January 20, 2005
Guilty Pleasure and Pain: Josh Jabcuga took in a screening of ELEKTRA this past weekend, and it left him wondering if the comic book-to-film genre is really as dead as so many are fearing.
ELEKTRA earned a paltry $12.5 million and fifth place in its debut weekend at the box office. Starlet Jennifer Garner, as the lead, got trounced, and Marvel Comics took one on the chin. Quite a few box office analysts, movie critics, and arm chair quarterbacks are pointing to the sky, not to proclaim a Superman sighting, but to be the first to get credit in the theory that the sky is falling, that is, the bottom is giving out on the comics-to-film genre. Comic creators and fans are fearful that they’ll be regarded as outsiders once again, and that those in the movie biz may be a little leery of inviting them back into their homes.
That whiff of a rotting corpse is getting ever stronger. It’s not victory that the insiders claim to smell. No, that stench, and what they say it represents, is a genre that has outstayed its welcome, rotten to the core. In other words, true believers, they’re convinced that Hollywood can no longer rely on comic book-to-film adaptations to score big bank on opening weekend.
All roads lead to ELEKTRA. (Some would argue that the final nail will be this summer’s tent pole FANTASTIC FOUR.) Was ELEKTRA’s performance this past weekend reason enough for studio execs to stop green-lighting comic book scripts and think twice about snatching up every comic book property under the sun? Like everything, it’s all in your perception. As Scott McCloud stated in the indispensable UNDERSTANDING COMICS: THE INVISIBLE ART, more in regard to the comics medium than movies, but it applies here as well, “Ignorance and short-sighted business practices will no doubt obscure the possibilities of comics from time to time as they always have.” Indeed, maybe the studios need to hand out copies of UNDERSTANDING COMICS to their executives.
Marvel’s not off the hook here either. Perhaps, in addition to studying McCloud’s book, Marvel should be providing those screenwriters responsible for the comic-to-film adaptations with copies of their own respective books. Did anyone involved with ELEKTRA peruse the source material? Same goes for the abysmal THE PUNISHER from last year. Lots of great material to be had there, and all the film studios had to do was follow the blueprints. Sounds like a no-brainer to me. Is this simply, or not-so-simply, a case of ignorance and short-sighted business practices, the exact kind spoken of by McCloud?
ELEKTRA, THE PUNISHER, BLADE 3, and DAREDEVIL are not the Four Horsemen of the comics-to-movie genre’s apocalypse. The truth, or my take on it at least, is that moviegoers aren’t turning their backs on comics-to-film adaptations; they’re simply avoiding, at best, mediocre movies, which happen to be originating from the comics genre.
The solution is not in ordering the euthanasia of quote-unquote comic book movies across the board, but by actually producing quality projects, and following through on them. No one would argue the high points of Bryan Singer’s X-MEN entries or Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN films. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two best films adapted from Marvel’s books are also their highest grossing (Character popularity plays a role, surely). And while those are “A-list” properties that are carefully guarded by Marvel, do the characters who occupy the lower end of Marvel’s roster deserve anything less, these “B-or-C-list” characters like DAREDEVIL or ELEKTRA? I suppose only if the players involved are trying to set themselves up for failure.
I don’t buy for a minute the old Hollywood saying that goes, “No one tries to make a shitty movie.” I’ve never once believed that. That’s happy Hollywood horseshit. Maybe they’re not intentionally trying to release shitty movies or sabotage everyone’s careers, but after seeing the results of several projects, it’s hard to believe that the people responsible for certain films tried at all.
ELEKTRA is a unique species, even for a comic book-to-film adaptation. Many regard DAREDEVIL as a second tier Marvel Comics property. That certainly doesn’t mean DAREDEVIL lacks any of the incredible storytelling that SPIDER-MAN or X-MEN possess in their backlogs. Anyone that thinks otherwise has never read Frank Miller. I think we could all find some middle ground in the notion that maybe DAREDEVIL isn’t a household name like SPIDER-MAN has been for decades, or like the X-MEN have become largely since the 90s, characters that transcended over into mainstream popularity. So we have the character of ELEKTRA, an off-shoot from the DAREDEVIL books, who is a “B list” hero. It’s a tough sell by any standards.
