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Superheroes don't always get super treatment

Movies based on comic books have attained newfound maturity, but it's been a perilous route. A fan charts the highs and lows.

May 18, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

For loyal fans of comic books, going to the Hollywood adaptations of their heroes through the years had been a sad ritual: They enter with high expectations, endure a few hours of bad dialogue and embarrassing wardrobe, and then exit feeling dejected and ripped off -- it's sort of like prom night with popcorn.

The problem was that Hollywood treated the comics like a joke and, even if the story involves a guy in long johns, comic book fans take it all very seriously. In numbing films such as "Batman & Robin," for instance, the actors practically wink and roll their eyes throughout the film, like snarky 10th-graders forced into a drama club production. Look, no one is asking for a Merchant Ivory handling, but there's also no reason to reduce the movies to theme-park rides.

Anyway, that disconnect appears to be a thing of the past, thanks to a new generation of filmmakers who respect the material and special-effects advances that can handle the supersized fantasy of comics. The trend reaches a zenith with "X2: X-Men United," which, to this comic fan's eyes, is the genre's best adaptation ever. "X2" is crisp and jammed with spectacle, reverent to the source material but still surprising. I can understand if some viewers find that it drifts too far into comic-book minutiae (a nonbelieving colleague, perplexed by the movie's pseudo-science, asked me: "How exactly am I supposed to know what adamantium is?"), but for fans of the genre it is pitch perfect.

More heroics are on tap. "The Hulk," on deck now, appears to have promise. There's also a "Spider-Man" sequel or three to anticipate, maybe even a good Batman movie or, finally, an adaptation of the Watchmen. All of this got me thinking about the highs and lows on the path to this point. So here's a return to those thrilling (and chilling) days of yesteryear with our fearless heroes-gone-Hollywood. Think of it as a high school reunion, except everyone looks good in tights. Well, almost everyone.

The turning point: I visited the set of "Spider-Man" once and director Sam Raimi told me that as a kid, he had a mural of Spider-Man painted above his bed and it was the last thing he would see before drifting off to sleep. Here was the guy destined to turn around the superhero movie, and that's just what he did. "Men in Black," "Blade" and "X-Men" came first and they built up the idea that smart comics films could be cool (and profitable), but the monster success of this movie in 2002 sealed the deal. Why was it so good? The romance, the angst of youth, the banishment of snide campiness -- all the things that made it different from typical Hollywood heroes. Along with the "X-Men: films, this is the best yet.

The forgotten hero: The Rocketeer as a comic book was sexy, irreverent and snappy, but also relatively obscure in a skyway dominated by gaudy superheroes. The same goes for the 1991 movie. The comic book, by writer-artist Dave Stevens, was an ode to the old adventure serials and pinup girls. Its adaptation starred Bill Campbell as the feckless hero, tangling with Nazis over a top-secret rocket backpack developed by Howard Hughes. The film had an Indiana Jones-like bonhomie and Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton and Alan Arkin are in on all the fun.

What's that smell?: There was no better writing in comic books than Alan Moore's 1980s run on the Swamp Thing series. It was a mix of the arcane arts, strange tales of sentient flora and a mapping of the human heart. Before that, in the 1970s, the character's creators, Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, had a less ambitious but also deeply memorable take on the sad scientist disfigured in the bog. Those comics no doubt inspired Hollywood to draft the obscure hero for "Swamp Thing" in 1982 and "Return of the Swamp Thing" in 1989, not to mention a TV series in between. But, of course, they dumbed everything down to compost level.

Back to the cave: What about the Batman franchise, one of the most lucrative and popular film properties in history and the defining comic-book vehicle until recent years? I went back and watched the films recently and can offer these appraisals:

"Batman" (1989) -- Jack Nicholson doesn't appear to need a script, which is a good thing in this case, because in director Tim Burton's cemetery cabaret there's not a lot of plot.

"Batman Returns" (1992) -- The darkest episode and, though this is not a popular opinion, to me the best of bunch. It's downhill from here.

"Batman Forever" (1995) -- New hero Val Kilmer and director Joel Schumacher come in. Lots of gadgets, lots of noise.

"Batman & Robin" (1997) -- Kilmer out, George Clooney in. More gadgets, more noise. Schumacher heats until melted.

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