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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Rise Of The Imprints

Posted on 20 June 2014 by William Gatevackes

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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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: To HELLBOY And Back

Posted on 04 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. Today, we talk about a successful creator-owned franchise turned film franchise, Hellboy.

darkhorselogoLast installment, we talked about Dark Horse Comics and how the success of its Aliens and Predator licenses cause it to expand its operations. One of the most notable expansions came in 1994 when they started the Legend imprint.

Legend was a boutique imprint started by comic book legends Frank Miller and John Byrne to showcase creator-owned titles from the pair, all published by Dark Horse. It was here where Miller’s Sin City was home to, for instance, and Byrne housed his Next Men series. It was an answer to Image Comics, the other imprint started by superstar creators for their own creator-owned properties, only for superstars that might not be as young or hot as the Image 7. Invitations went out to a number of comic creators to join Miller and Byrne, and one of the creators who agreed to become part of Legend’s starting line up was Mike Mignola.

Mike Mignola was a comics veteran at the time Legend began, with over a decade’s experience. He got his start as an inker at Marvel Comics before moving on to become a pencil artist on titles such as Rocket Raccoon, Incredible Hulk and Alpha Flight. He also provided numerous covers for all companies, and eventually moved on to work on diverse projects ranging from blockbuster crossovers such as Cosmic Odyssey to esoteric fare such as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

hellboysketchHellboy started out as a convention sketch Mignola did for a fan of your general, garden variety demon.  But Mignola liked the name so much that when the time came to create an original character of his own, he built a hero around the name.

Originally intended to be part of a superhero team, Mignola decided to focus on Hellboy exclusively when he couldn’t come up with a good name for the unit. Hellboy was a demon from hell summoned to Earth by the Nazis during the last months of World War II. The Nazis intended to use the demon against a squad of attacking Allied Forces, but unfortunately for them, they plucked an infant demon from Hell. The child demon was no use to the Nazi’s, who were quickly overrun. The demon baby was then adopted by the American forces. In a case of environment overriding heredity, the demon grew up to become a rough and tumble monster hunter dubbed Hellboy.

nextmen21Hellboy quickly became success for Legend and Mignola. As a matter of fact, the series outlasted the imprint, which folded in 1998, by 16 years and counting. Adventures of  the character continue to this day, and the series has spawn a number of spin-offs and tie-ins over the years. And with that kind of success comes attention from Hollywood.

Luckily for Mignola and his creation, that attention came from celebrated director Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican director had burst on the scene with Chronos and Mimic and was coming off the biggest hit of his career in Blade II when a chance to adapt Hellboy came his way. A fan of the comic, del Toro used his new found clout to protect Hellboy on his journey to the big screen. When the studio insisted he cast Vin Diesel as Hellboy, del Toro stuck by his and Mignola’s original original choice of Ron Perlman. When the suits wanted the character’s origin changed so that the character was a human and not a demon, del Toro preserved the character’s comic book origin. In 2004, del Toro delivered us Hellboy.

Hellboy_posterThe result is a very good film.del Toro was a big enough fan to capture the Lovecraftian pulp noir of the comic book, but was also a skilled enough director to make the film entertaining. Hellboy adapted the series first story arc, Seeds of Destruction, in its entirety–with Easter eggs from other stories thrown in for good measure. Perlman made a pitch-perfect Hellboy, capturing the tough guy persona the character needed and deserved expertly. The rest of the cast were solid, if not entirely famous names, who worked well together and built a believable universe out of the outlandish property.

The film made just over $99 million worldwide against a $66 million dollar budget, which was hardly the stuff sequels are made from. But it’s success on the home video market earned it a shot at a follow-up. del Toro returned four years later to bring us Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

hellboy2posterThe film was originally supposed to come out in 2006, but its original studio, Revolutionary Pictures, went out of business. Universal Pictures stepped in to pick up the reins. del Toro decided not to adapt a story from the run in the comics, but instead focus on an original story taken from  folklore–an ancient war between the elves and humanity. If the first film featured Lovecraftian beasts taken directly from the comics, this film featured myth-inspired beasts that would be right at home in the film del Toro did before Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrynth.

If the first Hellboy barely backed into a sequel, that would not be the problem here. Hellboy II almost doubled its $85 million budget with an worldwide gross of over $160 million dollars. However, a second sequel would not be soon coming. del Toro got involved with making the Hobbit film for a while before backing out of directing that film, and then moved on to Pacific Rim. But during the publicity rounds for that film last year, both del Toro and Perlman stated that they would be interested in making a third Hellboy, but it appears to be in the early stages at best.

