The comic book movie boom we’ve been riding for a little over a decade now has shown no signs of going bust. If anything, the boom is only getting bigger and more comic-bookish.
When the current boom began, rising beyond the ashes of the genre-killing debacle that was 1997’s Batman & Robin, comic book movies worked to play down their roots. Blade (1998) was a bloody, R-rated action film with no hint of super-heroic connections. In 2000, X-Men eschewed superhero costumes almost entirely (openly mocking “yellow spandex” in the dialogue) and opting for leather uniforms more reminiscent of The Matrix than comic books’ classic wardrobes. Today’s comic book movies are embracing their origins on the page much more enthusiastically and the boffo box office results have rewarded their efforts.
The past year produced a few true comic book movie moment gems, and some emerging from surprising places. Here are a few of the best comic book (and comic book-inspired) moments in the movies of 2012.
Argo gives Jack “King” Kirby a (historically accurate) shout-out.
Our first comic book moment comes from a non-comic book movie. When the closing credits rolled on Argo to reveal not only Jack Kirby’s name (he was portrayed by Michael Parks), but also cite the film’s storyboards as “In the Jack Kirby style,” I nearly levitated off of my theater seat and began to float around the ceiling on a cloud marked “Nine.”
Before his longtime collaborator Stan Lee was even an assistant at a publishing firm, Kirby had already co-created Captain America, worked on the Popeye cartoons, and drawn the first appearance of Captain Marvel. With Lee, he created, co-created or had a hand in the creation of almost every major character ever to have a “Marvel Comics Group” banner over his or her head.
Later on, Kirby branched off into television and film, including a high concept science fiction project called Lord of Light. It was ambitious enough to have been cancelled, which allowed Tony Mendez (played in Argo by director Ben Affleck) to adopt Kirby’s concept art and the Lord of Light script for the phony film Argo.
You might guess that in Argo, which details the “Canadian Caper”‘s use of a fictional project to get six American Diplomats out of Iran as part of a fake film crew, Kirby would have been a mere footnote. Wrong. Chris Terrio’s screenplay puts the character of Jack Kirby (and art inspired by him) right in the room with the fake film’s creators. Said art was (in real life and the film) instrumental in the “selling” of the fake feature to allow a very undiplomatic diplomat exeunt. Thus the creator of comic book secret agent Nick Fury is memorialized in an intriguing international espionage caper from the real world.
The climax of The Dark Knight Rises takes place in broad daylight.
The overwhelming praise garnered by the Christopher Nolan Batman films makes any potential critique seem like blasphemy. That said, the films commit some serious deviations from comic book canon, not the least of which was the strange choice of modeling the vocal stylings of The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane after those of Julia Child.
That said, the entire Dark Knight trilogy has had some great moments, including the 2012 film’s climactic sequence. Batman (Christian Bale) is a creature of the night, preying on the superstitious and cowardly lot of criminals. When it comes time for Batman to take back Gotham City in what might have been his final stand, it’s amazingly bold that he would do this marching down Main Street with his army while the sun shines above.
It’s fitting for Batman’s penultimate bow in this series. Bruce Wayne has proven that he can excel as a shadowy figure, but this final sequence, catching Bane’s fist as it punches toward him in stark daylight reveals that he doesn’t need the cover of night to be the dangerous Bat who protects and reclaims his city. And so, in a strange inversion of “Justice is Blind,” Batman flips expectations and dares any enemy or sniper to put a bead on his all-too-visible visage. This finale stands as an incredible, brave choice for the finale of a very dark saga.
The Avengers: The Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment works.
In comic books, continuity and the concept of a “shared universe” are pervasive. In comic book movies, that hasn’t been the case. Sure, 2005’s Elektra is ostensibly set in the same universe as 2003’s Daredevil, but Marvel made no effort to link either to 1986’s Howard the Duck (thankfully). Aside from one mention of “Metropolis” in 1995’s Batman Forever, there was little evidence that any other superheroes lived in the world Robin and his mentor occupied. And why should there be? If a studio can’t be sure there’s going to be a Fantastic Four sequel, why would they plan a Secret Wars-style crossover with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake? The X-Men films can spinoff into prequels and solo features about “Wolverine,” but to start with a unified universe? That’s a big risk.
