Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Doctor Strange (feat. Some Thought on the State of the Comic Book Film)

ds1.jpg

There is another Marvel movie out, in case you had not heard, and while Andrew and I will discuss Doctor Strange in depth on the next episode of the podcast, I wanted to use this space to write about the film as it relates to the larger world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This will be a sort of diagnosis (ahem), if you will.

In case you are sensitive to this sort of thing, there will most assuredly be spoilers.

ds2

Where are we now?

It has been eight years since Iron Man stormed movie screens and kicked off what was then the risky, uncertain endeavor of a universe of connected, but parallel films. The gamble has more than paid off for both Marvel Studios, and their parent company, Disney. One can argue over many things concerning these films, but it is impossible to deny that they have been hugely successful and that there has never been anything quite like this. The idea of launching groups of “solo” films which would then connect in The Avengers remains ambitious, and despite the many copycats, and my own relative ambivalence toward the Marvel films, no one has pulled the idea off more successfully.

In fact, no one else who has tried has really pulled it off yet. Sony had an ambitious interconnected universe planned around the success of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, but the disappointing box office of the latter has led to a partnership between Sony and Disney to bring a new Spiderman into the MCU fold. The X-Men films have never quite branched out in the same way the MCU has. Despite a convoluted time-travel plot to try and simultaneously launch sequels to the X-Men films of the 2000s while rebooting them, the franchise has yielded only a few Wolverine-centric entries and Deadpool, whose success may push the franchise into MCU territory, or may prove a blip on the radar. Then there is the Fantastic Four universe which exploded on the runway. And to keep with the metaphor, we have DC, who, after backing the successful and often audacious Batman films of Christopher Nolan, has had to hit the reset button and build the plane while it’s in the air with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and the upcoming Wonderwoman and Justice League – which may be the DCU’s last real hope to compete at Marvel’s level.

I am not even saying most of these Marvel films have been particularly good (they haven’t, in my opinion), but the fact that the whole enterprise, eight years on, continues to grow and expand and remains successful financially is impressive, and a testament to the model that Marvel has built. This model is a kind of hybrid of the way Marvel’s comics wing operates, and the Golden Age of Hollywood studio filmmaking. I will be the first to admit that responding to my broadest criticism of these films – that they lack a distinct aesthetic vision from film to film and bring nothing new to the art of cinema – would likely make them a less successful corporate endeavor. But with Doctor Strange, it appears that Marvel may, at least, be searching for a middle ground – a way forward.

ds3

The Doctor is in: Doctor Strange as remedy

The thing about perpetuating a franchise for nearly a decade is that ten years is a very long time – actors age or drop out, technology changes, sequels start to yield diminishing returns. One of the benefits of the Marvel system is that, while they have produced 14 films up to this point, they are not all direct sequels. Marvel can tell new-ish stories that sort-of stand alone while still tying them into the brand. For a while, these stories were all Avengers-centric, but in an effort to expand, and potentially modulate its universe, Marvel, beginning with Guardians of the Galaxy, started expanding its (already large) cast and plot strands. Next came Ant-Man. And now we have Doctor Strange. And while each of these films orbit the Avengers, they also try to inject some new blood into the years long saga of the Avengers Initiative.

On one level, Doctor Strange accomplishes this task – it introduces a new hero who, thinking purely in terms of plot, is the type that could lead an Avengers film at some point (Robert Downey Jr. isn’t going to stick around forever). But much like Guardians of the Galaxy introduced more hard sci-fi elements to the MCU, Doctor Strange introduces a new dimension of sorcery and magic which has been essentially untouched in the MCU.

And the film really rips the viewer right into this world. The first fight scene has the dual qualities of being both interesting to look at, and not overstaying its welcome. There is no expositional dialogue explaining exactly what is happening. Just a theft and a chase. Here is a villain. Here is a hero. Here are some buildings getting folded.

As interesting and effective as this sequence is, it is completely dwarfed by the first interaction between Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular Doctor in which she removes Strange’s soul from his body and sends him flying through multidimensional space and the astral plane. The film is a surrealist, mind-melting trip. Director Scott Derrickson flexes his horror chops here, bringing genuinely memorable, and grotesque, images to the MCU. There is nothing in any of these films like Cumberbatch’s damaged fingers growing more fingers which continue to grow more fingers. It is a fascinating and show-stopping sequence in a world of films that could use much more of that. And while I have seen much stranger things on film before (pick any David Lynch film you like), it struck me while watching in the theater that most people who watch these films have not. For that alone, I am grateful for this film.

