Sunday, December 21, 2008

Comic book movies

In Waid Wednesday #1: 101, Mark Waid wrote, "The single most important difference between a screenplay and a comic book script is that a comic story is made up of frozen moments... The second most important difference is that the comics page uses space the way film uses time."

My problem, such as it is, about comic book movies - and here I'm referring specifically to the movies, from Baba Yaga by Corrado Farina to Hulk by Ang Lee, that make a conspicuous effort to recreate the feeling of reading a comic book - is that they don't use space in the way that comic books do.

My standing favorite in this is Diabolik by Mario Bava.

Obviously there's no practical way to use space in the way Mark Waid is describing in which the size of an image denotes its relative importance, but there are ways in which images hold the frame of a comic book panel that has a look that comic book movies rarely even attempt to replicate, focusing instead on replicating the notion of panels or the use of colors, both of which can produce interesting results, but don't manage to capture the very things that most strike me when looking at a comic book page.

For what it's worth, of recent movies, Barb Wire by David Hogan does a better job than most of staging its action in a way that looks like a comic book image to me. I'd be interested in seeing what he might be able to manage with a better script.


The movie as a whole is one of those movies that almost deserves a critical re-evaluation. Unfortunately, it's not incredibly exciting to get a movement going saying, "Hey! Everyone said this movie was bad, but it's not. Rather it's, well, y'know 'not bad'." It fits along with the phenomenon I discussed in I know where a mediocre movie comes out starring a woman who people happen to be in the process of judging for their personal life gets turned into an atrocity in the public imagination and the deplorable Golden Raspberry Awards, whose judgments are invariably based substantially more on morality than quality.

Does anyone know why they thought ripping-off Casablanca was a good idea? Frankly, it doesn't elevate it, especially since it entirely misses the particularly resonate beats from that movie, and only makes it look worse than it is for its failure to live up to that standard. Frankly, without those structural elements, why would anyone complain because a movie based on Chris Warner's Barb Wire series missed the mark of Casablanca?

Trying to shoehorn it in to that also took it into the problem faced by any number of sci-fi movies, which is trying to make me care about fake politics. By and large, I don't. Nor does anyone else.

This is actually one of the under-discussed flaws with The Phantom Menace as well.

People should almost invariably not bother trying. It takes so long to explain enough to make me care that I stop caring during the explanation.

As I said, the direction is overall solid and interesting. Pamela Anderson is actually not bad at all. She looks quite striking in the Leone-styled eye close-ups at various moments. Her boobs are distractingly fake, which is fine in costume, where it looks like part of the comic book look, but is odd in a couple of others... First, the remarkably tedious topless dance in the credit sequence. I can't say why this was put together this way. It's scored to a rather lame cover of Cameo's "Word Up!" by the band Gun. The lame cover would pass in itself, because, of course, "Word Up!" is The Jam...



... but the scene itself lacks any energy. Her breasts are exposed at the beginning. She takes nothing off nor puts anything on. This would all be fine. It's a topless dance not a strip tease, ok. But she really just poses in the same two poses while water is sprayed at her. It seems like something that someone pushed on them and neither the director nor Anderson had any enthusiasm to make an opening out of it.

The second is when there's supposed to be some emotional resonance to the scene and her nudity should feel like an exposure and an intimacy, but the fake boobs just look like they're for show anyway.

And here I've spent all of this time complaining, and I really did think it was, as I said, not bad.

The action is extremely well handled. It's well staged, often, as noted, creating a look on the screen that feels like the way a comic book page should look. The supporting performances are almost all right on, from Xander Berkley's knowing wink to Steve Railsback's scene chewing.

If only they'd had a script to work with.

Punisher: War Zone by Lexi Alexander, on the other hand, is working from a somewhat stronger script, her leaning is toward the creating a comic book world and staging more tradition movie sequences within that world.


As I said before, I think replacing Thomas Jane as Frank Castle is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I do really like how Ray Stevenson looks like a Ross Andru drawing, and his performance is terrific all around.

Dominic West gives a deliciously arch performance that will undoubtedly draw at least some controversy with the Philistines, habituated as they are to modern movie acting that can't deviate from the same flavorless range, just the same as the modern movies that can't deviate their same flavorless range. We live in the world Ray Kroc built. Nothing is ever that bad, but then it's never really good, as that requires the risk that it could be bad.

I enjoyed the addition of Martin Soap from the recent books by Garth Ennis. Ennis has only rarely bothered to show his full brilliance on "The Punisher", preferring a more, well, Ray Kroc approach to them, but Soap is an exception. One of the things Ennis excels at above possibly anyone is making the cruelest, most sadistic fun at the expense of a character and then drawing them back in so that we're sympathetic to them. Soap is as good an example of that approach as he's done, so it's a bit of a shame that here he's reduced to a much more simplified version of himself without the cruelty or any significant sympathy.

Interestingly, this came out the same year as The Dark Knight. The most successful and least successful commercially of any two comic book movies, and both basically ask the same moral question and come to much different answers. Punisher: War Zone has an answer that's probably wrong and is certainly over-simple. I'll definitely give the edge to The Dark Knight on that score, and yet the staging of the action in Punisher: War Zone is vastly superior, as is the pacing of the movie as a whole. Mind you, it could have used the kind of second act twist I talked about in More story movin', but it doesn't suffer for it and doesn't bother to wear out its welcome.

So, The Dark Knight is undoubtedly a "better" movie than Punisher: War Zone, but I'm not sure it matters. I'm doubt I'll ever watch the theatrical cut of The Dark Knight again.

Ever.

If Christopher Nolan releases a longer or shorter cut that I hear significantly speaks to the pacing, or perhaps I'll find an appealing FanEdit, and revisit eventually.

The point is I'd watch Punisher: War Zone again tonight when I got home, if there turned out to be a DVD sitting there.


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