Next time, we’ll discuss one of Marvel’s most popular characters two appearances on the screen. Yes, we have finally made it to the Punisher.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Versus

Posted on 21 March 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. Today, we talk about a film franchise based on a comic book featuring characters created in the movies, Aliens vs. Predator.

Alien was not adapted from comic books. It was an original story from Dan O’Bannon and script from O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett.

Predator was also not adapted from comic books. It sprung from the minds of screenwriters Jim and John Thomas.

So, why am I talking about the Aliens Vs. Predator franchise in a comic book film column? Because if a comic company didn’t decide to pit the two against each other, the film franchise might not have existed.

darkhorselogoDark Horse Comics is a small, independent publisher based out of Portland, Oregon that was founded in 1986. Like many other companies that sprung up around the same time, Dark Horse’s output was unique and eclectic, typically printed in black and white, and featured a selection of titles that just didn’t fit in elsewhere, titles such as Concrete, Trekker, Black Cross and the anthology Dark Horse Presents.

If the company kept up with this publishing plan, it might not be around today. But in 1988, Dark Horse went into the licensing business. It went to 20th Century Fox to license that studio’s properties. From the studio, it got permission to adapt the Alien franchise, which at the time was riding high from its second installment, James Cameron’s Aliens, and Predator, which was Fox’s box office hit from the year before.

It’s these licenses that helped Dark Horse become one of the big four publishers today. The company started publishing books in each franchise the following year, and each title was a resounding success. They parlayed that success into acquiring more licenses, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars, and developing original, creator owned properties such as Sin City and Hellboy.

This success would have been enough to put Dark Horse on the map. However, an idea came out of a corporate brainstorming session that was sheer genius. They decided to create a line of books where the Aliens would face off against the Predators across the universe, with humans typically caught in the middle. This idea was a fresh one in the world of comics. Many companies would cross licensed characters over with their own stable of characters, but not with each other.

darkhorsepresents34The first Alien vs. Predator story debuted in the aforementioned Dark Horse Presents, issue #34, cover dated November 1989. Over the next 21 years, Dark Horse would publish eight series where the alien hunters would face off against each other, one series where the pair would battle with another licensed franchise, The Terminator, two intercompany crossovers with Image Comics where characters from the latter’s Darkness and Witchblade series’ got caught in the war, and one intercompany crossover with DC Comics where Superman and Batman teamed to stop the carnage the Aliens and Predators created.

However, while the Alien, Predator, and Aliens vs. Predator franchises were doing great in the comics, the film franchises were put into mothballs. The Predator franchise never survived the poorly received Predator 2 in 1990, and it was 1997′s Alien: Resurrection that put that franchise on the shelf. Of course, nothing that has ever sold tickets will stay dormant for long, and seeing how well pairing of the alien monsters went in the comics, Fox decided to try the same gambit in the films.

alienvspredatorposter2004′s Alien vs. Predator might have been inspired by the comic book pairing, but it didn’t adapt any of the comic book stories. The film was set on Earth in the present day, unlike the comics where it was set in a dystopian future where Aliens conquered the Earth. The plot involved an ancient pyramid found under the ice on an island just off the coast of Antarctica. A group of scientists working for the Weyland Corporartion go there to investigate. Unfortunately, the scientists are soon joined by a ship full Predators, who have also come to examine the site. It turns out that the pyramid was home to a dormant race of Xenomorphs, a race that the investigating humans inadvertently awakened. The humans soon find themselves as pawns in the of the ritual battle between the Aliens and the Predators.

The film presented itself as a prequel to the Alien Franchise. It was written by Alien‘s scribes O’Bannon and Shushett, featured the Weyland Corporation, which played a large part in the franchise and cast Lance Henrikson, who played an android named Bishop in Aliens, as Charles Bishop Weyland, the owner of the corporation. However, some fans considered the fact that humans made contact with the Aliens years before Ripley and company did took away a lot of atmosphere of the Ridley Scott original.

