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HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: The Non-Comic Book Superhero, Part VII

Posted on 17 May 2013 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 examine why original superheroes are the best choice for film comedies.

If the Batman TV series taught us anything, adapting a comic book in a humorous way is a dicey prospect. Comic book fans still wince whenever that series is mentioned because it dared to make a joke out of Batman in particular and comic books in general. We comic book aficionados are pretty sensitive when it comes to people not taking the medium we consider sacrosanct seriously.  We don’t want Jack Black playing Green Lantern. We don’t want Bat Credit Cards. And while we don’t mind humor where humor is appropriate (see The Avengers), we don’t want Hollywood to create a comedy out of something that was never intended to be funny.

blankmanThis isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of tropes and trademarks in comic books that lend themselves to comedy or parody. That’s where original heroes come in. When filmmakers use original concepts to point out the humor inherent in comic book conventions, not many comic fans get up in arms. If the film is good or bad, a hit or a flop, it doesn’t mean one of their beloved comic book properties is affected in any way.  And the hit to flop ratio typically favors the flop side of the equation with a lot of these comedies.

1994’s Blankman was a parody that took skewered look at the science-based superhero origin. Like Batman, Blankman lost a loved one to violent crime (his grandmother). He, like Batman and also Iron Man, is a technical genius with a skill for building gadgets and gizmos. However, unlike those heroes, he is not a suave millionaire who lives in a mansion, but rather a socially inept appliance repairman who lives in a crime-riddled inner city neighborhood. He doesn’t have hi-tech Batarangs, he has a boot on a stick attached to some rope. He doesn’t have a computerized suit of armor, he has a robot sidekick named J-5 he jury-rigged out of an old washing machine.

While there is humor in the concept and one part of the ads did make me chuckle (the part where Blankman telling his brother/sidekick that he is certain J-5 will come rescue them, then quickly cuts to the awkward robot unsuccessfully negotiating a flight of stairs, sure to be reduced to a pile of gears at the landing below), I have to admit that I never saw this film. Damon Wayans, who co-wrote the movie with J. F. Lawton, plays Blankman in the manner of a more ribald Jerry Lewis. Blankman was more supergeek than superhero, and in the most annoying way possible.

ExgirlposterThe horrible ex-boy/girlfriend is a film staple, in both comedies and dramas. There is a lot of humor to be mined from a relationship gone wrong, a reminder of a mistake that you made or a messy break up that you repeatedly have to pay for.  But what if your ex was a superhero? What if the aftermath of your break up comes with collateral damage and if your jilted ex-girlfriend says she will kill you, it’s well within her power to do so.

That’s the concept behind 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Luke Wilson plays Matt, a man who enters a relationship with a woman named Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman) after rescuing her purse from a purse-snatcher.  It doesn’t take long before Matt realizes that dating the possessive, clingy and passive aggressive Jenny was a mistake, and he breaks up with her. Big mistake, as Jenny is a crimefighter named G-Girl who has Superman-esque powers, a quick temper, and little or no impulse control. Jenny soon decides to devote every second she is not saving the world to making Matt’s life a living hell.

Your enjoyment of this film would probably depend on how willing you were to overlook the fact that Thurman’s character is composed of the worst qualities of every bad girlfriend stereotype there is. Thurman does do her best to try to make a real human being out of the bundle of neuroses, insecurities, and rage, but even at 95 minutes it gets to be too much. Jenny is less a woman scorned and more a shrewish harridan, and the film would have been much better if she was the former.

MPW-33159Not that it mattered. The film doubled its budget in worldwide grosses, so it might have not been that big of a flop in the long run. Its mixed reaction from the critics didn’t keep people away, although it didn’t do quite as well as our next film, which overcame mixed reviews two years later to earn over $624 million dollars worldwide at the box office.

Hancock was once a dark and gritty look at a Superman-like hero who balances his obligation to protect humanity with giving in to his basest instincts—watching porn, alcohol, the whole nine yards. That was when it was called Tonight, He Comes and before it went through the development hell that left us with the neutered result that made it to theaters. In Vincent Ngo’s original script, Hancock was a character that made Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Bad Santa look like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.  The original Hancock was a cop-killer and an attempted rapist, not the kind of character you’d expect Will Smith to play. As a matter of fact, it took even more creative editing to keep the watered down version from getting an R rating.

A miniscule amount of Ngo’s Hancock remains. The character is now a self-loathing, amnesiatic alcoholic whose superheroic deeds often come with multi-million dollar property damage. He is pretty much hated by the whole city of Los Angeles, and the city wants a word with him about all the damage he causes. A chance to improve his image comes when he saves the life of Ray (Jason Bateman), a public relations guru who offers work to improve his negative standing in the community as a sign of gratitude.