While Doctor Strange stretches some of the visual boundaries of the MCU, it also seems to make some oblique nods to the problems and critiques levied at past films. The climactic sequence contains the two most notable. First, instead of a city-destroying ending (of which we have, by now, seen more than enough to make them boring), Strange reverses the damage wrought on Hong Kong. In backwards-motion, the city is slowly put back together, until it is stopped mid-stream, allowing for some interesting shots of civilians frozen in time before the moment of terror. The sequence is a welcome reprieve from the expected endings of comic-book cinema fare.

Second, and this may be entirely unintentional, though no less notable for it, Strange uses a bizarre, Sisyphean method of saving the day. He traps himself and Dormammu, the film’s barely-defined villain, in a time loop in which they must relive the same ten seconds or so of Dormammu destroying Strange. The time loop is meant to eventually wear down the villain and force him to bargain as, in the loop, he cannot commence with world conquering, and must be content to merely crush Strange over and over, hoping for a different result. One could cynically read this as the way in which Marvel slowly grinds down audiences, delivering essentially the same scenario film after film until we wear down and give into the whole enterprise. Less cynically, one could read it as the director’s hopeful vision of breaking away from the relentless Marvel style of filmmaking and trying to craft something more personal and cinematic.

Doctor Strange cannot help but get tripped up in the Marvel net, however.

ds4.jpg

The Doctor is out: Doctor Strange as symptom

The first sign of trouble was when Edgar Wright left Ant-Man so late in the game over “creative differences.” Ideally, these are the kinds of difference you resolve (or don’t) before shooting begins, when a director and studio are forming a joint vision for what the film should be. Marvel choosing an offbeat and well-respected director like Wright was a good sign that they would be expanding the ways in which these stories could be told, parting ways with him was a sign that Marvel/Disney, as a corporate entity, still could not resist calling some major shots even on a smaller off-beat entry like Ant-Man. Ant-Man ended up being fine, I guess – at least, it performed to expectations at the box office, which left Doctor Strange on the horizon as the film that could potentially shake things up.

But the film is tasked with doing so much that we have seen before. It’s an origin story after all.

So we have Strange as narcissistic but genius surgeon, brought down by his own hubris, unable to save himself. Here is the motive. He gets in a car wreck. Here is the inciting event. He has a vague love interest in Rachel McAdams’ character who is so poorly drawn that she is almost invisible in the film. Popping up now and again as a plot convenience to motivate or challenge the hero. Like Tony Stark (or, at times, Bruce Wayne), Strange is not particularly likable. I am still not convinced that Strange, with his High Laurie-in-House accent ever quite crosses the threshold into endearing self-absorption, like Stark – and I certainly never once found myself hoping he would find a way to fix his hands.

There is so little time for him to have a satisfying arc in this new and magical world which, despite the amount of time spent explaining the way the magic works, remains vague and borderline nonsensical. There seems to be no particular reason why these people can bend the world into Escher-like contortions (or Inception squared, if you prefer) other than that it looks cool – and the boring orange sparks the conjure out of thin air which form their portals and weapons do not even have that luxury – which would be perfectly acceptable if 90% of the characters’ dialogue in the middle act of the film was more than just droning on about how all this stuff is supposed to work and what it is supposed to mean.

There is also a persistent visual problem which the MCU (and really, most comic book films) has yet to solve. The long history of most of these characters gives a wide range of visual representations to choose from, but they are all, of course, two-dimensional. The trick is in translating these (often iconic) flat, static images into cinematic and dynamic ones. Marvel’s default response has been to simply render these classic images in 3D, mostly avoiding any radical redesign. For some characters, this approach works well (Iron Man) for others, the silliness which is less apparent in a drawing on a page becomes absurd when exaggerated into reality and placed on the body of a living, moving, breathing person (Loki’s helmet). This tactic is popular outside of Marvel as well and usually results in all kinds of useless fabric geometry from which few heroes have been spared – Captain America, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and Black Panther have all fallen victim. Then there is the issue of masks. Cowls in particular. These look fine in comics – movies are another story. It took Nolan three films to get a cowl that didn’t make Christian Bale look like he was in a neck brace; Captain America is more persuasive as a hero when the mask is off; and I cannot even make it through commercials of CW’s The Flash without laughing at that supremely dumb mask he is wearing.

Doctor Strange opts for kaleidoscopic, Dali-esque surrealism in the early sequence I have already lauded in the space of this piece, but when it comes to staging the final confrontation with the film’s big bad, Dormammu, in the Dark Dimension, the film loses its nerve. The design of the Dark Dimension draws inspiration from nebulas and visual representations of neurons, but fails to convert these interesting touchstones into compelling cinema. The result is a sea of muddy blacks and blues with occasional neon bursts. There is also a geographic problem in that the characters never have any tangible relation to the ill-defined world around them. There is never a moment where Cumberbatch does not look like he is on a big soundstage surrounded by green screen. The close ups draw a stark line between the real fabric of his clothes and the computer simulated fantasia around him. The long shots turn him into a CGI blob amidst a sea of other, larger CGI blobs.

