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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Film Land - Blockbusters According to Comics 2016

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It’s no secret that I love superhero comic books, but part of what I like about them is that there’s so much variety to the material.  That’s part of why I’m not surprised superheroes have grown into the state religion of big budget blockbusters at this point in time.  It’s a genre that includes everything from space opera to spy thriller to irreverent comedy so it only makes sense that it would be perfectly situated to cater to the changing trends and tastes of a modern audience.  

That idea is what’s fueled my now yearly custom of looking at the year’s biggest success stories and trying to find the comic book answer to those properties.  Last year this was more aimed at films but as 2016 was a little light on big, impactful movies I’ve broadened that subject to include some major TV success as well.  With that said, let’s dive into the subject and find out what 2016’s blockbusters look like according to comics. 

Blockbuster: Stranger Things

Stranger Things was, unquestionably, the biggest hit show of the summer.  In fact, if it weren't for a couple other shows on this list I’d actually dare name Stranger Things the biggest hit show of 2016.  It pretty much won everyone over with its unique blend of creepy sci-fi horror, kids adventure movie, and a whole lot of ‘80s nostalgia.  

The show is about Eleven, a psychic little girl created a government facility, who escapes her holding pen into a nearby town where she befriends a local group of nerds.  From there it’s a pretty fun mash-up of every ‘80s movie with children from Poltergeist to E.T., but it works, especially thanks to the liberal dose of alternate reality horror the show introduced. 

Jemm, Son of Saturn, was a mid-'80s comic from DC that might best be described as E.T. in an urban setting and with a superhero.  The idea is that Jemm is an alien being of incredible power who escapes an ethnic purge of his people by coming to Earth.  His ship crash landed in Harlem where Jemm befriends a young black orphan named Luther, and the two have adventures eluding the authorities and Jemm’s alien pursuers.  

This would work perfectly to fill the Stranger Things mold, creating a similar dilemma to Eleven’s situation without exactly copying it.  What’s more, transplanting the adventure to a black neighborhood in the ‘80s would be a great switch up and Jemm’s origin making him a refugee is pretty topical these days. 

Blockbuster: Westworld

Westworld is a lot of things, not the least of which being THE hit show of 2016 (sorry Stranger Things.)  It’s a big, complex piece about sentience and humanity and robots and video games and all kinds of other things that’s made insanely popular and talked about online.  However, I don't think what’s selling the show is the “resort robots attack” angle or even the “sci-fi cowboys” side of things but rather the robot sentience stuff.  We’ve been hungry for sentient robot stories for awhile now, hence why we made slogs like The Humans a hit so that’s informed what I think would fill that particular comics niche. 

The third Hourman AKA the Android Hourman was a character who popped up in the early 2000s from DC.  He was from One Million Years in the future and possessed a complex sentience and time travel abilities.  His comic is one of the real gems of its era, even if it’s been unfairly forgotten now.  

It’s deeply rooted in the nature of personal identity and self-definition and where that comes from, exploring the angle through the lens of both literal software programming as well as the patterns of history.  It’s an evergreen premise that brings together a lot of big, clever ideas while also making room for fun, jokey jaunts through history. 

Blockbuster: Zootopia, SING!

2016 was a big year for animated animal adventures.  We’ll get to Secret Life of Pets, this year’s real winner, in due course but for the moment I’m focusing on the talking animal runner-ups.  Zootopia and SING! Are structured so similarly I have to wonder if there was some kind of copyright violation involved.  

While thoroughly different films, one being a buddy cop adventure with questionable themes of racial discrimination and the other being a singing competition, both films are cashing in on the idea of animals dressing up and acting like humans and both made a ton of money off the concept.  Thankfully, comics have been to this lucrative well once or twice before with some really out there results, which brings us to Captain Carrot.

Premiering in the early ‘80s when DC was pretty much throwing anything against the wall, Captain Carrot, and the Zoo Crew was meant as a one-off funny animal comic pitch.  For whatever reason, the Zoo Crew became fairly popular and have had a long running history of cameos in the DCU, even returning as a part of the modern continuity.  Their whole joke really is just “animal superheroes, ” but it’s not like there was much more of a gimmick to SING! or Zootopia.  

What’s more, there’s already a lot of absurdist humor baked into the characters so it’s not like much work would be needed to adapt them.  Just speaking realistically, given this year featured 5 talking animal movies in its 10 biggest films of the year you have to think WB would want their own, especially after LEGO Batman makes them a ton more money. 

Blockbuster: Magnificent Seven, Westworld

I said that I didn’t think Westworld got big for being a sci-fi cowboy tale but I do think the western style is making a comeback these days.  Between Tarantino’s recent odes to the genre, Westworld itself, and the very popular Magnificent Seven the Western really is primed for a comeback and DC comics are the people to push that idea.  

I understand that Marvel is probably more inclined to making a Western as they like to experiment with stuff but I also think their universe would be entirely wrong for this subject.  The problem with a Marvel Western would be the same problem Wild Wild West, Cowboys and Aliens, Lone Ranger and DC’s own Jonah Hex had- they’d be a mixed genre Western.  

