Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The History of Comic Book Adaptations to Film: Part Twelve (2008)


                The Dark Knight is unquestionably one of the most influential comic book films ever made. It showed that superhero films could be serious, critically acclaimed films.

Before TDK, comic movies could get a good critical reception but were still generally seen as just entertaining popcorn films. Christopher Nolan changed that. His film got 8 Oscar nominations, the most ever for a comic book adaptation.

It won in two of those categories, one being Sound Editing. The other win was Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor, one of only two posthumous acting wins in Academy history. It was also the first time a comic book movie had won an acting Oscar or for that matter, any major Oscar at all. The other nominations were mainly in technical categories, but Wally Pfister did get one for the cinematography, just like for Batman Begins.

The Dark Knight did not get a nomination for Best Picture, however. This ended up being one of the most notable snubs in Oscar history and was considered emblematic of AMPAS being out of touch with the average filmgoer. Next year, the Academy switched to 10 nominees for the Best Picture category and many claimed that The Dark Knight was responsible.

TDK was equally successful commercially. It had a moderately sized budget at $185 million, but it made over a billion dollars. It was the fourth film to reach this mark. Right now, it’s the 28th highest grossing film ever. It solidified Christopher Nolan's reputation as one of the foremost filmmakers of our time.

This film was such a cultural phenomenon that other comic book films are often compared to it even to this day. When the first trailers for Iron Man 3 were released, many fans thought they were trying to put out a tone similar to The Dark Knight. Iron Man 3 ended up bearing little resemblance to Nolan's film. 

Like the first film in the eventual trilogy, The Dark Knight was faithful to the source material in some ways, while differing in others. Two graphic novels that were cited as major influences were Alan Moore’s 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke (drawn by Brian Bolland) and The Long Halloween. The Long Halloween was published beginning in 1996, was written by Jeph Loeb, and illustrated by Tim Sale.
The Joker is vaguely similar to the source material, but some details have been changed. In the comics, he is permanently white due to falling in a chemical vat. This incident is never alluded to in the film, and there’s a scene showing the Joker without his white makeup.

The other villain in the film is Two-Face, played by Aaron Eckhart.  Again, Nolan’s version is vaguely similar to the comic counterpart. However, Two-Face doesn’t really have a split personality in The Dark Knight, which is sort of the hallmark of the character. Originally, he was just going to be Harvey Dent in this film, only to be scarred in the third one. Instead, his storyline was condensed into one film.

The Scarecrow, another member of Batman’s rogues gallery, plays a minor role. This made Cillian Murphy the first actor to reprise a part as a Batman villain on film.


          Another very influential film of 2008 was Marvel Studios' Iron Man. This was the first film from Marvel's in-house studio and the first installment of what would go on to become the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was the first major example of an interconnected superhero universe on film.

          The MCU would go on to include 7 films to date, with an 8th coming this fall. These include 3 Iron Man films, a Hulk movie, Captain America, and Thor. And last but not least, the massive hit that was The Avengers. Needless to say, a connected universe proved lucrative. But none of it may have occurred without the success of Iron Man.

          A somewhat unlikely director was chosen in Jon Favreau. Originally an actor, Favreau wrote and directed his first feature film, Made in 2001. Made was a crime comedy starring Favreau and Vince Vaughn. His only other directorial effort before Iron Man was the 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf. This is not exactly the resume that would usually lead to getting a superhero blockbuster. Favreau went on to direct Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens.

         Iron Man was a huge commercial success. It was moderately budgeted at 140 million dollars. The opening weekend of $100 million was almost enough to make that back. The final tally ended up being $585 million. The reviews were very good as well.

        Undoubtedly, the main reason for the film's success was its star, Robert Downey, Jr. He perfectly portrays the wisecracking Tony Stark. The rest of the cast was solid as well. Downey has good chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow as his love interest, Pepper Potts. Jeff Bridges is awesome as usual as Obadiah Stane, the villain and Terrence Howard is not bad as James Rhodes. However, in the sequel, he was replaced by Don Cheadle.

       Iron Man also featured a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson in an after credit scene. He plays Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury was originally white in the comics, but in the "Ultimate" universe, he looks exactly like Jackson. The after credit scene set up the "Avengers Initiative", hinting at the future team-up. The scene was written by famed comic author Brian Michael Bendis.

      Overall, the film was pretty faithful to the source material. One of the few major deviations was changing the location of Stark becoming Iron Man from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Also, Jarvis is a butler in the comics, but in the film, JARVIS is the name of Stark's talking AI system.


       The second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would end up being The Incredible Hulk. This version of the Hulk was unrelated to the 2003 Ang Lee movie Hulk. It's also not an origin story like so many other superhero films and relates the accident that made Bruce Banner the Hulk in the opening credits.

       The movie was the fourth directed by Frenchman Louis Leterrier, having previously made Transporter, Transporter 2, and Unleashed. He would later direct Now You See Me and Clash of the Titans. The Incredible Hulk is Leterrier's best effort out of the ones I've seen.

