OUT OF THE CLOSET (not like THAT)

 
     Okay, so things have been happening over in SDCC at the moment – that’s the San Diego Comic-Con,  if you’re interested in all that kind of thing. But you are, aren’t you? I mean, EVERYONE seems to be interested in the genre (or splicing of genres). It’s so weird. There seems no end of updates, articles, photos and reviews kicking around the net at the moment – or maybe it’s just the sites that I go to frequently. But no. There’s more to it than that. Facebook, Twitter and the like – all kinds of social networking tools are getting in on the deal. There’s a real thrust to the information too, with many sites (Newsarama, AICN, Den of Geek etc) competing against each other for a scoop –  whilst at the same time giving their ‘rivals’ props for exclusive news (and by ‘props’ I don’t mean a life-sized Abin Sur corpse in a glass casket). 
From my initial tone you might at first think that I think this is a bad thing. Far from it, I have waited for this day for a long time – for when comic books and formerly labelled ‘nerdy stuff’ are acceptable reading and NOT just for kids. A cross-pooling of all the best things in the many fields of entertainment.  Games designers and companies, comic artists/writers/ yes…even inkers, actors, directors, producers, hangers-on, toy manufacturers. Basically, everything that has the capacity to make money by tapping into the planet’s imaginations. This time of year is always an exciting time for the cons (conventions, don’cha know) but especially THIS year….because the big companies are out in force drumming up hype and support for the BIG THINGS coming our way in 2011 and beyond.
TRON Legacy is a big draw at SDCC, as is Scott Pilgrim versus the World, Transformers 3 to name but three…but there are some other BIG THINGS touting their wares too that eclipse them. I am referring to Marvel’s THOR movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Hemsworth as Thor and (I SO totally would, even with short hair) Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest, Jane Foster….
And then there’s another comic adaption due out in 2011, a film that you may or may not have heard of – but if you knew what I was going on about with Thor, then it’s a safe bet you already have – of course, I mean GREEN LANTERN starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan. 
AND THAT’S NOT ALL, as Marvel films are already on The Avengers bandwagon (confirmed now to be directed by Joss Whedon of Buffy fame) and it’s not even OUT until 2012….I am of course talking about Chris Evans (no, not THAT one) playing the First Avenger himself; CAPTAIN AMERICA. 
So by 2012 when The Avengers is released we will see Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johanssen and Samuel L Jackson (plus whoever they get to play Bruce Banner) all in the same room with so much action and explosions per minute that it will make your granny’s ears bleed. Marvel has a cupboard-load of franchises waiting in the wings – and now that they are owned by Disney, it means that the best creators in the business will be lining up to take a shot. DC are also cutting in on the deal with the likes of WONDER WOMAN, the new Chris/Jonathan Nolan SUPERMAN as well as of course….a little something called BATMAN 3.

And then no doubt the cycle starts all over again with a million and one imitations.

Us comics fans have been spoiled in the past 10 years or so, ever since the first X-MEN film, when Hollywood (and moviegoers) started to take comic book movie franchises seriously. It helps that CGI and technical wizardry has come on leaps and bounds. A superhero film HAS to be a blockbusting summer tent-pole movie, and a superhero film HAS to have lots of special effects…but not necessarily a big name star – otherwise all that moviegoers will see is basically exactly how superhero movies were treated in the nineties – with derision. But even with CGI and loads of money, a superhero film HAS to have one more thing if it’s going to compete with some of the genre’s best efforts (Spider-Man 1&2, X-MEN 1&2, Batman Begins, Iron Man, The Dark Knight to name a few)………and that, my friends, is an intelligent treatment of the idea.

This, my friends, is imagination version 2.0.

I have been reading comic books since I was about 12 and properly collecting since I was around 14. I immersed myself in the Marvel and DC Comics worlds growing up, and still regularly keep my hand in – even if I can no longer afford the extortionate prices of a monthly. A lot of my own writing (if you know where to look) is directly associated to my mind’s mixture of all that I have learned and loved in comics. and ‘my kind’ of movie. The three subjects that I know most about in all the world are Star Wars, James Bond films and superheroes. I mean, if I was on Mastermind I would totally ace my specialised subject. I reckon I’d probably score about a million or something, but anyway….due to my ploughing of back issues, trade paperbacks, graphic novels and so on and so forth ADDED to my love of films and TV and sci-fi for a LONG time the world’s were separated. The world of the superhero was always one that had tantalised Hollywood, and there was a general feeling that doing a decent superhero film was impossible – and this was BEFORE the internet kicked off and its notorious armies of fanboys and girls threatened to petrol bomb Ang Lee’s house.

