Friday, June 17th, 2011

Comic Hero Fanboys Make Terrible Comic Hero Movies

Once a refuge for the maladjusted and the childish—and a cool dip in the pop art pool for the rest of our tired masses trudging through another summer—the comic book movie has shed its pulp trappings. It now strives for middlebrow respectability as a box office tactic. The new pitch is: After a hard day of tooling around in your Prius listening to "This American Life," why not come to the theater and spend some time with your pal Iron Man (played by Less Than Zero star Robert Downey Jr., so don’t forget to get a head start on your 80s party!) instead of curling up in front of the DVR full of "Men of a Certain Age" and "True Blood" with a Trader Joe’s meal-ready-to-eat?

The problem? The inmates have taken over the asylum. The combination of Christopher Nolan’s runaway success—critically and commercially—with The Dark Knight and the filling of the ranks of the comic book creators, and in turn the properties they parent, with fanboys who take the material Bible-seriously has landed us in an ugly situation. Riding in on a verdant glow polished so bland it’s nearly unrecognizable, Green Lantern isn’t saving anyone’s day. Fill a cast and crew with true cool indie-dad believers in comic book as the best art form, and you get a smooth and endless mélange of pap.

Once, the people at the helm were more likely TV execs laughing at a screening of the hokey "Batman" serials of the 40s with the hip kids at Chicago’s Playboy Club. These were people who readily attested to loathing comic books, and we got the Adam West "Batman": an enduring icon with a theme song that remains in everyone’s head without the benefit of a proper DVD release. This was rock candy pop art that gives mid-60s Godard a run for its money without even trying.

And the people who actually made comic book movies were a bunch of megalomaniacs arguing to this day over copyrights, who would switch out directors in the middle of filming because the first one just isn’t playing ball, who weren’t afraid to cast unknowns, and we believed a man can fly, in Chris Reeve’s Superman.

Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton were all ambivalent-to-hostile to the idea of comics. Nicholson famously angled for the biggest single movie paycheck to date and demanded top billing even though the movie was named for Keaton’s character. Keaton tells the story of taking a moment with Jack to remind each other that they were grown men in these ridiculous getups on set. And while the nerds still bitch and moan about Batman smilingly strapping a ticking bomb to a goon, on any street corner the t-shirt design you see is the one from 89’s Batmania, a yellow oval stark against black—not Nolan’s later art school cool that wouldn’t look out of place on a set of high-end speakers.

Those now grasping at mainstream legitimacy are not their studio exec-bosses with a strict money aim or auteurs slumming, they’re fanboys, desperate that the rest of the world should look at these things with the same reverence they do. With Green Lantern, DC Comics writer and svengali Geoff Johns is listed as co-producer, and it shows.

Like Johns’ comics plots—long story arcs that seek to build an Official History arguing for, say, Green Lantern’s very important status not just in DC lore but in the broader culture—the movie tries to cram way more into an origin story than is necessary. There’s the entire history of the Green Lantern Corps and its Guardian overlords. There’s a tedious yet superficial sketch of the backgrounds of Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris. These two should be the main characters of the movie, yet they somehow never seem to be amid all the sound and fury.

There’s 10 minutes of backstory exposition before the movie even starts in earnest like a Star Wars “Last Time on Star Wars” roll, illustrated with $100,000 of CGI that leaves the geeks slobbering and the normies running for the concession stand. (Perhaps it was a vertical marketing strategy?)

And as with Johns’ own plots, this is all shoehorned in with comforting allusions to previous superhero lore, at once a familiar palliative to the general audience and a winking aside to the true fans. Here is the helicopter rescue from Superman: The Movie; here is the nebulous world-eater from the second Fantastic Four movie; here is the city battle from Superman II; here is Jim Carrey’s turn as Edward Nigma regurgitated by Peter Sarsgaard.

Ryan Reynolds plays Jordan as a bratty, pouty bad boy who "doesn’t play by the rules." The Hal Jordan of the comics was an intergalactic super cop, the one DC hero that was more of a boy scout than Superman, who needed an entire new title in the early 70s filled with Green Arrow scowling at him: “Lighten up and open your eyes, pig.” No, audiences won’t relate to that, you see. And the fanboys running the show would much rather have a chiseled, lady-chasing and potty-mouthed Reynolds as their Mary Sue avatar. (This is a byproduct of the Apatow creep: nerds and doofuses can actually have sex now, so they want someone more sex-getting to identify with.)

