Dollars, Cents, and Superpowers
by Jeff Bowles
There was a time comic book adaptations were a non-starter for the majority of moviegoers. For every generally well-liked superhero movie, like 1978’s Superman: The Movie or 1989’s Batman, there were at least a dozen examples of comic films gone wrong. For one, the Marvel Universe was bargain-basement, low-rent stuff. Old timers will tell you of an era in which Stan Lee’s greatest creations were relegated to B-movie direct-to-video time wasters, most of which were shot and funded outside the Hollywood system. Like, waaaaay outside the Hollywood system.
And DC, the former granddaddy of the genre? They tanked at least two very lucrative franchises because they forgot about pleasing fans and got cynical about their own intellectual property. Nobody, for instance, then or now, was willing to take 1997’s Batman and Robin seriously. For God’s sake, the batsuit had nipples. Holy unnecessary anatomy, Batman! You’ll poke someone’s eye out!
The 21st century, however, has seen quite the reversal in fortune for comic book adaptations. Boy, has it ever. In the year 2020, the biggest, most financially successful films in motion picture history feature superheroes, most of which are Marvel characters, because the notion of a working cinematic universe turned out to be an absolutely genius stroke. So how did this happen? What turned the silliest of nerd pastimes into a multi-billion dollar entertainment powerhouse?
In a few months, Writing to Be Read will be running some special articles in honor of national comic book month. May, by the way, is usually the time Marvel unleashes its biggest contender for the year. 2019’s Avengers: Endgame was a blockbuster of epic proportions, and over at DC, they’re cooking up a Wonder Woman sequel, a possible sequel to the Oscar nominated Joker, yet another Batman reboot, and Birds of Prey just hit theaters last week (and immediately flopped; sorry, DC).
Two things account for the dynamic transformation comic movies have undergone in the past twenty years: the aging-up of the comic-loving, video-game-playing, anime-watching nerd population, and the success of a movie called Blade.
For those who’ve never seen it (and at this point, it’s a little bit obscure), Blade is a 1998 Marvel action-horror flick starring everyone’s favorite vampire-slaying daywalker. Wesley Snipes took the lead role and made him exceptionally cool. And since he was still a bankable star, the film overperformed. The success of Blade emboldened Marvel to take the plunge and adapt one of their most popular properties, The Uncanny X-Men. Featuring all the fan-faves like Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Gene Grey, and Professor X, 2000’s X-Men was not exactly faithful to the source material, but it was thrilling to finally watch a Marvel movie that didn’t suck. Again, the idea of an entire working cinematic universe was just a glint in the eye of current Marvel Studios chief, Kevin Feige. The success of X-Men paved the way for the Spider-Man series, halfway decent adaptations of Hulk, Daredevil, Punisher, and The Fantastic Four, and at last, the granddaddy of all franchise starters, Iron Man.
In truth, however, the modern comic movie owes everything to Superman and its star, Christopher Reeve. His first turn in the famous blue tights hasn’t aged exceptionally well, but it still stands out as one of finest examples of a big-screen superhero adaptation done right. Gone are the childish theatrics and abysmally small budget, the mindless plot, and for the most part, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge counter culture irreverence of something like the 1960s Batman television series. Superman: The Movie took its source material seriously. Richard Donner, the film’s director, insisted on a high level of verisimilitude, which isn’t something most Hollywood filmmakers would’ve gone for. Word has it the original screenwriter—none other than Mario Puzzo of Godfather fame—loaded his script with so many tongue-in-cheek gags the film may as well have been a super-farce. For an entire generation of fans, Christopher Reeve embodied the Man of Steel, fighting for truth and justice, making everyone believe a man could fly.
And of course, historically the franchise bombed out after four entries because, you know, DC. Same thing happened to the Batman franchise in the nineties. The folks at Warner Brothers were so shocked and sickened by Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, they snatched the option to make a third bat-sequel from his grubby, weird, Edward-scissor-like hands and passed it off to the marketing machine. Again, four movies was all that first Batman series got, but by then, the genie was out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t be long until Marvel ruled the roost. Marvel, by the way, had been in bankruptcy right until the time X-Men released in theaters. Quite a Cinderella story for the House of Ideas, one nobody could have predicted two decades ago.
