by Paul T. Riddell
Five years ago, you couldn't get away from them, but the herd of movies based on comics finally seems to have passed through, leaving a trail of torn turf and manure. Based on the inexplicable success of Batman in 1989, seemingly everybody in Hollywood tried to get a feature film based on one comic character or another to market. With very few exceptions, nearly every one of 'em failed, and yet they keep coming. Considering how the comics market has pretty much collapsed in the States and in Europe over the last 10 years to a fraction of its former clout, one has to wonder: what the hell was Hollywood thinking?
Okay, that's not completely fair. In the last decade, we've actually managed to get a couple of decent comic adaptations that attracted some mainstream appeal. The Mask worked less as an adaptation of the Dark Horse comic and more as a demonstration of Jim Carrey's grasp of physical comedy, but it hit on the mood of the comic quite nicely. The Crow was a polar extreme from The Mask, but it tried its best to convey James O'Barr's study of rage and loss.
But for every The Mask, we got Timecop, Barb Wire, Tank Girl, Judge Dredd (which actually was reasonably faithful to the spirit of the original comic, suggesting that it didn't need to be made in the first place), Captain America, The Punisher, and Arioch-know-how-many adaptations that went straight to video (or, in the case of the Roger Corman-directed Fantastic Four, never even got that far). I won't even go into the endless Batman sequels, which keep getting made seemingly to keep director Joel Schumacher from homelessness, or the vomitous Spawn, which managed to prove that for all of Todd McFarlane's hype about creating "the #1 Comic In America," both his story and characters appealed only to obsessive comics collectors and those with serious problems of arrested development.
Why the rush toward comic adaptations? Well, the perceived fortune made from Batman helped goose the matter, even though the original is still allegedly $150 million in the hole. Also, an ongoing joke in the industry is that studio executives can skip on reading the script and instead look at the pictures. The comics-reading audience is also getting older: along with the preteens trying to complete their X-Men collections, we need to count the 30- and 40-somethings who stayed with comics thanks to the more intelligent titles published within the last 15 years. (Trust me on this one: although general sales have gone down, DC Comics' Vertigo titles, such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Garth Ennis' Preacher, and Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan, and Slave Labor Graphics titles such as Evan Dorkin's Milk and Cheese and Jhonen Vasquez' Johnny the Homicidal Maniac have done more to widen the demographic of comics readers than just about anything else.) The potential audience is staggering: the kids go to the matinees, and the grownups fill the evening showings. That is, if the product is any good.
The fact that the product usually isn't very good has a lot of causes, and the first has to do with the comics medium itself. In a way, comics need weekly serials instead of feature-length films: while comics from the so-called Golden and Silver Ages (World War II-era and post-1958, respectively) usually printed self-contained stories, current comics generally bear more similarity to a TV soap opera than anything else. Characters appear, change, grow (sometimes), die (but come back), and disappear over a standard run, which makes things crazy for a screen writer. Combine that with the anal-retentive tendencies of many comics fans, and things really go berserk: just try writing a script that won't require three hours of exposition for those who haven't read the comic for the last 20 years, and yet won't cause the fanboys in the audience to fly off the handle.
The more popular the character, the more likely s/he is an institution, so making a movie about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or Wonder Woman is reasonably easy. Odds are pretty good that a general audience knows at least something about these folks, so you can skip some of the exposition and get right into the scenes where they beat the hell out of costumed bad guys. However, due to their popularity, the cost for the movie rights is going to be astronomical, so the odds of a small company being able to do an adaptation of The Incredible Hulk are pretty slim. However, the more obscure the character, the less likely that a general audience is going to know anything about him/her/it, but the movie rights will be cheaper.
Oh, and let's not forget the twits still gunning for that allegedly profitable Gen-X crowd: you know, the crowd that piled in to see The Mask and Clerks in their late 20s and presumably still has an interest in gonzo comics. Yes, many still have an interest in gonzo comics and music, but there's something about reaching middle age and still living with 20 people in a single-bedroom apartment that makes the others abandon their roots and go back to school to get their business degrees, forgetting all about their interests back when they were young and poor.
