The near-death of the comic book movie at the hands of films like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman & Robin is well-documented. Since then, the subgenre has been revived in the form of Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man, and more recently, become a serious art form thanks to The Dark Knight and Iron Man.
Since then, Hollywood has been far more successful overall at bringing its pulp brands to the silver screen. But what of the films that threatened this golden age, the films that could have easily derailed the ever-chugging train into complete oblivion? Here are my picks for the top five worst comic book adaptations of the past five years.
5. The Green Hornet
Call me crazy, but when Seth Rogen was hyping Hornet as a kind of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-esque comedy/action venue, I bought it. I’d assumed with all the reverence they spoke of for the source material, they’d be staying true to the character’s roots above all.
Britt Reid is Seth Rogen at his most unlikable, an obnoxious, grating douchebag. Director Michel Gondry seems to have given direction in his sleep, lending little life to the already mediocre script and staging. Even Christoph Waltz, fresh off his Oscar win for Inglourious Basterds, looked as though he’d been typecast in the villain role long beforehand. At best, the film played like an unfunny Pineapple Express with Green Hornet character names and gadgets pasted in. For fans of just about any other Hornet media, this one stung hard.
4. Green Lantern
There are two movies thus far that pinpoint my lowest-ever moments in a movie theater. The first is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, whose infamy needs no introduction and which we will speak no more of. The second is Green Lantern, a movie which I had the utmost confidence in from its inception back at the tail-end of 2008. What could go wrong, I thought, with the director of Casino Royale, a design team whose credits included Superman: the Movie and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and comic writer Geoff Johns himself consulting? Hell, I was even ready to sing the praises of Ryan Reynolds, whom I still enjoy in comedic roles despite…well, everything else he’s been in. Above all, Warner Bros.’ huge marketing push for the movie led me to believe against all odds that they had the next Star Wars waiting in the wings.
10 minutes into the final product quickly quashed that confidence, and since the screening, I have yet to even pick up a Green Lantern comic. One of DC’s greatest mythologies had been diluted down into a studio-bred commercial nightmare. The expensive CGI and design work is onscreen for about 15 total minutes, with the rest of the movie painfully earthbound. The script is one of the laziest, blandest, most cookie-cutter hero’s journeys in recent memory. Reynolds is thrown into poorly-written scene after poorly-written scene and expected to improvise on the level of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. His scenes with costar Blake Lively showcase a forced chemistry unmatched even by the likes of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. Peter Sarsgaard gives the most disgracefully hammy performance as the corrupt psychic Hector Hammond. And Angela Basset is left to wander onscreen occasionally, and pointlessly, to try to muster some fan hype a la Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
At least Mark Strong’s Sinestro showed potential, but that’s of little concern when the movie around him sucks so very, very hard. Green Lantern was Warner looking to Marvel’s Iron Man and thinking, “hey, we can do that!” Their mistake cost them dearly, but at least now things are looking up at the company with the success of Man of Steel.
3. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Casual viewers of Fox’s 2009 disgrace might be surprised to know that its director, Gavin Hood, is actually an Oscar-winner. Yes, Hood directed Tsotsi and the more recent Ender’s Game, both solid films, that illustrate the filmmaker’s talent for bringing even the trickiest page-bound stories to the silver screen. But you’d never know it from X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Blame primarily the abysmal script from D-list studio whipping boy Skip Woods, which boasted plot holes, continuity errors, and some distinctly terrible dialogue. As if the concept of Wolverine’s beginnings with William Stryker and Weapon X, already thoroughly explored in Bryan Singer’s X2, could be any less interesting or impactful as a narrative; now it’s peppered with a mess of unrelated mutants in cameo roles, all performed with the seeming goal of redefining the descriptor of, “hammy,” perhaps in the hopes of receiving a spin-off (read: heftier paycheck) of their own.
