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Monday, June 24, 2013

The History of Comic Book Adaptations to Film: (Part Three: The 80s)

The History of Comic Book Adaptations to Film

Part Three: The 1980s

Please check out my video version as well.

The first major comic book film of the 1980s was Superman II (1980), which brought back Christopher Reeve in the title role. Large parts of the movie were originally shot in conjunction with the first film. Supposedly around 75 percent of the film was shot by Richard Donner. The Salkinds decided to replace Donner with Richard Lester. Lester was most well-known for directing the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). He also directed the 1967 film How I Won the War, which featured John Lennon. The Salkinds had worked with him before on The Three Musketeers (1973).

Lester was selected to bring a more slapstick approach to series instead of Donner’s comparatively serious take. Donner and the Salkinds had clashed during the production of the first film as they wanted a more campy approach. According to the IMDB trivia page for Superman II, Lester claimed he had never even heard of Superman before agreeing to work on the film.

Superman II brought back Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. New to the series was Terence Stamp, who portrayed the villain General Zod. Stamp had earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Billy Budd (1962). He has worked with such directors as Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone. He also appeared in Star Wars: Episode I as Supreme Chancellor Valorum.

Scenes were shot for Superman II with Marlon Brando as Jor-El, but they were not used to avoid paying his exorbitant fee. In addition, Hackman did not participate in the reshoots because he was unhappy with Donner being fired. The Richard Donner cut was eventually released on DVD in 2006.

The film was very well received and currently holds an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. It also has an 87 out of 100 score on Metacritic. The film made over 100 million dollars at the box office, about double the budget.





Then in 1981, there was the animated film Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal was the name of an American comic magazine, which featured science fiction and fantasy stories. It was based on the French magazine M├ętal Hurlant. Artists such as H.R, Giger and Moebius had their work included in Heavy Metal. There was also lots of violence in sex contained within the pages of the publication.

The 1981 film was based on several stories from the periodical. Like its source material, the movie contained graphic violence and nudity. Heavy Metal was directed by Gerald Potterton, who was an animator on the psychedelic masterpiece Yellow Submarine (1968). Many famous actors were part of the voice cast, such as John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis. Several popular rock bands of the era were on the soundtrack, including Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Stevie Nicks, Devo, and Journey.

The film has some excellent animation (including some rotoscoping) and has become a cult classic over the years. South Park even spoofed it in the episode titled, “Major Boobage”.





The only comic-based movie to be released in 1982 was Swamp Thing, based on the DC character created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson in 1971. It was directed by Wes Craven, known for horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Last House on the Left, and The Hills Have Eyes. The film starred Dick Durock as the titular character, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ray Wise, who played Leland Palmer on Twin Peaks.



In 1983, the Salkinds released Superman III, marking the beginning of the decline of the franchise. Lester returned to direct. Critics and audiences gave it a much worse reception than the previous two films; it currently sits at 26 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. It had a budget of 39 million and made around 70 million worldwide. A big problem with Superman III was that it was too campy and comedic. Richard Pryor had a supporting role, and many felt he was out of place in the series. Also, Margot Kidder had a reduced role due to her complaining about Richard Donner’s firing.




1984 saw the release of Sheena, directed by John Guillermin, who was the director of the 1976 remake of King Kong. Sheena was created by Will Eisner (known for creating The Spirit) and Jerry Iger. She was actually the first female comic book character with her own title. Unfortunately, the film bombed, making less than 6 million on an approximately 25 million dollar budget. It was also nominated for 5 Golden Raspberry awards.

Supergirl (directed by Jeannot Szwarc), a spin-off of the Superman series was also made in 1984. It starred Helen Slater as Supergirl in her first film role. Well-known actors such as Peter O’Toole, Mia Farrow, and Faye Dunaway appeared in supporting parts. Dolly Parton was offered a role but turned it down because she didn’t want to play a witch. Christopher Reeve was supposed to cameo as Superman, but this fell through.

Like many comic book films in the 1980s, Supergirl was a critical and commercial failure. The film cost $35 million, and only made $14 million, giving it the smallest box office gross of the Superman series.

Another comic book film released this year was The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak. It was a French sexploitation movie directed by Just Jaeckin.

1985 saw the production of Red Sonja, based on the Marvel character that first appeared in Conan the Barbarian in 1973. Richard Fleischer, known for Tora! Tora! Tora!, was the director. Red Sonja was played by model Brigitte Nielsen (Rocky IV, Beverly Hills Cop II). Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a supporting capacity suspiciously similar to his Conan the Barbarian role. Again, this film was a box office disaster, making less than $7 million. Arnold called it the worst movie he ever made and joked that the he threatened his kids with watching it if they acted up. Among other problems, Red Sonja was considered homophobic due to the villain’s implied lesbian nature.

Also released that year was Weird Science, which was probably the most successful comic book adaptation of the decade that didn’t involve Batman or Superman. It was directed byJohn Hughes, who gained fame from directing 80s teen movies such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He also wrote Pretty in Pink, Vacation, and Home Alone. Weird Science featured actors such as Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey, Jr. and was produced by Joel Silver (The Matrix, Die Hard).

