Comic books have not always been translated well into movies. There are so many problems with transferring works designed for one medium to another that there are bound to be changes, but in many cases those changes are arbitrary and illogical and harm the property more than help it. Hampered either by low budgets or by meddling producers, most comic-book-based movies before Marvel got its act together are at least seriously flawed. However, there are plenty of examples of big, studio-backed, movies based on comic books that managed to get it all wrong.
I’m not going to talk about the flawed comic book movies in this essay. Lord knows that there are plenty of enjoyable comic-based movies that are still filled with plenty of things to nit-pick. The first Superman movie from 1978 is a fun film and nobody has ever topped Chistopher Reeve as The Man of Steel, but the movie’s treatment of Krypton and Lex Luthor was wretched. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was state-of-the-art at the time, but was still hampered by having that horrible Prince music crow-barred into it.
We won’t address Halle Berry’s Catwoman movie because it was so mangled by its producers that the only resemblence it bore to the comic book was the title. Otherwise it was quite horrible, enough so to easily make this list.
Today we are going to take quick looks at five really good comic books that were somehow turned into really horrible big-budget movies. Low budget and unreleased comic book movies are covered in this Cracked.com article. Here, we will speculate about how such a thing could have happened, and who paid for it with their careers. In no particular order…
Batman and Robin (1997)
The comic book: This movie is not based on any particular comic book, but rather draws its inspiration from the entire Batman series, and also, unfortunately, the TV show. Batman is one of the most successful comic book characters in history, and has been depicted as everything from a serious detective to a light-hearted superhero to a grim avenger.
The movie:“Batman and Robin” was the second Batman movie helmed by director, Joel Schumacher. His first, “Batman Forever” was poorly-received and widely ridiculed for, among other things, putting visible nipples on Batman’s suit. That he was given a second chance is a testament to how little attention Warner Brothers paid to their DC Comics properties.
This movie crammed two villains and two guest stars, all played by very expensive Hollywood stars at the time, into a sub-par story where nothing really made sense. This movie treated Batman less seriously than the 1960s TV show did, without any of the sense of fun. At a press screening, someone stood up at the end and yelled “Joel Schumacher must die!”
Why it failed:The director claims it was because studio pressure forced him to make the movie family-friendly so they could sell toys. Schumacher went so far as to apologize in the DVD commentary, “I felt I disappointed a lot of older fans by being too conscious of the family aspect…. Now, I owe the hardcore fans the Batman movie they would love me to give them.” Other observers feel that it was because Schumacher had no respect for the source material and only took the job because of the money. Suffice to say, “Batman and Robin” was not made with the purest of intentions. It did not recoup its budget with its worldwide theatrical release.
Wikipedia says: “Batman & Robin is listed as one of the worst movies ever made. It was released on June 20, 1997 to negative reviews.”
Whose careers were ended by the movie: Schumacher has continued to make movies, though not in the action genre. George Clooney, who took the role of Batman for this movie, and Uma Thurman, who played Poison Ivy, came through undamaged. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a few more movies before his stint as Governor of California interrupted his film career. Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, however, came out of “Batman and Robin” as formerly bankable stars, who would be reduced to supporting roles or TV work after this mess.
V For Vendetta (2005)
The comic book:Alan Moore and David Lloyd produced this valentine to anarchy, first serialized in Warrior Magazine, then later finished as a maxi-series for DC Comics. It is widely considred to be a masterpiece of graphic storytelling and is one of the most moving political statements in print.
A stunning critique of Thatcher’s Britain, the story was so perfectly crafted for the comics medium that only a fool would try to make it into something else.
The movie: “V For Vedentta” was commercially successful, and was quite appreciated by critics and audiences who were totally unfamilar with the comic book. Fans of the comic book despised the arbitrary, pointless changes to the story that twisted it into a cookie-cutter dystopian-future thriller and completely obliterated Alan Moore’s themes and undercurrents.
The film looks spectacular and does a perfect job of capturing the visuals of the comic book, but it totally destroys Moore’s story, inserting a love story that is sick when viewed in the context of the comic, and replacing every musical and cultural reference with trite substitutions. The original comic book is a subtle and sophisticated commentary on Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s. The movie is a ham-handed, cartoonish and buffoonish poorly-executed satire of George Bush’s America.
Why it failed:The movie’s producer/screenwriters, The Wachowski’s, who made this film in the wake of their success with the “Matrix” movies, do not have a clue about why the comic book was so good. They should probably never be allowed to adapt anybody’s else’s work to film ever again.
Wikipedia says:“The film changes the original message by arguably having changed “V” into a freedom fighter instead of an anarchist. An interview with producer Joel Silver suggests that the change may not have been conscious; he identifies the V of the comics as a clear-cut ‘superhero… a masked avenger who pretty much saves the world,’ a simplification that goes against Moore’s own statements about V’s role in the story”
Whose careers were ended by the movie: The Wachowski’s and director James McTeigue have not worked on anything high-profile since “V For Vendetta.” It’s probable that might have more to do with the critical and box office failure of “Speed Racer.”
The comic book: Originally a supporting character in Frank Miller’s now-legendary run as writer/artist of Marvel’s “Daredevil,” this female ninja of Greek descent helped transform the book into a ballet of violence with a tragic love story ending in her death in the comic book in 1982. She was later revived in a graphic novel by Miller, which followed a series Miller did with artist Bill Sienkewicz that was a prequel to her appearences in “Daredevil.”
