June 24, 2010 / 2:47 AM / 9 years ago

What Hollywood can learn from "Jonah Hex"

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When comic books are turned into movies, they can become huge hits, like “Iron Man,” or resounding flops, a la “The Spirit.”

Put “Jonah Hex,” which hit theaters Friday, in the latter category. The Warner Bros. release of the DC Comics adaptation about an avenging Civil War veteran barely brought in $5.3 million during the weekend, one of the worst studio showings of the box office summer.

So what went wrong? And how should Hollywood proceed as it continues to develop the dozens of comic book and graphic novel adaptations in its pipelines?

In several respects, “Hex’s” problems can be chalked up to its singular and troubled production history.

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor wrote the initial script for the Warners/Legendary co-production, based on writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga’s Western bounty hunter, who first appeared in DC Comics’ “All-Star Western #10” in 1972. Five years later, the character earned his own self-titled series, which ran for 92 issues. However, though Hex appeared in other series through the years, he never became a major player in the DC universe.

Originally, Neveldine and Taylor also were set to direct, but that idea was cast aside after Josh Brolin came aboard to star. Animator Jimmy Hayward, co-director of “Horton Hears a Who!” took on the directing assignment as his live-action film debut.

But after Hayward delivered his cut, Warners decided to move in a different direction and brought in “I Am Legend” helmer Francis Lawrence to oversee reshoots. How extensive those reshoots were remains a subject of debate.

In the “Hex” the studio finally released, audiences can see signs of two movies painfully trying to coexist.

The dream sequence involving Brolin and bad guy John Malkovich, which pops up at least twice in the film, actually is part of Heyward’s original climax. The plot about stealing high-tech cannonballs, along with a glowing ball detonator, were added during Lawrence’s reshoots, as were scenes involving Hex’s back-story, President Grant (Aidan Quinn) and Hex talking to the dead. (The first cut kept his link to the dead more ambiguous.) Scenes with Michael Shannon and Will Arnett were trimmed to mere seconds.

Obvious evidence that the studio and filmmakers weren’t on the same page never bodes well at the box office. But there are other cautionary realities involving the movie that filmmakers would be wise to consider in the future when turning comic books into films.

- FANBOYS MIGHT NOT MAKE OR BREAK A FILM, BUT THEY NEED TO FEEL RESPECTED.

Although many film folks claim to have “comic book cred” — note how the annual July pilgrimage to Comic-Con has become de rigueur for genre moviemakers — the various “Hex” hands ultimately showed little regard for the original material and spirit.

“Hex” is a Western featuring a scarred bounty hunter. It is not heavy on the supernatural, and it certainly is not some “Wild Wild West” wannabe with lots of high-tech gadgets, guns and explosions.

When the filmmakers went beyond the comic character, they created a mish-mash of genres, giving the film the feel of a 1980s comic book movie. Simply put, this “Hex” was not one the fanboys recognized.

- PICK A RELEASE DATE CAREFULLY, AND NEVER UNDERESTIMATE PIXAR.

As “Hex” was sinking during the weekend, Disney opened Pixar’s latest, “Toy Story 3,” to $110 million. Warners might have thought it could succeed with a bit of counterprogramming, putting the young-male-angled pic against a family brand. But the domestic bow of “Toy 3” shows that nearly everybody, including “Hex’s” target audience, opted to see the further adventures of Woody and Buzz.

- NOT EVERY COMIC NEEDS TO BE MOVIE.

The movie version of “Hex” should have been rated R, made like a relatively cheap spaghetti Western instead of a PG-13 exercise with a budget said to have climbed to $50 million-$60 million, including reshoots.

If Warners didn’t want to commit to a more down-and-dirty version, it shouldn’t have made the movie. In fact, what “Hex” should have been, and still could be, is a limited TV series on HBO, FX or TNT. It would have been about a bounty hunter who is barely better than the men he hunts but who occasionally shows a spark of humanity.

- EXECUTIVES WOULD BE WISE TO NOT OVERREACT AND THINK NONMARQUEE COMIC BOOK TITLES CAN’T BE WORTHY OF ADAPTATIONS.

With April releases of the DC Vertigo comic “The Losers” tanking and “Kick-Ass” underperforming, some executives might be inclined to throw up their hands and decide that only such A-list superheroes as Green Lantern and Captain America are worthy of big-screen treatment.

But that would be a misreading of the tea leaves. Don’t forget, it wasn’t that long ago that skeptics scoffed at Marvel for making the first “Iron Man,” and though based on less-well-known graphic novels, “A History of Violence,” “Ghost World” and “Road to Perdition” found favor with critics. In fact, DC deserves praise for attempting to tackle the rich depths of noncaped characters.

Some comic titles might need more nurturing, and as with any other source material, need to be made with an eye on the budget.

If a movie based on a best-selling book bombs, no one says, “No more movies based on books!” But Hollywood often displays a different mentality when it comes to comics, regarding them like the little brother you grudgingly let play baseball with you and your friends.

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