Consider these four shots from inside the Dark Dimension:

ds6ds5ds7ds8

Now consider this single panel from the comic:

ds9

Whereas the film opts for nebulous blobs, the comic goes for more geometric psychedelics. And the colors in the comic may be more subdued, but they are better defined and, in fact, help to define the impossible space of the dark dimension, making them more effective visually. In the illustration, we can place Strange firmly within the space, even if the limits of the space itself fade into impossible orange. We can trace a path along distant strands of green and pink over a cut and paste background of stars and tracings of orbits which render our three dimensional galaxy as two dimensional wallpaper in the theoretically four dimensional space of the Dark Dimension. Despite being a static image on a page, the illustration is more interesting because it gives the eye so many possible paths to take while it simultaneously establishes the heroes place in all of it. It is a tough thing to do, but frustratingly, the film mostly does it in the first sequence between the Ancient One and Strange, and descends into visual blandness at its dramatic climax.

There have been creative and beautiful solutions to the problems of translating comics to cinema. Whether it is Guillermo del Toro’s intricate, handmade Hellboy films, Christopher Nolan’s nü-noir Batman, or the brilliant choice of putting Hugh Jackman in a white tank top instead of bright yellow spandex. One of the most interesting things Marvel has done of late is give the new Spiderman a classic, flat look to his costume that looks straight out of the comic. While it is incongruous with the copiously over-textured Power Rangers look of the Avengers, it is preferable and memorable. It draws directly from the iconography of the character. It is a literal translation, but one that works as cinema.

And that is what I want more than anything out of these films: good cinema. Comic book adaptions aren’t going away anytime soon. If they are going to stick around, they should push at the boundaries they have erected for themselves. There are some signs of that.

It’s odd, I went into the theater the other night hoping that Doctor Strange would provide the sign. It ultimately did not. But I did get my sign. And it came crashing in wearing a white tank top with Johnny Cash playing in the background:

Advertisements

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Hellboy II: The Golden Army

hb1

Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

The designation of Hellboy II: The Golden Army as “horror” is dubious, to be sure. I will not spend the bulk of this article defending its inclusion in my run of horror-related pieces (and anyways, I will more than make up for this genre fraud next week), but I will say that the guiding hand of director Guillermo del Toro, along with the soul of the source material, are enough to merit an exploration of this film in the present context.

I have yet to write about the first Hellboy film directed by del Toro, and while I think one could jump into Hellboy II without seeing the first (a virtue of most comic book films 1978-2011), I would recommend seeing Hellboy because it’s a gem. The setup is fairly simple: the titular character is a world-ending demon from hell who ends up being raised by a kindly British professor and expert in the occult. As an adult, he works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) along with other agents with “enhanced talents.” Hellboy likes cats, beer, cigars, and the music of Tom Waits. Ron Perlman plays Hellboy in one of the great character/actor matches in all of film history.

hb2

The plot of the film is not particularly important. There are ancient artifacts, a troll market, an abandoned underground city, a forest god. What makes this film distinctive is the meticulous, handcrafted nature of everything put on camera. Del Toro is famous for this. I might say that Hellboy is a better film than its sequel, but Hellboy II is a better film to look at. Every frame is stuffed to the edges with real things, intricate things. Every item in the film is something you could pick up and flip through, or open, or play with. The tactile, physical nature of the film extends to the enormous cast of creatures that populate the various set pieces. If you look far into the background, what you will see are extras in heavy costume and makeup, filling up a world so that we can be engulfed in it.

This is an old idea of horror – going back to the silent era – that mise en scène sets the mood, and plays a larger part than plot in building atmosphere and suspense. The sets of Hellboy II are lavish, but they range from the playful to the sinister. These are not merely dark places, but whole worlds unto themselves.

HB3.jpg

The playfulness of del Toro’s design spills over into the rest of the film. This movie is fun. And not in the way that a movie trying to be fun is fun, but in a genuinely, organically pleasurable way. The emotional beats are simple and build gently on the groundwork from the first film. They are effective because the actors never oversell them, and in fact, the film is more subdued than one might imagine. One of the film’s best moments involves Hellboy and Abe Sapien (a sort of mer-man who also works for the B.P.R.D.) lamenting their troubles in love over beers and singing along, gently, to Barry Manilow. It’s an unexpectedly warm and touching scene.

