This year sees the release of yet another plethora of comic book adaptations, most recently topped by the arrival of X-Men: First Class in cinemas. To coincide with Matthew Vaughn’s prequel – albeit a prequel with reimaginitive tendencies – the internet has inevitably started buzzing with claims that it may constitute The Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever Made (TGCBMEM).
This particular section of geekdom invariably dusts off their hyperbole every year or so, proclaiming some new release the pinnacle of comic book movie-making, having previously crowned such films as Superman (1978), Spider-man (2002) and The Dark Knight (2008) with the unashamedly self-important title.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what makes each of the aforementioned movies great – and I certainly enjoyed X-Men: First Class (though perhaps not as much as Adam Lowes) – but I find it all too predictable tipping which movies might invariable draw such avid fanboy attention. This endless pursuit of hierarchy has an unfortunate tendency to belittle movies never listed as contenders for the coveted title – somewhat of a tragedy in a genre with precious few incontrovertible misfires. With the exception of Catwoman (2004), Blade: Trinity (2004) and Elektra (2005) there aren’t many adaptations completely without merit. In a genre that spans dimensions, planets and publishers, is there really just one definitive, objective winner?
Make no mistake, I have my own favourites, but I find it a difficult and thankless task to lumber them with such an unweildy accolade (and acronym) as TGCBMEM. Perhaps it is because my tastes differ so drastically from the most vocal patrons of the genre. For example: I adored Kick-Ass (2010), a film which beautifully deconstructs the superhero ethos while embodying it entirely; I found much to like in X2 (2003), quite despite my near allergic reaction to Hugh Jackman’s quickly tiresome Wolverine; and, when nobody else would, I championed Fantastic Four (2005), a brilliantly entertaining superhero romp which refused to take itself too seriously. But my own TGCBMEM? Does V for Vendetta (2006) even count? Would Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) qualify? I don’t suppose it even matters, my heart ultimately only truly belongs to one comic book movie: the utterly incomparable Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).
“What”, you might ask, “the one about the red-skinned, kitten-loving space-monkey?” Indeed, but if you’ll just hear me out? You see, one of the biggest markers of quality I have encountered time and time again, according to the TGCBMEM crowd at least, is realism. A current zeitgeist, the ostensible fad stipulates that all superheroes must be grounded in reality if they are to be taken seriously by genre connoisseurs. Quite beside the fact that these same people would unlikely deride Toy Story for being about sentient children’s toys, or dismiss Inception for dream-hopping, they nevertheless believe a superhero should be gritty, citing the “darker is better” mantra as a categorical imperative.
The result has been a bizarre tendency whereby filmmakers try to prune their properties of everything that once made them super. Spider-man is deprived of his practicality and intellect, his webbing made organic in case there’s only so much super his audience can take. Galactus, meanwhile, is transformed into a nebulous space-fart to save cinemagoers the sight of a giant, purple alien. The worst offender, in my opinion that is, is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight.
You see, entire pantheons of the comic book’s established villainy have been necessarily denied entry to the director’s own pocket universe lest they show Batman up for what he really is: a comic book character. Deemed gritty and mature by the fun police, this desired realism is nevertheless undermined by a preposterous ninja threat, a far-fetched fear toxin and the sequel’s ridiculous “signal tracking device”. In all honesty, I’d much rather have watched a caped-crusaderless Dark Knight, without Christian Bale there to stupid up (my phrase, you may prefer “compromise”) a perfectly good crime drama with his gravelly growl and tumbling batmobile; none of which is ideal when the sorest thumb in your movie is that of its titular protagonist.
I don’t love Hellboy II: The Golden Army because it’s silly, but because it doesn’t shy away from its more outlandish elements. The film is at times dark, consistently moving and often (intentionally) hilarious. With other franchises going to painstaking lengths to humanise their superhumans, whether by lumbering them with glasses and a paper round, mirroring a more traditional coming-of-age yarn or blinding their protagonist with radioactive waste – audit must have freaked – Hellboy just stands there – cigar in mouth – defiantly, defying logic by navigating such empathetic waters with surprising ease. Guillermo del Toro’s fearless direction obviously helps, with the script’s embrace of humour and character resulting in one of the most heartfelt comic book capers committed to celluloid. I know heart isn’t everything, or so I’ve been informed on numerous occasions, but untroubled by green screen and bat-nipples, Hellboy II at least has the horns to feature an emotional rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Cant Smile Without You”.
