Guest columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
Back in prehistoric times – you probably know ‘em as “The Silver Age Of Comics” – when there were no superhero movies, comic book letter columns often ran letters suggesting which then-current actors would be suitable for casting in the roles of various superheroes. Most of us had seen the Adventures of Superman television series (1952 – 1958) – and at one of San Diego’s many naval base theaters I saw a single chapter of one of those Commando Cody serials (the inspiration for Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer) – so the notion of a motion picture starring a superhero didn’t seem impossible…
Except that, for me, at least, the concept of a live action superhero movie wasn’t something I was particularly anxious to see. I’d seen a 1943 Superman theatrical short, “The Underground World” on Channel 6’s cartoon show hosted by “Uncle Russ” – and that immediately convinced me that when it came to funnybook superheroes, animation was the best way to approach this sort of material (even though I was unable to convince my chums at Rowan Elementary School that the cartoon I’d watched existed at all!)
You see, I always dug the fact that, in comic books, superheroes were intentionally exaggerated characters who could routinely accomplish outrageous, unbelievable super-deeds. I never wondered what it would look like if superheroes were “real”; they were un-real and that was the way I liked ‘em: imaginary characters doing impossible things. I already had my fill of “real” in everyday life. (Yeah, I explained this in greater detail in last month’s Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist column. If you haven’t read it, go read it now right here. Don’t fret, I’ll wait for you.)
That said, I find that most live-action superhero movies actually diminish the long-underwear-and-capes crowd. No human physiognomy can possibly duplicate the musculature, foreshortening and poses of characters drawn by such “extreme” cartoonists as Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and Steve Ditko, among many others. And when it comes to depicting an awe-inspiring character like Galactus, as in 2007’s Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the audience gets a vague computer-generated effect. (On the other hand, the only thing the makers of that unfortunate sequel did right was the CG depiction of Norrin Radd; the gimmick of the character’s skin becoming tarnished as he loses “the power cosmic” was not only clever, it was something that would have been nearly impossible to pull off in the pages of a four-color funnybook.) In other words, the human body and CG special effects can possibly duplicate – or even come close to – what I love about comic books.
Another thing I dislike about most superhero films is the apparent necessity of spending one-third to one-half of their lengths to establishing the starring character with a “secret origin”. Sure, the audience might not know the specifics of a character’s back story, but they certainly know who the lead super-character is if they’ve already bought their ticket, popcorn and soda. Such famous characters’ origins are anything but secret! Can’t the origins be told along the way or in a flashback well within the body of the film? Or better yet, do it like it was in 1996’s The Phantom. (More on that in a few paragraphs!) The linear method, with a hero’s (or villain’s) origin taking up the entire beginning of the film reminds me of many 1950s monster movies in which we know what monster is behind the mysterious destruction, disappearances and deaths long before any of the characters because we saw the ads and poster first! In other words, it’s padding, pure and simple. The fact that the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man movie will once again retell the origin of the web-spinner is so superfluous, it makes me want to skip seeing the film altogether.
And what is it about Hollywood’s fascination with the “dark” side of superheroes? Tim Burton started that trend with his Batman film (1989), but I assume that was Warner Bros.’ intention in hiring the wunderkind to separate the dramatic Dark Knight from the lingering public association with the campy treatment the Caped Crusader received in ABC’s Batman TV series (1966 – 1968). But ever since then, most superhero movies have displayed similar dark tones, if not even darker. Superhero films don’t have to be silly or dead serious, folks; there’s plenty of other approaches in between the two extremes. But it should surprise no one reading this column that I’d much rather watch Cartoon Networks’ late, lamented Batman: The Brave and the Bold teaming up with the likes of Kamandi and B’wana Beast than Christian Bale’s The Dark Knight Rises featuring Bane, a bulky supervillain who looks like one of those idiots who compete in the Guinness Book of World Records’ category of “most cigarettes smoked at one time”. Sheesh.
Oh, I almost forgot… There are waaaaay too many effin’ superhero movies. There, I said it, O’ True Believers. Deal with it.
