Yesterday i posted an article (which you can find here) looking at the news that Joss Whedon had been chosen as the surprise choice to direct the forthcoming Avengers movie. I called it a bold choice, particularly in contrast with the other directorial choices Marvel have made for their forthcoming projects, choices i saw as bland, safe choices. I thought it might be good to take a look at some of the Marvel and DC comic book adaptations from the past decade to see if the bold/bland comparison holds up.
There are obviously a few that come under the heading of ‘dire’. Movies like Electra, Daredevil, and Catwoman truly are best forgotten. Why did they turn out so badly? Poor casting springs immediately to my mind. On an acting level, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell and Halle Berry could probably all be considered the definition of bland. Don’t agree? Take a look at their recent CV’s, and you’ll see none of them have done much of interest in recent years.
But what of the directors? Elektra’s Rob Bowman had had a less than successful directorial track record, with mediocre films like Reign of Fire and The X-Files Movie hardly a promise of great things to come. Mark Steven Johnson, director of Daredevil hardly had a great record either, with Grumpy and Grumpier Old Men and Jack Frost his highlights in the years before he directed Daredevil. French visual effects supervisor Pitof could be considered a bold choice, having directed one moderately successful French film before taking on Catwoman. But bold choices need to be base on more than one movie if said movie failed to show anything spectacular.
There have been several mediocre, or average attempts. The two Fantastic Four movies were a mixture of good and bad casting choices, nonsensical storylines and missed opportunities. The charisma of Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis was offset by the lifeless Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba. The highly anticipated Silver Surfer storyline was hampered by botched plotting and the underwhelming Galactus ‘cloud’. Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was a step above the previous effort, but the dull cat and mouse nature of the movie probably wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if not for the acting talents of Edward Norton and Tim Roth. Leterrier’s work before and since, Transporter 2 and Clash of the Titans respectively mark him out as a less than stellar filmmaker.
Superman returns wasn’t as bad as some of the other adaptations here, but in terms of character history, stature and potential, it was a tremendous screw-up. By this point, director Bryan Singer, with two hugely successful comic book movies on his CV was a ‘safe’ choice. Development hell, too many screenplay cooks spoiling the broth and the bizarre decision to overwrite Superman’s III and IV rather than reboot conspired to create a horrendously confused storyline. So what of the comic book movies that HAVE worked?
As i mentioned, Bryan Singer had already had superhero success with X-Men and X2. Singer had constructed one of the greatest twisty thrillers of all time with The Usual Suspects. Not the obvious choice to helm a big budget action movie with outlandish mutant characters, but the brave appointment paid off. Ejecting the cartoon spandex, Singer found the right mix of extreme comic book action and contemporary sensibilities.
It’s telling that when Singer bailed on X-Men: The Last Stand, attempts were made to woo equally brave choices like Joss Whedon and Mathew Vaughn for the directors chair. When Brett Ratner, a poster child for bland action thrillers was finally brought aboard, the writing was on the wall. Everything that was good about the first two movies was completely undone in the third, with the Phoenix storyline completely mishandled.
Sam Raimi was known for camp, cult horror and low budget drama, so to be named director for the big budget Spider-Man series was a leap of faith. Some three movies and a billion dollars plus in box office receipts later and that decision was well justified. Along with the X-Men series, the Spider-Man series showed how financially lucrative comic book movies could be, and put Marvel characters firmly in the cinematic frame.
Which brings us to Iron Man. This is one of two movies that turns the whole bland/bold argument on its head. Jon Favreau as a director could be considered solid at best. With Made, Elf and Zathura on his CV, there was nothing to suggest he could bring anything other than blandness to the Iron Man movie. Does this then mean he was a bold choice? He certainly couldn’t be considered the safe one.
Iron Man was a huge success, and judging by the anticipation for the second instalment in a few weeks time, it is still hugely popular. Personally, i wasn’t a huge fan, and felt the story was a little dull. For me what really made the movie enjoyable was the truly bold choice, the inspired casting of serial screw-up Robert Downey Jr. He lit up the screen, and everything good about the movie revolved around his presence, charisma and great comic delivery.
The biggest, to date, of the comic book movies was obviously The Dark Knight, and its predecessor Batman Begins. Everything about its conception was bold. From the choice of Nolan as director, known for small, psychological thrillers, through the casting of relative unknown Christian Bale, respected but certainly not a box office draw, to the eschewing of the comic book feel in favour of a Gotham grounded in reality. Nolan filled his Batman movies with respected actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson. The Batmobile went from a rocket car to a state of the art urban chic tank. Wayne Manor was even discarded for the second movie in favour of a non0descript concrete bunker. Everything was done the wrong way, and it worked perfectly. Batman Begins made good box office, but Dark Knight broke box office records. Some truly bold choice resulted in possibly the greatest comic book movie ever made.
So what is the second film that turns my argument on it’s head? You probably noticed i didn’t mntion Ang Lee’s Hulk film. Ang Lee was a very well respected director, known for serious, deeply emotional storylines. his appontment as director of Hulk, a character that favours brawn over brains every time was certainly not a safe, bland choice. On this occasion, however, bold didn’t pay off. Hulk was dull, plodding and completely nonsensical. Lee had just come off of the Oscar nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and went on to make Brokeback Mountain, and for which he did win an Oscar. He continues to be a great filmmaker, he was just the wrong man for the job.
So what conclusions can be drawn? Clearly, if a director has shown little promise, he’ll produce a poor comic book movie. If you go for a solid, safe or bland choice, the end product will generally be passable, maybe even good. But if you want a truly great comic book movie, you have to take a chance on a filmmaker who has shown their own voice, a unique style and the ability to craft a great movie, even if in a totally different genre. As with anything, of course, there are the odd exceptions.
Have i changed my mind about the upcoming films? Not really. I think Whedon is an inspired choice for the Avengers, that Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern will probably rank around the same level as Iron Man, and that Joe Johnston’s Captain America will flounder. As for Thor, i’m unconvinced, i think there is the potential there, but i don’t expect great things. I don’t think anyone should ever go out to make a good movie. I think it’s always worth a gamble on the potential for a great one. But the movie industry is, of course, a business, and studios would be crazy not to bank on a few sure things, to offset the grand failures.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann