Whew. That took a lot of doing.
If you were lucky enough to hear the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, right here in the irradiated pages of CraveOnline, you would have been treated to a truly epic affair wherein William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I reviewed not one but 33 feature films, all involving Marvel superheores. That’s a lot of movies, mang. It took us over 90 minutes, making episode #66 our longest episode to date. And, seeing as we’re both comic book readers from our high school years, it was also way fun.
So, yeah, we waded through dozens of costumed men committing all manner of violent acts in the name of vigilante justice, and we didn’t even touch Batman. A few were great, a lot were kinda blah, and a few were outright awful; I have little kindness to shed on the likes of Elektra. Although I find myself in defense of widely maligned films like Hulk and Daredevil.
Of course, when given only the smallest amount of critical thought, one can easily come to the conclusion that the entire idea of a superhero is kind of ludicrous. Vigilante justice is all well and good, and many people (this one included) have all kinds of impractical power fantasies that people like Spider-Man and Adam Warlock tap into, but the actual practical implications of alter-ego-driven costumed crimefighting are rarely dealt with. When they are, they are typically explored in tragic fashion, a la James Gunn’s Super, a stirringly depressing look at the way superhero antics are typically divided from the impact of real life violence; it’s not all fun and games when someone gets brained with a wrench.
But the superhero myth, which has been growing in earnest since the 1930s, has, thanks to writers’ desperate need for novelty, evolved to some pretty weird places. During the late 1980s, when cocaine had made its way into the public consciousness, for instance, comic book writers responded with a character named SnowFlame, who gained his superpowers through the use of said narcotic. Comic book authors often find themselves trying all kinds of bizarre characters, just to see if they’ll stick. In the early days of Marvel comics, a character named The Whizzer (clad in an unfortunate yellow outfit) was invented. He could run really fast when he injected himself with mongoose blood. I can see why The Whizzer didn’t take off. Heck, even some popular heroes seem like bizarre experiments. I have gone on record with how baffled I am at the idea of a superhero named The Green Lantern, who wears a magic ring, is fueled by the concept of willpower, and fight space aliens as part of an intergalactic police force. And he’s named after a piece of camping equipment. Weird.
This bizarre experimentation has, inevitably, trickled down through comic book history, and a lot of the oddball comic book conceits have become commonly accepted by comic book fans. Indeed, when I find myself trying to describe one of my favorite comic books from high school (a comic called Warlock and the Infinity Watch), it only sounds stultifying. At the time, it was the most natural thing in the world to have a team of aliens, Titans, and misfits each looking after a powerful magical gem. That ease of acceptance has also leaked into the current trend of superhero movies. As movies have become more attentive to their comic book source material (a practice that only really started in 2002), the weirdness is now also being transferred.
For B-Movies Extended this week, Bibbs and I will be looking at some of the stranger superhero conceits and moments from the recent films. Ready? Then let’s begin.
The Silver Surfer
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (dir. Tim Story, 2007)
While the alliterative ease of his name is pleasing to speak aloud, I can’t imagine where the hell a character like this came from. In the third Fantastic Four film (if you count the never-released 1994 feature, which Bibbs and I did on our episode), a silver-skinned nameless naked flying surfer appears as a herald to a colossal space monster named Galactus, and warns humanity that Earth is about to be destroyed. The Surfer can pass through solid matter, breath in space, shoot laser beams, and needs to remain close to his silvery surfboard in order to survive. Is anyone else baffled by this? Most superheroes seem to stem from a place we can all imagine; stretching our arms, flying, setting fires with our minds. Young boys have probably all imagined these things at some point. Whose fantasy was it to be a naked silver surfer who flies atop a surfboard? The character has been featured in various Marvel comics since as far back as 1966, and he’s still a common installation in the Marvel canon, to the point where he was given his own TV series. Yeah. Weird idea.