Couched in del Toro’s elaborate world, the characters’ dramas both big and small never feel silly playing out in such lovingly constructed environs. Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic, hash out their domestic problems in blazes of flame. Only later when they reach a shadowy chamber where one of del Toro’s more terrifying creatures (a dark angel with eyes dotting its wings) hands them their fate, do they put their arguments behind them and commit to each other for good. The small scale of the human drama could feel absurd in this fantasy world, but it doesn’t because del Toro and his actors treat the world with respect – they know how fragile it is, and things do threaten constantly to fall apart.

Hellboy II is a monster movie where the monsters are the bad guys and the good guys. Really, its not even that, because the good guys are fighting to subvert their own dark destinies, and the bad guys fight for what they believe to be a noble cause. But it still manages to be an excellent evocation of classic creature features, showing reverence to its references and giving care and attention to its own creations. We need more comic book films like this. We need more horror films like this. Hellboy II is not a perfect film, but it is a film undoubtedly assembled with love and passion by all involved. With all that care put on the screen, how could we not enjoy it?

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): A Hulk-Sized Post: In Praise of Ang Lee’s Hulk

hulk1

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever) is an ongoing series which examines the long-standing relationship between comic books and film through individual works as well as groups of works. While it is likely impossible that a single person could write about every single comic book film ever made, the series hopes to provide insight that ranges widely across eras and styles of filmmaking – covering acknowledged classics, hidden gems, huge disasters, and relatively unknown works with an empathetic and critical eye.

 

In theory, the Hulk should be one of the easiest characters to put to screen. He is Frankenstein and his monster. He is Jekyll and Hyde. He is King Kong. The Hulk is gothic horror retold for the nuclear era. In fact, in his first comic appearance, he is betrayed by his assistant Igor (who turns out to be a Soviet spy) while testing his breakthrough, the G-bomb. The literary and cinematic family from which the Hulk descends is rich and ripe for constant reinterpretation. It is a deep well. So it makes sense that he has been depicted many times since his creation.

hulk2.jpg

In the hands of the creative team at CBS in the 70s and 80s, the Hulk became a lonely drifter, whose curse cuts him off from close human relationships, but allows him to do some limited good in the world. The TV series deserves a much longer column, and will hopefully get one in the future, but what makes it successful is the way in which it explores Banner/Hulk as a psychological construction as much as a biological one. The Hulk comics have always had a gnarled psychological undertone, but the show’s modus operandi was to explore that, taking the subtext of a flashy comic book and elevating it. This is a practical decision, on the one hand, as television budget and time constrictions made it impossible to, week after week, mount huge, expensive action sequences. But character studies also make for effective television. Instead of upping the spectacle with each episode, a game you cannot win, what the show chose to do was dive deeper and deeper into Banner’s relationship with himself. By giving him a lifestyle (that of a drifter) which lends itself to episodic exploits, the creators were able to deliver discrete adventures each week while making the complexities of the Banner/Hulk dichotomy the long arc of the show.

There is also the matter of how they portrayed the Hulk visually. With limited options, they chose to cast another actor (the truly hulking Lou Ferrigno) and paint him green. The psychological duality of Banner (played with agony by Bill Bixby) and the Hulk is manifested physically by the performances of the two actors. In addition to this, the show offered an equally complicated antagonist in the form of journalist Jack McGee, who is always hot on Banner’s heels, obsessed with proving the existence of the Hulk in order to advance his career. This obsession mirrors Banner’s own scientific obsession which turned him into the Hulk in the first place. The show works because of its intense focus on the characters’ states of mind. The rampages of the Hulk merely serve to spice the thing up a bit. A similar approach would be taken when the Hulk was finally portrayed on film.

hulk3.jpg

It is possible that, due to the fevered pace at which superhero films have been put out in the intervening years, you have forgotten that 2003’s Hulk even exists. It was a different time in the world of superhero films. After a decade which saw the rise (in the hands of Tim Burton) and fall (at the hands of Joel Schumacher) of Batman at the box office, studios were still laying low. However, the success of Fox’s X-Men in 2000 and Sony’s Spider-Man in 2002 had studios reconsidering the potentially lucrative comic book properties which they owned the rights to. So before WB gave Christopher Nolan the wheel on Batman, and when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was merely a dollar sign twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, Universal Studios (along with Feige, Avi Arad, and Marvel) tapped Ang Lee to helm the first big-screen iteration of the character.

