May 4, 2007

Marveling At It All

More comics talk: Penn, Church and others deliver critiques, plaudits and scoops for films to come

By Christopher Campbell

(L-R) Thomas Haden Church, Zak Penn, Joe Quesada and filmmaker Andrew D. Cooke geek out Thursday at Tribeca's comics panel (Photo: Christopher Campbell)

Initially, it seemed like Thursday's Heroes for Hire panel at Tribeca was going to be a disappointment for movie fans. First it was announced that moderator Kevin Smith was unable to attend due to illness. Then an exclusive video postcard from Stan Lee turned out to be just another advertisement for Spider-Man 3. And for a few minutes, actor Thomas Haden Church appeared bored, or at least feeling out of place, during the initial comic book discussion. But fortunately, the panelists quickly brewed up a terrific conversation on the state of comic book movies and on what can be expected from Marvel Comics adaptations in the near future.

In addition to Church, the panel featured X-Men franchise screenwriter Zak Penn, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada and filmmaker Andrew D. Cooke (Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist). Because the group consisted mostly of Marvel-related guests, the discussion mainly focused on movies made from Marvel properties, but there was room for some early commentary regarding the problems with last year's Superman Returns. "I think that Bryan [Singer] struggled a bit," Penn said of that movie's director. "He's trying to humanize these characters that are designed to be more like mythological god-like characters. Superman isn't designed to have flaws; he's designed to be messianic. And I think it's really hard to write yourself out of that corner. I think he did a really good job, but you know..."

"Superman happened to be perfect for the time it was written," Quesada added. "I mean he was written by immigrants. It's the story of Moses at its core, but it's the immigrant story as well. You know, the stranger from a strange land who comes to the new world. So I think at that time in which it was created, it resonated with so many young people."

Basically the consensus between the panelists was that Marvel heroes are typically more flawed than DC heroes and that Marvel villains are typically more justifiable than DC villains. "Superman has to put on a fa├žade in order for the rest of humanity to relate to him," Quesada said. "He has to become this bumbling guy Clark Kent. So at his core, Superman is a liar. Whereas Peter Parker is Peter Parker. So at his core, he's a more honest character."

Penn talked about the difference between his favorite villain, Magneto, who he claimed readers can begin to almost agree with, versus a villain like Lex Luthor, who is just plain over-the-top ridiculous. "Not to criticize the movie," he said of Superman Returns, "but I kind of felt like, wait, [Luthor is] going to kill all these people and completely destabilize the world to sell real estate? Wouldn't it just be cheaper to buy real estate and then sell it? I'm going to create this new continent and get people to move there, but the continent is made of black volcanic rock. I don't know; I just didn't get it."

This, of course, brought the conversation around to this week's main event, Spider-Man 3, and its near-justifiable villain Sandman, which allowed Church to finally participate. The Oscar-nominated actor talked about the "good intentions" and "tragic innocence" of Sandman, and joked about his special power to "clean cat boxes," but with both seriousness and sarcasm aside, he admitted that the idea behind his character is actually kind of silly. "When Sam Raimi was walking through the storyboards," he said, "every time we got to [the mention of Sandman's] DNA or his 'molecularly fused with sand' part, when he was explaining it to me he would snicker like I just did. There's just that absurdist suspension of disbelief that you have to roll with."

Penn was able to relate with the idea of a silly-sounding villain with the Marvel adaptation he's currently working on. "It's funny," he said. "One of the discussions on The [Incredible] Hulk has been that the villain is going to be this character from the comics, The Abomination, who will not be called 'The Abomination' out loud in the film. It's a silly name."

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Despite somewhat thinking he might get in trouble for discussing the upcoming movie, Penn had a few more things to say about the Hulk re-do. "One of the things that appealed to me as a kid about reading The Hulk," he said, "is that in no way is [it] a superhero story. The Hulk is a Jekyll-and-Hyde/Frankenstein horror comic. He is a man cursed with turning into his repressed id. To me, the first Hulk was not that film. It was not about the torment of being a person who cannot afford to get feelings of anxiety in modern culture. Marvel wanted to make that movie and they still want to make that movie and so now we are. And Ed Norton playing that role -- Fight Club is about a guy who's a lot like Bruce Banner."

Part of the reason that Marvel can make that movie is, of course, the fact that the comic company will be developing many of its own adaptations through the newly created Marvel Studios. Quesada said that there will be a new kind of synergy and much more control relating to Marvel Comics movies thanks to this expansion. And Penn, who is working on a number of upcoming Marvel films, was able to attest to this. "The first thing that happens on any Marvel movie that I work on, we say, 'Let's get every Marvel comic that's relevant to what we're doing' " he said. " 'The guys who know them all backwards and forwards, let's get them out here.' And now that it's Marvel, and it's not going through another studio, we've been talking about the ultimate goal to mimic the way that the Marvel Universe [has] Spider-Man run into The Hulk runs into etc. Someday soon [we'll] have a movie where those kinds of crossovers exist."

Quesada added that in his reading of Penn's scripts for The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man that he's noticed a good amount of winks and nods to the fans, which will be even more possible without another studio's control. This segued into a discussion of the unavoidable fanboy disappointment and the unfortunate negativity viewable on the Internet. Quesada and Penn gave the usual examples and the usual defenses, but Church chimed in with how he was recently directed to deal with being true to his character's comic book continuity. "Sam gave me an original copy of the #4 issue [of The Amazing Spider-Man] where Sandman is introduced. It was hermetically sealed in glass. So I examined not only the cover, but also the frame and the little staples in the back."

At last the panel opened up to allow Cooke to talk about his new Will Eisner documentary, which just premiered at Tribeca. "I think a lot of what we're talking about here," he said, "Will did with The Spirit. Marvel had its own universe, but Will in the '40s had The Spirit and put it in the real world."

Penn added that any fans of comic book history or comic books in general owe it to themselves to see Cooke's film. "I knew that [Will] had written graphic novels," he said. "But I didn't realize how responsible he was personally for forwarding graphic novels. The idea that 300, a sword and sandals epic, like the kind Hollywood doesn't do that often anymore, is actually based on a graphic novel by a comic book artist. There's something very interesting about how directly Will Eisner is really influencing pop culture."

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