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Geek Girl Navigating the World – The Avengers and Why I Drink the Comic Book Movie Kool-Aid
When “The Avengers” came out, I saw it on opening day. I had planned to go see it, but I’d anticipated waiting for about a week or so after the release date because I’d just figured that I would give the crowds a little time to die down. A friend of mine had other ideas, though, mostly, I think, because he knew that not only would I go to the movie, but I would enjoy it. I did, of course. It’s difficult not to enjoy a movie that is written and produced and stars by people who enjoy the subject matter. You can see the comic Geek love all over that movie, which makes it particularly wonderful for fellow Geeks to watch.
Still, as we waited in line for the movie to start, I was surprised to notice that there were very few women in line to see it. The bulk of the audience was male and there were more than a few women who were clearly only there because they had been dragged by a guy who was extremely excited, though whether he was more excited to finally see The Avengers or that he’d convinced the woman who was with him to go, it wasn’t always easy to tell. I was enthusiastic, to be certain, as I took my glossy little poster advertising the Lego figures being released to tie in with the movie. That enthusiasm was well-rewarded.
But, it also got me thinking. My television and internet were fairly saturated with Avengers related merchandising and trailers. There was no way for me to avoid seeing at least a few ads for the movie and everything else associated with it. But I also noticed something else. All of it is very male-oriented. Then, people started breaking out the pie-chart gags about “Why I liked Avengers” and “Why my Girlfriend Liked Avengers”. And, suddenly, I was starting to get reminded pretty harshly of the rougher side of being a comic book Geek. Much of it was like a slap in the face to me, because it implied that women can’t enjoy a comic book movie just for being a comic book movie.
I beg to differ. Quite honestly, if I were simply going to a movie for a heaping serving of Beefcake, I’m certain that I could just wait for the next Matthew McConaughey movie to come out, because he’ll be parading around shirtless in it at least once. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, at all, nor do I have a quibble with anyone using the cinema to get a fix of their favorite eye-candy. Stating that I’m going to a movie full of superheroes just for the eye candy, however, is something that I’m just going to have to refute.
Admittedly, I am a very Geeky girl. I think my previous columns have spoken pretty admirably to that point. I’m going to say it now, I like comic book movies, even a lot of the bad ones. My DVD collection contains a significant amount of support for this fact. From the dark mayhem of The Crow to the driven vengeance of Frank Castle to the warped humor of The Losers and beyond, I’ve got a comic book movie collection that rivals the actual comic book collection.
Granted, there are movies that make an absolute travesty of their source material. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comes rather startlingly to mind as an example of that. There are some that are pretty reasonably passable when it comes to their source material, like Superman and Spiderman. And, then, there are some of them that are so utterly faithful to the comic, within reason for the storytelling, that it’s mindblowing (yes, Watchmen, I’m talking about you). Before you start shredding in the comments, just take a breath and keep reading, please. Yeah, I realize, Watchmen excised the squid, I’ll get to that, I promise. Oh, I should probably add around here somewhere that if you don’t like spoilers and for some reason you haven’t read “Watchmen” but you’ve seen the movie, you should probably stop reading about now. I’m sorry about that. I’ll catch you next column.
Enjoying comic books has taught me a very significant skill in conjunction with watching comic book movies, and that has been learning to accept the limitations of the cinematic arts. While film wizardry has come a very long ways over my lifetime, there are still things that it can’t accomplish, and really, a comic book is bound only by the skill of the artist and the limits of that artist’s imagination. With comic books, when it works better to switch into a prose format, the creator can do so, usually pretty easily. In movies, that tends to lead to a whole lot of “As you know, Bob,” moments. My ability to accept those limitations has meant that I am able to enjoy those comic book movies a lot better than many of my fellow Geeks because I can let it go.
I am a fan of Alan Moore’s work. I own most of his graphic novels and the novel that he wrote. The worlds and characters that he creates and the way that he stretches already created concepts into something wholly unexpected and thought provoking makes me weep for my own inadequacies as a story-teller. I would dearly love to achieve what he does in his chosen medium. I also know better than to think that I ever will. I am not Alan Moore any more than I’m Neil Gaiman, and that’s okay, because I’m pretty darn good with being me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t aspire to that level of magic and artistry, either.
Sadly, more often than not, his work ends up translating pretty badly to film. His disavowal of any of the movies created from his comics has become legendary in Geek circles. His adherence to his principles and his true artistic vision is very admirable. The fact that he continues to create new work, time and time again, as other people try to interpret it into another medium is, to me at least, extraordinary.
“V for Vendetta” is not a bad movie. I felt that Hugo Weaving managed to give V a sense of both formidable intelligence and almost transcendent gentlemanly grace. Natalie Portman’s Evey was both strong and endearingly naive about the world around her and John Hurt’s Sutler was skin-crawlingly sinister. The mood packed into the scenes to spark emotion was spot-on and the way the imagery switched between almost poetic and soul-crushing austerity conveyed a sense of place that does not often happen in movies that take place in such close quarters.