That changed in 2008 when Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury walked into Tony Stark’s lair in Iron Man and mentioned “The Avengers Initiative.” Robert Downey, Jr. followed suit that same year (in character as Stark) to recruit the title character from The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2 (2010) continued the groundwork with another cameo from Captain America’s shield and the first appearance of Thor’s hammer, while Thor (2011) introduced heroes and villains that set up the assembly. The semi-prequel Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was a cool period piece in its own right, and also led directly to the huge crossover in 2012.
When The Avengers finally assembled in 2012, the bar was set high. This sixth installment is not quite a sequel, but doesn’t stand on its own as a “reboot” either, needing to continue the continuity of the shared universe. Luckily, Joss Whedon, a man who has built his career on writing and directing ensemble casts, manages this large list of titanic characters (two-thirds of whom were co-created by the aforementioned Jack Kirby) as they come together for not only one of the best comic book movies of all time, but easily the most financially successful, hauling in over a billion and a half dollars.
It’s hard for me to choose a favorite moment. Harry Dean Stanton’s cameo to ask Bruce Banner if he’s an “alien,” Hulk’s smashing of Loki and referring to him as a “puny god,” and the hilarity of seeing the Avengers sleepily chowing down in a shawarma restaurant are all winners.
As for the future, Avengers 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy are all on the slate, with even the “Distinguished Competition” at Warner Bros.’ DC Comics attempting to replicate Marvel’s success with their own Justice League film. And the most thrilling sign of the future is that other post-credit sequence, revealing the promising menace of Thanos. Count me in.
The Amazing Spider-Man catches Gwen Stacy with his web-shooter.
(Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read the classic comic books on which The Amazing Spider-Man was based… skip to the next entry now.)
Way back in June of 1973, the Green Goblin threw Gwen Stacy off of the Brooklyn Bridge and Spidey’s rescue web did just about the opposite of rescuing her from certain death. And so, when the new Spider-Man flick hit theaters in July, the comic book geeks wrenched up in their seats when Gwen (Emma Stone) took her fall, one that caused Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) to shoot his rescue web to save her at the last minute. Every comic book geek in the house breathed a huge sigh of relief and muttered the words, “So wrong, man,” while other viewers thought it was just a “neat stunt.” If ever there was a comic book movie nod to comic book fans, this terrifying two seconds was it!
Judge Dredd keeps his helmet on.
In the 18 years between the first appearance of Judge Dredd in 2000 AD comics and the 1995 Sylvester Stallone flick that bore the character’s name, he never once removed his helmet. Nevertheless, Sly’s starpower (and ego) dictated that he spend approximately as much screen-time in his full costume as the shark from Jaws spent riding a motorcycle.
This changed in 2012’s reboot, Dredd, which also offered an excellent interpretation of the character courtesy of the brilliant casting choice of Karl Urban. This Joe Dredd keeps his helmet on, and channels Dredd’s roots—with inspiration from Death Race 2000‘s “Frankenstein” character and Clint Eastwood. This helps him become that faceless manifestation of Justice who growls, “I Am The Law!”
Dredd’s Law extends beyond the “Execution” part of “Judge, Jury and Executioner.” When faced with an armed gang of hardened thugs, he takes them all out, but when a couple of teenagers attempt to take him out, he disarms them and sends them home. In short, while the 1995 Dredd was mostly Sylvester Stallone, 2012’s is Judge Dredd.
Josh Brolin’s pitch-perfect Tommy Lee Jones impression in MIB III, a hooded Michonne (Danai Gurira) chopping her way into The Walking Dead in the second season finale, “Beside the Dying Fire,” and Stan Lee’s hilariously oblivious cameo in The Amazing Spider-Man.
The future of comic book movies looks bright. With the sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and revivals planned for 2013 and beyond, we could be looking at longer lists than this in the future. That is, unless a retroactive continuity is established between Daredevil, Elektra and Howard the Duck in Marvel’s future plans. Oh, the humanity!