Everyone likes to say that we are currently in a golden era of comic book movies, and for good reason. Spider-Man and X-Men have each provided two outstanding offerings, and this June marked the arrival of the best Batman movie to date. So before you go ordering your Sour Patch Kids in bulk and buying confetti to celebrate the end of the Joel Schumacher era, you might want to reconsider: there’s a whole lot of tunnel coming at the end of this light. Up until a few weeks ago, the future looked brighter than it does now. Director-driven fare is back in Hollywood vogue, and one of the great joys of this new auteurist era is watching it spill into comic book adaptations.
Great filmmaking is about creating cinematic worlds for the viewer to inhabit. Never is this more important than when dealing with comic books. They come prepackaged with distinctive universes all their own, rich in history and eccentricity. So it’s no wonder that a certain symbiosis is found between strong, serious directors and the illustrated serials found on local drugstore racks. And it is equally unsurprising that movies about high-flying dudes in colorful spandex fall flat when placed in the wrong hands. Spider-Man succeeded because Sam Raimi understood that the story was about the exhilaration and adversity of adolescence transitioning into adulthood. X-Men triumphed because Bryan Singer kept the story grounded in the history and psyche of the outsiders, both hero and villain. And Sin City worked because Robert Rodriguez realized that the graphic novel was already cinematic, and needed someone to carefully translate its mood and aesthetic to the screen for such a sensibility to shine through.
Looking at these successes, as well as the superlative character drama of Batman Begins from Memento helmer Chris Nolan, one might smile and think Hollywood should just keep farming the arthouse edges of the mainstream for future comic book masterpieces. Sadly, such thinking would be wrong. With just one peek behind the scenes at the next adaptations coming down the pipeline, you realize there’s good reason to be pessimistic.
If this bleak future has a face, that mug belongs to Mark Steven Johnson. The benignly mediocre writer, responsible for Grumpy Old Men and Jack Frost, made his debut behind the camera with 1999’s unremarkable Simon Birch. Unfortunately, he’s now best known as the filmmaker behind 2003’s Daredevil, a movie whose title character ironically reflects the director himself: a man with no vision who screws everything up.
Johnson’s main qualification to take on Daredevil was that he was a fan of the comic books growing up. Of course, this was probably one of many childhood dreams he shouldn’t have followed, like being an astronaut or a pirate. With his screenwriting background, Johnson might have better focused on character development and narrative efficiency. But instead, he poured most his effort into campy, overblown action that was devoid of style and overburdened with special effects. Ham-fisted, and littered with continuity errors, the silly movie barely crossed $100 million at the domestic box office, despite an $80 million budget. But apparently bad experience is better than no experience at all in the eyes of some studio execs. So what is Mark Steven Johnson up to right now? Why, he’s getting ready to take on another comic book based action epic, a big-screen adaptation of Ghost Rider starring Nicolas Cage.
More frustrating is the back-story to the new Fantastic Four movie. After the daring Steven Soderbergh showed some initial interest, Peyton Reed of the flawed, but inspired Down With Love was attached to direct. Reed wanted to take an approach that mirrored the central uniqueness of the Fantastic Four: their status as superhero-superstars. Doug Petrie, a former writer on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer who worked under Reed, told MTV, “The big reason I got hired was that the scripts that were done before, by pretty big-name guys, were origin stories. [The other scripts] were very big on ‘these are astronauts that go to space’ for the first, like, half-hour. It was something like Armageddon. I just kept saying it’s got to be like [The Beatles’] A Hard Day’s Night.”
Reed was dropped from the project when Down With Love failed commercially, stripping the project of an imaginative director with a unique vision. Panicked into an about-face, producers handed the reins to Tim Story. Best known for the modestly winning Barbershop, Story’s last outing was the terrible Taxi, a movie that saw leading man Jimmy Fallon get out-acted by four supermodels and a car. Last Friday Story’s finished product arrived and was exposed as you guessed it an origin story initially dealing from an Armageddon-like astronaut angle.
But while Story’s Fantastic Four is a disappointing start to a potentially interesting franchise, the producers of X-Men have gone ahead and steered their previously wonderful series deep into the bowels of mediocrity. When Bryan Singer left the franchise to tackle the struggling Superman dynasty, producers replaced him with Matthew Vaughn, the inexperienced but stylish director of English crime flick Layer Cake. Vaughn left X-Men 3 last month, much to the delight of fans who worried that someone with only one film to his credit couldn’t handle such a big project. To replace him, they brought in someone more established: Brett Ratner. But given Ratner’s body of work, it seems that using him to compensate for Singer’s departure is about like treating a gunshot wound by stabbing it. No director in the last decade has amassed as crushingly bland a filmography as Ratner, from the Rush Hour movies to After the Sunset and The Family Man. He was even slated to direct Superman, which makes the swap with Singer kind of prophetic. But while established directors like Singer, Raimi, and Nolan bring experience and style to the comics, the problem with Ratner’s style, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is that there is none.
20th Century Fox really should have learned from the Harry Potter movies. The first two installments were helmed by the very straightforward Chris Columbus. Once a built-in audience was established, the producers took the opportunity to bring in the darker and more daring vision of Alfonso Cuaron. The result was the best film of the series so far. The producers of X-Men should have similarly realized that bringing on a caretaker director to replace the funny and exciting work from Singer will disappoint audiences in a way that taking any kind of real chance would not have. It’s Burton to Schumacher all over again.
To be fair, aiming for auteurs hasn’t been a universally successful gambit for the studios. We won’t be seeing a Hulk 2 anytime soon, mainly because Ang Lee, one of the greatest directors of the last twenty years, couldn’t make his vision gel into an adequate flagship film. And Hellboy didn’t quite perform up to the expectations set by its budget, in spite of its thoughtful handling by the always-engaging Guillermo del Toro. Yet handing X-Men off to Ratner, giving Fantastic Four to Story, or letting Johnson direct anything at all remotely super hero oriented all mark steps backward toward that sorry state we just emerged from. We’re currently blessed with a particularly engaging and sensitive generation of directors who can handle action, from Raimi and Rodriguez to Doug Liman and Kerry Conran. There’s no excuse for settling for vanilla flavored filmmaking.
Comic book movies offer a chance to tap into an almost endless well of characters, storylines, and motifs, then deliver them to a wider audience that hasn’t experienced them before. But producers need to keep getting the source material into the hands of those creative and inventive individuals in the business, less they fall into the trap of safe conservatism offered by people like Story and Ratner. Otherwise, this Renaissance will revisit the Dark Ages sooner than you might think.