Reviews of adaptations of comic book heroes for movies, television, and cable. For cliffhanger serials click on the "Comic Book Cliffhangers" page on your left. New reviews will be posted periodically.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007). Director: Sam Raimi. Although quite entertaining and well-made for the most part, this installment is not quite as good as Spider-Man 2, with a less interesting script despite a lot of classic Spider-Man elements. Peter Parker's friend Harry (James Franco) blames Peter for his father's death and becomes the new pumpkin bomb-throwing Goblin. Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), The Sandman, turns out to be the real (almost accidental?) killer of Peter's Uncle Ben. And the alien symbiote or whatever it is drops from space and becomes Spider's new black uniform, eventually merging with a brash new photographer named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) to become Venom (although this name is never actually used in the movie?) The glue holding this together is Toby Maguire, who could not be more perfect as Peter Parker, and when you add some superb special effects (sometimes you have to shake your head and wonder how it's done) and glistening, excellent photography by Bill Pope, the movie really makes quite an impression. Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane and various supporting players are also quite good, especially Haden Church, Franco, Grace, and Theresa Russell in a cameo as The Sandman's estranged wife. On the negative side is that the film gets a little too campy at times. The original Amazing Spider-Man comic book could have a lot of humor in it on occasion, but the scene when Peter, sort of possessed by the black alien uniform, turns into a slick comical make-out artist and dances across the bar at the club where Mary Jane works is just silly and stupid. Sometimes the action moves too fast for you to clearly follow what's going on, and there are lulls during key sequences that should move a little faster than they do. A bit with a toppling crane high atop a skyscraper is good but perhaps not milked for the maximum thrills. We never do learn the exact nature of the experiment that inadvertently turns Marko into The Sandman, who turns into a real Sand Giant the better to smash at Spidey. The film goes awry a bit too much to make it a real classic, but it's certainly a good movie and well worth watching. The nice musical score by Christopher Young certainly doesn't hurt in the least.
FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007). Director: Tim Story. Sue and Reed are about to be married, planning on quitting the team to lead a "normal" life, when they have to deal with the threat of The Silver Surfer and the slowly approaching Galactus, who sucks all the energy out of planets. This film uses the same cast members as the first installment, and all of them acquit themselves nicely enough in their roles. The Silver Surfer is a wonderful combination of computer imagery and acting and throughout the film the special effects are generally eye-popping and first-class. Larry Blanford's cinematography is of the highest order, with every shot so strikingly composed and beautiful to look at that the film is one of the best visual treats of the year and deserves an Oscar for photography. The film is entertaining but there are too many lulls between action scenes (and occasionally during action scenes) and it seems much too deliberately paced at times. Galactus is as disappointing in some ways as the Surfer is exciting: instead of the giant hulking humanoid from the comics, we get a kind of energy force, but like everything else in the film it's striking to look at. The movie introduces the FantastiCar, and has our heroes taking on the powers of the others so at one point the Human Torch becomes a kind of Super Skrull. There are some great sequences in the movie but one wishes the tone were a little less campy and flippant. This is a lot of fun, however.
X-MEN; THE LAST STAND (2006). Directed by Brett Ratner. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. The third and final film in the X-Men trilogy deals with a "cure" for the mutant gene which has been developed by Worthington Laboratories. [Warren Worthington, who is introduced in this installment, is the high-flying Angel.] Iceman and Rogue return, while Colossus and Kitty Pryde also make appearances. The movie also taps into the famous "Dark Phoenix" storyline - although it takes a different path - as Jean Gray turns out to be alive and seems to be losing her mind, killing Professor X at one point. Magneto has collected a group of evil mutants, which includes Juggernaut and a bitchy gal who seems like a new or more recent character. Although it's odd that the diminutive Wolverine is taller than Storm, Hugh Jackman is excellent in the role. Kelsey Grammar of Frasier fame makes a highly effective Beast, who even says "Oh my stars and garters!" at one point. A tiresome aspect to the story has Jean becoming "sexier" as she gives in to her dark side, as if evil and sensuality were somehow linked. Although the movie is a bit confused at times and has a lot of lulls, there are some excellent FX and fine action/battle sequences, such as the climax at Alcatraz. Much more positive than the darker comics, this is a satisfying if imperfect wind up to the trilogy. Ian McKellen nearly steals the picture as the sinister Magneto, whose fate is ironically sealed at the conclusion. Worth three out of four stars.