I’m not exceptionally well versed in the DAREDEVIL mythology, I’ll have to admit. I know the basics, I’ve read the milestone books, but I never followed it obsessively the way I did the SPIDER-MAN books when I was in grammar school, or the BATMAN books when I was a teen. I know ELEKTRA’s story, at least I think I do, and I hoped I possessed a firm enough grasp on her motivations and origins to be able to follow along while watching the character’s big screen debut without getting lost.
Going in I had the lowest possible expectations, probably a result of not hearing or reading a single positive review. You didn’t have to be blind, pardon the DAREDEVIL-related pun, to see this film had real stinker potential. In the very least, it did have Jennifer Garner in tight outfits doing all sorts of karate kicks, so I was in, negative reviews be damned.
Sadly, ELEKTRA gave me little more than what I expected, although, to be fair, Garner was every bit the eye-candy that I wanted her to be. Latent teenage hormones aside, this film came across as being undercooked. Was it a mess? No, no it wasn’t. There was nothing about this film that was overly embarrassing, to cast, crew, or casual fans alike (diehard fans may disagree), or would warrant certain key participants from leaving it off their IMDB résumés, unlike last year’s THE PUNISHER. Now that film, that was a real steaming pile, missing its target by a mile, redeemed only by the left-field casting choice of THOMAS JANE, who ironically saved the film as nobly as anyone could hope for, with his solitary brooding and unflinching commitment to the character. ELEKTRA, though, what hurts the most about that film is she coulda been a contender. It was all there…almost.
People are going to look to the casting first when pointing fingers and placing blame. So let’s examine the choice of Jennifer Garner in the titular role (Yes, let’s do). For her supporting role as the same character in DAREDEVIL, she was commendable, conveying the push-and-pull, hide-and-seek, love-and-lust between her character and Ben Affleck’s blind-lawyer-by-day-vigilante-by-night hero. They perfectly captured the heat between those two characters. The pair’s chemistry, apparently, was more than just an act, so says the tabloids.
During the screening, my girlfriend remarked: “She cries too much, even for a girl.” And she is supposed to be an assassin, isn’t she? Regardless, to the dismay of all those out there that want to pin this movie’s failure on Garner, I’m sorry to break it to you, but she was fine. Better than fine, she gave a solid, multifaceted performance. I didn’t find it “wooden,” as others described it. She was an assassin; if anything, she showed too much emotion. Ultimately, I would have been more intrigued had the studio cast a complete unknown in the role, maybe even a non actress who had previously made her mark in the world of mixed-martial arts. It might have put more emphasis on the character and not on the chick playing the character, since critics are prone to take cheap shots at actors based not on their performances but on their lives outside the movies (see also: Ben Affleck).
As it is, ELEKTRA is a good straight-to-video release. As a theatrical release, this one ain’t gonna fly, and it obviously didn’t. If not to Garner, though, where does the trail of blood lead? Straight to the writers, true believers. There are several key plot points, or potential key plot points, that pop up but never receive their just due. For one, ELEKTRA’s resurrection was never sufficiently explained. She was at one time dead, right? And now she’s alive, I think, and has some cool tricks up her sleeve that living, breathing assassins wouldn’t be able to carry off, like vanishing and then suddenly reappearing in front of their foes. The explanation given for her return from the dead was just some mythical martial arts mumble jumble, something mentioned more in passing than anything else, about her being brought back thanks to her mentor’s magic prowess. Her sensei is the blind Stick, played by Terence Stamp, in the first entry of 2005 for waste-of-a-good-talent-in-a-film award (not to mention the cool Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa who stops by to, well, read a few lines and little more).
There’s also a bit about ELEKTRA suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a really great touch, if only it had been played up more. Perhaps it was ELEKTRA’s anguish in her role in life as a murderer manifesting itself in the form of OCDs, but this was probably lost on most people, including the film’s director. (And which would also help explain why, according to the astute observation of my girlfriend, “She cries too much, even for a girl.” The girl needs some Paxil, that’s all.)
Without giving away any spoilers, the plot involved ELEKTRA protecting a child prodigy from the diabolical ranks of “the Hand,” a collection of martial arts-type rogues with cool names like, uh, “Tattoo” and “Stone.” In case you haven’t guessed, “Tattoo” is covered with ink, and upon self-meditation, the various tattoos on his body, snakes and birds and such, come to life at his command, ready to prey upon ELEKTRA and her friends.
