A New Generation of C2F Filmmakers Leave the Old Guard Behind - James Cameron leads a list of Hollywood creators whose fanboy cred has fallen
By Jason Lethert
(With apologies to Simon & Garfunkle): "Where have you gone, Jimmy Cameron? ...Joltin' Jim has left and gone away... Hey, hey, hey!"
Of course Simon and Garfunkel's original name in that line was "Joltin' Joe" - meant by Simon and Garfunkle as a metaphor for the passing, the disappearance, of our heroes (and specifically referring to Joe DiMaggio who had long since hung up his baseball mitt by then). I was struck, recently, to realize that not only have comic adaptations finally achieved legitimacy, but that this fact is in large part due to a full-blown revolution brought on by a new generation of filmmaking super stars. But more to the point, comics' Hollywood credibility did not come about because of the genre filmmakers we thought and hoped would do so over the last 20 years. Pop culture fandom is increasingly turning away from our beloved stars of yesteryear. And the missing hero, the Joe DiMaggio of comics2film adaptations is the blockbuster action-movie directors - the ones that 10 or 20 years ago, we desperately looked to, to rescue comic adaptations from the direct-to-video schlock-meisters that always seemed to have the rights to our beloved heroes.
Time and again, we've found that the veterans we thought had the magic touch to bestow endless genre-media hits, are no longer the "salvation" we thought they were. In years past, comic conventions, comic stores and kid's basements would be scenes of furious fanboy discussion on topics like: "wouldn't a Spielberg-directed "Fantastic Four" movie rock?" Or maybe it would be speculation about other successful genre directors like George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, or Joe Dante. Or even "wouldn't be awesome to see Richard Donner made another comic film, one that would rival "Superman"?"
These days, you just don't hear that anymore. For better or worse, these names are no longer at the top of fanboy wish lists for upcoming C2F projects. Think about it - of all the big C2F success stories of the past decade, how many are attributable to the solid veterans of yore? Who ever heard of Steven Norrington before "Blade"? Raimi, Ang Lee, and Mark Steven Johnson all came from smaller, quirkier films before hitting mainstream success with via comic book characters. Today's fanboy wish lists would more likely have names like Peter Jackson, The Wachowski Bros., and Joss Whedon.
The Titanic Ego
The poster boy for the Hollywood director-gone-missing phenomenon was none other than James Cameron, the former genre-god filmmaker who was worshipped by his legion of fans. Any comic fan from the 90s remembers the comic community abuzz in 1992 when Marvel Comics and Stan Lee announced that Jimmy C. was signed to direct "Spider-Man". Fans salivated at the thought of the master directing f/x for Spidey, and villains Electro and Sandman.
Cameron deserves the loyalty from fans - he's consistently turned out fantastic event movies, and heck - just a few minutes of footage of the T-1000 from "Terminator 2" was enough to jump start the oft-stalled Silver Surfer back into Hollywood development. But fate played a cruel joke on fanboys, as the "Spider-Man" legal fight-out over rights doomed the project. Everyone knows what happened next: Cameron, sick of waiting for the lawyers to let the project move forward, moved onto a project he had been developing for a while - "Titanic". Fans held out hope, in vain, for the possibility that Cameron would get back to Spidey after he was done with DiCapprio. Certainly Cameron's abilities are too suited to comic book action to for it to fall through. But in a plot twist worthy of his films, Cameron surprised us all by not only passing on the possibility of directing a comic book movie, but he left Hollywood altogether!
He's been M.I.A. from genre films since 1997's "Titanic". At first it seemed that he might be a little gun-shy about following up on his "I'm king of the world" performance - how could he top himself?? But soon, fans found out that what had previously been reported, as "side projects" were suddenly Cameron's top priorities. For years, Cameron's been working on documentaries, and though fans were disappointed for a while, it seems they've moved on. No one laments the unknown possibilities when we have two awesome "Spider-Man" movies thanks to Sam Raimi (and God bless him, two more on the way!). And then suddenly, in 2004 Jim Cameron went to his multiplex and saw a little movie called "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" - and he was impressed. Maybe shocked is a better description. He says he was shocked at how good it was, but I say he was shocked that genre films kept chugging along just fine without him.
Suddenly Cameron announced that he would return to the types of films he knows and loves, and fanboys again became interested in the slate of projects he is developing. But Jim isn't the big fish in the small pond anymore. Fans are more likely to be typing away on Internet forums about Raimi, or C2F wunderkind Bryan Singer.
