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Wednesday 16 July 2003

The League of Extraordinarily Expensive Movies

by Claude Lalumière

Since Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978) — the first big-budget cinematic extravaganza featuring a comics superhero — there have been nearly thirty attempts to recreate that magic pop-culture event. As special effects technology has improved — facilitating the depiction of the genre's science-fiction and fantasy concepts — these films just keep looking better and better. But are they good films? Or just special-effects spectacles with little attention to storytelling?

I still remember seeing Superman: The Movie when it was first released. As a lifelong comics superhero fan (okay, I was only twelve then), I was both thrilled and nervous. Could they really pull it off? Or would I be insulted and disappointed?

Well.... They pulled off some of it. Some parts captured the grandeur of the Superman mythos; at times the good-hearted silliness of the characterization was an apt reflection of the comics; and Christopher Reeve looked so much like the Superman of the comics it was eerie. But, even then, the lazily written cop-out ending left me ultimately disappointed. I rewatched the film twenty years later, and I was shocked at how bad most if it was. The acting was terrible, the dialogue painfully embarrassing. Still, there were good moments — all of them lumped at the beginning. The scenes on Krypton were still powerfully strange; the short sequence in Smallville was pure magic; and Clark as a young man finding out about his heritage was evocatively mythic. But soon after reaching Metropolis the whole affair plunged into an awkward mix of groaningly bad slapstick and smarmy drama. And that ending was still unforgivable.

Richard Lester took over the franchise with Superman II, and the beginning — showing a never-before-seen level of complicity between Lois and Clark — promised much; alas the film quickly lost itself in a morass of bad writing, including, again, a cop-out ending, one even more galling than its predecessor's.

The Superman franchise quickly devolved into self-parody; it petered out in 1987 with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. In the meantime, comics had been enjoying a renaissance. The 1980s remain the most creatively fertile decade in the history of American comics, and one of the creators at the head of the pack was Frank Miller, whose dramatic and mythic interpretation of Batman in the satirical dystopia The Dark Knight Returns had engendered tremendous interest in the character.

In the late 1980s, with the news of a forthcoming Batman film, fans clamored for a dark and serious Batman. Whether they loved or hated the classic 1960s Adam West TV comedy, they knew that the time was ripe for a dramatic Batman. Entertainment Tonight premiered images from the movie months prior to its release, and the excitement could not have hit a higher pitch. Jack Nicholson looked perfectly demented as the Joker. And the film's mood seemed to be exactly right.

In 1989, theatres everywhere premiered the movie at sold-out midnight showings to eager audiences swept up in an almost religious frenzy. The film rolled. Danny Elfman 's score whispered to audiences that their hero was in good hands. Tim Burton's Batman would be dark and moody.

Batman was an entertaining and exciting film that proved its point. Superhero films could be made with care and taken seriously. Alas, it suffered from what has been the genre's most persistent ailment: countless unnecessary rewrites to accommodate the various stakeholders at the expense of the story's integrity. Batman's symptoms were relatively mild, but many of its successors would go on to writhe desperately in badly collaged scripts that seemed to mock the very idea that an adventure film needs a coherent story.

But that was later. For a few years after Batman, there was hope for the genre. Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990) had panache, style, a terrific script, and fantastic actors. Oozing charm, The Rocketeer (1991), adapted from Dave Stevens's cult favorite comics series, admirably captured the thrills of wartime serials. Sadly, neither of these films, favoring strong and stylish storytelling over explosions and meaningless action, were trendsetters.

Nevertheless, Tim Burton gave us Batman Returns in 1992, a film over which he had tighter creative control. The result was a dark and moody fairy tale constructed with the props and characters of the Batman mythos; there were still a few minor jarring elements, but Batman Returns was imbued with what most of these blockbuster films lack: authorial vision. Until Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000), it would remain the greatest exemplar of the genre.

Later Batman films — with Joel Schumacher in the director's seat — revived the camp aspect of Batman loathed by many fans, and the series died of after Batman & Robin (1997). Burton had never really expunged the camp from Batman — rewatched now, his Batman films are campier than the original cultural context suggested — but he had filtered it through his own bizarre wit and through the gothic drama and adventure that fans yearned for.

