HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: DC’s First Failure To Launch

Two big missed opportunities.

In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from another hiatus, and skipping ahead a bit, we take use the debut of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as a springboard to look at when Warners’ first attempt to start a DC Comics franchise failed. history of the comic book film green lanternIn 2009, Warner Brothers must have looked at the success that the Marvel films had and smiled. See, Warner Brothers was in an excellent position to start its own comic book superhero film franchise. Unlike Marvel, which had to enter into an agreement with Paramount to distribute their films, and had to borrow money to get the films made, DC Comics was a corporate sibling to Warner Brothers Studios. Warners had pretty much free reign to adapt whatever DC Comics property they wanted, and, being one of the biggest studios in town, could put a lot of money and weight behind the project.

The problem was where to begin the new franchise. They could look to the big three DC characters: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. But they already had a enormously successful franchise with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, which was quickly approaching its end. Superman was undergoing another reboot after 2006’s franchise refresher, Superman Returns, failed to inspire audiences. This reboot would become 2013’s Man of Steel. As for Wonder Woman? Well, her film was comfortably ensconced in development hell, as filmmakers such as Joss Whedon and others tried to create the perfect film that would appeal to an audience that supposedly did not like films with strong female protagonists.

Having the big three all tied up, Warners decided to go in a different direction with its first DC Comics adaptation. They decided to bring one of DC’s classic western characters to the big screen. They would be adapting Jonah Hex.

history of the comic book film jonah hex first apperanceJonah Hex made his debut in the tenth issue of the western anthology All-Star Western in 1972, created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga. He was a cantankerous bounty hunter with half his face hideously scarred. He roamed the west wearing an old Confederate Army uniform, living by his own code of honor, hunting down the most dangerous criminals of the time.

While the character was set in the same universe as Superman and his ilk, and even spent some time in the far-flung future, he was mostly a western hero. His characterization isn’t far removed from the one that made Clint Eastwood, a frequent collaborator with Warner Brothers, famous. Knowing this, you’d think that Warners, the studio that made the Oscar-winning western Unforgiven, would be the perfect studio to bring Hex to life in the way he should be.

You’d be thinking wrong though.

jonah-hex-posterJonah Hex went into production in August of 2009 with a cast that would be the envy of any film, comic book-based or not. Hex would be played by Oscar-nominated James Brolin, and would face off against Oscar-nominated John Malkovich, with Oscar-nominated (and future General Zod) Michael Shannon and the yet-to-be Oscar nominated Michael Fassbender in support. Nowhere-close-to-being Oscar nominated Megan Fox would be the love interest. It seemed to be a sure bet to being a great movie, and most likely a big-budget hit.

However, in the beginning of 2010, the cast was brought back for reshoots; 66 pages of reshoots in 12 days. More often than not, reshoots spell doom for a film. That many pages in that short of time? That usually signifies a thermonuclear level of doom.

Jonah Hex hit theaters with a resounding thud on June 18, 2010. Resoundingly negative reviews led to a abysmal opening weekend take of $5.4 million dollars. The film would only go on to $10.9 million at the box office, less than a fourth of the film’s $47 million budget.

Megan_Fox_Jonah_HexConventional wisdom would lead you to believe that the reshoots were not enough to save the failing film. However, in this case, I think it was the reshoots that killed it. I had the chance to read  Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s original script for the film. Assuming the one I read was legit, the original version of the film was much closer to the comics. There was no raising of the dead by Hex, no asking them questions where they have to tell the truth, and no big weapon of mass destruction Hex has to stop. It wasn’t a conventional western–Hex has to face off against “zombies” in it–but it hewed closer to the Hex comic book fans knew and loved.

Neveldine and Taylor were set to direct the feature, but stepped down due to “creative differences” with the studio. However, it seems like a lot of their script was shot by director Jimmy Hayward. Images like the one to the left which are obviously from the production but not seen in the film mirror scenes from Neveldine and Taylor’s script. And the  confrontation between Jonah Hex and Malkovich’s Quentin Turnbull in Hex’s fever dream in the film was the original script’s climax.