He Made Us Believe a Comic Film Could Fly
But Cameron isn't the only member of the old guard to be M.I.A. on fanboy radar - how about our first true hero - Richard Donner? Donner was the first to show the world what comic readers new all along. His work on "Superman" will forever put him in the pantheon of important C2F filmmakers. But where has he been lately? Is anyone still following his career, eating up every bit of info and gossip? I'm not. I haven't since probably around Lethal Weapon 4, though I know I should have thrown in the towel long before that. But in my defense, you may recall that for some time, Donner was attached to direct the 'X-Men', along with his producer wife Laura Schuler-Donner.
Up until that point, the thought of a live action X-Men film was never considered seriously by fans, given the difficulty in f/x and budget. But the thought of the director who made us all believe a man could fly facing these challenges gave us hope. Well, at a crucial point, Donner dropped out of the film (and his wife continued to produce the two X-Men movies we now hold so dearly). Since then, Donner has bounced around from one big-studio action flick after another - each broader and blander than the last. None of his projects have generated fanboy excitement anywhere near to comic films like the X-Men franchise he left behind.
Aside from Donner, there is another successful C2F director that has lost a little luster, at least among action movie fans - Tim Burton. Tim Burton's 'Batman' was the successor of Donner's "Superman". Who proved to the world something else that comic readers knew - that "Superman: The Movie"'s success was NOT a fluke! But when producers felt Burton's grip on the material was waning after 'Batman Returns', Burton left the franchise, which we all know fell into disaster and is now being reborn by another of the new generation - Christopher Nolan. But while Burton has had more post-superhero success than Donner, he's also had some misfires (Planet of the Apes, anyone?). And his attempt to return to C2F in the late nineties by developing a new "Superman" film was such a disaster; it was thankfully spared from being filmed. No, comic fans would probably prefer Burton now stay to material a little closer to his sensibilities, like the Wonka remake.
Mainstream Schmaltz Vs. Comic Film Greatness
Another would-be C2F director, Chris Columbus, has had opportunities since the 90s to make no less than THREE of the prime Marvel Comics characters in big budget movies, all of which came to fruition - without him. Columbus is a life-long comic fanatic, and built his name as a Spielberg protégé with a solid reputation for adventurous family fare. In Columbus's "Jingle All the Way", a key plot point is built around a superhero character not unlike Marvel's "Iron Man", even down to a functional armor battle suit that we get to see in action for a minute or two.
However, Columbus's career soon became mired in schmaltzy family fare. Columbus tried to develop a more dramatic edge to his oeuvre by developing some C2F projects. Columbus tackled "Daredevil" first, writing his own script, and was set to direct, but could not push it through development. Around that time, he became attached to the "Fantastic Four" film that had been going through re-write after rewrite due to budgetary concerns. His work on "FF", forced him to bow out of directing "Daredevil", which he turned over to Italian director Carlo Carlei (though Columbus would have still produced it). With "FF", Columbus often told the comic press that the movie would come "after the next "Home Alone" movie", which became "after "Bicentennial Man"", et cetera, et cetera.
Both "FF" and "Daredevil" sputtered out in development hell, but Columbus was determined - and he next set his C2F sights on the Amazing "Spider-Man". Students of recent C2F history will recall that there was a time when Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" blockbusters were just a gleam in his eye, as he was competing against David Fincher and Chris Columbus for the job of director. In a way, Columbus should have had the upper hand - Fincher, though a brilliant director, is known for edgier more mature material, and has a history of being hard to work with. Raimi was best known for weird little horror movies (from the "big studio" POV, anyway), but Columbus had the most solid track record with mainstream big budget movies. Columbus even told the Spidey producers that he was so inspired by the comics as a kid, that "the reason I became a film director is 'Spider-man'."
But as we now know, it was Raimi's vision of Spidey and how to bring him to the screen that won out - "I see him it as a Fred Astaire who dances among the buildings, and this film will take the viewer along with him" Raimi said of his take in the pitch process. And thus, Columbus's flirtations with C2F ended. Of course Columbus went on to huge success with another adventurous family film franchise - the Harry Potter movies. One would think that Columbus finally has the Hollywood clout to realize his wish to make a comic book movie, but it seems that he has given up on the genre.
Sure, filmmakers like Columbus, Donner, and even Cameron will still be around for a long time. But to comic fans, they've lost a critical amount of relevancy, and some will never get it back. And that is not to say they won't try to get back into the C2F game, now that it is one of Hollywood's hottest commodities. But they'll find it's a brave new world, and the competition is stronger than ever. I expect that in the not-to-distant future, I'll be paying for a ticket to see a James Cameron film. But until then, I don't feel his absence is as great a loss as I thought a few years ago. Fanboys have found their new "kings of the world".
Epilogue: This article naturally prompts a look at this new generation of C2F heroes next week, and if readers have comments, or a suggestion for a lost hero of C2F, email it to Jason.