Being a comedy up to this point, logic dictates that the story should follow Hancock’s path to redemption.  Maybe a couple of positive PR opportunities Hancock screws up either through fate or his own arrogance. Perhaps a few dark secrets from Hancock’s past that Ray would have to deal with. But it would all lead to Hancock facing off against a threat that is a danger to his city and/or world, a threat he has no chance in overcoming, but he faces it anyway to save lives of the people that hate him. He is eventually victorious—at a cost—but ends up winning over the people who once hated him.

Hancock1Predicatable, yes, and I am anything but a professional Hollywood screenwriter, but that would be better than what we actually received—a turgid 90 degree turn into melodrama.

Ray introduces Hancock to his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), who, surprise, also has superpowers! Not only that, but comes from the same race of immortals that Hancock does! But wait, it gets better! It turns out that Mary is actually Hancock’s “wife.” Yes, she and Hancock are star-crossed lovers who must remain separate in order to save their lives. Because whenever they get near each other, they lose their invulnerability! That’s why Hancock has amnesia, because he was jumped by a racist in 1928 for daring to be seen in public by his white wife Mary (She left him so his powers would come back and he could heal. Although it seems he didn’t heal completely)!  Now, both of their lives are in danger!

I have no idea why Vince Gilligan, John August and whoever else reworked Ngo’s script tacked on this ending. Maybe they thought it would help humanize Hancock as a character. Or add a bit of social commentary into the mix. Or maybe they sincerely thought the new ending was great. They were wrong on all aspects. No plot points in the second half of the film are properly developed (especially the “becoming vulnerable while being close together” plot point. Don’t get me started on that one).  The second half has a tenuous connection to the first half of the film. So much so, that it’s like Hancock is two separate films awkwardly stitched together, with a garish piece of duct tape put over the seam to keep it together. Hancock could have been a better film, even if they didn’t follow Ngo’s original script to the letter. But as it stands, it is a disappointment. Well to me at least, it has done well enough to earn a sequel, that has been in the works for years.

Speaking of films that are stitched together from other films, let’s talk about Superhero Movie, a 2008 film that parodied the superhero genre.

shm1The film uses Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man as the framework to hang their parody on. It focuses on Rick Riker (Drake Bell) who gains superpowers after being bitten by a genetically altered Dragonfly. He soon comes into conflict with Hourglass (Christopher McDonald), an industrialist who can siphon the life force from other humans to use to make himself stronger.

The film is a step above the typical modern-day parodies such as Meet the Spartans and Epic Movie (not that it’s a high bar to leap over) due to the involvement of Airplane’s David Zucker as a producer and the parody being based around an actual plot. But it pales in comparison to Zucker’s other parodies Airplane, Top Secret and Naked Gun.

If there is an “auteur” of the non-comic book superhero comedies, it is James Gunn. He has been involved in two films that employ a darkly comic look into the superhero archetype in a realistic setting, albeit in two very opposite ends of the spectrum.

In 2000, Gunn wrote The Specials, a film (directed by Superhero Movie’s Craig Mazin)which paints a more corporate world where superheroes are judged less by their abilities that their marketability.

movie3643In the film, the Specials are a lower tier super group. They get to fight the crappy villains, they get no movies made about them, and the only toy company who will make dolls of them doesn’t care enough about them to get their costumes, or even their genders, right. On the day their toy line is introduced, the team’s leader, The Strobe (Thomas Hayden Church) finds out his wife/teammate, Ms. Indestructable (Paget Brewster) is having an affair with the group’s most popular member, The Weevil (Rob Lowe). This causes the team to break up right on the cusp of their greatest (by default) achievement.

The film has a pretty good cast for its budget (@ $1 million). Gunn has a role in the film himself as The Strobe’s brother, Minute Man. The film had a brief life in the theaters before moving on to home video.

The Specials might be a cynical look at what the real world might really have to offer a superhero, but it was a cheery Saturday morning cartoon compared to Gunn’s 2010 film, Super, which Gunn wrote and directed.

super-movie-posterSuper is by far much darker than The Specials, as the black comedy is filled with a world people caught up in the spiral of drug addiction, female on male rape, and where deaths happen in a quick and gruesome fashion. If Gunn has one skill, it would be his ability to get great actors to work with him—at scale no less. This film features Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion in its cast. That’s a line up any director would love to have, and the cast raises Gunn’s film to a higher level.

Gunn, of course, is set to direct Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. I am curious to see if Marvel lets him apply his cynical black humor to the property.