ULTIMATE AVENGERS. Cartoon Network. Directed by Curt Geda and Steven Gordon. This was a 90 minute special based on The Ultimates maxi-series from Marvel. The Ultimates were basically a new take on The Avengers, and when it proved successful Marvel quickly rushed out Ultimate versions of X-Men, Spider-Man, and many others, a whole new universe to play around in. This animated adaptation of the original maxi-series follows the basic story but essentially lacks the dark edge of the comic books; the characters are a lot more pleasant for one thing. Although the animation and direction are not top of the line, there are several noteworthy sequences, such as when an unfrozen Captain America breaks out of confinement and sees the brave new world he has awakened into. There is also a touching scene when Cap is reunited with his young buddy Bucky - now an elderly man - and his old girlfriend, Sharon, who is now Bucky's wife. The plot has an alternative Afro-American Nick Fury gathering together a group of heroes to battle the nasty Shitari aliens who years ago had been allies of the Nazis. The Hulk, Giant-Man, Wasp and Thor also figure in the action. Not bad. Let's hope Cartoon Network has the bright idea of turning this into a regular series. NOTE: A DVD entitled Ultimate Avengers 2 is due out in August 2006. The movie reviewed here is already available on DVD.
TEEN TITANS. Cartoon Network. Saturdays 8 PM [subject to change]. When this cartoon show first premiered, it seemed so far removed from the comic book of the nineties (although it was clearly based on it) that it seemed an unlikely bet for older comic book readers who can watch, say, Justice League Unlimited without embarrassment. Despite a certain nagging childishness, the series has gradually become more interesting and grown-up, mostly through the utilization of classic characters and storylines from the Wolfman-Perez series. There have been a lot of changes made, of course. Beast-boy was called Changeling in the comic and was a bit older and more human, less "cute." Starfire was older and more womanly, much sexier. Raven never demonstrated a sense of humor let alone the sarcastic streak she displays in the cartoon. Brother Blood was changed completely and made a mere servant of the Hive. The Fearsome Five were transformed into the much less interesting Hive Five. Even the stories centering on Terra becoming the student of Slade [The Terminator] were taken from the comic book (in the comic the child Terra/Tara was actually Slade's sociopathic lover), as were the episodes dealing with Trigon's attempt to take over the Titans and the Earth [the comic stories were far superior]. As of this writing, the Brotherhood of Evil from the old sixties Doom Patrol [who were brought back for the Wolfman-Perez Titans] have been re-introduced, along with the Doom Patrol itself. An episode pitting a new character and Robin versus the shape-changing Madame Rouge of the Brotherhood was played completely straight and was well-drawn, well-directed, and quite exciting. If only every episode of the series was that good. Perhaps the most likable character on the cartoon show is Beast Boy, who is very appealing, amusing [with that little snaggled tooth sticking out from under his lip] and with a subtext of pathos. The episodes where he fell for Terra/Tara and his reaction when she died - all of which was taken from the comic book - were almost poignant. Teen Titans is not all that it should be, but it's sometimes worth a look. If only they'd get rid of that awful theme song, age the characters, and completely drop the moments of cutsiness and stupidity. They then might have a show that's a suitable companion for the much, much better Justice League. Still, it must be said that even in its dumb moments the series probably holds a lot of charm for younger viewers and a few older ones as well.
BIRDS OF PREY. [Retrospective review.] WB television series. Birds of Prey was based on a comic book that featured Oracle (Batgirl), Huntress, and Black Canary. The series takes place in a kind of alternate comic book world, New Gotham, where Oracle/Barbara Gordon [Dina Meyer] watches over the city from her clock tower HQ and sends out Huntress/Helena Kyle [Ashley Scott] - daughter of Batman and Catwoman - on assignments against a variety of baddies. Into their midst comes a young runaway and "metahuman" [read: mutant] named Dinah [Rachel Skarstein], who may or may not grow up to become Dinah Lance, the Black Canary. Huntress becomes friends with a police detective Reese [Shemar Moore] who inexplicably doesn't seem to know about Batman or other super-beings despite the city being full of them. Working behind the scenes to take over New Gotham is Dr. Harleen Quintel [Mia Sara], a therapist who is treating Huntress but is secretly Harley Quinn, the girlfriend of the Joker. There are many references to Batman, who never appears [Huntress "has issues" with him and doesn't speak to him], as well as to Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Tim Drake, Robins all. The show is well-cast and well-acted, with moody Ashley Scott making a perfect Huntress, although there are times where she is so full of attitude you want to haul off and slap her. Mia Sara makes a deliciously venomous Harley Quinn, and Ian Abercrombie is perfection as Wise Old Butler Alfred Pennysworth, now working for Oracle. [Says Alfred: "How much someone cares about you is directly proportionate to how much you can piss them off."] Some of the stories of this short-lived series managed to be quite interesting. One featured a man [probably inspired by Marvel villain Hydroman] who drowns people by transforming into water and entering their bodies through their mouths. Another had a disfigured guy [Donovan Leitch] kidnapping metahuman females and having them fight to the death in an underground arena. Clayface Jr. and his all-girl gang tried to top his father by ripping off a fabulous charity event. A less successful episode had a nerd who'd developed chameleon-like powers murdering his tormentors at a high school reunion. The exciting and suspenseful season - actually what turned out to be the series finale - had Harley Quinn gaining mind-control powers, ordering Huntress to kill Oracle, and broadcasting psycho waves to all the citizens of New Gotham before being stopped by our gals.[Harley's relationship to Huntress had definite titillating lesbian undertones, as did the whole series in fact.] WB was probably hoping for another Charmed with this show centering on three women - and indeed the scripts had an unwelcome campy and flippant tone to them at times - but lightning just didn't strike twice. Too bad. It would have been fun to have the Caped Crusader actually show up on the series, which barely lasted a season.