However, this was not enough to keep audiences away. Alien vs. Predator tripled it’s production budget and guaranteed the sequel it hinted at in the closing moments. That sequel, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, arrived in 2008, giving purists more to complain about.

aliensvspredatorrequiemposterThis film continues right after Alien vs. Predator, as a Alien bursts out of a dead Predator’s chest on the spaceship ride home. This causes the ship to crash land outside Gunnison, Colorado. The hybrid Predator/Alien escapes and starts infecting townsfolk with alien embryos. A Predator “cleaner” answers the ships distress call and begins hunting the hybrid through the area. Once again, the humans become pawns in the cat and mouse between the hybrid and his Aliens and the Predator.

If having Aliens come in contact in a secluded frozen wasteland was enough to raise hardcore fans ire, having them traipse around in the American Rockies was enough to drive them insane.

The film, like its predecessor, tripled its budget. However, this was only just enough to make it the lowest grossing film in any of the franchises, and it was also the worst reviewed of any of the Alien or Predator film. To date, there has been no movement on a second sequel to this franchise. Instead, we got a trip to the Predator homeworld in Predators, and a ipso facto prequel to Alien with Prometheus.

Up next, we talk about another Dark Horse success story, Hellboy, at its trips to the silver screen.

 

 

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The War Over WATCHMEN, Redux

Posted on 07 March 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. Today, we once again interrupt our regularly scheduled program to cover new information about a film we already covered, Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

silver snyder watchmenIn terms of bringing Watchmen to the big screen, Joel Silver would be the alpha, and Zack Snyder would be the omega. Silver was the producer who first started process of bringing Alan Moore’s seminal work to theaters, but it was Zack Snyder who was able to finish the job. So, the two diverse and opinionated power players will be forever inexorably linked. But this doesn’t mean that they have to get along.

Through a serendipitous coincidence, Silver and Snyder produced films that were released a week apart. Silver is a producer on Non-Stop, which opened last week and Snyder is a producer on the sequel to his film 300, 300: Rise of an Empire which opens today. If the two films were released further apart, Snyder wouldn’t have just a quick turn around on answering Silver’s comments on his version of the Watchmen and I’d be writing about the Alien vs. Predator franchise like I had originally planned.

joel silverJoel Silver was interviewed by ComingSoon.net in conjunction with Non-Stop‘s release, and, as these interviews typically go, the interview spanned Silver’s entire career. Naturally, the topic of Watchmen came up. And since the bombastic Silver is never one to shy away from expressing his opinions–at length–we get exactly what he thought of Snyder’s version, and how his would have been much, much better:

CS: Speaking of ones that got away, as a die-hard Terry Gilliam fan I have to know if there’s anything juicy you can tell me about his conception of “Watchmen”?
Silver:
It was a MUCH much better movie.

CS: Than the one Zack Snyder made…
Silver:
Oh God. I mean, Zack came at it the right way but was too much of a slave to the material.

CS: Agreed.
Silver:
I was trying to get it BACK from the studio at that point, because I ended up with both “V For Vendetta” and “Watchmen” and I kinda lost “Watchmen.” I was happy with the way “V” came out, but we took a lot of liberties. That’s one of the reasons Alan Moore was so unpleasant to deal with. The version of “Watchmen” that Zack made, they really felt the notion. They went to Comic-Con, they announced it, they showed things, the audience lost their minds but it wasn’t enough to get a movie that would have that success. What Terry had done, and it was a Sam Hamm script–who had written a script that everybody loved for the first “Batman”–and then he brought in a guy who’d worked for him to do work on it [Charles McKeown, co-writer of "Brazil"]. What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing which was too hard and too silly, what he did was he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy, the world political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers, he went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from “Watchmen” only became characters in a comic book.

CS: That’s fascinating. Very META.
Silver:
Oh yeah. So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.

CS: Things happen for a reason, it might have changed the whole landscape of superhero movies right now as well.
Silver:
But I did like the movie, very much. Zack did great stuff in it!

I suppose before I go any farther, I should talk about the Alan Moore’s ending to the Watchmen series, which Silver briefly touches upon above. For as great as the series was, as ground breaking as the series was (more on what I thought here), it’s ending, in my opinion, was pretty damn awful. So, consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

Watchmen monsterIn the comic, Ozymandias’ grand plan to stave off nuclear annihilation was to create a giant, hideous creature, and then teleport the living, breathing creature into Midtown Manhattan, where it would promptly die, killing millions as it releases a psychic backlash as it undergoes its death throes. The nations of the  world would think this was the beginning of an alien invasion, and would put aside their differences to to unite to combat the supposed foe from outer space. The plan goess through and works.

