From Superman to superbland?

Jun 25, 2003 at 12:00 am

Anybody paying attention to the current bumper crop of comic book-to-movie adaptations must have noticed that it keeps bringing in lemons (from Spider-Man to Daredevil to last weekend’s Hulk), with an occasional peach (X2) in the bunch. So we thought it time to take a long look at the trend that Superman and Batman spawned. And who better to talk about the joys and miseries of the comic genre (and its cinematic cousins) than a trio of unrepentant Marvel and DC addicts: Dan Davies, a manager at Landmark’s Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak; Anita Schmaltz, Metro Times writer on film, theater and performance; and Bruno Tysh, a recent high school graduate and the younger half of Metro Times’ cinema review duo, Geezer & Weezer. — George Tysh


Metro Times: You’ve all said that you got into comics when you were pretty young. So what’s the attraction for kids?

Anita Schmaltz: You’re drawn in visually, right away. The experience is very graphic, with heightened color and design, and that pulls you in as a child. Then the stories pull you in even further — they’re usually very dramatic, pushed either with horror, violence, fantasy …

Bruno Tysh: And comedy.

Metro Times: Do kids get most of what’s in the comics?

Anita: Probably not.

Bruno: It’s different than when I first got into them. There are so many different genres of comic books now. There’s one for almost every demographic. Before, it was pretty standard four-color, the superhero with a cape, etc. But things have gotten a little grittier as pop culture has changed.

Comic books are another level of escapism. You get to go to a different universe or reality where people have powers to do things that you only wish you could do. Then you also get to see all the bad stuff that happens with having these powers, but you can just close the book when things get too dangerous for you.

Dan Davies: Kids do understand what’s happening, to a point, but it’s always that fixation on “Today I’m going to be a superhero.” As a kid, you wake up and you’re the superhero the rest of the day. You put a bath towel or whatever around your neck.

For adults, the attraction is in those things that kids don’t get. Comic books go to both ends of the spectrum — they go to extremes. And there are subtle undertones, whether they be sexual or political, that kids won’t get.

Metro Times: Has the adult undercurrent always been there?

Bruno: Oh, yeah … comic books branched off from regular sci-fi. And sci-fi is one of the best forms, or opportunities, for satirical writing: Since you can create your own world or universe, you can make any kind of commentary you want. And compare the dates: Comics started up around the ’40s and a lot of bigwigs in the sci-fi world started writing
around then.

Anita: Comics also come out of American myth. They’re America’s archetypes, our version of the Greek classics. Because we’re a young country, ours came quicker and later than theirs.

Metro Times: Aren’t the myths that we’ve traditionally had — Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett — interesting anymore?

Anita: Comic books are a lot more dynamic than those stories.

Dan: Even when you compare Huck Finn to Superman, there’s still some similarity in there … of each person wanting to be more than what they are or know.

Anita: It’s our American sense of industriousness, of reinventing the self. Superheroes are born in a certain time and place to certain parents, but they go beyond that, way beyond their expected potential. And even when their power comes from a tragedy, they turn it into something beneficial for society, even if society doesn’t recognize it.

Metro Times: Are they always outer-directed like that, always thinking about helping others?

Anita: No, that’s just an extension of their internal conflict.

Bruno: Once superheroes become imbued with their powers, or take on that role, they start having that larger perspective. Now they feel responsible … that they just can’t sit around and float the bag of Chee-tos from the kitchen to the couch as they watch TV. They have to put their powers to good use.

Dan: Not all superheroes think like that. … Batman became Batman because he was looking for revenge. And he still doesn’t feel like he’s had revenge. So he feels like he has to keep going … to save that one person … that what happened to him, Batman, could happen to them, but he’s going to save them. It’s kind of looking out for himself while looking out for others.

Metro Times: Yeah, Hulk doesn’t seem to be thinking about other people.

Bruno: Hulk’s a hard person to call a hero. He gets called a hero because you feel sorry for Bruce Banner … and usually he’s fighting for good causes. But in the movie, they’re real careful to make sure Hulk doesn’t kill any of the military. He picks up and throws a tank, and you see a guy get out of it later and watch Hulk beat up the other tanks. They do a really good job making sure you don’t see Hulk just punch right through a helicopter and splatter its occupants.

Anita: In the comic books and on the TV show, didn’t Hulk inadvertently save people?

Bruno: What he’d usually get triggered by would be some evil force and he’d end up smashing it. He’d always have good intentions, but wasn’t very good about collateral damage — like he’d pick up a school bus to throw it at escaping bank robbers. Hulk’s a big idiot.

Metro Times: If you were to think back to some of your earliest experiences with comic books, what particular emotion did they bring out of you?

