Jeff Vs. Cinema: An Open Reply

November 8, 2014


Dear Chris:

Thank you so much for your recent comment on our podcast—as  I mentioned in my reply, I read it while traveling (just got my ass back home and had to hop immediately back into the day job) and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to reply.  Of course, whenever anyone says they’ve started to worry about us, I also immediately begin to worry about us.  You mentioned you discovered our podcast the other day so you may not be familiar with “WorryGate,” where our worrying about the mental state of a certain comic book writer caused our listeners to in turn worry about us, which then worried us.  Unfortunately, all the time we then spent clarifying and elaborating only worried everyone more, to the point it seemed like we were now obsessed with said writer, and our repeated worrying about him seemed less like talking and more like stalking, to which we wrung our hands and tried to clarify some more.

It’s not our proudest moment.  In fact, it may even be our least-proud moment which is amazing, really, because we have quite a collection of not-proud moments, so much so that trying to pick out just one is very difficult.

All of which is to say: I worry when others worry.

Additionally, there were some excellent points in your comments, so I also found myself worrying about them too.  I decided I’d tackle them here as a way to clarify my own points for myself (as well as have an excuse to put in some fine, fine superhero movie eye candy).

[More behind the jump because good lord, does this go on and on and on….]


(I had all 132 of these, BTW.)

Now, let me be clear right up front that I don’t pretend to talk for Graeme in this situation (despite trying to talk for Graeme in nearly every other situation except when we podcast where I try to talk over him).  These are my own explanations and musings for the very good points you raise for both of us.

So, here’s the point I think is strongest and worth tackling first (and it also helps that you too mentioned it right at the start):

I didn’t notice it until I downloaded a few of your past episodes and listened one after the other. It seems like you have a real disdain for any film/TV adaptation of a comic book property created in the past 10 or 15 years. I have yet to hear you guys unconditionally (or even largely) praise a single thing within that context. And when you talk about the future of comic book movies, you make it sound like the world is coming to an end.

I’m going to ding you a bit here on a technicality, in that you fall into the same fallacy Graeme and I fall into all the time, which is:  I think when you say “comic book property,” you mean properties created by “The Big Two” (Marvel or DC), right?  Like I said, Graeme and I do this all the time and it wouldn’t surprise me if our own bad shorthand is being passed back to us.

The point isn’t pedantic (at least I hope it’s not):  although it’s not something we’ve mentioned in, say, the last few episodes (and I don’t know how far back into our history you’ve dug yet), one of Graeme’s favorite movies of all time is Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010), an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic series from Oni.  I may have only mentioned about it briefly on our podcast and talked about it at slightly longer length during a guest appearance of Travis Bickle on the Riviera, but I’m a big fan of Snowpiercer (2013), Joon-ho Bong’s adaptation of the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.  And also on that Bickle, where we spend no small amount of time talking to Sean “Argento Said Knock You Out” Witzke about superhero films, I mention I’m big fan of the first Oldboy (2003) by Park Chan-wook, based on the Japanese manga by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, and which is arguably my perfect superhero film.  (No, wait.  The Matrix.  No, wait. Oldboy. No, wait.  The Matrix.)


(No, wait. Oldboy.)

Again, it’s possible you haven’t gone back that far into the archives (and most of my citations are to a podcast we only guest-appeared on, which seems a bit like cheating on my part).  But I also suspect you mean—as all too many of us mean—”superhero movies” when you say “film/TV adaptation of a comic book property.”  (Though I understand if you used the term because Graeme and I said that we didn’t like The Walking Dead TV show, despite both of us really liking the pilot.  (I loved the pilot.))

I wanted to make the distinction to point out: (a) we do like comic book movies! (b) holy crap, I realize now I still haven’t seen Persepolis, Adele Blanc-Sec, Blue Is The Warmest Color, etc!  I’m a terrible foreign-comics-to-foreign-film watcher!

And finally: (c) it was important for me to stall for time so I could figure out how to address superhero movies by the Big Two, which is the majority of what we’ve talked about on the podcast, and for which your statement above is indeed largely true (for me, at least).

I think the next part of your comment gets to the meat of it:

I worry that your expectations in film are far too high with regard to comic book movies. How is it that you can look past the failings in a Steve Engelhart Avengers issue, but not in the potential of a Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers 2 movie?

There are a few explanations suggested by this excellent point, Chris. Let’s take them one at a time.