In 2008, Marvel and Paramount Pictures released Iron Man, and it was off to the races. Starring the always impeccable Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man injected new life into the genre, and in so doing, completely rewrote the rules of Hollywood. Over ten years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is twenty-three movies strong and still growing. Two MCU movies are scheduled to hit theaters in 2020, Black Widow and The Eternals. The thing about Marvel is they’re willing to take risks, knowing that if they do their characters justice, fans will show up. And we do. In droves.
The MCU is truly a mighty thing, containing team-ups like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, more experimental and hipper entries like Thor: Ragnarok (and doubtless) the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, politically relevant films like Black Panther, and everything in between. Yeah, they’re still just silly comic book movies, but the entire world is in love with them, and their impact on our culture cannot be overstated. Just imagine all those kids growing up with Captain America posters on their walls. That’s a lot of money in the making, and Marvel’s parent company, Disney, knows it.
The future of this genre is wide-open, and its not hard to imagine a time Marvel and DC have become two of the most powerful and ubiquitous entertainment companies in the world. Their most popular characters are already known everywhere, and they have been for decades. Really, this is just the cherry on top for a literary form invented for children in the first half of the 20th century. Superman wasn’t just the first superhero, he was the first super media product. The chiseled face that launched a thousand ships. And that doesn’t even begin to account for all the successful and wonderful comic book movie adaptations that don’t include a single cape or superpower. Greats of the sub-sub genre include Ghost World, American Splendor, 300, Road to Perdition, and Sin City. Check any of those out for a palate cleanser. You won’t be disappointed.
It’s funny, but the comic book industry itself has only shrunk in recent years. The good news for comic readers is the movies aren’t likely to completely replace good old paper and ink any time soon. After all, where would all those mega powerful, newly wealthy studio execs get their ideas? What, Hollywood come up with something fresh? Yeah. And Captain America is a communist.
Next month we’ll get back to the movie reviews, folks. For now though, go and have yourself a Marvel movie marathon, especially if you’ve never done one before. Yeah, it’s a lot of confusing action and universe-ending doom, but hey, saving the world has never been so fun. Or so lucrative. Am I right, Disney?
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Who’s Laughing now? Anyone? Anyone?
by Jeff Bowles
At one point in time, the Joker was the super villain you loved to hate. Introduced in the very first issue of Batman, published in 1940, the Clown Prince of Crime has spent decades as an icon of the kind of humor that kills. He’s crazy, occasionally buffoonish, almost always invested in some overly complex hair-brained scheme, and what else can be said? The guy loves to laugh.
Except the Joker has evolved in the last ten years or so, predicated by Heath Ledger’s legendary turn in 2008’s The Dark Knight. His Joker was different, more menacing, quicker to kill with a gun or a knife, as opposed to laughing gas or a rubber chicken set to explode. This was not the Joker that generations of fans had grown up with, but Ledger’s performance was outstanding, and the fact that he died before the movie came out only increased his popularity. Warner Brothers and DC Comics seemed to have decided something at that point. The Joker people really wanted to see was less Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson and more Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Enter Jared Leto’s performance in 2016’s Suicide Squad, which, while certainly enthusiastic, was more or less utterly ridiculous and clearly manufactured to up the ante on Ledger’s Joker on every front.
And now we finally have a Joker standalone film, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It’s R-rated, morose as a funeral, and seems to have misplaced the classic jolly clown that keeps hyenas as pets and shacks up with a blonde in a jester costume. Notably, even DC Comics has altered the Joker in their own source books, because, I suppose, they don’t understand what too much of a good thing is. This character has in recent years been a literal monster, a frightening urban legend, a crazed sadist, who in one famous 2009 story line, removed his own face and pinned it to a wall (though he still had time for a joke or two).
2019’s Joker film has done something with Batman’s arch nemesis that has never been attempted before. It’s taken the fun out of him. Phoenix’s portrayal is both woeful and terrifying, sympathetic and pityingly childlike. Batman isn’t in this movie, but if he were, you’d kind of hate the guy for beating the crap out of poor Arthur Fleck. In basic truth, we never love to hate this Joker. First we feel bad for him, then we want to run the hell away. He’s an unfortunate guy in a series of tremendously unfortunate events who learns the value of self-confidence once and only once he’s blown away three miscreants on the subway. The movie is more or a less a monotone depiction of a modern mass killer. It’s only got one speed: decay.
