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Real = Angst – The Grim ‘N’ Gritty Trend Of The Non-Powered Superhero

Arrow, the WB action television series, starring Stephen Amell’s abs, based on the DC comic book series, Green Arrow, recently debuted and has now been picked up for a full season.

Honestly, I haven’t seen the show yet, and had little intention to do so after what I felt looked like a lacklustre trailer. However, it seems the show has become somewhat of a hit, and is getting pretty good buzz in the dark corners of the internet, which is no small feat, considering it’s based on a comic book, and seems vaguely embarrassed of that fact (case in point: it won’t call itself “Green Arrow,” as that is somehow more ridiculous), and comic book readers are not known for taking changes lying down, instead preferring an elaborate outraged-sitting position akin to extreme-yoga.

From what I’ve seen of the trailers, and from the reviews I’ve read, Arrow looks like it wants to focus on the non-powered vigilante aspect of the hero, and seems hugely inspired by the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise.

While that isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, it does seem worrying that the lesson being learned from the success of those films is not to take source material seriously and focus on character and strong storytelling above theatrics, but rather that everything should be grim’n’gritty.

But really, Batman has always been a trendsetter in this regard, as the Grandpappy of the non-powered superheroes, and of the darkening of said heroes, with the 1980s series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns kicking off a wave of grim’n’gritty takes on heroes, whether the source material is suited to it or not.

Arrow, though, might be okay with this take, as the non-powered vigilante heroes are much more suited to this type of interpretation than say Spider-Man, Green Lantern, Superman, or the Flash, who all got some pretty fucken appalling grim’n’gritty makeovers back in the day.

But these non-powered guys generally fare okay, given that they’re meant to be slightly more realistic than their superpowered counterparts, and as we all know from slowly drowning in our accumulated filth in the extended gutters full of blood that are scabbing over that is the real world, real life is just a horrible, horrible place, where puppies have Mohawks and belong to violence gangs, candy is mined by slave children who are later cannibalised, and rainbows only appear when someone is told Santa isn’t real.

Let’s take a look at some of these adaptations, shall we?

The Punisher is the most obvious example – a clear Death Wish knock-off, the character always floundered in some fairly mediocre stories and comic books, never able to fully commit to its premise (guy appoints himself to murder criminals in horrid ways) due to content restrictions at Marvel Comics. However, I’d say that series really hit its fucken stride when they debuted The Punisher MAX, a mature readers series written by Garth Ennis, back in 2004. This stuff was full of hard crime writing, excellent character work, buckets of blood, Mexican stand-offs, and is one of my personal favourite runs on a comic book series, period. Don’t be put off by the slightly goofy character of The Punisher, this series is closer in tone to say, The Departed by way of The Wire and Nicholas Winding Refn than shitty Steven Seagal movies. This was a take on the character that, while going full-grim, finally delivered on the promise of the character, surprising everyone. This stuff was mythic and powerful. And that’s probably why I always bring it up. And possibly why I’m tipping my shitty Turkish beer on the ground while mouthing “neva 4get”.

However, not all Punisher adaptations have been so kind. The guy has been through three – fucken three! – film adaptations, each of which has failed in their own fun little ways. This character, you’d think, would be easy to get right. One way would be “just film the Ennis stuff,” another would be “just get a good writer – the budget doesn’t have to be big.”

Dolph Lundgren

The first Punisher film came out in 1989 and starred Dolph Lundgren. It’s kinda fun in a goofy way, but is pretty similar to a lot of the DTV Ludgren films of the time, and much of Steven Seagal and JCVD’s output. In short – a stupid, dumb, “tough” action flick. There’s a lot of baffling, straight up embarrassing stuff in this (my favourite is the fact that Ludgren apparently couldn’t grow stubble, so they achieve this by doing what looks like smearing charcoal on his face). Although, the ending to this one has a pretty brutal fight scene that involves Ludgren somewhat sickeningly snapping the neck of a vaguely S&M themed chick who he had to fight, before gunning down a villain who he’d just teamed-up with in front of the guy’s pre-pubescent son. Sadly, due to those two shining sequences in what is an otherwise appalling film, it still has two more good sequences than the subsequent adaptations.