Ghost Rider’s Deal with the Devil
Ghost Rider (dir. Mark Steven Johnson, 2007)
Ghost Rider, a character invented in the early 1970s, is, I think we can all agree, really cool-looking, but that’s about where the logic of his invention ends. Why not have a leather-clad biker, with a flaming skull for a head, ride around on an enchanted motorcycle, threatening criminals? That image was good enough for the character’s inventors, I suppose, as his origin is a little strange. It turns out, at least according to the 2007 film about him, he sold his soul to the Devil (played by Peter Fonda), who enlisted him as a superhero. Ghost Rider’s powers include the ability to stare into a person’s eyes and make them feel horrible guilt for the wrongs they have committed. He tracks down bad guys and sends them to Hell. Neat idea, I suppose, but the morals get a little mixed. Shouldn’t the Devil be more concerned with causing mischief and evil in the world? If he was enlisting a living biker tattoo, shouldn’t Ghost Rider be a tortured demon who has to commit evil acts, and not a noble punisher, acting in the interests of vengeance and justice? Ghost Rider is positioned as a peerless hero, and that seems strange to me. When the Devil offered to take away his powers at the film’s end, Ghost Rider (played by a lugubrious Nicolas Cage) refuses for no discernible reason. But then, his film is pretty lousy, so not too much thought should, perhaps, go toward this.
The Whole Movie
Punisher: War Zone (dir. Lexi Alexander, 2008)
On the podcast, we talked about the character of The Punisher (born in 1974), who was, in stark contrast to most of the resourceful and colorful superheroes in his peer group, a powers-free badass who was only interested in murdering criminals with guns. His family was murdered, you see, and he became a bitter, revenge-minded vigilante. Think of Batman, but with no secret identity, no real costume, and an itchy trigger finger. Adapting this character to film was a dodgy proposition, as he is, in essence, exactly the same as Dirty Harry or Paul Kersey or any number of other 1970s revenge monsters. I guess it was a need to make this seem original that drove director Lexi Alexander to make Punisher: War Zone, the third film to feature the character, into the bonkers violence-fest that it was. The bad guy is a scarred, over-the-top Italian mobster who lost his face to a glass grinder. His lieutenant was a cannibal madman who eats a human kidney. A man is exploded in midair by a bazooka. The film’s final line of dialogue is “Oh great. Now I’ve got brains on me.” There is something weirdly sublime about the trashy oddness of Punisher: War Zone. As comic book movies go, this is the most violent, and the most out-there.
That One Weird Scene
The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon, 2012)
I don’t know why Joss Whedon felt the need to include this scene in The Avengers, and while I can’t explain it, I’m glad it’s in there. There was a scene wherein Scarlett Johansson was fighting the Hulk on board SHIELD’s flying “Thunderbirds” craft. She was stressed and outmatched. Then, without warning, all of the film’s action ceased. Like, freeze-frame. Then Johansson turned to the camera, made eye contact with the audience, and began to address me personally by name. She smiled sweetly, brushed her hair behind her ear, and said she always thought I was cute. Then, all of a sudden, she was in a bikini, and was inviting me to share a lemonade on a cool beach as the sun went down. Just as quickly, the film restarted in the middle of the Hulk fight. Johansson didn’t bother to address me again. It was an odd scene to have in the middle of a superhero film, but it was one of my favorite parts.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
First, a correction from Witney’s half of this week’s B-Movies Extended. I haven’t read comics since I was a teenager, I actually learned to read on comics. The first thing I ever read, to the extent that I actually understood all the words, was G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero #52 (1986), which featured a classic battle between Storm Shadow and the Joes, and a memorably weird scene in which Snake Eyes demonstrated his subtlety by chopping the head of a statue in half. The subtle part was that the statue didn’t “realize” it had been cut, and then had to be reminded with a sturdy stomp on the ground before it fell apart. Weird even then. Badass though. I was hooked from the start.
