As we all prepare to give thanks tomorrow with turkey, gravy and canned cranberry sauce, it seemed like the perfect time to pay tribute to some other turkeys: namely, some of the absolute worst comic-book movies to ever disgrace the silver screen.
Let's start things off with one of the first truly terrible superturkeys, SUPERMAN III (1983), directed by the tone-deaf Richard Lester. After the sublime near-perfection of the first two SUPERMAN films by Richard Donner (yes, I know Lester is the director of record on SUPERMAN II, but everything worth seeing there was either filmed or conceived by Donner during the first marathon two-movie shoot), SUPERMAN III manages to disappoint on almost every level. The tone has completely shifted to campy farce, and the movie has a bewildering emphasis on Richard Pryor. This dog is notable only for two things: Annette O'Toole's sweet performance as Lana Lang and a great little sequence in which Superman is split into good and evil versions of himself by synthetic Kryptonite, and engages in a knuckleduster of a junkyard brawl. Too bad it's in this movie.
As for SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), well, the less said the better. Here's all you need to know: Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor's cousin Lenny. Aside from a noble but wrongheaded attempt to get topical by having Superman trying to destroy all nuclear weapons, the film introduces the horrendous Nuclear Man, who's notable for two things: a truly bitchin' coif and some of the cheapest, least convincing special effects ever seen in cinema. Avoid it like the plague.
Superman made his long-awaited return to the big screen in 2006 with SUPERMAN RETURNS, directed by Bryan Singer, starring Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and introducing Brandon Routh as this generation's Clark Kent/Superman. While I liked the film well enough when it first came out, the more time I have to think about it, the less I enjoy it. The film is extremely faithful to Richard Donner's vision of Superman, picking up where the first film left off -- in fact, if anything, it's too worshipful of Donner's film, right down to Luthor's obsession with real estate and insistence on hiring incompetent henchmen. Although there are sequences in the film that are breathtaking (particularly the scene in which Superman halts a plummeting airliner mere inches above a Metropolis baseball stadium), Singer's insistence on trying to re-create Donner's film only highlights what Singer's film lacks: Christopher Reeve's strong, charismatic performance, which by itself was able to create the audience's necessary suspension of disbelief. Routh's performance as Kent is decent enough, although it's very clear that he too is simply trying to replicate Reeve. However, his Superman simply lacks the approachable quality that Reeve brought to the part, instead coming across as somewhat cool and distant. Spacey's Luthor is serviceable, although still played far too much for laughs. Kate Bosworth's Lois, however, doesn't work at all, bringing none of the charm or flintiness that Margot Kidder had imbued the character with, and simply looking far too young for the part. The other problem with the film was a thematic one: Singer's puzzling decision to introduce the character of Jason, the out-of-wedlock son of Superman and Lois Lane, supposedly born while Superman was off-planet. While the moment at the end of the film in which Superman repeats Jor-El's oath of fatherhood to his own son is admittedly a touching one, it's simply too drastic a change for many viewers to accept Superman having a son that he refuses to raise, and it creates a serious complication for future films. While SUPERMAN RETURNS is a worthy effort, one can't help but think that the character (and the actors) may have been better served with a fresher take on the material.
Moving from Superman to Batman, the BATMAN movie series had continued in 1995 without Tim Burton and Michael Keaton, and it was not a smooth transition. Director Joel Schumacher brought us BATMAN FOREVER, which featured Val Kilmer in his sole turn in the Batsuit. Kilmer's portrayal seemed muted, as if he was trying to mimic what Keaton did, but couldn't bring that certain manicness behind the eyes that Keaton does so well.
Also introduced in this one was Chris O'Donnell as Robin. Although the movie kept pretty close to the character's comic-book origins, the fact that Dick Grayson is a grown man when Bruce Wayne takes him in is dumb at best and troubling at worst. The Batman/Robin relationship has always been that of surrogate father/son, which is why Robin by definition has to be a child. Even worse, both Jim Carrey (as the Riddler) and Tommy Lee Jones (as Two-Face) have their overacting meters cranked up to 11 for this one, as they carry out a criminal plot to suck the brains out of Gotham with some "brain machine" devised by the Riddler. Whatever, man. While Carrey's overacting is to be expected (and I still maintain that Frank Gorshin, even at his age, would've been a far better choice for the part than Carrey), Tommy Lee Jones' performance is truly awful. Rather than researching and understanding the character, who's meant to be coolly psychotic, Jones tries to out-Jack Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker, giggling, butt-shaking and all. Just plain weak. As for Nicole Kidman, she's given even less to do than Kim Basinger was.
