Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movies for the Armchair Adventurer

After a friend and I had a themed movie night a while back, we decide it would be good to try another themed movie weekend. This time my friend thought up the theme of movies based on comic books/graphic novels. Once again, we had a long list of possibilities and only made it through a handful of these. Below is the list as well as descriptions/thoughts on the ones we did watch, which are indicated with an asterisk.

(Note: this is by no means an inclusive list of all the movies made based on comic books, just some of the ones we were more interested in seeing.)

Batman (1989)
Batman Begins
Batman Returns
Captain America: The First Avenger
Dick Tracy
The Dark Knight
The Incredibles*
Iron Man 1 & 2
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World*
Sin City*
The Spirit
Superman Returns
Tales of the Black Freighter
Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles
V for Vendetta
X-Men: First Class*

^Okay, you got me, these two aren’t actually based on comic books, but they are action/adventure/sci-fi/practically superheroes so I felt I could add them to the list. Plus they helped to make up for the dearth of female leads in many of the other movies.


Basic plot: When assassins come after retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), he’s determined to figure out why he’s suddenly on someone’s hit list. He culls resources from some fellow retiree spies (played by Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren) to get to the bottom of this mystery. Along for the ride is Frank’s brand-new love interest, Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into by befriending the lonely Moses.

Think of just about any Bruce Willis action flick you’ve ever seen and you’ve got down about half the make-up of RED (which incidentally stands for “retired and extremely dangerous”). Bruce Willis is the biggest baddest guy in town with unlimited supplies of ammo, who always manages to stay pretty much unscathed despite an hour and half worth of brutal encounters versus sundry assailants. Fortunately, the other half of the make-up of RED is comic one-liners and scenarios, most often at the hands of Helen Mirren and Mary Louise Parker. They definitely made the movie sparkle, in my opinion. John Malkovich’s paranoid character with his conspiracy theories was also fairly amusing at times. Overall, this is an entertaining escapist film, but don’t expect much more from it than that.

X-Men: First Class

Basic plot: Newly minted professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is sought out by the CIA for his knowledge of genetic mutations and begins using his ability to read minds to become a recruiter of other mutants, including his “sister” Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Erik Lehnsherr, later known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The CIA needs this class of mutants to help defeat the nefarious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his gang of mutants before they cause World War III.

The X-Men franchise (both the books and movies) are interesting to me, but I’m not hardcore about them. I’ve read a couple of books here and there, and I’ve partially seen some of the prior movies, but I’m certainly no expert on the X-Men universe. There were probably tons of inside references that went over my head in watching this movie. But, I found enjoyable all the same. X-Men: First Class, while having an adventure of its own, is basically an origins movie about how these characters came to be who they are.

Most interesting to me in that respect was the back story for Magneto, who we see first as a child and then later as a comrade of Professor X although the two will later become enemies as anyone with some knowledge of the X-Men universe knows. Michael Fassbender, who is increasingly becoming an actor on my radar for his impressive talent, does an excellent job bringing this character to life. James McAvoy as Professor X is also top-notch, as I was predicting based on his past performances. Everyone else involved in the production play their roles well, but these two particularly stand out above the rest.

I’m always pleased by the X-Men franchise’s themes of evolution and what it means to be human, and this movie was no exception. There was one montage section on the mutants’ training where I didn’t like how the director chose to do sliding boxes of quickly changing scenes, but otherwise this movie was well done all around.

The Incredibles

Basic plot: After some unfortunate events, superheroes are banned from their vigilante work and must make their secret identities their only identities. Some have a harder time than others accepting this, including Mr. Incredible who toils away at an insurance firm while he, his wife, and their three children do their best to hide their secret powers from the world. So when an opportunity arises for Mr. Incredible to use his powers in a clandestine operation, he is more than happy to agree. Little does he know he’s just played himself into an old enemy’s hands and it will take all his powers – and all of his family’s super powers – to survive this latest adventure.

Because it was so late in the evening by the time we started this one, we both ended up falling asleep fairly early on. But I’ve seen this movie numerous times before, and I love it. It has the charm of other Disney-Pixar movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., combining adventure, touching moments, kids’ humor, and the occasional adult audience-intended joke. In fact, this is probably one of my favorite Disney-Pixar movies, making it among the cream of the crop. (For the record, it ties with Monsters, Inc., another movie that I just love beyond words.) There are so many wonderful scenes like Helen’s visit to costume designer Edna Mode, when the Incredible family teams up for the first time on the island, or how Jack Jack’s powers become apparent. I could go on, but it’s better if you just watch the movie yourself. :)

And, yes, I realize this one isn't really based on a comic book either, but the superhero theme clearly fits and the movie ended up spawning a comic book series later, so that's good enough for me!


