In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we look at the success DC Comics had with its sub-imprints.
When 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.
But 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.
The 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.
In 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.
Yes, 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.
Another 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.
If 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 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.