Win, Lose, or Draw

Or: How do you bring a comic book to life without killing a superhero?

Jul 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
Bryan Singer did not read comic books as a young boy, because he couldn't read them. As a kid, he was slightly dyslexic and, therefore, unable to follow the dialogue as it bubbled across panels and pages; quite simply, Singer says now, comic books confused him, so the Jersey boy turned on the television and went to the movies. Never did the director of The Usual Suspects expect to find himself a 33-year-old man making a film based on a comic book.

Yet, somehow, a childhood spent ignoring comics led to an adulthood spent studying them as though they were religious texts. The director emits a short, sharp laugh when discussing the research necessary in the making of X-Men, his new movie based on the 37-year-old Marvel Comics series about a band of mutants struggling to retain their humanity in a world that regards their kind as loaded weapons.

"With X-Men all you have to do is read some of the books, character biographies and encyclopedias, the amazing art as it has transformed over the decades, watch all 70 episodes of the cartoon series, and have lunch with Stan Lee, who co-created the comic book in 1963, and Chris Claremont, whose writing has defined the series for years," Singer says. "Then, you're off." He chuckles, as though still baffled by how a USC film-school graduate spent a good chunk of his early 30s morphing from filmmaker to fanboy.

What's even more startling is that it seems the future of comic-based films now sits squarely on the thin shoulders of this man who, not long ago, could not have cared less about the genre. Whenever producers now discuss forthcoming movies based on comic books, be they Fantastic Four or something far more obscure, they all add one caveat: We'll get this movie made if X-Men is a hit. The weight is enough to suffocate.

"It's scary pressure," Singer says. "I hear those kinds of things: 'The fate of Marvel rests on Bryan Singer.' I'm like, 'Excuse me?' Marvel was around before I existed, so do not put that pressure on me, thank you."

But what did he expect? X-Men ranks among the best-selling comics of all time, and its fan base is as rabid and fetishistic as any cult. If he betrays that audience in trying to go after the summerplex crowd, to whom the words "Magneto" and "Wolverine" are meaningless, then the director will become this year's Joel Schumacher--the man who took over the Batman film series in 1995 with Batman Forever and proved it was indeed possible to kill Bruce Wayne's alter ego, if not an entire industry of movies based on comic books. But if the movie goes for the cult and ignores the merely curious, it won't make enough to cover its $75 million price tag.

After all, Schumacher's 1997 Batman & Robin opened huge--more than $40 million its opening week--but it eventually failed to recoup its $110 million budget in the U.S. People wanted to see a live-action Batman movie, just not Schumacher's. If the comic's fans think X-Men has betrayed its source material, Singer's name will become an epithet on the Internet. And if it bombs at the box office, his name will become a curse word in Hollywood--especially since X-Men has been the subject of so much speculation and hype since 1998.

"It's a very significant dilemma, because with a following this vast, you definitely don't want to ignore it," Singer says of trying to appeal at once to the mad and the mainstream. "It's that following that has propelled this universe into the lexicon, so you want to respect it. But as a filmmaker and as someone who did not grow up reading the comic as a fan or a fan of comics in general, I also felt a responsibility to broadening and expanding this wonderful universe I had become a fan of to people who weren't aware of it. So it's an interesting responsibility."

Yes, one that raises a very simple question: Can anyone really win when making a movie based on a comic book?

The Web site Coming Attractions ( catalogs more than 100 "forthcoming" films based on comic-book titles--and if you believe that list, then you probably thought Helen Slater's Supergirl was a really good idea and have a poster of Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man hanging in your living room. Most of the titles listed--among them Iron Man, Green Lantern, Sgt. Rock, The New Gods, Gen13, Ant-Man, and on and on--are stuck in "development hell," meaning they'll probably never get made.

A significant number are in the rumor-mill stage: Say, d'ja hear Warner Bros. wants Sandra Bullock to play Wonder Woman? Only a handful, including Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, are in the most initial stages of preproduction: They have directors and writers, but no cast yet.

Such confidence stems, in part, from an announcement made in May: Marvel Studios has partnered with Artisan Entertainment (which distributed The Blair Witch Project) to create, at the very least, a handful of films based on the comic company's characters--among them such lesser-knowns as Black Panther (which Wesley Snipes has long been interested in) and Iron Fist. But Marvel has already licensed its biggest names to other studios: Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is being made for Columbia, Big Momma's House director Raja Gosnell is slated to make Fantastic Four for Fox, and the Hulk belongs to Universal Studios. Just this week, Coming Attractions even posted a review of a script for a Hulk movie: "The script is really, really good and if they stick close to it, it'll make a great movie."

