soul as Nolan gives his Batman flicks, they still more-or-less adhere to what the superhero movie is all about. Christian Bale’s Batman and his aider-and-abettor Morgan Freeman might have a juicy moral debate about how far Batman should go to bring down The Joker in The Dark Night, but The Joker is such a clear threat, Batman so plainly the Good Guy, and the practical necessity of stepping over a moral line so obvious, that while we plug into Batman’s soul-searching, we have no doubt about what he has to do and its underlying rightness. It’s like arguing Constitutional protections in Dirty Harry (1971); their value is an abstract, while the need to compromise them to nail serial killer Scorpio is painfully concrete. As hellacious a flick as The Dark Night is – and it is – it’s not The Godfather…and I’m not sure it ever could be. That’s nothing against Nolan whom I believe to be a terrific filmmaker. But the form has limits, I think, more so than its printed source…and so does its core audience.

*****

I remember reading an interview with Neil Simon a number of years ago. Simon was asked about the difference between writing the book for the musical Promises, Promises and his non-musical works like The Odd Couple. Simon said that because of the music numbers, the amount of time you actually had to tell your story was cut by something like half. Today’s big budget action thrillers – and that includes comic book superhero movies – are not constructed too dissimilarly, only with big action sequences taking the place of music numbers.

Hitchcock used to say that the more plot you have, the less time you have for character. Trade out “plot” for “action” and you’re in the same boat. The kind of compressed storytelling that’s typical of superhero and other high-priced, big-scale actioners tends to push these vehicles toward stories and storytelling which work with clear, bold, easy/quick to digest strokes; there’s simply no time to do it any other way. The difference between a The Dark Knight and a dud like The Green Lantern (2001) is how well-designed and deftly delivered the bold strokes are.

If you were to sit with a stopwatch and time out the likes of Spider-Man (2002), The Dark Knight, X-Men (2000), etc., you would be surprised at how much one of these two hour or so features doesn’t have to do with non-action-driven storytelling. Take a fresh look at X-Men and see just how quickly the triangle between Wolverine, Jean, and Cyclops is put into motion and you’ll see what I mean. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the kind of substance, texture, and occasional ambiguity one associates with the slower builds of heavy, legit drama (like The Hurt Locker, for example).

But if you did slow a superhero vehicle down, gave your characters and story time to breathe (as the screenwriting gurus like to say), is the young male audience and their fanboy core going to get in synch with it? Hard to say; there are not a lot of drama-driven, introspective superhero flicks to look to for examples, and the few there are don’t provide auspicious signs.

V for Vendetta (2005) is based on graphic novel maestro Alan Moore’s 10-issue series first published in the early 1980s. While the original is a response to the political climate in Thatcher-era Britain, the film is more inspired by the Bush administration’s post-9/11 expansion of government surveillance and interrogation authority. That’s heady stuff for “just” a comic book movie, and the majority consensus is that director James McTeigue did well by it (V has a 75% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes).

It isn’t just its overtly political themes which differentiate V from other comic book movies. There’s a lot more philosophizing and a lot less ass-kicking (and on a smaller scale) than your typical masked superhero vehicle. But while McTeigue’s attempt to use the comic book movie as a platform for serious drama and social commentary may have played well for most reviewers, it found a decidedly limited audience. V for Vendetta grossed an unimpressive $70.5 million domestic, and $131 worldwide.

Perhaps even more illustrative is director Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of another Alan Moore work, the classic graphic novel Watchmen. Originally published as a 12-issue series 1986-87, Moore’s comic – a reaction against Reagan-era hero worship — is a fever dream blend of superhero inversion, noir, and a 70s-ish cocktail of nihilism, cynicism, and fatalism, with a hefty garnish of disillusionment. Moore – in his own words – “…was consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy,” and Snyder’s fealty to his source material elevates uneasy to queasy.

Perhaps more than V, Watchmen is instructive on the limits of the comic book movie. By their very panel-by-panel nature, comics work in moments. But movies are a fluid, linear medium, and when Moore’s moments are thrown on the screen with little connecting tissue, they seem arbitrary; nihilism for the sake of nihilism, cynicism for the sake of cynicism, etc. What seems ambitious on the page feels pretentious on the screen.

