The banners are down, the fanboys back in their parents’ basements, and the convention center no longer a giant roll of flypaper used by corporations to ensnare the costumed souls that make it through the metal detector.
Instead of railing against the annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with contemporary cinema, I offer up ten cures for a Con hangover. The following list is made up of films based on comic books/strips or those that deal with the artists who create them. There was but one stipulation: other than Superman II — produced long before the superhero fad became Hollywood’s main source of revenue — the works of Marvel and DC were strictly verboten.
10) Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938)
Pleasure seldom comes packaged with this much guilt. Who needs CGI when there are sparkler-propelled soupcans held afloat by fishing poles to grab and hold one’s attention? The second installment of Universal’s trilogy of Flash Gordon serials based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip finds our hero up to his neck in Clay People and feeble comic relief in the form of spaceship stowaway Happy Hapgood. There’s not much to the performances of interchangeable all-American Buster Crabbe and his scream-queen gal pal Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). If an intergalactic soap opera is only as good as the villain that powers it, Charles B. Middleton’s Emperor Ming makes Darth Vader look like the voice of CNN.
9) Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980)
Though not a patch on the Fleischer Studio cartoons of the 1930s, Altman’s take on E.C. Segar’s mumbling mariner remains strong to the finnich’ due in large part to note-perfect casting (Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Smith) and Wolf Kroeger’s unsinkable production design.
8) Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966)
Blacklisted expatriate Joseph Losey, best known for his adaptations of Harold Pinter dramas, directs this immodestly mod adaptation of Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. Andrew Sarris called this role-reversal sendup of James Bond films, “a more serious enterprise than it seems precisely because of the strenuousness of it’s levity.” It was Monica Vitti’s first film in America and the story goes she invited her mentor, Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura, Red Dessert), to visit the set. After Losey caught wind that Antonioni was feeding Vitti with directorial advice, he politely asked his comrade in celluloid to stay home. Antonioni complied.
7) Richard Quine’s How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
Jack Lemmon stars as a nationally syndicated cartoonist whose schtick it is to personally enact all of his alter-ego’s capers to make sure they don’t strain logic. He awakes one morning to find sleeping next to him (and with wedding ring on her finger) the Italian beauty (Virna Lisi) who just the night before entertained drunken revelers by popping out of a cake at a bachelor party he attended. His plan to use his bride’s calculated demise as fodder for his strip proves fatal when the cops peg him as a homicidal maniac. Quine keeps things moving, but George Axelrod’s dark (for 1965) script could have stood even more shading.
V for Vendetta
6) James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2005)
The blockbuster that never happened, due in large part to a harebrained mid-March release. Why didn’t Warner Bros. sit the two months out and treat it like a summer thrill ride? That would have at least fooled a few more suckers into buying tickets. Instead, the film, based on the Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel, barely recouped its budget. The real reason this sci-fi thriller flopped is because I like it so much. (Seeing as how it was not generally my genre of choice, and written by the sibling act responsible for the reviled Matrix trilogy, I’m surprised that I even bothered with it.) Why did it tank? Turns out it’s set in England (sometimes those foreign accents are tough for Americans to comprehend), proffered a left-wing propagandistic agenda, and featured a hero who never removes his mask. They probably could have released it on the 4th of July and no one would have noticed.
A History of Violence
5) David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005)
Cronenberg succeeds at smuggling artistic sensibilities into the multiplex with this thriller adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello star as a deliriously happy couple whose marriage is threatened when news arrives in the form of menacing Ed Harris that hubby may have a bloodthirsty past. Or does he? Some call it Cronenberg’s most accessible work, while others tag it as deceptively straightforward. From where I sit, it’s a masterpiece.
4) Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001)
Based on Daniel Clowes’s biting underground comic and directed by Terry Zqigoff (Crumb), Ghost World arrived as a poignant, hysterically funny, and unerringly honest antidote to countless botched comic-book attempts and lethal teen no-brainers. From the opening strains of Indian composer Shankar-Jaikishan’s toe-tapping arrangement, audiences knew they were in for something truly unique. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson were their generation’s enfants terribles and Steve Buscemi their Henry Orient. Old souls, memorabilia geeks, fringe-dweller, and fans of sidewalk theater are encouraged to rent this black comedy that accentuates the negative.
3) Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980)
At once a sequel that surpasses its original and a comic book movie that leaves all others in the dust. Christopher Reeve’s decision to play Clark Kent as a bumbling oaf flies circles around the otherwise sedulous competition. The villains (Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) pose an articulate menace, the romantic chemistry is palpable, the laughs are side-splitting, and the organically grown action set pieces are a thrill to experience. Richard Lester’s (A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia) visual wit makes the so-called Richard Donner cut look like the flat series of comic book panels that it is. Almost 35 years and dozens of effect-driven monstrosities later and Hollywood fanboys have yet to produce anything to rival it.
2) Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models (1955)
Was it the Bat Lady or the fat lady? Unemployed artist Dean Martin finds a lucrative future in comic books when roommate Jerry Lewis’s night terrors — the Idiot inexplicably begins screaming classified government secrets in his sleep — provide him with endless pages of story content. Directed by former Looney Tunes animator Frank “Apex” Tashlin, which accounts for all the gravity-challenged gags and impeccable eye-popping use of Technicolor. Even something as simple as Dino crooning to a bunch of kids is made magical by Tashlin’s fluid long takes and breezy open air compositions.
1) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (1943)
Who knew the best movie to emerge from the funny pages is also one of cinema’s half-dozen greatest achievements? Find out how robust General Clive Wynne-Candy, aka Colonel Blimp, the celebrated British cartoon character by satirical artist David Low, earned his big belly as Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) escort us through an exquisitely entwined series of flashbacks that begin with the Boer Wars and end with Hitler’s rise to power. An epical ode to cinematic refinement, and one that will keep you guessing until seconds before the final fade out.