Thirteen years later, Ang Lee remains the most interesting directorial choice for a comic book franchise. He does not at all seem a natural fit for the material (unlike say, Nolan, whose noir sensibility fits Gotham). Aside from, perhaps, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is nothing to suggest a turn heading a comic book tent pole in Lee’s filmography, which is mostly made up of beautifully shot dramas. And unlike more recent indie/art house promotions, Lee’s career was both established and praised, so the studio had less leverage in shaping the final film. The trade-off was that Lee’s experienced hand could guide the film competently to completion. The development of the film had started in 1990, and I won’t delve too deeply into its history here, but over the course of the decade, several directors and screenwriters worked on the film and millions of dollars were spent in development. The studio needed a veteran hand, so Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus were left to sort through the material and make a film of it.

hulk4.jpg

Lee and Schamus take an even more thoughtful and staid approach to the material than the TV series. The film takes its time developing and revealing Bruce Banner’s backstory, the lynchpin of which is his complicated relation to his long-disappeared father, whose experiments on himself are inherited by Bruce. Bruce’s own research in the same field leads to the accident which causes his transformation. The film’s take on the origin story adds a thick layer of family drama over the b-movie science. Betty Ross, who leads the research into gamma radiation along with Bruce, also has a complicated and cold relationship with her father, Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who shut down Bruce’s father’s research and is highly suspicious of Bruce. Complicating matters further, Bruce and Betty allude to a failed romantic partnership in the past. The tension between all of these characters is further heightened by the arrival of Maj. Glenn Talbot, a military sub-contractor interested in appropriating Bruce and Betty’s research for military use. In addition to this, a mysterious new janitor is employed in the lab, skulking around gruffly. It turns out that he is Bruce’s father, returning to finish the work he began.

All of this is hard to keep track of in print, but the film does a commendable job of balancing the melodrama and the science which make up its first half. As the pace begins to quicken and conflicts come to a head, the slower development of the first hour proves its value. We care about these characters and have at least a basic understanding of their motivations, whether simple or complex.

And some are fairly simple. Talbot is transparent from the beginning: he’s in this for the money. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. The character would be unnecessary and boring if it weren’t for Josh Lucas’s scenery-chewing performance (he excels at playing these sorts of characters). Talbot is the furthest removed from the Banner/Ross drama, with motives separate and unrelated to the history the two families share. But he serves a purpose in the plot, first as Gen. Ross’s henchman, then going behind his back to take control of research on the imprisoned Banner.

hulk5

Betty’s characterization is a bit thin as well. The specifics of her sour relationship with her father are left untouched. This is a shame because vacillation between distance and needing access to her father for help is well played by Jennifer Connelly, whose performance is intelligent and low-key. When the fact of her actions seems incongruous with the qualities of her character, Connelly sells them carefully. For what is essentially a Fey Rey role, Betty is filled out by the compassion that Connelly exudes. In fact, aside from a scene where they walk through the ruins of the town they (unwittingly) grew up in, the most affecting scenes between Betty and Bruce are when he is transformed. If Belle were not the protagonist of Beauty and the Beast, it might look something like this. And while her father is not exactly a complicated man, his priorities of safety, and the revelation of his past dealings with Banner the elder, make his motivations understandable, if a bit straightforward. He wants his daughter safe. He wants to keep his job. He wants to finish what he started.

The emotional and psychological core of the film is the oedipal conflict between Bruce and his father, David. The reason Bruce continues to transform all comes down to his father – both the emotional and physical damage caused by the man are a large part of what makes Bruce the Hulk. The revelation, late in the film, that what Bruce had been blocking, what was behind the closed door in his nightmares, was his father charging out to murder him in a fit of twisted compassion and, instead, killing Bruce’s mother by accident, is what allows Bruce to begin to face his demons, both physical and emotional. The last memory of the woman, dying on the desert floor, reaching out toward a green mushroom cloud on the horizon, is a source of trauma for both of these men.

Eric Bana’s performance is noticeably restrained, even wooden. While the performance doesn’t exactly light up the screen, it does track with Bruce’s psychology. The Hulk becomes a metaphor for Bruce’s repressed feelings – rage, passion, love, sadness. While Bruce remains closed-off, the Hulk is both gentle and fiercely protective of Betty when David sends mutant, radiated dogs to test his son’s abilities. In a lovely moment during the climactic sequence of the film, the Hulk leaps far into the desert, away from pursuing helicopters and sits, cross-legged on the ground. It is a contemplation which Banner cannot achieve in his normal life. Betty’s reasonable assessment of Banner as “emotionally distant” is why the romantic pair can’t make things work before the accident. But afterwards, where others see a dangerous monster, Betty sees the messy humanity that Bruce has been trying to hide, it just so happens to be contained in the body of an eighteen foot, bright green lab accident.

hulk6

While Bruce sees these past events as a curse to match his monstrous transformation, David uses them as fuel for his revenge against those who ruined his life, Gen. Ross being chief among them. Unsurprisingly, Nick Nolte has the most memorable performance in the entire film. As David Banner, he channels all the anxiety and madness of a protective father and mad scientist. Unleashing mutant dogs, stalking his son at his work place, springing on him the revelation of his parenthood without so much as a hello – all the good dad stuff. Although he is clearly warped and lacking perspective, there is a tragedy to his character. Nolte’s wild hair, grizzled beard, and rumpled jacket hide a broken man, looking to atone for his past sins and punish those who orchestrated his tragedy. David is unhinged, but the madness has a method, and so he replicates the accident which created the Hulk in order to “cure” himself and set about on his revenge.

