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SciFriday: Enough With The Comic Books Already!

Comic book adaptations are ruining movie theaters and network lineups

Movie theaters in the early ’90s were a boring place; 3-D technology hadn’t quite taken hold of audiences in the way it has in recent years and the IMAX experience was an uncommon luxury, one relegated to ambitious documentaries.

It was a particularly uneventful place for the science-fiction genre, with movies like “Battlefield Earth,” “Evolution” and “Planet of the Apes” doing more harm than good. Even “Nemesis,” the final movie adaptation for “Star Trek: The Next Generation” turned out to be a dud : so much so that it was almost a decade before the franchise saw another big-screen outing. I guess you could say there was a drought of the imagination.

Sure, George Lucas was working on “Attack of the Clones” (following the love-it, hate-it release of “The Phantom Menace” in 1999) and there were a few one-hit wonders (like “K-Pax” and “Minority Report”), but following the success of “The Matrix” it was difficult for any other genre-based adventure to really hit the mark.

Then something interesting happened: comic books were re-developed into an exciting and, more importantly, socially acceptable property.

Casting off the shackles of a stereotype, comic books left the ink-covered pages and blasted onto the big screen in spectacular style, thanks to “X-Men.” No longer were the paper-bound characters in spandex considered part of geekdom or for nerds, dorks and dweebs (not to mention any other term that might fit the bill) : comic book movies brought a bit of life into a dying genre.

Following suit was a stack of other comic book movies, all proving to be major (or at the very least, respectable) hits; “Spider-Man” was a resounding success, propelling its cast onto the A-list. Meanwhile, “Fantastic Four” proved to be likeable enough to warrant a sequel, and “Batman Begins” took the sub-genre into edgier territory.

As this was going on, comic books relentlessly invaded the small screen; “Smallville,” a chapter from perhaps the most established hero of them all, premiered to record ratings for the then-WB network and even went on to serve as a platform for a spinoff of sorts (albeit a short-lived on) based on the Batman franchise.

Although the ratings are not what they once were, the series has outlasted numerous other efforts to cash in on the wonders of the comic book surge. Among them was “Heroes,” a surprise hit for NBC which featured an unknown cast and its debut season proved to be the most creative and compelling stories of the decade.

But then, as quick as it appeared, comic book adaptations plummeted. Fiscally, “Spider-Man 3” may have been a success but it was critically reviled. “Fantastic Four” was fun but proved to be a disappointment to the studio, “X-Men 3” wasn’t quite a disaster (but close enough) and “Superman Returns” divided the Man of Steel’s fanbase.

We’ll ignore Ang Lee’s attempt at “Hulk.”

On the small screen, the ratings for “Heroes” went into freefall and the show was eventually canceled earlier this year. I can’t say I was surprised as it has been a long time since I’ve seen a series grow so stale so fast.

It is oddly fitting that the fourth season opened with a funeral scene; every time I sat down to watch the series I felt like I was attending its funeral. Where there were once intricate tapestries spanning multiple episodes, assisted with incredibly rich dialogue, unforgettable iconography and an astounding cast packed with talent, there is now only a desolate hour of meaningless banter and forgettable encounters.

Many factors have been blamed for the shows not-so-sudden drop in quality, however, over the last couple of years Bryan Fuller has been drummed up to be the shows very own superhero. Maybe even its savior. “He will fix it,” was the mantra circulating the Internet just as the series concluded for its third year. The logic behind such claims was sound: Fuller was integral in crafting the arc for the gravity defying first season before he flew off to work on other projects and now that he is back he can do it again.

“The goal for everybody is to put a face back on the drama. You have to save something with a face; otherwise you dont understand what youre caring about,” he told Entertainment Weekly back in 2008 as he re-joined the series. Promising a return to everyday lives and a reason to care about the characters, Fuller promised that the show would, in a sense, return to its roots with superhero metaphors for everyday life.

Did it work? Very briefly, and then “Heroes” sunk back into levels of mundane mediocrity.

Still, the impact “Heroes” had on television is not to be scoffed at. The fact that two major networks are prepping hero-themed shows for the 2010-11 television season is a testament to its success.

But enough with the comic books already, where are the truly original ideas and novel concepts? “The Cape” and “No Ordinary Family” will ensure comic adventures are present on the small screen in an ever more mainstream form, while rumors continue over a “Blue Beetle” spinoff from “Smallville”.

In addition to the small-screen stories, comic book movies are still being churned out. Spider-Man is receiving an unnecessary reboot and being turned into an angst-ridden emo-fest (likely a casualty of the immense popularity of Twilight) and Marvel are well on their way to completing their “Avengers” master plan. And there is also the “First Class” prequel for X-Men.

The fact remains: the genre is completely lacking in originality.

“Avatar” is evidence that new stories can be told and told well. Budget, development time and visuals have been credited towards the success of James Cameron’s epic but the truth is theaters were primed for its release by the overload of comics. Before “Avatar,” there hadn’t been a really good sci-fi release since “Serenity” in 2005.

Maybe comic books have had their run. Maybe “Avatar” simply reminded us what we are missing out on. Or maybe comics just need a change of setting.

In France, “Le Greenboy” is a comic book inspired story by Jerome Genevray which will likely find a release on the web (click here for the trailer). The project was originally part of the local competition “Parallel Lines, Tell It Your Way” and although it didn’t win, does have an artistic quality to it, featuring a heavy eco-message. Given the troubles in the Gulf of Mexico, now may be the perfect time for its release.

It’s not a big-scale project, and so far there isn’t even a script but it has something that franchise based movies do not: originality.

I’ve loved comic book movies for the last few years, but after so many flooding the box office, I’ve had my fill of big franchises, it’s time for the smaller names to shine.

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Could they be a Rut-ro! Shaggy
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