Serious filmmakers, improved effects help adaptations

Everybody weaned reading comicbooks recognizes the moment — watching a movie you were actually excited about seeing and wincing as the audience begins giggling in the wrong places.

The most indelible experience along these lines occurred for me in the 1970s with “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze,” in which a cool ’30s pulp-turned-comic was transformed into a risible, campy, live-action cartoon.

Comicbook adaptations have taken a quantum leap forward since then for plenty of well-documented reasons. Serious filmmakers and improved effects made blockbusters like “Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight” possible, producing a stampede toward costumed heroes and giving Comic-Con nerds rare occasion to feel smug.

Yet as less-familiar characters than Superman, Batman and Spider-Man storm theaters, the margin for error grows ever slimmer — which is perhaps why this summer’s box office could be as influenced by the unintentional laughs comicbook movies don’t elicit as by the intentional ones that comedies do.

“Thor,” a Marvel property opening May 6, leads off a super-powered parade that will include “Captain America: First Avenger” and “Green Lantern.” In each case, the trailer suggests a fidelity to the source material that will doubtless be welcomed by fans.

To truly succeed, however, such films must cross over beyond those who can spell, much less pronounce, the name of Thor’s hammer (give yourself five points if you said “Mjolnir”). And that’s where these affairs get tricky.

This balancing act came to mind, again, watching the adaptation “Jonah Hex.” The movie — based on a relatively obscure DC comic about scarred Western bounty hunter — eluded me in theaters, as it did much of the rest of the world, but I recently caught it on HBO.

I knew something about the comicbooks, but when the title gunslinger played by Josh Brolin — receiving shamanistic treatment — barfed up a full-sized raven, it was easy to imagine guffaws in theaters. Clearly, you’re in trouble if Megan Fox in a wet bustier provides minimal compensation.

From anecdotal evidence, it seems many people who can’t distinguish Metamorpho from Mr. Mxyzptlk — or aren’t agog about production starting on “The Avengers” — don’t quite know what to make of these upcoming movies. For them, Ryan Reynolds reciting the Green Lantern oath might sound corny, not inspiring, just as Adrianne Palicki’s skin-tight costume for NBC’s “Wonder Woman” pilot triggered derisive snorts in certain quarters.

Granted, “Iron Man” impressively bridged this treacherous gap, but as its inferior sequel demonstrated, that’s still a real tightrope to navigate. Even amid the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction to HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” some reviewers were simply dismissive, unwilling to engage a project resembling fodder for the “Dungeons and Dragons” crowd on its own terms.

Both Marvel and DC (under the stewardship of Disney and Warner Bros., respectively) have grand designs, but you can do only so many versions of Batman and Spider-Man — or “Pay no attention to that earlier movie” Superman and the Hulk reboots — before branching into comicdom’s periphery. To fulfill those plans, mainstream audiences better not titter when Captain America throws his shield or Green Lantern powers up his ring.

Admittedly, comicbooks have come a long way from past cinematic travesties, punctuated by disasters like “Howard the Duck” (produced by George Lucas, no less), which definitively proved sex involving anthropomorphized waterfowl and women is less groan-inducing (slightly, anyway) on the page than onscreen.

That said, there have been enough ostentatious setbacks — including such recent disappointments as artist-turned-director Frank Miller’s misfire “The Spirit” and the confused response from the uninitiated to the grim nihilism of “Watchmen” — to suggest there will be more fabulous flops littered along the way.

Before Tim Burton’s “Batman” and perhaps more significantly Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” pics, the prevailing attitude at studios often approximated the backward logic of Superman villain Bizarro — as in “Me love comicbooks, so me humiliate and ruin them.”

Heading into this make-or-break summer, two burning questions linger: What happens when the second tier of caped crusaders finally hit screens? And will more sober-minded portrayals save them or just become another form of Kryptonite?

Have a least-favorite comicbook-based movie or TV show? Email brian.lowry@variety.com and I’ll compile submissions on my blog. Please specify whether you’d like to be identified.

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