Comic books are a hot commodity in Hollywood. The superhero genre allows for a lucrative blend of explosions, special effects and women in tight outfits. For proof, just look at The Fantastic Four, Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2. Throwing money at nostalgia is a surefire way to put asses in theatre seats.
And comic-book nostalgia is a special brand of nostalgia. Marvel’s comics, particularly, have a hold on many children of the seventies. When reading them, one is only limited by one’s imagination, which is why it’s strange to see our favourite characters given life on the big screen and thus limited by budgets, acting and time constraints. What makes Marvel’s stable of characters so alluring to filmmakers is that despite any elements of the fantastic, at heart each hero suffers the same foibles and limitations we all do.
Not counting X-Men 3, Marvel Comics has no less than eleven upcoming movies based on its characters. Some choices are obvious and some … not so much. Characters looking forward to having all of their quirky magic stripped away by the Hollywood blockbuster machine are Captain America, Doctor Strange, Iron Fist, Ghost Rider, Black Panther, Power Pack, Cloak & Dagger, Ant-Man, Shang-Chi, Nick Fury (no one’s gonna top Hasselhoff), and Hawkeye.
Of them, Captain America is the most obvious choice. His backstory—a WWII-era soldier is given a super-serum and frozen in a block of ice, then resurrected in the modern age—means that the script can be parlayed into virtually anything. Plus, Captain America has the kind of brand recognition movie studios dream of—he’s appeared in comics, video games, cartoons and endless straight-to-video and television movies. The comics did go a little screwy after 9/11 when Captain America became a terrorist-buster with a quasi-subversive message that, depending upon which issue you picked up, leaned either to the left or to the right. The movie could go either direction, but will most likely head for the middle. Either way, if Hollywood knows what’s good for us it will take the example of the 1979 Captain America TV movie and give him a sweet-ass motorcycle.
This leads us to another motorcycling superhero. Ghost Rider is in development with Nicolas Cage in the titular role. Cage, a fan of comics, has long wanted to play a four-colour hero and was even tapped to play the title role in the upcoming Superman Returns(the role was eventually assigned to newcomer Brandon Routh). Now he’s Johnny Blaze: a guy who sells his soul to the devil to save his father’s life, then years later meets Mephistopheles who offers to give him his soul back on the condition that Blaze becomes Ghost Rider and prevents Blackheart (Mephistopheles’ son) from taking over Hell and turning it into a Starbucks. Imagine the hackneyed mumbo-jumbo of Constantine crossed with the angst-fest that was Daredevil and you’ve got a project that should prove to be moderately more exciting than the Ant-Man movie.
As of yet, no one has been cast in Ant-Man. For the neophyte, Ant-Man’s story may seem utterly baffling since he was also known as Giant-Man, Yellowjacket and Goliath. There have been different men who fought crime under the guise of Ant-Man and you’ll excuse me if I neglect to fact-check which Ant-Man was Giant-Man and so forth. At some point in time, Ant-Man suffered from an extreme case of ennui and beat up his lady friend, the Wasp. Or maybe that was Giant Man. It certainly wasn’t Yellowjacket. At any rate, Ant-Man eventually hooked up with a reporter named Jessica Jones shortly after her one-night stand with Luke Cage, yet another character optioned for the movies. No, wait. His partner Iron Fist has been optioned for the silver screen.
Confused? I’m not, but it’s probably best to jump ahead to something a little more predictable: X-Men 3. Much of the cast from the prior X-Men films will be returning to their roles, including Hugh Jackman and Captain Picard. Director Bryan Singer left the picture to helm Superman Returns, and has been replaced by the dude who directed Rush Hour (Brett Ratner). Kelsey Grammer will be joining the cast as the Beast, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Kelsey Grammer stripped down to his undies and covered head-to-toe in blue fur, well, you’ll soon have your day. X3 is bound to incorporate “The Dark Phoenix” storyline where Jean Gray returns from her watery grave to die again, except this time possibly on the moon.
The X-Men franchise has thus far managed to capture the feel of the X-Men comics, if not the dizzying and overly complex history. For instance, in the comics, Jean Gray did not actually become Phoenix, because she was in fact floating in space in a cocoon while Phoenix took her place. While so cocooned, her erstwhile lover Scott Summers/Cyclopes met and married Madelyne Pryor, a clone of Jean Gray. These two had a child named Christopher who contracted a techno-organic virus and was sent into the future to find a cure—but not before Madelyne went batshit, decided that Christopher should be called Nathan, died, neglected to return, and Jean Gray then stepped in as mother figure to Nathan and I got my driver's licence.
Movies based on comics are curious animals. The intricate plotlines of the originals don’t really translate into movie form, yet it’s precisely these complexities—Ant-Man’s identities, Phoenix’s evolution—that make the comics so appealing. Adults who didn’t spend their childhoods hunkered down on the floor pawing through back issues of ROM Spaceknight or Ambush Bug while peaking on Hostess Fruit Pies often have a hard time figuring out how to read comics. Any nerd can tell you that you don’t read comics, you absorb them—they stimulate the brain’s visual and language centres at the same time. After a while, the characters begin to dance around in your brain. This is why it feels like betrayal when your favourite comic is adapted to the big screen—suddenly a twat like Ben Affleck is playing a character that helped shape your imagination.
I always hope for the best, though. Many comics have been successfully translated to the big screen: Spider-Man wasn’t bad. Depending upon whom you talk to there are two or three decent Batman movies. Ultimately, though, I tend to check out these films only because some masochistic strain of my DNA has to see exactly how bad “they” fucked it up. Those childhood afternoons cannot be recaptured, and nostalgia is a bum trip no matter how you slice it.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular culture from behind the sofa for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.