The Animated Superhero
Superhero movies are the big thing right now in Hollywood. Since X-Men came out in 2000 and made a boatload of cash, studios have been buying up comic books right and left. Some of these, such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the revamped Batman franchise, have been great. Many of them, such as Daredevil, Punisher: War Zone, and the third installments of both the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, have been creative wastelands. No matter what, though, the films keep making money, so the trend marches on.
There are several good things about the superhero movie boom. Comics fans have more exposure for their characters, the companies make more money and therefore can deliver a broader range of stories, and it’s just cool to see your childhood hero on the big screen. On the other hand, studios get in the way. Hollywood is a place where no one person is actually in control of the movie, and every chef in the kitchen wants something new. For the most part, studios see superhero movies not as a vehicle to tell a fun story, but rather as a way to sell merchandise. Even the more cerebral films, such as Watchmen and the 2003 Hulk film, were marketed to sell action figures and accessories. Moreover, some movies, notably Spider-Man 3, have been wrecked because of studio interference. (In the case of Spider-Man 3, the studio forced director Sam Raimi to use Venom, thus crowding an already convoluted film.)
Since Spider-Man shattered box office records, studios also have an unrealistic vision of what a superhero movie should make. Every franchise is supposed to duplicate Spider-Man’s success, even though few of them have the kind of recognition that Spider-Man possesses. The first Hulk movie made over $200 million worldwide and sold well in DVDs and merchandise but was considered a financial failure, for example. Because of Hollywood’s impatience, studios are more eager to hit the reset button on a franchise before it even gets its legs underneath it. In the case of both Hulk and The Punisher, the movies got reboots rather than sequels – and wound up making less money as a result. In the case of the Spider-Man franchise, studio interference over trying to get a sexy, marketable villain for the fourth movie has caused Raimi and the stars to walk off the project, resulting in a reboot only a few years after Spider-Man 3 broke almost every box office record in history.
The real shame in the movie craze, in my opinion, is that more studios are pursuing live-action movies when they could be putting together products of much better quality in the field of animation. In America, animation is unfortunately pegged as something that only kids enjoy, but the fact is that there have been many great superhero animated features released this decade. These films don’t make the hundreds of millions of dollars that their live-action counterparts do, but they have often delivered a better quality of entertainment with much more freedom than a live-action film has. Some of my favorite examples are listed below.
Batman: Return of the Joker: I’ll kick off with the most awesome example. Return of the Joker follows along the very good Batman Beyond animated series. The series itself shows off some of the perks of animation; with a massive cyberpunk city and a variety of high-tech villains, the animated series can actually present a unique world through its art rather than wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on crappy CG. As to the movie itself, while Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was definitely Oscar-worthy, Mark Hammill does him one better by reprising a role that he’s played regularly since 1992. This Joker is a wise-cracking, cackling fiend, but he also establishes himself clearly as Batman’s most dangerous foe. Even Bruce Wayne shows fear of him in this one, and for good reason. The Joker’s antics throughout the movie focus on him just trying to remind Gotham City who he is, but the way in which he satisfies his ego ruins multiple lives. This Joker is terrifically insane, with petty motivations but sinister and cruel methods. One of the big benefits this movie and others set in the DC Animated Universe offers is the timelessness of the cast. In Hollywood, franchises wind up getting stalled and rebooted as actors age, go on to different things, and so on. In animation, age isn’t as much a problem, since voices don’t change as quickly. As a result, Mark Hammill had years to perfect his Joker, and Kevin Conroy had the same luxury with his version of Batman. It gets shown remarkably well in this film.
Superman: Doomsday: The death of Superman was unfortunately a cheap marketing stunt in the 90s designed to sell more comics. Fortunately, it was handled fairly well despite that fact, and also had some interesting elements that could be converted into a solid movie. This film gets to explore the death and eventual return of Superman, which is something I highly doubt we’ll see in a live action movie. (Superman Returns could have ended on a cliffhanger and then gone into that in the next film, but opted for the cheesy, “The son becomes the father and the father becomes the son” line instead.) The reason is that live action movies seem to be under the obligation to establish the iconic moments of a comic character’s life. We can’t just have Batman show up; there needs to be half a movie devoted to his backstory. And because there hasn’t been a successful Superman movie in about 20 years, the franchise keeps getting rebooted. By comparison, the animated version of Superman has been around and successful for quite a while. Therefore, the animated films can explore moments that audiences haven’t seen before, such as the death of this iconic character.