       Edward Norton was chosen to portray the title character, and the excellent Tim Roth is his nemesis, Emil Blonksy AKA The Abomination. In the film, he doesn't really go by this moniker but is simply referred to as an "abomination" at one point. Liv Tyler played the love interest Betty Ross and William Hurt filled the role of her father, Thunderbolt Ross.

      The only connective tissue to Iron Man was a post credit scene involving Tony Stark talking to Thunderbolt Ross. After this, viewers would expect some sort of after credit scene in all the Marvel Studios films.

      The character of the Hulk went on to appear in The Avengers. However, Edward Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. This was unfortunate in terms of continuity but probably worked out for the best. Norton gave a rather serious performance as Banner and might not have fit in with the more lighthearted tone of The Avengers. It also might have been difficult balancing Norton's ego with the rest of the main cast.

     The Incredible Hulk gave a decent showing at the box office but was still slightly disappointing. It failed to double its $150 million budget, making only $263 million worldwide.


       Next, we have The Spirit, based on the comic by legendary writer and artist Will Eisner. Eisner started writing in the 1930s and became well known for his work on The Spirit. In the 1970s he started working in longer forms, eventually leading to the conception of the term, "graphic novel". He continued to publish work up until his death in 2005.

      In the 1970s, William Friedkin was considering making a film out of the character of The Spirit, but the film fell through.

     The Spirit comics are awesome, but unfortunately, the film was atrocious. It was Frank Miller's first solo directorial effort after co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. Miller unwisely chose to apply the high contrast, green screen aesthetics of that film to Eisner's world.

     The Spirit was a massive flop. It only grossed $39 million globally, far less than the budget of $60 million. The critics were equally harsh and it has an abysmal 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

      Perhaps Miller should have learned a lesson from the Sin City film and realized that it's better to stay true to the source material.


     Wanted was a comic limited series published in 2003 and 2004. It had art by J.G. Jones and was written by Mark Millar, who wrote the Marvel crossover Civil War and Kick-Ass, which was made into a movie itself in 2010. The filmed adaption of Wanted was released in 2008.

     It was the first American film directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Previously he was known for the Russian language movies Night Watch and its sequel, Day Watch. He went on to direct Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the 2016 version of Ben-Hur that failed with critics and audiences.

     I haven't read the comic, but apparently, the film is not faithful to the source material, as the comic was more focused on supervillains.

    Wanted was quite successful. It made over $340 million on a budget of about $75 million. It also received mostly positive reviews from critics. I found it to be pretty average and the whole idea of curving bullets is silly and ridiculous.

     James McAvoy's career had just broken through in 2007 with his acclaimed performance in Atonement, and this was his first leading role in a big action movie. After this, he would, of course, be the younger version of Professor X in 3 X-Men films to date.

     Among Wanted's supporting cast were Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, rapper Common, and General Zod himself, Terence Stamp.


    Guillermo del Toro returned to the director's chair for this sequel. Most of the cast came back including Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones. David Hyde Pierce, who did the voice for Abe Sapien in the first installment, was not in this. Instead, Doug Jones provided the voice in addition to the body for Abe. Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame also voiced a character.

    Whether or not Hellboy II would even be made was in doubt. But del Toro had just come off the success of Spanish-language movie Pan's Labyrinth. This allowed him to go to work on the second Hellboy film.

    It was mildly successful as it doubled its $80 million budget and got good reviews from critics. Hellboy II is very entertaining and easily the best of the smaller 2008 comic book movies.


    This film was considered a "soft reboot" of the first Punisher film. It didn't contradict anything that happened in it but didn't really have any strong connections either. The origin of The Punisher wasn't redone, but Thomas Jane was replaced by Ray Stevenson.

     War Zone is much darker and more violent than the Thomas Jane version and was probably the most violent Marvel film at the time.

    The director was German Lexi Alexander, who also made Green Street Hooligans and episodes of Arrow and Supergirl. She did a poor job here as the film ended up being pretty terrible. It made a measly $10 million worldwide, far below its modest budget of $35 million. The critics also blasted War Zone and it has a rating of only 27% on Rotten Tomatoes.

     War Zone is a huge step down from the previous Punisher film and there hasn't been a theatrical version of the character since. He's only appeared in the Netflix series Daredevil.

   You may not think of Speed Racer as being a comic book property, but the characters first appeared in manga form, so it qualifies. The manga was first published in 1958 and the U.S. TV show first aired in 1967. A live action version was in development since 1992.

   The movie adaptation was directed by the Wachowski brothers. This was the first film they made after The Matrix trilogy and their first that wasn't rated R. The cast included Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Matthew Fox.

   The film flopped spectacularly. It made only $93 million globally, not enough even make back its budget of $120 million. Reviews were mostly negative leading to a 39 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. While I understand why many don't like it and acknowledge its glaring flaws, I personally found Speed Racer to be entertaining and worth watching for its stunning visuals alone.

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