Posted by David Kalat on August 27, 2011
My children returned to school this week. Which to my mind spells the end of summer. Who cares what the calendar says, summer = not-in-school, end of discussion. And the end of summer, also, means the end of summer movie season. Some cinephiles welcome this transition. Not me.
You see, I like comic books. And I’m not one of those stuck-up toffs who thinks comics need to be graphic novels, all arty and grown-up and off-putting. No, I like superhero comics, and I like movies based on superhero comics. I like popcorn movies, I like movies who only aim to please, I like special effects.
In short, I’m easy to please. That being said, why am I so heard to please?
I mean, seriously. Is it too much to ask that when you have a consortium of media companies who’ve invested a hundred million dollars or more in something they chooses to refer to as a “tent-pole,” and then invest another big sack of million dollar bills in market-testing, that the end result actually be worth paying money to sit through?
Am I being radical by asking that movies calculated to be entertaining be entertaining?
Part of the problem is this unholy obsession with origin stories that has unaccountably gripped Hollywood. I have come to believe that the five most terrifying words in the English language are “every story has a beginning.”
Let’s take as a point of discussion Ang Lee’s The Hulk, a film widely derided and very close to joining Ishtar as a punch line. For all that is said and written about this film’s missteps, not enough focus is given to the most obvious culprit: the decision to make it about the Hulk’s origins.
The first wave of superhero comics had heroes who were magical beings, space aliens, or rich men with psychological disorders: Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman. When Marvel came along to provide some competition in the marketplace, part of what they did to set their brand identity apart was to enforce some “realism,” at least by the standards of Cold War era pulp fiction. Marvel heroes had “scientific” explanations–usually something to do with radiation.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where 50 plus years of experience with radiation has taught us the cold, unhappy truth: it causes cancer. And not a whole lot else.
But in the world of comics, who cares? The Hulk is an interesting character, a tragic figure a la Larry Talbot of the old Wolf Man movies. His origins are buried in the distant past, swept under the pop cultural carpet. All the hard-to-swallow stuff is behind us, and we can just indulge in the fun of watching poor Bruce Banner lose his cool.
But noooooo, the producers of the film felt that the best, most important, most satisfying Hulk story to tell was that first one, the least plausible and least enjoyable.
Take for example the first superhero movie of them all, Judex.
If you wanted to be pedantic (and believe me, I’m fighting the urge), you could say that superhero fiction has its roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century pulp detective fiction–the Vidocqs and Lecoqs and Lupins. Fair enough. But you could do worse than start your clock at the moment Judex takes the stage.
Judex was a cliffhanger adventure serial created by the inestimable Louis Feuillade in 1917. Feuillade had taken some heat from the decency police of his day for allegedly glamorizing crime and violence in such serials as Fantomas and Les Vampires. Feuillade decided to try to shake the censors off his back by taking the genre formula he’d perfected and invert it, so that it celebrated a good guy rather than a ne’er- do-well.
When Judex begins, the audience is lulled into thinking the mysterious black clad stranger is another Fantomas-style villain, preying on an upstanding and respectable French family. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the so-called victims of Judex’s attacks are corrupt monsters who have been shielded by their power and prestige. Judex is an avenger, tired of waiting for official justice, who has decided to settle the score on his own terms–using secret identities, gadgets, comrades, and an underground lair.
If you’re thinking “Batman” while watching this, well, come to front of the class and accept your gold star. The influence is so obvious that, had this happened in this era rather than a century ago there would’ve been lawsuits.
Then in 1963, Georges Franju remade Judex. And I mean remake–no silly “re-imagining” nonsense for him. Franju probably would have preferred to have been reverse-reincarnated as Feuillade, and figured the next best thing was to obsessively remake Feuillade’s films for modern audiences, with as few revisions as possible.
Here’s a small taste of the Feuillade/batman overlaps: in 1996, art house filmmaker Olivier Assayas paid his homage to Feuillade in the form of Irma Vep. It was a film-within-film study of a French film crew that sets out to pay homage to Feuillade by making a remake of Les Vampires. The crew within the film try to bring some contemporary energy to their remake by acting Hong Kong star Maggie Chung as Irma Vep, the slinky female super villain of the story. And when it comes time to outfit Chung for her role, naturally enough they attempt to copy Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns!
Some small-minded development executive is going to read this blog and go into work on Monday proposing a remake of Judex, maybe starring Steve Carell or Zach Efron, that would be all about The Rise of Judex. Judex Begins. Something like that. Every story has a beginning. And it would tell the story of young Judex’s victimization at the hands of banker Favreaux (played by Jon Favreau, of course!). The film would end with Judex in his secret lair, wrapping a mask around his face for the first time. You’d have to do it this way, of course, to introduce the character of Judex to American audiences, who wouldn’t be familiar with him, right?
I really don’t get that fixation on origin stories. Who needs to be introduced at the beginning? How many of your best friends did you meet when they were born? The original Judex opens with his revenge scheme already in full swing–the 1960 remake chose not to change this, knowing that the audience would figure out what they needed to know about the character as it went along.
The very first Batman comic, taking whatever inspiration it did from Judex, isn’t Batman’s first adventure, merely the first one the writers shared with us. His “origin story” wasn’t unveiled until issue 33! And it doesn’t seem to have hindered audience acceptance of the character.
Oh well. I’m tired if kicking against the pricks. Next week I’ll share with you my origin story.
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