Justice League: The New Frontier: Every few years, there are more rumors about a Justice League live-action movie. Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think this will ever get made. A Justice League movie would require several things. First, it requires a number of big-name actors to be on board with it. Is Christian Bale going to want to play Batman alongside a number of other prominent stars in a team movie? Second, it requires several movie franchises to get set up. As far as DC Comic goes, there’s the Batman franchise, then there’s nothing. Superman Returns was a bust, prompting another reboot of the franchise. Other big hitters like Wonder Woman can’t get started up. Maybe the upcoming Green Lantern film will turn into something good, but even having seen the trailer I’m pretty skeptical. Meanwhile, obscure characters like the Green Arrow and the Atom will be even harder to find a market for. That Marvel now has an Avengers movie in production is impressive, but we still have to see if it turns out to be anything decent or if Hollywood politics get involved and ruin things. For example, is Robert Downey, Jr., who is undoubtedly Marvel’s big star, going to want to give up some of his screentime for Mark Ruffalo can show off a bit as the new Bruce Banner? And what if the upcoming Thor or Captain America movies turn into out to be flops? Marvel has to include the founders of the team (except for the Wasp, who seems to have been booted for the action girl Black Widow), but a bad setup movie could considerably hurt the Avengers project and make Marvel reconsider backing the film.
By comparison, Justice League: The New Frontier sidesteps these politics and problems. There are fewer ego problems when dealing with voice actors (largely because they aren’t household names), and again because there are so many existing animated franchises, producers can generally assume that audiences know the origins of the characters, meaning less rehash. There is some lip-service paid to origins here, particularly with the Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, but in general the story goes right into the story, retelling the origin of the Justice League. No, it’s not as good as the comic it’s based on, mainly because time constraints forced the creative team to cut out some of the plot. However, it’s still a very good movie. Enjoy this film, because it’s probably the only feature-length movie in the near future that will have the Justice League together and done well.
Green Lantern: First Flight: The upcoming live-action Green Lantern movie looks like it might be good, but it also leaves me skeptical. For one, Ryan Reynolds looks to me like Ben Stiller when he’s in the Green Lantern uniform, and I can’t get that out of my head. Another problem I see is that I’m not sure it’s possible to make the movie not look like crap. The Green Lantern’s power is creating constructs from his ring. That means a lot of CG, which means a lot of problems. Budget is only one of those problems. The other is that CG, even when done well, rarely meshes with a live action film. A third issue is that when CG is being used, the actors can’t see it. That makes it hard for the actors to give a believable performance. By comparison, put the Green Lantern in an animated film like this one, and the problems go away. The constructs work as part of the animated world because everything is done in the same art style. When Hal Jordan knocks a spaceship across the galaxy with a giant green baseball bat, it’s amusing rather than stupid. While I hope the upcoming live-action film will turn out to be a solid film, I’m not going to hold my breath on it.
Planet Hulk: While Marvel has been slower than DC in cashing in on animation (probably because they have more franchises that are being turned into successful live-action movies), this one is worth a watch. This is an epic that would never be made into a live action movie – especially since the Hulk seems incapable of carrying a film franchise on his own. Planet Hulk is one of the best Hulk stories ever told, and features the titular character exiled from Earth by Marvel’s other heroes. He lands weakened and on an alien planet where he is immediately enslaved and forced to fight to survive. The story hits on rage, fear, and the dichotomy between being a hero and a monster – all elements that make the Hulk a great character. And while the film didn’t perfectly duplicate the comic, it did a great job of getting the themes right, never leaving me comparing what was on the screen with what I had read in the comics. Even if there is a successful Hulk movie in the future (maybe a good Avengers movie will generate interest), a Hollywood film will never put the Hulk in this kind of situation because it is too far-flung for what people know about the character and would require too much money. If just a believable Hulk costs upwards of $100 million, imagine what an alien world and numerous bizarre monsters would run. The animated movie manages to deliver an epic that is true to form for those who loved the comic, and which is intriguing to those who have not read it. Like most of the animated films out there, it is a little short, but it is still a very fun and touching film.
Live action comic book movies are a cash cow right now and for the foreseeable future. That means there will continue to be some excellent films. Unfortunately, as studios get more involved in them and creators get less freedom, that will also mean there is more and more garbage churned out. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent animated features flying under the radar that provide quality equal to or better than what’s currently out in theaters. With Disney now in control of Marvel and Warner Brothers owning DC, hopefully there will be more animated features to come.