Not only was Moore’s ending a swipe, inadvertent or not, of an old Outer Limits episode, but also it was a garish break from the realistic sci-fi of the rest of the series. Yes, you had a character that was a walking nuclear bomb, but at least his existence was explained by some pseudoscience. The beast’s didn’t get quite the same treatment.

On top of that, the plan doesn’t seem to be one that would work that well. You mean to tell me that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. wouldn’t be back at each others throats when the rest of the aliens failed to arrive? And the beast itself, the government wouldn’t chop it up to see how it worked? They probably find out a lot about it, perhaps even Ozymandias’ role in its creation.

Anyway, the ending did have to be changed for the film, on that I agree with Silver. I don’t agree necessarily that his ending was that much better.

The ending Silver describes corresponds with a Sam Hamm script for the project that I read years ago, one I spoke about here. The only other major changes I recall from that script would have been a tacked on action sequence where the heroes faced off against a superpowered villain at the Statue of Liberty (which would obliterate Moore’s deliberate plot choice of having Doctor Manhattan be the only superpowered being in the story) and removal of all the ephemera (the Minutemen, the Tales of the Black Freighter, etc) from the source material.

But the ending, well, it was a Twilight Zone ending with none of the irony that made Twilight Zone endings great. It kind of laid there on the page. Obviously, we were supposed have our mind’s blown, but the way it was presented, in an almost laughable way, it fell flat.

There are several things to take into consideration with Silver’s statement. One, you have to realize that Joel Silver is a producer in the Hollywood tradition of old, where he is a bombastic promoter of everything he puts his name on. Of course, he would think his version of Watchmen would be better. It’s not in his DNA to say any different. And another thing is while Silver made it sound like this ending was Gilliam’s idea, it definitely came from Hamm. Granted, I wasn’t privy to any communications between the parties in 1988, and how much influence Gilliam had on the script, but the ending came from a script with Hamm”s name, and only Hamm’s name on it. If Gilliam was so enamored with Hamm’s script, why did he bring McKeown in to rewrite it? Because he wanted to change it. Who knows if the ending was one of the things Gilliam wanted to change?

zack snyderBut thanks to Silver, Gilliam was thrown under the bus, and is being viewed as the bad guy in this. Well, at least in Zack Snyder’s eyes. Only one week later, talking to The Huffington Post while promoting 300: Rise of an Empire, Snyder and his wife Deborah decided to address Silver’s words–by taking a shot at Gilliam:

Was “Watchmen” the most “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” project you’ve ever been a part of? Now Joel Silver is criticizing you for being a “slave” to the source material while touting a very different from the source material script that Terry Gilliam was going to film.

Zack Snyder: It’s funny, because the biggest knock against the movie is that we finally changed the ending, right?

Right, you used Dr. Manhattan as the threat to bring the world together as opposed to the alien squid.

Zack Snyder: Right, and if you read the Gilliam ending, it’s completely insane.

Deborah Snyder: The fans would have been thinking that they were smoking crack.

Zack Snyder: Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made “Watchmen” for myself. It’s probably my favorite movie that I’ve made. And I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.

In Gilliam’s version, Dr. Manhattan is convinced to go back in time and prevent Dr. Manhattan from existing. But the specter of his existence is the threat to the world, which is kind of what you did at the end of the movie anyway.

Zack Snyder: Right, of course. It’s just using elements that are in the comic book already, that’s the only thing I did. I would not have grabbed something from out of the air and said, “Oh, here’s a cool ending” just because it’s cool.

Deborah Snyder: But it’s interesting because, you’re right, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You have people who are mad that the ending was changed and you have other people saying, “Oh, it was a slave to the graphic novel.” You can’t please everybody.

Zack Snyder: And that’s the problem with genre. That’s the problem with comic book movies and genre. And I believe that we’ve evolved — I believe that the audiences have evolved. I feel like “Watchmen” came out at sort of the height of the snarky Internet fanboy — like, when he had his biggest strength. And I think if that movie came out now — and this is just my opinion — because now that we’ve had “Avengers” and comic book culture is well established, I think people would realize that the movie is a satire. You know, the whole movie is a satire. It’s a genre-busting movie. The graphic novel was written to analyze the graphic novel — and comic books and the Cold War and politics and the place that comic books play in the mythology of pop culture. I guess that’s what I’m getting at with the end of “Watchmen” — in the end, the most important thing with the end was that it tells the story of the graphic novel. The morality tale of the graphic novel is still told exactly as it was told in the graphic novel — I used slightly different devices. The Gilliam version, if you look at it, it has nothing to do with the idea that is the end of the graphic novel. And that’s the thing that I would go, “Well, then don’t do it.” It doesn’t make any sense.