Finally, we have Defendor, a film similarly themed and similar in tone to Super.

defendor-posterThe 2009 film is a twisted take on the Batman mythos (and also that of Rorschach of the Watchmen). When he was a kid, Arthur’s mother died after an extended period of drug abuse and prostitution. Arthur’s grandfather blamed his daughter’s death on the “captains of industry,” meaning that a society that favors the rich forced his economically poor daughter into her downward spiral. Young Arthur mistook his grandfather and thought he was saying one person, named Captain Industry, killed his mother. Arthur turned that a lifelong quest to bring his mother’s”killer” to justice through vigilantism.

Aided by a strong lead performance by Woody Harrelson, and with a underrated cast that featured Kat Dennings, Sandra Oh and Elias Koteas, the film did fairly well with critics. However, problems with U.S. distributor Sony caused the film to have only a limited theatrical release in the States.

Next, we finally get back into covering films actually adapted from comic books with a look at everyone’s favorite mutants.



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New Releases: December 7, 2012

Posted on 06 December 2012 by William Gatevackes

1. Playing For Keeps (FilmDistrict, 2,837 Theaters, 106 Minutes, Rated PG-13): Okay, here’s a film I know absolutely nothing about. I have seen no ads, read no articles, hear nothing about this film.

So, I am going to try an experiment. I am going to try and figure out what the plot of the film is from the poster alone. This should be fun because it is one of the blandest posters I have ever seen.

Okay, Gerard Butler is in it and he name is above the titles. Soooo, romantic comedy? Okay, we do have a tagline. That helps. “This holiday season, what do you really want?”

Now, on to the pictures of the other actors. Judging by the fact that Butler’s picture is the largest, we can assume that the size of the picture on the poster mirrors the impact of the actor in the picture. Dennis Quaid and Jessica Biel’s are rather large, Uma Thurman is small, Catherine Zeta-Jones is tiny.

Okay, here we go. Here’s my shot at the plot: Butler plays a roguish bachelor who plays the field and dates much younger women. However, he feels like he should settle down like his best friend (or possibly older brother), Dennis Quaid, who has left the bachelor life behind and found matrimonial happiness with Uma Thurman. Armed with a new set of priorities. Butler thinks he has his life plan set. Unfortunately, life throws a curveball at him in the form of Zeta-Jones, an age appropriate woman who he feels he should go for, and Biel, a much younger woman who he has a lot in common with but someone Butler is hesitant to pursue because he feels it would be backtracking into his old life. Before the end of the movie, the obvious choice becomes clear to Butler (and the audience) and they live happily ever after.

Let’s see how close I came. Here is the plot synopsis from IMDB:

A former sports star who’s fallen on hard times starts coaching his son’s soccer team as a way to get his life together. His attempts to become an adult are met with challenges from the attractive soccer moms who pursue him at every turn.

Quaid apparently plays a jealous husband. And Biel his ex-wife. Nice. Well, at least I came close with the whole “getting his life together part.”

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Posted on 04 May 2012 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 come to the dark ages of the Batman franchise—Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.

I can trace the moment I knew the Batman franchise was in trouble to one particular scene in Batman Forever.  Batman, now played by Val Kilmer, had just finished a heart to heart with Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and as he leaves, Meridian tells him to be careful out there. Batman, whose back is to Meridian yet facing the camera, flashes the goofiest grin you would ever see. No, not a subtle smile or a acerbic smirk, but the type of grin the school bookworm in an ABC Family telefilm would grin if she was just asked out by the star quarterback. You can see the grin around the 1:47 mark on the trailer.

I don’t know if this was a particular director’s note from new franchise director Joel Schumacher or a sly bit of sabotage by Kilmer (who’s combative relationship with Schumacher doing filming was legendary), but the smile was so glaringly out of character that it made me fear for the franchise’s future.

Warner Brothers was not happy with Batman Returns’ $266,822,354 box office take, and put the blame for what they felt was a lackluster performance on the dark tone Tim Burton gave to the film. Warners convinced Burton to move to producer and brought in Schumacher with an eye on making a more kid-friendly (and toy generating) flick. Michael Keaton bailed on the franchise once he found out the direction it was going in. Smart man.

Schumacher replaced Burton’s dark moodiness with a garish, neon soaked cyberpunk look. Batman Forever was a loud assault on the senses. We begin to see more campy elements make their way into the film, including, but not limited to, the Batmobile being driven up a wall, the over-the-top performances of Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones, who stepped in for Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, and a painful, self-referential gag about “holey rusted metal” at the bad guy’s hideout. Schumacher also added nipples to the batsuit and an uncomfortable focus on generous codpieces and vinyl clad buttocks of Batman and Robin during the inevitable “suiting up” montages—a bit too hyper sexualized for what was supposed to be a kid’s film, in my opinion.