Neveldine and Taylor have stated they left the project because Warners wanted a kid-friendly PG-13 film where they were delivering a hard-R rated film. But I surmise that even the watered down version of the pair’s script that Hayward shot was not to the studio’s liking. I imagine studio execs saw the rough cut, asked where Hex’s powers were and why couldn’t there be a big gun in the climax, and ordered reshoots to add those elements in. The result is a film that seems pieced together and rushed. The original version might not have done any better at the box office, but at least it would have died true to the source material.

Warners had no time to wallow on Jonah Hex‘s failure, as their next DC Comics film was already in the pipeline, This time, they followed Marvel’s lead by focusing on one of DC’s second tier heroes: Green Lantern.

History of the comic book film All-American_Comics_16

Green Lantern was created in 1940 by Martin Nodell for All-American Comics #16. The original version of the character, a railroad engineer named Alan Scott, stumbled upon a magic green lantern that allowed the owner to wield immense power. Scott fashioned a ring that could tap into the lantern’s power, and used the magic to fight crime. His power is only limited by his imagination, a 24-hour maximum charge for his ring, and a venerability to anything made of wood.

This version of Green Lantern was one of the few heroes to graduate from having a strip in an anthology to helming his own book (which ran for 39 issues from 1941 to 1949), although he, unlike Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Aquaman, was not able to survive the late 1940s decline in popularity of superhero concepts.

History of the comic book film Showcase_22When superheroes returned to popularity in the late-1950s, the Green Lantern concept was revived in pages of the Showcase anthology. This time around, the hero was updated for the space age, appearing in the 22nd issue of the magazine, published in 1959, as test pilot Hal Jordan. Jordan is gifted his lantern and ring by a dying alien who was part of an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. Jordan takes his place on the force, and patrols the section of the Universe around earth as a cosmic policeman.

The 24-hour time limit on the ring charge was kept, but the weakness to wood was replaced by a weakness to the color yellow. This version also moved on to his own series, where he would face off against foes such as Sinestro, Hector Hammond, and Goldface.

On paper, Green Lantern seemed like the perfect character for Warners to bring to the big screen. It was part Star Wars, part Top Gun, part Hill Street Blues. It should have been a film that filled audiences with a sense of awe and wonder. It didn’t.

GreenLanternOnce again, the script was not to blame. I reviewed the script and liked it a lot. But little of what I like on the page was translated to the screen.

Who should get the blame? Well, to start, director Martin Campbell. Campbell is a man who has directed more than one James Bond and Zorro film, so he should know how to make a rousing action film. However, his workman-like, by-the-numbers direction on this film sucked a whole bunch of life out of the project.

Another finger should point at Ryan Reynolds. On that proverbial paper I mentioned above, Reynolds casting as the cocky, self-assured Hal Jordan should have been dead solid perfect. Yet Reynolds’ Jordan was a bit to cocky and self-assured. Yes, calling that alien you just met “Fish Face” might be a funny improv, but it totally undercuts the fact that you took a trip of millions or miles in mere seconds while riding in a green bubble. If the characters aren’t going to be impressed by what they are experiencing, why should we?

And since we are laying blame, let me lay some on something I forgot to mention in my original review: the film’s production design. As an example, Oa, home to the Green Lantern’s bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, is portrayed many ways in the comics, but mostly as either golden spires as far as the eye can see or as futuristic metallic structures that stimulate the imagination. The film’s Oa has all the awe and majesty of your grandma’s back yard patio. Yes, stone and rock are cheap and easy to render in CGI, but they really aren’t inspiring vistas when placed in the darkness of space.

GreenLanternTrailer1

All this added up to a joyless film, one that only made $220 million worldwide against a budget of $200 million. Even with that disappointing return, Warners was still planning to go through with a sequel, only the next one was going to be even darker. Yes, Jonah Hex, a film which benefits from a darker tone, they lighten. Green Lantern, a concept that should be bright and wondrous, they were going to make grittier.

It appears that any sequel that might have happened has been deep sixed by Man of Steel jump starting the DC Extended Universe. However, with early reviews complaining of Batman v. Superman‘s being too dark and serious, perhaps the forthcoming Green Lantern Corps will be the grim and gritty sequel Warners threatened us with.

At some indeterminate time in the future, the History of the Comic Book Film will back track and cover the topic we were originally supposed to cover today, the Carpetbagging Comic Book Companies.

About William Gatevackes 1671 Articles

William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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