It doesn’t disappoint in the action stakes either. While the world might not be trembling before Parallax’s yellow something of whatever, the sparing use of CGI and preference for practical effects lend The Golden Army an earthy feel that works to compensate for the admittedly bonkers sight of a horned demon battling climatically with a martial artist elf. Boasting a small ensemble consisting of a psychic fish, an explosive emo and an ectoplastic diving suit, the arcs devoted so such unusual characters brings them to life in a way the rejection of Robin, the omission of The Mandarin and the integration of the Cuban Missile Crisis otherwise fail to achieve.
Above all, however, I love the film’s confidence. One movie in to a franchise that would soon be stuck in limbo (there are no words), Hellboy II is often quoted as a very personal movie by del Toro and it really shows. The different between it and it’s less successful predecessor is perhaps explained by the director’s bridging project: Pan’s Labyrinth. Earning the director a slew of award nominations, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark (how’s that for credentials?) fairytale replete with fantastic creatures and realistic horrors. Bleeding though into The Golden Army, such skill and painstaking workmanship – combined with an unmatched understanding of the source material – imbued the film with a dignified quality that goes beyond name-checking Frankenstein and deriving respect from fads.
In my opinion, a good comic book movie prises substance over style – including characters for a purpose and rewarding them with development for their efforts. Spider-man 3 (2007) is the film most often exampled for this failing, but its triad of villainy is positively well-rounded compared to other offenders. X-Men: Last Stand (2006) and Origins: Wolverine (2009) are two films which falter in their preference of cameos and flashing lights over character and subtext, a crime considering the analogous nature of the X-Men series. I suspect Green Lantern (2011) will be just as unsuccessful when it throws Ryan Reynolds at a million dollars worth of greenscreen later this month, though I may yet be proved wrong. A great comic book movie, however, must make you care about the characters, because great power comes with great responsibility – often followed by a healthy serving of investment-sensitive sacrifice.
This year’s Thor was a massive success in this respect, as it took a plethora of characters from numerous realms and fleshed them out with expert aplomb. Thor too was a little on the silly side, boasting a few too many rainbow bridges to gel with the serious faced TGCBMEM crowd. Needless to say it didn’t receive the same attention as First Class, with the latter’s discussion of genetic mutation and allusion to Nazi Germany and Jekyll and Hyde tying it to the respected world: both scientific and literary. I can’t help but feel that Thor is the better movie, however, unburdened as it is by what came before – even if it does make a few exceptions for what might still be to come. You don’t have to deconstruct, retcon or shoehorn superheroes into the real world to produce a great movie, you just need the confidence to realise the character unashamedly – whatever planet he’s from.
Kick-Ass was similarly exceptional, with a potty mouth and well-judged sentiment that leant it depth and emotionality – whether it be enthralled elation or utter hot-chocolate-prompted devastation. More than just a reaction to comic book movies, Kick-Ass came close to eclipsing its competition with a great script, break-neck direction and enough homages to necessitate repeated viewing. Taking the Hulk (2003) route (which to me, for the record, is the definitive Hulk movie – hey, my grave is already dug) and advertising the required suspension of disbelief from the outset by sign-posting its debt to the medium, Kick-Ass came the closest yet to creating a realistic comic book movie, but in the most delightfully incidental way possible.
OK – so my mind might have wandered, but I guess my point is that there is no objective basis in heralding a comic book movie the best ever; there will always be those who disagree – and so there should be – and perhaps I know this better than most. With the current retcon culture rebooting characters after their first box office stumble, and with the orbital nature of fashion and filmmaking trends, the different incarnations and zeitgeists the characters will invariably reflect will doubtless ensure this TGCBMEM ceremony continues. What of next year, then? Is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers in line for the accolade or should I just give in now and anoint Nolan’s next Batfilm? Will darkness ever give in to light? More than anything, however, I’d like to hand the floor over to you. In your opinion, what is the greatest comic book movie ever made – if indeed there is one?