Moore’s intent had been to inject the masked superhero into a real-world setting, and that works on the page rendered in comic book art (by Dave Gibbons). But in the all-too-concrete world put on-screen, the two sensibilities – superheroes and reality — come together like grinding gears. Moore’s intriguing real-world alternative history scenarios seem overblown and simplistic in the movie.

Snyder’s close adherence to his source material brought in the Watchmen fans, but the movie’s reach didn’t go much beyond that. Despite a two-decade standing as an acclaimed milestone in the literary evolution of the comic book, the film version of Watchmen topped out at $107.5 million domestic: respectable, but not particularly impressive. Watchmen’s worldwide gross came in at $185.3 million – well short of the minimum two to one ratio required to reach breakeven (Watchmen had a budget of $130 million).

But what really tells a tale is stacking those numbers against those of more empty-headed fare and finding them comparably anemic. The earnings for both V for Vendetta and Watchmen were easily bested by flyweight Thor (2011) which did $181 million domestic/$268 worldwide. Even the abysmal, critically-lambasted, but more traditional The Green Lantern (2011) did better with $116.6 million/$219.9 million.

Maybe, in the case of Watchmen, it’s simply a matter of Snyder not having done the job well (less than half of major critics gave the film a positive review according to Rotten Tomatoes). Still, to my mind, those numbers raise the question of whether or not the comic book movie audience even wants to see the kind of Captain America 2 a Kathryn Bigelow could make.

*****

As I told Michael Ryan in my comment to his piece, I accept that I’m a prisoner of the norms of my generation, and as persuasive as Michael’s piece is, it’s still hard for me to give up the prejudice that a comic book movie can only go so far.

But I could be wrong, and I wouldn’t mind hearing why.

7 Comments
  1. Stacey says

    Did you say “typical”? I swear I heard that word referring to the “comic book audiences”…
    So my question is – what type of individuals do you think make up a comic book audience? Would a person who read novels such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Count of Monte Cristo” before age ten and now spends a few hours a day following current events, politics, etc qualify?
    Bruce Banner is just the first superhero to come to mind who has a “serious” story in his dark background. Deeper exploration of it would be very interesting.
    Kathryn Bigelow? Bring her on!

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I read this over and I’m positive I didn’t use the word “typical.” I swear! But even if I did, typical is a lazy shorthand for a generalization.
      ANY audience, broken down to individuals, is as varied as the rainbow, rife with the exceptions to what’s often an arbitrarily stated rule.
      That said, however, mass audiences do seem to move in trends.
      I think my big misstatement was in conflating the audiences of actual comic books with the audience that favors movies inspired by comic books, and they don’t completely coincide.
      It’s like one of those Venn Diagrams: all comic book readers are included in the comic book movie audience, but not all comic book movie audiences are included in the set of comic book readers.
      Just the fact that comic book readers read puts them in a statistical minority. I think the movies, by and large, tend to be more juvenile than their printed counterparts in large part because the studios paying those hefty costs are after a more juvenile audience.
      Hey, I had a pile of the things way back before anybody even DREAMED they’d be worth anything, and I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming from the memory of coming home one day to find my mother had thrown them out because “They’re giving you nightmares!”

  2. PB210 says

    Of course, to put a parenthetical note on Collins’ quote, many comic book adaptations have compromised by featuring less flamboyant costumes in adaptations (e.g. the X-Men films).

    In reference to this, over on Yuku, a poster under the user name Count Karnstein once wrote:

    Like I said before, Batman 1966 is the single most accurate comic book movie ever made. If you look at all the changes other movies made to the characters’ origins, powers, costumes, etc, only the 1966 Batman comes close to a literal translation on screen. Every other movie is merely derivative.

    It didn’t say “Oh, we need ‘realistic’ (if you’re a BMX biker) costumes because people will break into peals of malicious, derogatory laughter if we put them in spandex!”

    It didn’t say “Oh good gosh, we need to tone down those bright colors!”

  3. PB210 says

    Hello, Mr. Mesce

    I came upon your book Overkill a while ago. I will note one comic book related error you made; you referred to Conan as a comic book hero. Conan started in prose, in Weird Tales magazine. This magazine seemed aimed at older readers (covers featured nudity).

