With a season crammed full of super-types and comic book influenced movies on the horizon, Starz Productions' new cable documentary, Comic Books Unbound, was inevitable. A one-hour glide through the history of comic book movies, the Richard Roeper-narrated Unbound takes us from the earliest half-baked Hollywood attempts to cash in on comics to an era where they're, as producer Michael Uslan puts it, "the most important talent pool for movies."
The first big-screen adaptations in the forties betrayed the then-current perception that comics were first and foremost kids' fare. Both Superman and Batman, the template comic book costume heroes, were featured in low-budget serials that barely took advantage of the characters' fantastic elements: "a lotta car chases and people being thrown over tables." The fifties and sixties weren't much better - the kids' matinee approach being replaced by the condescending campiness of the Batman teleseries and Roger Vadim's Barbarella. It wasn't until the big-budget special effects flick came into its own in the late seventies that comic book movies slowly began to take hold, starting with the same big company superhero names who'd been in the earlier serials - with Richard Donner's 1978 Superman and Tim Burton's 1989 Batman - movies that purported to treat their material straight ("You'll believe a man can fly!") but still hedged their bets by tossing a smidgen of camp humor into the mix.
To the documentary's credit, Unbound also takes note of non-superhero graphic novels as a source for strong movie material (the ruefully comic adaptation of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, Dan Clowes' angst-y Ghost World, A History of Violence, Persepolis), even digging back into the underground era to resurrect Ralph Bakshi's 1972 animated adaptation of Fritz the Cat. Frank Miller emerges as the big name here - for Sin City and 300, of course, but also as the visual source for Burton's first Batman movie. (We're told, perhaps apocryphally, that Burton took Miller's The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel from studio department to studio department to show the look he wanted on the picture.) Still, because superhero flicks are where the big money is, the documentary's prime focus remains on Men (and the occasional Woman) in Tights.