However, BATMAN FOREVER would look like CITIZEN KANE in comparison to Schumacher's thankfully final Batman film, 1997's BATMAN AND ROBIN. Longtime readers have no doubt heard this rant before, but a column on super-turkeys wouldn't be complete without it. God, where to start?
The lingering shots of Batman and Robin's rear ends in the opening sequence let you know just what you're in for, and the nipples on the sculpted Batsuits don't help. George Clooney has repeatedly credited himself for killing the Bat-franchise, but it really wasn't his fault. Between the horrible script by Akiva Goldsman and the completely misguided and juvenile direction from Schumacher, Clooney was doomed from the start. Arnold Schwarzenegger spouts off one awful cold-related pun after another as Mr. Freeze, when he's not shuffling around in an unintentionally comical oversized "freeze suit." Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy was also atrocious, but again, it's not really the actors' fault. With a good script and a talented director, this same cast could, I've no doubt, have created a first-rate BATMAN movie. There's just so much to hate about the movie. Batman pulls out a credit card at one point that reads "BATMAN FOREVER" on it. Alfred comes down with a terminal illness, so he transfers his brain into the Batcomputer (complete with "Max Headroom"-style animation, which was about 10 years out of style) and then encourages his niece to put on a Batsuit and go fight criminals alongside Batman, even though she has no training nor experience. As for Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, well, it's not good. Silverstone is passably entertaining in comedies, but here she pouts and scrunches her face through action sequences, and mumbles her inane dialogue with all the conviction of a high-school play. BATMAN AND ROBIN is cinematic Ebola. Avoid it at all costs.
Did you enjoy this summer's CAPTAIN AMERICA film? Well, consider yourself lucky you weren't watching the first attempt, 1992's never-released CAPTAIN AMERICA. Directed by Albert Pyun from an atrocious script by Stephen Tolkin, the film is awful in every category. There were interviews with Pyun and Tolkin at the time in which they profess their total lack of interest in the history of the character, and boast of having never read a CAPTAIN AMERICA comic. Believe me, fellas, it shows. Their disinterest in the character is apparent: Captain America is in costume for maybe 25 minutes out of the entire excruciating 2-hours-plus running time. Pyun, who had previously directed such gems as THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER and the abysmal Kathy Ireland vehicle ALIEN FROM L.A., can't even get a good performance out of stalwart character actors Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Actor Matt Salinger, J.D.'s son, is stiff and uncharismatic, showing neither Steve Rogers' all-American charm or Captain America's gritty determination. We won't even discuss Scott Paulin's horrendous performance as the Red Skull; even through what looks like pounds of latex makeup, he's dull and uninspired.
The real fault in this dog lies with screenwriter Stephen Tolkin. Not to beat a long-dead horse, but let's go over some of the most egregious moments in this root canal of a movie. First off, the Red Skull, the Nazi terror? He's Italian now, for some reason, and given an awful "feel-my-pain" childhood trauma origin story. Always a good idea to make your ultimate bad guy sympathetic. When Captain America (with truly fakey-looking rubber ears sticking out of his headpiece, by the way) is sent off on his first mission, to stop a Nazi rocket headed for America, he just throws his shield at things, and they blow up -- cars, trucks, buildings, it doesn't matter -- KA-BOOM!, then right back to his hand. Okay, whatever.
Things get truly stupid once Cap confronts the Red Skull. Cap throws his shield at the Skull with even more velocity than when he was demolishing buildings with it, and the Skull casually catches it in one hand, uttering some sort of sound not unlike one would make getting a deep tissue massage : "Aaaaaaahh." After Cap gets swiftly beaten in hand-to-hand combat by the Skull and strapped to the rocket, the wily Cap lures Skull close and grips him by the wrist, threatening to take the Skull along for the ride. What does the Skull do? Does he stab Cap or punch him to shake his hand loose? No, no. The Skull cuts off his own hand.