    Other than that, this post reminded that in your list of what you considered adult thrillers from 1995 to 2002, you listed The Road to Perdition, which as another poster noted, came from a comic book (although one we would consider a no frills crime thriller). Road to Perdition had the highest gross of the thrillers listed.

    I find it interesting that Max Allan Collins wrote Road to Perdition. Why? He also wrote for Batman. Let us revisit 1986 and 1987. In Amazing Heroes#119 in 1987, Max Allan Collins had an interview. He said the following about how he wrote for Batman:

    “I’m afraid what I’m running smack up into is the old Batman TV show controversy: the old business about, Gee that was a TV show that made fun of Batman and made fun of comic books, so we have to show people that Batman and comic books are serious and they’re adult and accordingly all the fun goes out of it. There was a reason why that TV show was played for laughs and that is when you put actual human beings in those costumes and act out those stories, it looks stupid. They betray their juvenile roots. It can’t be done straight”.

    (Further to what Collins said, I will note that a few episodes of the Adam West show did adapt 1965 published issues of Detective Comics. One should note that the same production company that handled the Adam West Batman produced the not at all mocking 1966-1967 Green Hornet show-the Green Hornet does not wear spandex or have a boy sidekick with shaved legs and golden cape.)

    Collins then said “I predict it [the then upcoming Batman film with Michael Keaton] will be an embarrassment if they try to do it without a sense of humor”.

    Collins made the same prediction in the book The Best of Crime and Detective TV, which he co-wrote with John Javna.

    Collins’ comments referred to the then upcoming film. In the 1980′s, Tom Mankiewicz wrote a script for the then upcoming Batman feature film which would would have included Robin. “I want The Batman’s outfit to be truly frightening,” Mankiewicz told Goldberg. “I hope we can do something with his eyes so he has a penetrating and mesmerizing gaze that will give him a Svengali look. Really, when you look at The Batman character, he’s only one step removed from Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH.”

    Yet Mankiewicz wanted to include Robin.

    Mankiewicz wanted to bring something closer to the the feel of the original Dragnet to this script. What did Mankiewicz do with Joe Friday in 1987′s Dragnet, which he directed? He made a silly children’s film!

    Huh?

    When does doing Joe Friday as a silly children’s film and doing a kid sidekick in pixie shoes, green underwear, shaved legs and golden cape as only slightly removed from Death Wish sound sensible?

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I don’t know what has left me more dazed; your impressively analytical take on the topic, or the fact that someone bought my book.

  4. Bill Mesce says

    As always, Staindslaved, interesting comment. I think you hit the core of the issue: even if you could make (which I still contend is arguable, at least to a point), could you get people to come? The older audience — as you point out — has its prejudices, and the younger one its preferences.
    One thing I am sure of, is present-day Hollywood is shy on the kind of brass it takes to roll the expensive dice on that proposition.

  5. Staindslaved says

    I’m of two minds about this article. First I think a comic book movie can absolutely be as serious as anything else. Road to Perdition and A History of Violence were based on graphic novels (love the white collar quip btw) and they are very serious. Of course I’m sure you relate the phrase comic-book with the ideal of a superhero or superhero-esc character. I still think they can be very serious as well. I’ve read some incredibly serious and graphic comics in my day staring iconic characters that really worked (read Batman The Cult sometime). I see no reason why this wouldn’t translate to film and really resonate with many audiences.

    My second thought I believe is more towards what you initially intended. Can they make a serious comic book film at the budget it would cost and have it turn a profit at the box-office? I have no idea. I would think it would be a hard sell with maybe one or two films becoming break-out hits. The Twi-formers crowd would diminish because, you know too much talking not enough dumb jokes, clique lines and loud explosions. Also it would be hard to get the more mature audience out to see it. A lot of adults just refuse to watch comic-book films, me and my brother figuratively forced our mother to watch Spider-Man. She loved it and was completely shocked that she did. We are still struggling to get her to watch The Dark Knight. Lots of great and serious films have bombed at the box-office and are considered great films, heck even The Wizard of Oz under-performed on its initial release. I’m sure the hard-core comic-book fanbase would simply adore serious adaptations of their adored characters but how much of an audience is that? and would it be enough to support the films costs? I do not know, but a man can dream right?

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