After the commercial success of Blade (1997) and X-Men, Marvel Comics started taking a more direct interest in the making of the films based on its comics, and (coincidentally?) incoherent and inconsistent script rewrites, cuts, and patch jobs (only a minor irritant in X-Men) became more integral than ever to the latest wave of superhero films. Marvel Comics films Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2, and Hulk are all so badly written that one wonders at the brain damage that repeated viewing might cause. But this latest wave of box-office blockbusters, thanks to ever-improving special-effects technology, succeed in bringing verisimilitude to characters that could have never before been so convincingly captured on the big screen. As spectacles, these are flamboyant crowd-pleasing events.

Alas, producers waste enormous amounts of time and money wringing the last bit of life out of the scripts by commissioning ever-more inane rewrites. (I recommend listening to the hilarious "Superman" monologue in the An Evening with Kevin Smith DVD for sadly true stories about screenwriting misadventures).

Would films like these be any less successful if the scripts were any good? Or do audiences actually prefer superhero films to be as badly written as possible? Do these films have to be mindless spectacles? Is it that much to ask for a story? Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was based on an amusement ride, of all things, and it has a good script. Why can't superhero comics adaptations?

The two most recent entries in the genre are Ang Lee's Hulk and Stephen Norrington's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Both look great; both are badly written. But that's becoming de rigueur, isn't it?


Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus; screen story by James Schamus
Based on the comics series created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, and Joshua Lucas

Hulk is the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist who accidentally gets transformed into a gamma-radiation-powered monster. In the comics, as originally conceived by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, it combined elements of Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Cold War paranoia, fear of nuclear science, and Rousseau's noble savage.

Removed from its political and philosophical contexts, the concept lacks evocative power. The comics have long abandoned Hulk's founding themes, and the filmmakers clearly had no idea how to turn this material into a story. Taking cues from latter comics interpretations, Ang Lee and company relied instead on the theme of childhood abuse and trauma, regardless of how awkwardly it might sit with their story of a rampaging monster flinging tanks across the desert. The result is one of the most boring films I've seen since the turn of the century. It's doesn't quite reach the heights of absolute tedium attained by such twentieth-century heavyweight snoozefests as Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Andrei Tarkovsky's Offret, and John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2, but it's not for lack of trying.

The actors are either dull and emotionless (Bana, Connelly) or laughably melodramatic (Nolte, Lucas). In their defense, it's not like they had anything to work with. The ridiculously over-complexified script offers little on which the actors could anchor their performances. Characters' motivations range from absurd to inexplicable; countless scenes are artificially constructed and unbelievably contrived so as to advance the film (I'd say "advance the plot", but that would imply that this monstrosity has a plot). Most embarrassing for the actors is that the CGI Hulk shows greater emotional range than any of them, but then again it could be argued that since it didn't have any dialogue, it didn't have the disadvantage of being obliged to recite the moronic, cliché-ridden script.

At 138 minutes, Hulk drags on and on. There's no suspense. Badly conceived scene follows badly conceived scene with no sense of drama. The film's climax is utterly ridiculous, relying much too heavily on every character behaving as stupidly as possible; one might be forgiven for believing that the whole thing was meant as a farce. And a bad one at that.

The monster looks good, tough. Everything else about this film is simply insulting.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Directed by Stephen Norrington
Screenplay by James Robinson
Based on the comics series created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
Starring Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, and Richard Roxburgh

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a team of Victorian quasi-superheroes assembled from the pages of classic fiction. In the comics, the team is made up of Wells's invisible man, Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, Verne's Captain Nemo, Stoker's Mina Harker, and Haggard's Alan Quatermain. For the film, the team is expanded to include Wilde's Dorian Gray and Twain's Tom Sawyer (and the invisible man is not quite Wells's, because of rights issues). The comics series is a grotesque social satire that wallows luxuriously in the sexist and racist attitudes of the nineteenth-century British Empire. As expected, the film ignores the politics and tries instead to reinvent the concept as a steampunk adventure story. And if it had succeeded, it could have been wonderful.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the second Alan Moore creation to reach the big screen, following the excellent (if not quite faithful) From Hell. The screenwriter for this new one is James Robinson, who, like Moore, is a British comics writer who deservedly made a splash on the American scene, specializing in quirky and politically savvy adventure stories. In other words, an appropriate choice. The previews hinted at a stylishly elegant film. Sean Connery was (theoretically) perfectly cast as Alan Quatermain. I had at least moderate hopes that this would be a satisfying film on its own merits, regardless of how it would necessarily divorce itself from the unabashed rudeness of the source material.

