You’d figure such an announcement would stir geek nation to its very core. After all, the battle for respectable treatment for all superheroes has been trailblazed since a certain Caped Crusader “boffed” and “zipped” his way through a ‘60s pop art landscape. Granted, the Green Hornet had less commercial cache than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, but the character still suffered from a similarly styled disrespect during the Peace Decade - Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee. Ever since his less than successful media cross over, the emerald icon has been sitting in that most sullied of cinematic spaces - development Hell. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Michel Gondry has been attached to a big screen adaptation, with leads ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney to Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li.
But when Seth Rogen was announced as the new creative force behind the franchise, the fanbase became a tad apoplectic. After all, with Batman Begins revitalizing the genre with its combination of scope and psychological serious, someone best known for his superb slacker comedy inspired little confidence. Even with The Pineapple Express showing some action scene scripting panache, Rogen remains a question mark. Oddly enough, when his co-star and director was announced last week, the arguments all but faded away. Yet it would seem that Stephen Chow should inspire even more unease. Though he truly is a Hong Kong legend, his output as a filmmaker suggests a return to the more jokey, cartoonish qualities of the past.
Most American fans know the 46 year old superstar as the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and the universally beloved Kung Fu Hustle. While his last effort, the ET-inspired family comedy CJ7 failed to resonate outside his native land, DVD has allowed the icon’s better known films (God of Cookery, King of Comedy) to finally get some exposure. Still, Chow is not some manner of guarantee. He’s been part of China’s cinema since the late ‘80s, and it took him nearly 20 years to develop into an international name. And the scariest part is, he’s done it through a devotion to all things slapstick and hyper-stylized. While Soccer and Hustle were wonderful, some fear there will be too much Looney Tunes in his Hornet.
Of course, many are completely unaware of the character’s true origins. He wasn’t born out of pen and ink, but wireless waves and Saturday matinees. Clearly inspired by Bob Kane’s celebrated crimefighter, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker created the concept for ‘30s radio. During the ‘40s, celluloid stepped in and serialized the man. Soon, comic books and other marketing moves kept the story of newspaper publisher turned masked vigilante Britt Reid and his Asian manservant Kato in the public eye. Yet after the aborted ‘60s series featuring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, the Hornet fell out of the cultural conversation. While linked properties including the Lone Ranger (who is actually a blood relative) saw a cinematic send up, Reid and his butt kicking butler remained in entertainment exile.
The Green Hornet does seem to have a limited appeal. He’s not a man of inordinate powers or otherworldly abilities. He is very much cut from the ‘playboy as punisher’ dynamic. Though he’s considered quite skilled at hand to hand combat, Kato tended to take up most of the martial artistry. This was especially true of the TV series, which saw Lee extending his influence over the genre by turning the sidekick into the center of action attention. There was never a hint of humor in the Hornet’s story, no satiric slant or sense of inferred irony. Instead, we have Batman minus the winged obsession, most of the heroic heavy lifting done by a technologically advanced vehicle known as The Black Beauty.
As in the case of most movies, initial casting should cause concern - or at the very least, send out warning signs. Rogen is great at slovenly self deprecation, but can he manage a more mature role? Even playing the cop in Superbad, his proposed authority was countermanded by a mutton-chopped mimicry. His ability to fill Reid’s shoes seems questionable, especially when you consider his well honed persona is based solely on the silly. The biggest hurdle The Green Hornet faces however will be finding a proper balance between competing cinematic types. On the one hand, fans aren’t anxious to see their established stars swaying too far from what’s familiar. Rare is the instance where someone known for humor - say a Michael Keaton - manages to make the transition to champion of choice.
Chow is another story all together. His limited exposure as part of mainstream moviemaking suggests someone with an equal number of potential strikes. For all the brilliance he brought to Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 suggested a man equally adept at feigned emotions and abject manipulation. He owes as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as he does his Hong Kong brethren, with the biggest debt claimed by such classic silent comedians as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Again, this fails to inspire much Christopher Nolan like knowledge of the superhero’s story needs. Chow may be able to concoct a great fight scene, or bring his unbridled imagination to the entire core concept, but he’s not a warranty against failure.
Sure, the same could be said for Mr. Dark Knight, or the man first pegged to put a new spin on the growing graphic novel influence - one Tim Burton. But Chow has less of a track record, at least when it comes to handing Hollywood a pure popcorn experience. And remember, we are now looking at the genre through a necessary new wave wariness. Iron Man proved that acting is just as important as F/X in selling such outsized ideas and yet even someone as skilled as Edward Norton couldn’t completely salvage The Incredible Hulk. In fact, it seems Rogen and Chow are facing odds so monumental that if they succeed, it will certainly say something about both men’s ability and talent. But what if it tanks, or merely underperforms?
We’ve got a couple of years to wait, since The Green Hornet is not scheduled to appear at your local Cineplex until 2010. By then, we will have seen the way Watchmen redefines everything, while Marvel will be offering their takes on Thor as well as another journey into Tony Stark territory. A few years ago, a substandard superhero film like Daredevil or Ghost Rider could find a supportive audience. But thanks to the Summer of 2008, the entire paradigm has shifted. While one has to hope that Rogen and Chow know what they’re up against, the suits who supported their signing typically inspire little faith. For the time being geek nation is settled and sympathetic. If they stay that way, everything should be fine. If not…