Director Spotlight: Comic Book Films
by Barry Wurst
March 8, 2007
The consensus seems to be that, in order for a comic book adaptation to work, you need a director with a stylish eye who has an understanding and respect for the source material. With the eagerly anticipated release of Frank Miller's 300 looming (and the career of Zack Snyder seemingly about to skyrocket), here's a look at five directors who brought a welcome, respectful and altogether ingenious touch to their adaptations of comic book material.
March 8 - Comic Book Films
5. Robert Rodriguez - Sin City
Like it or hate it, it's a safe bet to say there will never be a comic book film as faithful to its source as this film is. It's one thing to duplicate the look of certain panels for your film, but Rodriguez actually mimicked entire pages of Miller's graphic novel, and made sure every character looked accordingly as it did on paper, down to every last drop of yellow blood. Die-hard fans were willing to ignore the unpleasantness of the material and marvel at the visceral charge the performances and visuals give the viewer. Rodriguez got a wonderful performance out of Mickey Rourke and coerced Jessica Alba to dance atop a bar, but his biggest geek cred may be from giving Quentin Tarantino AND Miller himself co-directing credit. Now THAT is a man with connections!
4. Warren Beatty - Dick Tracy
The flimsy plot of this hugely hyped, summer of 1990 attraction doesn't hold up well at all. Yet, as a recreation of Chester Gould's bizarre noir world, with over-the-top gangsters, good-as-gold heroes, multi-colored landscapes and femmes both pure and utterly fatale, the film is a knockout. Beatty only used the six primary colors from the comic strip to give the film a distinctly vibrant decor and the impressive cast (including an Oscar-nominated turn by Al Pacino) gives the film all the flair it needs. If only the story were worth all the effort. Even more so than Batman, this one is a stunner to watch.
3. Richard Donner - Superman: The Movie
Taking the director of The Omen and bringing him in to direct a lavish adaptation of a classic comic book character, with big name actors, state-of-the-art special effects, in a mega-production that could make or break the studio, sounded like an awful idea ... in 1978. Now, studios like Sony and Warner Brothers roll the dice all the time on such films like Spider-Man and Batman. Superman was the first film to bring luster, credibility and durability to the then-disreputable genre of comic book adaptations. The reason the film still works so well: the respect Donner gave the material and its audience. The third movie played everything as a joke. The second film has a deserved following, but this initial epic is rightly called Warner Brothers' answer to Star Wars.
2. Alex Proyas - The Crow
The look of Spawn, Daredevil, Blade, Hellboy and Sin City all reference this still-great, black-as-coal adaptation of James O'Barr's great graphic novel. Not the first of its kind - Tim Burton's Batman did the dark and rainy look too, as did Blade Runner, but there is a richness in Proyas' film, both visually and thematically, that enhances the human element and the overall story arch in a way those films never did plot-wise. Proyas went on to make the underrated Dark City and the not-bad I, Robot, but this ambitious, thrillingly realized, strikingly poignant and often disturbing film is still his best. It's still the best proof that Brandon Lee had a real career ahead of him as an actor (he's both genuinely scary and remarkably vulnerable in this film) and one of the best comic book films of the 90's. Only the tone is off - it's somewhat softer than the source material and was reportedly altered due to the tragedy that occurred during filming.
1. Terry Zwigoff - Ghost World
From reading an issue of this piercingly cynical, snarky comic book, you know someone with a unique approach and understanding of teen angst and alienation would be a must for someone to take this on as a film. Zwigoff's bemused, slightly detached approach is a perfect match for a film that is howingly funny, observant and bittersweet. Zwigoff's filmography includes Crumb, Bad Santa, and Art School Confidential, but this is still his crowning achievement. Portraying the antagonistic protagonists, Thora Birch is wonderful in the lead, as is Scarlett Johansson, and a never-better Steve Buscemi. Alongside American Splendor, it is the best film adaptation of a non-superhero comic book.
