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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: On To Phase II

Posted on 24 October 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we look at how the second chapter in the Marvel Studios’ story began.

Conventional wisdom states that when you have a monster hit such as The Avengers, it should be almost nigh impossible follow it. The odds of having another critical or financial success of that sort is astronomical, and everyone will be instead look for you to fail. The best approach to being in this situation was bring your A-game, provide your best work, and hope for the best.

The start of Marvel’s Phase II flew in the face of this conventional wisdom. The first two films of Phase II were two of the weakest Marvel put out, yet the gravy train kept rolling on.

Iron-Man-3-IMAX-poster1-405x600Phase II began the same way Phase I began, with an Iron Man film. This time, it was Iron Man 3. It would be the first film of Disney’s buy out of worldwide distribution rights from Paramount. That wasn’t the only change at play here, as Jon Favreau stepped down and handed the directorial reigns to Shane Black, who had directed Robert Downey Jr. eight years prior in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

My review of the film ran here, but to sum up, it was a pretty good  Shane Black film, but a fairly rotten Iron Man film. It had most of Black’s trademarks–set during Christmas, snappy dialogue, inexplicable kid characters who interact with the heroes, and a noir/detective feel. But that last trademark is where the film goes astray and ruins it for me in a big way.

Tony Stark is not a detective. There has been nothing in the past two films to show that aspect of his character. As a matter of fact, there is plenty evidence that shows otherwise. In the first film, he delegates. He sends Pepper Potts after the information he needs. In the second film, the answers to the film’s mysteries are handed to him, literally,by Nick Fury. In this film, he travels cross country, interviews suspects, hacks government files and a whole bunch of other detective-like things that he’s shown no talent or ability for in the past. All the while spending more time out of the suit than in it.

HTS0080_v001.1052_R.JPGThis all seemed like a means to an end. The character was changed to allow Black to work more in his wheelhouse, with the side benefit of giving Downey Jr. more face time out from behind a computer display. But in resulted in an Iron Man film with very little Iron Man in it.

It also showcased what would become a problem with the post-Avengers films. In a shared universe, when national landmarks and a large number of people die, and other heroes do not show up, it kind of defeats the purpose of a shared universe. You could make an argument about SHIELD not being there, as domestic terrorism not being their purview, but I’d like to think that Captain America would be on the scene.

Of course, the world didn’t have the same problems I had with the film. It made over a billion dollars worldwide, becoming the 6th highest grossing film of all-time in worldwide grosses. Critics viewed it favorable as well., earning it a 78% fresh.

thor the dark world posterFive months later, in November of 2013, we got our second entry into Phase II, Thor: The Dark World. As you can see in my review here, I liked it a bit more than I did Iron Man 3 but it was still a very flawed movie that paled in comparison to any of the Phase I films.

Like Iron Man 3, there was a new director for the sequel. Kenneth Branagh did return, and Marvel underwent search for a director to fill his shoes. Brian Kirk was first up, but left under contract issues. Patty Jenkins was hired but left shortly into preproduction over “creative differences.” Finally, Alan Taylor was picked to helm the film.

The main gripe I had about this one was the fact that there were too many characters for the plot, and, outside of Thor and Loki, characterization fell by the wayside. This was especially noticeable in the films villain, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith was nothing but a cypher. We are told to hate him (in a voice over narration, no less) because he wants to destroy the universe. But the character shows no passion, no fire, no drive. He is basically a figurehead to aim Thor at. The film would be infinitely better if Malekith was developed more, and, as it stands, it was a waste of a charismatic and interesting actor such as Ecceleston.

1383766022000-XXX-THOR-DARK-WORLD-MOV-JY-9666-59532890Of course, there was really no room for that sort of development. Malekith was put in line behind Odin, Frigga, Selvig, Jane Foster, Heimdall, Fandrall, Sif, Darcy, and others in terms of character development, and with that many characters, there was no way any one character could get anything more than a superficial development. The only characters who fare the best is Thor and Loki, if only because they are given a little more time to play off the characterization from previous films.

And the work Hemsworth and Hiddleston did is what raised this one to the level of an enjoyable film. Every time they were on screen together was electric and every time they were on screen separately was watchable.

Once again, the plot problems did not keep audiences away. The film made more than the sequel by its 19th day of release, moving toward a $644 million dollar worldwide pay day.

While the first two entries into Phase II were somewhat disappointing, Marvel more than made up for them with the next two. We’ll talk about them in our next installment.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Avengers Assembled

Posted on 26 September 2014 by William Gatevackes

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 a brief hiatus, we look at how Marvel Studios’ crowning achievement, THE AVENGERS.

AvengersCapSmallIt must have been 1979 or 1980. I would have been seven or eight years old. Baseball cards were my passion, followed quickly by Star Wars action figures. But like many kids of that era, comic books were also a common source of entertainment for me. It was a casual buyer of them, primarily sticking to those featuring characters I knew from Saturday Morning Cartoons–Batman, Superman, Spider-Man–or kiddie books like Richie Rich and Little Archie.

theavengersHowever, it was around this time that I began expanding my comic book buying. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I developed a certain philosophy in my new discoveries–team books. You see, team books offered more characters for your buck (well, actually, at that time $.35), therefore you became exposed to more superheroes at one time.

Most of my forays into team books were in the direction of the Justice League of America title, because that team featured Batman AND Superman. However, I was open to exploring other team books, if the price was right.

One day, my mom and I were having something to eat at the luncheonette in the K-Mart  in the Pittston Plaza. As we walked in, I noticed a display of polybagged comics in the front of the store. This was a time when older comics were repackaged and sold two, three, or four a piece in plastic bags, typically for a couple pennies less than what you’d pay for all three at cover price. I immediately pestered my mom for money to buy a bag or two of comics for the ride home. She relented.

When I was done eating, I ran to the display. My eyes were drawn to one bag of comics in particular, featuring three issues of a title I was up til then unfamiliar with. The comic on the outside, facing towards the customers as the bag hung from its hook in the display, featured what looked like a statute walking over the prone bodies of a number of gaudily costumed heroes. Flipping the bag over, you’d find a comic with a number of the same heroes fighting a large stone creature on a tropic locale. The comic in the middle, which only part of the cover could be seen by sliding the comic on top of it either to the left or right, feature a man in a green costume punching another man in a green costume in the chest–only his fist had disappeared into the other man’s body!

Needless to say, this was all I needed to see to invest my $.89. And that $.89 led to a lifetime of being a fan, because the comic inside that bag gave me my first exposure to the Avengers (issues #157, 158 & 180 to be specific). And I was so blown away by what I read in those comic, I became hooked.

AvengersIt was nothing I had ever seen before. The teammates were as combative with each other as they were with their opponents (the two guys fighting on that cover above? They were teammates). And the team was defeated in each of the three books. That was something I never came across in my limited experience in reading comics. Granted, total defeat was avoided in two of the books by a timely intervention of a til then missing teammate, but the one ended in a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger it took me about twenty years to resolve.

So, I was hooked. Whenever I bought comics, it would be Avengers first, everything else second. It was after reading Avengers #227, the first issue of Roger Stern’s legendary run on the title, that I decided to become a comic book collector. I signed up for a mail subscription to the Avengers a few issues later. The Avengers was the first comic book series I actually completed, thanks to several stock options and a gifts from a totally awesome girlfriend/wife. I stayed with the title through multiple volumes and numerous spin-offs (from West Coast to New to Mighty to Secret and so on). It is safe to say, that the Avengers in all its forms and incarnations is my favorite comic book series.

And if you told this Avengers fanboy at any point before 2012, even after the “Avengers Initiative” was mentioned at the end of Iron Man,that I would see my favorite comic book team represented on the big screen, I would have laughed. Even after the film’s release date was set in stone and one of my favorite writer/directors was given the helm of the project, I still believed that nothing on screen would hold a candle to the comic I grew up reading.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

AvengersTeaserPosterThe Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s foray into movies, the one thing everything had been leading to until then. And while it seems foolish in hindsight, the film was deemed a risk at the time. It was the first film released after Disney’s buying of Marvel, and its success or failure was seen as an indication of how wise a decision that purchase was. In addition, skeptics had a hard time believing the film could balance the characters who all starred in their own films without becoming a disjointed mess.

To help avoid that, Marvel hired Joss Whedon to direct the film. Whedon, who has some experience getting the most out of an ensemble cast from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, trashed Zak Penn’s script and wrote one where just about every character had a moment to shine. The only one who got the slighted was Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spent most of the movie as Loki’s mind-controlled slave. It’s hard to develop a sense of characterization when for most of the film you are essentially a zombie. The other only other major problem I had with the continuity of the film was the Thor issue. At the end of Thor, a major plot point was that the hero was trapped in Asgard with no way to get back to Earth. A big deal was made about this fact. Here, Thor just pops up out of the blue, with only a throwaway line from Loki hinting that Odin used black magic to send Thor to Earth as an explanation. The matter was never addressed again.

Zak Penn’s script was not the only thing that Whedon got rid of. Also ceremoniously dumped was Edward Norton out of the role Bruce Banner. Norton was extremely hands on with the script for The Incredible Hulk, and the powers that be apparently didn’t want him to employ the same heavy hand with this film. He was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who went on to give a better performance than Norton would have, in my opinion.

Whedon, it would turn out, was the perfect choice for the film. He was a consummate filmmaker and a comic book geek, so he was uniquely skilled to deliver a film that was a great movie but with notes that would please the comic book faithful.

AvengersStreetFightThe comic book Cap is a natural leader. Whedon show this in a number of scenes in the film where Cap took charge, and not in a pushy way, but because he was the best one suited for the job. Thor and Hulk fought numerous times in the comics, Whedon gave us a dust up between the two in the helicarrier. The comic book Nick Fury is a shrewd manipulator. He’s even more of one in the film.

But the film was expertly made. There is a lot of humor, but in the right places. The climatic battle took up a half-hour of screen time, befitting the epic scale of the film. And even though the film was well over two hours, it was paced so well that you never noticed. And Whedon brought out the best in the actors too, especially Tom Hiddelston, Scarlet Johansson, and Clark Gregg.

Audiences came out in droves to see the film. The film broke all kinds of box office records, making over $1.5 billion worldwide, enough to become the third highest grossing film of all time. It changed the paradigm of American cinema for ever. For studios that did not have a comic book property it licensed, it looked for one to pick up. If a studio had a comic book franchise, it looked to expand it into a shared universe.

It also guaranteed that Marvel would go on to make a Phase II, which we will begin to cover next time out.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Hammer And Shield

Posted on 15 August 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we look at how Marvel Studios’ star rose to highest heights by overcoming some bumps in the road.

comic book cap and thorAfter the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios was ready to take some risks. The next two heroes they would tackle , Thor and Captain America, had some name recognition, but also some drawbacks. The former was a figure from Norse mythology who had a day of the week named after him, but was a fantasy character, a genre that does not play well on the big screen. The latter was arguably Marvel’s third most well known character, being referenced in everything from Easy Rider to a Guns ‘n Roses song. But he was also a jingoistic character being introduced into a film world where foreign grosses are so important and anti-American sentiment is very high.

