By Erik Grove
Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start of the summer. In Portland the sun is now marginally more present than the clouds and the rose bushes that next to my driveway that like to hook onto my hoody and rip holes in it are in full bloom. This is the time of year for backyard barbecues and savoring the three months of the year with (almost) no rain. But not for me. I’ve got a Godzilla mega super evil villain cold that I think is probably going to last forever and instead of enjoying the sunshine I’ve been all messed up on cold medicine and watching Netflix. Inspired by my weekend viewing (and need to deliver a column), this week I bring you Essential 8 Comic Book Movies (to watch when you’re sick)!
In the last month three mega big budget superhero movies were released to packed cinemas. Twenty-five years ago in the summer of 1989 Tim Burton’s Batman was a one of a kind and explosive success. I was in Los Angeles visiting family on that opening weekend and the city was Batman crazy. I’ve never been in a live as long as the line I was in for Batman. By the end of the summer I’d seen the movie three times in the theater and my brother and I both got copies of it on VHS for Christmas that year. I’ve watched Batman more times than any other movie outside of the original Star Wars trilogy and it remains one of my favorite comic book movies of all time. While Superman may have made mainstream audience believe a man could fly ten years earlier, Batman’s serious tone and action movie appeal coupled with memorable performances, vivid set design, Burton’s unique vision and a quotable script broke box office records and set the stage for decades of collaboration between comic books and major Hollywood films.
In 1994 Terry Zwigoff’s breakthrough documentary Crumb, a story about the life and family pioneering indie comix creator R. Crumb, was released to broad critical acclaim. Zwigoff’s follow-up effort Ghost World, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ comic story of the same name doubled down on his comic book credibility and created a hipster classic, a millennial Harold & Maude ,that demolished preconceptions of what a comic book movie could be. Zwigoff directed his cast including Steve Buscemi and a teenaged Scarlett Johnansson with the balance of humor and drama and captured small town ennui and aimlessness brilliantly.
It really says something about how amazing of a performance Heath Ledger gave as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight that he eclipses Jack Nicholson’s depiction of the character almost immediately when he appears on screen. Ledger and a cast firing on all cylinders including Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart deliver a Batman story that cuts directly to the heart of modern society, issuing a sharp critiques of government surveillance, media and our very notion of heroism. Ledger’s Joker is a chaotic and unexplained force of nature, a distorted and vicious reflection of the worst parts of humanity. The depths of his madness and senselessness of his crimes are truly chilling. The Dark Knight shows a world that’s incredibly cynical but still just barely capable of hope.
When Robert Rodriguez set upon adapting Frank Miller’s sprawling crime noir saga Sin City to film he did it faithfully and with Miller by his side. The result is a visually unique story full of vivid, larger than life characters that seem conjured directly from the comic book pages and given life by some of the best contemporary actors in Hollywood. Incredibly violent, grim and highly stylized, Sin City is a rare and incredible feat: a comic book that stays true to its roots without compromise.
The Korean film Oldboy by director Chan-wook Park seems like a bit of a cheat because I’ve read never read the source material, a Japanese Manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegish and Garon Tsuchiya but it’s such a good film you’ll have to forgive me. Oldboy is a dark, intense, brutal, revenge story that I’m afraid of writing too much about for fear of spoiling it for those of you that haven’t seen it. The story begins with Oh Dae-Su abducted and locked away in an apartment for fifteen years without explanation and it descends to the darkest places imaginable as he works to uncover why. It’s violent, disturbing and more than anything memorable.
I should admit three biases upfront before talking about Sam Mendes’ remarkable adaptation of the Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner: first, I think Paul Newman is one of the greatest actors of all time, second, I’m sucker for gangster movies and finally, I’ve always wanted to see Tom Hanks play a bad guy. This movie delivers every one of those along with a truly menacing turn by Jude Law and Mendes’ masterful direction. This is a stunning and compelling film about fathers and sons and the evil they do and very much worth a watch.
It can easily be argued that the current crop of superhero films all started with Iron Man. Certainly, the Marvel cinematic universe began with Robert Downey Jr.’s instantly classic portrayal of Tony Stark but more than that Iron Man saw adaptations of the source material that were faithful both in content and in tone. It’s really the tone that sets that the Marvel movies apart from their predecessors. They are serious without being grim and funny without being campy. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios created a formula that’s been a proven winner for years now: get talented actors and crew and distill the best stories from 50 years of Marvel Comics. It seems to be working out alright with successive films meeting and exceeding box office, critical and fan approval.
Scott Pilgrim Vs the World may not have been a smash hit commercially and while some viewers and critics have given it mixed reviews, I consider the film to an unsung cinematic achievement that captured the tone and quality of the Bryan Lee O’Malley comic perfectly delivered it with imagination and unparalleled visual style. The problem I think many have with Scott Pilgrim vs the World is Scott Pilgrim. The character is intentionally immature and unlikeable and his story is one of growth and metamorphosis out of selfishness. The film could have sugar-coated this aspect of the character but director Edgar Wright and crew really embraced the challenge of bringing Scott Pilgrim’s video game infused comic book world to life and did so with attention to detail and appropriate fidelity to the source material.
Special thanks this week to my movie collection, movie streaming services, DayQuil, my patient tea-making wife and my semi-loyal occasional sick bed visiting dog. I’ll be back with more, hopefully sans wracking cough, soon!
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, OR and he’s seriously tired of this stupid cold virus already. You can follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove and read fiction, blogs and sundry zaniness on his webpage www.erikgrove.com. Your donations of cough drops and peppermint tea