Look, I like the idea of a fantasy/sci-fi Western blend, but I think we’ve thoroughly exhausting that concept, it’s time for a more classic approach and for that subject DC are where you want to head.  They produced a ton of great Western heroes in the ‘70s that fit into a wide array of demographics and Western styles.  

Jonah Hex is a great Clint Eastwood type hero, El Diablo is a cool masked avenger of Old Mexico, Scalphunter was a kick-ass indigenous hero, and Bat Lash was a fun, maverick gambler type.  There’s more I could name, but my point is that DC/WB could easily staff their own Magnificent Seven film or even a Western universe if they wanted to.  

Blockbuster: The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Channel Zero

One of the big trends of 2016 was that horror films are ‘back,’ as box office draws.  Granted, this same conclusion seems to pop up every 3 years or so but it’s still worth noting on, especially given horror TV is also now starting to spread.  The biggest name of the horror revolution is still The Conjuring, much as it was in 2013 when the series first premiered.  

The Conjuring franchise has a lot of good elements like the excellent atmosphere and creepy visual style, but one of the coolest parts of the series is how much it already borrows from superhero logic.  Our heroes are a pair of paranormal investigators who end up actively targeted by supernatural forces while seeking out people to help and maintaining a trophy room of past successes on par with the Batcave.  Given that and the recent proclivity toward anthology series, I think the best approach here comes from one of DC’s more forgotten ‘70s series- The Phantom Stranger.

Phantom Stranger was a mysterious character of supernatural origins who existed as a humanized conception of the Platonic ideal of the mysterious.  He wandered the Earth solving supernatural mysteries through his vague powers, continually drawn to situations of abject horror and the macabre.  He’s a really cool character whose actually never had his mystery explained despite still being around today.  He’s basically a perfect fit for an anthology horror program as a host who can intervene without ever needing to dominate the proceedings. 

Blockbuster: Finding Dory, Secret Life of Pets

At this point I think I’ve fairly well established that “talking animal” was a big hit at the box office this year, but I’m not sure I’ve conveyed HOW big it is.  For comparison’s sake- Finding Dory grossed more at the box office than Civil War or Rogue One.  Secret Life of Pets made more than Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, or Doctor Strange.  It’s clear that this a genre ripe for exploitation and, in that vein, meet Rex, the Wonder Dog.  Rex was an old DC character from the 1950s when weird science fantasy and adventure stories were the big moneymakers of comics.  He was basically a higher concept version of Lassie except Rex predates Lassie by about 2 years.  

He was a hyper-intelligent dog who ran around saving people from some of the most insane situations you could imagine.  He road dolphins, he fought dinosaurs, he charted the Arctic, and he even served in World War 2.  Rex is such a weird part of comics history, made even weirder by the fact he’s actually stuck around and shown up several times in the modern era of comics.  I’m not exactly sure how you’d approach a Rex movie and whether or not you’d give him an internal monolog, but there’s so much fun backlog to the character it could easily turn into a full motion picture. 

Blockbuster: The Jungle Book

As I said,- lot of big hit talking animal films this year and Jungle Book was definitely one of them while also being curiously apart from the rest.  Disney has been working to make their blockbuster fairy tales stick for awhile now with limited success.  Even though they’ve all made a lot of money Maleficent is the only one to have that much cultural impact, so I don’t think people are actually that hungry for more fairy tale action flicks, especially given the failure of the competition.  In that vein, my Jungle Book take off is more based on mimicking that film’s unique style of sweeping visuals and “child in the wild” storyline. 

Anthro, who is named after anthropology, was a caveman character from the late ‘60s when DC was experimenting a lot with Caveman fiction as a way to capitalize on the fantasy trend of the era.  Actually, the idea of stone age fantasy had been somewhat popular in the ‘50s, with the late ‘60s as more of the last hurrah for the genre so I’m not sure why DC invested so much time in it, but they certainly did.  

Anthro’s status as the 1st boy on Earth was based on him being the first Cro-Magnon, a term which was only just entering the popular vernacular in the ‘70s.  That would make an Anthro film more in line with The Croods, except with the option of involving dinosaurs because this was a stone age FANTASY.  What’s more, we all seem pretty hyped for giant monsters these days so just having a franchise to fit dinosaurs into would probably be a good call.

Blockbuster: The People vs. OJ Simpson

This is such an obvious idea I'm kind of shocked no one’s tried it already.  The closest we’ve come to it was the ‘90s show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman but that was very much an issue of the week type series.  I’m talking about a show that explicitly focuses on the work of reporter Lois Lane in a universe where the world’s greatest threat is an immigrant hating billionaire with political aspirations. 

Look, realistically speaking The People vs. OJ Simpsons wasn’t a huge hit because it was specifically telling a courtroom drama but rather because it was telling a hard hitting and honest story about the struggle for justice when we all define it so differently.  Lois Lane is the best conceivable vehicle to explore that idea within the realm of superhero comics given her status on the ground level of this universe.  She doesn’t have powers or billions or even the authority of a costume, she just as her wits and a useful friendship to keep her safe.  

What’s more, her reporter status would let you view any number of big superhero type battles from a unique vantage point, offering a greater level of humanity to the standard carnage as well as an eye on the aftermath. 

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