Things just get dopier from there, including the worst montage sequence ever to portray Cap's years in hibernation, a horrific power rock ballad to accompany Steve Rogers' journey home, and more coincidences than in a whole season of THREE'S COMPANY. Even the Red Skull's hot Italian daughter and her band of motorcycle assassins can't make this interesting.
The Man Without Fear hit theatres in early 2003 with DAREDEVIL, in an overblown and occasionally unintentionally funny adaptation by director Mark Steven Johnson, starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jennifer Garner as Murdock's ninja love interest Elektra, Colin Farrell as the murderous assassin Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan as crime boss the Kingpin. Well-intentioned and far more faithful to the comics than one might expect, the movie suffered from a slightly too angsty, melodramatic script and an at-the-time overexposed star in Affleck, who in any case may not have been the best choice for the brooding, intense Matt Murdock. Looking back at it now, it almost looks like a parody of itself, especially this ridiculous schoolyard fight between Murdock and Elektra.
However, it's hard to hate on DAREDEVIL too much in the light of its spinoff film, the 2005 ELEKTRA, with Jennifer Garner reprising her role as Elektra Natchios. The film takes its cue from much of the Frank Miller comic-book run, involving the sensei Stick (here played by onetime General Zod Terence Stamp) and the ninja organization known as The Hand. Bad script, bad performances, bad fight scenes, just bad all around. Unless you're in the mood to hurt yourself, this can safely be avoided.
The Fantastic Four finally received the big-budget, big-screen release it deserved... and it resulted in a film that deserved to be much, much better. 2005's FANTASTIC FOUR took much of the simple charm of the characters and their origin and needlessly mucked it up. In the comic and even in the Corman film, arch-villain Dr. Doom had a proper raison d'etre -- he was a displaced monarch with a misguided grudge against his former college roommate, Reed Richards. Here, he's stuck on a space station with Reed and company, and an actual error Reed makes -- as opposed to the comic origin where Doom's ego won't allow him to admit that he was the one in the wrong -- results in a Dr. Doom with electric powers who hides his face behind an iron death mask he was once gifted as an award. The cast is almost uniformly miscast, with the exception of Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). The two have a good playful energy, but even the mighty Thing can only carry so much of a bad load. At least FF creator Stan Lee got in a good cameo as the team's ear-wiggling mailman, Willy Lumpkin.
The 2007 sequel, FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, didn't necessarily improve upon the flaws of the first, but it had a modicum more charm. Whether this was because now the film's jokey, all-ages tone was a bit less jarring or because the CGI-constructed Silver Surfer actually managed to add some dramatic weight to the proceedings is for you to decide, since watching it once was enough for me. The Surfer's master, the planet-devouring Galactus, appears as a giant cloud in the movie, but that might just be because he was embarrassed to actually show up. It's still not anywhere near the epic Fantastic Four movie the comic deserves, but it's not any more embarrassing than the first and it's all over in only 90 minutes.
For years, actor Nicolas Cage, an avowed comic fan, looked for the right movie to satisfy his comic book jones. He was attached to many projects that never materialized (Nic Cage as SUPERMAN? Disaster averted) but ended up in one that shouldn't have, 2007's GHOST RIDER. After waiting so long for a comic movie, GHOST RIDER stands as proof that the comic gods have a wicked sense of humor. Director Mark Steven Johnson somehow earned another crack at a Marvel comic movie after DAREDEVIL, and delivered on the public's low expectations. Cage's arch sense of humor -- the few times his visage isn't buried under flaming special effects -- helps redeem the movie in places, but overall, the movie is a muddled, largely plodding mess. Also, Peter Fonda appears as the demonic Mephisto, which is exactly as bad as it sounds.