And still the movie plays it so safe that you’re left checking your watch. At no point is the audience filled with anything approaching awe, and you’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that they’ll walk away more conversant on the Guardians of planet Oa or with a burning desire to see Sinestro turn, erm, sinister.

Despite the joys of Nolan's Batman world, it’s sad that a Teutonic, dour, humorless prig of a Batman would be the new model for comics on the screen. Give me West lecturing Burt Ward about proper dental hygiene before they head out to take on a squawking Burgess Meredith and his array of deadly trick umbrellas, any day.

When we’re left with not-entirely unpleasant but completely forgettable rolls of filler like Green Lantern, it’s enough to make you think Ang Lee’s Hulk was the last great superhero movie. Because it wasn’t afraid to fail, even as it failed spectacularly.

Matt Ealer could go on but unlike some people making movies he doesn't want to bore you.

56 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

I disagree with a lot of your premises, but the worst sin you've committed is not bringing up Mark fucking Millar as the platonic ideal of awful comics fans in charge of comics and comic book movies.

jolie (#16)

@deepomega Hoooo boy, only one comment in and accusations of sinning are already flying!! LAKSHFSKLFH

Danzig! (#5,318)

@jolie No really, Mark Millar is awful

s. (#775)

@deepomega Which reminds me that, in a deeply dorky way, is pretty hilarious.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@jolie Seriously, Deepo has a point here. Mark Millar is like a biblical plague. The fan-fic'ers are running the asylum.

Pop Socket (#187)

The Silver Age Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-ups were one of the pinnacles of social awareness in comics. Somehow I doubt we are ever going to get Speedy on heroin in the movies.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@Pop Socket Fuck it, when do we get a Green Arrow movie?

allyzay (#321)

You forgot to mention how Ryan Reynolds is the worst. I mean his face! Yuck! Yuck on his face.

deepomega (#1,720)

@allyzay Ryan Reynolds looks like a bad police composite sketch artist drew a ken doll.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@deepomega I dunno. I liked him in Just Friends…

jolie (#16)

@boyofdestiny I dunno. I liked him in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@jolie You win.

keisertroll (#1,117)

Twelve Green Lanterns, A Girl And A Pizza Place

Moff (#28)



jolie (#16)

@boyofdestiny The sad part is that I really did like him in Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza place :(

deepomega (#1,720)

@jolie There is no shame in loving 90s multicamera sitcoms built around a very strained premise.

Moff (#28)

@deepomega: At least not relatively speaking, if you look at the wider tapestry of Jolie's life.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@jolie The pizza place out-acted all three of them.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@keisertroll And yet the pizza place is the one that got axed first!

deepomega (#1,720)

@boyofdestiny "At the start of season three, the pizza place was abandoned entirely (hence the change in the show's title at this time), and Berg began his medical residency. Pete became a Vice President of a cosmetics company, and then a firefighter. Johnny and Sharon married and became the superintendents of the apartment building they lived in."

The 90s! A children's treasury of unrealistic television career expectations!

keisertroll (#1,117)

@boyofdestiny Two Guys, A Girl, And A Suspicious Electrical Fire Just When They Needed The Insurance Money The Most

jolie (#16)


Moff (#28)

@jolie: You have made my day.

iantenna (#5,160)

holy shit there really was something called "two guys, a girl, and a pizza place". i thought we were making up terrible rom-com names to go along with yesterday's taglines.

jolie (#16)


John McGarry (#5,590)

@allyzay I thought it was a porno reference…

Moff (#28)

Oh, I can't wait for my Maus adaptation to prove you wrong.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@Moff Tom Kenny's going to voice the cutest CGI…

Too soon, kt. Too soon.

Moff (#28)

@keisertroll: Seriously. CGI is still a very upsetting topic.

I would rather have a thousand forgettable Thors, Green Lanterns, and even (but just barely) Iron Man 2s, than have another single Ang Lee Hulk.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@Quarterly Prophet: I kind of liked that movie?

keisertroll (#1,117)

Also, as a nerd, I can have sex now. This is complete news to me and my potential partners.

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

@keisertroll Yeah, there are ladies and gents out there that are nerd-curious. I think they get the itch from those dorxploitation movies that were popular a few years back. It can be difficult in one of these relationships because sometimes the non-nerd partner doesn't understand that baby, I really like ya, but I can't hang out tonight since I'm recompiling my kernel.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Werner Hedgehog Recompiling a kernel? Pssh, I've got to plan out my Eberron campaign.

