Monday, August 22, 2011

Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 5 - Comic-Book Movies and Mutant Cinema

I don't have a lot of books about comic book movies, in part because I don't think there are many out there that are not direct tie-in books. I have a few of those, including Frank Miller's Sin City: The Making of the Movie, The Art of X2, The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion, and one or two more. Reference works are common, including Comic Book Movies by David Hughes and John Kenneth Muir's comprehensive and readable (though pricey) Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

Of actual books on comics movies, I only have a few, including my own. So I'll start there with a quick recap of how Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen came to be.



I was attending the first New York Comic-Con in February of 2006, enjoying the show despite having to endure a type of winter weather that had long been absent from my life. On the final day, I walked the floor of the Javits Center and came across the booth of Sequart, manned by Julian Darius and Mike Phillips. Julian had just released his book Batman Begins and the Comics, now re-released under the title Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. He told me about the book and how it analyzed the movie scene by scene citing and analyzing how the comic book source material was used through the movie.

I immediately liked the idea and asked him if they were planning any more books like this. Julian said he was planning one on the then-upcoming Superman Returns. I asked if they had any plans for X-Men, which at that point was also coming soon with X-Men: The Last Stand. Mike said that was a good idea but they were mostly DC guys and didn't know anyone who could write it. My brain went off and I said I could do it, and after a quick listing of my credentials we agreed to talk about it after the show.

A few weeks later we'd worked out a deal and I started writing. I found writing it to be alternately enjoyable and aggravating. A structure came easily, but finding time to devote to writing it in between other gigs that paid the kind of money I needed to keep the lights on was harder than I thought. Revising it also was tough — I felt like I could have revised it endlessly and made it a bit better with each draft, but then it was never going to get done.

Getting the book finished and revised took longer than expected and the book's original target release date of autumn 2006 quickly revealed itself to be optimistic. Sequart did a great job in getting a small batch of an early version  printed up under the title X-Men: The Movie Trilogy and the Comics for the 2007 New York Comic-Con, complete with a cool cover illustration from Kevin Colden. Concerns about trademark lead to the revised title of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, as suggested by Julian, and another round of revisions was made before the book became final.

Reaction to the book at that NYCC was a surprise to me. Interest was limited among fans, most of whom already had strong opinions about the movie and familiarity with the source material.

The final version of the book was completed later that year and thus began a frustrating process in gaining distribution for the book. There was some technical issue with getting the book listed on Amazon — which took much longer to resolve than anyone expected. By the time all was repaired and the book was up on the site, a lot of key momentum had been lost as interest in the movies had dwindled after X-Men: The Last Stand.

Having watched each of the movies in the trilogy now dozens of times in writing the book, I think the X-Men trilogy will go down as a trendsetter that got the comic book movie off the ground. But they've been outpaced in terms of quality by subsequent, more interesting comic book movies.

The biggest puzzle for me is the strength of antipathy fans have toward The Last Stand. I agree with most that it falls short of X2 in most regards. But having watched it many times I also think it's really not that much worse than X2 or X-Men. Most of the antipathy centers on Brett Ratner, whose public persona is about as far removed from that of Bryan Singer as you can get. But Ratner really was a hired gun on that movie, brought on just a couple weeks before shooting was to begin.  Ratner's focus was on finishing the movie on time more than making a personal impression on the material.

The real fault for the movie's problems lies with Fox, which set an impossible shooting schedule for the film and got cold feet when it came to following through with the Dark Phoenix storyline.

The movie works, I think, pretty well up to the point where Professor Xavier confronts Phoenix at her parents home and she disintegrates him. After that, the Phoenix storyline is dropped until the end of the film. And that ending changes the original story significantly from Jean as the hero, sacrificing herself because she knows she can't control this level of power, to Wolverine becoming the hero and killing Jean even though he loves her. On the surface, it's similar, but deep down, it's quite different.

The other thing The Last Stand did well was to just unleash the characters into the action. On the first two films, Singer offered up inventive but short action sequences that always felt restrained. And it worked to keep the audience hungry for more because it gives the creators a place to go. But I don't know that his instincts would have allowed him to deliver the kind of satisfying mayhem that Last Stand delivered.

In the end, I'm proud of the book, enjoyed the experience of writing it and learned a lot about my own personal strengths and shortcomings in the process.

If you're interested in more, check out the book's page on Sequart.com here, where you can read a sample chapter on previous movie and TV adaptations of X-Men and order the book. You also can get it from Amazon.com here.

Comic-book movies are definitely evolving. It'll be interesting to see where Marvel goes once they've done two or three movies each with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers. It'll be just as interesting to see if DC can recover from the dismal reception of Green Lantern and figure out how to make the likes of Flash and Wonder Woman into good movies. And with Sony already re-inventing Spider-Man, the pressure will be on Fox to find some way to make good with new versions of Daredevil and Fantastic Four. Comic book movies are sure to stick around for a good ten years — it's just what they will look like and whether audiences will tire of them that is up for debate.

2 comments:

Derrick said...

After reading this entry, I feel the need to get around to watching X3 again, out of a feeling that I've not given it a fair shake in my past loathing of it.

So I'm now actually looking forward to seeing it again one of these days.

And after reading some of the sample chapter of your book, I hope to get around to reading it as well.

Looks good!

Julian Darius said...

It's a great book, Tom, and I totally agree about The Last Stand! Thanks so much for highlighting this under-appreciated gem of a book! I think people assume they have nothing to learn, when in fact there's quite a bit in the book for everyone. We really believe in it at Sequart!