Friday, 13 July 2012

The Alternate Five: Comic Book Movies That Dared To Go Somewhere Different


Acting in the spirit of The Dark Knight Rises coming out in a week, we thought we would take a look at some groundbreaking comic book movies. These are the ones that wanted to separate themselves from the crowd, reach for something different, to try and do something that had never been done before. 


And the list can include any comic book adaptation, not just those in the recent onslaught.

This is in no way a ranking of the movies' quality, but instead a list showing how these fantastic five paved the ground for some different ways to think about comics-on-film. They are at the frontier, pushing the limits to get at something a little better.

In an age where every superhero seems to be getting his or her shot at 24 frames-per-second, (deserved or not) it's good to know that they aren't all trying to give us the same thing.






5. BATMAN (1989)


Close to the dawn of all comic-book movies, Tim Burton’s Batman is probably the most singular addition to this list. With Burton’s adaptation, we see a world created in and of itself for film. In all honesty, the Gotham of the comic books doesn’t really match up with Burton’s, but for god knows what reasons, we really don’t care. It’s thrilling to be thrown into such a wacky world for two hours.


 What’s strange about the timing of this release is that when Burton was developing his version of Batman, writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison were developing their versions of superheroes – two totally different views of the genre. It seems like Burton took no influence whatsoever from the then recent additions to the superhero library. (his infamous quote "I've never read a comic book in my life" speaks to this) In reality, it took 15 – 20 years before filmmakers were really starting to be influenced by the designs of these graphic novels.


So, of course, this is not in any shape or form a faithful adaptation of the original Batman comics. Far from it. What Burton really creates is an opera. A grandiose exaggeration of all things gothic. And while this specific style did not continue in many comic-book movies, what it did give way to was the idea that a whole new world could be created for superheroes to play around in. It doesn’t have to be grounded so close to reality, especially since the comics aren’t. Without this, I don’t know if we would have movies like 300, Hellboy, Spawn, or…




4. SIN CITY (2005)


While Burton created his own unique world for Batman, Robert Rodriguez tried to not change a single thing when creating his unbelievably faithful adaptation of the Sin City graphic novels. To even call it a adaptation sounds a bit weird since the film is so close to its source material. A better word would be "translation." With it's multi-story approach, ensemble list of characters, insane stark visuals and gruesome violence, this was no easy feat. 


Sin City, in the book or film form, is unlike anything either medium has given us. The author (and co-director) Frank Miller worked with Rodriguez in creating this black and white (and some colour) noir feast for the screen by taking a brand new approach: change the way the film is made to suit the novels.  It opened the doors on what was possible for comic book adaptations. Only this time, showing what can be done not in adjusting, but in terms of being faithful. Almost to a fault. All of a sudden, any piece of material seemed possible for the screen. Even if that material is deemed "un-filmable."


However, it's biggest advancement was its use of digital photography and technology. This broke new ground in what can be done. The very frames of the movie, for the first time, seemed as if you were watching the characters from the books move. The shots matched the frames not just in composition but also in its artistic design. This paved way for the free screen look. (See: 300) Where most studios push for things to work on an all ages level, Sin City seemed to say "Screw it. Let's do it shot for shot, line for line and make the camera work for us."





3. X-MEN (2000)


X-Men pretty much paved the way not only for comic-book movies, but also a large part of the 2000’s filmmaking sensibility. X-Men took a highly stylized source material and tried to shed off all the pomp and circumstance to render it in gritty realism. For the first half of the movie, director Bryan Singer succeeds, but then falls into a more traditional depiction of good-guy versus bad-guy. The movie is still amazing (perhaps the best of the series) but it’s the first half that really left an impression on filmmakers.


The big question before X-Men came out was how could they possibly show Wolverine in yellow tights, growling like an animal, and still make him watchable? Well Singer found the perfect way. Instead of trying to copy the source material directly, like in Sin City, he developed a new made-for-film version.

The introduction of Singer’s Wolverine is probably one of my favorite introductions of any superhero to-date. Seeing him in a bar surrounded by drunks and smoke and steel, even if you already know who the character is, marks the moment in film when we all realized there was another way, a much harsher way, to adapt comics. They don’t have to be all wearing flamboyant costumes and say catch-phrases in order to have a faithful, and good, adaptation.




2. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)


Without X-Men to start us off, we probably would never have gotten a movie like The Dark Knight. For the first time, critics and audience were floored by how un-comic book a comic book movie could be. At times it moves beyond any semblance of what we think a comic book movie should be, and while it stays close to the good-versus-evil dilemma, Christopher Nolan goes so far beyond any adaptation that came before it, he has come close to creating a whole new way of seeing these stories on film. 

Even Batman Begins feels like a comic book movie: the introduction and growth of a superhero, the love interest, the hidden identity, the sepia colour tones, etc. And while most of these aspects are still present in The Dark Knight, (blue replaces sepia) its scope expands far beyond its predecessor. It became a crime saga, with a hero and a villain that dress up. 


What’s even more impressive is how these are original stories. Nolan does not literally translate a source material like with Sin City, but instead takes the influence from years of Batman’s mythology, shifts and shapes them to create his own. The opening bank robbery, or the boat dilemma, or the magic trick are scenes Batman fans get to see for the first time. And this ability to create all things original allowed for Heath Ledger’s Joker: perhaps the quintessential performance of any realistic comic book villain.

It goes without saying that Nolan’s Batman is probably the best film-depiction of the caped crusader, and we would be hard pressed to imagine a better one arriving in the years to come. We wait with eager anticipation if Nolan can in fact top himself with The Dark Knight Rises, but the real accomplishment will always be injecting the comic book realism and raising the bar to levels that will be hard to match. 





1. WATCHMEN (2009)

This is the one that really did it all: it creates a new world, plays out like an opera at points and a gritty drama at others, dives deep into the psyches of superheroes,  and still remains quite faithful to its source material. Watchmen is at number one on this list because there is really no other movie like it.


No, it might not be better than The Dark Knight, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Other than maybe Batman, Watchmen exists as one of the most unique superhero movies of all time.


The sheer length of the film separates it right off the bat. With a director’s cut of 186 min and an ultimate cut of 215 min, the movie, like the graphic novel, is a whopper and dense. But in all that extra time, a world is presented to us like no other: a world of multiple superheroes, powerless superheroes, a god-like creature, retired heroes and villains, death and sex and brutality and altogether, a world of unfettered madness.


Watchmen is a comic universe lacking in good guys and bad guys. There are no heroes and there are no villains in this movie – there are only people, all lost in a moral haze. The dramatic questions that arise for the audience are not things like “will he catch the wrong-doer” or “will they find out who he really is”, but rather are questions the audience asks themselves about what the psychological ramifications are of being a hero in a dying world. Watchmen is a dark story without any sort of moral compass to guide you – even in the end you don’t know whether to clap or cry.


The saddest part of this movie is that, much like the graphic novel that birthed it, it will probably only be fully appreciated many many years from now. It certainly has mixed reviews by critics and audiences alike, but for us, despite its problems, Watchmen went where no other comic book movie had gone before, or has gone since, and deserves the place at the top of this list.

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