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.
Thus, we get an amusing recounting of Marvel's first floundering stabs at getting its characters transformed into movie heroes: the notorious Roger Corman low-budget Fantastic Four ("Probably the most wretched film ever made," comic artist and commentator Jim Steranko says), as well as the Captain America in a motorcycle helmet telemovie. It wasn't until 1998's Blade that the company's then newly created movie division staked its place in Hollywood. These days, of course, it just ain't summer without the Marvel logo appearing in the credits of at least one big-budget flick.
Appearing as it does on a commercial cable movie site, Unbound basically remains positive about comics' growing influence on the film industry. Though its commentators (among them, Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro and the ever-smilin' Stan Lee) occasionally joke about the occasional moviemaking missteps, we don't delve into the grubbier side of the biz. There's no mention, for instance, of Richard Donner's ousting from the making of Superman II, nor (even more significantly) of the royal shafting that Marv Wolfman, the original creator of Blade, received creating Marvel's moneymaking vamp under a purported work-for-hire contract. Perhaps that's a bit too much to expect, but I still would have liked to have seen at least some passing reference to this stuff, if only to show that the creation of awe-inspiring movies about larger-than-life hero types remains in the hands of more life-sized people.
Too, the documentary skirts a more serious artistic question in its focus on the bigger-and-better box office bonanzas: namely the viability of commercial comic books themselves in a world where their primary role is perceived as a feeding source for movies. When the big question is "Who's gonna create the next big property?" instead of "Who's gonna create the next great comic?" you can't help wondering whether the unbound growth of big-screen comics has necessarily been the best thing for the graphic storytelling medium.