A View from Atlas Park: Transmutation of Gold into Lead

“Catwoman”: The Movie opened last week to almost universally critical reviews. As a Halle Berry star-vehicle, it appears sunk. As a comic book movie, it appears as a return to form, with “comic-based film” meaning “childish, stupid and lacking in any sense”. (In fact, I’ve seen reviews defending how bad “Catwoman” is by using the “it’s a comic book” defense.)

I haven’t seen “Catwoman”, so I can’t comment on what it does right or does wrong in terms of the film. Instead, let’s focus on how often movies based on successful comics get turned into terrible films and how often the wrong lessons get learned when these movies fail.

In my opinion, the biggest evidence that “Catwoman” was going to be an iffy film was the announcements of major changes to the character for the movie – Selina Kyle was out for someone called Patience Price and her mystical cat gods. This suggests that the writers didn’t have confidence in (or respect for, take your pick) the source, choosing to instead take an established name and slap their own story underneath. Such a process isn’t always doomed to failure (The Orchid Thief became the very different “Adaptation”, as a quasi-example) but the success rate isn’t high.

I’m not arguing against change. Comics and film are very different media, with their own methods of telling a narrative. What works on the pages of a comic won’t necessarily work on the big screen. As an example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Series #1 was a great comic series, but would have made a lousy film. It’s slow, with lots of exposition. There is too much going on in the margins. All the action happens in the final act. The Invisible Man’s stint in a girls’ home wouldn’t have been popular with censors. As a comic, I can take it through at my own pace, look at all the panels and work these things out for myself.

On screen, all of the audience is taken through the material at the same pace. There has to be something to catch their interest early on, to keep them watching – lots of exposition isn’t usually that much fun to wade through when watching cinema. Without change, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” would have been a very dull film. In my opinion, “LXG” wasn’t dull (it had other problems though!) and the writer, Scott Robinson, at least respected the spirit of the comic.

However, a lot of changes appear made to suit the studios, not the audience. These changes strip away the essence of the comic / character, leaving only a pale imitation of what was there originally. A character’s origin is changed to better suit the film’s narrative, often reducing character motivations. For example – the recent “Punisher” film has Frank Castle’s entire family killed by Howard Saint rather just some random thugs. This really changes Castle’s motivations from “hating all criminals” to “get revenge on Howard Saint” – a much more limited aim. The final scene of the “Punisher” has a monologue that the Punisher will be going after criminals everywhere. Why (especially since he’s already destroyed Mr Saint)? If it’s all about revenge, and you get their revenge, why keep going as a “hero”?

I also completely recognise that comic films can (and do) fall down even when the spirit of the comic is respected. Regardless of how religiously of a movie follows the themes of its title comic, it still needs strong dialogue, solid acting, a lucid narrative and a consistent internal setting to be a good film – areas that many comic-book films are consistently weak in (“Daredevil” is an example here). Dialogue and narrative are typically the two worst areas, with reasonable actors being forced to deliver trite, unnatural lines about patently ridiculous events that just leave the audience bewildered, disappointed and / or laughing out loud.

When a comic movie fails to find an audience, it is often the wrong things that get blamed. The failure of “Catwoman” is most likely to be placed at the feet of Halle Berry as evidence that the audience doesn’t want to see major releases with 1) African-Americans in a title role; 2) women in a title role; or 3) African-American women in a title role. This is certainly not true and incredibly unfair. It wasn’t a black Catwoman that sunk the film. It was the fact that the film was (according to all reports) bad to begin with.

The failure (and widespread panning) of “Batman and Robin” was seen as evidence by studios that audiences didn’t want to see comic book films anymore. There’s a chance that “Catwoman” might do the same, at least for DC / Warner Bros films.

Instead, it should be seen as evidence that audiences want quality films. It’s evidence that movie studios can’t just churn out derivative product and expect it to sell. It’s evidence that you can’t just plunder a known property (such as a comic character), throw it on the screen with no respect for basic storytelling and then expect to be able to market it back into profitability.

But I don’t expect big movie studios to learn these lessons or heed the evidence. After all, it’s just easier to blame Ms Berry for the failure of “Catwoman” and move on to butchering (for example) Superman, isn’t it?

On the topic of superhero films, Salon.com has an interpretation of “Donnie Darko” that has Mr Darko as a superhero with incredible powers living in a parallel dimension. No, I didn’t pick that from seeing the film either. If you enjoyed “Donnie Darko” or just want to know what the hell happened in it, take a look (you will probably have to watch an ad on Salon to read it though).

– UnSub [email protected] 26 July 2004

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