(1)  I am old.  This is probably the Occam’s Razor-iest of all the various explanations.  As an old guy, it’s wayyyyyy easier for me to look past the failings in a Steve Englehart Avengers issue because nostalgia for my youth has thoroughly soaked through that issue, making it impossible for me to fully strain out my affection for that time from the signifiers of that time.

By contrast, “a Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers 2 movie” only brings me back to the not-nearly-as-distant days of 2012, when I was still fuming about Marvel’s treatment of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, as well as my slowing metabolism, my thinning hair, and that not-famous person on Twitter who didn’t follow me back after I followed them.  (You know who you are, not-famous person.)  Although I am moved by your attempts to jostle us out of our Old Man Grumpus states, on this subject I may well be too much of an Old Man Grumpus.  It may be too late for me, and the rest of what follows may just be a lot of angry old-man hand waving insisting otherwise.

And yet…there are a few other reasons worth of consideration.

Here’s a big one:  as someone who, growing up, was starved for nerd culture entertainment in the big media (TV, movies), I desired so incredibly much to have non-terrible adaptations of the superhero comics I loved.  Oh, sure, The Incredible Hulk TV show isn’t that terrible, but it’s a far cry from the source material which at that point was deep in high melodrama slug-’em-ups that would’ve cost hojillions of dollars to produce as a movie.  A TV show back then could only do so much.

But, as I grew older, I found myself thinking: why exactly did I want such a thing?  I had the comics.  Weren’t they enough?

And here’s the thing I realized somewhere between the third and fifth showing of Batman (1989): yeah, they are enough.

In fact, I think Tim Burton’s Batman was a pretty big turning point for me in this regard—only a few years prior, we comic book readers had gotten The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and now here we were, having Hollywood serve us up a patchwork quilt of influences, performances, homages, and ideas.  My wife is a big fan of Tim Burton’s Batman and it’s always fun to hear her talk about it: that film gave her the feeling of an entire world, all of it deep and dark and weird, frightening and fun.

That is a great thing and no small achievement…but I also had gotten that feeling back when I was five, and I’ve injudiciously nurtured it ever since.  By the time I went into the theater for the first time I had additionally gotten the bonus of four issues by Frank Miller that so singularly, elegantly, and intelligently re-created the Dark Knight that Tim Burton’s Dark Knight seemed frankly pretty pallid.

That’s the way it goes for me.  There have been some really great moments I’ve gotten out of our big superhero movies:  Hulk punching Thor;  Spider-Man and Doc Ock starting to slug it out on top of a building and ending up on an elevated train; The Joker walking out of the hospital in the nurse’s uniform (and also lifting himself out of the side of the patrol car and howling); skinny little Steve Rogers standing up to bullies; Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman; the kiss in the first Spider-Man movie; the underwear question in Superman; the Boom Tube cameo in Thor; the removal of the Joker’s bandages in the first Batman movie; Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in that first X-Men movie (and I guess his rampage in the second); that fight between Superman and the Krypton Three in Superman II; drunk, crying Rocket Raccoon; Bruce Banner being all Bourne-ish in the Brazilian favela in the second Hulk movie; and, just to prove I am the most unreliable critic you could ever meet, just about everything that comes out of the mouths of Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Tom Hardy as Bane.  I’d probably put some of the stuff in The Winter Soldier in there as well. (Maybe even a lot of stuff?)

(My favorite superhero movie moment not actually in a superhero movie.)

(My favorite superhero movie moment not actually in a superhero movie.)

I dig all of those bits,  and I think the trick to being a fan of cinema is being able to love individual moments and bits in movies that are otherwise only semi-tenable.

But I don’t walk into a comic book superhero movie as a fan of cinema, I walk in as a fan of superhero comic books first.

And comic book superhero movies usually don’t bring enough of the juice of superhero comic books.  A lot of movie time has to be spent on the hero’s origin, and then a good chunk more on the supervillain’s origin, and then more time on the supervillain’s plan, and then in the third act things go big but it’s either too little too late or too much with too few things at stake, in part because recently the movies jam in so many shout-outs, cameos and set-ups for the next movie in the series but do nothing in the movie you’re watching  (screw you second Hulk movie for wasting Ty Burrell’s time, Tim Blake Nelson’s time, but especially my time).  In fact, thinking about it, most of my favorite superhero movies (Oldboy, The Dark Knight before it shoots itself in the foot in that third act, The Winter Soldier) spend no time on the villain’s origin at all, although I’m aware not every superhero movie can be set in the paranoia-infused universe that results.

