By Captain Dan
Marvel Comics Go Hollywood Pt. 1
Comic books are only for a select few. There are many comic book readers but they tend to be of a certain type. There are exceptions of course, as there are in any culture. Make no mistake about it, Comic Book fans are their own culture. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk why comic book movies appeal to the masses.
When comics are at their best, they tell a very human story. It is something that is relatable to most people just told in a fantastic way. A parable if you will. For centuries man has told myths and fairy tales, often with a moral lesson or an observation on why something is what it is. Sometimes these lessons give us hope, sometimes they terrify us, and sometimes they really open our eyes to things in our world we never took the time to notice or were too scared to accept as reality.
That’s what movies do, they take us out reality for a couple of hours and when they do their job right, they open our minds once we return to the real world.
Thank you Mr. Morpheus, or can I call you just Morph…No? Ok then, back to the real world and talking about the fantasy world. As I’ve said time and again, it is a great time to be a comic book fan, and for this fan it is great to experience these stories that I love so much, with an audience where it is new to them. Some they’ve loved, some they’ve loathed, but they keep coming back for more.
You know what I did for you people? I watched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order by release date. Well, I should say I’m in the middle of Marvelathon, hence the part 1. This week, I’m starting in 1986 and ending in the first half of 2004. This way, the journey can take us through the evolution of the Marvel movies, some improving on the previous efforts, some take a step back. Also to see what it is about these stories that have non-Comic Book folks coming in droves. It’s a roller coaster ride worthy of Universal’s Marvel Island of Fun in Orlando, Fl.
Two things you should know about this adventure we are about to have, One: No matter what movie you are watching, if it’s one you have seen before, watch the trailer right before you see it. Trust me. Works every time.
Two: These are only major theatrical releases. Not the 70’s attempt at Spiderman that became a failed TV show only to become a theatrical release overseas in like 4 countries with the combined population of East Los Angeles. Nor will we discuss the Roger Corman B-rated Captain America or his still unreleased Fantastic Four. I do love me some of the Low Budget King’s flicks, but these were not his finest hour.
HOWARD THE DUCK(1986)
We start in 1986, George Lucas wanted to adapt a comic book. But not just you’re run of the mill superhero comic, no, that would be too easy for Emperor Lucas. He decided to adapt a cigar smoking alien duck who crash landed on a planet where the dominant species evolved from apes. “You mean this planet is nothing but hairless apes?” You got it Howard. HOWARD THE DUCK was supposed to be a giant leap in special effects, a new form of walking Muppet like character, and a box office smash. Instead it turned out to be critically panned flop. But you know what? I loved it when I was 9 and I love it now. It is wonderful. Oh yes, it’s bad, terrible, but it is that good kind of terrible. Howard befriends the hot off the BACK TO THE FUTURE and just plain hot Lea Thompson, and they become more than friends? I know people like to cry bestiality on this one, but hear me out. Howard comes from a planet where Ducks become the dominant species. He’s not really an animal. I cite the Captain Kirk defense. Kirk has been getting on with aliens for nearly 50 years now. Along for the ride is I forgot how funny he was Tim Robbins. The plot doesn’t matter, grab a couple of friends, throw back a few shots, pop open a beer and by the end of the night, you’ll be singing this song:
So Howard nearly derailed the Marvel Movie train before it got going, but good thing is, nobody really associated Howard with Marvel, since most didn’t know it was a comic. But being an outsider is something a lot of people can relate to, even if it was just a brief moment of outside looking in. Howard was that to the extreme. In 1989, a movie was made about another outsider. One who put himself on the outside, when his family was killed. Dolph Lundgren stars in this low budget 80’s actioner, that is still my favorite of all the PUNISHER movies. It’s definitely not the best one, but it is my favorite. Dolph is my number 1 guilty pleasure action star. From ROCKY IV to HE-MAN to SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO to UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, Lundgren rocks. His stoic sculpted face is perfect for Frank Castle, a man who is tired of the scum of the earth escaping justice on legal technicalities or witness intimidation. Revenge for his family is not what he is looking for. It’s Punishment.
