Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

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What’s the deal with comic book movies?

It never fails. You spend your whole youth wishing they would make movies of your favorite comic books and then, when they finally do, you’re too old and crotchety to appreciate it.

Okay, that’s not true for everyone. But it is, more or less, for baby-boomers or, as I like to call them, Generation B. To a large extent, what we have come to think of as the summer blockbuster is owed to the maturation of Generation B and Red Robin Syndrome.

What, you haven’t heard of Red Robin Syndrome? Well, that’s because I just made it up myself. Try to keep up. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is a chain of restaurant that dates back to 1969. (Like all trendy things, it started in Seattle.) The concept, as I have always perceived it, is to give baby-boomers what they grew up with, which is to say, burgers and sodas and milkshakes and stuff like that. But then make it adult because the baby-boomers are adults now. So they also served beer and wine and shots and whatever the young adult boomers were into at the dawn of the 1970s. You give them the comfort of kid stuff but with a grownup jolt.

It was only a matter of time, it turns out, until someone decided to do for movies what Red Robin did for food. That is, take the things that entertained us as children but give them an adult jolt. Many film school refugees have followed this line of thinking, but a couple of filmmakers turned out to be masters at it. They would be one Steven Spielberg and one George Lucas. Spielberg, in particular, was a masterful purveyor of this approach. He burst onto the scene with the frenetic 1971 TV movie Duel. Afterwards came the roller-coaster that was Jaws. Among his other successes (do I really need to be telling you this?) were Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels. All of Spielberg’s crowd-pleasing flicks (as opposed to his more “serious” fare, like The Color Purple and Schindler’s List) were essentially homages to his generation’s juvenile entertainment, i.e. comic books, matinee serials and Saturday morning adventure shows. But the production values were far and away above the kid stuff. And Spielberg, along with similar directors who followed in his wake, had a penchant for lacing his dialog with salty language. (Watch E.T. again and you’ll see what I mean.) He seemed to understand that not only would kids be more likely to want to see his movies if they were rated PG or PG-13 instead of G but that adults would too. What Spielberg did for adventurers in exotic locales, Lucas did for space warriors with Star Wars and its spawn.

Even before all this was going on, of course, comic books had already been a source material for the movies (and television) for years. George Reeves had played Superman on the big screen (Superman and the Mole Men) and small screen (Adventures of Superman), and Kirk Alyn played the Man of Steel in cinema serials in the 1940s. But the special effects of that era could not do justice to the imagery of comic book illustrators and young people’s imaginations. The Adam West Batman TV series of the 1960s actually made a virtue of this fact by camping up the action and the costumes for laughs. But that began to change in 1978 with the release of Richard Donner’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve. It was finally becoming possible to lose oneself in the illusion of comic book reality.

The next qualitative leap came about a decade later with Tim Burton’s Batman. The hero, in this case, didn’t actually have super-powers, so special effects weren’t quite the issue that they were with Superman. With Burton at the helm, it was all about the art design and the writing. (Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren did the scripting honors.) With a healthy respect for the grittier graphic novels of the 1980s, Burton aimed his movie at more mature audiences than those of the old Bob Kane comic books. But the franchise descended into a kind of camp, not unlike that of the 1960s series, when Burton was succeeded by Joel Schumacher. Batman as a movie hero seemed dead in the water until the miracle of Christopher Nolan and Batman Begins.

While Warner Bros. was spending years trying to milk money out of its DC Comics properties, the promise of Marvel Comics languished. For largely legal reasons, the efforts at bringing Stan Lee’s stable of costumed heroes to the big (or any) screen were few, far between and low-budget. The Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series of the late 1970s/early 1980s had a lasting cultural impact, but the real breakthrough was the 2002 Sam Raimi film Spider-Man. Raimi was the perfect filmmaker to bring Spidey (and perhaps any comic book) to the big screen. Stan Lee’s writing (and that of his subsequent acolytes in the Marvel stable) had a depth to it that was cinematic to begin with. Raimi caught the spirit of the comic book pretty much perfectly. In this century there has been a welcome flood of Marvel adaptations, admittedly of varying quality, but generally pleasing to fans. We have gotten a couple of Fantastic Four movies, a couple of Iron Man movies, a couple of Hulk movies (the weakest-performing of the bunch) and five (if you count the Wolverine movie) X-Men films. And there’s lots more to follow. This summer we will have had Thor and Captain America on the big screen, and next year promises a Spider-man reboot bunch of our favorite heroes together in The Avengers. Further out, we are promised Nick Fury and Ant-Man.

Can this get to be too much of a good thing? From the point of view of Marvel fans, one would have to say, no. While far from uniformly perfect, the output from the Marvel Enterprises production company has really been every bit as good as we could have expected. And on the Warner Bros/DC side? Well, they really haven’t moved far beyond their two main characters, Superman and Batman, on the big screen. The latter is currently a home run, in the capable hands of Mr. Nolan. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was misjudged and misfired, but they are giving it another go with Zack Snyder (who adapted DC’s Watchmen) directing Henry Cavill and Amy Adams as Clark and Lois. We shall see. But Superman has been scoring creatively for the studio quite nicely for the past decade on the small screen in the recently ended Smallville. But the new Green Lantern highlights the thinness of DC’s superhero bench. A second-tier character like GL needs a very creative artist to transcend the paucity of imagination in the original comic book.

That’s why Marvel Comics on the big screen will overshadow (but not completely eclipse) output from DC. Many fine and talented people have worked at DC over the years. But only Marvel had Stan Lee.

-S.L., 23 June 2011

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