Sunday, December 13, 2009

Comic Book Movies

Fewer people than ever are showing interest in the elements that used to define the medium of film, like creating images of real people in real settings and situations. New films are made from all manner of things - not just books and plays, but TV shows, popular songs, amusement park rides, and the most dubious source of all, other films.

Comic books were first adapted to animated films, which was not much of a creative leap. They made it to radio and television with poor results, since radio had to forsake the graphic element of the source material, and because early television was severely limited in its special effects department. Few producers showed confidence in going to the expense of effectively adapting comic books to film until the 1970s, when George Lucas started his phenomenal Star Wars franchise.

I knew an avid collector of comic books who was acutely intelligent. I accompanied him to a hobby shop that sold comics. While he searched for the ones that he did not possess, I browsed through the racks of comics. I was impressed by some of the draughtsmanship in them, but when I read some of the captions I began to feel like Chesterton when he was first confronted with the spectacle of Times Square at night: “How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read.”

The stories that comic books and so-called graphic novels tell are almost invariably lurid, fraught with the most brazen power worship, inhumanly cynical, fascinated by crime, inspired by childish fantasies of invulnerability and immortality, and, worst of all, sadistic. When good is represented by either obvious psychotics or inhuman freaks, it becomes impossible to conceive of an evil that could be worse. Strength is admired for its own sake, no matter to what end it is used.

At the 2007 Golden Globes ceremony, somebody commented on the neglect of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in the "Best Motion Picture - Drama" category by calling it "more than just a comic book movie." The words were meant, of course, as praise. And yet it was probably the most, short of hyperbole, that could be said in praise of a film that owed its existence to a comic book. But the same question arises, as it must have to the Golden Globe judges: are any of these films any good as films?

In the past year or so, I have seen several of the latest comic book movies, most of which were part of a series: the first two X-Men, Superman Returns, the three Spidermans, and the two new Batmans. These eight films were directed by three men: Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and Christopher Nolan. The devotion that comic book fans have shown these eight films, making them some of the highest grossing films of all time, (1) shows the extent to which they are being taken seriously by their makers. But how seriously are we to take these films, when the opening scene in the first X-Men takes place in Auschwitz? (2) The scene is used merely to introduce the character who later becomes known as "Magneto." This outrageously self-serving attitude, which appropriates one of the most terrible periods of human history merely to introduce a level of seriousness to its subject shows how these films cannot even touch seriousness without falling to pieces.

Christopher Nolan acquired a quite bogus reputation with Memento, which makes its hackneyed story seem less so by telling it backwards, and The Prestige, which would have us believe that professional envy would drive two magicians to tacitly resort to murder rather than reveal the secret to their magic tricks. But Nolan's two Batman films offer sufficiently imaginative plots that provide motivation for some of the hero's otherwise ludicrous actions. The Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batmans were campy jokes by comparison to Nolan's. Christian Bale pulls off the role with a commanding physical presence - something none of his predecessors possessed. And Heath Ledger is mesmerizing as The Joker, granting us tantalizing glimpses of the genius we all lost to his accidental death.

The Nolan Batman films rely on some quite plausible special effects, and at least they go to the trouble of setting them up. Bryan Singer's X-Men and X-Men 2 play heavily with our credulity for their effects. Their powerhouse acting casts seem quite pointless when they are mere fodder for CGI. Singer's Superman Returns is spectacularly bound to its effects. But without Christopher Reeve, it was too painful for me to watch. Reeve's personal strength and heroism made the Superman persona into a joke.

Sam Raimi is a veteran director of low-budget films. He was skillful enough to exploit the schlock element of his films, as in The Evil Dead, for laughs. When he was named to direct the first Spiderman film, it was a vindication of his years in B-movies. Unfortunately, the first Spiderman unfolds like its scripts was the winner of a Spiderman scriptwriting contest. The second and third installments in the series (a fourth is in pre-production) are better, but the character, if you could call it that, of Peter Parker, and the way that he acquires and exploits his powers are preposterous. And Tobey Maguire is an utterly callow actor who, like Casey Affleck, is a graduate of the Andy Devine school of elocution. The films' portrayal of scientists, millionaires and generals as all megalomaniacs was a cliché when Stan Lee created Spiderman in the 1950s. (3) Together, these three films have grossed more than two-and-a-half billion dollars. What that statistic illustrates about the majority of filmgoers is not entirely surprising.

(1) The latest list places The Dark Knight as the 4th highest grosser ($1,030,418,342), Spiderman 3 as the 14th ($890,871,626), Spiderman as the 21st ($821,708,551), and Spiderman 2 as the 28th ($783,766,341).
(2) The fact that the name "Auschwitz" is not given in the scene is a gauge of the director's (Bryan Singer's) lack of nerve.
(3) Lee puts in an appearance in all three films.

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