The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


August 23, 2013

Jeremiah Tucker: Comic-book movies prove geeks squandered power

JOPLIN, Mo. — I didn't see "The Wolverine." I skipped it, even after reading a great (if not wholly positive) review of the film in Grantland, the opening paragraph of which includes my favorite movie writing of the year: "Most of the movie is (Hugh Jackman) in and out of a white tank top, his arms and shoulders abubble and athrob, the veins flowing with God knows what. His body is beyond fitness, beyond fat, beyond muscles, beyond ready comprehension. It is beyond the human body as the movies have previously depicted it."

I am so sick of boring, sanitized, competently made superhero movies that not even the promise of Jackman's epic shreddedness could convince me to buy a ticket.

Ten years ago, skipping a big-budget film adaptation of a superhero comic would have seemed unfathomable to me. I grew up reading comics in the '90s, a fallow decade for superhero movies.

From DC and Marvel, you had the terrible "Batman" franchise, "Blade" and then low-budget schlock such as the unwatchable 1990 "Captain America" movie starring J.D. Salinger's son, the Dolph Lundgren version of "The Punisher" -- still my favorite "Punisher" movie, by the way -- and "Steel," the not-really adaptation of an ancillary Superman character starring Shaq.

So hungry were we for filmed adaptations of our beloved comics that my brother and I tracked down bootleg copies of ultra low-budget productions such as the unaired, made-for-TV "Justice League" movie pilot from 1997 and schlock-auteur Roger Corman's 1994 version of "The Fantastic Four," which was hilariously (and accurately) spoofed in the most recent season of "Arrested Development."

Then the first "X-Men" movie hit in 2000, and the floodgates opened.

Now, San Diego's Comic-Con International is one of Hollywood's biggest annual events, where beautiful millionaires have to pretend to care about back issues of the West Coast Avengers.

If they ever remake "Revenge of the Nerds" it should just be called "Life." The nerds have won, and you need only read the comments sections of any website catering to some stereotypical geek interest to realize they can be every bit as insufferable, irritable and mean-spirited as previous alphas. Culture bestowed upon them great power, and they have not used it responsibly.

Part of the problem is that geeks demanded for so long to have their interests taken seriously that we've begun to take them too seriously. While watching "Man of Steel" -- which is basically the 1990 Bill Cosby comedy "Ghost Dad" crossed with "Matrix Revolutions" -- I almost vomited when this movie's lunkheaded version of Superman falls into space, briefly striking a Christ-on-the-cross pose. At that point, Jor-El Maximus, the actual hero of the movie, should have demoted his son: "I was wrong to send you here, Kal-El. Earth has turned you into a drama queen."

The Marvel movies -- "Iron Man," "Thor," "The Avengers," etc. -- offer more levity and a brighter tone, but there's a uniform quality to them. As if all the careful planning has smoothed any major flaws but also scrubbed them of their weirder comic-book DNA.

I doubt you'll ever see the movie Avengers battling M.O.D.O.K., a disembodied floating head with tiny arms and feet, or watch a faithful adaptation of anything as overtly comic-booky as the Infinity Gauntlet storyline where the titan Thanos -- introduced in the after-credits kicker of "Marvel's The Avengers" -- kills everybody with the cosmic equivalent of the Nintendo Power Glove to woo Death, a robed lady with a rocking bod and a skull for a face.

In addition to making comic books palatable to a broader audience, these movies also have to satisfy the conventions of a blockbuster action movie. The source material for "Iron Man 3," a six-issue story by Warren Ellis, one of the masters of comic-book sci-fi, is (by comics standards) a simple, low-key narrative about Tony Stark reckoning with his past and confronting new tech more advanced than his own. The movie adds unnecessary subplots and the third act ends in the same CGI explosion town all these movies visit in the end.

I'm not saying I don't like any comic book movies. "Spider-Man 2" and "The Dark Knight" are great, but to paraphrase Jay-Z, "That's a two hot movies every 10 year average." Maybe Arnim Zola will show up in the Captain America sequel with his giant head in his Nazi robot belly, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be as operatic as its source material, restoring to the big screen the spark -- a phosphoric mix of weirdness, absurdity and exuberance -- that makes comic books unique and fun to read.

Or maybe the price of geeks achieving mainstream acceptance is the dilution of what inspired them to be geeks in the first place. If so, I'll stick to the comics.

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