However, Marvel needed to introduce Thor and Cap into the cinematic universe if it wanted an Avengers film to be made–comic book fans would never forgive them. So Marvel willingly tackled these challenges and more that came their way–including release date changes, shifting directors and writer’s strikes–in order to get these films made.

Originally, Thor was scheduled to hit June 4, 2010, just under a month after Iron Man 2, and Captain America on May 6, 2011, just two months before Avengers was to arrive on July 15 in that year. Unfortunately, in March of 2009, Marvel announced that the films would be pushed back–Thor to June 17,2011 (although later moved forward to May 6, 2011 to take the spot of the cancelled Spider-Man 4), Captain America to July 22, 2011, and The Avengers to May 4, 2012. Marvel stated the change was to “strongly sequence Marvel’s movie debut dates, big-screen character introductions and momentum,” but surely other reasons played a part as well.

One of those other reason might be the changing of the directorial guard that Thor went through. The first director hired by Marvel to helm the film was Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn was hired in August of 2007 and set about rewriting Mark Protosevich’s script in time for a late 2008 shooting date. However, Vaughn was off the project by May 2008 when his holding contract expired. Official word had it that he was released, but this wasn’t the first comic book film he walked away from. Who knows what the real story was?

Thor_posterThis set Marvel on a search for a replacement. Guillermo del Toro briefly considered joining on, but chose to devote his energies to The Hobbit instead. Marvel eventually chose Oscar Nominated-director Kenneth Branagh to helm the film in December of 2008, just a few months before the release date change was announced.

Branagh followed the Marvel template of casting award worthy actors in supporting roles, including Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as Odin, then-Oscar nominee and future Oscar winner Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, and Golden Globe winner Idris Elba as Heimdall, and casting relative unknowns in the leads. But what great finds those unknowns have turned out to be.

Chris Hemsworth made his name on Australian television at the time he signed on for Thor, but American audiences only knew him from his work playing Captain Kirk’s doomed father in 2009’s Star Trek reboot. But Marvel was ahead of the curve as Hemsworth went on to become a leading man of note in Hollywood, starring in films such as  The Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Dawn and Rush after Thor. But where he really excelled is in playing the God of Thunder, a man who was at once arrogant and charming, brave yet selfish, and cunning yet a bit obtuse. It was a hard role to pull off without the right actor. Hemsworth was the right actor.

But casting Tom Hiddleston as Loki was a stroke of genius. Like Hemsworth, Hiddleston was mainly known for his television work in Britain. He came over and auditioned for the role of Thor. He didn’t get it, but Branagh, who worked with Hiddleston before, most notably on the British TV series Wallander, offered him the role of Loki. Hiddleston attacked the role as if it was one of Shakespeare’s classic villains. Loki was vile and depraved, but Hiddleston made sure that audiences saw the hurt and pain that motivated all of his actions.

Casting Hemsworth and Hiddleston took away a lot of the risks involve in mounting Thor. If anyone else were cast in the roles, I doubt that the film would have been as successful. The comic book Thor and Loki were a bit staid and boring. Hemsworth and Hiddleston made them alive and vibrant.

ThorHammerThe film dealt with an exiled Thor, stripped of his position and power by Odin due to a poorly thought out attack on an ancient enemy of Asgard, stuck on Earth. While on Earth, Thor strikes up a romance with an astrophysicist named Jane Foster in preparation of his eternal stay on our planet. However, when Loki uses Thor’s absence and Odin passage into a deathlike sleep as a power grab, Thor must prove himself worthy to combat his half-brother, even if it kills him.

The film was good, much better than I’d ever think a Thor film could be. There was a lot of humor to go along with the adventure. I think making the Asgardians scientifically advanced aliens was a nice touch that kept the concept grounded with what had come before in the cinematic universe. The only major misstep the film took in my opinion was the romance between Thor and Jane. There was not enough time devoted to the pairing to make the love connection feel real.

The film was also a cameoapalooza. In addition to Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, we had cameos from the film’s screenwriter and one-time writer of the comic J. Michael Straczynski, writer Walt Simonson and his wife Louise, and Marvel editor Ralph Macchio. But perhaps the biggest cameo was that of Jeremy Renner, who made an appearance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Barton. Comic book fans instantly recognized him as Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye.

The post-credits scene focused on Nick Fury turning to Thor’s ally Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to investigate a powerful item called the Tessaract. Unfortunately, Selvig appears to be in the sway of Loki, which could only mean bad things.

It took several months for movie fans to find out more about the Tesseract (comic fans already knew it as the Cosmic Cube) in Captain America: The First Avenger.

captain-america-international-posterThis film also hit a development snag, this time due to the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007-2008. Marvel decided to make a separate agreement with the union to avoid delaying their production schedule any more than they had to. Joe Johnston was Marvel’s first choice for a director, brushing off offers from former Marvel directors Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier to helm the film.

For Cap, they cast Chris Evans, an actor who at the time had performed in no less than five comic book films, most notable as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films. I have to admit, I had concerns with this casting at first. Evans was known for playing glib smart-asses with a heart of gold. Except for the heart of gold part, that wasn’t Captain America. I wondered if they were making a major personality change in the character from the comics or did Evans have much more depth in him as an actor.

Thankfully, it was the latter. Steve Rogers is a tough role to play, as characters with strong moral values are hard to portray, or at least hard to portray convincingly. But Evans nailed it. He made a nice, honest, forthright man captivating, and made sure that we knew that Captain America was a hero before he ever got the super-soldier serum, the costume or the red, white and blue shield.

The film followed Steve Rogers, a man who desperately wants to serve his country as it toils through World War II. Unfortunately, Rogers is 4-F, and no matter how many times he tries to enter the army, they won’t  have him. However, his dedication to serving for all the right reasons catches the attention of a Doctor Erskine (Oscar Nominee Stanley Tucci), who thinks Rogers is perfect for his top-secret super soldier program.

Rogers goes through the process and turns from a 90lb weakling to the peak of human perfection. Unfortunately, before the serum can be used to create even more super-soldiers, Erskine is killed by assassins sent by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a German who received an early version of Erskine’s formula.

At first, the government keeps Rogers safely away from the front lines until they can figure out Erskine’s formula. However, when Rogers’ childhood friend Bucky Barnes is captured by the Red Skull’s Hydra (an organization composed of Nazis that even Hitler thought were too extreme), Rogers defies orders to rescue his friend.

The bonus scene was essentially a commercial for the next year’s The Avengers.

Truth be told, I am a huge Captain America fan. He is my second favorite comic book character of all time, so I was predisposed to like this film. But I loved it. I loved the World War II setting, I loved Evans’ performance, and I loved the way they remained true to the comics while still making the film stand on its own. The only thing that gave me pause was the introduction of Hydra as an enemy to fight. At first, I thought it was a way to back away from having him fight Nazis, a classic film villain from Casablanca all the way through Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in order to make it more palatable for international audiences. However, I now see it as a way to give Cap and the rest of the heroes a tyrannical villain to fight even in modern times.

Next time up, we will close out Phase I with the film that changed Marvel, comic book films, and cinema in general forever–The Avengers.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Man And Iron Man

Posted on 01 August 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we cover the event that changed the world of films forever–the formation of Marvel Studios.

MarvelStudiosLogoIn 2004, films based on Marvel Comics characters were lighting up the box office. Once a laughing stock in Hollywood, where if a Marvel film actually got made it it was a flop, the Marvel characters became cinematic gold. However, through the deal Marvel made to get its characters on the screen, they did not have complete control of the films being made, only got a sliver of the profits and were at the whim of other studios as to when the films were scheduled. Marvel decided that it was time to take more control of its cinematic output.

MarvelCharactersMarvel brokered a loan with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. for $525 million dollars with the rights to ten movies as collateral. Today, this deal looks like a can’t miss proposition. But back then, it was incredibly risky. The main reason why it was so risky can be seen in the ten properties Marvel used as collateral/intended to make films out of. The biggest name of the ten was Captain America. The rest of the list were filled by B-list characters such as Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Dr. Strange, Hawkeye, Power Pack and Shang-Chi. The tenth concept was The Avengers, Marvel’s supergroup which likely would bear very little resemblance to comic book version of the team.

Why? Because at the time the loan was taken out, the rights a majority of Marvel’s most popular characters, including many longtime members of the comic book Avengers, were owned by other studios. Fox owned the rights to the X-Men and Marvel’s mutant characters, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Sony/Columbia owned Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and Thor. New Line held the rights to Blade and Iron Man, Lionsgate the rights to the Punisher and Black Widow and Universal the rights to the Hulk. And the nature of these rights agreements, signed by a Marvel that was desperate to see its characters in movies, was that the studios would hold the rights as long as they kept making films with the characters, unless they were willing to give up the rights or sell them back to Marvel.  This left Marvel with a catalog of little known characters and the prospect of and Avengers film that would not feature founding members Hulk, Iron Man or Thor.

Perhaps Marvel knew something the world didn’t, as the film rights to some of their characters started coming back to them. They got Iron Man back in 2005, Hulk and Thor in 2006, and Black Widow sometime after. While these weren’t Spider-Man or the X-Men, characters that might never revert back to Marvel Studios, they were characters that were more known by the general public than Hawkeye or Shang-Chi.

Marvel knew this and almost immediately put Iron Man into production. The film would be the first released through Marvel Studios’ distribution agreement with Paramount Pictures.

ironman-posterNot that Iron Man was a slam dunk option. The property had spent 16 years in development hell before Marvel got the rights back, being dumped from Universal to Fox to New Line in the process. Directors ranging from Stuart Gordon to Nick Cassavetes had been attached to the project, but no one could seem to capture the essence of the character. However, this all changed when Marvel got its hands on it.

The formula Marvel used to become a cinematic juggernaut is on display from the very beginning. It picked Jon Favreau for a director, whose limited resume at the time had fans complaining about the selection. For Tony Stark, a role that had caught the eye of such highly-paid luminaries as Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise, Favreau hired Robert Downey Jr., an Oscar-nominated actor who was in the midst of climbing out of the deep hole his noted drug abuse had left his career in. Before the film came out, these seemed like incredibly risky choices. After the film came out, they were seen as strokes of brilliance.