The 2004 The Punisher film starring Thomas Jane had the right guy cast in the role (Jane is the fucken bomb, as Criminal Complex has long attested to); however, the film just wasn’t up to snuff. It pulled its punches when it shouldn’t have, made little logical sense, didn’t commit to its characters, and was hugely campy. It really was pretty awful.

The 2008 kinda reboot/sequel/whatever-the-fuck-Hollywood-wants-to-call-these-bullshit-things Punisher: War Zone starred Ray Stevens (also a pretty great choice in the role), but the film was… well, batshit insane. It’s certainly the most entertaining of the films, as it’s just completely bugnuts – the tone jumps all over the place, the violence is insane, and it seems like it’s trying to be a winking homage to shitty ‘80s action films, but isn’t smart enough or competent enough to do it right. It’s colourful, wacky and just wrong. It’s certainly not a good film by even the kindest definition, but you will watch this one with your mouth gaping open.

Thankfully, the announced Punisher TV series that would star Frank as a detective who moonlights as the Punisher has been axed, hopefully because someone in charge decided they should make something good instead of something awful, and y’know, make something that understands the character.

Hey, you guys – I hear that Garth Ennis is directing movies now. Bam. Solved.

Batman is also prime amongst the list of the gritty reboots working. I’d say that Batman is one of fiction’s most versatile characters – in the comics, he can be thrown into pretty much any situation, and it will probably work. He is also my spirit animal.

However, in the adaptations, Batman has had a more spotty track record. The ‘60s Batman TV show was a huge hit, and played up the camp. But go back and watch that thing again now. It’s pretty ugly, although it does have its charms.

After Frank Miller’s aforementioned Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton got the reigns on the Batman franchise, and delivered a gritty (comparatively) Batman. This, again, was a huge hit, and is a pretty decent flick, but as a movie, I gotta say, I don’t really think it holds up. It was followed by the insane, yet secretly fantastic, Batman Returns, and then no one made any films until Christopher Nolan brought the franchise back, as those Joel Schumacher films weren’t real, kids. Just a bad dream.

The best example, though, would have to be the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series. It took the Burton darkness and some of the artistic choices, as well as the mixture of classical film noir tropes and anachronisms melded with modernity. It had brilliant writing and voice work, and was just heartbreaking, exciting and all around, pretty fucken good. It holds up. It’s great. And I would say it is the definitive take on the character.

Everyone knows about the Nolan films, starting with Batman Begins, and they’re really good, although they’ve definitely got their flaws. Overall, though, lovely movies.

It brings us to the latest crop of Marvel movies, that feature non-powered peeps like Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury and Iron Man. All of these guys have had their moments to shine in the various films they’ve been featured in, and they manage to balance the fun, without ever making the mistake of tipping over into po-faced bullshit that is the temptation with these non-powered heroes. The key word has been fun, but not at the expense of character or excellent storytelling. See The Avengers for the perfect example.

And heck, Hawkeye recently got his own new comic book series, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by David Aja, and it’s perfect, perfect pop-superhero work. It’s fun, sexy, dangerous and smart as a fucken whip (are whips smart? I suppose so). Everyone should read this, and if the new Arrow series based on another archer vigilante was anything like this comic series, I’d be all fucken over it. As it stands, I feel like I am just over it, though.

Maybe I should give it a shot, though. What say you?

About Liam Jose

+Liam José is the name given to a highly sophisticated system of pullies and levers that edits and designs Crime Factory. Upgrades have included a random text generator, the output of which has appeared in places like A Twist of Noir, Powder Burn Flash, Flash Fiction Offensive, and as one of the winning entries of the 2010 WGI at Drowning Pool. It is serviced irregularly in Melbourne, Australia.

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