HISTORY OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: DC’s Downfall

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’ll talk about how far DC Comics book movies fell during the 1990s.

Films adapted from DC Comics once ruled the box office, and they had an almost 20 year reign at that. They had the Superman franchise, which ran from the late 1970s to the 1980s, and when that franchise petered out, they had the Batman series to take its place.

But by 1997, the Bat-franchise was on its way out. The disastrous Batman and Robin opened in June of that year, effectively killing that franchise dead. DC was ripe for another franchise to be adapted from its pages. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t happen.

This is not to say that they didn’t try. That same year, they cast one of the world’s most beloved celebrities in a film based on a character from the Superman mythos. That film was Steel.

Steel the comic book character spun out of the Death of Superman storyline. He was an African-American scientist named John Henry Irons who, disgusted by the fact that his work was used to create weapons of mass destruction, faked his own death to live life as a construction worker in Metropolis.  One day, while trying to rescue a co-worker, Irons fell off of a skyscraper he was working on. He was saved by Superman and when asked what Irons could do to repay him, the Man of Steel answered, “Live a life worth saving.”

When the comic book Superman was killed by Doomsday, Irons, inspired by the hero’s words and example, decided to construct a suit of armor and carry out his fight for justice as Steel.

The film was helmed by Kenneth Johnson, a positive sign. He was the man responsible for the Incredible Hulk TV series, one of the best comic book adaptations in any media. He also created such comic-friendly TV series as Six-Million Dollar Man and V, so his involvement was a cause for optimism.

That optimism didn’t last.

Shaquille O’Neal is one of the best basketball players to ever play the game. He is a funny and witty man in interviews. And all indications show he is one of the biggest (in every sense of the word) fans of Superman, if not comic books, the world has ever seen. What he is not is one of the best actors the world has ever seen. Look at this clip and tell me if he seems awkward to you:

If you are going to remove the connection to Superman, which the makers of this film pretty much had to do considering that it would be too much to deal with in a first film, you are going to lose a lot of depth and gravitas from the character. You’re going to need an actor who could bring that weight to the role. Shaq just wasn’t it.

While Steel was a disappointment, it was like Citizen Kane compared to what Warner Brothers did to Catwoman in 2004.

A Catwoman film had been in the works since the character appeared in 1992’s Batman Returns, but by the time the character got a film of her own, it bore only a passing connection to the one played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the earlier film. The producers probably thought that this would be a good idea—it would be a year before Christopher Nolan would make the Bat-franchise into anything you’d want to be associated with. But the new direction quite possibly was worse than even Batman and Robin.

Catwoman was now Patience Phillips played by Halle Berry. Now, on paper, this looks like good casting. Berry was fresh off her Oscar win for Monster’s Ball and definitely would look good in a leather catsuit. Too bad the film she was cast in was an example of style over substance with style being nothing to write home about in the first place.

Berry’s Catwoman is more feral than Pfeiffer’s to the point of parody. Not only is she more acrobatic and lands on her feet every time, but she also scarfs down fish-related food products and hisses at dogs on the street.Director Pitof shoots the film with more of concern devoted to making the picture look pretty than making the film work. After the attack that turns Berry into Catwoman, Patience comes into work wearing the same clothes she wore the day before. The potentially awkward situation is mitigated by the fact that EVERYONE in the office is WEARING THE SAME CLOTHES AS THE DAY BEFORE!

Topping that off, you have hammy over acting and improbable plot complications that would kill a film in and of itself. Catwoman is often used as an example of the worst that comic book films have to offer. That’s unfair. It’s the worst that all films have to offer.

Next week, Marvel takes advantage of DC’s downturn to gain cinematic dominance—with a supporting character from the company’s supernatural past.

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About William Gatevackes 1937 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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