Comic Book Movies: Fifteen Years Later

Comic Book Movies: Fifteen Years Later
In a year where we've already seen the ninth Avengers picture from Marvel Studios, the fifth Spider-Man film from Sony and the seventh X-Men movie from Fox, it's almost hard to remember what the movie industry looked like before big-ticket superhero films dominated the charts. Fifteen years ago, even the most optimistic comic fan would have guessed where things would end up.

And how could they? The late 90s had all but killed off the genre with a succession of botch-jobs. When someone talked about "comic book movies", they meant Judge Dredd, or Barb Wire, or Spawn, or Steel. At the absolute best they meant two steaming piles of Batman written with naught but toy sales in mind. Save for 1998's Blade (which did as much as it could to prevent people realising it was based on a comic) the genre was a wasteland. A ghetto. A punchline.

And it's in this world that Wizard Magazine released Flix! - a 12-page preview of over 30 upcoming comic book movies, focusing heavily on the in-production X-Men movie. You may click to embiggen the pages.

That cover, if you can believe it, is the original promo image for X-Men. Before casting, before production design, probably even before there was a script, there was that image. A pair of blue washing up gloves, a stock lens flare from Adobe® Photoshop® software, and some claws that looked like novelty kebab skewers. But as hilarious as that is, look at the rest of the cover and you'll notice some unexpected names pop up. We got a Spider-Man film. We got Men in Black 2. But Doc Savage? Flaming Carrot? What's going on? And that's before you even get to the X-Men cast list...

Given how popular that claws-crossed image was, I'm sort of surprised that the only place I can now find it is on Ian McKellen's website. Here's a direct link, but it's in the posters section.

This intro reminds us of one of the many ways in which Wizard Magazine's tactics predict those of the modern tabloid press. If the image Wizard wanted to use didn't exist, they simply knocked it together in their Adobe® Photoshop® software, no matter how inexpert or transparently false it was. There ARE pictures of Nic Cage in a Superman costume out there. But this isn't one of them. The editorial test promises makes a number of predictions, the veracity of which we can now test.

Claim 1: Superhero movies aren't dead. Well, that was correct. If anything it turns out to be hilariously understated, something not normally synonymous with Wizard.
Claim 2: Spider-Man will hit screens soon after Y2K. Also correct. It hit in 2002.
Claim 3: Batman and Superman are coming back to cinema screens. Technically true, but it's fair to say that they didn't expect to have to wait until 2006 for this.
Claim 4: Mystery Men, fresh from its "respectable" box office take, will spawn a sequel. Well, that was a bust. 50% of your budget is not respectable by any standard. Given that this is cover-dated November '99, it probably came out in August '99. Mystery Men only came out at the end of July '99, so it's a fair bet than they probably wrote this sentence before they knew how Mystery Men actually performed. Below expectations, is the answer.

This page also introduces "Didja Know?" - under-explained factoids that dot the pamphlet. This page asserts that Bill Murray was almost Batman, but doesn't explain that it was a pre-Burton, Adam West-style version of the character that never got even close to production. Murray was considered the front-runner for Batman, but he wasn't actually asked. We were nearer to getting Tom Cruise as Tony Stark than this.

A publicity shot of Patrick Stewart doing his best Xavier impression (i.e. sitting down, looking like himself.)

DIDJA KNOW? Needless to say, John Byrne turned down the chance to write a Green Lantern script starring Eddie Murphy. Needless to say. This rumour comes from a book about Byrne and is, as he describes it, the thing that caused him to leave Hollywood. With Murphy being a big comedy star, it does suggest that the rumoured "comedy" take on Green Lantern was hanging around long before Jack Black's name got attached to it.

On this page, Wizard has the chance to interview the film's executive producer, Avi Arad ahead of the movie's production. Their plan? to "set the record straight." Note here the answer to the question "Will the X-Men wear their classic costumes?". Wizard interprets Arad's answer as a "yes", saying "Don't worry gang, we'll get to see [them] in full comics regalia." What Arad actually said was that they'd be wearing newly-designed costumes that looked more militaristic and multi-purpose, and reflect the style of the movie. Which is a "No".

The casting call box-out, while typically Wizard-esque in tone (i.e. "I am wanking as I write this.") reveals two interesting twists: Jim Caviezel as Cyclops (beating Luke Wilson to the role!) and Dougray Scott as Wolverine. Yep, that's right. "Dougray WHO?!" Wizard anticipates its readers saying. "You won't be asking that after Scott's star-making turn as Wolverine". I suspect "Dougray WHO?!" is exactly what most people are saying at this point. These roles eventually went, of course, to James Marsden and some unknown named Hugh Jackman, who was cast when the filming of Mission: Impossible 2 overran and Scott had to pull out.

