Why some comic adaptations failed: Iron Man 2, Punisher: War Zone, Superman Returns, Hulk

HollywoodNews.com: Actor Tom Hiddleston wrote an eloquent essay yesterday for The Guardian basically praising and defending the sub-genre known as the superhero picture. Plenty of disdain for the genre comes from the very notion that it’s big-budget entertainment based on literature that was technically intended for children that gobbles up production dollars and screen space that otherwise might be allotted for more explicitly grown-up fare. But at least some of the alleged weariness of this specific type of film (the superhero comic book adaptation) comes from a feeling that all-too many of them are basically telling the same story. You’ve generally got the standard origin story which (let’s be honest) basically takes Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and pours it into a different color bottle (I say that as a big fan of Spider-Man and Captain America). Then you have the sequels, which are quite often merely a case of escalation and/or the hero dealing with self-doubt often while in combat with a ‘bigger/badder’ version of himself (again, thank you Superman II). But over the last twenty years or so, there have been a handful of high-profile comic book films that have attempted to play around with the formula but have artistically failed anyway. As a rebuttal to the idea that ‘all superhero movies are the same’ as well as a reaffirmation of the idea that ‘it’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it’, let’s take a look at five comic book adaptations that didn’t play it safe, but didn’t come out on top either.

Batman & Robin (1997)
I would argue that it’s a sign of maturity among film pundits and critics when they are finally adult enough to realize that Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is not the worst film ever made. Peel away all the attempted camp, the self-depreciating homoerotic jokes, the terrible lead performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger and you’re left with simply a good story told very poorly. As the fourth film in a franchise, Schumacher and company had a bit more leeway in terms of where they wanted to take their film this time around. And as such, they told a rather thoughtful tale of an adult and sane Bruce Wayne trying to figure out how to be an appropriate head to his surrogate family. No longer wracked with guilt over his parents’ deaths, Wayne is instead concentrating on being a father himself to a young man who is crying out for more trust and more independence. Meanwhile, just as Bruce is struggling with building his own brood, he must come to terms with the likely death of his own surrogate father, as Alfred Pennyworth is stricken with a fatal illness. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the villains. Now matter how much I appreciate the prurient appeal of a long-haired Uma Thurman dressed as Poison Ivy and seducing every male in sight, there is no denying that it is an overly broad an ineffective performance. And even fifteen years later, it is harder to think of a less appropriate and less successful lead performance than Schwarzenegger’s turn as Mr. Freeze. He literally kills the whole movie all by himself, both because he is terribly hammy and painfully unfunny and because so many of the supporting cast members used his performance as a cue on how to approach the material. With a dramatically compelling lead villain and a few script changes (making Robin under the spell of Ivy negates the real Bruce/Dick conflict driving the story), there is no reason that Batman & Robin couldn’t have been a slight but engaging entry into the Bat-film cannon.

Hulk (2003)
Oh how I would love to tell you that this Ang Lee drama is a misunderstood masterpiece and proof-positive that mainstream audiences don’t want substance and grey morality in their popcorn entertainment. And it’s lightning-fast crash from a $62 million opening weekend to a $132 million domestic total would seem to point that out. But unfortunately, despite its high aspiration and high-toned pedigree, it’s just not a good movie. The film earns high marks for being not a conventional superhero film but mainly a psychological character study where the lead character occasionally turns into a giant green monster. The film is obscenely well-acted by Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, and Sam Elliot. It has a bold and dynamic visual style, telling its dark and brooding story in a rainbow-colored world that renders it the closest thing to a living comic book since Dick Tracy. It uses split-screen to turn the image into a literal comic book page, showing movement and escalation by darting from one ‘panel’ to another. It features adult actors who play adult characters through-and-through. And while the action is sparse, it has moments of visual poetry and beauty. But as a movie, it just doesn’t work. The film is painfully slow, with no clear-cut narrative progression. It establishes such a realistic tone that even the idea of a cartoonish-looking green monster doesn’t quite gel. And despite game attempts and creating three-dimensional characters, it suffers from as bad a case of ‘tell instead of show’ that one can remember in modern cinema. In theory it is the living embodiment of the kind of picture that would ennoble the genre. In practice it is the definition of a noble failure.

