Comic books, whether superhero comics or indie comics or manga, are awesome.
By Jason Johnson and Joanne Soh
November 12, 2010
Movies, by the same token, are equally awesome.
One would think that combining the awesomeness of comics with the awesomeness of movies would lead to such an exponential explosion of awesomeness that it could be seen from the newly-discovered Earth-like planet Gliese 581g.
But the thing is, you never know.
The relationship between comics and movies, two art forms which combine words and pictures to tell stories, but each with its own strengths and limitations, is incredibly complex.
Red, the new Bruce Willis action-comedy opening in theatres today, is a perfect example.
Based on a very concise three-issue comic book mini-series from DC Comics written by the famed Warren Ellis and illustrated by Cully Hamner, the movie version of Red takes all kinds of liberties with the original story.
You might think Ellis would be upset about this, particularly after the way another well-respected graphic novelist Alan Moore went on and on like a little girl about how much he hated the movie version of his moody superhero opus Watchmen.
But on the contrary, 42-year-old Ellis is well on board.
‘Right from the start I said it’s got to be an adaptation and not a translation,’ he told CanMag.com prior to the release of the film.
‘These are two different beasts; nothing is served by trying to do a direct translation.
‘Besides, the book is only 66 pages long – I always knew it had to be expanded.’
In Ellis’ version, Paul Moses is a retired black-ops agent who sets out to kill the new director of the CIA, Michael Beesley, after Beesley tries and fails to rub him out with a hit squad.
But the terse simplicity of Ellis’ comic is nowhere to be found in Red the movie, in which smirky star Willis plays a much more affable Moses.
Rather than going directly after his target, as in the comic book, he spends a lot of time and energy recruiting his old friends – played by John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren – into a convoluted plan to kill the US vice-president.
Plus, in a sub-plot that is only hinted at in Ellis’ story, he has time to romance an attractive phone monkey (played by Mary-Louise Parker).
There’s also no more Beesley – the CIA director is replaced by a CIA hitman, William Cooper (Karl Urban), who spends the whole movie trying to hunt Moses and his pals down.
‘The graphic novel really represents the first act of the film, and then the writers took it from there,’ said Willis during a recent press junket for Red.
‘It got a lot more complicated.’
Whatever the case, at least Moses is still bald.
This year, there have been a number of projects – namely Kick-Ass, Jonah Hex, The Losers and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World – that have tried to translate the magic of their source material from page to screen, and the results have been mixed.
Much of the problem seems to be that the A-listers – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man – have already been done to death, and so Hollywood has moved on to the B-list, C-list, and lists not even the biggest fanboy dares to contemplate.
The Losers and Jonah Hex, for example, were out-and-out bombs.
Jonah Hex, starring Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, cost US$47 million (S$61 million) but took in just under US$11 million at the worldwide box office – which qualifies as a nuclear bomb.
One that didn’t even warrant a commercial release in Singapore.
The Losers was made for US$25 million, but only managed to break even at US$29 million thanks to foreign markets.
With both properties being virtually unknown outside of comic book circles, and with neither offering up particularly interesting stories or characters, it’s not hard to see why they did so badly.
Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World are more interesting cases.
Kick-Ass cost much less and made quite a bit more than Scott Pilgrim (worldwide, they racked up US$96 million and US$46 million respectively).
But putting aside the business side of things, the important thing is that both films were embraced wholeheartedly by their target audience of young pop-culture nerds.
Unlike Red, which had to be fleshed out significantly by the film-makers, the teams from Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim suffered from an embarrassment of riches.
Both films run to almost two hours in length, and many scenes look as if they were actually lifted directly from the comics.
Both were true to their school – they fused the best elements of both media, showed respect to their source material, and were hip to comic book culture.
They might not have managed to bust into the mainstream – Scott Pilgrim, tragically, didn’t make it to our shores – but hey, that’s why you have innocuous crowd-pleasers like Toy Story 3.
With a legitimate household name like Willis in the lead and with its more traditional approach to narrative, Red – which has earned US$85 million and counting – is on track to becoming the most successful comic book adaptation of 2010 after Iron Man 2.
While it might not be as self-consciously or self-righteously comic-booky as either Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim, it’s still pretty cool.
But don’t take our word for it.
‘The screenwriters I think did an astonishing job,’ said Ellis.
‘They’ve added new characters, there are many new scenes but everything they’ve added speaks directly to the themes and original intent of the book. They never lose sight of that even when they lighten the tone. As the original author I couldn’t be happier.’
But even as many are feeling ambivalent over the recent selection of comic book movies, they’ll be spoilt for choice next year.
So keep your eyes peeled, citizens of Gliese 581g.
The genre’s big boys like Green Lantern, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Captain America, Cowboys & Aliens and Adventures Of Tintin drop in 2011.
And perhaps, just perhaps, the bubble will finally burst.
Like Sylvester Stallone’s recent hit The Expendables which celebrated the older guys, the greying cast in Red still has the goods.
We assemble our own dream elite team of female ‘expendables’ whom we believe can kick butt just as well.
Helen Mirren as Bruce Willis
The great dame already proves in Red that she can be extremely dangerous behind a machine gun.
Having played both Queen Elizabeths, she certainly possesses the know-how to be a behind-the-scenes manipulator.
Sigourney Weaver as Sylvester Stallone
No debate here. Since she stepped into Ellen Ripley’s shoes in Alien, Weaver has been the epitome of a female action hero and can definitely lead an estrogen-heavy commando team.
Linda Hamilton as Mickey Rourke
Her tough Sarah Connor persona lives on despite playing the protective mother more than two decades ago in the Terminator series, so she has the experience to be the resident advisor.
And like Rourke, she recently enjoyed a career revival in Chuck.
Michelle Yeoh as Jet Li
That Yeoh is Li’s female equivalent, having done countless Hong Kong action movies, is a no-brainer. She’s also the go-to Asian whenever Hollywood needs a female martial arts exponent, as seen in Tomorrow Never Dies and The Mummy:Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor.
Milla Jovovich as Jason Statham
Statham plays the second in command and the heir incumbent.
Jovovich is an action star in her own right but it’s not hard to see the ego-less beauty as Weaver’s right-hand woman.
Lucy Lawless as Dolph Lundgren
This statuesque femme fatale’s glory days may be over, but we bet there’s still fire inside her. She’s Xena the Warrior Princess, for goodness sake!