Then, I read the graphic novel. I understood, then, why Alan Moore didn’t particularly care for the movie version of his work. The book carries a current of seething rage at totalitarianism and the people who allow it to flourish for their own selfish ends. If the movie was a gut-punch, then that book was a severe beating that left me lying crumpled and bleeding on the curb. The graphic novel was so much more than just typical anti-despotic government fare. Moore has a way of pulling in threads from current events and showing readers everything that could go so horribly wrong, if only things went just slightly to the left or right of center. That sense of “Oh, my God, we could really do this to ourselves” never quite materializes in the movie, perhaps because the end does have that spark of hope, that Evey will carry on and change everything and it will all be all right again. I realized, upon a second watching of “V for Vendetta” that compared to the book, the movie was watered down.
I still watch “V for Vendetta”. It’s still not a bad movie at all. I understand that when a film is being made, no matter how much the director and scrip-writers and everyone else involved in making that movie want to include everything from the book, they simply can’t. The pieces of the graphic novel that click the puzzle pieces into place, showing the ties to the government fear-mongering and terrorism that were so fresh in our world, couldn’t materialize on screen the way that they did on the page.
“From Hell” was similarly problematic, though I would also have to say that it’s one of my least favorite performances by Johnny Depp. Again, it’s a work by Alan Moore and, again, one of the chief draws, for me at least, was how complex the opium addicted Inspector was. Moore’s graphic novel had a crawling sense of unsettlingly filthy disgust as the plot unfolded and readers were clued in to the missteps everyone surrounding the investigation were making. After reading the book, I wanted a shower. Parallels were made to modern police work and the statement, though subtle, was “this still goes on. This still goes on every day. What if this happened to you?”
The movie was less gripping. The seediness of the surroundings and the horrifying conditions the poverty-stricken were forced to endure were treated more as shock value than with Moore’s matter-of-fact depiction of how these people lived during that time. To me, Heather Graham seemed woefully miscast as Mary Kelly. And, worst of all, the movie held none of the creeping suspense of the book and completely avoided any of the statements that Moore made concerning celebrity, infamy, and the sensationalism perpetrated by the media. This one is definitely not high on my list of comic book movie rewatches.
There are some comic book movies that I watch repeatedly, even though they aren’t particularly good adaptations. My DVD collection contains both of “The Punisher” movies, the one with Dolph Lundgren and the reboot starring Thomas Jane. While I never really considered “The Punisher” to be a simple character, since he is, after all, the guy who found out the hard way that getting revenge on the people who killed his wife not only didn’t solve much of anything, it wasn’t very satisfying, the movies certainly took the oversimplification route. So, instead of a conflicted man who does bad things for a good reason, you get a tough guy in a black outfit going on a revenge spree.
I suppose, stripping away the ambiguity of Frank Castle’s character does serve to make a more satisfying movie. After all, you can make it a true action flick, with fight scenes and explosions and chases and leave out much of those things that could potentially make viewers question the motives and the ultimate goal of the exercise. It makes sense, because you’ve got roughly two hours to tell the story, rather than multiple issues and an enormous number of pages. There isn’t enough time allotted to get in all of the revenge that needs to happen along with all the character complexity.
That said, of all of the guilty pleasure flicks the comic book movie subgenre has to offer, I would have to say that “The Punisher”, particularly the Dolph Lundgren version would be my favorite cheese-fest. I actually prefer that 1989 version because, to me, it’s more visually appealing. Also, that Dolph Lundgren one has-say it with me now-Yakuza! What’s more fun than having samurai sword wielding organized crime as your ultimate Big Bad? It pushes the limit of credibility, to be sure, but it’s so much fun to watch the fight scenes that I will even watch it on cable when it’s been chopped beyond recognition if I happen to chance across it.
“The Punisher” movies are not very much like the comic book. They depart from the tone and the usual feel of any given story. On the other hand, rather than watering down the character, they feel more like a distillation. If you were trying to take a simple picture of Frank Castle and making an attempt to explain him to someone who was completely uninitiated to his story, the elements that are included in the movie are the exact things that you would tell them. It’s an origin story, and, so, there’s not a whole lot in evolution for the character. Instead, it’s a depiction of how he starts and what he’s willing to do. That, I think, is what sets “The Punisher” apart from a lot of the comic book schlock-fests produced around that time.
I am aware that a third Punisher movie was made. I have not seen that one, unfortunately, so I really can’t compare it to the two that I’ve watched and enjoyed, much less compare them to the comic book.
Times have changed, fortunately, and comic books and graphic novels have begun to be recognized as an art form and as a viable method of story-telling. With that change in perception, the ideas for interpreting them into other formats have also changed. For me, the real game-changer was “Iron Man.”