Whether the comic being adapted is any good doesn't matter: execs are trying to grab up the rights to just about anything remotely trendy, in the hope of recreating the success of The Crow. Even Dorkin recently drew a hysterical Milk and Cheese comic that savaged the clueless producers who hadn't read a single issue but knew that they had to buy the rights, and just about everyone else in the business had similar experiences at that time.
The ultimate example of clueless producer? Well, the name of Jon Peters comes to mind. Peters is best known for being the co-producer (with former partner Peter Guber) of Batman, and he's still fighting to produce Superman Reborn with Nicolas Cage in the title role. In a weird way, this horrendous miscast works: look at the number of people who went out to see Batman just to see if Michael Keaton was as bad in the role as they expected, and the number of people joking that Superman Reborn should be titled Leaving Metropolis. (Fox's Mad TV produced a violently funny skit on the same subject, which should have convinced everyone involved that this was A Bad Idea. However, one should never underestimate Jon Peters' hubris, as evidenced by the new Wild Wild West movie.)
These factors led to the effective death of the comic-based film in the late 90s. If anyone tried to adapt a popular character, the cost for the movie rights and the necessary special effects drew minor studio execs like flies, all wanting to get involved in one way or another. Even considering the decreasing cost of CGI animation, adapting, say, Green Lantern would produce an $80 million film. And since the studio making the film expects to make its money back and a significant profit, the pressure is on to make it safe and overly commercial. I figure that the world needs to see Denis Leary as Guy Gardner, but I can't be depended upon to buy $160 million in tickets on my own just to feed my delusions.
The "cult" comics have another problem. Sure, the rights are nice and cheap (considering the number of comic creators who slave away for little to no compensation, most are flattered when contacted for movie options), but let's be honest: how many people really read Tank Girl before the movie came out? How many people in the States, aside from those who live in comic shops, knew that Judge Dredd existed, much less had any interest in a movie adaptation? How many average film-goers would have an interest in seeing films based on Tug and Buster, Box Office Poison, Hellboy, or The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club? All four of the latter are great comics, but they have a decidedly limited audience.
So. Dark Horse Comics made its mark back in the late 80s with decent graphic sequels to Aliens and Predator (in particular, the first two Aliens series were much more terrifying than anything released by Twentieth Century Fox since then), and moved into a more active role of promoting and merchandising movies based on original characters. At a time when DC Comics can't get adaptations of Superman and Green Lantern off the ground (even with scripts by Kevin Smith) and Marvel's hopes for avoiding bankruptcy by using the hype from a Spider-Man adaptation fall apart in court, Dark Horse manages to do all right. Of course, DH is adapting Barb Wire instead of Heartbreakers or Instant Piano, but things could be worse.
So what does this have to do with Mystery Men, just released from Universal? Well, everything and nothing. In a weird sort of way, Mystery Men manages to demonstrate the best way to make comic adaptations, and pulls off a pretty good comedy in the process.
I'm ashamed to say that I never read Mystery Men when the characters were supporting characters in Flaming Carrot, first published by Aardvark-Vanaheim and then later by Dark Horse, but in a way that's an advantage. By being completely unfamiliar with the characters, I had the chance to concentrate on the more important concerns: with all of the hype about big superheroes, how do the little guys get their start? Better yet, how important are real or perceived superpowers when faced with serious threats like guns and nunchucks?
(Something that nearly everyone forgets when adapting comics, on both sides of the screen, is that situations that make perfect sense in comics come off as ridiculous in film or on TV. Why the hell shouldn't someone grab a copy of Photoshop and a photo of Clark Kent, and prove that he's really Superman by erasing those ridiculous glasses? Considering the distance between buildings in New York, how does Spider-Man carry the gallons of web fluid necessary to swing between skyscrapers, and why isn't all of Times Square covered in abandoned webbing? With the number of aliens in the Justice League and the Teen Titans over the decades, why the hell is NASA still bothering with conventional shuttles and space probes, when someone could borrow any number of superheroes for an afternoon trip to Pluto? And if Wolverine is nearly unstoppable at close range, why doesn't someone get a howitzer and blow his adamantium skeleton to separate components? Or do the same thing with the Batmobile with one heat-seeking missile?)
