X-Men 2, Daredevil, & The Hulk
At the very end of Brian Singer's second X-Men movie, X2: XMen Unlimited, comes a moment that is entirely sublime to those of us who grew up on comics, most especially on the X-Men comic and the other productions of the Marvel group, and entirely mystifying to anyone else. Jean Gray, the telekinetic Marvel Girl, has given her life to save her friends, a group of young mutants, and the two men who love her have been seen stifling both their manly grief and their deep mutual dislike. On the face of the waters where she drowned there appears for a second what might be merely a flash of light, or might be the shape of a bird. In cinemas, one half of the audience sighs deeply; and the other half doesn't.
This is because those who read comics know that continuity is being, in essentials, followed, and that the flash of light is a hint of Jean's eventual return as the Phoenix; the sigh is because all too soon, she drifts to become a force of amoral destruction as the Dark Phoenix. She dies heroically, but the power that brings her back is more than she can control. Even though later writers and artists tried to take it back, it is one of the authentic moments of tragedy in a popular art form in which the tragic only occasionally rings true. Singer, himself someone soaked deeply in this material, is at once too much an artist and too much a fan, not to allude to the bittersweet inevitability that he may or may not actually film later in the franchise.
The forty years or so that most of the major Marvel titles have been appearing monthly on newsstands ensures that all of them have associated with them iconic moments that matter deeply to those of us who grew up with them. Perhaps they do not matter as much to us as Lear on the heath, or Emma snubbing Miss Bates, but they are as important as Holmes and Moriarty going together over the Reichenbach falls. When they turn up as moments in big, blockbusting movies, it is a minimum requirement that the movies honour the emotional truth of those moments; movies and comics both trade in dreams and need to deal honestly with their audiences.
It is not always so, even when the film overtly copies specific images. The unsatisfactory Ben Affleck Daredevil includes a moment important to anyone who followed the adventures of the blind vigilante lawyer during its finest hour - the period when Frank Miller was writing it. Electra (Jennifer Garner), the disturbed father-obsessed woman assassin whom Daredevil loves, fights and is beaten and killed by the even more competent assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell). He flicks a playing card which cuts her throat, and then impales her on her own trident. Her wounded lover crouches over her dying body as sirens wail in the distance.
In the original, her death was a deliberately shocking image. Miller intended it to be read specifically as a sexualised killing of a kind that the heavily censored comics industry rarely allowed. By specifically copying the image and dialogue that were once shocking, director Mark Steven Johnson weakens the moment's effect; it is the fact that he has copied it so precisely that we notice, not its power to shock.
The problem is Affleck - Garner has some of the right mad intensity and Farrell almost exactly the demon-king brutal deftness. Daredevil has always been the most interior of comic-book superheroes - in Miller's hands, each issue was an extended soliloquy of straining muscles and Catholic guilt - and Affleck and Johnson give us almost nothing of that inwardness. Having your hero repeat, with varying degrees of conviction. 'I'm not the bad guy' is so much less subtle than the best of the material they were drawing on as to be almost laughable.
This is a particular example of a more general issue about filmed comic books - it is almost too easy at this point to put on the screen what we saw on the garishly printed page and only by making it difficult again is it ever going to work as well as it once did. Some of the best Daredevil artists - Romita and Colan - were working for a writer, Stan Lee, Marvel's Diaghilev, who would give them a scenario and then add script to their drawings. At their best, the scenes, often using radical revisions of the standard comic-book grid, of Daredevil moving silently through the city he protects have a fluid grace that supersedes, rather than imitates, a sense of real elapsed time. Those still moments of motion though were the product of hours at a drawing board and the exercise of real skill.
To imitate that grace, but not the sense of effort that lies behind it, is always going to end up looking cheap. It is almost too easy to produce a CGI version of your hero and set him swinging from virtual building to virtual building. Significantly, one of the few really effective moments of Daredevil is the scene where his hero and doomed heroine meet cute and a brash pickup, politely resisted, turns into a mutual display of martial arts skill as mating ritual - the stars fake it a bit, with wire work and stunt doubles, but there is actual flesh actually straining.
Singer relies on CGI far more sparingly and less obviously in the X-movies. When the teleporting midnight blue be-tailed Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings) raids the Oval Office, he flashes in and out of space so vigorously that the Secret Servicemen, and at least one eminent movie critic, think that there are several of him. Singer does not make the magic of superpowers look easy, and that is why his movies work. When Sir Ian McKellen, as the villainous Magneto, pulls the iron out of a victim's blood and uses it to smash holes in his prison, the actor makes it look hard and spends as much skill on portraying the strain of mental muscles as he does on the character's complex motivation.
It is not just that Singer loves the material, it is that he respects it and the processes of its production, and knows enough to let well alone. Marvel's were always the hip politically liberal comics; the material about mutants was always intended as a parable about the consequences of bigotry for us all. Magneto is an interesting villain because he is a terrorist responding in kind to the violence levelled at his people - the comics always had as a subtext the possibility that he was right.
Ang Lee's The Hulk is almost a fine film, though it has largely failed at the American box office by comparison with, say, Singer's two films or Sam Raimi's Spider Man. Part of the problem is that the monstrous alter ego of his hero Bruce Banner is entirely CGI. The technology used - which draws on and distorts Eric Bana's features and the director's face-pulling - is inferior to that which mapped Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Two Towers on every last twitch of Andy Serkis's performance and we are not yet ready for an entirely virtual protagonist. Oddly, the Hulk's galumphing leaps across the landscape are something that CGI can do well; that, and showing him smashing things.
Ang Lee understands that the resonance of the Hulk comes from the fact that he is at once the werewolf, Frankenstein's monster and King Kong. He is the creature of violence that bursts from the id of an ordinary man; he is the creature made by science; he has as his main weakness his love for a woman. Jennifer Connolly does an admirable job of updating heroine Betty Ross - here Banner's fellow scientist - and Sam Elliott is extraordinary as her obsessional father, General 'Thunderbolt' Ross.
For Ang Lee, this is also a tale of fathers - an issue that obsesses him - and he rewrites the Hulk's back story so that the creature is produced by a mixture of Banner and Betty's work on medical nano-technology and ante-natal genetic manipulation of the young Bruce by his disturbed murderous father (Nick Nolte). Accordingly, the Hulk is not merely an expression of an average man's suppressed rage, but the instrument of his equally brilliant father's murderous spite.
This is interesting enough in itself as a revision of the comic's version of the Origin Story that it might have worked. The final confrontation, in which father and son have both become monstrous, lacks both that fine brutal madness that Stan Lee would have brought to it back in his heyday and that particular poetry which Ang Lee himself brought alike to the domestic drama of The Ice Storm and the aestheticized mayhem of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the end, The Hulk does not work, but not for lack of skill or lack of intelligence or lack of love for the material, proving that it is as hard to adapt the textured resonances of forty years of a comic book's continuity as it is any other literary source.