DMcK (#5,027)

This goes along well with my notion that my favorite of the 90s Batmans, Batman & Robin, was so universally despised by the fanboy brigade because (a) it refused to take itself seriously in the best way possible, and (b) it was really all about relationships and family ties, ick! All of which got conveniently displaced onto the costumes' visible nipples, as fanboys are generally quite comfortable with homophobic posturing.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@DMcK By Visual Nipple Logic "Watchmen" would be the campiest movie of all time.

Matt (#26)

@DMcK I could write a dissertation on the fanboys' homophobic reaction to Batman and Robin. But, check the byline.

HiredGoons (#603)

@DMcK: I could just lick every inch of Batman Returns – that movie is so wonderfully fucking twisted and gorgeoussssss.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Sorry, B&R was just terrible. You could make an argument for Forever but there was nothing memorable in that fourth movie at all. Sometimes I forget Alicia Silverstone was even in it.

(I was really confused by your post, Goons, until I realized you switched to Returns. TWISTED INDEED)

DMcK (#5,027)

@DoctorDisaster Well, how 'bout Batman coming to terms with the fact that he could no longer play the (cherished-by-fanboys) loner/outsider role because fate made him into a family man? And it really seemed to be a conscious effort to return to the goofy spirit of the 60s TV show, which, see above. And OMG, NERD FIGHT

The whole "cool indie dad" cultural norm only makes me want to be a dad even less. Sorry, were we talking about comics? Because I like some of those.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose "Cool Indie Dad" is the name of my new superhero movie, with John Krasinski as debonair single father playboy/Pitchfork rock band frontman Davis Bidwill.

Gary Busey will play his nemesis, Cool Indie Grandad.

@keisertroll : I will give up my Guitar Wolf t-shirt when you strip it from my cold dead torso, or when I see some guy wearing the same shirt pushing a stroller, whichever comes first.

scrooge (#2,697)

Mmmmm… Melange of pap! Sounds yummy.

rj77 (#210)

Totally with you and all, but I'm still gonna see this just to watch a hot dude blow shit up. It's summer and I'm easy.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@rj77 I'm waiting for Chris Evans in "Inflating A Giant Turd". This August, SHIT'S GON BLOW

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

While this movie sounds absolutely putrid, I have to admit I can understand how that overwrought origin story happened. I mean, with Superman, Batman, and Captain America, everybody sort of gets the basics already. Silver Age characters, like most of the Marvel stable, are generally at least a little relatable and easy to explain. (Thor being an obvious exception.)

I have no idea what the hell Green Lantern is supposed to be about, and I've personally asked fanboys to explain it. Apparently it's about aliens, but they're magic aliens? And the good guy's magic power is to create anything he imagines, like God, but monochrome? And also yellow is evil? The whole premise is both obscure and oddly resistant to explanation.

Sablesma (#1,244)

@DoctorDisaster It is not really all that complicated in terms of, you know, comics. There have been a few, but it's all basically: guy gets ring that gives him incredible powers (although some have had weaknesses to silly things like wood or anything that's yellow) and makes him a member of an international police force run by some aliens. See! Simple!

osmium (#7,705)

@DoctorDisaster My rule for a good superhero movie is: Do they spend less than one minute on "origin story"? Because superheroes require no origin story (as Sablesma just said).

sharilyn (#4,599)

I donated my funds this weekend to the Buy Blake Lively A Facial Expression campaign and watched this picture, in 3D. Nearly every frame of this movie has some CGI in it and the cumulative effect is oppressively dull. Reynolds is a game actor and smokin hot, but has hardly anything to smirk at, aside from Ms Lively's weak attempts to convey emotion. Casting the reflexively jokey Reynolds as a conflicted intergalactic supercop was just dumb. Peter Skarsgard's character has more of an inner life than Hal Jordan. I was in it for the abs (which do not disappoint) but was forced to sit through some of the weirdest cartoonish will-to-power yet committed to celluloid. #FAIL

davidwatts (#72)

If you like superhero movies taking risks and not taking themselves too seriously, I'd more than recommend Michel Gondry's Green Hornet. Any movie where Seth Rogan fights crime in 3D is not terribly dour.

smithpoul (#14,168)

i l

anahi7nash (#14,057)

looks great when it is coming out as a PS3 game?

john smith (#245,014)

While this movie sounds absolutely putrid, I have to admit I can understand how that overwrought origin story happened. I mean, with Superman, Batman, and Captain America, everybody sort of gets the basics already. Silver Age characters, like most of the Marvel stable,

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