Superman Returns (2006)
Like Ang Lee’s Hulk film, this is another somber and morose character study about repressed emotions under the guise of a superhero film. And like Hulk, I deeply wish that director Bryan Singer had pulled it off purely due to the obvious ambition and passion that he brought to this unconventional superhero sequel. This is no origin story or escalation adventure, but rather a mournful look at Superman truly coming to terms with his status as an orphan as he realizes that he may be just as alone on Earth as he would be on the dead planet that was once Krypton. But the devil is in the details and the details are why I rather loathe this film. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor exudes neither successful humor or menace, and his scheme basically amounts to ‘do pretty much what I tried to do last time’. Kate Bosworth is cast as a 35 year old, despite being 23 years old and looking barely old enough to drive a car. Save for a first act plane-rescue that is basically stolen from the pilot of Superman: The Animated Series, the action is dull and uninspired. But the core flaw is Singer’s personification of Superman’s loneliness. He grieves not for his lost world or for an adapted world that will not bring him peace, but for the romantic attentions of a woman who he knowingly abandoned without warning or notice for five years. The core dramatic hook of the film is that we are supposed to pity Clark Kent because he made the choice to leave Earth for five years and then is shocked when Earth, including Lois Lane, had the gall to move on with their lives instead of breathlessly anticipating his homecoming. It’s a fatal storytelling choice that, combined with the above flaws, severe pacing issues, and a needless and needlessly long Christ-parable epilogue, kills a film that would otherwise serve as a touchstone in doing a big-budget superhero film that charts its own deeply personal path.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
The third seemingly wholly separate Punisher film to be released in a 19-year span, this relentlessly violent and grotesque action film tries to bring a slasher-film mentality to the superhero film. Moreover, instead of being an origin story or even a ‘day in the life’ story (as the 2004 and 1989 films respectively were), this Lexi Alexander picture is arguably ‘the last Punisher story’. While Chris Nolan will justifiably get credit for having the clout to explicitly end his Batman series with no room for further sequels, Alexander arguably tried the same trick four years ago. But while the action is impressive, the tri-color palette is intriguing, and the use of Ray Stevenson as more of a relentless monster than a superhero is effective (he doesn’t speak a line of dialogue for the first 26 minutes), the film falters by introducing too much reality into its fantasy world. In short the film involves Frank Castle unwittingly murdering an undercover FBI agent and attempting to deal with the fall-out. In short, the wish-fulfillment fantasy of The Punisher only works if the murderous vigilante only kills the bad guys. Once he starts popping off cops and civilians, it is impossible to root for him on any plausible level. Add to that a villain subplot that is stolen from Tim Burton’s Batman, and a crime story that basically establishes that Castle did more harm than good merely by not staying in bed on the fateful night the film began (without Castle’s interference, all of the bad guys would have been arrested on capital charges within 48 hours anyway), and you have a potentially intriguing ‘last Punisher story told as grind house horror’ that fails on every dramatic level.

Iron Man 2 (2010)
From a narrative point of view, this film is basically a glorified remake of Batman Forever (the story beats are identical) and its seemingly kid-friendly presentation flies in the fact of the adult-skewing, hard-edged, and rather violent first Iron Man picture. The second half of the film is infamously marred by Marvel’s insistence that the film work as a backdoor pilot for The Avengers, and Mickey Rourke’s allegedly difficult onset behavior led to the film lacking a compelling antagonist. However, my displeasure with this film is ironic considering my chief annoyance with the first Iron Man. Simply put, the first film’s strongest asset is its adult stars (Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, etc) and the film was most alive when there were real and substantive adult conversations about the heady matters at hand. But while the first film was all too willing to tuck its social/political relevance under the rug for escalating action set-pieces, the second Iron Man film is almost nothing but talk. The idea of a $200 million sequel to a massively popular initial installment basically being a chatty, character-driven two-hour therapy session for its lead character is an intriguing idea. Albeit, lacking the whole ‘Angel of Death’ undertones and basically absolving Tony of any guilt associating with his family’s legacy of arms sales leaves Tony and friends with little of relevance to talk about this go-around. While the first film dealt with the idea of a brilliant and creative man realizing that he has used his gifts to spread death and misery around the world, Stark’s core conflict in the sequel basically amounts to ‘daddy didn’t love me’. A comic book sequel rooted in conversation is inspired, but a lack of nerve left Iron Man 2 without anything interesting to say.

And that’s all for now. It’s your turn to share. Whether you agree, disagree, or have specific choices of your own, please do comment below.

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