More than this, it feeds into the stereotype that people with severe mental illness are dangerous and scary. I hate to break the movie reviewer fourth wall here, but as someone who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, it’s a little demoralizing. As I write this, the guns vs. mental illness debate rages here in America. Phoenix’s portrayal of an alienated, unstable, abused, and traumatized individual who one day decides to take his pain out on the world hits a bit too close to home. We live that reality. Do we also want to watch it on the big screen?
The rest of the cast includes Brett Cullen as Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, Robert DeNiro as a late night talk show host (completing DeNiro’s King of Comedy destiny), Francis Conroy as Arthur Fleck’s frail mother, and Zazie Beetz, a kind of romantic interest who turns into a Fight-Club-like twist that goes nowhere. A talented cast, not improperly used, but still, to quote the clown himself, why so serious?
And the truly insane thing about it is we’re talking about the Joker! Beloved cultural icon since 1940. Yes, it’s a more realistic version of the character, and yes, the guy has been shown in so many different ways, there’s almost certainly a financially viable infinite multiverse of Jokers who could range from saccharine sweet to, well, Joaquin Phoenix depressing. But for crying out loud, I laughed once and snickered once during the entire running length, and in both those instances, not a single exploding chicken!
I kid of course. Someone ought to.
Ultimately, the real sin of this movie is a cinematic one. It’s a bit of a slog. It’s the equivalent of painting a jolly portrait using only grey. There are no highs, no true delirium, nothing of the brilliance it yearns to express. Joker isn’t exactly a bad movie. It’s probably ill-timed, and it’s debatably irresponsible, but for true Batman fans, it’s gratifying to see a favorite character shown so much respect. Or is that disrespect? Mileage may vary.
If only they’d remembered to invite Batman to the party. Does it say something about 2019 that we’d rather watch a movie about the villain than the hero? Joker is a downward plunge that never comes back up. It never relents, never provides us a single ray of light or shred of hope. That would normally be, you know, Batman’s job to provide. Speaking of which, if the guy dressing up like a giant bat is saner than you are, it’s entirely possible you’re not as funny as you think you are. Which explains… everything, really.
Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Joker a 6 out of 10.
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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Just say the word.
by Jeff Bowles
(Be sure to check out my video review of Shazam! on YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central.)
Shazam! is the kind of movie just about anyone can get behind. Film audiences segment into a multitude of groups, but when it comes to comic flicks, you’re either on board for the ridiculousness or you aren’t. Younger audiences tend to take a movie like this more seriously, whereas more mature viewers are often left scratching their heads. When science fiction and fantasy work best, they indulge in a certain real-world approach to emotionality, family, romance, regret, passion, and they do so at high enough levels that any and all nerdy accoutrements go down a little bit smoother, in that for many people out there, they’re extraordinarily hard to swallow.
Shazam! is a big, fun, friendly superhero movie with more heart and humor than just about any other DC Comics offering made in the last twenty years. During a time in which Superman is angst-ridden and Batman is a violent rage-freak, Shazam! understands home is where the heart is. Ask any comic movie fan the difference between the two behemoth companies, Marvel and DC, and you’re likely to hear Marvel is fun and DC is morose. Such is the genius of David F. Sandberg’s new movie. It feels Marvel-fun but engages the kind of deep archetypes and mythic dynamics DC Comics has been famous for since the 1930s.
Billy Batson is an orphan looking for a place to finally call home. He thinks finding his birth mother is the answer, but the truth is, if she’d wanted to be found, he wouldn’t have to break into cop cars and hack suspect ID computers for her deets. Enter the Vazquez family, genuinely supportive parental figures Victor and Rosa, and a full house of five other kids, all of them orphans. The dynamics at play in the Vazquez household expound in wonderful ways when Billy expects disaffection and dysfunction and finds hardcore familial love. And the other kids are all great to watch onscreen, always eager with another funny quip or charming character quirk.
