Riding Shotgun: Funny Books in Film

Hulk SMASH Crunchable readers! SMASH them good!!!

Oooh baby, it’s a good time to be a comic book fan — that’s
fanboy/fangirl to those that know the lingo. It wasn’t too long ago
that we thought that the concept of comics on film was dead and gone
thanks to Joel
Schumacher
and that piece of cinematic monkey crap they titled Batman and
Robin
. Apparently Schwarzenegger
in glitter and silver body paint is not the Rosetta Stone
for making a great movie.

And then there was Spawn: filmed
several years after the comic book’s popularity went down the crapper
and featuring John
Leguizamo
as a demonic clown. Woof!

Blade was a hit,
but was based off such a minor Marvel universe character that even Stan Lee was
left saying, “Who dat?”

And then came X-Men: the premier
superhero team of Marvel comics, widely popular, and accessible to
everyone. And next there was Spider-Man, one of the best movies of
the year and the major money-maker for summer 2002. And with that,
production companies began buying up the rights to every comic
property available. There was a veritable stampede for anything with
sequel potential.

There’s a host of new comic-related movies in production and we can
look forward to the next decade being a renaissance for the genre.
Well, for it to be a renaissance, there would have had to have been a
previous high point.

Yeah, there was Superman, but there were only four of those
movies, and I’d like to forget about the third wherein Lex Luthor
unleashes his ultimate secret weapon — Richard
Pryor
. There was Batman, a series of films that went
downhill faster than David Caruso‘s
career. The rest were poorly done, but forgettable: Supergirl, Punisher, Fantastic Four
(these latter two went straight to video).

So it’s not a renaissance, but rather the beginning of what a future
renaissance would be renaissancing. And I know that’s not a real word,
so shut the fuck up.

Now, I’m a rather easy-going kind of crusader, but like any real
fanboy, I get a little pissy when my favorite funny books are brought
to life for the enjoyment of the masses, and the aforesaid masses, of
the history and details of the comic, know absolutely dick. So, here’s
a little primer for those of you that don’t know the books, but plan
on seeing the movies.

Now, by the time this little piece gets posted, Daredevil should be
far and gone from every halfway reputable theater, but here’s the
rundown.

Daredevil was created by Marvel guru Stan “The Man” Lee back in
1964. It’s the story of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, working out of New
York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, who defends the innocent by day and
punishes the guilty by night. Having lost his sight to a chemical
waste accident as a child, Murdock’s other senses were supremely
enhanced, giving him an almost radar-like ability to know his
surroundings. Couple that with the physique of a body-building gymnast
and he’s the perfect candidate to dress up in red leather and beat the
crap out of criminals with his nunchuck/grappling wires.

Daredevil has always been a dark, brooding kind of tale, a lot
grimmer than Lee’s other creations. A staple of the Marvel universe
for 40 years, Daredevil peaked first in the mid-70′s when Frank Miller began
scribing the book. Miller, best known for his Sin City series of
crime dramas, introduced Daredevil’s assassin ladylove Elektra (played
by Jennifer
Garner
in the movie) as well as a grittier feel to the character.

Once Miller left, Daredevil languished in that middle ground
between being loved and being canceled until 1998, when
writer/director/actor Kevin Smith gave the
title an adrenaline shot in the spandex-clad ass. Smith penned a
12-issue storyline that brought back Bullseye (Colin Farrell
in the movie), killed off Murdock’s girlfriend of many years, and made
the book hip again.

Currently, the writing reins have been passed to comic-scribe
superstar Brian
Michael Bendis
, and between Smith and Bendis, Daredevil is
now a staple of the top fifty most-read comic books. And you can thank
Smith’s involvement and writing talent for Daredevil eventually
regaining popularity and hitting the big screen.

“Thanks, Kevin.”

When it hits video/DVD, you can look for Smith doing a guest shot as a
forensic examiner and Frank Miller as “Man with Pins in Neck.” Oh, and
take a gander at the old man that a young Matt Murdock keeps from
wandering into the street. Is that a Stan Lee? I think it is. I think
it is.

Moving on: What’s big, green, ugly, and ready to smash through theater
screens this summer? Is it Leprechaun 5: The Bitch is Back,
with Oprah as the demonic, Lucky Charms-snorting imp? If only.

Nope, it’s The Hulk, starring Eric Bana with Ang Lee directing. I have
some hope for this flick, but from viewing some of the early trailers,
the special effects do not look promising. What do you do when your
star is a nine-foot tall multi-ton monster?

The Hulk is Jekyll and Hyde for the nuclear-powered age,
created by Lee in 1962. Limp-limbed scientist Bruce Banner
accidentally gets in the blast radius of a gamma bomb (gamma rays were
the cure-all for character creation in the 60′s) and soon he’s turning
into a giant green tank-smashing machine any time he gets angry.

Now The Incredible Hulk has been a continuing comic for 40
years and so — well — the character has gone through changes. He’s
been stupid, smart, kinda smart, absolutely brilliant and
monosyllabic. He’s been gray, green, gray again and green again. He’s
even been a mob tough guy named Mr. Fix-It who wore pinstripe suits
and purple fedoras.

But it always comes back to the mild-mannered mortal doing psychic
battle against his monstrous alter ego. And in between he’s chased by
Army men intent on bringing the beast down.