Yeah, that trailer is exactly what I was talking about earlier. I think I want to watch that one again. But only after I finished the rest of the Marvel flicks. Nearly ten years later, Marvel decided to step it up a bit. New Line bought the rights to a little known vampire hunter who was himself a vampire. My comic knowledge of BLADE consists of a crossover mini-series he was in with Ghost Rider, and one random issue of Tomb of Dracula I inexplicably own. Even though I knew little about him, seeing the Wesley kicking ass filled trailer sold me instantly. Wesley is one of the baddest MFer’s to ever cross our screens. He studied martial arts, so those lightening quick powerful moves you see him using in movies like PASSANGER 57 and the BLADE Trilogy are really him. No stunt martial artist. All Snipes. In the first of the three, we are introduced to Blade, born a vampire, but with one difference. He has all their powers and none of their weaknesses. He can move around in the sunlight without bursting into flames but the thirst is still strong in him. Like every vampire he must feed. He is able to stave it off with a serum he and his partner Whistler(Kris Kristofferson) created. They battle Deacon Frost, who attempts to take control of the Vampire Kingdom and enslave the human race. Stephen Dorff has a blast and taking the audience with him, as the seductive yet evil evil Frost.
The whole hating what you are is more common than you think. Of course it’s easy to understand a person hating being a vampire, but what if you hated being Jewish? Check out Ryan Gosling in a little known flick most distributors were afraid to release called THE BELIEVER. Story of Neo-Nazi(Gosling) who is himself, Jewish. Similar theme, vastly different story. But at their cores, they share a common bond. Universal themes, unite us universally. See what I did there? Marvel’s first major hit and an R-Rated flick to boot, set the stage for great things soon to come.
No there weren’t any Lightsabers in BLADE, but aren’t sword fights so much cooler when Lightsabers are involved? I know your nodding your head…cause I can see ya! Great things, ah yes great things were right around the corner. Bryan Singer’s X-MEN in 2000 was a critical success and a box office smash hit. Finally, Marvel had arrived. The X-MEN comic book came out in the 1963, when the civil rights movement was in full gear. It’s story of intolerance was very appropriate then as it is now. The racial tensions between humans and super-humans, known as Mutants, is the central theme to the X-MEN. On one hand you have Professor Charles Xavier(Patrick Stewart) who is comparable to Martin Luther King in his pursuit of a peaceful co-existence. On the other you have Eric Lensher(Ian McKellen) otherwise known as Magneto, who like Malcolm X believes in “By any means necessary”.
Magneto is a bit more militant than Malcolm, in the sense that he wants to rule the humans, believing Mutants are the new dominant species. The relationship between Magneto and Professor X is unique. They still are friends and very much respect one another, yet being on different sides of a War, they must be enemies. Getting pedigree actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen classed this movie up a bit, just as Marlon Brando and Terrence Stamp classed up the first two SUPERMAN movies. Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen as Wolverine and Jean Grey, respectively, were perfect. James Marsden(Cyclops), Halle Berry(Storm), Rebecca Romijn(Mystique) were fine. Anna Paquin, while a very talented actress, was a bit miscast here as Rogue. Although maybe I just don’t like the way they did the character. She’s little girl lost, whereas comic book Rogue is a powerful, flying, extremely confident southern belle. Paquin does get better as the series goes on, but that’s because they give her less to do. X-MEN has it’s flaws, yet it left no doubt, that when done right, these movies could be cash cows as well as highly entertaining to a wide audience.