The key to his plan is that he turns himself in, the only condition being that he see his son one last time. And while the plot machinery that brings them together is a bit convoluted, the operatic scene that it leads to more than makes up for that. David emerges from the darkness and sits across from Bruce, blackness all behind them, and two huge suppressive on either side (this is one of those great moments where science fiction can give physicality to mental states).

Bruce is the first to speak: “I should have killed you.”

David responds: “And I should’ve killed you.”

Bruce breaks down over his mother’s death, David moves in to console him, but Bruce rejects him, telling him that he isn’t his father. David chuckles, “I’ve got news for you.” In David’s mind, Bruce’s true being is made manifest in the Hulk, and David is the sole creator of the Hulk. He is more than a father, he is a god. Bruce is “nothing but a superficial shell” concealing his “true” son underneath. Nolte’s monologue here is Shakespearian. The drama, Greek. The madness and tragedy of David is unleashed in the way Nolte slowly loosens up, voice growing louder, arms flailing. His voice breaks with sadness, then with anger. It is theatre. It is musical, his voice rises and falls as if he is reciting poetry. It echoes in the black space. He is possessed by power and self-righteousness. His vision is mythic and apocalyptic. Bruce screams it to a stop. David collapses in his chair, play-acting a tantrum to mock Bruce. “Stop your bawling,” he says, before sucking his teeth and impishly glancing around, as if to ask, “is it time to begin now?,” before biting into the thick electrical wires draped on the floor.

hulk7

The result of this scene is that David absorbs the energy from the surrounding city, becoming a hulking figure of pure electricity (literalizing the electric performance of Nolte in this scene). With no other choice, Bruce gives in, and becomes the Hulk. David takes him for a ride through the sky in what is the most beautiful and painterly scene in any superhero film. David flashes like lightning, like Zeus, in the sky, illuminating in stabs his son and he, absorbed in battle. The alternating light and murky darkness of the scene frames each of them in still poses. Without the limitation of movement, the CGI here is emotional, physical, primordial, and mythic. The final conflict ends with the two of them blasted by the technology they helped create. David and Bruce disappear. While we are left to wonder about the fate of the father, we catch a glimpse of the son, deep in the rainforests of South America, helping people, a man-on-the-run in the tradition of the TV series.

The film does not always achieve these visual heights however. Lee films the lab spaces and character interactions (especially early in the film) in a kind of ambient light which gives everything a drab aspect. The lighting becomes more dramatic as the film goes on, but the camera work remains mostly traditional. Except for one distinctive feature: Lee attempts to adapt comic book paneling to the screen. Sometimes it is successful in establishing the space, or defining characters’ relationships to each other, but mostly it is gimmicky and distracting. In the best scenes of the film, Lee resorts to this tactic only briefly, and these scenes are noticeably diminished for it. The different ways in which he organizes panels and swipes is completely arbitrary, violating the cinematic language of the film, and ignoring the kind of sense these framings bring to comics. The only purpose they seem to serve is in reminding us that we are watching a film based on a comic book.

The CGI of the Hulk has not aged particularly well, but this is mitigated by two important factors. First, Lee is a good director, and he knows when to bring out the monster. As a result, the Hulk is only onscreen for about 15 minutes of the 2+ hours of runtime. The scenes in which he appears are spread out fairly evenly besides the last act of the film, so it feels like he appears more. On top of this, Lee uses practical effects as much as possible. While the Hulk himself is obviously digital, Lee blows out windows, flips cars, busts plaster, breaks walls, and does everything he can to give actors real, physical destruction to respond to in these scenes. The Hulk looks removed when he is standing still, but when he moves, the world around him responds naturally.