Superhero comics are good at the long game (or used to be, anyway), at working subplots up to a boil or taking a small story point from years ago and making it the turning point of the new mega-epic.  They’re good at building up the absurdity and the insanity, bit by bit and block by block, to the point where things are so insane and so absurd people who’ve been reading them for years can be like the proverbial frogs in the pot, boiling without even being aware they’re wet.  Superhero comics are great at taking relationships and extending them, so that eventually everyone knows everyone, has met everyone, has punched everyone.  Superhero comics are a dream of community, a dream created and supported by very lonely people.

So after twenty-five years of comic book movies (if you go by Tim Burton’s Batman) or, really, sixteen years of comic book movies (if you go by Blade), there is finally kinda sorta a whiff of the long game pleasures of superhero books.  I mean, I haven’t tried it but I suspect watching all three Iron Man movies in a row isn’t that great an experience: it’s not like watching three films of organic growth and expanding relationships and crazily escalating stakes.  It’s like watching a good movie, a bad remake of a good movie, and then a clever, disjointed deconstruction of the superhero movie.  Until the New52 came along, you used to get a run of comics by a creative team, several stories by the same creative team that gave a feeling of growth and movement even while it gave you the usual “hey, who are you, let us punch each other” of regular superhero stories. But every superhero movie is really a run unto itself, a two to three hour arc. It doesn’t matter if the team is exactly the same down to the exact same key grip:  people change over the course of two to three years, in all kinds of ways big and small that affect the tenor of the movies whether they intend to or not.  (Sometimes I wonder if the Raimi Spider-Man movies would’ve been better if Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst hadn’t had an off-screen romance, because (for me, anyway), Spider-Man 2 is brought low by a palpable  disgust on the part of Dunst toward Maguire, turning Mary Jane into kind of a shrew.  (Although the first Spider-Man made me think Raimi either had some issues with women or felt he was faithfully adopting the early Spider-Man issues’ issues with women, I can’t really tell which.)

I do think Marvel has had some success with bringing the crazy to their movies—so much of my good will for Avengers has a lot to do with those fucking evil space slugs—but that most recent Transformers movie was a better “comic book” movie in the sense of sensual overload, devotion to its violent absurdity, and fealty to its weird-ass mythology. (At the end of the movie, I kinda wanted to know more about….Dinobots?  Which is not a place I thought I’d ever end up, spiritually, at this age.)



I do a lot of squinting at superhero movies, trying to blur my vision so the stuff on the screen resembles the stuff on the page but it’s not the same.   To return to your point:

I worry that your expectations in film are far too high with regard to comic book movies. How is it that you can look past the failings in a Steve Engelhart Avengers issue, but not in the potential of a Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers 2 movie?

I can’t help but think a bunch of stories cranked out on a monthly basis by a team of less than a dozen people (some of whom are doing the same on two to three other titles in order to grind out an acceptable living) should be held to a lower standard than one story created by a team of hundreds of people over the process of several years, most of whom are making a very good living.

I feel like that last part is very important:  maybe for the weirdos of the ’60s and ’70s, being able to make $18,000 a year doing nothing but writing seemed like a pretty good deal, but it’s a harsh way to live.  You do it because you love it, because your reward for succeeding at it is getting to do it for another year.  I’m sure everyone who’s made it or tried to make it in Hollywood will tell you it is also a very harsh way to live…but when you succeed, you get the payout.  You don’t get as much of a payout as you feel like you put in, probably, and succeeding at your level allows you to see up close how well other people get to live when they succeed at what they do but…at the very least, you get a chance to make a better life for yourself and your kids.  There are unions.  There is healthcare.  And there is big money.

Sometimes I feel like that should get us a better result than a monthly comic book.

And, you know, it totally does!  No matter how good or how bad Avengers: Age of Ultron is as a superhero story?  Nobody—and I mean nobody—is going to do a Vince Colletta and erase a city’s background because they don’t have time to embellish it.  For people who like to watch and listen to real people, movies are the surest and safest way to see real faces, real places, real frailty, and real character.  There’s a kind of a frisson in superhero films today where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to blur the lines between animation and action, and for me, anyway, sometimes I can feel a delight at these movies that’s similar to having a very good magic trick being performed in front of you.  But those aren’t the kind of delights I want from my superhero stories, I guess.