2002 saw the release of not one but two Marvel movies. One a sequel to their first hit and the second, well the second was a different animal all together or should I say a different arachnid altogether. Oh come on, that’s kinda funny. To me it seems that in comic book movies, the sequels are usually improvements on their predecessor not always the case, but more often than not. BLADE II falls under the former category. BLADE had some gory and a few creepy moments, but being based on a horror comic, it was time to up the scare factor. I’m not talking EXORCIST/PARANORMAL ACTIVITY can’t sleep at night scary, just a few oh, don’t like seeing that in the dark moments. BLADE II had that. A more complex story diving deeper into Blade’s vampire mythology, even giving him a bit of love interest, in a vampire princess. Not as much as a fairy tale princess as a Marilyn Manson music video style princess. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro(YAY!) and costarring the Leo to his Marty, Ron ‘Hellboy’ Perlman(Love that guy) who happens to have the greatest facial hair/hair combo ever. You’ll have to see it to believe it. The question was, how do you make vampires scarier?
Oh wait, how about we scare the vampire! Eureka! The vampires tamper with DNA manipulation, subtle dig at our tampering with science, as some people call it. I call it progress. Anyhoo, due to these experiments, an mutated vampire becomes something that feeds on bloodsuckers. Sort of a mosquito eater type deal, if you will. And they have these Sandworm from DUNE like mouths with rows of teeth and a secondary little mouth like the little Alien head in the Big Alien head in the ALIEN movies. These MegaVamps are fast, feral, and near impossible to kill. Only sunlight can dust these suckers. Their leader, the first, is the only one of these brutes that keeps a bit of his previous intelligence. Yet his hunger is set on only one dish, one best served cold. There are some genuine thrills in this installment of the Daywalker and though some CG Blade fighting was a bit shabby, this entry is by far the best of the series.
HA! Looking for that video I saw something called Blade vs. Twilight. Let me be clear, TWILIGHT movies, as bad as they are, I Love them. But, Blade would turn the entire Cullen family into ash faster than Kristin Stewart could put on that same pouty face she always, always has. It kind of bothers me that I think she’s hot…oh well.
No character is more iconically link to Marvel as the ever popular Spiderman. The Web head has swung across more pages of marvel books than all the other major characters combined(not sure of that figure, but I’d bet my Wolverine #1 it’s true.) Captain America and Fantastic Four are a distant second to Peter Parker, a story of your average teenage science genius nerd who is bullied ever single moment of his high school life. Now, here’s where Marvel hit the mother load with identifying with their audience. Peter was just like most of his readers, except he was thrust into an extraordinary situation, when bitten by a radioactive spider. With great power, comes great responsibility, the words of his murdered Uncle echoing in Peter’s head. An uncle he could have saved if he became the hero he was destined to be just a few hours earlier. Instead he stepped out of the way of a man robbing a fight promoter who robbed him, and just like that the Robber kills his Uncle, and Spiderman is born. Sam Raimi finally did what so many before him attempted but failed to do. He got Marvel’s Number 1 hero to the big screen, and it was HUUUUGGGGE!!! 107 million in it’s opening weekend. Unprecedented. No movie had even come close to that opening. It has since been broken several times, even by it’s two sequels, but this was the start of something special.
Tobey Maguire captured the innocent yet tortured young Mr. Parker, pretty darn well. He wasn’t a bad Spidey either. Could have done with a few more witty banter with super villain lines, but I’m just nitpicking here. And the Goblin’s costume was pretty crappy, but Willem Dafoe was not crappy. His scene with the mirror where Norman Osborne faces of with his Goblin alter ego, is bloody brilliant. Two roles, one actor, one scene. Nice Mr. Raimi and Dafoe, nice. Kirsten Dunst is a little miscast here, kinda like Paquin in X-MEN, but she isn’t bad in the role. I love Dunst, VIRGIN SUICIDES, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, she can bring it on(pun intended). It’s just I think Bryce Dallas Howard, who played Gwen Stacey in the third movie, would’ve been a better Mary Jane and Dunst would have rocked as Gwen. Once again, nitpicking. Dunst was just fine. SPIDERMAN was to become what every Marvel movie to follow, would be compared to. The Spidey series has made more dough than any comic series in history, worldwide, with the exception of Batman, which has 6 movies(2.6 billion worldwide) to Spidey’s 3(2.4 billion worldwide). The AMAZING SPIDERMAN starring Andrew Garfield(Best actor in Facebook movie, in my opinion) as Peter Parker and directed by Marc “500(AWESOME) DAYS OF SUMMER” Webb(I added the AWESOME) will be out next year. People seem to think rebooting a series that just started less than 10 years ago is silly, but I think within the comic book realm, it makes perfect sense. Every time a new artist starts on a book, he adds his own touch to a well known character. Oh sure they look very similar, but it’s still a slightly different version. Whose to say you can do that in Comic Movie?