But such optimism is baffling: There have been only a handful of good movies based on comic books, and that's being generous: Tim Burton's first Batman, the first half of Superman I and the second half of Superman II, and...and...jeez, maybe The Crow? Blade? None has been, well, great, and most have been so wretched that not even blind crime-fighter Daredevil could watch them: 1989's The Punisher (starring Dolph Lundgren) and 1992's Captain America (starring Matt Salinger, son of Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger) could duel each other to the death for the worst-of title. Still, there are plenty other contenders--say, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a 1998 made-for-TV movie starring David Hasselhoff. For starters.

Then there are those mistakes so horrific, even their creators disown them. Director Lewis Teague refuses to talk about his 1997 Justice League of America film, intended as a pilot for a CBS-TV series. DC Comics, through a publicist, offers only a "no comment," and nobody at CBS seems to remember this project. The key word here is distance: The further away you stay from this heap, the less likely you are to get some stink on you.

We'll remain forever in the dark, then, about how the show's producers were able to con David Ogden Stiers (best known as Charles Winchester on M*A*S*H) into donning a prosthetic green head to play J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. We'll never know what kind of pictures were used to blackmail Miguel Ferrer, only a few years removed from his stint on Twin Peaks, into joining the cast as an emasculated villain named The Weather Man, who knows not which way the wind blows. The pilot must have been made for pennies on the penny, as there's nothing at all special about its effects.

Then there's Fantastic Four, a 1994 movie based on Marvel's first superhero team--and one you will never see, something for which you should consider yourself lucky. During the 1990s, Stan Lee's empire was in near-financial ruin--which was all the more embarrassing considering that earlier in the decade, Marvel gave away its characters' film rights for a fraction of what they were worth. Iron Man had been sold for scrap metal.

Fantastic Four was co-funded by B-moviemaster Roger Corman only so producer Bernd Eichinger could keep the rights before they lapsed back to Marvel. Accordingly, the movie was done on the cheap: A $40 million script was made for $1.5 million, and the movie is so rinky-dink, you can almost see the zipper on The Thing's orange-granite outfit. According to Corman, Eichinger may well release the film after Fox's big-budget version in 2002, but it remains buried in the trash pile, which is where it belongs. It personifies all that's wrong with most superhero movies, betraying the comic's fans and insulting the outsider's intelligence.

"It's never just one thing," says Bruce Timm, producer-director-artist for Warner Bros. Television's animated superhero series: Batman, Superman, and the more recent Batman Beyond. "Number one, you have to decide on what tone you're going to take. You can't play it too seriously, because at the heart of it, it's escapist fantasy, but you can't take it too light, because then you start turning it into camp. You have to walk that tightrope, and if you go too far one way or the other, you plummet. And a lot of it really comes down to story. In a way, it's almost just the law of averages. It's not that there are so many bad comic-book movies, because how many bad movies are there, period? It's hard to come up with that winning formula, and comic-book/superhero movies are just one genre, and the odds are against it no matter what."

The WB's series and handful of movies, including a feature-length Batman Beyond home video due in October, hit the target most live-action films never even aim for: They don't go over children's heads or under their parents'. One 1998 Batman episode contained a wry homage to Dick Sprang's campy Batman of the 1940s and '50s and Frank Miller's explicit 1980s rendition, found in The Dark Knight Returns. A Superman episode from that same year concluded with a Jewish funeral, complete with the mourner's kaddish. Timm and his colleagues allowed their superheroes to act human without sacrificing the buzz of a comic book. No matter that Batman and Superman were still drawn; they were more flesh-and-blood than any big-screen counterpart.

Making a movie based on a comic hero seems almost contradictory: A filmmaker has to shrink a larger-than-life creation into an actor's skin and a spandex outfit, then blow him up to fill the empty screen. Directors must, in essence, turn heroes into humans, whether it's Christopher Reeve with a big red "S" or Hugh Jackman sporting Wolverine's indestructible claws in X-Men. The illusion is ruined as soon as the projector starts; the spell of a comic book is broken the moment its magic is rendered as nothing but a computer-generated special effect swirling around Halle Berry.

"You have to keep in mind that you want to do something the fans are gonna be happy with," says WB's Timm. "But, at the same time, diehard comic fans are, in the scheme of things, a real small percentage of the overall audience, so you don't want to make a movie that's just for the fans. X-Men is still going to open huge, but if it bombs, they need to ask themselves only one thing: 'Was it a good movie?' That, in the end, is all that matters."