Bruno: For me, that’s easy (and it’s also why Marvel Comics were so successful for a while): In the Marvel universe, superpowers come about because of an “X gene,” which is sometimes dominant, sometimes recessive. You can be normal and have a kid who has powers that you don’t, but the powers manifest themselves around puberty. So, like, the whole thing with superpowers is that these kids are freaks, outcasts, like “There’s something wrong with me.” I started reading comic books when I was 11, 12, and I kept reading as I was growing up. They had this huge appeal. It wasn’t a coincidence that every single kid, boy or girl, where I went to school, we all read comic books. There’s that direct link — like, you’re growing up and don’t know what’s going on with you and …

Metro Times: “Hey, I’ve got superpowers!”

Bruno: “Hey, I’m covered in red spots and my voice is changing!”

Dan: I started reading them very young, probably when I first started reading. Even before then, my dad collected them, so I’d just look through them. If you get so fixated that you’re reading them all the time, something in real life is going to remind you of a story. But as a kid, there’s always something. … Say you catch a glass from falling off the counter. As a kid, you’re like, “I’ve never done that before, so maybe I do have superpowers.”

Anita: Along the same lines (as well as thinking of them as archetypes), superheroes are extreme cases of situations that we can tap into. Whatever dynamic is happening between the human in the superhero and his superpowers — like with the Hulk, it’s this uncontrollable, primal rage — a lot of people who have anger issues can tap into that easily, can maybe understand themselves better by looking at how the Hulk transpires on-screen or through the comics.

Metro Times: It seems that the Hulk setup is so much more suited to so many people than the idea of the superhero. All that this story is really about is a guy freaking out and getting angry.

Bruno: He’s just a rage-oholic.

Metro Times: You don’t have to want to help anybody in order to relate to this movie. It’s so basic and primal. It’s like, “Yeah, this is the way I feel — fuck ’em all.”

Bruno: In the movie Mall Rats by Kevin Smith, the main character played by Jason Lee is kind of down and out — and Stan Lee (one of the founders of Marvel Comics, who thought up half the comic books that Hollywood has been making all these movies from) is signing comics in the mall. So Jason’s friend gets Stan to talk to Jason (who’s a huge comic nerd in the movie) to cheer him up. And as Jason asks Stan all these questions, Stan starts making up a load of bull:

Jason: So are you responsible for writing all these titles?

Stan: Yep, that’s me, guilty. (Then Stan gets all serious.) You know, all those comic-book characters, I wrote them at a difficult point in my life. Take the Hulk, for instance: A normal guy in a rage, that was me. Doctor Doom, with his big metal armor, just a regular guy underneath: That was my armor to keep people away from me.

He spews all this crap, but it’s right and there for a reason. He says it satirically, but it wasn’t a coincidence that he wrote those comics.

Metro Times: This goes back to what Anita was saying about mythology, which is full of specific character types and specific emotions.

Anita: There’s truth in it and people see that — it’s entertaining truth in a beautiful, creative package.

Metro Times: Is the comic-book culture a kind of cult phenomenon? Is it an in-group thing

Bruno: There was a while when comic books were super-popular. Marvel was raking it in. And then, like with any other trend, Marvel and DC and a few others dropped off. Marvel went bankrupt — though DC won’t, because I think they got some Time Warner money in their company.

Anita: What do you mean by a cult?

Metro Times: Is it hip to be into comics?

Bruno: No, you’re a dork if you like comics.

Dan: If you’re hanging out with a group of friends, and you and one other person like comics, and start talking about them, everybody else listening is like, “Oh, my god, these guys are dorks. They’re talking about fantasy, something that could never happen.” A lot of people just see it as kid stuff.

Anita: But at different times in their lives, people are attracted to it.

Metro Times: Then why is Hollywood producing multimillion-dollar projects, for the whole mass of the movie population? Theoretically, they want to get as many people as possible into the theater. They’re basing it on something that you guys are saying is just “dorky.”

Bruno: As Anita says, everyone is attracted to comics at some point. Dan and I, who still like comic books, get made fun of by our friends. But these kids liked comic books once and the movies rekindle that interest. Recently, there’s been a big circle: They make more movies — they sell more comic books — they sell more comic books — they make more movies. I’ll bet you Marvel has had tremendous sales since the first X-Men film came out. People are getting back into it again for the second or third time … or the first time.

Dan: The line right down the middle is that you have your comic-book fan boys who read comics religiously, and then they’ll go see the movie and when the story is somewhat changed or they wouldn’t have chosen a particular actor to play a character, they get disappointed.

Metro Times: Are they always disappointed?

Dan: No, not at all.

