Strip To Script: Comic Book Heroes On The Big Screen

The summer of 2011 marks a big time of year for the superhero movies that will be bursting through theater speakers to fans all over the world. Each of these superhero characters were born on the pages of comic books and not with the camera. Each year the superhero movies draw large crowds and I’ve always wondered if every single person in the theater is turning out because they read the comics as kids or adults, they were dragged by a fan or if they like me are mostly associated out of context and have a natural curiosity. I didn’t take a poll on this subject, my curiosity is the inner workings of my mind as I’m a product of a sole interest in the visual are of movies, even though I’ve enjoyed the occasional comic here and there.

I’ve sat and thought about all the comics I’ve read in my life and I can really only think of a few. Yet, I find myself liking if not loving a lot of the comic based movies that get released. I love Batman and I get asked all the time what my thoughts on who the villains should be in the upcoming movies when they get made and I’m always going back to the ones I grew up with in the original Batman movies like Catwoman, Bane, Two Face, The Riddler and of course The Joker. Everyone once in a while I absorb information from articles I read or videogames where characters I was previously unfamiliar with are discussed and my memory bank grows a little bit. I often wonder if not being well versed in the source material makes me a less discerning viewer of the films and I would agree if someone said my opinion isn’t fully valid, but only to a small extent. I may not know all the characters and backgrounds but I am able to learn and can make distinctions of their ability to work on film, even if that distinction is not always going to be gospel. I am a member of a specific audience demographic that will see just about anything if it looks agreeable enough up to and including superhero movies that I may not have a thorough frame of reference on. Comic book aficionados may face palm whenever someone like me tries to talk about a comic book universe, but that doesn’t make my opinion any less valuable to someone who might have the same mindset as me.

As I mentioned, I’ve read only a few comic books in my life that include Batman, maybe one or two Spiderman stories and the entire series that makes up the Watchmen graphic novel. I would never even pretend to come off as knowing even slightly more than any random fan about any comic book character. The information I’ve retained over the years comes almost entirely from pop culture information that includes movies, video games and just random information I’ve picked up from friends and people I’ve had conversations with; none of this qualifies me as an expert in anything comic book related. So why is it that these comic book movies appeal to someone like me?

When directors approach the comic book stories they always begin with the origin story. If they were looking to appeal ONLY to the comic book lovers there would be nearly no point in pandering to the uninitiated. As a fan of movies and the possibility of grand special effects along with a hero’s journey, these superhero movies appeal to me a great deal. The opposite end of the spectrum is if the movies appeal to me, why don’t I feel the need to seek out the comic books that they originate from? I wish the answer was complex and controversial, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t actively avoid comic books; the plain boring truth is I just don’t rush out to get them. Movies have always been my escape and the most attractive form of entertainment. Reading always stimulated my imagination, being able to visualize the words on paper, but movies push things a little further by showing you the potential of one’s imagination. All forms of entertainment that includes books, movies and even radio serve as outlets of imagination and have always inspired me to explore my own thoughts and ideas; the choice from there is the medium that fits my personality.

As a kid movies completely captured my imagination. The technology involved and the way they made me feel when one connected with me emotionally or perfectly portrayed how fun going to the movies could be. My allegiance to movies is traced back to those days as a kid, cherishing those moments in the movie theater and waiting in excitement for the next trip to the theater. Reading also has a special place in my heart since I can create the printed world in my own head and in a sense direct the events with my own visual style. Comic books combine the print aspect with the visuals the book represents, giving one a little less control over the images your imagination would conjure up. Movies being my first love (entertainment wise that is) has remained so over the years, because I can connect with it more than I can in the time it takes me to read a book. I am not a fast reader; therefore, it takes me a little longer than most to read a book from cover to cover. Time consumption also factors into my love for movies over books; I can absorb the story told in a movie in the span of an hour and a half or more where a book could take me day, weeks or even a month to find the time to finish from beginning to end. In a world where most people are strapped for time between work, family and any other hobbies that take up time, sometimes finding hours of spare time to read is scarce. I do read books; it just takes a very determined mindset in order to do so.

Comic books are tricky for me. Comic books tend to be much shorter than a full on book, therefore take far less of a time commitment, yet I’ve read far more books than I’ve taken for comic books. If I were to be handed a comic book, I would easily sit down and read it and not feel guilty about what I could have gotten done in that amount of time. Over the years the comic book community to me is a very small but dedicated group of people that are very passionate and loyal to the work they read on a regular basis. In my opinion they are the people that have migrated to that medium in the same way that I migrated primarily to movies. However, more often than not the comic book readers probably love going to the movies just as much as any other person, which mirrors my attitude where if I’m given a comic book I’ll read it and I’ll either enjoy it or not. I’ve never felt the pressure that I must like a movie because that’s the popular consensus or hate a movie because people say that I should. Yet when it comes to comic books, because I am so out of my element in that community I wouldn’t be able to decipher quality from complete crap and the comic book fans would tear any opinion I had either way apart with due precision. Do people that enjoy movies as a secondary source of entertainment feel the same kind of scrutiny if they love or hate a movie?