I can’t imagine people being happy with that version.

Zack Snyder: Yeah! If you love the graphic novel, there’s just no way. It would be like if you were doing “Romeo and Juliet” and instead of them waking up in the grave area, they would have time-traveled back in time and none of it would have happened.

Between this and his response to the casting controversy over Batman Vs. Superman, Snyder is coming off as a man with a larger than normal ego but with thinner than normal skin. This is not a good combination for a Hollywood player, especially one whose milieu is comic book adaptations. Reading Snyder’s response, you’d think that Joel Silver accused him of being a being the antichrist and of selling kidnapped babies on the black market. You’d think that Silver’s remarks were a vicious and petty slam on his genius, and that he didn’t say anything nice about Snyder’s Watchmen at all. Well, Silver’s comments are reprinted verbatim above. You can see that that wasn’t the case at all, unless of course, the kids these days consider “But I did like the movie, very much. Zack did great stuff in it!” the biggest diss in the world. OOH, SNAP!

Actually, scratch that. You’d think Terry Gilliam did all those things. Snyder doesn’t mention Silver once. But he is more than ready to place all the blame on Gilliam’s feet. I especially love the exceptional arrogance when he says that he was saving Watchmen from the Terry Gilliams of the world. Listen, Zack. I know this is hard to hear, but you really, how do athletes put it, you can’t hold Gillaim’s jock strap. Uh, uh, I know what you’re going to say. Stop. I have three titles for you. Time Bandits. Brazil. 12 Monkeys. Your argument, no matter what it is, is invalid.

secondwatchmenteaserI will give Snyder credit for one thing. His ending is better than either Hamm’s or Moore’s. He is correct when he says it ties into the story better and is more effective in reaching Ozymandias’ goals. And I do grasp the satiric bent Snyder was going for, and I got it when the film first came out. I knew the costumes in the film were meant to be a commentary on the latex, nippleriffic costumes of the first Batman franchise and others. However, the other changes did not work quite as well. The extended sex scene totally misses the point of the Dan/Laurie pairing from the novel and has the strong odor of crass titillation to appeal to the lowest common denominator (and also shoots a hole in Snyder’s claim about being interested in being true to the tone of his source). And having the heroes, all essentially athletes at the top of human potential, be able to kick bad guys six feet in the air or turn bricks to dust with their punch was very distracting from the narrative.

But outside of this, the film is way to faithful to the source material. That criticism is valid. What many comic fans (or fans of any media that is adapted to film) fail to realize is that films are different from comics. There’s a different machinery at play. What works in a 12-issue miniseries will not work in a 2 hour movie.

I’ll admit, the fanboy in me did get a certain amount of glee from hearing dialogue taken directly from the comics repeated verbatim from the mouths of the actors. However, at times the film was less a film, and more a rote, less visceral recap of the graphic novel. I felt myself forming a mental checklist of the plot elements that Snyder was bringing to the screen instead of getting lost in the story, like I should have. And a lot was lost in the translation. Snyder didn’t adapt the elements from the graphic novel, he presented them. And his visual style took a lot away from Moore and Gibbons’ style. The result? It was a faithful adaptation that lost a lot of the grit and gravitas of the original. That’s my main criticism of it.

Wrapping up, I consider the Terry Gilliam Watchmen one of the classic lost films that we’ll never have the opportunity to see. If he was able to make the adaptation work,I doubt that the final product would have resembled the Sam Hamm script in the least. It might not have resembled the comic either, but it would have been inventive and imaginative. But we will never know what we would have got because we didn’t get it. Therefore, it’s silly for Snyder to say his version is better than the one we would have received from Gilliam. But the fact that he felt so threatened as to say that really says a lot about Snyder and his personality. And what it says is not very nice.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: HULK…NOT THAT GOOD.

Posted on 21 February 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. We take a look at a Jade Giant’s first go around on the big screen.

I am of the firm belief that if Hulk ended with the scene where Betty meets up with the Hulk in San Francisco, we’d be talking about it as one of the best comic book films of all time. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there, and what came after makes it instead one of the most disappointing comic book films.

hulk1coverThe Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde for the Atomic Age, and Cold War version of Frankenstein. He was Bruce Banner, a nuclear physicist who was work on a gamma radiation bomb. He is caught in a bomb blast while rescuing a teenager who wanders on to the testing site and instead of killing him, the radiation turned him into a superstrong beast that would appear whenever he got angry.