It began well. Terrifying tanks roll through the streets of 1899 London, evoking immediately Wells's "The Land Ironclads". Sadly, that's the film's high point. Afterwards, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen quickly becomes a sorry mess. The story is too rushed, too compressed. We never get to know any of the characters, and their relationships are badly defined (e.g., do they or don't they know each other's secrets?) and clumsily developed.

Many of the actors, Connery included, are awkward at best, with some fortunate exceptions: Shane West, who gives a good (if somewhat monotone) rendition of the brash idealistic American Tom Sawyer; Naseeruddin Shah, whose commanding presence brings Captain Nemo to life; and most especially Stuart Townsend, whose Dorian Gray deliciously oozes decadent ennui and sleazy charm. (It's not surprising that Gray is the most realized character here; he may be absent in the comics, but screenwriter Robinson has previously displayed — in Starman, for example — his passion for Oscar Wilde.) The worst piece of casting is Richard Roxburgh as the enigmatic M. Roxburgh still hasn't completely shaken the sniveling mannerisms of the Duke, the character he portrayed so deftly in Baz Luhrmann 's Moulin Rouge but whose affectations don't jibe with the character of M.

It was a questionable choice to further crowd this already generously populated assemblage with more characters than were present in the original comics, and the strategy backfired. Like X2, League suffers from being no-one's story; it's just a sequence of events with no emotional stakes. Yes, the set designs are beautiful, but those are not enough to involve once the initial awe has dissipated.

What unfurls is a story riddled with plotholes, a ridiculous plot that challenges suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, a mess of badly articulated themes and clumsily incarnated characters, a series of ridiculous posturings that inadequately pose as story development, absurd justifications for blatantly idiotic ideas, and a film that doesn't believe in itself.

Also irritating is that League can't get consistently get right the name of its main character. "Quatermain" is misspelled "Quartermain" on grave markers, and the pronunciation shifts back and forth throughout the film.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen looks superficially exciting, but it's so blandly uninvolving that, mostly, it only succeeds in being boring.

A League of 25

Following is a chronological list of 25 live-action feature films in the comics superhero genre (some are not strictly comics adaptations or not quite within the superhero genre, but all are close enough kin to be included here), with a star rating. Most genre films not listed were not seen (or not seen in their entirety).

****** a masterpiece!
***** excellent
**** very good, if somewhat flawed
*** good, but may not withstand repeated viewings
** has some qualities, but is ultimately disappointing
* barely watchable
Ø insulting beyond belief

  • Batman (1966), directed by Leslie Martinson ****½
  • Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), directed by Michael Anderson Ø
  • Superman: The Movie (1978), directed by Richard Donner **½
  • Popeye (1980), directed by Robert Altman *½
  • Superman II (1980), directed by Richard Lester *
  • Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), directed by Hugh Hudson Ø
  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984), directed by W.D. Richter ****½
  • Howard the Duck (1986), directed by William Huyck ***½
  • Batman (1989), directed by Tim Burton ****
  • Dick Tracy (1990), directed by Warren Beatty *****
  • The Rocketeer (1991), directed by Joe Johnston *****
  • Batman Returns (1992), directed by Tim Burton *****
  • The Meteor Man (1993), directed by Robert Townsend ***
  • The Shadow (1994), directed by Russell Mulcahy **
  • The Phantom (1996), directed by Simon Wincer *
  • The Mask of Zorro (1998), directed by Martin Campbell *
  • Mystery Men (1999), directed by Kinka Usher *
  • Unbreakable (2000), directed by M. Night Shyamalan *****
  • X-Men (2000), directed by Bryan Singer *****
  • From Hell (2001), directed by the Hughes brothers ******
  • Spider-Man (2002), directed by Sam Raimi **½
  • Daredevil (2003), directed by Mark Steven Johnson Ø
  • X2 (2003), directed by Bryan Singer **½
  • Hulk (2003), directed by Ang Lee Ø
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), directed by Stephen Norrington *½

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a critic, editor, and fiction writer. 2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (Four Walls Eight Windows). He is the featured "Foreign Author of the Month" for June 2003 at Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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