The film also establish the trend of casting actors with Oscar-pedigrees in supporting roles, in this case Jeff Bridges as villain Obidiah Stane, Terrence Howard as best friend James Rhodes, and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow as assistant/love interest Pepper Potts.  It also established that while Marvel would be making changes to the source material to make a better film, it would keep the tone of the work intact.

ironmanThe film features arms developer Tony Stark in Afghanistan, demonstrating a new weapon he designed. Things take a turn for the worse when his caravan is attacked and he is kidnapped. In the attack, a piece of shrapnel is lodged close to his heart, and he has to design a reactor to keep it in place. This reactor, which he wears on his chest, also comes in handy when he needs to build a suit of armor to escape his captors.

Stark returns home a changed man. He decides to move his company away from building weapons of war while he continues to refine his armor to use as a weapon of peace. But doing away with weapons manufacturing does not sit well with  Stark’s mentor and partner, Obidiah Stane, especially since he was illegally selling arms to terrorist organizations around the world. Stane decides to build an armor of his own and confront Tony in order to finish the job the terrorists started.

The film also started another trend in comic book films–the post-credits button scene. Iron Man ended with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling Tony Stark about an “Avengers Initiative.” Regular audiences were intrigued and comic fans swooned.

The film was an enormous success, both critically and financially. It made $585 million worldwide against an $140 million budget, allowing Marvel to pay back a big chunk of that loan almost immediately. It also set the world on notice–Marvel Studios would be a force to be reckoned with.

incredible hulk posterThe next Marvel hero to get the Marvel Studios treatment was Hulk. Marvel got the rights for the character back after Universal missed the deadline to put a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film into production. Universal would still retain the distribution rights to the film, but the movie would become the second Marvel Studios production.

While Hulk made a profit of about $107 million, Ang Lee’s artistic choices did not sit well certain fans or Marvel executives. So Marvel decided to take the risky choice of doing a reboot of a film that had just released only five years prior.

Actually, The Incredible Hulk was less a pure reboot than an ipso facto sequel to the popular 1970’s TV series, with tone and plot elements similar to that work. The film also could work as a soft reboot/sequel, as the character is in hiding in a foreign land at the start of the film, which was where the character was at at the end of Ang Lee film. That is, if you were eilling to ignore the changes made to the origin to fit with Marvel’s shared universe.


Louis Leterrier stepped into direct and Edward Norton signed on to replace Eric Bana as Bruce Banner as well as take a pass on Zak Penn’s screenplay (this will become more important later on). Once again, Marvel looked to the list of Oscar winners and nominees to fill their supporting roles, casting Oscar nominee Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky/Abomination and Oscar winner William Hurt replacing Sam Elliot as General Ross.

NortonHulkHeader1The film tells that Bruce Banner was experimenting with gamma radiation in order to replicate the experiment that gave Captain America his powers during World War II (an easter egg later deleted from the film showed the Hulk passing by a block of ice in Antarctica that looked like it had Cap in it). Unfortunately, an accident exposes Banner to a great deal of radiation, cursing him to become a large green behemoth every time his heart rate goes up. Banner goes on the run to try and find a cure for his condition, while General Ross chases after him to bring him back as he considers the Hulk to be government property.

Robert Downey Jr. turns up in the tag scene as Tony Stark, informing General Ross about the Avengers initiative, thereby officially creating the shared universe the Marvel films reside in.

The film was more of a conventional comic book film than Hulk–no split screens, no exploration of daddy issues–and was obviously intended to lead to a sequel. However it became the only Marvel film in release not to have one. The film was just about as much of a success as the 2003 version, and sequels were talked about, but none came from it as of yet.

Part of this was might be due Norton’s insistence on being involved in the writing. Norton was replaced in the role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers by Mark Ruffalo, and Norton’s wanting a hand in the creative side of the film was rumored to be the reason. However, Norton had company as being an actor that was replaced by Marvel.

IronMan2PosterIron Man 2 introduced James Rhodes’ alter ego War Machine into the films, but it was Don Cheadle, not Terrence Howard donning the armor. Marvel parted ways with Howard in October of 2008. Howard said in a 2013 interview, still stinging from the dismissal five years later, that Marvel came to him to force him to reduce his salary. Howard was the first person signed for the film, and therefore received the highest salary. He balked at the idea of a pay cut, so Marvel got someone else to play Jim Rhodes.

Howard blamed his ouster on a cash grab by Downey Jr. (“It turns out that the person that I helped become Iron Man, when it was time to […] re-up for the second one took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out,”he said in the above interview), but other sources claim that Jon Favreau, who reportedly did not like working with Howard, was the “villain” in this piece. But, in the end, Marvel simply replaced one Oscar nominee with another, with Cheadle providing more in the role than I think Howard would, in my opinion.

Cheadle was not the only new face in the film, and not the only one who would have a bigger role to play in the cinematic universe.

ironman2blackwidowIn this one, Tony is dealing with the repurcussion of announcing he was Iron Man at the end of the last film, a process made more difficult as he discovers that an element in arc reactor that keeps him alive is killing him. His life is further complicated by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a former partner of Tony’s dad who blames the Stark family in his family’s misfortune.

Vanko is aided by Stark’s business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who hopes to eliminate his main competition. Luckily, Tony has some new allies on his side as well, including his buddy Rhodey in a version of Stark’s armor dubbed War Machine and a seductive S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow played by Scarlet Johansson. The tag scene begins what would become the trend in these sort of scenes from then on. It features Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) in the middle of the desert, finding what would be Thor’s hammer. From then on, the tag scene would act as a tease of the next film in the line.

The film didn’t do as well in reviews (although, it had a hard act to follow) but did well enough financially to get a sequel. We’ll talk about that in two installments, but next we wrap up Phase I when Cap and Thor join the party, and The Avengers are finally united.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Rider Wrong

Posted on 18 July 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we cover the two painful enterprises that were the GHOST RIDER films.

nic-cageLet’s not be mistaken, Nicolas Cage is not a comic book fan.

Does doing animated features connect with your love of comic books? Look, the truth is I’m not obsessed with comics. I don’t read comics as a 49-year-old man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I have other interests that are more in tune with where I’m at right now.–Cage in a December 10, 2013 interview with London’s Metro newspaper.

So, despite tons of empirical evidence to the contrary–such as his taking his stage name from the comic book character Luke Cage to his once owning a comic book collection worth millions to writing a comic book with his eldest son to naming his youngest Superman’s real name (Kal-El) to being attached at various times to star in Constantine, Spider-Man, and Superman Lives, and being cast in Kick-Ass and the films we are talking about today, Nicolas Cage is not a comic fan. This means that the rest of us comic book fans do not have to hold back in saying how absolutely terrible he was in the Ghost Rider films.

Marvel-Spotlight-005cGhost Rider was created by writer Gary Freidrich, artist Mike Ploog and editor Roy Thomas in the pages of 1972’s Marvel Spotlight #5. Ostensibly an update of the western character of the same name that Marvel published during the 1950s, the concept was also very indicative of the times.

Motorcycle culture was big in the late 1960 and early 1970s. The counter culture movement caused a rise in popularity–and notoriety–to outlaw biker gangs such as the Hell’s Angels. This notoriety translated to the big screen as an exploitation genre as films about biker clubs exploded, including such films such as The Wild Angels, The Born Losers, and Psychomania. Many of these films portrayed the biker clubs as roaming bands of homicidal maniacs and few portrayed them as in league with the devil.

This period  was also when stunt motorcycle rider Evel Knievel came into popularity after a failed attempt to jump his motorcycle over the fountains outside of the Las Vegas Caesar’s Palace casino in 1967. He’d do a lot more jumps of the next decade or so, breaking a lot of bones and garnering a lot of imitators, becoming a pop culture icon in the process.

This all happened as a giant change was hitting comics. For almost 20 years, the Comics Code Authority had been keeping a close eye on the world of comic books. They paid particular attention to horror comic books, prohibiting them from using vampires, werewolves, the undead or any sort of reference to the occult. However, by the early 1970s, the Code started relaxing its restrictions on such horror tropes, and Marvel Comics capitalized on this new freedom, publishing titles such as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night and Son of Satan.

All of these influenced Freidrich, Ploog and Thomas as they created Ghost Rider. He was Johnny Blaze, a skilled motorcyclist who sold his soul to the Devil to save the life of his cancer-stricken foster father, the barnstorming motorcycle daredevil known as Crash Simpson. The devil did cure Simpson’s cancer, only to have him die in a fiery bike wreck just a day later. While Blaze felt cheated, a deal was a deal. The Devil cursed Blaze into becoming a flaming skeleton anytime the sun set. This curse came with a number of beneficial powers, powers Blaze used to fight the Devil’s influence on Earth.

GhostRider_vol_2_issue_1The concept proved popular enough to get its own series in 1973, one which lasted 10 years and 81 issues, outlasting the craze that helped spawn it. The concept was revisited in 1990 with a new series that featured a new character, Danny Ketch, taking over the role.  This series lasted 93 issues and introduced new powers to the hero, including a “Penance Stare,” where Ghost Rider would look into a victim’s eyes and force them to relive the pain and suffering they inflicted on others, and a chain that Ghost Rider could control and use to inflict damage on his enemies. Marvel would return to the concept a number of times over the years, and currently has a version being published where Ghost Rider drives a car instead of a bike.

With such an unique origin and striking visual image, it was only a matter of time after the comic book movie genre started gaining steam that Hollywood would take notice of the character. The process started back in 2000, when the rights were bought by Crystal Sky Entertainment. The film soon landed at Dimension Films with David S. Goyer writing and Steven Norrington set to direct. Johnny Depp expressed interest in the role, but he was beat out by Cage, who actively campaigned for the part.

ghost_rider_posterThe project went into turnaround at Dimension, but was later bought out by Columbia Pictures. Norrington left due to the delay, and was replaced by Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, who rewrote the script. Cage was joined by Eva Mendes as his love interest Roxanne Simpson, Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles, Wes Bentley as Blackheart and Donal Logue as Mack.

Production began in February of 2005 and was completed that June. In an ominous sign, the film was set to be released in August 4, 2006, moved to July 14th, then pushed back to February 7, 2007, two years after it started filming.

The film was not without its charms, however, these charms were not enough to overcome the serious problems the film contained.

You have to give credit to a demon biker movie that casts Peter Fonda, star of a number of outlaw biker exploitation films that influenced the character, as the devil himself. Some scenes are beautifully shot and Johnson did a good job melding all the various and sundry incarnations of the character–even the Wild West version–into one film.

GR StillBut the overall film is sloppy. Blame has to start with Cage. The actor manages to reign in his hammy over acting, saving it for the scenes when he transforms into the Ghost Rider, but what we get instead isn’t much better. What we get is a low-key Elvis impersonation (if Wild At Heart was Cagelvis cranked up to 10, we get a Cagelvis at 3 or 4 here), fleshed out with character tics such as eating red and yellow jelly beans out of martini glasses, a child-like obsession with monkey documentaries, and an inexplicable love for the music of the Carpenters. You know, stuff we all have in common. But it doesn’t belie the fact that Cage is too old for the role. The film tries to paint Johnny Blaze and Roxanne Simpson as childhood sweethearts of approximately the same age, and then cast Eva Mendes, who is 10 years younger than Cage, as the present-day Roxanne. Cage looks foolish trying to act a decade younger than he actually is.