Anyway, I had one more longish point  but it’ll have to wait because really, Chris, I’m a little horrified by what your gentle comment has dragged out of me.  And I feel I still haven’t addressed some of your better points about hope and optimism for the future of this stuff? (Maybe it’s a subject I’ll return to, maybe?  Lord knows I could probably post a lot more Batman trading cards and continue to feel mighty pleased with myself.)

It’s one of the weird dichotomies of the podcast for me: I’m always thrilled when somebody gets turned on to something new as a result of our ranting and raving, and always a little depressed if we’ve killed somebody’s buzz for something we don’t particularly like.  As long as we don’t kick a hole in your enthusiasm, I’m glad.

Thanks for your comment, and thanks for listening!




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11 comments on “Jeff Vs. Cinema: An Open Reply

  1. Very nice article Jeff, if for nothing else than laugh I got from the first point of your defence being that you’re old.
    You’re a better man than me, I would stopped at “Im not cynical about comic book adaptations, I liked Snowpiercer”.

    • I feel the same way, Dave. I almost want to concern troll Jeff now, since it inspires him to write such interesting pieces.

      Hey Jeff, I’m really worried that you guys haven’t given proper due to SNES classic Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage on the podcast. I’m concerned that you’re spending too much time on junky Jack Kirby comics and not enough time on things I personally enjoyed as a child. Please address these worries in essay form.

  2. eugene haston Nov 10, 2014

    Well said – in the case of superhero movies for me, it’s a case of too much, too late. The good thing is this genre will soon discontinue ruining comics and will go about its business ruining film.

  3. Speaking of concern, it’s as though the success of superhero movies has brought a level of scrutiny to the managing of superhero comicbooks that have, in some way, diminished their weirdness; what Steven Grant once called their “outlaw nature”.

    I can’t shake the feeling that the movies have made superheroes plain.

    Nice piece Jeff.

    • Making superheroes plain is the perfect way to describe what I’ve felt about the capes for the past few years. Thank you Tim for articulating it so succinctly.

  4. Mike Loughlin Nov 11, 2014

    After reading your post, I wonder why I’m more of a fan of the Marvel movies than you. I’m younger than you, but not by a lot. I remember the lack of good (or even bad) super-hero t.v. shows & movies. He’ll, I remember watching M.A.N.T.I.S. simply because it was a super-hero show. I remember college and sneaking away to a room that no one was in and watching the awful Generation X t.v. movie hoping no one would see me…

    Anyway, I like most of the Marvel movies. I like good actors delivering snarky dialogue, action that’s all explody and stuff, and the friggin’ Easter eggs. I’m not entirely uncritical, but I still find them enjoyable. DC movies, not so much, but most current super-hero movies feature Marvel characters so they’re what I think of when I hear “super-hero movies.”

    The comics are a different story. I like the Marvel books that get the praise (Superior Foes, Ms. Marvel, Daredevil, etc.) because they’re pretty good on both craft and entertainment levels. I have the Marvel Unlimited app, however, so I read a lot of… other Marvel comics. I’ve read the Bendis X-Men, Hickman Avengers, and (too) much more. After reading your post, I realize that spectacle and quips are enough to keep me watching Marvel movies but I expect more from the comics. The crossovers and decompression are frustrating, even in some of the “good” books. For $10-15, a movie can be mostly good and Iwon’t feel ripped off. $10 a month for a ton of Marvel comics is a bargain but just seeing the $4 cover price for a 5 minute read that leads into another 5 minute read. I don’t mind Hollywood doing formula super-hero movies, but the mainstream super-hero-comics should be past that or at least have a better formula.

  5. “maybe for the weirdos of the ’60s and ’70s, being able to make $18,000 a year doing nothing but writing seemed like a pretty good deal, but it’s a harsh way to live”

    Wait, are we talking 1974 dollars here?

    …but seriously, good post.

  6. Truly appreciate your well-thought-out and well-written response.

    As someone who is nearing the precipice of Old Man Grumpus-dom myself, I feel your pain there.

    It’s funny-when I saw your reference to Transformers, I experienced an immediate rejection–probably similar to a transplant patient rejecting a new kidney. I’ve roundly rejected the Transformers movies, not just because they conform not a whit to the cartoon series of my youth (you will not, in any Transformers film, beat Orson Welles as Unicron), but because they rejected the complex (as complex as a children’s cartoon gets) character studies of the original series in lieu of facile romance sub-plots, distracting tangents and massive explosions.

