Let’s face it: Comic book movies–and in particular the mainstream superhero stories that people think of when you say “comic book movies”–have been a genre filled with some very high highs and some very low lows. For every Iron Man or The Dark Knight that you get, there’s a Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance or Catwoman hiding around the corner.
Sometimes, though, the stars just don’t align properly for a movie and it gets mercilessly panned, even if it doesn’t necessarily deserve it. Let’s be honest: that’s no world in which Judge Dredd, for all of its flaws, is as bad a movie as Jonah Hex was, but on Rotten Tomatoes, they’re within a couple of percentage points of one another, and both as “rotten” on the scale as you’re likely to find from a big-budget Hollywood movie.
This is a list of movies that might not be anyone’s favorites, but which have some redeeming value that’s been overlooked because they failed to meet expectations–expectations which are often unreasonably high, because of the way the audience interacts with these characters.
Comic book films, because of the long-standing and important relationships fans have with the characters and the source material, are loved or hated very passionately. That’s because we’ve all done the movie already in our head, and that’s a point of inevitable comparison.
So what are some movies that probably aren’t as terrible as you remember them? In no particular order…
This is the film that inspired the story. With Dredd 3D coming to theaters, I plugged my DVD of Judge Dredd into the player yesterday and watched it while I worked. It’s a flimsy plot that has no excuse being a Judge Dredd movie, for sure, and Rob Schneider brings about as much to the film as Chris Tucker brought to The Fifth Element (that is to say–nothing, and more than nothing, he detracted from the movie overall)–but you can see that they really put the effort in. For the time, the CG and special effects were pretty good, and while Stallone dropped the ball depicting Mega City One’s great protector, it wasn’t for bad casting. Had the script been a little better it would have been just another mediocre performance by Sly, who might have been considered well-cast in it if he hadn’t spent most of the movie with the helmet off.
Ultimately, the film suffered under the weight of itself, and it felt more like Demolition Man than Judge Dredd. Speaking of The Fifth Element, there’s nothing here that the Bruce Willis vehicle didn’t do better and with more style–but it’s really a few key weaknesses–the direction, the script and Schneider among them–that plunge this movie into darkness.
“A diffuse, uninvolving star vehicle aimed at saving Stallone’s box-office viability manages to display most of his weaknesses,” said film critic Emanuel Levy, and that’s not an unfair assessment. It also suffered from being somewhat too polished. The sleek, shiny designs of the Judge’s uniforms and hardware clashed with the story that was being told, and left us feeling like Mega City One was a bit too sterile for its own good.
With a weak leading man and an unknown (to the general public) hero, this film had to be really good in order to get any kind of benefit of the doubt at all. I mean, like, 300 or Sin City good. And of course it was nowhere close to that, but it’s a solid enough little picture with a decent story, cool effects and a strong secondary cast that suffered from a bad lead and bad pacing.
This was a film that had an uphill battle from the start; Ghost Rider is not only widely unknown outside of comics, but his power set is not easily explained or, arguably, easy to show onscreen other than the immediately cool image of the flaming skull. For many viewers, it was all downhill from there, and it really needed to win people over right away to prove it was more than just a bumper sticker, which it failed to do since Nic Cage had all the appeal of a moldy banana.
This particular film also suffers in our collective memory due to the pervasive awfulness of its sequel, which kind of retroactively tainted the movie in our memory. The same can be said of Batman Forever (a bad movie, but not UNGODLY bad, until you view it as part of a creative whole with Schumacher’s Batman & Robin), and also about…
It was a superhero movie that made a point of having a bit of levity and having a little bit of fun with itself, which is something that we hadn’t really seen in a big-budget outing in a while.
Tim Burton’s Batman really changed the game for everybody and it was still years before we would get the Marvel Studios renaissance with Iron Man. Fantastic 4 was, ever so briefly, in its own weird little class.
That’s why it made money, which is something people forget, and that’s why it got a sequel that was incredibly ambitious and failed to clear the bar even a little bit.
Even this one was not without its problems, though, and the optimism with which it received probably faded quickly because it wasn’t all that warranted. Three of the four central characters gave mediocre-to-poor performances and the fourth was covered in so much makeup that you couldn’t tell he was doing a good job. Meanwhile, the film suffered from arguably the worst villain of any mainstream superhero movie, since Batman & Robin–a criticism made more scathing by virtue of the fact that it was Doctor Doom he was screwing up. That character is so classic that it should be borderline impossible to do a poor interpretation!
This one, along with the next on the list, arguably suffers from trying too hard to make a good film and not worrying enough about being accessible to a mainstream audience or playing to expectations. It also, like so many of the movies on this list, was handicapped from the get-go by a leading man who never seemed quite the equal of the task before him.
In this case, the script itself wasn’t terrible, although it’s easy to argue that director Ang Lee and his team of screenwriters tried to be a little too precious here, and that treating the script not like it was a comic book but like it was what everyone thinks of when they say “comic book” was probably its undoing. The shifting panels gimmick is the kind of thing you used to see in the opening credits of movies like The Punisher, Mallrats and Judge Dredd, but nobody had ever tried to make it work in a film. Lee tried–and failed. At the same time, a number of the concepts in the movie would probably have worked on the printed page, but seemed preposterous onscreen (we’re looking at YOU, Hulk-dogs!).