Not to mention, Hood also had the reins yanked away from him by Fox CEO Tom Rothman during production, a common practice for Fox over the last decade, forcing Superman director Richard Donner to facilitate. It’s the makings of a big-budget disaster that ultimately went nowhere, and nearly derailed Fox’s entire X-franchise. Still, some people apparently enjoy this movie. I have no desire to meet them.
2. Punisher: War Zone
Say what you will about the Thomas Jane-starring 2005 Punisher, but I could appreciate, if not altogether enjoy, its targeted ambitions – to be a throwback to 70s-era revenge flicks. Still, when Frank Castle is having dinner with Jon Stamos’ ex-wife and fighting Waldo on steroids, perhaps the point has been missed.
But, I argue, there’s “meh,” there’s bad, there’s awfully bad, and then there’s Punisher: War Zone. This is a colossal fuck-up of an action movie, effectively removing any semblance of humanity and emotion from its proceedings and replacing it with two beyond-campy antagonists who make Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze look charming in comparison.
What we’re left with is a pretty good performance, all things considered, from Ray Stevenson as Castle, who makes for a fittingly dark, brooding Punisher in unspeakable pain. Too bad it barely resonates in the tomfoolery around him, like when fucking Wayne Knight stands behind him babbling on about “the mission,” as if Castle were some sort of underappreciated crusader.
Chalk it up to Lionsgate’s crucial misunderstanding of the character. Frank Castle isn’t some unsung hero who falters and doubts his actions in the same way Batman does. He’s a violent killer whom many see as a madman, and doesn’t fit into the traditional hero’s journey mold. War Zone has no inkling of what to do with its protagonist – there is a scene where Castle, in the presence of both a little girl and a cop, blows a man’s head off in cold blood, spraying red everywhere. The cop yells, “Dammit, Castle!”, as if he’s Danny Glover scolding Riggs for disobeying their chief’s orders. The dead man is, of course, inconsequential.
Needless to say, after War Zone’s failure, Lionsgate tossed the Punisher film rights back to Marvel Studios with a collective shrug, failing to understand that some comic book characters don’t subscribe to Joseph Campbell.
1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Just when it seemed we’d all forgotten Mark Steven Johnson’s lackluster, if honest 2007 disappointment Ghost Rider, Sony tried once more to bring the character to the silver screen. While officially, the film would borrow elements from David S. Goyer’s canned draft for the first movie, after cult madmen Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor took the helm, the property was Crank-ified into something unrecognizable.
The result is one of the ugliest films to ever stain the superhero subgenre. If War Zone was unwatchable elephant shit, Spirit of Vengeance is the unwatchable elephant shit of its inbred, schizoid half-brother. It is a vile, incomprehensible, unpleasant, humorless, tasteless, practically meritless void of awful. We watch, baffled, as we learn that Johnny Blaze has picked up and moved to Europe (because, hey, cheaper to film there) and is tasked with rescuing a mother and son, the latter of whom is in danger of being the reborn antichrist at the hands of the devil (Ciaran Hinds). But it’s a plot that barely registers, watching Neveldine/Taylor’s obnoxious, thoughtless, in-your-face visual style. These are two men who literally risked their lives on set to get their shots, and yet none of that effort is anywhere to be found in the nauseating final product.
Spirit of Vengeance doesn’t even work on a so-bad-it’s-good level; the villains are cheesy to an unfunny level, and Nicolas Cage’s performance is as woefully, manically bad as anything in The Wicker Man. For all the pre-release buzz of the movie being darker and closer to the comics in its dual Zarathos/Blaze dynamic, nothing could offset the deafening sense that this is a movie that should never have been given the go-ahead. Which is a shame, because I happen to love J.M. DeMatteis’ run on the character and Jekyll/Hyde stories in general. There’s quite a bit of story potential involving a man desperate to escape the demons within himself. Spirit of Vengeance not only dismisses that potential, it comes dangerous close to the chasms of rock bottom quality.
Luckily, it’s a pain we will suffer no longer – Sony has since handed the Ghost Rider film rights back to Marvel where they belong…which is what the company should’ve done in the first place.