Getting serious about comic book adaptations

Superhero pics and series have found a middle ground between camp and pretensiousness.

COMIC BOOK FANS (and count me among their geeky number) spent decades recovering from the 1960s “Batman’ TV series, which despite its simple charms established an unfortunate “Wham! Pow! Biff!” template for such adaptations — spawning movies and series that were invariably campy, done on the cheap and not taken seriously.

Smash-cut to the CGI age, where all things are possible, albeit at a price. And while comic aficionados have rightfully chafed at filmmakers and execs treating beloved characters contemptuously, a new peril involves tilting to the opposite extreme by taking these flights of fancy a bit too seriously.

In this context there’s something to be learned from the spectacular opening by “Spider-Man 2,” which largely gets the delicate men-in-tights transplantation right, as contrasted with recent misadventures — think “The Hulk” and “The Punisher” — that mostly didn’t.

Locating the proper balance in this historically tricky high-wire act comes at a critical juncture for studios. More Marvel characters are bigscreen bound, while Warner Bros. prepares to relaunch its DC Comics heavyweights Superman and Batman, with all the “franchise” expectations that entails.

TO FULLY APPRECIATE the modern impact of digital filmmaking on comics consider the cheesy “Spider-Man” TV show of the 1970s, where it seemed as if the producers could afford to shoot one wall-crawling sequence, re-using it (much like “The Incredible Hulk’s” breakaway wall) every week.

Even with technical glitches along the way, such limitations have essentially been obliterated. Yet once the fantastic can be convincingly realized — that “You will believe a man can fly,” to quote the memorable one-sheet for Christopher Reeve’s initial foray as “Superman” — the challenge becomes capturing the comics’ spirit without devolving into silliness.

Just as Adam West’s “Batman” charted a course emulated for years thereafter (including the over-the-top villains that marred the aforementioned “Superman”), director Tim Burton’s 1989 take on the character demonstrated it’s possible to handle comics in a mature fashion, along with their explosive box office potential. The movie thus offered redemption to much-abused fans, proving that more literal (and literate) renditions wouldn’t turn off the general public, otherwise known as “normal people.”

ALAS, IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for Hollywood to drift back into camp. Burton’s inroads were quickly derailed by Joel Schumacher’s sequels, which played like a funhouse ride in search of an exit.

After that, embracing the darkness inherent in these concepts sounded good on paper. The problem is that some filmmakers have overcompensated. Almost like military gadgetry, the modern tools at their disposal haven’t always been wielded with precision, obscuring the subtlety necessary to translate a two-dimensional medium to the less forgiving cinematic realm.

The result can be seen in various misses and near-misses, from Ang Lee’s overwrought “Hulk” to the sadistically violent “Punisher” to the joyless “The Matrix” sequels and politically wonkish “Star Wars” prequels. Those latter franchises, in particular, became so enamored with hardware they misplaced the fun in their originals, misguidedly weighing themselves down in self-important blather.

Since Burton’s “Batman,” in fact, many of the best comic-inspired productions have flown under the radar in TV animation, from “Batman: The Animated Series” to Cartoon Network’s “Justice League,” whose spinoff premieres later this month. Although ostensibly designed for the youth market, these programs — crafted by producers with a genuine love for the source material — were almost too good for kids, much like the WB’s live-action “Smallville,” which has breathed unexpected life into the tired Superman mythology.

SO WHERE HAVE MOVIES gotten it right? Personally, I’d argue that “X2: X-Men United,” with its mix of dazzling action sequences and sly wit, remains the most satisfying comic book movie to date, deducting points from the latest Spider-Man only because nearly everyone in New York knows his not-so-secret identity by the time it’s over.

As for the future, perhaps inevitably the road leads through Batman, with the revival “Batman Begins” due next summer. Based on the script I’ve seen, the production looks highly promising, conveying the menacing Dark Knight persona so memorably depicted in Frank Miller’s definitive graphic novel while still deriving humor from the idea of a man flitting around rooftops in a cape and cowl.

Certainly, it’s a best of times scenario for people who giggled at every in-joke in “Spider-Man 2,” as images they savored in print virtually explode off the page. Still, that sense of excitement comes with a disclaimer. After all, the danger of technology running amok is that it can easily unleash a mindless monster — whether in comic books, or at the local multiplex.

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