Initially, the concept was one of Marvel’s early failures. The Hulk’s first series only lasted six issues.  But as the character appeared in cameo appearances in some of Marvel’s more popular books such as The Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four there was an upswing in popularity. The character first got a co-starring strip in a comic called Tales to Astonish , eventually a series of his own.

The character reached the apex of its popularity in 1978 when the character received a live-action TV show on CBS. The Incredible Hulk starred Bill Bixby as “David” Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. The TV show changed the origin so that Banner got his powers through genetic manipulation rather than being caught in a bomb blast.

The series lasted until 1982, with three follow-up TV-movies from 1988 to 1990. The same year the final made-for-TV movie debuted, the process of bringing the Hulk to the big screen began. Producers Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd began the development process, with Universal brought on board starting in 1992. Screenwriter Michael France was hired in 1994 and developed a script that had the Hulk fighting terrorists. This script was rejected and France was replaced by John Turman the next year. Turman’s series of scripts hewed closer to the comic books, with General Ross and the U.S. Military as the primary villains.

Here is where it gets convoluted. France was brought back in as writer in late-1996. However, when Joe Johnson was brought on to direct, the studio asked the projects producer, Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote the hit Jumanji for Johnson, to reunite with the director. France was paid off and let go without ever writing a word. Unfortunately, Johnson passed on the project, and Hensleigh moved into the director’s chair. Turman was back to write a couple drafts, which were rewritten by Zak Penn. The highlight of this round of scripts was a fight between the Hulk and a group of sharks.

HulkposterTaking that into consideration, it’s no surprise that Hensleigh took over the writing reins himself, with the Hulk fighting convicts who were altered by gamma irradiated insect DNA. Hensleigh’s rewrote the script with J. J. Abrams, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and the project made it all the way to the casting stage before Universal, realizing that it had a $100 million picture in the hands of a first-time director, got cold feet.

Exit Hensleigh in 1999 and re-enter Michael France at this point.  France took another shot at the script, with rewrites from Michael Tolkin and David Hayter in 2000. Hayter brought in the Hulk’s comic book adversaries The Leader, Absorbing Man and Zzzax.

It wasn’t until 2001, after more than 10 years of development, that the Hulk film made the final leg of its journey to the big screen. That was when Ang Lee, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, came on board. He brought James Schamus on to rework the script. This time it actually took, and the film was on the way to the big screen.

hulk20Lee cast the relative unknown Eric Bana as Bruce Banner/the Hulk and surrounded him with quality actors such as recent Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly, Oscar nominated Nick Nolte as Banner’s father, and the so-awesome-he-doesn’t-need-a-stinkin’-Oscar-nomination Sam Elliot as General Ross.

The first two thirds of the film are borderline genius. Lee seems to have had a lot of fun constructing the visual, employing split screen imagery that replicated comic book panels, which created an awesome, pop art-esque effect. The origin is once again tied to genetic engineering rather than weapons of mass destruction, but one important aspect of the comic book version’s backstory made the jump to the screen. Banner’s rage issues are tied to an abusive relationship with his father (in the film, dad tried to kill a young Bruce).  This was an introduction in the comics that added layers of depth to the character.

bruceandbettyThe film reaches a crescendo as the Hulk escapes from a military installation and travels from the desert to San Francisco, fighting the military all the way. It was the comic book Hulk brought to life and it was awesome. Even better, the Hulk is only stopped by the appearance of Betty in the Bay Area. Beauty soothed the savage beast, and it was an element of hope for the future. If the film ended with the shot of Bruce in Betty’s arms, it would have been one fine movie. But like I said, the film didn’t end there.

hulk and dadThe real, awful ending, which looks like the textbook definition of tacked on, begins with Bruce’s father, David, coming to the high tech prison where Bruce is being held for a talk. Now, this is a man who was committed to a mental institution after a failed attempt to kill Bruce and a successful attempt to accidentally kill his wife. This guy, THIS GUY, gets to walk unimpeded onto a military prison so he can talk to the son, a man with rage issues that causes him to turn into a huge monster.

