Escaping Marvel and DC: Alternate Comic Book Adaptations…
As you are probably aware from billboards, trailers, social media, adverts, Happy Meal toys and 24/7 ambient pop culture buzz, this summer saw the release of two more superhero movies from the omnipresent cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.
First up was Black Widow, starring Scarlet Johansson as the super-assassin aka Natasha Romanoff. You didn’t think that just because she was (spoiler alert!) killed off in Avengers: Endgame it was the last you were going to see of her, did you? Nope. She was enough of an also-ran to throw under the bus when they needed to kill someone off after all that dead-not-really-dead “Snap” nonsense, but still profitable enough to trot her out again in a prequel.
In case you’ve lost track, Black Widow is the 24th movie in the endless Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’re into Phase Four now, with further Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy adventures heading into multiplexes over the next few years.
Then there was James Gunn’s splattery The Suicide Squad, a course-correcting sequel to the hopelessly chopped-to-bits 2016 movie of the same name. It has quickly developed a reputation as one of DC’s better films. The DC Extended Universe, intended to rival Marvel for a chunk of that sweet box office revenue, has often been typified by gloomy event movies marred by confused plotting and joyless storytelling.
With The Suicide Squad, Gunn tapped into his mentorship under Lloyd Kaufman at Troma to provide a gleefully violent, irreverent action comedy that shows, along with Wonder Woman and Shazam, that there might be some life in the DC brand. Their future slate looks pretty underwhelming though, with outings for Black Adam, The Flash, Aquaman and Shazam scheduled for the next few years.
You can probably tell by my irritable tone that I’m not much of a superhero movie fan. That much is true, but I’m not inherently against films about these characters. I just wish there weren't so damn many of them. I’m so bored with the continuous cycle of movies that, due to the seemingly endless nature of a Cinematic Universe, don’t really have any dramatic stakes. If a character gets killed off, don’t worry - there will be a prequel or two about them in six months. It seems that the studio’s goal is to keep people paying for tickets and taking the ride. Like a rollercoaster, these movies are fun while you’re in the moment, but the buzz fades as soon as you step off.
The ubiquity of Marvel and DC today make it easy to forget that other comics and graphic novels exist, and some great and not-so-great movies are based on them. Let’s take a look at some of those films and their source material…
Flash Gordon - The Comic
Launched in 1934 by King Features to compete with Buck Rodgers, the space opera introduced Yale graduate and world-renowned polo player Flash Gordon. When he and his “lovely companion” Dale Arden bail out of a crashing plane, they are whisked off in a rocket ship by Dr. Hans Zarkov to meet the threat of Mongo, a planet heading towards Earth. Once there, Flash meets his arch-enemy, Ming the Merciless.
Published as a comic strip, Flash’s adventures appeared in over 130 newspapers around the world, translated into eight languages and reaching an audience of 50 million readers. The popularity of the character meant a radio show soon followed, plus a 13-chapter film serial starring Buster Crabbe.
Flash’s popularity waned over the years, but the comic strip continued until King Features finally discontinued it in 2003.
Flash Gordon - The Movie
Altogether now - “FLASH! Ah-ah! Saviour of the Universe…”
Although it rode on the space opera craze in the wake of Star Wars, a big screen version of Flash Gordon was a dream project for producer Dino De Laurentiis since the 1960s. Various reputed directors were in the frame to helm the movie at one point or another, including Nicolas Roeg, Federico Fellini, Sergio Leone and George Lucas. It eventually landed with Mike Hodges, whose kinky, campy version was a universe away from Get Carter, the hard-as-nails gangster movie that made his name.
Flash became a blonde himbo quarterback played by Sam J. Jones while Max von Sydow was impressively cast as the evil Ming the Merciless. Other memorable performances came from Topol, Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - The Comic
Originally introduced in 1984 with black and white illustrations on cheap newsprint paper, the modest comic with a first print of around 3000 copies went on to spawn a 30-year comic book run, a TV cartoon series, video games, numerous movies and a ton of merch. Not bad for an idea that started out as a lark during a brainstorming session between creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.
Set out in stark monochrome, all the basic lore that the whole of western civilisation would come to know within a few short years was in place. You had four bandana-wearing, human-sized turtles named after Renaissance artists living in the sewers of New York with their master Splinter. They battled against their arch-nemesis Shredder and his goons.
