Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Comic Book Movies

With Fantastic Four out in the theaters now, and pretty much roundly condemned as a poor example of a comic book movie, maybe it's time to take a look at the genre. FF is not the way to make a comic book movie. Most people agree that the X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies represent the best that comic book movies can be, and they hold up well against movies in general. But can a movie be a good comic book movie, even if it's not necessarily a good movie in general? For our answer, we need to look at The Hulk.

I didn't like The Hulk when I first saw it, but in heavy rotation on cable I've seen it a few more times, and I've liked it a little more each time. Could it have been better? Yes. If I watch it a million more times, will I think it's as good as the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. Definitely no. Was it a good comic book movie? That's a tougher call.

Comic book movies occupy a space all their own. As a (lapsed) reader of comics for a number of years a number of years ago, I know that every time I hear of a new comic book movie, my first thought is "Oh please, don't let them ruin it." There's something extra there, some visceral connection with comic books, that you don't find with some random novel that's been made into a movie. Maybe because the comics themselves never end, there's more of a relationship between the reader and the material. The relationship is dynamic and ongoing. I may look forward to a movie based on a novel I've read, but I'm not personally invested in it in the same way I am with comics.

Lord of the Rings is an exception, but I think it's clear that with it's length (three separate novels), prequel (The Hobbit), and assorted supplementary materials (The Silmarillion and who knows how much else?), it fits more the comic book model. And I said over and over "Oh please, don't let them ruin it." When I saw Fellowship, I don't think I was quite comfortable, I couldn't quite let myself put aside that fear, until the scene when Arwen gets Frodo across the river just ahead of the pursuing Nazgul. When the flash flood was called down, and the boiling rapids took on the ghostly semblance of a charging herd of horses, everything I could have hoped for was fulfilled. That river wasn't the only thing flooding, my eyes were pulling a miniature flood of their own.

We're fortunate now that we live in a time where movie technology is advanced enough to do justice to the world of comics. No matter how good the story, if a comic book movie looks cheesy and cannot render the world of the comic with reasonable faithfulness, the movie will not work for me. I had a similar "flash-flood" moment in Spider-Man, when he was in full swing, webbing around town, dodging traffic. Could something as simple as the motions and contortions of his body while web-swinging, absolutely spot on in the film, have been produced if the movie had been made in 1990? I don't think so. And that effect, and all the other special effects, in lesser, inadequate 1990 form, would have damaged the movie for me.

Of course, now that we can reproduce the world of the comics to near perfection, perhaps it's only right that everything must depend on story now. Hulk was only so-so. I felt like Hulk's powers and abilities were reasonably reproduced, but the story was a little flat. The choppy editing style turned me off at first, but has grown on me. Maybe it reminds me of the panels on any given page of a comic, and the feeling of turning pages as the story goes on.

For The Hulk, I mainly wanted five things: to see Hulk really strong and massive, to see Hulk smash things, to see stuff blowing up, to see long distance leaping, and to see the military in hot pursuit trying to destroy a sympathetic figure. The Hulk delivered on all these counts. Was it a good movie? Marginally no. Was it a good comic book movie? I'd have to give it a marginal yes.
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