Of course, the reason why Cage has to resort to character tricks is because there is no characterization in the script. No time is developed to build up the characters. Why are Johnny and Roxanne sweethearts? Because the script tells us they are. We are supposed to be sad when Johnny’s dad dies, but there is little in the way of defining the father/son relationship before the death scene. Blackheart’s minions are a set of interesting powers but have no discernible personality between them. And for all their fancy powers (based on the elements of Air, Earth and Water) they provide absolutely no threat to Ghost Rider whatsoever.

ghostrider_lThis, of course, leaves the actors with little to work with. Mendes does well with what she is given but she isn’t given much. Fonda tackles his role with the zeal of a man picking up his prescriptions at the local CVS. Wes Bentley gets singled out in most reviews as the worst actor of the cast, and he is miscast, but it’s not fair to single him out because his character is underwritten. The film never sells Blackheart as a serious threat and Bentley simply is not equipped to make up the difference. The only member of the cast that comes out looking good is Donal Logue, who manages to inject a fair amount of life into the stock “best friend of the hero” archetype he was cast in.

The film is full of holes and inconsistencies, both in plot and in production. It is stated in the film that Blaze can turn into Ghost Rider at night or when confronted with great evil. Then it becomes at night AND when confronted by great evil. Then it becomes whenever there’s a little shade around, he can turn. It is noted that the bad guys cannot step foot in a graveyard because it is “consecrated ground” but have no problem traipsing through churches with impunity. Ghost Rider’s power is so immense that if he travels full speed down a city street that the macadam will melt, cars will flip over in the air, and parking meters will turn into puddles of goo. Well, unless he is chased by the cops, because none of that happens in a chase scene later in the film.

It is also fun to see the same extras in the crowds of two separate Johnny Blaze stunt performances in two separate cities or a scar that to about ten minutes of screen time to get stitched up disappear in the very next scene that takes place only a few hours later. Where’s a continuity editor when you need them?

new and old ghost riderThis bouillabaisse of awfulness culminates in the climax, where Blaze meets up with the Ghost Rider from the old west who in turn leads him to the final battle to the sounds of a rock version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” It’s a pretty badass scene and relatively smart too. Blackheart has been kicking Johnny’s but the whole movie, why not even the odds a little bit by throwing two Ghost Riders at him?

Only, we don’t get two Ghost Riders. After they reach their destination, the old Ghost Rider powers down and rides away. Seeing it in the theater, I thought that the filmmakers were doing the special effects ran out of money for the climax, a thought that was reaffirmed when Nicolas Cage went after Blackheart for most of the climactic battle not as Ghost Rider but as Johnny Blaze, armed with only a shotgun no less.

I can go on. I can spend paragraphs talking about how bad the dialogue was (“Any man that’s got the guts to sell his soul for love has got the power to change the world. You didn’t do it for greed, you did it for the right reason. Maybe that puts God on your side. To them that makes you dangerous, makes you unpredictable. That’s the best thing you can be right now.”) or how Johnny’s decision to keep the curse at the end of the film makes no sense other than to keep the possibilities of sequels open.

However, the film made money. Although it barely made $5 million more than its $110 million budget in the US, it made another $112 million overseas, making it enough of a hit that it garnered a sequel five years later.

GhostRider2PosterMuch like Punisher: War Zone, this was more of a soft reboot than a pure sequel. Johnny Blaze was more active in choosing to sign his soul away (in the first film, Mephistopheles tricks him into signing by giving him a paper cut and letting a drop of blood land on the signature spot. Really) and being more proactive in wanting to get rid of the curse.

The action takes place in Eastern Europe (most likely because it was cheaper to shoot there, the sequel cost only $57 million to make, just a little more than half the budget of the original), as Johnny Blaze is called on to protect a young boy who is intended to become a vessel for the devil (This time played by Ciaran Hinds). However, Blaze must struggle with the Ghost Rider, who has become a true spirit of vengeance, attacking any human who had just a little bit of sin in them.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceI reviewed the film here. At the time, I thought the sequel was better than the original, but, having re-watched the original, I’m not so sure. The sequel is plagued with the same clunky script problems the original suffered from, including plot holes big enough to jump a motorcycle through. There is still hammy over acting, which is good when Hinds or Idris Elba is doing it, not so much when it’s Cage or Johnny Whitworth. And, once again, Ghost Rider’s powers fluctuate whenever the script needs them to.

The film made only a paltry $132 million worldwide, but considering the film cost so little to make, it still came back with a sizable profit. There was brief talk of another sequel, one without Nicolas Cage, but the rights holders saw the diminishing returns and allowed the right to revert back to Marvel. Marvel has no plans for a Ghost Rider film in the near future.

Which is a shame. I think there is still untapped potential in the concept. I think a Grindhouse take on the subject would work, and Nicolas Cage aging out of the role is a good thing. Maybe if we get a little bit farther from these film, Marvel will give it another shot.

Next time up, we will get to the film series that turned the world of comic book films on its ear: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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HISTORY OF COMIC BOOK FILMS: The Rise And Fall Of Frank Miller

Posted on 04 July 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we cover the meteoric rise, and the controversial fall of the legendary Frank Miller.

Lionsgate Presents "The Spirit" Screening In New YorkYou can engage in a healthy debate as to what was high point of Frank Miller’s career. Some might say it was when he took over the writing chores on Daredevil in 1980, because that set up the legendary run that paved the way for everything else. Others might say that it was 1986, when his masterpiece, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was released. A few might say it was in 1991 when he created Sin City, the creator-owned property that caught Hollywood’s eye.

Personally, I am leaning towards 2007. He was coming off two successful adaptations of his original properties and was tapped to do the unheard of–to write and direct a film adaptation of a comic created by one of his idols. However, this date is problematic because his artistic decline in the world of comics had started years earlier.

Frank_Miller youngYou can call Frank Miller’s rise in comic books meteoric. Yes, he got his start as many creator is the late 1970s did–doing art in anthologies and fill-in stories to help regular artists out. But while many creators languished in this freelancer hell for years before getting steady work, Miller was hired as the regular artist on Daredevil with issue #158 in under a year. Granted, when Miller joined the title, it was practically on life support. It was one of Marvel’s lowest selling titles, and was moved to a one every two months shipping schedule.

The book was flirting with cancellation when Miller to over the writing duties on the title to go along with his art chores starting with issue #168 under a year later. Odds are that if the book wasn’t in such rough shape, he might not have received this unprecedented chance. But he did, and he became a superstar over it.

Daredevil 168Miller turned a character that was essentially a poor-man’s Spider-Man, only with a negligible handicap (blindness, more than over compensated by a radar sense) and a less impressive rogue’s gallery, into something special. Miller turned the book in to a crime noir fable with Asian overtones. The character spent as much time fighting ninjas as he did crime bosses. But the stories Miller created fit his cinematic art style and lifted the character to a place in prominence. Without Miller, Daredevil would never have been made into a film, and most likely be a curiosity lining the dustbin of Marvel’s once popular characters.

After completing his run on Daredevil, Miller moved on to DC Comics and one of their most famous characters, Batman. His Batman: The Dark Night Returns featured an older, retired crime fighter who feels compelled to put the cape and cowl back on as the world slips into lawless anarchy.

If Miller’s take on Daredevil was comic book film noir, then his take on Batman was comic book film noir on steroids. And acid. With a little crystal meth thrown in for good measure. It was a shockingly daring deconstruction of the sacred DC institution, one that could not happen in the Intellectual Property focused world of today.

1-1The series was incredible influential. Along with Watchmen, it inspired a “grim and gritty” trend in comics, got a lot of attention in the mainstream press and inspired the cinematic versions of Batman that followed in its wake. If Daredevil made Frank Miller a superstar, Dark Knight Returns made him a legend–both in and out of comic books.

Miller used his newfound status and power to the fullest advantage. He first stepped his toes in the Hollywood pond by doing the screenplays to RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 in the 1990s, although that experience left a bad taste in Miller’s mouth.  That decade was also when Miller moved on to creator-owned fare.

Miller used Dark Horse Comics as the publisher of his original creations, and his first offerings were the thoughtful, if uber-violent Hard Boiled (which he did with Geoff Darrow art) and Give Me Liberty (which he did with Dave Gibbons on art). His third effort, which he did art as well writing on, was the one we’re talking about today.

Dark_Horse_Presents_Vol_1_51Sin City first appeared in serialized form in Dark Horse Presents #51, and showed what Miller could do with his noir stylings when not hampered by working on another company’s characters. Printed in black and white, which help accentuate Miller’s art work and his use of shadow and shading. Sin City told the story of Basin City, a corrupt and morally bankrupt town where even the good guys have a little bit of dirt on them and the women are as tough as they are beautiful. It’s a town where cops are easily bought, the prostitutes take care of themselves, and crossing the wrong people will inevitably lead to your death.

This was an example of world-building at its finest. It was a fun house mirror reflection of the graft and crime that plague American cities, with an element of the fantastic to it as well. Sin City eventually became a blanket heading for all the crime noir Frank Miller wanted to write. It was home to a number of different stories, and often times a supporting character in one story arc would become the lead in the next, and someone who appears in the background would prove to be very important later on down the line.

The series caught the attention of director Robert Rodriguez, who desperately wanted to make a film of the graphic novel. However, Miller, who was burned by Hollywood before, was reluctant to let his baby be fed to the Tinseltown Wolves. Rodriguez was insistent, and created a short film with his own money from one of Miller’s Sin City tales to show that he was going to be respectful to the original text. The short film became “The Customer Is Always Right,”  which became the opening segment of 2005’s Sin City. Yes, Rodriguez’s passion and dedication one Miller over, but I’m sure the offer of co-directorship helped too.

sin city posterThe test footage also got Rodriguez an awesome, all-star cast, including Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, and many, many more. It would be hard not to make a great film with the cast that Rodriguez had, and a great film he did make.

The film looked like Basin City was magically transported from the page and pasted to the screen. It was one of the first use of extensive green screen technology, and this helped Rodriguez create a visually stunning, realistic yet ethereal world for the movie to take place in. The film was co-directed by Miller and Rodriguez, with Quentin Tarantino on board directing one scene. The result was a film that looked quite unlike any other film ever made, and one of the most faithful comic book adaptations of all time.

The film made over $158 million worldwide at the box office against a $45 million budget. It seemed audiences were responsive to films that did a shot-by-shot, green screen backlot adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novels. This was good news the the producers of 300.