DIDJA KNOW: Before Chris O'Donnell was cast as Robin, WB courted Eddie Murphy, Marlon Wayans and Michael J Fox. WB must REALLY like Eddie Murphy, not least because he's actually a month older than George Clooney. So we'd have had a Robin who was older than Batman. Er, good call guys.

On this page, Wizard goes for the important questions: How much of the budget will go on special effects? We're promised that it's all going to be special effects, even Wolverine's claws (although, I could be wrong, but I think the claws were entirely practical until X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Because it really showed in that movie that they weren't.

This Casting Call box-out looks at the villains. No surprises there, although it's interesting that they did a fantasy-casting of Kelly Hu as Spiral. She would later play Lady Deathstrike in the X-Men sequel. They also suggest Denis Leary, who would later play Captain Stacy in Webb's Spider-Man films, as Pyro. Will Sasso is still waiting for his part in a Marvel film.

DIDJA KNOW: Jon Peters wanted Kevin Smith to include a giant spider in Superman Lives? Anyone who listened to Kevin Smith talk for more than 5 minutes in the 00s probably knows that story. But if you don't, youtube it here.

Arad answers the question "Will the X-Men movie be faithful to the comics?". Or rather, doesn't answer it. He claims "there's no reason" to veer away from the comics, but then five of the seven X-Men movies have stayed as far away from the comic plots as possible, so maybe they found one.

Why this group of X-Men? Arad speaks about the philosophical conflict between Xavier and Magneto, with Wolverine pulling between the two extremes. The box-out on the plot reinforces this idea, but as you probably know, there's zero of that in the film. He's on Xavier's team from day one. The box-out does mention a (debunked) rumour that Gambit would cameo, (played by Keanu Reeves!) and a scene of Cyclops' powers manifesting, which was cut from the screenplay. Both of those ideas got recycled into X-Men Origins Wolverine.

Will there be X-Men toys? Ah, the days when Marvel was owned by Toy Biz, maker of shitty action figures. Of course there were loads of toys for the first X-Men movie. No-one bought them because they looked nothing like the X-Men. They stopped making movie toys after X-Men 2.

DIDJA KNOW: Frank Miller's Daredevil Screenplay ended up being adapted into the Man Without Fear limited series? Yes. Yes I did know that. That story is the INTRODUCTION to the comic.

On sequels, Arad promises an X-Men movie every 2-3 years. Which is pretty much what we got. He also promises Beast for the follow-up, but that didn't happen until X-Men 3.

On release dates, they suggest fall or christmas 2000. This sort of indicates the level of uncertainty around the film. They didn't want X-Men going up against that summer's blockbusters like The Perfect Storm, Scary Movie and the Pokemon movie, preferring softer opposition, like The 6th Day, Dracula 2000, and the Digimon movie.

But X-Men did indeed come out in summer 2000, suggesting that the studio was very happy with it. And rightfully so. It was the ninth biggest release of the year - though it was beaten, only just, by The Perfect Storm. Scott also got his payday in the short term (MI2 grossed over 500 million) but all things considered, Wolverine proved to have more staying power than the MI franchise.

Meanwhile, a box-out imagines what the X-Men would be like if directed by some of films' notable auteurs. And Joel Schumacher.

DIDJA KNOW: Adam West tried to reprise his role in Burton's Batman, and even offered to play his uncle. West did not ultimately appear. This is what happens when you fall on the DC side of the fence, instead of the Marvel side. They can't resist handing out cameos. Hey, it beats paying for the characters, right?

Wizard devotes an entire page to a poorly-photoshopped version of Mystique who bears almost no resemblance to the version that ended up in the film.

DIDJA KNOW: The Wachowski Brothers (as they were) have written screenplays for Plastic Man and V for Vendetta. The latter was made into a movie and came out in 2006. The former has yet to appear.

Beginning the run-down of in-production comicbook movies. Oh, the heady, deluded optimism we're about to experience.

