Saturday, May 27, 2006

Marvel Movie Musings

Since X-Men: The Last Stand is currently burning up the Memorial Day Weekend screens, I thought I'd take this opportunity to throw in my two cents on the various big-screen adaptations of Marvel characters over the past two decades. These capsule reviews are written from the point of view of someone who's been collecting comics for a little over thirty years; and who has been aware of Marvel characters (initially from the first TV cartoons) for nearly forty.

A preliminary comment: One of the main differences between the Marvel movie adaptations and the original comics is the lack of a unified universe. Back when Stan Lee was both editing all Marvel comics, and writing about 70% of them, he tried to position all the books as not only taking place in the same fictional world, but as multiple chapters of the same ongoing story. Thus, the Fantastic Four might be touring the campus of Empire State University, and Peter Parker would walk by in the background. A caption in a Hulk story would refer to ongoing events in the Doctor Strange feature. But each movie series takes place in its own little world. There are two likely reasons for this: First, the movie rights to Marvel characters have been so balkanized that one character can't legally appear in another's movie; and second, movies tend not to imagine too many impossible things before breakfast. The comic-book X-Men may deal with space travel, alien invasions, demons, and vampires; but the X-Men movie has its hands full just dealing with the concept of mutants.

Here's my short takes on the various movies:

Howard the Duck (1986): The first big-screen Marvel movie. A legendary failure, and justifiably so. It was awful. The problem wasn't so much the rubber-duck suit as the failure to capture the sardonic spirit of the comic.

Blade (1998): This came out of left field. Blade was a third-banana character out of the Tomb of Dracula comic. The movie makers (writer David Goyer and director Steve Norrington) ignored most of the comic, created their own world, and threw in quite a bit of style. Not a great movie, but a fun one -- and financially successful.

X-Men (2000): Terrific. This one set the template for future Marvel super-hero adaptations. It created its own universe based on the comic, and made judicious changes. But it did an excellent job of both capturing the spirit of the comic, and making the superhero-villian dance believable in three dimensions. A lot of the credit goes not only to director Bryan Singer, but to the great performances by Hugh Jackman (an excellent Wolverine), Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan.

Spider-Man (2002): The gold standard. Definitely my favorite of all of the Marvel adaptations. The main liberty it took was in omitting one of Spider-Man's trademarks: His running patter of puns and put-downs whenever he fights, designed to both bolster his own confidence and to drive his opponents crazy. But visually, the movie captured one of the most visual comic-book characters of all time; and story-wise it did justice to the admixture of angst and comedy that underlies Spider-Man. I saw it with a comic-book writer; and he turned to me after the credits rolled and said, "Dude. That was Spider-Man."

Blade II (2002): I really didn't like this one. It lost the urban style of the first one, and went for gothic. Gothic vampire hunters are a dime a dozen. The director did a much better comics adaptation later on, when he directed Hellboy.

Daredevil (2003): Eh. I liked the pas de deux between Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck; taking some of the dialogue from Frank Miller's comics, and images from Joe Quesada's work, was fun; and Michael Clark Duncan did well as the Kingpin. But overall, it left a bad taste in my mouth. I did not like the Daredevil costume, nor the lousy wire effects or Colin Ferrell's Bullseye.

The Hulk (2003): A noble failure, but a failure. There were hints of a greater story: The Hulk sprinting through the desert, leaping a mile, tossing tanks into the horizon, and tapping his palm with a tank cannon were a delight to watch. But the story was muddled and slow-going; and the split-screen storytelling showed that Ang Lee didn't really understand that the goal of a well-done comic is to make you forget that the comics page is divided into panels.

X-2:X-Men United (2003): The good adaptation of 2003. Another excellent effort from Singer, better than the first X-Men movie. Exciting, touching, and great to look at.

Spider-Man 2 (2004): Another excellent sequel. Although the first Spider-Man movie means more to me emotionally, this one continued to capture the spirit of the character.

Blade: Trinity (2004): I liked this better than Blade II, mostly due to Ryan Reynolds's portrayal of Hannibal King. King snaps off the type of smartass bon mots I'd expect from Spider-Man.

Elektra (2005): An example of what happens when creators jettison everything that works about a comic book character and then make up their own (not as good) character. An especially bad performance by the usually good Jennifer Garner; when she gets kicked out of the temple where she's training, her facial expression is one usually reserved for eight-year-old girls who find out they're not getting a pony for their birthday. The cinematography is far better than the movie deserves.

Fantastic Four (2005): I posted my thoughts on this last year. Underrated by the critics, this was an imperfect, yet fun, adaptation. The best part was Michael Chiklis's spot-on portrayal of Ben Grimm, alias The Thing.

That brings us up to date, with the review of X-3 below. Two movies I didn't see: The Punisher (not much interest) and Man-Thing (didn't even make it to theatres; it screened on the Sci-Fi channel).

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