Batman Forever was a success, making $336,529,844 at the box office. A sequel was put on the fast track, with George Clooney replacing the contentious Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman.  And, thusly, Batman & Robin was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world.

Batman & Robin was unabashedly, unapologetically campy. It was also horrible. Those of you, the lucky few who didn’t see the movie, might be asking a few questions. How campy was it? How bad could it really be? Let me show you:

I wonder what he does when he tries to use it at places that require a form of ID to verify the card. Does he toss a batarang on the counter? A typewritten list of all his daddy issues?

Clooney often speaks in a self-deprecating way about his performance in the film, like he’s solely to blame for how awful it is. He’s not. His portrayal of Bruce Wayne is a bright spot in the film. And his performance as Batman is hampered by the horrible screenwriting of Akiva Goldsman, who unbelievably would later win an Oscar for writing 2002’s A Beautiful Mind.

What did Goldsman and Schumacher get wrong this time around? Well, are you sitting down? You have to start with lame gags like the Bat-Credit Card. Then the lame puns spouted by all the characters, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze (it’s like Goldsman took all the “ice” related puns he could think of and put them all, good or bad, into the film).

Then you had Chris O’Donnell, who gave the worst performance by a grown man (he would turn 27 six days after the film opened) pretending to be a teenager overacting his way through an immature, crybaby tantrum (he’d hold the title until Hayden Christensen’s performance in 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones). The film also introduced Batgirl in the personage of Alicia Silverstone, who played Bruce Wayne’s British butler Alfred’s niece, who came directly from her studies in London to visit her uncle, leaving all traces of any kind of British accent behind. She did have nipples on her batsuit and a lingering shot or two of her curves during her suiting up montage, proving that Schumacher is an equal opportunity fetishist.

There were also too many characters this time around. In addition to those already mentioned, you had Uma Thurman playing Poison Ivy as the second major villain (because you had to have two major villains in a Batman film). Plus, you had Bane, a character who broke Batman’s back in the comic books, a character that Christopher Nolan felt strong enough about to make a main villain in The Dark Knight Rises, relegated to a mindless, brutal lackey of Poison Ivy. An even bigger waste was the character of Jason Woodrue, who was an awesome character in the comics by the name of Floronic Man and was portrayed by the excellent actor John Glover. His only purpose was to establish Poison Ivy’s origin by being the mad scientist who gives her superpowers as a result of trying to kill her. He is killed off after only five minutes of screen time.

The film was critically lambasted and while it earned $238,207,122, it was the lowest grossing Batfilm to date and, therefore, a failure. Positive response to the rushes put a third Schumacher sequel titled Batman Triumphant into pre-production with Clooney and O’Donnell reprising their roles and the Scarecrow as the main villain. The disappointing response cancelled that film and caused Warners to look towards rebooting the franchise. It also garnered an apology from Schumacher himself.

The Scarecrow would become the villain of the next Batman film, one which would come closest to capturing the comic book feel on the big screen. But before that, a legendary comic book arc almost made it to movie theaters. We’ll tell you which one next time.

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Thurman’s MOTHERHOOD Sells 1 Ticket

Posted on 28 March 2010 by Rich Drees

Normally, we don’t talk box office here, but this story caught my eye and was too amazing to not pass along.

If you haven’t heard of the Uma Thurman comedy Motherhood, don’t worry. Not a lot of people have. In its four weeks of theatrical release last year, it screened in just 48 theaters, earning an anemic $93,388 at the box office. But in England, the film has reportedly done even worse. The plan seemed to be to have it open on just one screen in London and hope that its exclusivity builds interest for a wider release. However, anything but that happened. According to the Guardian

Over its opening weekend, no more than a dozen people went to see Motherhood, a semi-autobiographical account of stressed-out Manhattan parenting written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann. The film made just £88 (approximately $130) on the weekend of Friday 5 March. On its debut Sunday, box office takings were £9, meaning one person bought a ticket.

There have been plenty of films that have bombed at the box office, some even worse than Motherhood. The 2006 indie Zyzzyx Road, with Tom Sizemore and Katherine Hiegl, infamously earned $30 during its six day release in one Dallas, Texas cinema to become the lowest grossing film of all time. The Paris Hilton headlining 2008 comedy The Hottie & The Nottie only earned $27,696 during the one week it was on 111 screens , with an average of just 28 people per theater seeing the movie opening weekend.

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