Movies don’t work like comic books, although it’s easy to get distracted by the similarities. Thanks largely to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, many folks in Hollywood assume that showing fealty to this kind of source material involves treating the pages of a comic book series as a storyboard. It’s a nice sentiment, and the works of Frank Miller in particular seem to lend themselves well to this sort of adaptation, but it’s a lazy kind of adaptation. You know, the kind that fails to actually adapt the source material to a new medium. I’ve often compared comic books, particularly the long-form serialized kind, to television soap operas. Both mediums emphasize lengthy story arcs and, in fits of semi-regular desperation on the parts of the creators, jarringly odd plot points to keep audiences from getting bored with the status quo. It’s this kind of creative malaise that drives publishers to kill Superman, give Superman electrical powers and arbitrarily retcon his marriage. Not to pick on Superman. This kind of thing has happened to Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, The Avengers, The X-Men and countless others on multiple occasions.
But again, the reasons for these kinds of surreal developments are deeply rooted in the nature of the comic book medium. You try coming up with something new for your hero to do when they’ve already starred in thousands of stories by the time you started writing them. So it’s unfortunate when Hollywood thinks this kind of wackiness is the norm. The reason we remember Superman’s electro-powers is because it deviated from the status quo. The status quo of a comic book character is what makes them iconic. This is actually why I stopped reading Marvel and DC comics a few years ago. With every damned year came another earth-shattering event, to the extent that shattering the Earth was the norm, and I became more bored with that than I ever was with the fairly straightforward way things used to be. When odd moments infest the movie adaptations of these characters, they feel even more false. A two-hour movie should adapt the iconic form of a serialized hero – the thing that made them connect with audiences in the first place – and deviating from that within a brief film stands out a lot more than it would in issue #654 of any given comic book.
And so, like Witney Seibold before me, I present my picks for some of the weirdest, jaw-dropping moments in the recent superhero movie cycle, an era when filmmakers are supposed to know better. These are the creative decisions that made me want to take the filmmakers out back give them some very, very strong words. And slaps.
That One Stupid Shot
Sin City (dirs. Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2005)
The concept behind the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City comic books was that Robert Rodriguez was so obsessed with being faithful to Miller’s source material that he was going to adapt the material shot-for-shot, even bringing Miller himself behind the camera to insure he didn’t screw anything up. But did you know that they screwed up? In the first full vignette in the film, The Hard Goodbye, Mickey Rourke stars as Marv, a violent and deranged criminal on the search for whoever killed the only woman who acted like she loved him. In the comic book, the mystery was an actual mystery, to the extent that it was plausible that the unhinged Marv actually killed her himself. It wasn’t a complex storyline, but the element of doubt enriched it slightly. So it’s utterly bizarre that Rodriguez and Miller added a shot early in the storyline showing Kevin (Elijah Wood) entering Marv’s bedroom, eliminating any sense of doubt in the audience’s minds. It went against the entire premise of the production, and added nothing to it, instead actually subtracting from what little suspense there already was (not that I hate Sin City or anything, it’s just a little dramatically straightforward). A weird, stupid addition that probably wouldn’t have bugged me if the filmmakers hadn’t gone back on their own promise.
Blade: Trinity (dir. David Goyer, 2004)
We discussed this one on the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast, but for the life of me I can’t let it drop. The fundamental premise of Blade: Trinity is a fun one: Blade vs. Dracula. Ignoring the fact that “Blade vs. Dracula” should have been the title (who the hell is in that “trinity,” anyway?), David Goyer’s threequel completely fails to make Dracula seem like a genuine threat. Part of the problem was casting the beefy but likable Dominic Purcell in the “big bad” role, but the real nail in the coffin (ha!) came when Blade finally met Dracula face-to-face. The whole film has been building up to this. Every time someone spoke of Dracula they made him seem like an unstoppable godlike being who could kick Blade’s ass without breaking a sweat. So what does Dracula do? He runs away like a little bitch. Anything resembling a threat has been neutralized, and an already pretty bad film falls prey to one of the weirdest, stupidest plot developments I’ve ever seen on-screen. What were they thinking?
“I Don’t Have to Save You”
Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film deserves a lot of credit for actually thinking the character out. Everything, from the pointy bat ears to his fighting style, was carefully calculated to make at least a modicum of sense and bring the costumed crimefighter into the real world for the very first time. But it’s not perfect. I’ve commented before on the villain’s evil plan, which has a number of gaping plot holes in it, but that’s not weird, it’s just a little hokey. No, the weirdness comes at the end of the film, when Batman – whose character is in many ways defined by his refusal to take any life for any reason – is on an elevated train with the bad guy. The train’s about to derail and kill anyone on board, including the villain, but instead of saving the dude he says, “I won’t kill you… but I don’t have to save you.”