Some of you might remember the television show
starring Bill Bixby as Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. Banner
drove around the country in a beat-up pickup, getting into trouble,
helping out innocent civilians, and transforming into the Hulk to
trash a laboratory/mountain cabin at the end of every episode. It was
like The
Fugitive
with a bigger budget for purple pants.

The series ended when the unstoppable, bulletproof, super-human Hulk
was killed taking a forty-foot fall out of a helicopter. Out of a
helicopter!

Most anticlimactic ending ever.

If the movie stays true to the core theme of the comic — man’s
internal battle between civilized thought and animal instinct — then
it could be good for everyone. If it goes the way of “HULK SMASH!!!!”
every five minutes, this is gonna be a flick limited to the knee-biter
set, who are already buying up the movie-related merchandise.

And we’re back to the X-Men again. X-Men II hits screens this
summer, probably conquering the box office for several weeks straight
and inspiring millions of eight-year old boys to run around making
those Wolverine claw *snikt snikt* sounds and chasing after the family
cat with butter knives shoved up their sleeves.

Created by, you guessed it, Stan Lee in 1963, the X-Men would
eventually become the numero uno super-team for Marvel Comics. In
their world, mankind was being confronted by mutations in the species.
People were being born with powers and abilities — some cool (laser
vision), some not-so-cool (furry) — that both alienated and elevated
them.

The X-Men were — and still are — a group of mutant teenagers who
have to deal with a world that fears and hates them and with others of
their own kind trying to take over said world. In the 60′s, when the
real world was dealing with Communist scares, the civil rights
movement and the sexual revolution, the stories touched a chord. And
they still do.

X-Men has been split and spun off more than any other title in
the history of comics. At one point, there were two major X-titles
(Uncanny X-Men, X-Men), several spin-offs
(X-Factor, X-Force, X-Men Unlimited) and any
number of single-character books (Wolverine, Bishop,
Cable). The title has gone from awesome to mediocre to “Holy
shit, will somebody stop the pain!” and back again.

Currently, the level is back up to awesome thanks to some major talent
at Marvel. New X-Men, written by Grant Morrison, has updated
the concept of the book and opened the door to some more
adult-oriented themes. He started his run on the book two years ago by
killing off 16 million mutants along with supervillain Magneto. The
man does not dick around.

In Ultimate X-Men, Magneto is alive and well, though. The
Ultimate line started about two years back and took a few choice
titles and “rebooted” them for a new audience. There was much groaning
and nay-saying from purists (myself included), much of which has since
been silenced.

Ultimate X-Men is one of the most popular titles running and a
great read for anybody who doesn’t give a flying crap about 40 years
of continuity. The Ultimates, which starts The Avengers off
from scratch, is another must-read, especially for Hulk fans who, in
issue number five, can see the monster chasing after Banner’s
girlfriend and her movies-star date, screaming “Hulk kill Freddie
Prinze Jr.!”

Good shit.

This Ultimate line has allowed Marvel to make the X-Men as relevant as
possible, tying in real-life themes of media-driven paranoia,
government oppression and terrorist attacks. It looks like the new
movie will do the same thing, and introduce a host of new characters
in the process.

Don’t know if Stan will make a guest appearance, though. Lee has filed
a lawsuit against Marvel, requesting that they pay him a share of the
profits from movies made off of his creations.

Damn the man, Stan. Damn the man.

Following the gamma-powered/mutant mayhem of this coming summer, we’ll
get to see Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend and friends try their hands
at bringing one of the most literate comics ever created to life on
the big screen: The League
of Extraordinary Gentlemen
. League takes place in an
alternative Victorian age where all your favorite fictional heroes
live together in a steampunk-meets-sci-fi London. The first
12-issue volume of the comic brought such characters as Allan
Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo and Mina
Harker (of Dracula fame) together as a team of detectives
working for the predecessor of England’s MI6.

The book, written by comic madman/genius Alan
Moore
(Watchmen, From Hell), features more guest
appearances by historical and literary figures than you can shake a
antique walking stick at, and requires a Masters in English Lit. to
appreciate all the references.

The movie will bring in a few more familiar characters, like Dorian
Gray and Tom Sawyer, and probably fuck up the style of the comic six
ways to Sunday. After what Hollywood did to Moore’s From Hell,
I’m surprised he let the rights to League out of his sight.

Also making its way from the fringes of comicdom to the silver screen
is Hellboy, the story of
the son of Satan who was conjured by the Third Reich to help them
conquer the world, only to turn on the Nazis and start a life for
himself as a detective of the supernatural.

Predicting how this is going to play in America’s heartland is beyond
me.

And in the not-so-distant future, we can look forward to Spiderman
II
, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Superman (if a
cast is ever nailed down) and Constantine, the adaptation of
DC’s Hellblazer with (Oh, Jesus, shoot me now) Keanu Reeves.

With news reports of war preempting primetime television with annoying
regularity, I predict that more and more people will be finding a
pleasant escape at the movies.

I know I will.

Hey, if I let the terror alert and the war and the rampant,
uncontrollable paranoia stop me from buying a $6 tub of popcorn and
staring at a screen until my brain is swimming in artificial butter
flavoring — then the terrorists will have won.

Article © 2003 by Steve Spotswood