I’d enjoyed many comic book movies, up to that point. The first couple of X-men movies were enjoyable, though I wasn’t very gung-ho about seeing them in a theater. The trailers for “Iron Man”, though, made me sit up and take notice. The fact that they had gotten Robert Downey, Jr. to sign on for the role certainly made me hopeful. Then, I went to see it and it was awesome.
“Iron Man” didn’t make the mistake of trying to make Tony Stark likeable. He isn’t, and he isn’t supposed to be. That doesn’t make Tony Stark any less cool. Instead, he’s a great superhero despite his flaws. And, maybe, that’s one of the reasons that so many Geeks love him so fervently. Tony Stark is far from perfect, but he has swagger and skills and he puts them to good use with a hefty dose of snarkiness that makes him incredibly entertaining as a character. An informal, essentially word-of-mouth poll amongst the Geeks that I’m friends with revealed a pretty much unanimous (albeit paraphrased) consensus. If he were a real person, every single one of us would find Tony Stark to be an annoying jerk and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere around us. However, as a comic book character and in the movies, we’re perfectly happy to watch him get away with everything that he possibly can. In a sense, we get to live vicariously through him because he does things that we don’t have the money, the genius, or the-ahem-gumption to even attempt.
After “Iron Man”, “Watchmen” was released. I was on board from the moment I heard the name Jeffrey Dean Morgan in conjunction with The Comedian. I hoped that it wouldn’t be another bad adaptation of an amazing book and my fellow Geeks were echoing the sentiment pretty much world wide. My mind was officially blown with that movie. Three hours of near-fanatical dedication to translating the page to the screen, right up until the end. When I read Zack Snyder’s reasons for taking the squid out of “Watchmen”, it made perfect sense. All of the dedication to making the movie look right would have been completely wasted if such an intrinsic part of the story line didn’t look good. The switch also made for a more compelling and relatable movie. The replacement of the squid also made it more relevant to current events. The “Watchmen” graphic novel could, of course, add all of the history it wanted to enrich the experience of reading it, the movie had three hours to give us the experience.
Other comic book movies were made in that span between “The Punisher” and “Iron Man” and more have been made since then. Some, like “Sin City” I found imminently watchable because of the animation effects and the artwork involved, even if the story (a mishmash of several of the first few graphic novels in the series) seemed rushed and disjointed. That brings me back to the other reason that I like comic book movies. They can add to the established cannon in unexpected ways and they can also be a magnificent fusion of special effects and story.
One of my favorite parts of “The Avengers” was seeing those massive alien ships. I can tell you the Devonian era plated fish species that they’re based upon and watching that animation, seeing them in motion and hearing the metal on metal ratcheting clank of their movement made the part of me that still dreams of being a paleontologist when I grow up thrilled beyond measure. They were probably supposed to be frightening in a primal, plankton-brain sort of way, but to me they were utterly beautiful.
In addition to designing vehicles, art departments for comic book films get to go a little bit haywire concocting toys and costumes for the main characters in the movie. They get to transform a flat piece of artwork into something that moves and to create an environment with even more depth for fans to get lost in. There has been an explosion in recent years of art books that give details and behind the scenes looks at what goes into making these films. Fans have access like never before to see behind the curtain and get a peek at how the magic is really made.
Comic book movies get the leeway that allows them to not only be visually stunning, but to be humorous or darkly humorous as the subject matter allows. I love movies like “Red” and “The Losers” because, while they are pretty violent and, in most cases, blood-soaked, the one-liners and pop culture references that the characters get to snap off during the movie seem to be that much funnier because they aren’t completely expected. Dialog like that would never happen in real life, especially not in a life or death situation, but I think nearly everyone who sees one of these movies wishes they could be as erudite should such an opportunity arrive.
Most of all, though, it seems like actors who are cast in these movies are genuinely enjoying the roles that they’re playing. After seeing “The Avengers” I cannot imagine anyone else playing Loki’s gleeful depravity with nearly as much joy and near complete abandon as Tom Hiddleston. While it’s easy to dismiss Loki as a comic book villain, his motivations just aren’t as simple as saying he’s evil. The Marvel Universe doesn’t function that way anymore, in large part because of what the movies have added. Certainly, Loki is single-mindedly bent on the destruction of the world, but for all of his demented mechinations, Hiddleston plays him as walking wounded. The character is fragile and the razor edge he traipses is closer every second. No one in the movie seems to understand that better than Loki himself. He is fundamentally damaged, a flawed villain for a group of flawed superheroes.
It isn’t cut and dried, any more than real life is. The process of making comic book movies has grown, just as the publishing of comic books has. We not only don’t have to put up with the flat, lusterless four-color printing process any more than we have to put up with the idea of “good enough for a comic book movie.” We Geeks knew that our comic books were good and we knew we deserved better movies from that source material. Happily, now we’re starting to get it. So, no, I’m not going to see a comic book movie just for the actors in it. I’m going because I love comic books and I want to see if the people who made the movie loved them just as much as I do.