This argument merges into the point of this piece because of the sheer amount of superhero movies exploding into theaters this summer. Each of them being heroes that I have not read a single comic of, yet will likely see and weigh an opinion on once I do, but without the comic book reference. This is topical because comic book lovers often read movie reviews like anyone else and will weigh their opinions of people’s knowledge of the character to their enjoyment of a movie about a character they were not previously connected to. If I liked a movie like THOR but didn’t read the comic and had critiques of something that a comic lover might have really enjoyed, does that mean that I might have liked it if I had read the comic, or had more bad things to say if it didn’t live up to a comic I might love and then hate how the movie represents it. I won’t lie, the argument I am presenting even gives me a headache.

The first movie I ever saw that was based on a comic book character was Tim Burton’s BATMAN. For the longest time that was one of my all time favorite superhero movies. Nowadays, superhero movies are frequent and thus audiences have much more to choose from. BATMAN BEGINS stole the thrown from BATMAN for me when it was released and then THE DARK KNIGHT came along and the changing of the guard continued. I’ve also enjoyed the likes of films like SPIDERMAN, IRON MAN, KICK ASS, THOR and most recently loved X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Many of the universes certain characters inhabit have not clicked with me and I had no previous knowledge of, even just listening to friends talk about them. With THOR, the name and the hammer were the only recognizable characteristics and I know absolutely nothing regarding the mythology behind GREEN LANTERN. The upcoming CAPTAIN AMERICA film is another character I have little back story on beyond name and look of the costume. So for me the business behind comic book movies relies heavily on appealing to non-comic book readers and possible even converting those people in order to get them to KEEP coming back for sequels and/or prequels.

The question studios face with these movies is how do they make these superheroes appeal to people that may be looking for more realism than fantasy in their theater escapades. When I see a trailer for a superhero movie I do not always worry if the character’s background will connect with me; I can make the distinction of rather or not I like the mythology once I watch the movie. What I look for is a movie that at least looks like it will be fun, interesting and with enough substance that I will feel the need to see it opening weekend. If it goes down a path that resembles darker grittier tones like THE DARK KNIGHT it has more chances of getting that opening day ticket, but fun absurd superhero movies are not a deal breaker. I am a lover of gorgeous special effects, so when I see a trailer that shows me great special effects, I may not always see it with urgency, but I WILL see it at some point or another. Non-stop action is not always a must, and with the first film in a superhero franchise I expect that there will be a certain amount of character development, but that’s not a free pass to skimp on decent action here and there and a satisfying finale. People that read the comics already have the benefit of all the different character development stories and variety of action beats; the initiated don’t and studios know this so they can’t always please both the readers and the people going in blind.

My biggest problem with some transitions from the illustrated pages to the big screen is dialogue that doesn’t find my ears well. This is a personal preference and in no way reflects all moviegoers, but certain cheesy dialogue just doesn’t appeal to me. I love cheesy dialogue in certain movies, but it has a penchant for making me cringe as well. One example is a line from SPIDERMAN in which the Green Goblin is flying off after a battle with Spiderman and shouts “I’ll get you next time Spiderman,” followed by an over-the-top villainous laugh. In the right movie I’d be ok with that type of delivery, in that one though, I cringed; I can already hear the keyboards furiously typing to refute and berate my dismissal of such a line.

Comic book movies don’t always have to be superheroes though; SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT for example. Of course, we’ve seen what ended up happening with the minimal theatrical success Edgar Wright enjoyed with his effort. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD was a film I really loved but for whatever reason the idea just didn’t click with mainstream audiences. Was it because of the marketing? Was it because it wasn’t a superhero movie? Whatever the reason, it was a film that I feel had a wider appeal than any sales numbers reflected. The ratio of heroic movies to not so heroic movies is generally lopsided as is the box office.

It might seem pointless to state at this juncture but the point of this isn’t merely to force my views on anyone or even to make an overall point to begin with but just as a means to spark the debate. A debate as to rather or not reading the comic book of a character in a movie we are going to see heightens the experience hinders it or has no effect. My personal belief is that as long as the filmmakers deliver a fun well rounded movie, the source material is inconsequential. The argument then is that in the process filmmakers can betray the source material and alienate the comic fans. As I’m not a comic book reader I cannot comment on any film that has stayed true and complimented its source material, but I have heard opinions of movies that actually improved the source material (i.e. KICK ASS).

Over the next few years as these films continue to vary in quality and ticket sales it’s likely we will continue to see more and more hit theaters especially with THE AVENGERS being set up with a series of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR etc.). It will be interesting to see if attendance increases or decreases with the barrage of films as audiences either embrace or shun the efforts of Hollywood. With the sheer number over the course of the last few years the Hollywood machine appears focused on an unending assault of films based on previous works, board games and comics. On principle alone it is quite disheartening to see such a lack in creativity with the films begin churned out to make a quick buck instead of throwing money behind high concept original works, even if they don’t all succeed. Realistically the gamble would be equal on both sides since original movies like AVATAR and INCEPTION broke bank at the box office. Not everything is going to be a homerun, but at least with original movies the pitches are random enough to surprise us instead of hurling fastball after fastball till it becomes predictable and boring until one comes along every once in a while with a little extra zip to it.

