Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than watching two lycra clad clods beating the beJesus out of each other to the dulcet drone of machine gun fire and explosions. Fortunately, over the last decade, there have been enough comic book movies made to keep even the most fevered fan girl sated. But, as Spidy and X-Men come roaring back to the big screen, Features Editor Paula Hammond asks, should we be looking for more bang for our buck?
Comics are the new cash cow and Hollywood has realised that there’s an almost infinite supply of caped crusaders and deranged super villains to exploit. It all began with Marvel and DC, but the appetite for comic book capers has reached such a fever pitch that the film industry has even turned indie comic creations, like Hellboy, into household names. Whether you’re a fan or not, there’s no denying that these big blockbusters are satisfyingly polished products. Fun, but formulaic family flicks, where plot and exposition are secondary to thrills and spills. They are, in many ways, a sterile solution too. These are movies made by the Hollywood machine, written by committee, rewritten, edited and recut by accountants, to appeal to the largest audience demographic. A Hollywood comic book movie is a by the numbers product: the visual equivalent of the Big Mac. However, films based on European comic books are a whole new ball game.
There’s an assumption that French movies can be more experimental and avant-garde because of the support they get from local and national government, but that’s not really true. The French film industry is the third largest in the world, behind the US and India, and they’re almost entirely self-sufficient. Yet French moviemakers continue to take chances that the Hollywood machine never would. This is most apparent when it comes to comic book adaptations, but the differences are due to more than cinématographie. They’re about the source material too.
In US, as in the UK, there’s a small and highly respected indie comic market, supported by the likes of Dark Horse and Fantagraphics. Most comics, though, are produced by Marvel and DC – and most are super hero fodder aimed at the teen market. This doesn’t stop adults from enjoying them, but there’s a real social stigma attached to grown ups who read picture books. In France, comics are a very different beast. Those written for kids are in the mould of The Eagle or Action Comics of yesteryear. The heroes aren’t cape wearing supers, but ordinary people thrown into extraordinary adventures. The most successful feature characters such as the mysterious Canadian Mountie, Jesuit Joe, fast shooter Lucky Luke, crusading cowboy Blueberry and racing car driver Michel Vaillant, who have all made the transition to live action films. The ‘novaltie’ is that in France adults don’t have to get their comic fix surreptitiously. Quite the opposite. Graphic art is a respectable medium and comic superstars like Moebius, Jodorowsky and Enki Bilal are famous for their surreal, subversive, sexy and cerebral comics.
When comics make the transition to the big screen, the results can be unpredictable. Both Hollywood and European cinema has produced its fair share of bum-numbing yawn-fests, but French movie makers seem to be prepared to take the chance that their audience will appreciate ‘something different’ rather than spoon-feed them a remix of the last dozen box office hits. And it pays off more often than not.
Persepolis (2007), for instance, was based on the autobiographical comic by Marjane Satrapi, which tells of her childhood in Iran after the Islamic revolution. It’s a bold film that uses the same black and white imagery as the comic to produce a moving tale of family and belonging. Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) was a 2010 biopic based on Joann Sfar’s graphic novel about the French singer Serge Gainsbourg. The film is an audacious piece of storytelling which uses tableaux from the singer’s life blended with elements of childhood fantasy to show a man at war with both his own demons and the fame factory. Neither are what you might call ‘easy viewing’. They’re challenging and a little self-indulgent at times, but both won a slew of awards, including an Oscar nomination for Persepolis.
If you prefer your comic book movies with a little more action then, then how about Immortal? Made in 2004 and directed by Enki Bilal, who wrote the graphic novel, the film has all the ambition and scope of a Hollywood product. Shot entirely on a digital backlot, Immortal is a breath-taking mix of live action and CGI. Like the very the best sci-fi, though, it appeals to the intellect as well as the senses. This is a multi-layered movie which deftly weaves together the stories of three protagonists: the political rebel Nikopol, the mysterious blue haired alien Jill, and the Egyptian god Horus, who has been condemned to death by his fellow immortals. It’s solid, adult sci-fi that manages to deliver an entertaining ride while staying true to the source material. The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec is equally accomplished. The original comics were subversive, quirky and slyly humorous, and director Luc Besson has reproduced their tone perfectly. In fact Besson seems to have learnt from his Hollywood experiences that less is more. Rather than create a lame, female Indiana Jones franchise, packed with fast cuts and endless car chases, he delivers a mature movie in which SFX are used to tell the tale, not as an end in itself. Add superb performances and Gallic pacing and the whole film simply oozes French charm.
These four are just a handful of the hundreds of European comic books which have jumped from the small frame to the big screen. A further ten French comic-book inspired movies are made every year. 2013’s releases included critically acclaimed Ernest Et Celestine, Snowpiercer and Incidences but most remain unknown outside the French-speaking world. This year Hollywood has already given us Captain America: Winter Solider. Still to come are The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and – unbelievably – Ant-Man. Millions, myself included, will be there to enjoy every brain candy, adrenaline pumped moment, but it’s worth remembering that there’s more to comics book movies than blokes in tights hitting each other. And I for one say Vive la différence.