If we were to trace the comic book movie’s recent success from today to when Hollywood has at last got things right, the obvious choice might be the first SUPERMAN film with Christopher Reeve in 1978 – but I would disagree. One might also suggest the Tim Burton BATMAN movie in 1989 had a great deal of input, but again, I would disagree. Both those franchises (the first 2 films at least) were incredibly ground-breaking both in their subject matter, their popularity, their exposure and general ‘coolness’, however…both of them suffered from sequels that only served to tarnish the original’s success (yes, I am looking at you, SUPERMAN IV THE QUEST FOR PEACE) and both ended up severely damaging not only their own franchise, but the whole concept of a superhero movie that was not either ridiculed by the press, went straight to VHS/DVD or sincerely apologised for.

One classic example is the Bryan Singer X-MEN film. Now, bearing in mind that at that point very few people outside of the comics world had ever heard of Wolverine and co, Singer developed a crucial flip on the superhero film – in essence, he didn’t sell the audience short. He grounded it in reality. Okay, so there are more comicky bits thrown into the mix – he had to mention the yellow spandex – but the design and mission statement on that film did not belittle the original inspiration. X-MEN as a comic book didn’t need any more exposure. It had remained Marvel’s top-selling title (plus spawning a whole range of other books X-FACTOR, NEW MUTANTS, X-FORCE etc) for many years….but Bryan Singer kind of caught people by surprise, helped in no small way by Mr Hugh Jackman who helped ‘sell’ the movie to non-comic book fans. Although not perfect, X-MEN was about as close as we could get at that time to an all-round faithful adaptation of our beloved mutants. And so what happened once the movie had  proved itself popular with millions of people around the world? Marvel went and redesigned the X-MEN titles to look exactly like their movie counterparts and it was such a ridiculous cop-out. Why kneel to Hollywood’s whim? Why could they not expect fans of movies to dig the movies, and fans of the comics to dig the comics? Why was there a need for such in your face branding that the original inspiration ended up aping its movie counterpart? For me, that was the only thing that let X-MEN down, but that was a comic problem, not a movie one.
Some of the greatest comics books are still going by their original number today, or if not then they are at least still putting the books out there each month. That’s month on month, reliable, solid, exciting, imaginative, wildly fantastic stories – if Action Comics can make it to issue 700 or whatever it is and still entertain its audience every month since 1938 – how come Hollywood superhero movies tend to run out of steam after the second film???

Just as a film like ‘Star Wars’ birthed a slew of science fiction counterfeit copycats in the late 70’s, so too did Burton’s BATMAN in the late 80’s/early 90s’. In movies, TV (and even in comics themselves!) all of a sudden dark and broody heroes were all the rage, wearing muscle-moulded costumes that (frankly) sucked big time. Superheroes became a hot property on the back of BATMAN. But they lacked substance. And eventually, people got bored of Danny Elfman soundtracks and gravelly-voiced heroes of the night and so Hollywood looked elsewhere.

Actually it looked inward….to THE MATRIX, where you could make a sense-twisting action movie grounded firmly in a world not reliant on logic.

The 1990’s saw Marvel and DC (but mostly Marvel) break out a new generation of hot artists and they stuck them on their biggest titles and saw the sales go through the roof. Jim Lee on X-Men, Whilce Portacio on Uncanny X-Men, Rob Liefeld on X-Force, Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man – to name but a few). Marvel were churning out gritty, street-level heroes by the bucket-load completely blind to the irony of it all.

Comics inspire movies and TV that then go on to influence the comic book.

But in my mind it is clear that if it wasn’t for the X-MEN movie and Bryan Singer (specifically) there would have been no Ang Lee HULK, no Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN and (crucially) no X-MEN 2 – in my opinion THE best superhero movie of All Time. And then if there’s no SPIDER-MAN there would have been no SUPERMAN RETURNS, BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, WATCHMEN, IRON MAN, KICK-ASS, no THOR, no GREEN LANTERN and definitely no AVENGERS…………and that’s not even including all the non-superhero movies inspired from comic book material AMERICAN SPLENDOR, 300, SIN CITY, SCOTT PILGRIM, ROAD TO PERDITION and on and on and on….you’d probably be amazed what films you love that have been sourced from comic books.

So that is why, in my humble yet incredibly well-read opinion, the first X-MEN movie was a catalyst that somehow convinced the normal, everyday Mr and Mrs Joe Public that it was OKAY to like superhero films. They weren’t for kids. This ain’t the frickin’ Power Rangers, dude! Superhero movies BELONG out there. Not every superhero movie is BATMAN AND ROBIN. They can be wild, they can be headfucking, they can be visceral, cerebral, surreal and they can be fantastic – a celebration of imagination, not something that has to be ‘grown out of’ when we become adults. Think TOY STORY…..now, those movies appeal to both adults and kids alike. The balance is superb, and no other movie series has quite managed to juggle the ages quite so successfully.

But THAT is a story for another time.

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