Weird Science was a science fiction anthology comic book published by EC comics in the 1950s. A story featured in the periodical titled, “Made of the Future” by Al Feldstein was the basis of the film.

In addition, there was another Asterix movie made in 1985, titled Asterix Versus Caesar.



Fast forward to next year, and we have one of the most infamous comic book films ever made, Howard the Duck. Howard the Duck was a Marvel character created by Guy Gerber in 1973. Howard doesn’t have any superpowers, but is proficient in the martial art known as Quack Fu. The comic series has been described as existentialist, something that was definitely lost in translation. Gerber claimed that Albert Camus was “directly responsible for the creation of Howard the Duck.”




Howard the Duck, produced by George Lucas of Star Wars fame, was a very horrible film that failed on many levels. It received harshly negative reviews and did terribly at the box office. It was originally supposed to be animated, which probably would have been a much better medium than live action. The adaptation changed Howard personality greatly, making him much nicer, and removed much of the satirical and surrealist elements which made the comic series work.

A much higher quality comic adaptation released in 1986 was the animated When the Wind Blows, based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. It was directed by Jimmy Murakami and featured music by David Bowie and Roger Waters. When the Wind Blows is a haunting look at a British couple trying to survive nuclear fallout. I highly recommend this film.

There was also an Asterix film that came out this year, titled Asterix in Britain.



In 1987, the final film in the Christopher Reeve Superman series was made: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (directed by Sidney J. Furie). It was not produced by the Salkinds, as the rights had been sold to Cannon Films. Reeve was originally skeptical about reprising his role, but the producers promised to fund a project of his choosing if he returned.

The film, which featured Lex Luthor creating an evil clone of Superman called Nuclear Man, was quite terrible and a box office failure. This was partly due to budget problems. According to the IMDB trivia page for the movie, the budget was originally supposed to be $36 million, but was cut to $17 million because Cannon Films was having money problems. This led to some very shoddy special effects. Reeve claimed this flick did serious damage to his career, and he was probably right. Superman IV also did damage to the Superman franchise itself. Superman would not appear on film again until 2006, in Superman Returns.



In 1988, one of the best and most influential anime films ever made came out, titled Akira. Akira was based on the epic manga of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo. The sprawling manga ran from 1982 to 1990 and totaled over 2000 pages. It’s a great read and I would highly suggest checking it out.

Otomo also directed the anime adaptation; he would only allow the film to be made if he had creative control. Akira was a landmark anime, partly because of the incredible animation. It was much more detailed than most previous efforts. The dialogue was recorded before the animation was done, allowing the mouth movements to sync up with the words that were spoken. Akira was one the first anime to do this. Akira is largely responsible for the international success of Japanese animation.




Many other films based on manga were released in the 1980s. These include several films based on the Doraemon character and five based on Dragon Ball. Other manga to be adapted were Tomorrow’s Joe, Kinnikuman, Urusei Yatsura, and Fist of the North Star. Furthermore, the film Shogun Assassin was made, which was edited from footage found in the first two adaptations of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga.


1989 had a few small comic book films and one huge one. One of the smaller ones was The Punisher, based on the Marvel character and starring Dolph Lundgren. The movie garnered mainly negative reviews. It was somewhat faithful to comic character, but he didn’t wear the iconic skull logo.

In addition, Return of Swamp Thing and Asterix and the Big Fight came out this year.



By far the biggest comic book movie of the year was Tim Burton’s Batman. The Batman character had been undergoing a bit of a renaissance due to two seminal works: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Both of these led to new interest in making a Batman movie and were claimed to be influences on the 1989 film.

Batman fans were originally skeptical when the film was announced. This was partly due to the choice of Tim Burton as director and Michael Keaton as Batman. At the time, Burton had only directed comedies such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Keaton was also known for comedies such as the aforementioned Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom. Understandably, this led many fans to think the movie was going to be a campy parody in the style of the 1960s TV series. This led to studio to quickly release a teaser trailer showing the dark nature of the film.

In addition to Keaton, the cast included Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale (a part originally intended for Sean Young). Billy Dee Williams also appeared as District Attorney Harvey Dent (alter-ego of Two-Face in the comics and The Dark Knight).




Batman was highly successful, making over $400 million. This was partly due to an unprecedented marketing bonanza. It also won an Oscar for set direction. This makes sense, as the set direction was definitely a highlight of the film. Like many of Burton’s films, it was strongly influenced by German Expressionism, including films such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Some interesting tidbits include the fact that Dick Grayson aka Robin was originally included in the script and that this is the only Batman film with just one villain. Three Batman sequels would follow and a rebooted trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan.


Batman was faithful to the comics in many ways, but there were also some departures. The Joker’s appearance is very similar to that of the comics; Nicholson even wore a prosthetic chin. However, unlike the comics, The Joker was the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, not Joe Chill. The Joker also has an actual name, Jack Napier. In the source material, The Joker’s name was usually left a mystery. Furthermore, unlike his comic counterpart, Burton’s Batman seems to have no compunction about killing. However, this could be considered accurate as Batman took lives in the earliest comics.

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