To wit, Billy’s roommate, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), perhaps the best personification of a sympathetic sidekick you’re likely to see all year. He’s disabled, hilarious, and he’s got a keen geek obsession. Superheroes, after all, exist in this world in spades. In fact, one of Batman’s famous baterangs is a star narrative prop, and Freddy’s knowledge of said-comic-isms comes in pretty handy when Billy gets his powers and then has to figure out what the hell to do with them.
Off world or in another realm, or wherever/whenever else you prefer, the ancient god of right-makes-might, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), searches for a suitable replacement after millennia of tireless service. Unfortunately, the forces of evil are on the hunt for a successor, too. The clock’s seriously ticking, so in a spray of CG pyrotechnics and unexpected altruism on Billy’s part, Shazam summons our would-be hero to his mysterious throne room and endows the kid with strength, speed, flight, and of course, killer lightning powers. All Billy has to do is say his name, and he’ll transform into a musclebound adult version of himself in a red suit and sparkly white cape. Zachary Levi plays the god-like, full-grown superhero with all the adolescent joy, immaturity, and zany recklessness we’d expect from a teenager stuck in a man’s body. This is the where the movie kicks into full Tom Hanks’ Big mode, and Levi is the perfect choice. You get the sense this kind of thing is a walk in the park for him. It’s almost criminal how much fun he appears to be having.
Just as Billy begins to feel confident in his new dual identity, the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong)—similarly endowed with incredible power, but by monstrous avatars of the seven deadly sins—arrives to threaten his heroic dominance, his life, and all the wonderful new people he’s come to love. The real joy of Shazam! is that it takes for granted how crucial it is to have people who care about and support you. So when Mom and Dad and all the other kids are in danger, we really feel the urgency. The filmmakers value them and what they mean to Billy, and we can’t help but do the same.
Billy Batson may not be a groundbreaking addition to the world of comic movies, but he does offer us a glimpse at a different kind of pop superhero psychology. There’s not much tragedy, horrific scarring, or trauma in his makeup, no more or less than in you or me. It’s almost a relief that the film only sparingly engages in world-ending theatrics. An interesting paradigm emerged in March and April, 2019 when Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel, and Warner Bros./DC released Shazam! As any fan will tell you, Shazam was also originally called Captain Marvel, and years ago, the two companies settled the branding dispute out of court. Apparently, Marvel was dead set on maintaining a character that carried their moniker and DC, well, maybe they realized Shazam is a better name for a boy-in-man combo that literally cannot do anything cool unless he, as the advertising declares, says the word.
But whereas Captain Marvel was a movie about finally realizing the power that always dwelt inside, Shazam! is about a sudden overwhelming change of fortune. Sometimes the thing you need most is right there in front of you. It is also admittedly the ultimate adolescent boyhood fantasy to wake up one day and find out you’ve got super powers. Shazam! won’t win any awards for exploring gender, sexuality, or race, but its heart is in the right place, and lest we forget, we could still be watching scowling Superman beating the crap out of growling Batman for no discernible reason other than MUSLCES! ANGER! KA-POW!
Billy Batson is enormously relatable, the perennial loner and outsider who has so much more to offer people than he knows. Who hasn’t felt unloved? Who’s never been lonely? Yet isn’t there always just a bit of hope in all the neglectful crap we have to put up with? Someday an amazing person will recognize me, and I’ll finally come home. It’s the emotional psychology of a movie like this that makes it so effective. Yes, the world is a terrible place sometimes, but when we take off our costumes and put away our utility belts, all we really want to do is laugh and dream.
On the surface, Shazam! is just another silly superhero movie in a sea of nearly identical offerings. But it’s also a fine example of comic book storytelling done right, supremely enjoyable, heartwarming, surprising, in fact more than enough to redeem the brooding misanthropy of other recent DC films. It rivals the very best of Marvel, and what’s more, it recognizes when a cape is just a cape. You don’t need to wipe out half of humanity or destroy the globe to bring out the hero in people. When the chips are down, all you have to do is say the word.
Am I … am I still here? Still just a slightly overweight yet lovable, handsome, and humble author/movie reviewer? I’ll work on that. We’ll get there, folks.
The new Shazam! movie gets 9 sparkling red tights out of 10
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – Short Stories – So Much More!
You can keep up on what Jeff’s been watching and catch all of his great movie reviews the third Friday of each month. Subscribe to email or follow on WordPress today!