The film is, at worst, a fascinating failure, in which the disparate parts do not quite coalesce into a coherent whole. But I think the film makes daring choices that, for the most part, pay off. Visually it has lows and highs, but the highs are staggering. By pushing the characters to the forefront, Lee makes sure the film centers around a relational, human conflict, rather than a set of world ending jargon. Nolte’s performance is a huge part of this and it would not surprise me at all if Heath Ledger had studied the sci-fi Freudian couch scene that precedes the final battle in preparing to play the Joker. Unfortunately, the mixed reception of the film, its less than impressive box office, and the onslaught of comic book adaptions we’ve been hit with since have buried the film’s exceptional qualities.

hulk8.jpg

After Hulk failed to perform as well as Universal would have liked, Marvel Studios reclaimed the rights to the character (though not to stand-alone features, as the 2008 film is still a Universal production) and set about making, I believe, the first superhero reboot. Bringing Edward Norton in to play Banner, The Incredible Hulk came out just a little over a month after Iron Man and solidified the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite being named after the television show (and borrowing the flourish of Banner as a man-on-the-run), the film flattens the complexities of the series. As a reaction to Lee’s interpretation of the character, both the film’s psychology and biology are simplified. Where before, Banner was driven by rage (the TV series) or repressed trauma (Hulk), here the explanation is as simple as a set number of heartbeats in a minute. In this iteration of the character, anything can set him off so long as it elevates his heart rate. The transformation loses its tie to Banner’s state of mind and becomes something like an allergic reaction. An uncontrollable byproduct. Indeed, Banner is something of an unfortunate byproduct himself as his origin in the MCU is tied (isn’t everything?) to the super soldier program. Instead of spending time developing Banner, the film opts for CGI fireworks (the lack of these being a primary criticism of Lee’s film) which fail to thrill in the same way as Lee’s animated conflicts because they are devoid of his thoughtful character and psychological work, which serve to imbue the conflicts with drama both personal and relational.

hulk9.jpg

In all of the other MCU films in which he appears, Banner is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo who, with what little time he is given to explore the character, comes close to the kind of tortured but mild-mannered scientist that Bixby portrayed in the TV series. The Hulk, since the 2008 film, has been settled as a sort of tragi-comic supporting character, complementing the feather-light tone that most of the MCU films have while acknowledging the gravity of the character’s background and predicament. Age of Ultron attempted to advance the character forward through a romantic relationship with Black Widow. But ultimately, the film casts Hulk out into space, which is fitting way to describe what marvel has done with him the past 8 years (and, seemingly, into the future, as he does not look to be getting a stand-alone film anytime soon) through their inability to properly or even interestingly render one of the great movie monsters.

This is what, I think, makes Lee’s adaption so interesting and (dare I say) essential: he had an understanding of the Hulk as both monster and myth. He stripped it down to the bone and built up his story around it. Comic books are fairy tales obscured by cartoons and thought balloons. They tap into the same place as all the old myths do. They are filled with tragedy, comedy, and passion. They are ancient and archetypal in their construction and work best when treated as such, rather than pop escapism or self-serious video-games, hiding behind posturing edginess. If there is a way forward for superhero films as vital cinematic art, it is in finding artists with this kind of insight and allowing them to make good movies free of studio, or fan, interference.

 

-Ian

The Fleischer Bros. Superman Shorts (1941-1943)

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever) is an ongoing series which examines the long-standing relationship between comic books and film through individual works as well as groups of works. While it is likely impossible that a single person could write about every single comic book film ever made, the series hopes to provide insight that ranges widely across eras and styles of filmmaking – covering acknowledged classics, hidden gems, huge disasters, and relatively unknown works with an empathetic and critical eye.

 

This being the first installment of the series, I thought I would write about a film (well, a group of short films) that is both a personal favorite, and something of an unimpeachable classic. Hence, the Fleischer Bros. Superman Shorts.

logo.jpg

Fleischer Studios Logo

Max and Dave Fleischer began making shorts in the late nineteen-teens after Max Fleischer invented, patented, and sold the rotoscope. Starting work at Bray Studios, they eventually created their own studio (Fleischer Bros., Inc.) where they would go on to create original characters like Betty Boop and define pre-existing comic book characters like Popeye and, you guessed it, Superman. Without going too deep into the history, the Fleischers were, for a time, considered

the only real rival to Walt Disney’s animation dominance. In fact, the rotoscoping technique created by Max was used by Disney to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Unfortunately, the studio was plagued by financial troubles and, by the time Superman was being produced, was mostly owned and run by Paramount.