The idea of deconstructing superheroes for the real world isn't new. Alan Moore's Watchmen did that back in 1986, when that mini-series looked at a world where superhero influence literally changed history (why fight Vietnam for years when a couple of superheroes could end the whole conflict in months?) and the interference in law enforcement by "costumed vigilantes" set off a Constitutional amendment banning them in the US. Watchmen, as does the Mystery Men movie, examined the appeal of dressing up in a costume and beating the hell out of similarly dressed villains, only Watchmen looked at the very serious aspects of hero worship and contempt. Mystery Men has fun with the concept: how hard is it for wannabe superheroes to be taken seriously if their superpowers or skills aren't sufficiently spectacular, especially when the real superheroes keep taking charge and saving the day?
At this point in a normal review, I'm supposed to make mention of the characters, actors, and situations, and I have to admit that filling the cast list with established character actors and comedians made Mystery Men a lot more entertaining. As with Bill Paxton, any film with William Macy is worth watching, and his take on The Shoveller ("I shovel, and I shovel well") goes a lot deeper into the wannabe superhero motif than most comics ever will. Here's a guy who wants to do nothing more than make the world a nicer place, but his one great skill doesn't exactly translate into a supervillain-stopping ability. Ben Stiller finally manages to get a role that takes advantage of his comic ability (and those who solely remember him from There's Something About Mary and dismiss his acting should check out Permanent Midnight, based on the life of Hollywood script writer Jerry Stahl), and Hank Azaria really plumbs the inherent ridiculousness of superpowers with his take on The Blue Raja, an effeminate British superhero with a mastery of flung cutlery. Janeane Garafalo has fun with the revenge motif of far too many comics with her portrayal of The Bowler (after taking out her father's killer, she tells Dad's spirit "Okay, now I go back to graduate school. That was the deal."), and Greg Kinnear's Captain Amazing, about the only real superhero in the whole gig, plays against type as an insufferably arrogant yotz who fears losing his product endorsements more than the threats he faces. Enough with the normal review.
A few comic fan friends of mine have questioned my sanity for getting such an unabashed thrill out of Mystery Men. After all, they argue, the idea of society being influenced by superheroes has been done, hasn't it? Astro City and Watchmen and even Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns did it much better, so why endorse a third-rate effort?
Well, it's like this. After a long, long lapse in reading comics, I returned to it with a vengeance in 1991, and not because of the boom in independent comics in the late 80s. I returned due to the inspired lunacy of the resurrection of Justice League under Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis for DC Comics.
A little more history, and we're out of here. The original Justice League of America was a seminal comic when it first came out (legend has it that Stan Lee created The Fantastic Four to compete), mostly because it was one of the first superhero team books. Lots of superteam comics came and went through the intervening three decades, but JLofA was still the old-timer, even with constantly shifting writers, artists, and editors. Finally, seeing as how it hit bottom in 1986, DC management wanted a return to glory, and expected it from editor Andy Helfer. Helfer gave the project to Giffen, and Giffen and dialogue writer DeMatteis ran with an interesting conceit: instead of focusing on the superheroes themselves, why not focus on their environment?
Well, that was part of it. Giffen and DeMatteis not only focused on the whole group (members could come and go, but the Justice League was now an international organization answering to the UN, boasting embassies throughout the world), but on the efforts to make superheroes actually funny. Due to situations beyond their control, they found themselves stuck with a stable of second-tier and third-string heroes (with a few, like Batman, as old-timers passing on their wisdom), so the idea was to produce a comic that became as funny as possible.
For five years, Giffen and DeMatteis had a blast. Not only did they produce some of the funniest comics published by a major comics company in that era, but they had even more fun examining what made superheroes act the way they do. Some stories were reasonably serious (for instance, a series on the Conglomerate, a team sponsored by multinational corporations, wondered about the ethical concerns of a super-team that spent more time cleaning up embarrassing mishaps on the part of the sponsors than fighting crime), but others (including the now-classic A Date With Density stories, involving the horrible dates between two JL members) went full-bore into slapstick. Some of the jokes didn't work as well as some might like, but when the writers fired on all cylinders, well...