Here, Marvel took a step back unfortunately. After a trio of critical and box office successes with X-MEN, BLADE II and SPIDERMAN, Ben Affleck’s Matt Murdock was not received well by anybody really. It did make a ton of money and was relatively cheap to make for a comic movie. Watching this again, and on a Blu-Ray no less, I can’t help but feel what a missed opportunity this was. I like Ben Affleck, I have heard many stories of crew who worked with him and say he is one helleva a nice guy. He was great in GOOD WILL HUNTING and HOLLYWOODLAND. But he has made some, um, questionable decisions in the movies he has made. I truly believe he has found his true calling behind the lens. Both GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN were superb, and I look forward to his next directorial venture. The Directors Cut vastly improved on the theatrical version. 9 times out of 10 a director’s cut is bupkis.
You can usually see why this stuff was cut. But DAREDEVIL’s Director’s cut is excellent. Adding a couple of sub plots that should have been there in the first place, to better understand Matt Murdock. Daredevil, when he was child, had accident that rendered him blind. The same accident that took his sight, enhanced his four other senses way beyond any normal human. Through vibrations, his ears help him see. There is a beautiful shot in the film where it is raining and Matt is able to see his new girlfriend, Elektra(Jennifer Garner) for the first time. And it is breathtaking. The scenes where young Matt Murdock is discovering his powers are awesome. Lawyer by day, superhero by night, Daredevil is a less violent Punisher.
Less violent in the sense that he tries not to kill, however circumstances may dictate that necessity. Funny thing is, this has caused much friction between Daredevil and the Punisher in the comics. Hopefully one day we can have a Daredevil vs. Punisher movie, since those were some of the best stories in both comic book’s histories. While Daredevil was bit under par compared to the three that came before it, it is not as bad as one might think. Collin Ferrell as Bullseye has the most fun here and Michael Clarke Duncan is intimidating as the powerful Kingpin. I strongly urge you to watch the Director’s Cut, at the very least to see what potential this character has. Obviously, Marvel and the studios believe so too, since Director David Slade is prepping a reboot.
X2 – X-MEN UNITED(2003)
2003 saw what would become a trend for the next few years, as Marvel seemed to be putting out at least 3 movies a year. Daredevil wasn’t one that was as highly anticipated but the next two that year were. The first was the sequel to Bryan Singer’s smash hit, X-MEN. All the good guys are back from the first flick with some new heroes as well as some new villains to play with. The new additions to Professor Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters are Pyro(Aaron Stanford), Collossus (Daniel Cudmore) in a small but pivotal role and one of my personal favorite mutants, the teleporting marvel of the Munich Circus, Kurt Vogner, better known as Nightcrawler played by the irresistible Alan Cumming. The new baddies consist of Lady Deathstrike(Kelly Hu) and human scientist William Stryker(Brian Cox). Once again, a sequel that greatly surpasses it’s predecessor. The opening sequence where Nightcrawler is BAMFing his way through the secret service in a effort to assassinate the President leaves you breathless. After that scene, I knew this was going to be one of the special ones. The plot concerns William Stryker and his attempt to eliminate the Mutant population on earth. He attempts to achieve this by a serum he created from his son, Jason’s blood, that helps him control Mutants minds, such as Nightstalker, Lady Deathsrike(his personal bodyguard) and even Magneto.