One of the most legendary movie flops of all time, HOWARD THE DUCK managed to ignore nearly everything that made the Marvel comic book a cultural sensation in the 1970s. Where the comics were smart and satirical, the 1986 film was dull and mindless, with unfunny quip after unfunny quip coming out of Howard's rubbery beak. And therein lay the biggest problem of all: Howard himself. Whereas the comics allows the reader a certain suspension of disbelief regarding a talking duck running around on a world of men, on film there was just no getting around the fact that you're looking at a midget in a duck suit. And not even a particularly good duck suit at that. And as oddly charming as the Howard/Beverly love story was in the comics, on the silver screen it's just plain wrong. I haven't seen this movie in 20 years, and it's still irreparably burned into my brain. Don't do that to yourself, kids.
Highly anticipated as Marvel's follow-up to the runaway successes of X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, Ang Lee's 2003 film HULK, though somewhat commercially successful, was widely viewed as a misfire. Almost a psychological drama disguised as a superhero movie, the film devotes far too much time to Bruce Banner's damaged childhood and the backstory with his father, played by Nick Nolte, and not nearly enough to what audiences had come to see: Bruce Banner changing into the Hulk and smashing stuff up.
Complicating matters was that the Hulk, rendered on screen entirely by computer graphics, never quite seems real to the viewer, and he's not compelling enough as a character to allow you to overlook his obvious fakiness. Compound that with an overlong 2-hour-20-minute running time and a headscratching climax that involved the Hulk fighting ...I think it was a cloud that Nick Nolte transformed into? The result is a whole lot of angry moviegoers. And you wouldn't like them when they're angry.
What do you do when you want to make a Superman spinoff movie, but you can't use Superman? Naturally, you call for a healthy dose of Shaq-Fu! Basketball great Shaquille O'neal took on the role of John Henry Irons, a.k.a. STEEL, in the 1997 film from director Kenneth Johnson, best known for his work on TV series like THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, and the alien-invasion miniseries V. Most of John Irons' backstory here, as a weapons designer looking to stop his inventions from being used on the street, is taken directly from the comics, with only his Superman-influenced inspiration being deleted from the picture. Still, between Judd Nelson hamming it up as the film's villain, and depending on the acting skills of Shaquille O'Neal to anchor your action movie, STEEL never had a chance.
An attempt to cash in on the success of the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN films, SUPERGIRL was a prime example of how not to handle your franchise. To wit: if you can't convince your Superman to appear in your Superman spinoff film, then don't make it. This was the problem director Jeannot Swarc had with his 1984 film, as Christopher Reeve refused to resume his role as Superman, and his glaring absence really prevents the film from gaining any traction, as the viewer can't understand why Kara Zor-El, if she really is Superman's cousin, can't even get a visit from her famous blood relative, much less a little help against Faye Dunaway's Selena, a witch who has stolen some magic doohickey from Supergirl's Kryptonian home of Argo City, and is using it to wreak all kinds of havoc. Helen Slater is pretty and appealing enough as Kara, and Marc McCure is brought in as Jimmy Olsen in an attempt to at least create some connection to the SUPERMAN films, but without Superman, it all feels somewhat second-rate (and a seriously hammy Peter O'Toole doesn't help matters).
Of all of these, though, the one that hurt the most is the one that disappointed the most. To wit: a good first movie. An even-better sequel, And then it all went wrong. So, so wrong. For the third X-MEN movie, Brett Ratner took over as director from Bryan Singer and delivered a film, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, that few can stand. Gone was any allegory or bit of symbolism, and in its place was a botched version of one of the most beloved X-MEN comic runs of all time, "The Dark Phoenix Saga." Ratner's film mashed that storyline with elements from a more recent X-MEN story arc written by Joss Whedon and ended up neutering both tales. In the film's opening minutes, Cyclops -- the team's leader in the first two movies and the team's emotional center -- is killed. Off-screen. At least he was spared from the mess that would follow. New characters felt off, old characters seemed bored, and an overwhelming sense of chaos and indifference reigned. The GODFATHER III of this particular trilogy.
Do yourself a favor this holiday weekend. Don't come anywhere near these kind of turkeys and instead sit down with a few COMICS 101-endorsed favorites. My picks for the weekend will be old-school: Donner's SUPERMAN I and II. Whatever you're watching, enjoy your dinner and your loved ones, and thanks for coming back around these parts week after week.
Scott Tipton is eagerly awaiting the upcoming Rocketeer blu-ray. If you have questions about comics in general, send them here.