The first page deals with Spider-Man, and claims the web-slinger will fight Electro and Sandman in a script written by David Koepp based on James Cameron's long-rumoured but ultimately abortive attempt to make the movie in the 90s. Koepp still got screenplay credit for the 2002 Raimi film, but one imagines the rewrites were substantial, given what we ended up with. Organic webshooters did happen, though. It alleges that the Wachowski's turned it down because they couldn't write the script (apparently dodging bullets isn't just something characters do in their films) and Heath Ledger was the front-runner for Peter Parker. Ledger, of course, did eventually get his chance to play another one of Batman's biggest rivals in The Dark Knight.

SPAWN 2: It's been best part of two decades since the original Spawn, and it has yet to spawn a spawn. Wizard thought Spawn 2 was due "2001 at the earliest." At this point, we probably won't see Michael Jai White reprise the undead hero known for his single spiky boot and freakishly oversized cape. Allegedly directed by MacFarlane, Spawn 2 would "focus more on atmosphere than special effects". No mention of the story, which sounds about right for Spawn.

BATMAN 5: A continuation of the franchise started by Tim Burton, Batman 5 could've gone one of two ways: The Joker's Revenge, with a returning Nicholson, or Schumacher's Year One. "I can safely say there will be a Batman 5," says WB publicist Jeff Walker, who evidently didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

MEN IN BLACK 2: Released in 2002, MiB2 did indeed bring back Jay and Kay but not Linda Fiorentino. It wasn't quite the hit that the first one was, but did well enough that we got MIB3. Of which the less said, the better.

SUPERMAN: When he's not being made fun of by Kevin Smith, Jon Peters is still trying to raise a new Supes movie. In 1999 they thought it'd be based on "Death Of" and feature Doomsday. "One script incarnation involved Lois carrying Kal-El's super-baby!" Wizard says, incredulously, rightly recognising the stupidity of giving Lois and Superman a super-powered child. This project eventually ended up as Superman Returns, in 2006, featuring the super-powered child of Lois and Superman. Still, it could've been worse - Warner apparently wanted Michael Bay and/or Brett Ratner on board...

PREACHER: From the director of TANK GIRL! Which pretty much says it all. On the next page we'll learn that Samuel L. Jackson turned down the chance to play Saint of Killers, which sounds like bullshit to me, because when has SLJ ever turned ANYTHING down? Mercifully, a movie was scotched in favour of a TV series by AMC.

MYSTERY MEN 2: Bob Burden assures Wizard we'll see Flaming Carrot alongside the other Mystery Men in the sequel. We're still waiting. Although at this point in the issue, Wizard has now realised that the box-office response to the film was "lukewarm".

DIDJA KNOW: Annette Bening was originally cast as Catwoman, but dropped out when she found out she was pregnant. Interestingly, when ScarJo got pregnant they rearranged Avengers 2 to account for that.

BLADE 2: Blade 2 happened in 2002. With MIB2, that makes two projects out of seven that were previewed in anything close to an accurate way.

HELLBOY: It took five years, but we got Del Toro's Hellboy too!

DOC SAVAGE: Schwarzenegger was allegedly lined up to play the pulp hero, but clearly that never happened. He was too busy managing his political career and appearing in increasingly shit action movies.

A box-out on this page also does quick previews of some in-development movies, most of which never see the light of day. Lobo? Nope. Doctor Strange? Marvel's working on it now, but this version was going to be by David Goyer and Sony. Wizard thinks Prime "will" be produced by Chuck Gordon, but these days Marvel can't even public Prime comics. The League of Extraordinary Gentleman was indeed adapted and released as the League of Extreme Gentleman. Namor is even further away from being made than it was in 1999. Damage Control hung around these lists for years but eventually disappeared when Marvel Studios was founded. I've never even heard of Shadowman. Thor was being developed as an animated film (!?) and Captain America was eventually hoovered back up by Marvel as well. As for Archie? Still waiting.

DIDJA KNOW: No costumed supervillains appeared in the live-action Spider-Man TV series! What's this got to do with films again?

BONE: Still in development, but no longer with Nickelodeon. Wizard, quite naively, expected it in late 2000. Jeff Smith previously said that Nickeloden wanted child actors to voice the characters and to insert a pop song in the middle, so maybe it's for the best this never happened.

SHI: Starring Tia Carrere! You know, from the 90s. Production was supposed to begin in January 2000 for release in Summer 2000, which was pretty unlikely even at the time. Wikipedia says Carrere was still attached in 2008, but things have gone quiet since. It COULD be the role that catapaults her back into the spotlight, though!