The movie: Spun off from the successful “Daredevil” movie, “Elektra” revives the not-quite-dead-yet character who was sorta killed in “Daredevil.” After bringing the character back from the dead, the movie veers into less believable territory.
Why it failed: It’s simply not very good. Jennifer Garner is not credible as a Greek ninja, and the story is a mess.
Wikipedia says: “Elektra received generally negative reviews from film critics. Based on 143 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes Elektra earned a 10% ‘rotten’ rating. Also Metacritic gives it a metascore of 34 out of 100 which means it has ‘generally negative reviews.’ Elektra was named 74th on Franz Grubers worst 100 movies list.”
Whose careers were ended by the movie: It’s hard to say anyone’s careers were ended by “Elektra.” Jennifer Garner has rebounded and starred in films in which she was appropriately cast. Director, Rob Bowman, has not made a feature film since, but he’d only made one before, and remains a successful television producer and director. For a movie to be so poorly received, it’s a wonder that nobody’s heads rolled in its wake.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
The comic book: Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s original “League” story was planned as a “literary Justice League of America,” teaming up notable characters from various literary sources. As with most of Moore’s works, it was an instant critical hit. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” teamed up Alan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker, Campion Bond, The Invisible Man and Dr. Jeckyll to do battle with Fu Manchu, not realizing that they are being used by Professor Moriarty in a plot to destroy London. It is yet another gem from the mind of Alan Moore.
Why it failed: “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” made money when you take the worldwide gross and DVD sales and rental into account, but it was a critical bomb. The producers seemingly optioned it based solely on Alan Moore’s name value with graphic novels, even though movies based on his work are an iffy proposition. The producers didn’t seem to care about following Moore’s story anyway, and just chucked in and tossed out what they felt would be commercial.
Wikipedia says:“Critical reaction to the film was negative, with Empire magazine giving it two stars out of five whilst criticizing the film’s exposition and lack of character depth, saying it ‘flirts dangerously close with one-star ignominy’. A 30/100 approval rating on Metacritic is based on 36 reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 17% based on 177 reviews.”
Whose careers were ended by the movie: Director Stephen Norrington, who helmed the succesful adaptation of Marvel’s “Blade,” has not directed a motion picture in the decade since “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” was released. Sean Connery, who was paid seventeen million dollars to play Alan Quartermain, retired from movies after this film. Following a dispute with the movie studio, who paid to settle a lawsuit that alleged that they had stolen the idea from another writer and then paid Alan Moore to publish his comic book, Moore announced that he would not allow any of his creations to be made into movies, and if movies were made on the works to which he did not hold the rights, he would leave his name off of them and refuse any royalties–a pledge which he has stuck with for “V For Vendetta” and “Watchmen.”
Howard the Duck (1986)
The comic book: Quite possibly the most individual statement ever released by a mainstream comic book publisher prior to the 1980s, “Howard The Duck” was essentially a raw look inside the mind of his creator, Steve Gerber. Howard, a duck from a universe where everyone is an intelligent talking duck, is thrust into our world, landing in 1970s Cleveland, Ohio. The character and his adventures in “a world he never made” became a launchpad for existential absurdist humor mixed with social satire and meta before there was such a thing.
That such a series was placed squarely in the Marvel Universe makes the comic book all that much more amazing. Though clearly a product of its time, “Howard The Duck” remains an outstanding work that is as enjoyable to read as it is hard to describe. Gerber eventually left Marvel in a dispute over ownership of the duck. Following his exit, Marvel gave in to threats of a lawsuit from Disney and made Howard start wearing pants. “Howard The Duck” is not worth reading if it isn’t written by Gerber.
The movie:Is a horrid adaptation, disrespectful of the source material and poorly-executed at every turn. There is nothing redeeming about it. “Howard The Duck” is a perennial contender for the worst movie ever made by a major studio. It is notable as the first major flop of George Lucas’ career following the success of Star Wars. The movie has acquired a small cult following among folks who were exposed to it as children when it was shown on HBO every five minutes. These people should be ashamed of themselves.
Why it failed: Screenwriter, Gloria Katz, said of the movie, “It’s a film about a duck from outer space… It’s not supposed to be an existential experience.” George Lucas was a huge fan of the comic book, but apparently did not understand why. This movie was the harbinger of Jar Jar Binks. Making matters worse, Howard had started wearing pants by the time the movie was made, making the midgets in duck suits look even more stupid. This is a movie that never should have been made.
Wikipedia says:“See also…list of films considered the worst”
Whose careers were ended by the movie: Willard Hyuck never directed another movie following “Howard The Duck.” Gloria Katz, who wrote “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has only one TV movie and one unfilmed screenplay to her credit since the release of “Howard” in 1986. George Lucas recovered, but except for “Willow” and “Captain EO,” has confined himself to working creatively on Star Wars and Indiana Jones projects in the twenty seven years since Howard.
Those are my picks for five absolutely horrible movies based on comic books. Feel free to disagree in the comments. I know that there are many people who will passionately defend “V For Vendetta” and “Howard The Duck,” so let’s let you guys make your case. Writer’s note: The exclusion of “Green Lantern” from this list is two-fold. First, it’s largely based on the recent comics by Geoff Johns, which I don’t particularly care for. Second, I have never managed to remain awake for more than ten minutes of the movie, so I can’t vouch for how bad it is. I do recommend it as a powerful sleep aid.