But to demonstrate that I don’t hate all superhero flicks, here’s a list of my favorite superhero theatrical movies so far (a baker’s dozen plus a runner-up) and why I dig ‘em so much:
RUNNER-UP: The Green Hornet (2011)
I know that this film was very unpopular with fans, but I thought that it followed a unique logic: if a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young playboy decides to become a superhero, it stands to reason that he’ll become a goofy, wealthy and pudgy young superhero, which is exactly what Seth Rogan does in this movie. And although there are a few cringe-inducing sequences in The Green Hornet (the fast-action make-out in the garage and that fight between Britt Reid (Rogan) and Kato (the quite appropriate Jay Chou) that seems to go on longer than the fight in John Carpenter’s They Live) I think that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Be Kind Rewind) did a great job handling an action movie, especially with a death-trap via heavy construction equipment that bury our heroes inside their extremely cool battle-car, the “Black Beauty”. But my real reason for including The Green Hornet here is a brilliantly directed scene that takes place toward the end of the movie. In it, as a befuddled Britt Reid struggles to connect a number of seemingly random crimes, director Gondry takes us inside the crime fighter’s mind, using animation to show how he manages to piece together the various elements into a now obvious crime wave. I’ve never seen this sort of visual shorthand used in any other movie, but as a cartoonist, I absolutely loved it.
NO. 13: Blankman (1994)
Although by most accounts an embarrassment, I like the fact that this comedy’s lead character, ultra-nerdy inventor-without-a-budget Darryl Walker (played by Damon Wayans in full-throttle geek mode) has what I consider to be by far the best-ever motivation to become a costumed superhero: Darryl’s read enough comic books to think it’s a cool and lofty goal. Additionally, I dig the casting of Jason Alexander as the publisher of a particularly lowbrow tabloid newspaper (remember them?) and Jon Polito as an obnoxious-but-deadly mobster. Also, don’t miss Blankman’s hilariously shoddy R2D2-esque robot assistant, J-5 (as in “Jackson Five”). And finally, the story builds to a fight scene that’s a clever parody of similar sequences in ABC’s Batman TV series. And speaking of which…
NO. 12: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Essentially a bigger-budget, all-star feature length version of ABC’s Batman TV series, Batman (as it was originally titled; “The Movie” was added for the DVD and Blu-Ray editions) was made to exploit the phenomenal national response to the first season of the TV show. Although the iconic presence of Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is missing (The Time Tunnel’s Lee Merriweather attempts to fill the role here), the art direction, the costumes, the set design and the animated sound effects are all here, making Batman: The Movie one of the two feature films to most successfully capture the look of a Silver Age comic book. (The other one’s the movie based on Topps’ infamous set of trading cards, Mars Attacks, directed by Tim Burton.) For decades after viewing Batman during its theatrical release, I was ambivalent about the campy approach of this Leslie H. Martinson-directed film, which is even more comedic than the TV series it’s based upon, but after my son Kirby wore out two VHS tapes of Batman while watching them back when he was a little, how can I help but love it? (My second-hand affection for this movie even accidentally led to my contributing an interview to the exclusive bonus material for Batman: The Movie’s Blu-Ray disc conducted in the wake of doing the same for a DVD set of the first season of Hanna-Barbera’s Richie Rich cartoon series, upon which I worked as a layout supervisor!) Yo ho!
NO. 11: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
According to the FF’s co-creator Smilin’ Stan Lee, this extremely low-budget movie was never intended to be released, a fact unknown to its crew and cast. Apparently, it was made (but as planned, never released) only because Germany’s Constantin Film Produktion – the studio that then owned the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie – would have lost that opportunity if it did not begin production by a certain date. Whatever the circumstances, this film’s cheesy production values actually work in its favor, tying it to the cheapie sci-fi and monster movies of the 1950s, an obvious source of inspiration to Smilin’ Stan and Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby in the stirrings of the Marvel universe. Check out some of the covers for the early issues of Fantastic Four funnybooks; it’s no accident that they greatly resemble the posters for such then-recent drive-in movie fare like Invasion of the Saucer Men, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, War of the Colossal Beast and their ilk!