A box-out also lists ten movies in "hiatus hell". Corman's 1992 Fantastic Four film was never intended for release, but the film it enabled - Columbus' big budget version for Fox - did come out in 2005. It was terrible. Kevin Smith apparently expressed "mild interest" in adapting Daredevil after his well-received comic adaptation, and even though he didn't, it still got made with his hollywood pal Ben Affleck in the title role. We've had TWO versions of Incredible Hulk since this magazine came out.

Wonder Woman is STILL in development hell. "No script means no movement" they say. Joss Whedon wrote a script, and there was still no movement. So instead of making Wonder Woman for WB, he directed one of the biggest-selling movies of all time. Wesley Snipes has been trying to do Black Panther for years, but he never got further than this. Silver Surfer ended up in the F4 sequel instead of his own movie. Alex Zamm's Green Lantern script was rejected for being too cartoony, though given what they ended up with it's hard to imagine how. Iron Man eventually happened even without Nic Cage and Tom Cruise (mercifully so). Neil Gaiman wrote a script for New Gods, allegedly, but that's as much as we know. Sandman is STILL in development, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt announced as the latest producer.

Amusingly, more of the films in "hiatus hell" have since come out than those Wizard considered to be in development.

DIDJA KNOW: Much of the dialogue in Mystery Men was ad-libbed. Hence the lack of jokes, presumably.

To cap the special off, Wizard gives its 10 tips for making a successful comic movie! Numbered in reverse order, to give the illusion of a countdown.

10: The Screenplay. Get top-flight screenwriters and make sure they understand the characters, they say, like it's rocket science. Though admittedly, back in 1999 it might have been.

9: Don't dumb it down. Again, seems obvious, but in a world where Batman and Robin had just come out, it's probably worth stating.

8: Stay true to the subject matter - "but not handcuffed by it," they warn, pointing out that the Red Skull could be Italian and it wouldn't matter. I'M SORRY, WHAT?! Aside from being an example of something that would absolutely matter, an Italian Red Skull is precisely the sort of thing that Wizard would've mocked relentlessly for YEARS had it actually happened.

7: The Budget. This tip is actually a call for spending money on better writers and stuntmen rather than special effects. Unfortunately they undermine their basic point by suggesting the Wachowskis and JMS as examples of good writers and suggesting that the SFX department get cash "only where needed". You know, as good as Iron Man's script is, I can't imagine that working without a giant SFX budget.

6: Screw A-List actors. Yeah! Screw those money-making, project-advancing losers! Admittedly, Marvel has had a lot of success turning unknowns into A-listers, while the likes of Fox crowbar Jessica Alba, Nic Cage and Ben Affleck into their superhero movies. But really, the advice should be "find the RIGHT A-lister". Case in point: Robert Downey Jr.

5: Origin Shmorigin. A fair point here: not every movie has to be an origin story. It just happens that unfortunately, those are often the most iconic ones you can tell with any character. It's amusing that they joke about not needing to see James Bond's origin, though, given that 7 years later, the franchise was such a joke that a origin-telling reboot was the best option.

4. No Joel Schumacher. Oh, you guys.

3. The Bad Guy. Again, not particularly bad advice here in saying that superhero films need a good villain - something Marvel in particular has struggled with, beyond Loki.

2. Secret Identity. Wizard asserts that films shouldn't spend too much time outside of the costume. "It's called Batman, not Bruce Wayne!" they cry. It's almost worth asking the person who wrote this what they thought of the critically-lauded Batman Begins, which doesn't feature any Batman at all for well over half of its running time. They also appear to confuse spandex with latex, referring to "the dude in the latex" which brings to mind more, er, specialist movies.

1. Sacrifice on the merchandising altar. Don't make a movie that's an advert for toys, they say. Make a movie that's good and the toys will sell. A fair point. Many of the problems in Batman and Robin were reportedly due to the studio leaning on it to be structured around the toy market. Still, they also think Star Wars is a good example of a franchise that was designed to be good, rather than sell toys, which is only true of the first one. From that point on, it's been a merchandising steamroller, and that hasn't harmed its fan base or critical acclaim one bit (though the quality of subsequent Star Wars movies has!)

DIDJA KNOW: Sean Young annoyed WB's bigwigs by doing chat shows dressed as Catwoman while lobbying for the role. I didn't know that. But it's true!.

So concludes our look back at the comics film industry of 1999. A world where the Wachowskis were hot shit, Dougray Scott was Wolverine, and Heath Ledger could've been Peter Parker. How different things could've been.

Tags:  Marvel  X-Men  Dougray Scott  Nic Cage  Wizard