THE SHADOW (1994). Director: Russell Mulcahy. A very disappointing adaptation of the famous Shadow pulp character for the big screen is tricked up with special effects and the like but never has the right panache to bring it all to life. Not only is Mulcahy's direction off the mark, but David Koepp's script, although it has good aspects, is sometimes too campy by far. [And why is the tragic death of a young sailor who is mind-controlled to jump off the Empire State Building practically treated as if it were comedy?] Why should anybody take the character seriously if the film's creators don't? In this The Shadow actually is Lamont Cranston, who was originally a fiendish, dissolute murderer and criminal before being transformed by an Oriental mentor into an agent of Good, the price for his redemption [of course his evil past makes him a bit of a hypocrite when confronting criminals]. One thing the picture gets right is the look of The Shadow; when Alec Baldwin puts on the cloak of his alter-ego, FX make his face elongate and change into the well-known hawk-like visage of the pulp hero. Baldwin is not at all bad in the role, but he's much too "contemporary" an actor to get across the proper thirties "feel." The plot has to do with the emergence of Shiwan Khan (John Lone) the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, who wants Cranston to revert to his evil ways and help him conquer the world. To this end Khan needs a "barillium sphere" to build an atomic bomb. A clever if improbable bit has Khan somehow building a skyscraper which is not visible to anyone in Manhattan. A knife whose hilt comes alive and bites The Shadow, and a doom-trap involving a room full of rushing water, are among the better moments in the movie. A scene with a giant rolling time bomb is like something out of the Batman TV show, however, and there are other stupid moments. Tim Curry and Jonathan Winters [as Cranston's uncle] are excellent performers, but neither of them belong in this movie. Penelope Ann Miller is fine as Margo Lane, but Ian McKellan is wasted as her scientist father.
THE HULK (2003). Director: Ang Lee. Did Ang Lee want to do a new version of Lee-Kirby's Incredible Hulk or a remake of the Amazing Colossal Man? In the comic books The Hulk is pretty big, maybe eight feet tall, a giant among men, sure, but in the movie he's almost of King Kong proportions, at least twenty feet tall, like Lee and Kirby's Giant-Man, who shared a comic called Tales to Astonish with the Hulkster back in the sixties. Modeled on lead actor Eric Bana, The Hulk is also "handsomer" than he is in the comics. Ordinarily I'd welcome an attempt at characterization, a build-up to the action, but this movie's build-up is way too slow and the movie is often tedious with sporadic bouts of action. In this The Hulk's alter ego is a young scientist who's experimenting on instant wound repair. His abusive scientist father is still alive, unbeknownst to him, and he's unaware that his name is really Bruce Banner. Bana becomes The Hulk not only because of a lab accident but because of experiments done to him by his father when he was a baby, as well as his unchanneled rage toward his dad. Nick Nolte is a little over the top as the father, but Sam Elliott is a little more on target as Betty's (Jennifer Conelly) father, General Ross. The special effects can be quite outstanding - witness the scene of The Hulk bouncing from mountain peak to mountain peak, for instance - but there are times when the movie looks like a glorified video game with a very rubbery chief player. The movie completely discards the angst of the comic books, that is Banner's torment over turning into the Hulk, becoming mindless, and completely losing control of himself for hours or even days. Bana's performance is competent but no more. Danny Elfman's score does the best it can, but this isn't very memorable. The mutant dogs, including a large nasty poodle, are a hoot.