There is also a very well done sequence in which Boddy Drake/Iceman is telling his family that he is a mutant. Tying into the Social Tolerance issue that is at the core of X-MEN’s story, in a scene that seems to be how telling your family you are gay might go. The mom even has a line saying “Have you tried…Not being a Mutant?” Thanks Mom, glad to know you care and understand. Anybody who has ever felt persecuted for just being who they are, can find solace in the fact that superheroes go through this as well. X2 is one of Marvel’s best and to this point(2003) had been the best they have to offer.
The other highly anticipated film that summer was Ang Lee’s HULK. For the first time, a comic movie had an academy award nominated(he would win for Brokeback Mountain, 2 years later) director and expectations were high, especially after his epic CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. Assembling a talented cast that included Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot, HULK promised to be a comic book experience unlike any other. Those expecting to see Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno type Hulk movie, look elsewhere. Alas, it did deliver on it’s promise. There are certain scenes where the Hulk looked absolutely fabulous, like the scene with the three mutant dogs. And then there were times where he looked a tad bit on the cartoony side. Unfortunately for this flick, the latter happened more often than the former. The scenes where the Hulk wasn’t onscreen, dragged a bit. And some were quite bothered by the panel style shots that Ang Lee was trying incorporate. A living, breathing comic book may have sounded like a good idea in theory, however in practice it just came off as hokey. Also the final battle between Banner and his father was confusing and kind of… stupid. The inner struggle that Banner has with his monstrous alter ego is much like the struggle every human has with his or her own inner demons. We suppress rage and anger as much as we can, yet sometimes it gets to be too much, and we… well for a lack of a better term, Hulk out. Bana as Bruce Banner and Connelly as his soul mate Betty Ross did their best with what they were given, but it just wasn’t enough. Like Daredevil, this was a wasted effort with some bright spots that show what could’ve been.
Marvel’s second effort at the vigilante who kills criminals indiscriminately, was bit of step up in the budget, writing, and acting departments from the 1989 effort. The original is still my favorite but this is by far the best made of the three. Thomas Jane takes up the Skull T-Shirted Frank Castle and while he definitely is a better actor than Dolph, he doesn’t have the intimidating size and look to pull of The Punisher. That’s the only complaint I have about him, because other than the physicality, he got the rest down perfect. John Travolta plays the heavy in this, and to me Travolta is at his best when he is hamming it up in over the top bad guy roles. Not quite as fun as FACE/OFF but light years better than BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Will Patton plays his second in command, and I kind of wish they gave him more to do in this, because Patton is a wonderful actor.
He’s one of those names, that when I see his name in the opening credits, I always smile because I know, no matter how good or bad a movie will be, he will be good. Rebecca Romjin(not as Mystique), John Pinette, and future X-MEN Ben Foster as Spacker Dave round out the rest of the cast, with Foster in particular shining as a Heavily pierced former drug addict. There is a particular brutal scene in which Patton begins to rip out all of Dave’s facial piercings trying to ascertain the Punisher’s whereabouts. Best scene in the movie, unrecognizable wrestling superstar Kevin “Big Sexy” Nash kicks the living crap out of Frank Castle. Also being upped in this flick is the Castle Family body count. Originally, just Frank’s wife and children were killed. In this incarnation, his entire family is wiped out at a Castle Family Reunion. Parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, in-laws, absolutely no one survives, presumably even Frank himself. But you can’t keep a good Punisher down. Oh Travolta gets his punishment, 10 fold. This was one of Marvel’s better efforts.
Thus ends part 1 of our Journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are three Marvel Movies that I consider the cream of the crop, I mentioned one in this blog and the other two are coming up. Can you tell me which three I am talking about?
Also in next week, 1 out of those 3 is by far their finest achievement to date. So join me next week as we discuss the rest of 2004’s releases all the way up to 2011, sinceI will have already seen THOR by then. In fact, I may just go right now.
FEEL THE THUNDER!