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.
This 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.
The 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.
Not 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.
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.
The 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.
In 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 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.
The 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.