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Wolverine makes $85m

Well, I think we can safely confirm that the popcorn comic book genre is still alive and well, unthreatened by the deconstructionist fare that populated The Dark Knight and the bizarre union of big-budget effects and almost arthouse sensibilities that was Watchmen. Wolverine proved that Hollywood was still capable of making a good old-fashioned matinee-idol-powered piece of fluff.

The reviews are… underwhelming to say the least, but I certainly found the film to have its charms. It featured two of the most solid leading performances I’ve seen in a summer blockbuster (Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber), it never slowed down enough to allow its preposterous excuse for a plot to catch up with the sheer kinetic thrills and it was unapologetic about what it was. Still… eighty-five million? That means we can look forward to the Japanese-themed sequel and the many, many spinoffs in the next few years – but where’s my Magneto movie?

"Grrr... You're an animal!!!"

"Grrr... You're an animal!!!"

To be honest, the next certifiable box-office-monster in waiting is Iron Man II coming in next summer, followed by The Green Lantern and Jonah Hex. I might enjoy having a year off from big-budget comic book adaptations before running the gauntlet – there’s still Thor and Captain America due soon. And who could forget The Avengers – a superhero epic that looks set to star a superlative cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jnr., Edward Norton, alongside – possibly – Matthew McConaughey and – unlikely, but just maybe – Hugh Jackman? That’s three Oscar-nominees, one Oscar host and the dude from Failure to Launch. Pretty impressive cast.

Hollywood has truly found its new money-spinner. In the last year alone, we’ve had Iron Man, The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk and Punisher: Warzone. Admittedly a mixed crop in terms of quality, but no one can deny that the genre seems to be here to stay.

It seems hard to remember a time when there were really only two superhero franchises to speak of – Christopher Reeves as Superman and the Burton/Schumacher Batman series, both running four movies on a similar trajectory of quality (from very good to great to terrible to oh my god, my eyes!) – but, until the beginning of the last decade, that’s really all there were. So, how’d we end up here?

The answer, in a bizarre example of symmetry that most bloggers aspire to, leads right back to the subject of this post – Hugh Jackman. See, somehow Fox decided they wanted to make an X-Men movie. No one really knows why one of the most notorious popularist media companies in America decided to run with a group of superheroes relatively unknown outside comic books when Spiderman was still waiting for a screen adaptation. Even those who know that don’t know why they gave the job to Bryan Singer. As awesome as the dude is – and he is freakin’ awesome – his resume doesn’t exactly scream “big budget comic book epic” (featuring films about crippled gangsters, gay film directors and hiding Nazis). Still, for once Fox made a good decision. Maybe they were due.

Anyway, Singer pretty much knocked it out of the park. He found a way to mix an admittedly obvious subtext (during the second film, one confused parent asks “Have you tried not being gay a mutant?”) with very powerful visuals (a showdown on top of the Statue of Liberty, an impromptu redesign of a train station). Thus began one of two trends that pretty much defined the modern comic book movie: taking an edgy, relatively independent film director and giving them a boatload of money.

Pretty soon you had Spiderman trilogy directed by horror-maestro Sam Raimi and Batman reboot directed by low-key British director Christopher Nolan. Sure, this indoctrination of what would have been considered ‘risky’ directors was not exclusive to the comic genre – Peter Jackson directed the as-gross-as-it-sounds Brain Dead before taking to Middle Earth – but it was arguably most pronounced there. Jon Favreau directed Swingers, Made… and Iron Man. Kenneth Branagh, when he isn’t directing Hamlet, is working on a big screen adaptation of Thor. Oscar-nominated character actor Edward Norton ‘revised’ the script to The Incredible Hulk.

"Suit up!"

"Suit up!"

The other trend? Solid actors giving credible performances. Sure, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were playing supporting roles (and being billed as leads) more than two decades ago, but both left big teeth marks in the scenery. And sometimes it works – Nicholson’s Joker was meant to be nuts, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor was as much a clown as a supervillian – but sometimes it doesn’t – I sure hope no one on the sets of Batman Forever or Batman & Robin was lactose-intolerant, because Tommy Lee Jones and Arnold Swartzenagger might as well have been made from cheese.

On the other hand, in the past decade, we’ve had Sir Ian McKellen infusing pathos into a villian who can bend metal, Edward Norton fleeing the beast within, Gary Oldman trying to keep a city under control amid chaos, Robert Downey Jnr. playing a man-child who needed to grow up, Cillian Murphy tormenting asylum inmates as a malicious psychologist, Brian Cox portraying a man propelled as much by shame over his own family history as a burning racism, Heath Ledger delving into the lunacy of one of the genre’s most iconic creations. Okay, maybe not all performers have been so refrained (we’re looking at you Dominic West, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Bridges), but sometimes scenery just needs chewing.

The term ‘comic book movie’ has a bit of a negative connotation – perhaps partially justified by truly painful films like The Fantastic Four series, the later Batman and Superman movies – but a lot of people tend to forget that comic books are not solely the realm of psychologically-scarred anthropologically-themed vigilantes. The comic book – or graphic novel, depending on your level of pretension – movie genre also gave us movies like Ghost World, A History of Violence and The Road to Perdition, the latter of which featured Paul Newman’s last Oscar-nominated role. Rumours abound about a planned adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Please God, don’t ruin it!

So, where does that leave us? Well, the comic book movie looks to be here to stay, for better or for worse. I have to say I’m a little fascinated by the prospect, getting to see the emergence and evolution of a new style of film. Comic adaptations will likely take a while to earn any major respect from those who take the industry seriously – The Dark Knight put several cracks in that glass ceiling with several nominations and wins last year, but not enough to secure a Best Picture nomination – but so did a lot of other genres. Before The Silence of the Lambs, no horror had won the Best Picture Oscar.

I’m holding my breath for the Best Picture winning comic book film. It certainly ain’t going to be Wolverine… but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.

————————————

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the first in a long line of projected X-Men spinoffs (that will include prequels Deadpool, Gambit, Magneto and First Class, as well as the inevitable sequels). It is directed by Gavin Hood (Totsi, Rendition) and stars a hideously talented cast including Hugh Jackman (the X-Men trilogy, The Prestige), Leiv Schreiber (the Scream trilogy, Defiance, The Manchurian Candidate, The Painted Veil), Danny Heuston (The Constant Gardener, The Proposition, Birth), Will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas), Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings, Lost), Kevin Durand (Lost, Stargate SG-1) and Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder, Blade: Trinity). In a rare twist it was released in the UK on the 30th April 2009, before the US release date of 2nd May 2009.

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