What's funny about the whole boom in comics adaptations is that out of the whole lot, the best of the batch is one that managed to capture the intrinsic silliness of Justice League, instead of getting more and more and MORE serious. And that's the reason why it's worth the $6.50 (or whatever admission the theatres charge in your city) to see it. Lord knows, it isn't perfect, but any movie that makes me expect the appearance of Mr Neutron (a play on Jack Kirby's Galactus: a supreme being that redoes whole planets in tacky fashions, only repelled from Earth when he realizes that Las Vegas exceeds even his aspirations) or Justice League Antarctica (don't ask) works for me. You know how it is: you can take the boy out of fandom...
And with a new column comes addenda. If I may, I'd like to turn readers toward new books, television shows, and websites, for the purposes of personal edification. With luck, it makes reparations for being forced to read my glibberings.
Firstly, I highly recommend the new book Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam (Bob McCabe, Universe Publishing, 1999), an attempt to become the definitive guide to the filmography of Terry Gilliam. The hardcover runs $50 US, and it's worth every grupnik. Of course, Brazil saved me from a life in Wisconsin, and I've caught every Gilliam film since Time Bandits on opening night, so I'm biased, but this is a flat-out beautiful book, full of unused production sketches and rare photos of Gilliam's work on British television and in film. (Never knew that Gilliam produced the animated opening credits to the old Vincent Price film Cry of the Banshee, now didja?) Although marred by quite a few errors that never should have sneaked past an attentive editor (listing fellow Monty Python alum Graham Chapman's death in 1994, for instance), this complements Jack Mathews' The Battle of Brazil and Andrew Yule's Losing the Light as a look into the head of one of the only people in Hollywood willing and able to keep challenging the business majors who run the movie industry.
Secondly, this is a treat for cable TV viewers, so if you don't have cable, get over to the house of someone you know who does on Friday night and watch Farscape on the Sci-Fi Channel. I can't write too much about it (truth be told, I promised a column to Scott Edelman at Sci-Fi Entertainment on the series), but let's just say that if your tastes in SF run toward Jack Vance or H. Beam Piper, you'll probably get a royal kick out of the series. As opposed to the other series currently sponsored in the States and Canada by the Sci-Fi Channel, this is the only one worth watching, as well as the only one that tries to attract non-SF fans. My wife loathes most science fiction, and this is the first genre show since Babylon 5 for which she'll join me in front of the idiot box. It's funny, pretty clever, and thoroughly entertaining: it's not great SF, but it is a lot more worthwhile than either Crusade or the Star Trek franchises.
And on the subject of Babylon 5, I have to come out and say that I normally detest "humorous" genre TV tie-ins. You know the type: the endless stories, sites, and plays that merge Star Trek and Quantum Leap, or Space: 1999 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Doctor Who and Sliders. (A regular at Dallas conventions once mentioned how he was working on a Star Trek/Quantum Leap play, and I asked him if he needed a Star Trek/The Young Ones tie-in: the thought of Rik Mayall screaming "Vyvian! You utter bastard! That was my tricorder!" seemed rather funny at that moment.) The same goes for noting the similarities between characters in two disparate series: aside from the Star Trek dream in Beavis and Butt-Head, it usually doesn't work.
Well, with one exception. Turn your browser to http://www.infinicorp.com/babylonpark/ and note the disturbing similarities between the characters in Babylon 5 and those in South Park. Yep, nothing wakes you up in the morning quite like watching a short video with the quip "Oh my G'Quann, they've killed Kosh!" "You bastards!" Indeed. It's not quite as strange as "We were somewhere around Centauri Prime, on the edge of hyperspace, when the drugs began to take hold," but it'll do.
Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and columnist who recently hid a fortune in gadolinium somewhere near his fortified bunker on Mount Briscoe overlooking downtown Dallas, Texas. A complete map to the treasure, as well as information on the code words necessary to ward off the trained Salvator's water monitors guarding it, is available at his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.
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