Unbeknownst to the guards, David submitted himself to a similar experience that gave his son his powers. Only this time around, the elder Banner was given the ability to absorb the physical properties of anything he touches (much like the comic’s Absorbing Man). While this is a pretty great power, David wants more. He wants to leech the power his son has, and that is the true reason for his visit.

David grabs a conveniently exposed power cable and turns himself into living electricity (much like the comic’s Zzzax) and attacks Bruce, causing him to turn into the Hulk. The two fight, Ross drops a bomb on them, David dies, the Hulk escapes.

The fact that this ending is mind-numbingly stupid is only hampered by Nolte’s hammy overacting during the scene and the absolutely horrid CGI during the battle sequence.

This ending was enough to kill the film for me. I can’t hate it, but I can’t rate it any higher than a noble failure. I wasn’t alone. Even though the film made a respectable amount of money worldwide, the next appearance of the Hulk was a reboot. We’ll be talking about that when we get to the Marvel shared universe.

Next, a film that technically isn’t based on a comic book property, but wouldn’t exist without a comic book.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: David Lindsay-Abaire: The SPIDER-MAN 4 Script Is NOT Mine

Posted on 31 January 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. We take a break from the parade of comic book films to update you on a previous entry.

David Lindsay-Abaire

David Lindsay-Abaire

Back on December 6th, as part of this feature’s look at the Spider-Man franchise, I discussed several scripts making the rounds on the Internet that were supposedly written for the abandoned fourth installment directed by Sam Raimi. In the column, I doubted the veracity of the scripts, and it turns out that I was right. How do I know? The author of one of the “scripts” let us know.

Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire sent an e-mail to FBOL Head Honcho Rich Drees to let us know in no uncertain terms that the script found online was not written by him. As you can tell from the excerpt from his email below the script is most definitely not his.

Dear Rich –

David Lindsay-Abaire here.

I wouldn’t normally respond to an article like this, but things can linger on the internet for years. And if I’m going to take some knocks online, I’d like to think they were based on a script that I actually wrote instead of some fan fiction that someone tacked my name onto. With that in mind, I wonder if you could at least update the article to add some kind of note saying that it’s been confirmed that the script in question is not in fact by David Lindsay-Abaire. (For what it’s worth, my script was 122 pages, and featured Kraven as the villain.)

 

I am more than happy to help Mr. Lindsay-Abaire set the record straight. In addition to this post, I will be updating the original post to reflect his correction concerning that script. Hopefully, this column will come up when people search Google for Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s Spider-Man script, so fans won’t waste time on the fake script.

This does seem to be the first time that Kraven was mentioned as a villain in the franchise. It would have been interesting to see Lindsay-Abaire’s take on the character.

We will return to our regularly scheduled History of the Comic Book Film post with our next installment.

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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Giving The Devil His Due

Posted on 17 January 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. Today, one of Marvel’s second tier characters gets the movie treatment–Daredevil.

daredevil1Daredevil was the red-headed stepchild of the Silver Age Marvel Comics. He was one of the last concepts introduced in the companies resurgence, and the lack of effort showed.

While the character had a good hook (Matt Murdock was a lawyer blinded by radioactive waste as a child who gained radar sense in the accident, and he used that power to fight crime), he came off as a pale imitator of the other urban vigilantes at the time. He was a superpowered Batman (complete with the Joker-like Jester and Penguin-like Owl as adversaries), or a boring version of Marvel’s own Spider-Man.

Marvel struggled for over a decade to try and create a unique identity for the character. He got a costume change seven issues into his run. He gained a second alternate identity for a time (Mike Murdock, supposedly Matt’s flashy, hipster brother, but really also Matt in disguise). He moved from New York to San Francisco and back again. He got a sidekick/slash love interest in Black Widow for a brief period. But nothing seems to stick. By the late 70s, the title had gone to a bi-weekly schedule, the last resort Marvel used before it cancelled a title.

Enter Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller. McKenzie presented Daredevil in a darker, noir style of stories, which the character fit immediately. However, artist Miller didn’t think McKenzie was taking the character too far into the noir world, and threatened to leave the book. Instead, McKenzie was fired and Miller was given the task of writing and drawing the feature.

This turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to Daredevil. Miller plunged the character deeply into a grim and gritty world of gangsters and ninjas. Death was always an option and betrayal was always near. Miller’s Daredevil was a haunted, damaged hero, one who was almost too willing to stoop to the level of the killers he faced.

Frank Miller in his Daredevil cameo.

Frank Miller in his Daredevil cameo.

