Sometimes, the safe choice is the risky choice. Hollywood has learned that, for the time being at least, comic-book movies are gold. After the disastrous performance of 1997's Batman and Robin, movie studios turned away from comics. Then Avi Arad came to power at Marvel, the giant comic publisher, and embarked on a campaign to woo them back.
Arad's first Hollywood co-production, X-Men, was released in 2000 with much success. (Arad's first comic-book movie was actually the 1998 Blade, but while it was based on a Marvel character, it wasn't a Marvel Studios production.) With the box-office performance of X-Men ($296 million in worldwide receipts versus production costs of only $75 million), the floodgates opened. Since then Arad has pushed Marvel characters onto the screen at an impressive rate: Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), X-Men 2 (2003), Hulk (2003), and The Punisher (more on this below).
The properties brought to market by Arad have fared well. So well, in fact, that for the first time moviemakers have felt daring enough to look outside the big-time titles to lesser known comics. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was put on film in 2003 with a sizable budget, making it more of a gamble than the tiny indie comic movies Ghost World (2000) and American Splendor (2003). League was based on a little-known book and opened to poor reviews, yet still managed a respectable showing, making $179 million worldwide. Comics were, it appeared, a sure thing. Even with a big budget, even with obscure source material, even when the movies themselves stunk.
Into this atmosphere was born Hellboy, a staple of independent Dark Horse comics since 1994 (although the character Hellboy made a brief appearance in 1993). Written and drawn by Mike Mignola, the comic book Hellboy was a strange cross -- Men in Black meets Ambush Bug meets Kolchak the Night Stalker. The character became a cult favorite and attracted the attention of director Guillermo del Toro, who was finishing work on Blade II. Del Toro penned a screen adaptation of Hellboy, was handed a $60 million budget, and went to work on a big, special-effects laden movie about a superhero almost no one in America had ever heard of. Yet to the Hollywood suits, the project probably didn't look like much of a risk -- after all, they must have thought with satisfaction, Hellboy is based on a comic book!
This is what they've gotten themselves into: In 1944 the war was going badly for Hitler. The Führer immersed himself in the occult in an attempt to open a gateway to hell and bring back demon warriors. Surprised by a group of American G.I.'s, Hitler's plan was foiled and the gateway closed, except for one small, red demon who made it across to our world. The demon was taken in by the Americans.
Nicknamed Hellboy, the demon grows up to be a 6'5" behemoth with horns, a barrel chest, and one gigantic stone hand. He's also a good egg and something of a wise guy. Hellboy works for the FBI's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense -- his job is to work with straight-laced G-men to keep tabs on the things that go bump in the night.
It's not as glamorous as it sounds. Played with quiet, suffering genius by Ron Perlman, Hellboy is given more life on screen than any superhero in recent memory. Perlman's performance is really quite exceptional: Doing a slow burn he serves as his own straight man. There is something hysterically funny and genuinely touching about watching a gigantic, red, horned demon lugging his frame across the screen with petulance and self-pity, staring heavenward when confronted with a monster and muttering, in a deep, put-upon voice, "Aww, crap."
In fact, the business Perlman does with Hellboy is so good, so funny and satisfying, that it very nearly ruins the rest of the film. When Hellboy's human FBI agent / minder begins flirting the his love interest, the big, red demon gets obsessive and morose. When the FBI unit chief who serves as his father catches Hellboy smoking a stogie, he sneakily tucks his hand behind his back to hide the cigar. And it all makes sense: As one FBI agent explains, Hellboy may be 60, but in demon years he's only in his early 20s, and it shows.
While Hellboy isn't the most accessible movie, it has many rewards, not the least of which is an offbeat, unexpected sense of style and charm. Unfortunately, the third act falls flat as it succumbs to the mandatory battle-for-the-fate-of-the-planet. We've seen that before. What we haven't seen is a world-weary, monster-hunting demon trying to get his job done, make eyes at the girl, and slip out for a six-pack of Bud every once in a while. Del Toro would have done better to give us a smaller movie where Hellboy could be Sam Spade instead of Superman.
The other comic book movie of the moment is The Punisher. A Marvel character, the Punisher is, at best, a third-tier hero. The movie version due out on April 16 tells the story of super government agent Frank Castle (played by Thomas Jane), who has recently retired from a life of undercover work. An organized crime boss with a vendetta orders a massacre of Castle's entire extended family. Castle is left for dead, but miraculously survives and becomes a vigilante known, in the title credits, anyway, as the Punisher.
Rated a hard R, The Punisher feels like a retread -- Kill Bill without the style, Rambo without the novelty, A Man Apart without Vin Diesel. Dreary and unpleasant, there's no sense of fun and no larger themes. And comic books without a moral center are just bad pulp.
But while most of The Punisher's problems have to do with its source material, a goodly number of them come from the film's execution. The camerawork is mundane, the score terrible, and the performances often tone deaf. Thomas Jane's work in Boogie Nights, *61, and even Deep Blue Sea speaks for itself, yet in The Punisher he feels as though he's acting in a different movie than his co-stars. While it's difficult to say whether this Punisher is worse than the 1989 direct-to-video version, the best that can be said of Jane's performance is that it betters the mark set back then by Dolph Lundgren.
Not all of which comes as a surprise. The press materials cheerfully explain that The Punisher marks the directorial debut of Jonathan Hensleigh, who wrote the screenplays for Armageddon and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Who knew movies like that had screenplays?
An origin movie with no sequel in its future, the final, iconic shot of Jane standing on a bridge conjures the uncomfortable memory of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.
It also conjures an uncomfortable premonition: Because of the success of comic-book movies, we're going to have to sit through more of these bottom-feeder titles. Ghost Rider and Elektra loom on the horizon. Early reports suggest that Catwoman -- Halle Berry! Whips! Claws! -- may be in the running for worst comic-book movie ever. But until comic-book movies start losing money, they'll be a safe choice for studio executives. Before too long we'll have the Silver Surfer teaming up with Dollman; perhaps someday Starro will merit his own spin-off.
As Hellboy would say, "Aww, crap."
Jonathan V. Last is online editor at The Weekly Standard.