NO. 9: The Phantom (1996)
This high-quality production amply demonstrates that it’s not at all necessary to “camp it up” in a superhero film; if you successfully (and faithfully) translate a comic book property – or, in this case a comic strip property, although cartoonist Lee Falk’s Phantom has starred in hundreds of comic books here and especially abroad – the tone of happy adventure should come across as being just campy enough. (Although in this case, Treat Williams does portray The Phantom’s gleeful villain by chewing its gorgeous scenery non-stop.) But the very best thing about The Phantom is how it begins, with a five-minutes-or-less intro that begins with “For those who came in late…”, immediately recapping the purple-clad jungle hero’s back-story, his generational history and his mission statement… and that’s all the secret origin that the film’s Australian director Simon Wincer felt the audience needed! How frickin’ refreshing is that?!? And since the Phantom (although American in origin) has been Australia’s Number One favorite comic character for decades, it becomes immediately obvious that Mr. Wincer digs the character – nicely played by Billy Zane – as much or more than his fellow Aussies. And The Phantom gets extra points for including the great Patrick McGoohan (Secret Agent; The Prisoner) in its cast as the Phantom’s ghostly father!
NO. 8: The Specials (2000)
Rob Lowe (as “The Weasel”), Thomas Hayden Church (as “The Strobe”) and Jamie Kennedy (as “Amok”) star in this story of “the sixth or seventh best superhero team in the world” but features precious little special effects-assisted (CG or otherwise) superheroics whatsoever! Instead, The Specials focuses on the team’s internal politics, sexual liaisons and competition to see who can get the juiciest licensing deal for their action figure. The polar opposite of the typical summer superhero blockbuster, The Specials is utterly unique and highly recommended by this cranky comic book cartoonist.
NO. 7: Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Since this is a sequel, we thankfully don’t have to suffer through another superhero origin. Even better, the origin story that is included is that of Dr. Otto Octavius, AKA villainous Doctor Octopus (wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Molina) who is actually much more interesting and likable than his funnybook counterpart. For that matter, even his mechanical arms have personality to spare!
NO. 6: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Hey, it’s a full-length animated feature film by the same talented folks – writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves and directors Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur and Dan Riba, among others – behind Warner Bros. Animation’s industry-altering cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series. Do I need to state any more than that? Well, perhaps I should add that the voice of the legendary Dick Miller (Little Shop of Horrors; Bucket of Blood; Not of This Earth) is on the soundtrack! Woo hoo!
NO. 5: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Set during World War II – which instantly makes the premise infinitely easier to accept – this is the exception that proves the rule about superhero origins in films. When puny patriot Steve Rogers (how could this possibly be the same Chris Evans who played the Human Torch in those tediously mediocre Fantastic Four films?) voluntarily chooses to climb into Dr. Erskine’s transmogrifying device – not to kill Nazis but because Steve doesn’t like bullies – we realize he’s already a hero. As much fun as the rest of the movie is, Cap’s origin story is the heart of the film. And as bonuses, we get a look at the original Golden Age Human Torch on display at the World’s Fair and a cameo appearance by Dum-Dum Dugan and the rest of the Howling Commandos (albeit minus Nick Fury!).
NO. 4: Superman (1941)
Remember “You will believe a man can fly!”, the line used to promote 1978’s Superman, the seminal superhero film that every person this side of Krypton – except me – loved? Well, I didn’t believe it, just as I never believed that the Man of Steel could somehow turn back time. (I’m not just being picky; Superman’s inability to change the past was one of the primary “rules” of all those Mort Weisinger-edited super-comics I read as a kid.) The only part of the entire film that I actually dig is when Superman prevents The Flying Newsroom helicopter from crashing, so sue me. But the original seventeen Superman cartoon shorts produced by Fleischer Studios and their successor Famous Studios from 1941 to 1943? Those I love, and I know I’m not alone. Hey, there would never have been a Batman: The Animated Series – nor umpteen other superhero cartoons – if not for those incredibly influential Superman shorts. They may not have much in the way of character development, but when it comes to showing how cool superheroes can be, they’re still the ones to beat (with the possible exception of my No.1 pick, below. No peeking!)
