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.





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