3001The film was based on Frank Miller’s 1998 miniseries retelling the historic Battle of Thermopylae from 480 B.C., where a small group of  Greek soldiers were able to hold off the vastly superior forces of the invading Persian army for three days during the second Persian invasion of Greece. The battle has been inspiration for or referenced in numerous poems, novels and movies over the centuries. Miller himself has often referenced the battle in Sin City so his choosing to build a whole graphic novel around it is not surprising. 

From an artistic standpoint, it was one of Miller’s best works. The story was presented in nothing but double-paged spreads–where the graphics are designed to spill out over two comic book pages and, unlike Sin City this one was masterly colored by Miller’s then paramour and go-to colorist, Lynn Varley.

However, critics were quick to point out the historical inaccuracies in the work (Alan Moore even famously quipped “You know, I mean, read a book, Frank.”) and made issue with certain homophobic statements by the characters.

300-posterThese criticisms did not stop filmmakers from wanting to adapt Miller’s version of the battle, especially Zack Snyder, who long wanted to helm the adaptation of the graphic novel. He would eventually get his chance when he was hired in 2004 to bring the comic to the screen. Snyder and Miller’s version beat  another movie about the battle that was spearheaded by director Michael Mann into theaters. Mann’s version has yet to come to fruition.

The film was shot almost completely on a sound stage in front of blue screens.   Snyder used the comic as a story board, with numerous scenes captured on screen almost exactly as they appeared in the comic book. It wasn’t an exact translation, however. Snyder did add scenes back in Sparta to flesh out the story more.

Snyder capture the grandeur and grittiness of the comic book. His film is incredibly stylized, and his “stop/go” slow motion technique employed here briefly became his trademark. Snyder definitely grabs your attention.

The film, like the comic before it, also spawned controversy. In addition to the questions of historical accuracy and homophobia, critics singled out what they thought was a fascist agenda, a negative portrayal of people disabilities and Iran was none too pleased with how the Persians were seen in the movie. However, none of this stopped the film from becoming a hit. The film made more than it’s $65 million budget in its opening weekend in America alone, going on to a worldwide gross of over $456 million. It jump started the careers of Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender and made Snyder a go-to director for comic book epics. It also spawned a sequel.

300RiseOfAnEmpireMondo300: Rise of An Empire was supposed to be based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller called Xerxes, named for the Persian leader. Only one problem, Frank Miller never got around to writing that sequel to 300, so producers had to come up with a sequel on their own.

Also missing were Butler and Fassbender (except in a flashback to the first film) and Zack Snyder handed the directorial reins over to Noam Murro, but still keeping a hand in writing and producing the film. The sequel acts as a counterpoint to 300, focusing on events that happened before and during that film as well as after. The main crux of the story is the battle of Salamis, a naval battle that set the stage for the Greeks finally repelling the Persian invasion. Sullivan Stapleton take over the lead as Themistocles of Athens.

You couldn’t help but feel that something was missing because, well, a lot WAS missing. But, nonetheless, even though it failed to earn back its $110 million budget in its US release earlier this year (earning just over $106 million), it tripled its budget worldwide with over $331 million in grosses.  No word if another sequel will be wrung from the Second Invasion of Greece.

After the one-two punch of Sin City and 300, Frank Miller was Hollywood’s darling. They weren’t sure what it was about him that resonated with audiences, but they knew it was something. So even though he had only a handful of screenwriting credits to his name and only one co-directorship under his belt, producers hired Miller in 2006 after the success of Sin City to write and direct the long-in-development The Spirit. The success of 300 made them feel much better about their decision

They really should have done their due diligence, because Miller’s comic book work at the time would have told them exactly what they were getting into.

220px-DarkKnightStrikesAgain1From 2000 on, Miller’s comic book work has been a case of diminishing returns. It all started with the ill-advised The Dark Knight Strikes Again, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Instead of a tersely plotted examination of the mythos behind the heroes of the DC Universe that marked the original, one that balanced grim and gritty realism with a finely tuned sense of the outrageous, what the sequel delivered was Miller’s tone deaf characterization and a book where the outrageous and cartoon-like chased and sense of realism out the window. It was a sloppy presentation, and one that tarnished the original masterpiece it followed.

Miller wasn’t done with Batman yet. In 2005, he paired with superstar artist Jim Lee on All-Star Batman and Robin. I reviewed the first three issues here, and my opinion of how awful it was has not improved since that review was published. Once again, Miller loses the hold he had on Batman’s characterization, only this time he makes him a petulant and whiny child abuser who might just be clinically insane. The story went absolutely nowhere over the ten issues that were published, a fact not helped by the title’s chronic lateness (three years to publish ten issues). The series has been on “hiatus” since 2008, and it’s telling that no one has been clamoring for it to be completed.

Holy_Terror_coverMiller’s third attempt at doing a Batman story for DC is the one that sounded bad from the get go. Holy Terror, Batman! was Miller’s commentary on the War on Terror, using Batman as a surrogate, sending him after Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Eventually, according to Miller, he removed the project from DC Comics because he decided it went too far for Batman. I’m sure DC didn’t mind it leaving. So Miller took the cape off of Batman, gave him some guns and took the novel to Legendary Comics. The result, renamed Holy Terror, is a jingoistic screed filtered through Miller’s extreme right-wing views (he made the papers for his condemnation of the Occupy movement in 2011) that was as inflammatory as it was poorly written.

Miller, in interviews at the time, came off as a man who believed his own hype a little bit too much. Everyone called him a genius, so he was one. And everything he touches is automatically perfect because of this, no matter how poorly written it is. Unfortunately, this attitude was encouraged. His Martha Washington Dies, the coda to his Give me Liberty series, featured 17 pages of an elderly woman talking to a group of undefined soldiers on a battlefield, about to fight in an undefined war. After she is done talking, she dies. If a novice writer submitted this to a comic book company, the editor would put his name on a dry erase board marked ” Never Hire This Person.” Since it’s Frank Miller, they slap a glossy cover on it, charge $3.50 for it, as shill it to the fans.

But this was in the field of comics, where he paid his dues and made his legend. Certainly his attention to quality would be sharper in his feature film debut? Unfortunately not.

the-spirit-posterThe Spirit was a tough character to bring to the screen. Will Eisner created a character that could move freely from crime noir to whimsy to adventure. It was a tone that filmmakers from William Freidkin to Brad Bird couldn’t bring it to the big screen in a way that would please the studios. It seemed like that they would never find a creator who got the character and could capture its essence.

However, they thought they found one in Frank Miller. Miller was a friend and follower of Eisner (he was actually offered the job directing The Spirit at Eisner’s funeral). If he couldn’t bring the character to the big screen and do it justice, no one could.

Well, apparently, no one could.

Frank Miller’s The Spirit was relentlessly awful. It was aggressively awful. And not in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way either. It was bad in a “so-bad-why-am-I-watching-this” way.

For a man who was so protective of his own comic work, Miller certainly didn’t have any qualms about messing with Eisner’s most famous characters. Eisner’s Spirit was a charming man with a winning personality. Miller’s Spirit was was a bland cypher whose only flash of personality came when he spewed Sin City-esque doggerel. Eisner kept the Spirit’s nemesis, The Octopus, hidden to increase his mystery and allure. Miller put the Octopus front and center on screen, cast Samuel L. Jackson in the role and apparently only gave him one direction-chew as much scenery as possible. Jackson is probably still picking splinters from his teeth today.

Eisner’s women were legendary. They were sultry and seductive and you totally believe that the Spirit was tempted to join them on the dark side. Miller’s decided to put most of Eisner’s femme fatales in the movie, cast some of the most beautiful in the world, and makes each of them as exciting as expired toothpaste.  Eisner’s stories were filled with gentle wit and humor. Miller’s humor was crass, crude and campy. While Rodriguez and Snyder used the green screen to create a rich and fully realized world, Miller used the same technology to create a murky and muddled mess that looked like some one spilled a big pot of India ink over it.

In other words, The Spirit was a failure on every single level. Miller’s inexperience showed through, yet so did his arrogance. He thought he was creating art. What puzzles me is how it went through without anyone saying how horrible it was.

Miller has not made a comic book since Holy Terror, but he will have a chance to redeem himself cinematically as he reteams with Robert Rodriguez next month as the Sin City: A Dame to Kill For hits theaters.

Frank_Millers_Sin_City _A_Dame_to_Kill_For_17The film adapts two of Miller’s stories from the comics in addition to, and this is the worrisome part by Miller, two original stories written directly for the screen. A lot of the original cast returns, including Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, and Mickey Rourke, joined by newcomers such as Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green and Lady Gaga.

Perhaps going back to Basin City will be the best thing for Miller. Perhaps it will mean a return to quality for the legend. However, it will take a lot to over come the damage Miller has done to his legacy. This might not be enough.

Next time: Ghost Rider.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Rise Of The Imprints

Posted on 20 June 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we look at the success DC Comics had with its sub-imprints.

imprintsWhen the layman thinks of DC Comics, they typically JUST think of DC Comics, the home to Superman, Batman,  Wonder Woman and countless others. But, for a time, DC Comics was an umbrella corporation for a number of other imprints showcasing comic book works that didn’t fit into the world of the parent DC. You had the sci-fi focused Helix. You had manga reprints at CMX. Minx was aimed at the young  female demographic. Piranha Press was an esoteric publishing arm which eventually became the equally esoteric Paradox Press. And Johnny DC was the company’s arm for its more kid-friendly fare.

imprint logosBut the two most successful DC Imprints were Vertigo and WildStorm. Vertigo was a home-grown imprint, created as a banner for writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison to allow these creators and more room to write their more mature, literate fare without being held to the standards and practices at DC. WildStorm was originally part of Image Comics, a studio made up of Jim Lee and his discoveries and associates. Lee broke away from Image and eventually entered into a partnership with DC.

In the 2000s, while films based on DC Comics properties were wallowing in development hell, films based on properties from these two imprints were having some success at the box office.

john constatine first appearanceThe first was 2005’s Constantine, which, going into it, seemed like it was going to be a complete disaster. It was based on the character of John Constantine, who was created in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing,created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben, and was the star of a long running comic book named Hellblazer. He was a former punk rocker from working-class Liverpool who just happened to be a master of the occult based out of London. He was also based physically on the musician Sting, and his trademark outfit was a dark suit under a rumpled tan trench coat.

To move the character from England to Los Angeles, have him lose the tan trench coat and make him a brunette was enough to get fans of the character angry. Having Keanu Reeves play him was enough to send them into an apoplectic fit of rage. But the film managed be a pretty good film despite all of this.

Constantine_posterIn the film, Constantine plays an exorcist who notices that a stronger breed of demon are possessing people. This eventually leads him to discover a conspiracy to overthrow Lucifer and create a Hell on Earth, a takeover that Constantine might not be powerful of pure enough to stop. That, and he might not be around to stop it, as he is dying of lung cancer.

