Win, Lose or Draw

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

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.

A scene from the never-aired--thank God--Justice League of America pilot made for CBS-TV in 1997
A scene from the never-aired--thank God--Justice League of America pilot made for CBS-TV in 1997

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."

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