March 2003

Superhero Nation!

On Valentine's Day weekend, I went to see Daredevil, the new superhero movie based on the red-suited Marvel Comics character. As the theater went dark, the previews lit up the screen like a bat signal in Gotham City's night sky and, to my amazement, each feature teased was yet another superhero movie. The Incredible Hulk, X-Men 2 and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were among the treats promised.

The number of superhero ventures bound for theaters this summer floored me, but it probably shouldn't have. Spider-Man had the highest opening weekend numbers in movie history, more than 114 million dollars, and is already the fifth biggest movie of all-time, quite an accomplishment. No doubt the friendly neighborhood web-slinger has cast an equally long shadow across the minds of imitative producers, and every studio in Hollywood is trying to cash in on the trend director Sam Raimi and Peter Parker ignited in May 2002.

Considering the available statistics, the audience's appetite for superheroes is not even close to being sated. Daredevil's opening weekend has clearly extended the popularity of superheroes, grabbing first place at the box office with numbers in the 40 millions, well beyond Blade or Blade 2, another contemporary franchise also considered very successful. By February 27, CNN had announced that a Daredevil sequel would be produced, as well as a spin-off starring Jennifer Garner as Elektra. Wow. That was faster than the Flash, and lest one forget this important fact, Daredevil is something of a second-stringer. How many mainstream audience members (not comic book fans) had heard of the guy before seeing the movie? Probably not many, which means that at this moment in history any well cast, entertaining, lavishly produced superhero film has a shot at super success. Aquaman anyboy? Or how about my personal favorite, Green Lantern?

Despite the flood of superhero films headed this way, Hollywood does not have a good record adapting comic book heroes to the silver screen. Fans will no doubt recall 1997's Batman and Robin, the garish fourth installment of the Batman series and the movie that single-handedly killed the Dark Knight's movie franchise. Now that we've seen two relatively faithful and respectful adaptations of superhero lore in Spidey and D.D., we must be realistic and accept that the trend isn't going to continue. At least one of these new summer movies is going to prove a bummer, simply because of the odds and the realities of moviemaking today. The way Hollywood is structured prevents greatness, more of an assembly line than an artistic innovator.

So which venture will suck and really piss off the fans? Not X-2, I'm sure. The previews for this film looked nothing short of amazing and director Bryan Singer has already proven that he respects this material. If anything, he looks to have improved on 2000's X-Men, a film that had strong themes and characterization, but muddled action and a closed-off feel. Just from the trailer, it looks like Singer has taken extraordinary measures to open up the action and give the film a more epic scope. And with Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellan, Famke Jansen and Halle Berry all returning, this one should emerge a winner. It had better: it will be tangling with The Matrix Reloaded during its theatrical run...

Then there's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or "LXG" as the previews called it, though most people will hopefully refer to the film by its given title, not this bizarre acronym (which sounds like a new Lexus model, not a superhero film). Adapted from a comic by the brilliant Alan Moore, this is the story of a team of Victorian Era heroes, including Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, The Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

Stephen Norrington, the chap that shepherded the first Blade to theaters in 1998 directed the movie, which is a good sign. Most folks consider Blade a terrific film (remember the bloody vampire rave in the opening sequence?) so Norrington definitely knows his way around a superhero flick. Nonetheless, gossip from the industry suggests that the director and his star, Sean Connery, didn't see eye to eye on the film. Worse, LXG has apparently been Americanized for general audiences and now includes a character not seen in the comics: Tom Sawyer.

Then there's The Incredible Hulk, another Marvel Comics property. This movie should be the best of all, given the source material, but it won't be. Ang Lee, the man that brought us Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is directing with Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte in supporting roles, but shit, has anybody seen what the Hulk looks like? The previews alone sink this movie, at least for me. Rendered by C.G.I. (the bane of my existence as a movie reviewer and comic book fan...), this big green guy looks about as real Magilla Gorilla or Jabber Jaw. Come to think of it, if this were a movie about Magilla Gorilla or Jabber Jaw, C.G.I. would do just fine; both creatures are comedic creations, not really meant to be believable. But how can anybody take seriously, let alone be fearful of, this ridiculous looking Hulk cartoon? I don't care how good the rest of the movie is, if the Hulk looks like a walking, talking Cartoon Channel reject, the film just will not work.

The titular character is the crux of any Incredible Hulk movie and must be handled with delicacy and care. Surely John Vulich, Vincent Guastini, Stan Winston, Rick Baker or Rob Bottin could have been retained to prove a more believable "real life" behemoth, rather than this ridiculous computer simulation. Here's hoping that before the film's release in June, the special effects improve dramatically.

Daredevil actually proves my point about The Hulk. The movie works more often than not because the actors do good work, investing their characters with humanity and thereby provide audiences with a sense of identification, something a computer model cannot yet achieve. Critics find the studied seriousness of the movie a little silly, but fans have to put up with crap like Batman and Robin and appreciate the efforts to foster believability.

Personally, I found the film somewhat less satisfying than my wife did, simply because it seemed like such a lock-step remake of the Batman mythos. Of course, Frank Miller wrote the Daredevil comic in the 1980s, revolutionizing comics and adding many of the touches and notions that then became popular after his Dark Knight Returns re-do of the Caped Crusader legend. So really, it doesn't make any sense to argue that Daredevil is imitative of Batman, since Batman appropriated some ideas from Daredevil in the first place. As Bruce Wayne might say: "I made you? You made me!"

Despite the Ben Affleck-hating critics that have used the film as a platform to criticize 2002's "sexiest man alive," Daredevil is sincere, well-acted, rousing entertainment. Everybody in the cast is quite good and only Connor Farrell seems out of place with his bug-eyed, Looney Tunes interpretation of the assassin Bullseye. Is Daredevil as good as Spider-Man? Not really, but the sequel, hopefully like X2, might really be something to see.

This summer will be a test. Spider-Man and Daredevil have set the bar high. Will The Incredible Hulk, X-2 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stumble or raise the bar ever higher? Around the corner, probably next year, we'll see Spider-Man 2, Brett Ratner's "re-imagination" of Superman and Christopher Nolan's Batman: The Frightening. If this summer's high-flying, heroic fare sinks at the box office faster than a speeding bullet or displeases the fans, then Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, and Stephen Norrington, like Doc Ock, Lex Luthor or Scarecrow, will only make matters a lot tougher for Raimi, Ratner and Nolan.

Looks like a job for Superman....