Let's Go Out to the Lobby

Here's hoping the musical reference in that title isn't lost on you. If you've ever been to a drive-in, you'll have the jingle stuck in your head all day. You're welcome.

This week, I thought I'd divert from my usual comics focus to talk about the Academy Award nominations a little.

Nah, just kidding. I have pretty mainstream (read: lowbrow) taste in movies, although at least I've heard of all the nominees in the major categories this year, and I've seen two of them, which is one or two more than I've usually seen.

But in that vein, I'd like to talk about comics and their adaptations into television and movies.

It's no secret that most comic-book movies, well... suck. For every Batman (which had its flaws, even though it was a decent film) you have a Punisher or a Captain America. The upcoming X-Men film has had horrid looking costumes and a really awful trailer, and though I still hold out hope for what the movie might accomplish, I'm beginning to come around to hearing the voices of the chorus that has long been chanting "This is gonna suck!"

In fact, the best comic-book movies are ones that aren't based on any comics, but have the comic-book feel to them. Big Trouble in Little China is a great, fun, action-filled movie that owes as much to comic-books as it does to Chinese films for it's tongue-in-cheek, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. And The Matrix is a comic book put into live action form.

The reason for this is that comics rely on standards that look silly in live action. Women with the figures required to play comic-book heroines are often porn stars or "models" and let's face it, those gals don't have much in the way of acting chops. Men with the physique to play a comic-book hero are usually bodybuilders, and the same is often true there. (Side note: I'm not saying bodybuilders can't act, just that they often don't have the training. Bodybuilders are wonderful people, one and all. There, that ought to save me from being hospitalized as a result of this column.) Spandex costumes, which look great when they're drawn in the same pencil and ink used to draw the people in them, just look goofy in real life. And I don't care how good your special effects budget is, there are very few technical wizards who can match what a talented artist can do on paper. At best, you get The Matrix. At worst, you get Roger Corman's Fantastic Four, where The Thing looks like he was made out of Play-Doh.

So why bother? Why are these companies so desperate to get movies made out of their characters, and why is that sort of the brass ring that many independent creators strive for? Got a movie deal? Been optioned? Movie coming out from a major studio?

Aside from the cash that Hollywood is willing to throw around (especially compared to the downtrodden comic-book market), it's mainstream acceptance. How many people know who Nightwing is? Okay, now how many know who Batman, Alfred and the Joker are? That's because Batman and crew have been in television and films. And it used to be, and often still is, that the movie audience comes away thinking they should pick up the comic books relating to that movie. So we get a whole bunch of people who never would have set foot in a comic-book store before coming in and buying Spider-Man or X-Men or Batman and then, hopefully, branching out into the rest of Marvel and DC's offerings and from there, following the typical arc of a comic-book fan, winding up with a $20 a week habit and a comic-book monkey on their backs.

This doesn't always work, though, and I can tell you why. Getting people to see a movie requires more than just a good product. There's got to be something that hooks them. And super-hero movies often have the built-in hook of nostalgia, or at least familiarity. Movies like Batman or even X-Men get such a huge buzz because people know these characters. And they know them through merchandising that started out in comic stores and eventually moved outward. I feel pretty confident in saying that there would be no X-Men movie if they hadn't already had a successful cartoon. If kids didn't carry X-Men lunchboxes around or wear X-Men T-shirts. It's one of the reasons Mystery Men didn't do that well at the box office. Nobody knew who the hell the Mystery Men were! People weren't thinking, "Huh, I remember the Mystery Men... they used to have a show on Saturday morning".

That's why there are comic-book movies. Part of it is that Hollywood has always been creatively bankrupt (let's see, that's bodybuilders, porn stars and Hollywood... think I can work an insult against the Mafia into this column too?) and they'll buy up ideas from comics that they can then misuse and turn into awful movies. Just like they buy ideas from screenwriters. But the other part, the part that makes it a win-win for the comic-book companies, is that there's nothing to lose and everything to gain. If X-Men flops, the comic-book sales probably won't plummet, and the cartoons of recent years won't stop being a fond memory for the kids who watched them. If it succeeds, it turns the books into bigger sellers or at least gives Marvel a more marketable product for future merchandising.

I'd love it if the X-Men could succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams and resurrect the comic-book market, the way the Batman film gave it a shot in the arm in 1982. But even if it's awful, the only loss is the loss of a potentially good movie. And we lose those things all the time.

Randy W. Lander will now be retreating to the mountains to hide from the various powerful personages he insulted in this column.

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