What are your thoughts on this subject? What are your favorite comic book movies? Least favorite? What are some you’d like to see get made? What are ones that should never get adapted?


Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Writing a review that precisely conveys my thoughts on Inception turned out to be more complicated than I had originally thought it would be. I’ve written and rewritten multiple times, going over the film in my head over and over, and I finally realized that no combination of words could give this film enough credit. I’ve witnessed lots of good films so far this year, and I’ve been witness to many great films as well. This early in the year I would usually hesitate to point out one that I would say will end up being my favorite of the year, but folks, I’m not hesitating, I think Inception may end up being the best movie released this year. If I’m wrong, then the movie that beats this is going to make our heads explode. There is not one aspect of Inception that I did not love, Christopher Nolan has masterfully crafted a film that is intellectually stimulating, visually stunning, heartbreaking yet moving, and incredibly thrilling.

Inception is the story of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who specializes in corporate espionage by invading your dreams to extract important business secrets for those that employ him. Cobb is riddled with issues, as he is not allowed stateside to be with his children because of charges related to the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). Cobb’s right hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sticks by his side on all their jobs, even as Mal forces her way into Cobb’s subconscious threatening to sabotage their missions. Cobb receives an offer from a business CEO by the same of Saito (Ken Watanabe), who promises to make the charges against him disappear. The offer being to implant an idea in the mind Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to his dying father’s business, to dismantle the empire upon his father’s death. Cobb must then assemble a team that includes master of disguise and deception, Eames (Tom Hardy), an architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), and a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao).

Inception is the term for putting the idea in the subjects mind, and to successfully pull it off the subject has to emotionally feel that the idea was generated his/her own. To do that the team must go several layers of dreams deep, by going into a dream, a dream within a dream, and then a dream within a dream within another dream to root the idea so deep that it never feels like the idea was given to him making it suspicious. There are immense time shifts as you go between reality and dream worlds, what is five minutes in reality is hours in the first dream layer, weeks in the second and years within the third.

That is just a peek at the main story going on during Inception. I hesitate to reveal too much more in fear getting into heavy spoiler territory. The film does a phenomenal job of creating tension, with the action scenes, and the instability of Cobb’s subconscious putting each member of the team in danger the deeper they go into Fischer’s dreams. The standout fight scene that will definitely have people cheering is the shifting/no gravity sequence, it’s brilliantly choreographed and lots of fun to watch. I’ll skimp on the details to avoid spoiling the character involved for anyone who hasn’t viewed the trailers.

All the visuals in the film are striking. The film is all around beautiful to look at and adds its own character to each scene making it a remarkably immersive experience. Nolan adds so much detail and from what I could tell, very little CGI, and uses each visual to its maximum effect. The set pieces are shot beautifully and are detailed perfectly. Every aspect of Nolan’s vision appears to have been fully imagined and meticulously rehearsed and reworked to perfection to create an experience this enjoyable and memorable.

The performances are spectacular across the board and are led by an especially intense DiCaprio. With this performance and his last I believe directors that are making films that involve a tortured character with a tragic love story will see what DiCaprio has done and he’ll be first on their list. He perfectly encapsulates a man driven to do whatever he has to do to get back to his children but struggling desperately with his inner demons. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy both turn it suave and subtle performances as well as providing a lot of the action oriented sequences and both do so exceptionally, while also sneaking in some nice comic relief. Ellen Page also does a nice job as the newcomer to the team, fascinated by the endless possibilities of creation within dreams and trying to learn the tools of the trade from DiCaprio on how to create the dream worlds they must navigate, as well as what not to do.

The film is paced and edited perfectly. The first hour is dedicated to learning the rules of the world Nolan has presented, what the team will be doing and how they are going to do it. Luckily for the viewers things don’t always go as planned so in the second half we are treated to well over an hour of action and surprises that had me begging for more by the end. The score is one more aspect that makes the film as sublime as it is. It’s bombastic at the perfects times, and subtle during the quieter moments, but always keeping our attention on what’s happening on screen. The film also features an ending that will leave people itching to talk about it, and pleading for just a few seconds more as the credits start crawling on the screen.

I could write and talk about Inception for hours and still not give it the praise I feel it deserves. I truly feel that Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker on the top of his game firing on all cylinders, and Inception, is his masterpiece. It is a film that is smart, complex and warrants multiple viewings, not to understand it fully, but to appreciate it for all the intricate details and ambitious ideas Nolan puts forth. If another movie comes along that packs the punch Inception is carrying, I may not be able to stand again, and that’s a good thing.