Instead of trying to force the English John Constantine where he doesn’t belong, director Francis Lawrence and writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Capello create a uniquely American Constantine. Much like how the comic book Constantine is a product of the anger and the apathy of the post-colonial, Thatcherite England that spawned the British punk movement, the film Constantine seems bathed in the seedy side of Los Angeles, a town where dreams are made but also stepped on and ground into dust. It’s a Los Angeles where most opportunities, real or imagined, come with a casting couch attached. It is a Los Angels whose streets are filled with bus tours of grisly murder sites and where the Manson Family and the Night Stalker once preyed.

15Yes, they made a major change from the source material, but they put effort into it so it wasn’t an arbitrary change. This wasn’t how John Constantine would work in Los Angeles, this was how Los Angeles worked for John Constantine. That went a long way towards my enjoyment of the film.

It also helped that Reeves gave a little more than he typically does in his film. The setting does play into his typical, laconic style of acting, but Reeves brings an edge to his performance that befits the character. It also helped that Reeves is working with two future Oscar Winners (Rachel Weisz and Tilda Swinton) and a once and future Oscar nominee (Djimon Hounsou, who had a nod coming into the film and got another after it). Even pre-Transformers Shia LeBeouf was adequate in his job.

While the film did not make enough domestically to cover it’s $100 million budget, it made over $230 million worldwide, which typically is enough to earn a sequel. But talk of a sequel subsided as the character was rumored to make an appearance in Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark project and pretty much ended when a more-comic-book-faithful Constantine TV series was picked up for Fall 2014.

220px-TheLosers2010PosterAnother Vertigo series that made it to the big screen was The Losers. As was typical of Vertigo, The Losers was a decades old DC Comics concept reworked for the present day. It originally was a team of DC’s solo World War II heroes who joined together in a sort of a supergroup renown for their bad luck. In the hands of Andy Diggle and Jock, they became a team of blackballed CIA Agents looking to clear their name and take down the man who framed them. The book was part spy thriller, part commentary on the dark dealings of the American intelligence community.

The film was directed by Sylvan White and featured a great cast of comic book movie regulars such as Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana and Chris Evans. I thought it was fairly faithful to the original text, although in talking with Andy Diggle at Special Edition NYC on Sunday, he expressed regrets that the studio cut the political commentary from the book out of the final movie. Personally, I didn’t think that hurt the film one bit. I like the film especially for the chemistry between the stars.

What did hurt the film was being released so close to the similarly themed A-Team (which opened two months after The Losers). The conventional wisdom is that fans of humorous action films featuring rogue government operatives fighting the men who framed them couldn’t decided which film to see, so they didn’t see either. The Losers made under $30 million at the box office against a $20 million budget.

Red_ver7If you think Hollywood took liberties with the previous two adaptations, get ready for this one. Red was created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner for the WildStorm sub-imprint, Homage. The comic told the fairly straightforward tale of Frank Moses, a retired black-ops CIA operative whose only contact with the outside world is through his female handler, Sally. He is content to live his life in peace, but unfortunately a new CIA director takes over. The new guy find out what Frank has done while on the job. and is so repulsed by Frank’s actions that he orders a hit on him. Naturally, Frank doesn’t take this too well and goes on a one-man rampage that culminates with him assassinating the CIA director and the next in command.

Like I said, pretty straightforward. And like many movies you might have already seen. However, the film adaptation made a number of changes.

The film did focus on a retired Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), only his sole outside contact is now a customer service rep named Sarah at the place that cuts his pension checks  (Mary-Louise Parker). A hit squad is still sent, albeit this time to liquidate Frank due to involvement in a secret mission in Guatemala years ago. Instead of getting vengeance alone, Frank joins up with his mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), an old cohort Marvin(John Malkovich), a British agent Victoria (Helen Mirren) and his favorite customer service rep to get the CIA call off the dogs and find the reason why he is being hunted. Oh, and instead of a grim action film, it was essentially a comedy.

Strangely enough, Warner Brothers, parent company of DC Comics, passed on making the film, allowing Summit Entertainment to step in. Turns out, this was a mistake for Warners because Red was a hit, making over $199 million worldwide against a budget of $58 million. This time, a sequel was made.

RED_2_posterRed 2 swapped out Oscar winner Morgan Freeman with two new ones in Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones but kept the plot the same. Frank, Sarah and Marvin are once again on the run due to a mission the boys supposedly made during the Cold War, a mission to sneak a nuclear weapon into Russia piece by piece. The group once again must keep one step ahead of all those that are after them while trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, avoiding betrayals all along the line.

The sequel did make money, just not as much as its predecessor. It grossed $148 million worldwide against a $84 million dollar budget. Plans for a Red 3 were being made even before Red 2 hit theaters, but it remains to be seen if a second sequel will be made in lieu of such disappointing grosses.

Next time, we’ll look at the rise and fall of one of the most interesting men in comics and film: Frank Miller.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Tripping The Dark Fantastic

Posted on 16 May 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, instead of looking towards the past, we look to the future to cover the forthcoming reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR and the serious problems it is already generating in the fan community.

FantasticFourRebootCastJoshTrankAfter a rough start (I’d call having the writer of Batman and Robin as your producer as getting off on the wrong foot, regardless if he won an Oscar since then), the Fantastic Four reboot seemed to be moving in the right direction when they hired Josh Trank as director of the film in 2012. Trank was the director of the 2011 surprise hit Chronicle, a found-footage take on three teenagers who gain superpowers from a mysterious item. It was a realistic take on the superhero genre, and earned the director great praise from fans and critics. It also earned him the honor of being the youngest director to have a film debut at #1 at the box office.

Having such a man at the helm of a licensed superhero movie was considered a good thing. He proved that he understood the genre and was able to bring fresh ideas to the execution of it. Trank’s hiring seemed at the time to be a sure sign that Fox was going to get it right this time around.

Unfortunately, that was the last piece of good news the reboot had. As a matter of fact, what came after turned that good news into bad news.

Michael-B-JordanThe first bump in the road was the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, a.k.a. The Human Torch. The African-American actor being cast as the Caucasian Johnny was sure to raise a roar of outrage in the fan community, as any deviation from the comic book-established-norm would. And it did. Only this time, the counterpoint to the protests brought up a racial element in them–that there was at the very least an underlying element of racism in the criticism of Jordan’s casting.

katemaraI don’t believe in absolutes. Could there be people who hated Jordan’s casting simply because they are racist? Yes. But you don’t have to be a racist to have issues about Jordan’s casting. I believe that Jordan is a great actor (I think it was a big snub that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Fruitvale Station) and I think that he will do well in the role. However I believe his casting, especially in regards to the casting of Kate Mara, is a dangerous break from what made the source material great.

Every great comic book film adaptation makes changes to the source material in order to make a good movie, yet remains true to the heart of the original concept. And the heart of the Fantastic Four concept is family. In every version, in every parody or homage, the fact that the FF is a family is a main feature of the team. And the family dynamic in the original FF works in many ways. First, you can break the quartet into pairs, each pair being extremes united by a family bond. The rough hewn, not-that-smart Ben Grimm and the scrawny, super-intelligent Reed Richards are not biologically related, yet become as close as brothers through shared experiences. The wild and unpredictable Johnny is the polar opposite of his sister, the calm and reserved Sue.  If it wasn’t for the fact that they share the same biological parents, there would be no connection between the two. And “how could these two come from the same parents” became part of that dynamic.

RegECathey2Now, in the reboot, they haven’t come from the same parents. With the casting of Reg E. Cathey, it appears that Sue is either adopted or a step-sister of Johnny. So that part of the family dynamic is changed for the upcoming film, and I imagine not for the better. It’s not that I’m saying that adopted children are not a real part of the families they join or that merged families aren’t real families. But they are different from a biological family, with a different family dynamic. This wouldn’t be a problem if I thought the film was going to have something to say about that dynamic. But in a big budget blockbuster? It will be a cosmetic change at best.

And an arbitrary one as well. Nothing against Kate Mara as an actress, but you mean to tell me that there are no African-American actresses as good if not better in Hollywood? Casting an African-American actress would have preserved the biological ties between Johnny and Sue and provided another high-profile role model in the film superhero world. Why wasn’t an African-American actress cast? Would an interracial relationship be too hot to handle? Is there some kind of Hollywood law that you can only have one African-American on a superhero team? Wouldn’t having a strong, central African-American female set a good example?

chronicle livestream chatThat is, of course, if Michael B. Jordon’s casting is meant to be a means of breaking down barriers and changing perceptions like his defenders say it is. I think there’s a simpler reason for Jordan getting the role–it’s comfort casting for Trank, pure and simple. As everyone knows, Trank directed Jordan in Chronicle. Jordan has gone so far as call Trank a “good friend” in media interviews. So there is a strong connection between the two.

What novice director (Fantastic Four will only be Trank’s second film) wouldn’t want his friend, a skilled actor who he has directed before, in the cast of the blockbuster film he is directing? At the very least, you have an actor whose style and work ethic are familiar to you, one you’ve already developed chemistry with. At the most, you have an ally working with and for you in the production, someone who will mold the other actors to your directing style and help your vision come through. Having Michael B. Jordan in the cast just makes Josh Trank’s job that much easier.

Having a personal muse, a repertory of actors you frequently use, is not unusual. Heck, Judd Apatow, Wes Anderson, Joss Whedon, and Quentin Tarantino are famous for it. Martin Scorsese has both Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio on his speed dial. But none of the above directors are willing to destroy the spirit, tone and feel of the source material to work with their favorite actors. That takes a certain kind of ego and hubris.

jamiebellAs egregious as some might consider Jordan’s casting to be, I consider Jamie Bell’s casting as Ben Grimm/The Thing’s to be even more problematic. Ben Grimm, in the comics, is the brawn to Reed’s brains. He is a bulky, linebacker sort of man who has the look of someone who would protect a science nerd such as Reed while they were in college.

Jamie Bell simply has a different body shape than you’d expect Ben to have. Granted, at 5’7″, he is the same height as Michael Chiklis, who played the role in the previous films. And the picture to the left shows that he does have a superhero physique. But it’s just not Ben Grimm’s. And if Miles Teller gets into superhero shape, the actor, who is five inches taller than Bell, might just make it  look like Reed’s the one sticking up for Ben.

This might seem like petty griping, but once again the way the characters are portrayed in the comics are what makes them great. Ben Grimm has always been a stocky, Lower East Side, everyman whose inherent goodness cause him to defend and eventually befriend Reed Richards. It’s not that the same dynamic couldn’t be on play here, it’s just that they will have to work harder to show it.