The film was directed by the as-yet-unproven Rob Bowman, who did the 2002 Matthew McConaughey vehicle REIGN OF FIRE. Bowman has a nice visual flair, and things never really veered off into the dreaded music video territory that DAREDEVIL languished in. Still, with all the martial arts-type mythology at play in the script, I can’t help but think that CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON’s Ang Lee would have been a much better match for the source material here than for his existentialist heap of crap take on THE HULK. Obviously given the ranking of ELEKTRA on the company’s roster, fans should have been happy that a film was made at all. Expecting a top tier auteur would have been asking a little too much.
The plot conjured up by Raven Metzner (one writer behind the proposed DEATHLOK film), Zak Penn (writing credits include X2 and…LAST ACTION HERO), and Stu Zicherman (the other half of the DEATHLOK writing duo) was serviceable at best. It reminded me of one of those summer comic book annuals that Marvel produced when I was a kid, offering a story that was entertaining but in no ways earth-shattering if you skipped it (they were usually priced a couple bucks more than the regular monthly titles were, and usually filled to the gills with fluff like pin-ups featuring the hero in “action poses” and stories that never affected regular continuity).
It wasn’t the plot so much that turned me off here. The antagonists, those villains with the lame names like “Tattoo”, may have been the biggest contributors to the film’s demise. To root for the heroes, audiences need them to be challenged by effective villains, with something worthy at stake, right? It’s storytelling 101.
Yet I was never really left with the feeling that “the Hand” were all that terrible, or even worthy of being foils. As a matter of fact, ELEKTRA dishes out a couple of broken necks to her foes, and that came across as more menacing than anything “the Hand” were responsible for. Sure, they wanted to get their, uh, hands on the prodigious teen that ELEKTRA was protecting. There just wasn’t enough there for me to care about the outcome, though. Maybe if I saw “the Hand” kill some puppies or something, but as it stood, the worst crime they committed was in their acceptance of cheesy nicknames.
Perhaps the film was destined for mediocrity from the get-go, commercially and critically. It features a story best suited for a thirteen-year-old audience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Last time I checked, it was okay for kids to like comics. Adults don’t have to have all the fun. And with something like THE INCREDIBLES, which was essentially sold as a kiddy picture, there was enough talent and craftsmanship on display there to allow for anyone to enjoy it. However, with a female in the lead in ELEKTRA, I’m thinking the studio is cutting down on half its potential audience.
Don't misunderstand me, please. I’m not saying young girls don’t read comic books or see comic book-inspired movies; quite the contrary. It’s my belief that females would see a comic book film regardless of whether or not the lead character was male or female. I think young males, though, might be a little less tolerant of taking such a leap and more discerning with their dollars. Young teenage males don’t get the same adrenaline rush that women get (or adult men might get) from seeing another woman kick someone’s ass. Instead they feel a little threatened, and perhaps inadequate because of their own insecurities. And isn’t that half the draw, the ability for thirteen-year-old male comic book readers to live vicariously through the actions of their heroes?
DAREDEVIL doesn't even make an appearance in the film, and the much-rumored flashback with Ben Affleck was chopped out at the last minute for fear of GIGLI-itis. Casual moviegoers and comics fans might have avoided this film entirely, fearing they were not in sync enough with the ELEKTRA's origins and motives to get a grasp on the movie. The filmmakers largely ignored the character’s heritage, comic book roots, or mainly glossed over them, so it really wasn't an issue. So why even sell it as a Marvel movie? Why make it at all? If the filmmakers were simply trying to go with the vibe of LA FEMME NIKITA or ALIAS, then go that route, and drop any connection to the comic books. There might have been more takers. It’s sort of an all or nothing deal in my eyes.
I attended the film on Saturday evening, and the theater was filled with a total of ten people. Clearly, something somewhere went awry in the handling of this film. Were people skipping it because it was a comic book movie? Probably not. They could tell from the trailer that it just wasn’t worth their time or money.
Now what of these people claiming ELEKTRA killed the market for comic book films? You don’t fault a successful genre because of one or even ten poorly made films. You fault the business for its ignorance and short-sighted practices, as Mr. McCloud says. And these days, that business is just as much about making good comic books as it is about turning them into good comic movies.
Praise for the writing of Josh Jabcuga, who pens Squib Central, published every Thursday, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com:
“Josh Jabcuga can take the 26 measly letters of our crude alphabet and capture the bi-polar soul of all that is classically yet disturbingly American. Then, when his typewriter is left to cool, he can turn right around…completely ready to trounce any drunk punk that’s got me backed into a corner.” –The Colonel J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack*Shakers.
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