Of course, the comic book films made by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns), Tim Burton (Batman), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man), Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer), Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), Chuck Russell (The Mask), Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black), Steve Barron (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and The Hughes Brothers (From Hell) are also worth mentioning and deserve outright praise as excellent examples of the genre (as well as great films overall). I'll even go to bat for Ang Lee's uneven, defiantly strange but still riveting take on Hulk. However, here are five directors who missed the mark:
5. Albert Pyun - Captain America
The Uwe Boll of the 80's. Don't believe me? Look at his filmography - except for a few guilty pleasures, like Cyborg (even that's stretching it!), he made Alien From L.A., Radioactive Dreams and the unwatchable remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I've got nothing against the guy - like myself, he's a Hawaii native. Yet, there's nothing he's made before or since to suggest that he was up for making a film based on one of the most blatantly patriotic superheroes ever. The story, pace, special effects, performances - everything feels off in this film. Ties with Brenda Starr for being so excruciating to sit through.
4. Willard Huyck - Howard the Duck
Steve Gerber's cult favorite Marvel series (for the record, my all-time favorite) needed a distinct edge and a satirical tone to work. Under the guidance of George Lucas (who disowned the film, despite being the biggest force behind it, pun intended), Huyck's film works beautifully...during the Duckworld prologue, then literally crashes down to earth, along with its hero, once the setting changes to Cleveland. The once top-secret, highly touted duck suit still looks fake, the performances are waaaay over the top (Tim Robbins, of all actors, goes the farthest), the story has no focus, John Barry's tender score is laughably out of place and the film becomes a non-stop special effects reel during its painful third act.
3. Oley Sassone - The Fantastic Four
No, the OTHER one. Lacking Jessica Alba, much of a budget, convincing special effects, and much of anything making it worth watching, this hilariously bad (but mostly just bad) fiasco can't be blamed entirely on Sassone. Producer
Roger Corman has made some wonderful "B"-movies before, but this one just doesn't work. Both sappy, incoherent and just plain stupid, this admittedly priceless moment sums up the entire movie: when Johnny Storm (played by an earnest Jay Underwood) tries out his flame powers for the first time, its all-too-obviously a flame flower, out of view of the camera, but close enough to reveal how tacky this film is.
2. Richard Fleischer - Red Sonja
Fleischer did some terrific movies in his day (including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Soylent Green, for starters), but the latter half of his filmography sadly includes stinkers like The Jazz Singer (the one with Neil Diamond), Amityville 3-D, Million Dollar Mystery and this, the lamest sword and loin cloth epic ever taken from a comic book. The cheesy but entertaining Conan movies were preludes to this, a movie so dumb it could make your head explode just thinking about it. Now, I know what you're thinking - "but Barry, it has Brigitte Nielsen, in her Mrs. Stallone/80's-era hotness, romping around with little clothing and a sword, for 90 minutes, how bad could it be?!" Let me put it this way - Sheena, with Tanya Roberts, is a superior alternative. Arnold Schwarzenegger has spoken fondly in interviews of his brief career as a sword and sorcery movie icon - funny, how he'll bring up Conan but never mentions this stinker.
1. Pitof - Catwoman
Yeah, I know, you'd think I'd save this space to go after Joel Schumacher and Mark A.Z. Dippe for making Batman & Robin and Spawn into atrocious, campy, feature-length action figure commercials. Too obvious. I could also attack Danny Cannon (Judge Dredd), Kenneth Johnson (Steel), Stephen Norrington (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Francis Lawrence (Constantine), and Rob Bowman (Elektra) for taking all the intrigue out of fascinating characters, miscasting their films and making a mockery out of them. No, you've heard it all before.
Instead, I want to slap the hand of a director who only goes by his nickname (for the record, his name is Jean-Christophe Comar). He proved to be an excellent special effects artist, working on films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Luc Besson. Catwoman, Pitof's directorial debut, has style but no coherence, consistency, good performances, or anything to recommend it. I'd actually been looking forward to this one for years. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer's performance and take on the character in Batman Returns and was enthusiastic about a spin-off project that was announced in the early 90's. For a while, it sounded like Ashley Judd was cast, and the project was green lit ... only to see Judd bail and Halle Berry take on the role. Berry, clad in an outfit too racy for Halloween but too silly for Frederick's of Hollywood, gave an uninspired performance, one of her worst post-Oscar choices, while Benjamin Bratt and Sharon Stone embarrassed themselves just by showing up. Bad comic book movies are usually stinkers for a variety of reasons (actors, screenplay, etc), but what makes this one especially tough to take is Pitof's overreaching, over-stylized misdirection.