TwentiethCenturyFoxLogoOf course, this is running on the assumption that there will be any dynamic from the comics that make it to the screen. One of the most disastrous things to happen to the reboot was when a casting announcement revealed story elements from the reboot. Unfortunately, we are no longer able to legally quote the plot synopsis verbatim, because that is owned by Fox and a reprinting of it is violation of their copyright according to their lawyers (more on that in a paragraph or two). However, through the “Fair Use” provisions of  US copyright law (specifically section 107 of Title 17 of US Code) we can quote part of it to comment upon and criticize it. And, hoo boy, is there a lot to criticize.

The new story makes substantial changes to the Fantastic Four mythos, including:

  • Reed and Ben get their powers as teenagers, don’t meet an already superpowered Johnny and Sue until later: Every version of the FF’s origin, from the mainstream Marvel Comics one to the Ultimate Marvel Comics one, through every cartoon and film version,  the quartet get their powers at the same time from the same event. This is a fundamental feature of the characters and is what reinforces the family aspect that makes them great. The accident that gives them their powers is a shared experience that brings them closer together. It is the fickle hand of fate that creates an unbreakable bond between the already close foursome. Having them get their powers separately destroys this aspect of the characters, and they are weaker for it.
  • Reed’s genius-level intellect is now a by-product of the event that gave him his stretching powers: Once again, Reed’s smarts have always been part of his pre-accident characterization in every incarnation of the character. It is his defining trait. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for Reed’s reckless pursuit of knowledge, the Fantastic Four would not have existed. To have Reed’s high intelligence become a super-power he gains is like instead of having Superman being an alien, he was just some guy who got his powers from some alien rock. That change completely destroys the character from top to bottom and is a stupid move.
  • Reed and Ben are taken into government custody and are used as weapons: While the Ultimate Marvel version of Reed is recruited by the government to join a think tank, nowhere in the history of the FF have they ever been consigned into government service as living weapons. Once again, in what is becoming a reoccurring theme, this is a catastrophic break from the original concept. The FF are idealists who willingly use their powers to help protect their fellow man. Making them government lackeys takes away that nobility and weakens the concept.

Of course, after this hit and fan outrage went through the roof, Josh Trank went on Twitter to say in no uncertain terms that the synopsis was a fake (Trank has since shrunk away from social media since then. His Twitter and Facebook only have a few entries from 2012. Everything else has been deleted. Try to click on a link of one of his tweets and you get a message saying they’re not found.). This would be reassuring if it wasn’t for the fact that at the very same time Fox was sending out take down notices to everyone who posted the synopsis. This caused Slashfilm’s Peter Sciretta to ask what many other film journalists were asking:

After this debacle, the FF reboot became a ludicrous train wreck where most any rumor, even ones later proved untrue, could get traction. Josh Gad as the Thing? He’s so not appropriate for the role that it has to be true. A female Doctor Doom? Well, they changed everything else, why not change that too.

Then came the rumor that Josh Trank was about to be replaced in the directorial chair and the reboot would restart over fresh. The rumor was strongly denied at the time and we now know did not come to pass, although it appears at least two directors were asked to replace Trank and refused.

One hopes that the synopsis is not correct, because it seems rather senseless to have a Fantastic Four reboot in name only. As far as I can tell,there has been no official confirmation of what the storyline will actually be, other than Josh Trank telling Badass Digest that “The only truth in that plot description is that there are four characters named Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny” and  “You’ll see in June of 2015.” But even if the film does hew closer to the source material, based on what we have heard from the principles involved in making the film is still enough to cause us concern:

And I think what we’re going to do with Fantastic Four is going to be very grounded and it made sense to me. When I read the script, I didn’t feel like I was reading this larger-than-life, incredible superhero tale.  These are all very human people that end up having to become I guess what is known as the Fantastic Four.–Miles Teller

All I know is it’s going to be a very different take on the film than what probably people expect. I think we’re making a very grounded version of the superhero film.–Kate Mara

This will definitely be a more realistic, a more gritty, grounded telling of the ‘Fantastic Four’ and no matter what people think about the cast.–Simon Kinberg

SimonKinbergThis all has the air of studio mandated episodes of fan reassurance. I mean, they all use “grounded” for goodness sakes. And if they were making The Grounded Four then this would be reassuring. Unfortunately, they are making the Fantastic Four.

This all plays into the popular Hollywood misconception that all comic book fans want is grim and gritty imagining of their favorite heroes, because that was the only reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were so gosh darn successful. What they fail to realize is that not all comic book concepts lend themselves to grim and gritty interpretations. And Fantastic Four is a prime example of this.

I mean, “Fantastic” is part of the teams name! They’re the heroes who face off against giant men who eat planets or insectoid malcontents from other dimensions or superhumans in royal palaces hidden in the Himalayas or a race of monsters that live underground. There have been periods of seriousness here and there, but even in the Ultimate Marvel version of the characters, the team has been about pursuit of the wondrous,  pursuit of the amazing, and pursuit of, well, the fantastic. In other words, the Fantastic Four cry out for a “larger-than-life, incredible superhero tale,” not a “more realistic, more gritty, grounded telling.” And the fact that all involved don’t realize that completely and utterly scares me.

What does this all this chaotic mess add up to? A Fantastic Four film I really am not up for seeing. Either we will get a Fantastic Four film that breaks entirely with the source material, or we’ll get a film that doesn’t not capture the proper tone. Filming has just begun and its debut is over a year away, so maybe there will be more than just Doombots and Mole Men to make fans of the characters happy. But based on everything I have seen about the project up to this point, Fox might be wise to find something else to put in its July 14, 2017 spot, because it’s not likely there will be a Fantastic Four 2 to put in theaters on that date as they planned.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The Not-So-Fantastic-Voyage

Posted on 02 May 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we cover Marvel’s flagship title, FANTASTIC FOUR and the problems its film adaptations have. 

ff#1Fantastic Four #1 has to rank right up there with Action Comics #1 as one of the most important individual comic books in the history of the medium. And as with most historical artifacts, the story of its creation have become legend in and of itself.

The concept was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, and each man had his own view on how the series came about. Lee said that Atlas (as Marvel was then known) publisher Martin Goodman found out during a golf game with a DC Comics bigwig that that company’s Justice League of America was a huge success. Goodman then ordered Lee, the Editor -in-Chief and head writer at Atlas, to come up with a superhero team to cash in on the trend. Lee has said that he was willing to quit the business, but was compelled by his wife to give Goodman what he wanted, but the way Lee had always wanted to write it. Lee decided to make his new superhero team, the Fantastic Four, completely different than all that had come before.

Kirby, on the other had, offered another version. He said he had returned to Atlas/Marvel Comics after a contentious break-up with rival DC Comics and claimed that he came upon a despondent Lee, who was in charge of a failing Atlas and desperate for a hit to reverse the company’s fortunes. Kirby reassured Lee, then started to work on a concept that bore more than a passing similarity to the Challengers of the Unknown, a concept he created for DC years before. The artist tweaked than concept, made it a family with superpowers, and presented it to Lee as the Fantastic Four.

The truth is most likely somewhere in between, as elements of both man’s styles are in the final product. But what cannot be denied is the affect it had on the world of comics. The superhero comic book was just making a resurgence, but the heroes being presented were staid paragons of perfectness. The biggest challenge Superman had to face in his everyday life was Lois Lane trying to figure out his secret identity for the twenty millionth time. Batman had an endless supply of money in his civilian identity, and the luster and glamor that came with it. The DC characters resembled their reader’s lives as much as a block of wood resembles a house.

FantasticFour51Fantastic Four changed all that. Lee and Kirby gave their characters dramatized version of real world problems their readers might face. Sue loved Reed, but was resentful of the time he spent in the lab. However, Reed would often be overcome with jealous anger when the Sub-Mariner flirted with Sue–and Sue reciprocated. Ben and Johnny would fight like cat and dog, usually after one pulled a prank on the other. The squabbles temporarily took Ben’s mind off being trapped in the body of a monster. And Reed continually felt guilty over being responsible for Ben’s predicament.

The team often times had trouble making the rent, or had to deal with angry neighbors. Characters got married, left the team in a huff, had children, and developed friendships with other heroes. In other words, the Fantastic Four had problems, just like the rest of us.

The book ushered in the Marvel age of comics. Without the Fantastic Four, we wouldn’t have had Spider-Man. Or the X-Men. Or Watchmen. Or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or perhaps even comic books today at all. Such is the importance of the Fantastic Four.

The team had a number of successful animated adaptations, it took over twenty years for the concept to be optioned for a feature film, another 11 until an attempt at filming was made, and  another 11 on top of that before a movie was actually in cineplexes.

fantasticfourposterThe story of the aborted 1994 Fantastic Four film was the stuff of legend, but we spoke about that one in a previous installment, so we’ll pick up from where that story left off. While the Corman FF film would never officially be seen, it did buy rights holders Constantin Films more time to develop a bigger budget version of the film. However, things weren’t any easier after the rights reprieve, as the film went through a similar development hell. The script, while credited to Mark Frost and Michael France, went through many other hands–most notably Simon Kinberg, before production began. As a matter of fact, actors were still getting script pages while the movie was being filmed.

And when it came to getting talent on board, the film became virtual hot potato that most of Hollywood passed on. Directorial candidates when from the awesome (Chris Columbus and Steven Soderbergh) to the intriguing (Peyton Reed) to the underwheming (Raja Gosnell) before finally settling on Tim Story, a director who biggest resume listings were the comedies Barbershop and Taxi. Instead of getting George Clooney as Reed Richards, we got the relative unknown Ioan Gruffudd. Instead of getting Rachel McAdams or Scarlett Johansson as Sue Storm, we got the relatively wooden Jessica Alba (although her performance might not entirely been all her fault).

Not that all the missed opportunities were cases of diminishing returns. Paul Walker passed on the role of Johnny Storm, allowing Chris Evans to add it as the first of many comic book characters on his resume. His performance was a high point of the film. And James Gandolfini was offered the role of Ben Grimm, but the capable Michael Chiklis was eventually cast in the role. Chiklis brought a lot of the humor and pathos that made the comic book Thing great into his performance.

johnnystormThe plot involves Reed Richards desire to study a cosmic ray storm in space for clues it might hold to human evolution. He takes his friend Ben, a pilot, his estranged girlfriend and fellow scientist Sue, her brother Johnny, who is an astronaut, and the financier of the project and former classmate Victor Von Doom up to a space station to run tests. However, a miscalculation exposes them to the cosmic radiation, altering the quintet’s DNA and giving them superpowers. Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben have to deal with their powers and the attention they generate, while Von Doom tries to gain even more power for himself.

The film is continually lambasted by film critics and comic fans as one of the worst films ever. Personally, I don’t see it. Granted, it will never replace Casablanca as my favorite film of all time, but the film had a lot going for it. I liked the way they updated the origin for the film while still keeping it based in the world of science. I think they pegged the Ben and Johnny dynamic well. And I also like how the climax showed the characters working together as a team to take down the villain, which was a change from the X-Men films, where the team broke off to take down the bad guys on a one-on-one basis.