Those of a certain age will remember the height of Turtlemania in the late 80s - early 90s, when it was almost impossible to get away from the more colourful iterations of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael as they became a true cultural phenomenon.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - The Movie
Released in 1990, the original TMNT movie wasn’t very good, but that didn’t stop it being a roaring success at the box office. For a while it was the highest-grossing independent film of all time. Once again the Heroes in a Half Shell are up against the evil Shredder and his Foot Clan, with the help of reporter April O’Neil. It is memorable for the fantastic puppet work by Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop and the hit single “Turtle Power “by Partners in Kryme, a staple at school discos around the time.
Two sequels followed before an entirely CGI effort in 2007. Then came two big budget reboots in the 2010s which were box office hits, but failed to capture the playful spirit of the original franchise.
From Hell - The Graphic Novel
Alan Moore’s sprawling and painstakingly researched graphic novel based on the Jack the Ripper murders originally ran as a serial between 1989 and 1998, before becoming a daunting 572-page collected edition with copious background notes and references. Artist Eddie Campbell’s original artwork has a scratchy, forlorn feeling that adds to the story’s sense of alienation and disquiet.
The title comes from an 1888 letter sent by an unknown individual claiming to be Jack the Ripper, along with part of a human kidney. Out of hundreds of letters sent to the police during the time of the killings, it is one of few to be seriously considered as genuine.
The story follows the conspiracy theory that the murders were conducted to cover up the birth of an illegitimate royal baby fathered by Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson. The killings are the handiwork of royal physician and Freemason Sir William Gull, enlisted as an assassin to silence the prostitutes who knew the Prince’s secret.
Apart from the tale of the serial murders, From Hell covers a wide variety of ideas and themes, including Moore’s intricate musings on the nature of time, which Gull perceives as a fourth dimension.
From Hell - The Movie
Any film based on such a monumental piece of fiction would struggle to do justice in a measly two-hour run time, and From Hell was a hollow misfire from the Hughes Brothers, who had previously directed the excellent Menace II Society and Dead Presidents.
Understandably cutting out most of the graphic novel’s philosophical and metaphysical meanderings, viewers were left with a flashy horror thriller starring Johnny Depp as Frederick Abberline, the psychic, opium-addicted detective on the case. This glossy, sanitised version also starred Heather Graham as Mary Kelly, a prostitute Abberline falls for, and Ian Holm playing Sir William Gull like Bilbo Baggins’ evil twin. The famously crotchety Alan Moore was not impressed by Depp’s performance, claiming he turned his character into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”.
The Mask - The Comic
Although conceived as far back as 1982, The Mask didn’t find his definitive look until seven years later when he appeared in Dark Horse’s Mayhem anthology.
Taking inspiration from DC’s Joker and plenty of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it originally told the story of meek Stanley Ipkiss, who harbours grudges against all the people who have wronged him. When out buying a gift for his girlfriend, he purchases a mysterious mask which transforms him into “Big Head”, a wildly uninhibited maniac with crazy superpowers. It also drives the wearer insane, and Ipkiss goes on a murderous rampage to take revenge.
The Mask - The Movie
In keeping with the dark tone of the comics, the big screen version of The Mask was originally intended as a horror movie. Chuck Russell, who had made his name with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the excellent remake of The Blob, got the gig. Despite his background in gore, Russell was uneasy with the comic’s violence and wanted to make a family-friendly comedy instead. He kept the bald green head, big teeth, and the zoot suit but turned The Mask into a zanier character, although some violence is still implied. Remember the mechanics with exhaust pipes forcibly inserted into their rectums?
Jim Carrey turned Ipkiss into a far more cuddly protagonist, playing him relatively straight while reserving his trademark goofy shtick for the CG-enhanced antics of his green-faced alter ego. 1994 for huge for Carrey - he made his big breakthrough with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective before the box office success of The Mask sent his career stratospheric, then rounding out the year with Dumb and Dumber. Model Cameron Diaz also made her movie debut as Ipkiss’s slinky love interest.
The Mask hasn’t aged terribly well but still has its moments, most notably the terrific “Cuban Pete” dance number. It was followed by a woeful belated sequel, Son of the Mask, in 2005.
So there we have it, although these picks barely scratch the surface of non-you-know-what comic book adaptations. What are your favourites?