You're right, 'Super 8' has nothing in common with a comic book. In 'Super 8,' lovable outcast Joe Lamb (Joel Courteney) is caught up in an amazing adventure where an other-worldly threat descends upon his neighborhood; armed with his wits and a few limited resources, he fights to save the life of the girl of his dreams (Elle Fanning), all while trying to live up to the lessons imparted from his deceased parent. The movie cleverly juggles the duel conflicts of young angst and sci-fi spectacle, using beautifully detailed art design and breath-taking action sequences. It couldn't have less in common with Spider-Man.
But in all seriousness, 'Super 8' contains all the same bullet points as a comic book movie: thrills and chills, charming heroes and melodrama designed to appeal to the young and young-at-heart. Does "comic book movie" forever have to mean "a movie that was adapted from Marvel Comics issue #233"? A comic book movie should be something that looks and feels like the best comic reading experience, but is transformed into something new and unique on the big screen. And if more projects like 'Super 8' come along, hopefully future comic book movies won't have to be weighed down by the boundaries of pre-existing comics.
Why do I consider 'Super 8' to be the best comic book movie of the year? Because unlike 'Thor,' its romance was more genuine. Unlike 'Captain America' it didn't feel like it was sprinting to set up the sequel. Unlike 'X-Men: First Class,' its band of teen heroes were better developed with more personality. It wasn't made by a hired gun looking to collect a paycheck; it was made by a geek auteur (and former comic shop employee) who was writing a love letter to a certain kind of story. I don't let a little thing like "no actual 'Super 8' comic" get in the way of proclaiming it the best comic book movie of the year.
2011 was a prolific year for comic book movies: in addition to Marvel's three releases, 'Green Lantern,' 'Dylan Dog: Dead of Night,' 'Cowboys & Aliens,' 'The Adventures of Tintin' and 'The Smurfs' all saw theatrical release this year. But did each of these adaptations truly capture the spirit of their comic book origins? A comic book movie aims to mash up genres like sci-fi, action, horror, comedy or romance with lots of bright, colorful visuals. Why can't comic fans itch that scratch with movies like 'Super 8,' 'Attack the Block,' 'Hobo With a Shotgun' or 'Drive'?
'Hobo With a Shotgun' does over-the-top vigilantism and moral caricatures better than the three 'Punisher' movies that have been attempted. Ryan Gosling's calm, cool and brooding Driver persona feels like it was plucked straight out of a Vertigo mini-series.
Compare 'Green Lantern' with 'Attack the Block.' Both movies deal with bad-ass, wise-cracking humans fighting off alien invasions. But 'Attack the Block' was made by Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright, a creative team that grew up with geek pop culture, and sought to pay tribute to their influences, while still saying something new. 'Green Lantern' was designed to be a Warner Bros. tentpole franchise that would replace the now-concluding 'Harry Potter' and 'Dark Knight' series with lucrative merchandising opportunities. The ultimate end goal of 'Attack the Block' was to give sci-fi fans something they had never seen before. 'The ultimate end goal of 'Green Lantern' was to develop a new entertainment brand that could appeal to various demographics that have never read a 'Green Lantern' comic (in the form of action figures, video games, clothes, school supplies and Halloween costumes). Which movie do you think would be the more satisfying experience for comic book fans?
And no matter how big this year felt, 2012 will actually be bigger, with the release of 'The Avengers,' 'The Amazing Spider-Man' and 'The Dark Knight Rises.' Hollywood is always going to chase trends and film something that's already proven to work. But as box office receipts continue to plummet and the entertainment industry struggles to harness profits in the wake of a financial depression, they're going to mine the source material harder and faster than before. Spider-Man fans are complaining that this summer's reboot is wasting time telling an origin story that everyone already knows; all they need to see is Peter Parker swinging through New York City, punching out Doc Ock and getting yelled at by Jameson. Well that's not going to happen -- because Sony wants to target the current teen market that is obsessed with 'Twilight.' The only thing Sony needs to do is not piss off Spider-Man fans too much; your devotion to Spider-Man is so complete, that the studio knows your ticket purchase is already a guarantee. They don't need to make a movie that sells to you; they just need to remind you of their brand.
Die-hard 'Green Lantern' or 'Spider-Man' fans will stick by their franchise no matter what; these characters have been with the readers since childhood, and the readers will stand by them through better or worse. Simply getting to the adaptation stage isn't the victory, and neither is getting a movie that fits into a pre-existing template without compromising too much. The victory is a unique movie that embodies the virtues and infinite possibilities of a comic book. Comics have never been for the masses -- they've always appealed to the weird, the geeky, the outcast and the daydreamers. And their movies should strive to be as audacious.
There's going to be a time (probably sooner than later) when movies based on comic books are not special anymore. They will be just another formula that clogs up movie theaters like schlocky horror movies and bad romantic comedies. That can be averted if fans and filmmakers alike start thinking outside the four-color box and start changing the definition of what it means to be a "comic book movie." It can be its own genre and style free from any technological boundaries; it should be pulp fiction for a certain type of filmmaker and a certain type of audience. 'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World' shouldn't be looked at as the risk that failed; it should be the creative standard that lights a fire under the ass of movie directors and comic artists alike. What's to stop J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon from forgoing the monthly floppy altogether and bringing an original superhero to the big screen? Conversely, why couldn't Grant Morrison or Mark Millar draw from their years of scripting sequential art, and film their own sci-fi blockbusters?
If the label is too rigid to shake, then keep 'Steel,' 'Elektra' and 'Fantastic Four' as your definition of "comic book movies"; I'm going to replace them with 'Robocop,' 'Big Trouble in Little China' and 'The Incredibles' for mine. As a lifelong comic reader, I'll always check out the latest superhero adaptation from the Big Two. But as a fan of the artform, I'm much more excited to see a project that re-invents the storytelling tools, and moves like a living, breathing 3D comic book that pops off the theater screen.
(Photo credits from top: Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony)
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