    So I understand where you’re coming from. That long form plot advancement and character progression is what we story nerds crave–almost to the point of perversity…although I may just be talking about myself, there.

    You were completely right to tag me as referring to primarily “Big 2” properties. Outlier, of course, is Walking Dead (to which, oddly enough, I had the EXACT OPPOSITE response as you–I despised the glacial nature of the pilot, but have largely enjoyed the series since), but I’d hesitate to say “superhero.” We seem to have different definitions, there, as I wouldn’t necessarily tag Snowpiercer with that moniker, and I generally wouldn’t call Constantine a superhero story (although I suppose the New 52 version falls into that bucket).

    Where I think we part company (and feel free to completely reject this idea) is that I have an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT set of expectations going into a film vs. reading a comic. Or…maybe not entirely different…I still have the same requirements with regard to story. For instance, I agree with you completely about the third act of The Dark Knight. The film ended at least 30 minutes after it should have, and the plot and narratives were a mess. Also, if you look at the overall narrative, Joker (while memorably and wonderfully portrayed–potentially the closest we’ll ever get to Alan Moore’s version, in my opinion) is almost entirely unnecessary to the story Nolan obviously wanted to tell.

    But the thing is I know that, while there were hundreds of people that worked on that film, the situations and constraints on those people were entirely different from, say, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland for The Killing Joke. All Bolland and Moore had to worry about were Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano saying something couldn’t happen, and Denny O’Neil was no Jim Shooter when it came to riding down the wishes of creators.

    As you point out, movies cost a lot of money and have a lot of expectations for return on that investment. But, even with those constraints, there’s a world of difference between the Nick Fury in the Marvel movies (a real, fully fleshed-out character) as opposed to the cardboard cutout David Hasselhoff was supposed to play.

    I was no fan of Man of Steel (I share both of your disdains for “grim and gritty”, New 52-ish stories), but I greatly appreciate how it seems to be spawning an entire universe. And how the fact that they made Lois very similar to the annoying Lois of yesteryear was something I found endearing.

    My point is that there has been a progression in the complexity and depth of TV and movies based on successful comic book properties (Big 2 and Image). And that has largely (to my experience) been a good thing.

    It’s funny you bring up Burton’s Batman. When that movie came out, it was my first summer working my first job–an usher at a movie theater. I saw that movie the night before it opened at an employee screening. Now, I’d read a bit of the Neil Adams/Jim Aparo Batman of the 70s/early 80s, but hadn’t picked up a comic book in more than a decade at that point.

    I loved that movie–loved it so much that I rode the wave of the 90s comic book explosion. But I didn’t like ANY of the sequels. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman was great, but DeVito’s penguin? They all were style over substance–flash over plot.

    But here’s the thing–I stopped collecting comics shortly afterward for exactly the same reason. My goal in watching a movie (and in reading a comic) is the story. Or the characters.

    A comic book is like sedimentary rock. Through the writing and art, you can see traces of the environment with each layer. Here is where Jim Shooter comes in to make strangely misogynistic overtones. There is when Geoff Johns decides that the Silver Age characters of his youth take precedence over the more recent characters that have developed their own following.

    But a movie is more like a magical moment. Vonnegut, in Sirens of Titan, referenced the original definition of “punctual” as referring to a single point in time. A movie’s like Vonnegut’s punctual Winston Niles Rumfoord–existing in a series of single moments. Each movie exists due to a particular writer getting together with a particular director getting together with a particular producer, on and on all the way down to the Best Boy Grip. And even when those particular people get together, it only works when the money people see a desire in the marketplace that isn’t being served, or when someone is passionate enough about something to take a chance.

    When it all goes wrong, we get Batman & Robin. When it goes right, we get Batman.

    But when we have all of those odds against us, the world we have right now, with Walking Dead, Constantine, Flash, Gotham, Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and everything that’s coming, looks pretty awesome from my perspective. They’re not perfect, but they are WAY better than ninja Daredevil on The Hulk.

    Thanks again for your response.

    • Jeff Lester Nov 25, 2014

      Thanks for such a sensible and enjoyably written response, Chris.

      I dug reading it and wish I could respond at length right now if only so I could claim a “mea culpa” on the Transformers films–I actually have very little knowledge of the original cartoons or comics but have a lot of respect for the fans of same and am aware they consider Bay’s approach more or less horrific. I’d like to get to it, but even if I don’t I want to thank you again for your original comment and this great follow-up.