Basic plot: In the wilderness of Finland, former CIA asset Erik Heller (Eric Bana) strictly trains his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) to become an assassin bent on destroying Heller’s former handler Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). When the time comes for this mission, however, things don’t go quite as planned and Hanna is left crossing countries on her own in an attempt to stay one step ahead of those trying to kill her.

This movie features three excellent actors who all brought their A game to the production. It’s a visually appealing movie, with some very interesting camera work as well as some beautiful scenic places as part of the setting. There are parts when the movie seems a bit slow for an action movie, but when the action does come it is hardcore, including thumping music (provided by The Chemical Brothers) and some funky lighting. (For the latter, you might just have to see it to know what I mean.) While it’s an overall dark movie, there’s some funny moments when Hanna goes out into the world for the first time and is baffled by things like electricity. This is further compounded when she spends some time with a vacationing family, who has some quirks of their own. (The delightful Olivia Williams plays the mother with some unique ideas.)

Beyond its action aspects, the movie also has some science fiction elements. These introduce deeper questions to be explored, although the movie does not do much to tackle this exploration itself. I also enjoyed the visual symbolism (even if it was a bit heavy-handed), such as the prominent ads for glasses and graffiti about CCTV at a time when Erik is being watched and closed in on, Marissa coming out of the big bad wolf’s mouth at the Grimm’s fairy tales amusement park, etc. Without going into any spoilers, I wasn’t thrilled with the very end of the movie, but overall I thought this was a well-done film.

Sin City

Basic plot: Based on some of the Frank Miller’s comics of the same name, this movie contains three distinct plots dealing with the criminal underbelly of Basin City. The first follows the story from The Hard Goodbye where former criminal Marv (Mickey Rourke) loses it after his one-night stand lover Goldie (Jaime King) is murdered while lying next to him and he goes on a spree to find her killer. Meanwhile, with The Big Fat Kill as a basis, Dwight (Clive Owen) and the prostitutes of Old Town have to fend off corrupt cops and the mob from trying to take over. Based on That Yellow Bastard, the final story revolves around honest cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and his attempts to keep safe young Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) from the Roark family and their twisted pastimes. (Inexplicably, this last storyline is broken up so that it bookends the movie while the other two are played out one after the other.)

When this movie first came out (which was long before I read the books), I was interested in seeing it based on the cinematography and its stellar cast. For the former, the movie retains some of its comic book feel and is filmed in black and white with spot coloring of red and yellow. For the latter, not only does it include the people listed above but also Brittany Murphy, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and even a guest appearance from Frank Miller himself.

However, one of the reasons I did not watch this movie when it first came out was that I thought it would be far too violent for me. Having read all the books later, I was even more wary of the potential blood bath, but reading the series also made me more interested to see the movie. Alas, I was right that the movie was pretty much a non-stop violence fest (albeit, the same could be said for the other movies in this post, but this one really upped the ante for gore), although I must say it did not deviate from the books in this respect. However, the black and white filming helped make the violence somewhat more palatable by being able to portray pools of blood in white rather than red – a little trick that helps the mind deal with it better. Still, seeing someone’s hand blown off or head severed is a bit much no matter how you put it, and I think it’s worse in movie form than in stylized illustrations.

Likewise, the movie did not deviate from the books when it came to portraying all the women of Sin City as scantily clad (read barely clothed) or nude, no matter how ridiculous it was for them to be so in the given situation. Again, this is somehow more acceptable in a graphic novel than when dealing with actual breathing, moving people.

To sum up as best as I can, this movie is a truthful adaptation of three books in the Sin City series, a unique work of cinematography, a bloody gory mess, and an interesting puzzle as to how so many big Hollywood names could flock to a fairly shallow movie (the promise of working with Quentin Tarantino?). There’s two more Sin City movies planned based on other books in the series, but I’m not so sure I would check them out…

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Basic plot: After meeting Ramona, the girl of his dreams, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) learns that not only must he try to woo Ramona but he also has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

After watching a couple of heavy movies there in a row, we decided to lighten things up a little with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. In this fantastical story, imagery is based not only on comic books but also video games. Similar to Sin City, this makes for a unique cinematographic effect. The movie is very funny, although it also gets more than a little absurd at times.


  1. Ditto on your X-Men comments. A good franchise indeed, with the third movie (X-Men: Last Stand) being somewhat of an exception (just not as good as the first two movies). I really want to get into the graphic novels. I have a few of the series that's written by Joss Whedon, but haven't delved into them yet.

    As for Scott Pilgrim, I'd saw "a little absurd" is a bit of an understatement :)

  2. Yeah, there's just so many books it's hard to know where to start.

    Haha, yes that's true but I didn't want to sound like I was knocking the movie. It was silly, but still good.