Bruno: Their standards are pretty ridiculous. I get mad at movies, and then I realize that it’s so petty and I’m the only person in the universe to pick that detail out. So I let it go.

Dan: Then you have those who’ve never read a comic book in their life and maybe have heard, “Oh, I know what X-Men is. My younger brother told me about it one time.” And then they go see the movie — to them, it’s just entertainment.

Anita: They don’t have any expectations.

Bruno: It’s just another action movie, with a twist.

Metro Times: A lot of the comic-into-movie projects seem to obliterate or ignore the deeper levels of the story.

Dan: Yeah … with Hulk, if you’ve never read the comic, you’re going to see an action movie. And then you go see those Joel Schumacher Batmans, where he tried to make them more or less like the slapsticky ’60s television show. The fan boys were really disappointed in those, because Batman’s not like that — Batman’s serious.

Anita: I loved the TV show and I also liked Batman as the Dark Knight. I like a lot of different versions of Batman. But the more recent movies — Hulk, Daredevil and even Spider-Man — are lacking in personality and character detail (though not so much in Spider-Man). They’re just washing over the stories without any substance.

Bruno: I don’t understand where the shortage in the creative process is. When they finally sell the rights and start production, you hear on whatever crappy media source, “Oh, we’ve got someone directing this who’s a huge comic-book fan, who really knows comics.” They rant and rave that, “Ooo, Sam Raimi’s directing Spider-Man — he’s a longtime fan and Stan Lee was very impressed that he’s going to do a good job.” Well I didn’t like Spider-Man. They lost a lot of the Spider-Man personality. They spent all that money and time making his web and costume look real cool, and didn’t put enough into his character. If the character is stellar, the costume can be subpar. But if the reverse happens, it doesn’t work.

Anita: There was a general lack of creativity in that one, even with the camera work.

Dan: My problem was that it took everyday life — our world — and put Spider-Man into it, rather than taking our world and Spider-Man’s world and creating a mixture that’s pleasing to both. As if I was walking outside now and saw a guy in tights walking down the street, that’s what it felt like.

Metro Times: There was no alternate universe.

Dan: Yeah … which comic books are all about … that’s the release.

Bruno: And having all these awful advertisements in Spider-Man, all these product placements — at one point, a huge Dr. Pepper bottle — completely destroys the illusion that this is an alternate universe. Like Wolverine drinks Brand X beer, not Miller.

Anita: It seems as if the filmmakers want the comic book to fit into a wider audience, so they disregard the comic’s creative reality and go right into the already accepted Hollywood reality in films. They try to fit the comic book into that, instead of taking the strongest aspects of the comic book and having them transpire on film.

Dan: That’s why I like the first two Batmans. In the one with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, he fell in acid and is still living. He’s this clown, more or less, and no one asks questions about it. They don’t have to explain it really: He fell in acid and is still alive — that’s it.

Bruno: That’s why the second X-Men was so successful. It’s really difficult to make a comic-book superhero movie — since you have all these obligations to the non-comic-book fans to explain the heroes’ origin. But the origin is not necessarily the strength of a comic book. It’s usually the weak part: Spider-Man gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Superman is from the planet Krypton, with all these aliens who can fly and are perfect. The Fantastic Four movie is coming up and that’s going to be a bad one — I don’t care who’s in it — because the origins there involve a military NASA expedition to Mars where the heroes get irradiated and then mutate. The film’s going to spend an hour and a half on the backstory, getting them finally transformed and now the audience knows what’s going on. X2 is cool, because right from the opening scene we get into the story. We just pick it up and don’t have to explain who this guy Wolverine is.

Metro Times: So most of these films are heading in the wrong direction? All this shit is doomed?

Bruno: Maybe an outsider who’s not a big comic-book fan should get the bid for the next movie. For a while, they were trying to get Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) to direct a Batman film, and he wanted to do it in black-and-white. I was thinking, “That’s going to be totally sweet,” and then the deal fell through. Maybe we need to get some complete nutcase director to take a classic comic book and really change the story, but capture its essence.

Anita: The Tim Burton Batman movies were more successful because he had more control over the whole vision. But there’s so much money involved in these movies that no one person is getting a whole lot of control and that’s what’s killing them. They’re getting all washed out and generic. They have to please so many people that they’re not ultimately pleasing anybody really well. They want safe, reliable, follow the formula, follow the pattern, because “we want to make our money back.”

Dan: I would be really surprised if The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, directed by Stephen Norrington (Blade), turned out to be bad, because it does make its own reality. Seeing previews of Captain Nemo’s ship floating in midair, I thought, “Yeah, they’re making their own rules for that.” I would expect that to be decent.


See Geezer & Weezer’s review of Hulk.

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