Miller introduced an old flame of Matt’s who became the assassin Elektra. He took old DD villain Bullseye and turned him into a raving psychopath with a particular obsession with our hero. And he also made Spider-Man villain Kingpin a feared crime boss more in line with real world crime figures. Miller eventually put these characters on a collision course, one that ended with the death of Elektra at the hands of Bullseye, as ordered by Kingpin.

Miller’s Daredevil was a shock to the system, not only to the character and the title, but also to the larger world of comics as a whole. Miller was at the for front of the artist/writer movement at Marvel, his reboot sharing the shelves with John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Walt Simonson’s Thor reboot as well. But he was also part of the larger comic book deconstructionism that Alan Moore and others were working on at other companies.

Miller’s work on Daredevil influenced the character for decades to come. While the character did have some rough periods (namely, the 1990s), Miller set the stage for writers such as Denny O’Neil, Ann Nocenti, Kevin Smith (yes, that Kevin Smith), Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker to create excellent Daredevil stories. Even Mark Waid’s current awesome, kinder and gentler take on Daredevil would not be possible without Miller’s influence. And Miller’s influence was also heavily felt in the 2003 film adaptation.

There had been several attempts to bring Daredevil to cinematic life. The earliest was in the mid-70s when Angela Bowie was shopping around a Daredevil/Black Widow TV project. The character also had a back door pilot with The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. But the character’s trek to the big screen began in earnest in 1997.

daredevilposterThat’s when 20th Century Fox first optioned the rights to the character, with Chris Columbus in line to write and direct the feature. This first time didn’t pan out and the rights reverted to Marvel. Disney made a play at getting the rights, but the project was instead set up at Columbia Pictures, with Mark Steven Johnson brought on to rewrite the script. Eventually, they passed and the rights moved on to New Regency in 2000 with Fox now on board to distribute. Johnson was also named director of the film.

Casting began on the film. Guy Pierce was approached to play Matt Murdock, but he passed because comic book stuff really wasn’t “his cup of tea.” (I guess he got used to the taste of that kind of tea, because a decade later, he would go on to be the main bad guy in Iron Man 3). Matt Damon also got the call, but passed over issues with the script and director. Eventually, the role went to Damon’s friend, and fan of the Daredevil comic book, Ben Affleck.

Colin Farrell, once also up for the role of Daredevil, took the role or Bullseye. Jennifer Garner beat out actresses ranging from Selma Hayek to Jessica Alba for the role of Elektra. And for the role of the fat, Caucasian Kingpin, they chose the muscular African-American Michael Clarke Duncan. That might seem to be a fairly egregious bit of miscasting, but Duncan did better in his role than the other two did in theirs. Farrell’s overacting got a bit too much sometimes, and Garner was as believable as a Greek shipping heiress as Brad Pitt would be as the ugliest man alive.

But while the film had its share of miscues, and is a constant target of scorn and derision from comic book fans, I liked it. Well, it had me on its side after it gave Kevin Smith a cameo as a mortician called Jack Kirby, but I thought it was an okay presentation of the material. I really liked the way they added elements of the comic book series into the film. The dialogue for the Elektra/Bullseye fight was taken almost word for word from the Frank Miller dialogue in the comics when Bullseye killed Elektra.

While I liked the film, I didn’t care too much for what came out of it. With grosses in excess of $179 million, Fox wanted to capitalize on Daredevil’s success. They did so by giving us Rob Bowman’s Elektra. They really shouldn’t have.


elektraposterI can’t really garner much animosity for the film. My only remembrances of watching it was being bored by it. But this film failed because it didn’t know what it wanted to be. The script by Zak Pen, Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner was at war with itself. Was it a superhero movie setting Elektra against superpowered villains? Was it a martial arts tale? Was it a thriller? Was a Hallmark-lite version of female self-discovery? Whatever it was going for, it didn’t do it well.

Elektra took in more than its budget, but was still considered a disappointment. That combined with a growing disdain for Daredevil made any sequel to that film impossible. Eventually, talks turned to a reboot with David Slade at the helm. When he left the project, there was only a limited time left on Fox’s option. A last minute of getting a reboot up and running by Joe Carnahan fell through, and the rights reverted back to Marvel. But Carnahan did put together one great sizzle reel.

Marvel has decided the future of DD did not lie on movie screens, but on your computer. It is developing Daredevil for a series on Netflix.

Next up, the noble failure that was Ang Lee’s Hulk.

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