Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood recently reported on a deal between Universal Pictures and comic publisher Dark Horse to jointly develop Dark Horse comic book characters into movies.
Now some, Ms. Finke included, would react cynically to this news, not being a fan of comic books or the movies that come from them. Well, I'm a bit of a comic-geek myself who enjoys comic book movies, but there is a line that separates me from the stereotypical drooling fanboys. I only like good comic book movies.
Comic book legend writer Denny O'Neill said that he never considered himself so much as a writer for characters like Batman, but as a keeper of modern folklore. That's the attitude that filmmakers must assume when adapting comic book stories to the screen.
Comic books are very tempting when it comes to making big screen adaptations, they're colourful, full of fantastical, near mythic characters, and are usually loaded with visually exciting action to appeal to the younger ticket-buyers, and a built in recognition to the older audience members, many of who still read comics.
However, more often than not the temptation to cash in on a comic book character's status as a cultural icon can turn what should have been cinematic gold into movie kryptonite.
For a good analysis of what makes a good comic book movie let's take a look at how people made a really bad comic book movie: the financially successful, but creatively disastrous film Batman Forever.
Batman the comic book dealt with themes of revenge, justice, obsession, isolation, and madness. Not your typical strong-man in tights smacking bank-robber upside the head sort of business seen in lesser books, and a rich vein for filmmakers to mine if they stay true to those themes.
As a sequel Batman Forever didn't have to deal with the origins of the main character Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it certainly dropped the ball thematically on what is the next crucial step in any comic book adaptation: The Villain Origin.
Harvey Dent/Two Face was the natural candidate for any sort of origin story. He started out as a crusading District Attorney, and close friend of Bruce Wayne, but after a nasty on the job attack, he ends up a deranged, disfigured criminal that his old friend now has to stop. That story had everything that a good Batman story needs, difficult moral choices, friendship, and betrayal.
The use of the Two Face origin story and Batman being forced to destroy one of his oldest and dearest friends would have been a perfect match thematically with the psychologically and morally complex Batman mythology.
But they didn't use that.
The studio had ordered that the film's be lighter and campier, more like the 1960s TV Batman, than the original comics. They were worried that kids weren't catching onto the dark tones and weren't going to buy tickets. (Completely forgetting the "oh cool" factor most juvenile comic fans had for darker material) But orders were orders to re-make Batman from the gothic Dark Knight, to a candy-coloured caped crusader.
In keeping with the studio's commands Two Face's tragic, and thematically correct, origins became a mere footnote at the beginning of the film and the main villain origin went to Edward Nygma/The Riddler. A character who really didn't have an origin story in the comics for decades, simply being a thief with a compulsion to challenge Batman to catch him via clues hidden in nonsensical riddles and puzzles.
So the writers slap together some story about The Riddler becoming a stereotypical mad scientist with a hankering for brain-washing people to make himself smarter, and the riddles seemed more of an afterthought tacked on late in script development. A sort of "Oh wait, he's the Riddler, don't we need riddles or something?" kind of decision.
Event the subplot of the Riddler stalking Bruce Wayne, seemed geared more toward appealing to Hollywood insiders, than the general public.
Another problem this thematic discord created was in the performances. Tommy Lee Jones is normally a fine actor, and he has the awards and nominations to prove it, but he wasn't given much to work with. Two-Face is a complex character who is literally as good as he is evil. One story I remember reading from my childhood is where Two-Face has Batman trapped on a sinking ship and has a clean getaway, but turns around and foils his own trap, because he couldn't leave a homeless man to die in the trap as well. A flip of his ever-present coin told him to go back and save the innocent man, even if it meant being captured by Batman.
The deep parts of Two-Face's two-sided character were excised, leaving only surface details like his disfigured face, and two-style clothing. The coin was there, but it was reduced to being just a prop without any deeper meaning. Without the roots of the character Jones had nothing to work with but to make him a cackling grimacing rip-off of Jack Nicholson's Joker.
A certain amount of camp was permissible, even preferred, with the Riddler, and could have made him the welcome comic relief to Two-Face's straight man who swings from sombre to psychotic with the flip of a coin. But with Tommy Lee Jones channelling Jack Nicholson's Joker, they became two comic reliefs with nothing to relieve.
With the themes gone, all the filmmakers had to work with were surface ideas, like colour schemes, over the top design: like neon-lights in every room, secret labs lit like discos, and most annoyingly, nipples on the bat-suit. The film made money, but that was back in the day when spectacle was enough, and I doubt many people, extreme comic geeks included, would go back to it for repeated viewings, which is the true mark of a creatively successful film.
A film version of Batman that was both a creative and commercial success was Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Nolan appears to take his position as a keeper of modern folklore seriously, and built stories that were in keeping with the themes that made the original Batman comics the cultural icon it is today.
Maybe I'll cast a hairy eyeball on that film, because after hearing how to do a comic book film wrong, you should probably learn about how somebody did it right.