A recent article about The Dark Knight Rises, published on the Chicago Sun-Times‘ website, discussed the idea that The Hulk may have been somewhat discounted because it entered the superhero film fray and with that (and the film’s massive budget) comes certain expectations of action, adventure and mass entertainment. Lee attempted (and your mileage may vary as to what degree he succeeded in making) a thoughtful and introspective film that only dealt with action and violence as the natural extension of character, something that might have made for a great Hulk miniseries in the comics but made for a disappointing movie for most people.
If ever there was a comic book movie damned by its own high expectations (and arguably by its own high opinion of itself) it was this one. Based on one of the greatest comic book series of all time and done with the express disapproval of the author, it would have had to be an instant classic to avoid some pretty caustic criticism.
What we got instead was a movie that pleased critics and audiences but didn’t thrill them, and that didn’t open at the kind of money Warner Brothers wanted so that by the time it was in the black, the wide public perception was that it was already a failure. Throw in a villain who wasn’t particularly compelling and some unpopular tweaks made to the source material and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty good movie that people don’t remember fondly.
It’s odd that it’s remembered as such a flop, though. The movie didn’t do what it “should have” according to experts’ calculations at the box office, but it turned a profit, at least on its hefty production budget. It also made more money than a number of superhero films (like Blade and Kick-Ass) which were considered successes because they were made on the cheap. It’s also got a 64% rating from critics and a 68% rating from audiences on review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s hard to figure out exactly how difficult it is to get someone to admit to liking this film.
Also, like the next film on the list, the home video release gave us an extended “director’s cut” of the film that may not solve all of the problems but should at least please some of the purists and clear up some continuity flubs…
Aside from the fact that the first act of this movie is really just an update of Sam Hamm’s Batman with a blind guy, its main problems are in the script. Ben Affleck’s acting, which is widely criticized since this came out around the same time as Gigli and Jersey Girl and torpedoed his A-list acting career, wasn’t really all that bad in the superhero parts of the movie. It was the quieter moments, when he was meant to be playing blind, that posed a challenge.
Speaking of blindness, did it ever occur to anyone to watch this film without that preposterous street-sparring meet-cute between Affleck’s Matt Murdoch and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra? Skipping that one scene adds a ton of credibility to the film.
Speaking of adding credibility to the film, check out the director’s cut that’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It still doesn’t turn the film into a classic, but it fixes a lot of the movie’s problems, leaves you with an enjoyable action picture and makes you wonder to what extent studio interference can turn a perfectly fine movie into a total trainwreck.
While the only thing more fashionable than rebooting a franchise is complaining about studios who reboot the franchise, this movie is a perfect argument for why it should–and arguably must–happen every so often to keep the concept fresh and allow the filmmakers to have their own “take” on a character without bumping up against the continuity of what came before. Superman Returns was hamstrung by an odd edict–either by the director or the studio, it’s never been clear which–that the film had to take place within the universe of the Richard Donner Superman films, but that it had to ignore the sequels that followed Donner’s first two films.
Furthermore, this was a sequel to the Donner films, meaning that the sequence wasn’t even as simple as Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman Returns. It was an obscure cut of the second film only available on DVD and never released to theaters. So you get a continuity that’s as strange and insular as that of the comics, before the audience even walks into the theaters and starts comparing Brandon Routh–himself a gifted actor and a powerful screen presence elsewhere–to Christopher Reeve, who he was oddly asked to play rather than just playing Superman. That’s a strategy that has never worked for me (see Richard Dreyfuss channeling Peter Fonda in the Stephen Frears-directed remake of Fail Safe for another example), but it’s demeaning to the actor you’re asking to do it.
All that said, had the movie been given the opportunity to stand on its own, audiences may have found that it was a nice little movie, albeit too by-the-numbers to be a really successful return for a long-dormant franchise.
Okay, so this one’s a little bit of a cheat, because Tank Girl is SUPPOSED to be a silly character, living in a strange world. But the low production values on this gem of a turd has long been considered (and may well have originated as) a lack of commitment to the film on the part of a lazy studio mailing it in.
Maybe so–but the performances are spot on, the movie is funny and its biggest problem is a vamping villain (played by professional vamping villain and O Lucky Man star Malcolm McDowell) and a shoddy plot that’s full of holes and frankly, those are things pretty common the beloved Tank Girl comic book stories, as well. The character drives her own stories, not unlike Deadpool or The Tick, and had this movie come along ten years later, a more “meta” generation may have found it a delight.
“Whatever the faults of Tank Girl,” said Roger Ebert, “lack of ambition is not one of them. Here is a movie that dives into the bag of filmmaking tricks and chooses all of them. Trying to re-create the multimedia effect of the comic books it’s based on, the film employs live action, animation, montages of still graphics, animatronic makeup, prosthetics, song-and-dance routines, scale models, fake backdrops, holography, title cards, matte drawings, and computerized special effects. All I really missed were 3-D and Smell-O-Vision.”