I even liked the update they did on Doom, a sore spot for many comic fans. I realized that megalomaniac Doom that always bombastically refers to himself in the third person would not translate well to film, and was ready to accept something different. I thought the eurotrash version the film gave us was a unique approach to the character,thought Julian McMahon did well bringing the sliminess this version of the character needed, and thought having Doom get powers in the same accident made him more of a threat to the team.

But bad reviews and fanboy griping did not stop the film from tripling it’s budget in worldwide grosses. That meant a sequel was on the way, and that they would tackle one of the legendary tales from the comic book with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

fantasticfour2posterStory and the cast returned as writers Mark Frost and Don Payne set about adapting “The Galactus Trilogy” from Fantastic Four #48-51, with elements of Fantastic Four # 57-60 thrown ion for good measure. The story begins with Reed and Sue contemplating leaving the world of heroics behind, as Sue is feeling neglected by Reed spending all his time in a lab solving the world’s problems. However, their retirement is complicated by the arrival of  the Silver Surfer, a surfboard-riding alien who appears to be terraforming the Earth for some nefarious purpose. Turns out the Surfer is preparing the Earth to be devoured by his master, Galactus, a cloud of cosmic energy that sustains itself by destroying planets.

The team’s efforts to fight Galactus are complicated when Doctor Doom returns and steals the Surfer’s powers for his own. The FF are forced to fight a immensely powered Doom, all the while as the doomsday clock ticks down to zero.

There are nods to the comic books aplenty here, but not all of them add to narrative. Yes, Sue being resentful of the amount of time Reed spends in the lab is taken from the comics, but A) in the films she is scientist too, so she can spend time in there with him, and B)the best time to make a stand on the issue isn’t when the Earth is in imminent danger of being destroyed.

And Stan Lee playing Stan Lee being refused entry into Reed and Sue’s wedding was a nice nod to a similar scene from the comic book wedding of the two, where Lee and Kirby were kept out of that wedding. But it seems like everyone forgot that Lee played the team’s mailman, Willie Lumpkin, in the first film. Those not in on the joke were wondering why they were being so mean to their mailman by keeping him away from the nuptials.

Regardless, while the film made less that its predecessor and only $1 million more than its budget domestically, it doubled its budget in worldwide grosses. Talk began of having a Silver Surfer spin off from a script written by J. Michael Straczynski, but it quickly became apparent that no sequels or spin-offs would be coming any time soon.

But Fox still had faith in the Fantastic Four, so much so that they were supposedly willing to let their rights to Daredevil revert to Marvel than letting Marvel have even temporary access to any part of the FF mythos. So instead of a sequel, we got a reboot, a reboot which is picking up steam even as we speak. That’s what we’ll talk about next time, as we look at the FF’s future, and how it might not be as bright as Fox thinks it is.

 

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Accept Your Punishment

Posted on 18 April 2014 by William Gatevackes

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, we cover Marvel’s most popular vigilante, THE PUNISHER, and the unsuccessful attempts to build a film franchise around him. 

mikezeckpunisherHow is this for a film-ready concept? A man takes his wife and two children on pleasant picnic in the park. Unfortunately, it happens to be in a part of the part where a mob hit was being held. Being discovered, the mobsters kill the man’s family in front of his eyes, and leave him for dead. Only, he didn’t die. He survived and began using his military training to hunt down organize crime. He becomes a vigilante to make the streets safe.

Sounds good, right? It’s pretty close to the back story of Paul Kelsey, Charles Bronson’s character in the Death Wish films, a fairly successful franchise in and of itself. So a film based around the above character should be golden, right? Wrong.

Well, this is the backstory of the Punisher, a Marvel character who holds the distinction of being a three time loser when it comes to starting a film franchise in his name. The question is why?

THE-PUNISHERThe first attempt at bringing him to the big screen was in 1989 in the form of Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher. I already covered this film in the series here, so I won’t go over that familiar ground again. I will say that I find it hard consider that film a serious attempt to bring the character to the screen, especially considering that financial difficulties prevented the film from getting a U.S. release.

Budgetary concerns were also an issue 15 years later when the character actually did appear in the film that was released in the States. Jonathan Hensleigh asked for a budget of $64 million for his version of The Punisher. He got less than half that from Artisan Entertainment with $31 million. This meant the shooting would take place in Florida, not New York. It meant that the script had to be rewritten time and time again to keep it under budget. And, since most of that budget went to the cast, effects and scenes had to be done on the cheap.

Although, considering what we got for that money, we don’t know if adding more cash would have made the film any better.


Punisher2004posterThe Punisher was a case of Hensleigh, who not only co-wrote the script with Michael France, but also made his directorial debut with the film, not understanding what his audience wanted. He thought if he threw in characters from the comics such as Joan, Mr. Bumpo, Spacker Dave and the Russian, he’d be free to disregard anything else that made the comic book character great. He also thought as long as he threw mindless action at audiences, they’d willfully ignore some of the idiotic shortcut he made in the narrative.

You don’t have to wait long for the first misstep. Frank Castle, a.k.a The Punisher, played by Thomas Jane, is now an F.B.I. agent who kills the son of a crooked businessman in a sting operation. The businessman, Howard Saint (Jazz Traveltini), decides to get his revenge by having all of Castle’s family killed.

Lucky for him, the Castle family was having a large family reunion not long after. So, not only does Castle lose his wife and children, but also his mom and pop, Aunt Mitsy, his sister and her no-account dork of a husband ,and that strange cousin who smells like Vicks who you only see once every five years. Ante, you have just been upped!

I’m sure Hensleigh thought that by turning the original “eye for an eye” trope into an “eye for an eye for an eye” and upping the number of dead Castles would be just the type of “more” audiences would eat up. He was wrong.

thomasjanepunisherThe fact that the death of Castle’s comic book family was brought on by a random twist of fate adds pathos to his origin. If he had his picnic in another park or another time of day, his family would still be alive. But forces beyond his control put him and his family there in that very spot. In the film, his own actions put his family at risk. His family’s death was less random, it was just his past coming back to haunt him. The former way works better dramatically.

And the massacre at the family reunion was, no pun intended, overkill. It was as if Hensleigh didn’t think a father watching his kids die, or a husband watching the woman he loved expire, had enough emotional impact. It did and does. Having every single member of his extended family might have seemed like a sure-fire way to push Castle deeper into the valleys of mourning and depression (while making Saint seem like much more of a menace), but what it really told audiences is that the film will be bigger than the comic, but not necessarily better.

Another example is how the Punisher is portrayed on the screen. For me, the character works best when he is direct. He finds a target, he kills the target, he moves on to the next target. This is not to say there is not a certain amount of planning that goes on, but none that slides over into the Machiavellian. So, The Punisher taking out a bad guy’s money laundering operation, that’s fine. His breaking up a partnership Saint had with a pair of drug runners, okay, that could work. Manipulating Saint into falsely believing his right-hand man was having an affair with his wife so Saint would kill them both? That’s a bit too much.

castle and russianBut my biggest problem with the film had nothing to do with the comic books. About halfway through the film, there’s a scene where Castle goes up to a Sheriff holding a press conference and basically says “I’m Frank Castle, and I want to know why you haven’t found my family’s murderer.” This annoyed the heck out of me because it was essentially a phony way of jacking up risk at the expense of the plot and characterization. Yes, it was presented as Castle wanting to let Saint know he was still alive. But why would he want do that? He was an FBI agent who has worked undercover and he had spent some time in the military. He should know that being off the radar would have some advantages. He could strike at Saint’s organization methodically without calling attention to himself and putting his mission of vengeance, and the people around him, in danger.

But, no, we get the big reveal at the press conference. I think the real reason why the scene was included was because Hensleigh wanted to have Saint send the Russian and, well, Sam Club’s Johnny Cash after him and put the neighbors he met in danger. That’s it. He wasn’t thinking of the story or characterization of even if it made sense. He had a result he wanted, this was the easiest way to get there, so it happened.

punishersainttoroLuckily, the film was saved from being completely awful by Jane’s performance and that of his supporting cast. Unfortunately, it opened opposite Kill Bill Vol 2, and, really, if you were looking for an action film to go see, wouldn’t you rather see that one instead? Many fans thought that, as The Punisher opened in second place with half the weekend grosses of  Kill Bill Vol 2. It would go on to just barely earn it’s budget back domestically, and only $54 million worldwide.

Those numbers might not seem like the kind that would warrant a sequel, but a sequel was in the works before The Punisher even hit theaters. The plan was for Jane and director Hensleigh to return, with The Punisher facing off against Jigsaw in the film. However, script problems stalled development, causing Hensleigh to leave. Scripts were worked on over the next four years by Stuart Beattie and a pre-Sons of Anarchy Kurt Sutter. Sutter’s script was reportedly final straw for Jane, who backed out of the film due to his dislike of it.

Sutter’s script was rewritten Nick Santora, Art Marcum and Matt Hollway (so much so that he took his name off the film as only one scene of his remained) and Leni Alexander was hired as director. And in 2008, Punisher: War Zone was released to an unsuspecting world.

punisherwarzoneposterI believe that this film was probably as close to the comic book version of the character as we’re going to get. You had the feeling that Hensleigh was trying to turn what would work best as a cheesy action film into a Greek tragedy. Alexander went the opposite direction and traveled down the Grindhouse road, earning the R-rating fans were clamoring for. From the opening, where Frank silently dispatches a mob family–one with a chair leg to the eye–to the gory origin of Jigsaw to the finale, where Castle must shoot his way through a three story hotel full of bad guys, the film had enough over-the-top blood and violence to satisfy fans of the character and the genre.

Ray Stevenson takes over for Jane in the lead role, and, being five years older, adds a sense of world-weariness to the role. The film is less a sequel than a soft reboot (the origin is referred to once, and the body count is only Castle’s wife and children), but it falls more in line with the comics’ Punisher as a driven force of vengeance.

raystevensonpunisherI’m not saying that Punisher: War Zone should knock Citizen Kane off the top of any top ten lists, or even that it is a great film. But if you are a fan of the Punisher and hyper-violent shoot ‘em ups, then this film is the better Punisher film of the two.

Unfortunately, not enough people saw the film to make up their own opinions. The film debuted at #8 the weekend it was released, and only made $8 million worldwide, way below its $35 million budget. It was a flop in every sense of the word and killed the Punisher’s cinematic life dead. Lionsgate let their option on the character elapse, allowing the rights to revert back to Marvel. Marvel appears to be in no hurry to bring Frank Castle back in live-action, as the character has yet to appear in the studios far range plans for its characters, either in film or on TV.

The character does have its fans, one of which is Thomas Jane. During the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, he released a short film sequel to his version of the Punisher titled Dirty Laundry.

Next time, we take on another much maligned marvel movie franchise, Fantastic Four.

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