NO. 3: The Avengers (2012)
Okay, who doesn’t dig The Avengers? It took a while for me to get around to seeing the movie, and although I was skeptical despite everyone’s rave reviews, I’ve gotta admit I enjoyed it. The best things about The Avengers were, in my opinion: 1.) The film showed how much fun superheroes can and should be. Thank you, Joss Whedon. 2.) Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk was finally the version of Ol’ Jade-Jaws that we’ve all been waiting for. 3.) Tony Stark asking Bruce Banner if his method of avoiding Hulking out was “a big bag of weed”. That may be the single greatest alibi of all time: “Yes, officer, I am in possession of this big bag of weed, but it’s to prevent me from Hulking out!” I can’t wait to test it. 4. Loki calling the Black Widow “a mewling quim” – an antiquated form of the despised-by-every-female “C-U-Next-Tuesday word”. 5. The lack of credits at the front end of the film. 6. The shawarma scene that followed the movie’s end credits!
NO. 2: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
For decades, a debate has raged around the famous sailor man: is he or is he not a superhero? (Of course, Popeye’s opinion is “I yam what I yam!) Even though he doesn’t wear a colorful costume nor maintain a secret identity, I’d say that any super-strong, do-gooding human being who can’t be killed (a fact repeatedly established by his creator, cartoonist Elzie C. Segar) certainly qualifies as a superhero. Of course, he has been one of my favorite comic strip, comic book and animated cartoon characters for over half a century, so I may be a wee bit prejudiced, but since this is my list and not yours, I’m treating him as a superhero and that’s that. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is one of the Fleischer Studio’s masterpieces, a cartoon tour de force that not only stars Popeye, Olive Oyl and J. Wellington Wimpy, it also feature Bluto in the role of Sindbad, the top dog on an island populated by hundreds of monsters, wild animals and giant mythical creatures. Despite the odds, Popeye emerges triumphant, and even sings a few songs along the way. This animated “featurette” – longer than a short but much shorter than a feature film – also includes some jaw-dropping dimensional effects that pre-date CG wizardry by many decades. In general, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor compresses all of the over-the-top action and excitement of most modern superhero movies into a mere 16 minutes. Well, blow me down, what could possibly be better than that? Well, how about…
NO. 1: The Incredibles (2004)
For my money, superhero movies just don’t get any better than this. It’s got all the action and fun of my favorite comic books. (Fantastic Four, anyone?) It’s got dozens of original characters, yet there isn’t a single origin story in sight. It introduces a world where superheroes not only exist, they all know each other and interact to a degree that none of the Marvel or DC universes have on film to date. It’s a family comedy about a super-powered family, yet it’s built on a solid and somewhat grim premise about what it’s like to be middle-aged, in a marriage gone stale and on the downhill side of your career. How many other superhero movies can boast those universal themes? The Incredibles features elements of design, style and pop culture that were at their peak in 1964 (the early Marvel Comics universe; Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Secret Agent 007 in Goldfinger (complete with a John Barry-esque score); Hanna-Barbera’s Jonny Quest, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation”, etc.), yet it’s not considered to be a “retro” movie. It’s wildly exaggerated, but has moments that display a subtlety that animation rarely exhibits. Thank you, Brad Bird. Thank you, Pixar. Once again, you’ve shown us that even in a blockbuster of a superhero movie, it’s the story that matters most, even if we’ve never seen its stars before or since. I can’t imagine a better superhero movie in existence.
Y’know, I’m more than a little surprised that I have such good things to say about so many superhero movies after all, even if many of ‘em aren’t the ones that show up on other folks’ lists of favorites. I’ll bet that there are at least a few entries on my list that you weren’t even aware of, right?
But here’s something that’s really got me stymied: the onetime young and perky Gidget and The Flying Nun cast as Aunt May Parker in this month’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man?
Aw, c’mon, say it ain’t so, Sally Field!
(And in the unlikely chance that I actually survive the almost-upon-us San Diego Comic-Con International, I’ll see you back here next month with more cranky comments!)
– Scott Shaw!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comics, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange photo-animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become… The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for KaBOOM!