No. No-no-no-no-no. Yes, he does have to save you. It’s the climax of the movie, and Batman’s acting out completely out of character. What’s weird is that the weirdness could have been avoided with a mere change of phrasing. “I won’t kill you… but you can save yourself” would have taken the curse off of it, for example. What a glaringly odd moment in an otherwise grounded film.
The Second Half of the Film
Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau, 2010)
It’s easy to blame the writer’s strike for all the weirdness in Iron Man 2, but someone on the set really should have said something. The film starts fairly strong, with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) ironically dying from the very device that’s saving his life, and acting out and turning to sheer alcoholism as a result. He hits rock bottom, and suddenly the film gets really, really strange. Scarlett Johansson, playing his executive assistant, suddenly shows up in her Black Widow costume with no fanfare whatsoever, eliminating any drama attached to her subplot. She also reveals that her martial arts style is more based on Famke Janssen’s “thigh fu” moves from Goldeneye. The plot devolves into an awkward scavenger hunt in Tony Stark’s father’s equivalent of Disneyland. And Nick Fury suddenly whips out a temporary cure for Stark’s ailment that prevents him from feeling any of the ill effects, and prevents the film from building any sense of suspense in the second half because as a result the life-or-death situations aren’t visualized. It’s still a fun film, but the inconceivable storytelling decisions in the second half can’t go unnoticed.
Giving Jonah Hex Superpowers
Jonah Hex (dir. Jimmy Hayward, 2010)
The comic book character Jonah Hex was always something of an odd choice for an adaptation: a hideously disfigured western anti-hero more closely associated with disquieting violence than heroism. But at least he was straightforward. Born out of the tradition of spaghetti westerns, a genre rife with larger-than-life heroes who nevertheless were actually human, Jonah Hex was just another Man with No Name with a distinctive mug. But that wouldn’t make a good summer blockbuster (apparently), so instead they gave him superpowers. Crows supposedly follow him wherever he goes (which they never do) and warn him of danger (which they do once). He can also raise the dead by touching them, which has nothing whatsoever to do with anything. I literally have no idea what anyone was thinking with this. Sure, Jonah Hex isn’t the best known comic book character, but surely if you’re making a movie about him you must have some interest in what made him distinctive in the first place. Instead they threw all of it out except for the scars, which they made significantly less horrific, and replaced the character’s actual storyline with stuff and nonsense. It’s enough to make my hair turn orange.
The Whole Damned Movie
The Spirit (dir. Frank Miller, 2008)
The Spirit, it must be noted, is my pick for the Worst Film of the Last Decade. Dramatic ineptitude, terrible performances, a nonsensical plot and, in the worst insult of all, an obvious disdain for the source material. That’s bad enough when the source material isn’t considered one of the greatest comic books ever created (which The Spirit is), and worse when the director was a good friend of the source material’s creator. Maybe Will Eisner would have been okay with Frank Miller tearing apart everything that made The Spirit great and replacing it with Miller’s own fetishes, but I’m not. Like Jonah Hex, this movie gave a character who was largely defined by his humanity superhuman abilities, and what’s more, he made those abilities the entire point of the storyline. He took a villain defined by his anonymity, The Octopus, and put him front and center in front of the camera the entire film. He filled the film with arguably misogynistic sexual icons (not that I couldn’t appreciate Scarlett Johansson in a German fetish uniform), ignoring the fact that Eisner’s female characters, though sensual, were alarmingly rich for the time period. And the movie doesn’t even make sense on its own merits. The film begins with The Spirt (Gabriel Macht) jumping off a rooftop to stop a mugging, but later in the film he undergoes an entire action sequence to avoid falling off the rooftop, even though the far-more-important bad guy is on the ground beneath him. I beg of you, someone explain this to me. I’ve got a pretty firm handle on Last Year at Marienbad, but The Spirit just plain baffles me.