Despite this, Max and Dave were still heavily involved with Superman. They had just come off their first feature, Gulliver’s Travels, and were working on their second when Paramount, hoping to adapt the extremely popular at the time Superman, approached the Fleischers about bringing the character to life. They weren’t interested. But instead of saying no, the brothers told Paramount they could only make Superman for roughly ten times the amount of their previous shorts, expecting Paramount to balk and leave them in peace. Instead, Paramount negotiated an agreement for roughly half that much and Superman went into production as one of the most expensive animated shorts of that time.

mos.jpg

The Fleischer’s Man of Steel

The expense shows. Few animated films, from that time or any other, look as dynamic and lavish as the shorts the Fleischers produced. The first (titled “Superman,” but usually referred to as “The Mad Scientist”) pits Superman against what would become a common enemy in these shorts: a rogue scientist using advanced technology for nefarious means. The short introduces a number of iconic elements, beginning with a brief prologue explaining Superman’s origins and the classic invocation: “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” The story begins when Lois Lane sets out to track down a man who has been sending mysterious threats to Metropolis. She takes a plane to a towering, gothic mountain atop which sits the scientist’s laboratory. He promptly captures Lois (with the help of his henchman, a ruffled vulture/raven hybrid) and begins attacking the city with a massive death ray. As the destruction of the city begins, Clark Kent slips into a supply closet and, as the iconic score plays, rips of his tie and hat to reveal his identity as Superman. He begins his battle with the death ray, swooping (not quite flying) through the city, saving citizens and preserving the Daily Planet building as it arcs elegantly and destructively toward the ground.

In the end, he rescues Lois (and, importantly, the evil scientist) from the destruction of the death ray and the laboratory. Lois writes a front page column and Superman disappears into the ether until the next crisis. Meanwhile, Lois asks Clark where he was the whole time.

land clark.jpg

Lois and Clark, after the crisis

The shorts all follow this same basic formula, the first four especially. Lois jumps right into the thick of it, Superman is nearly defeated, but overcomes the villain, rescuing everyone in the end. It establishes a template familiar from the comics while adding a few of its own signature elements. One of those is the reliance on music to tell the story. There is little spoken dialogue in the Fleischer shorts, so the music does a lot of the heavy lifting. It helps to tell the story, creating drama and tension, while also serving as an all-purpose source for sound effects. When Superman punches the bullets from the death ray, the music turns to sharp stabs in unison with Superman’s powerful fists. The shorts alternate between heavy sci-fi plots where mad scientists or monsters are unleashed on the city and lighter sci-fi fair, where criminals use slick, new technology to rob trains and vaults.

What is most striking about these shorts, to me, is their audacity of design. They dwell in a kind of retro-futurism where contemporary architecture and automobiles exists alongside impossibly tall buildings, high mountain labs, and enclosed crosswalks which stretch from building to building somewhere around the 95th floor. The lines recall both art deco and early Soviet propaganda, while the lighting draws from noir; everything is rendered in gothic proportions. The Fleischer’s Metropolis and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis do not dwell far apart from each other. This is perhaps the most enduring influence of these shorts. Bruce Timm consulted them in designing the Gotham of Batman: The Animated Series; Brad Bird looked to them when building The Iron Giant; Hayao Miyazaki stole more than a few tricks from the Fleischers for Castle in the Sky and other films.

The Fleischer’s Metropolis Bruce Timm’s Gotham

In later Fleischer shorts (like The Bulleteers), the formula modulates slightly, moving into to a light serialization. Lois and Clarks relationship noticeably progresses at the end of each short, but the action is still the meat of these. Clark and Lois travel to a volcano where Superman saves everyone from an eruption. They travel to a carnival where he saves them from a giant gorilla. But by this point, a year into the Superman shorts, Max and Dave were no longer on speaking terms and Paramount was worried.

Dola Gang from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky Bulleteers from Superman

After Terror on the Midway, Paramount dissolved Fleischer Studios and reorganized its few remaining elements as Famous Studios. They continued to make Superman shorts, but these were markedly different than what came before. It was the end of 1942 and the U.S. was on the war path. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor almost a year earlier and every movie studio in the country was playing their part in the escalating war effort. Paramount and Famous Studios were no exception. The rest of the Superman shorts serve as pretty standard fair propaganda. The animation quality drops noticeably with the absence of the Fleischers and the plots are clunky, often involving saboteurs and peddling nasty racial stereotypes of the Japanese. The Superman of Famous Studios is the ultimate warrior of U.S. interests abroad. Trapped in Japan with Lois, Clark sneaks out at night to wreak havoc on the Japanese war effort. He destroys bridges and air bases and battleships. Where Superman used to rescue his adversaries, here he destroys them when they aren’t looking. A night watchmen on a ship undoubtedly dies when Superman pulls the vessel underwater until it explodes. The same fate is met by countless soldiers crossing a bridge at night when Superman annihilates it.

Still, these do not impinge on the revolutionary, earlier shorts of the Fleischers, which still stand today as one of the great achievements of not only animation, but filmmaking itself. With their dynamic and singular animation style, the Fleischer Bros. Superman shorts remain one of, if not the definitive comic-book adaptation.

 

-Ian