It’s easy to see why a little-known Dark Horse Comics character would get adapted by a major studio, despite having appeared in barely more than a dozen comics. A buxom bounty hunter in black leather, Barb Wire proved to be the perfect choice for Universal’s newest star, Pamela Anderson. Director David Hogan plops Anderson in a script that writers Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken based on Casablanca and surrounds her with great character actors like Temuera Morrison and Udo Kier.
None of this is enough to make Barb Wire a good movie, but it does serve its purpose. Anderson does look attractive, as does Morrison. Modern superhero movies have no shortage of good-looking people, but they do lack any sense of sexuality or heat. Sure, Hayley Atwell had a lustful look in her eye when Peggy Carter rests her hand on Steve Rogers’s newly developed pec, but Marvel usually isn’t sexy, even when it’s dealing with sex (see: Eternals). Marvel and DC don’t suddenly need to start turning their films into the next Herogasm, but a little more sexual chemistry would help ground these stories about fantastic — and fantastically attractive — people.
As a writer and an artist, Frank Miller revolutionized comics by mixing hardboiled storytelling with expressive, Kirby-esque art and a keen sense of composition. The hardboiled sensibility stayed with Miller when he brought Will Eisner’s masked man the Spirit to the screen, but his skill as a visual storyteller seems to be lost. Using the same digital photography that Robert Rodriguez employed while adapting his Sin City, Miller attempts to make a moody and dreamlike world in which the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) battles criminal mastermind the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) while romancing a gaggle of beautiful women, including Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes. Although Miller occasionally achieves a shot as memorable as his comic book work, most of The Spirit falls apart, trying too hard to be interesting looking instead of legible.
For all of its many shortcomings, The Spirit does at least take seriously the visual aspect of superhero movies, something forgotten in most entries by Marvel and DC. Despite adapting one visual medium to another, films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home or Black Adam seem to simply slap their heroes on the screen, with no attention to color, blocking, or composition. Sure, some exceptions exist — for all of his other shortcomings, there’s no denying that Zack Snyder knows how to make superheroes look awesome — but we’ve simply come to accept ugliness in superhero movies, even those made by some of the richest companies in the world.
Introduced as one of the replacements for the Man of Steel during the Death of Superman event in the mid-90s, John Henry Irons aka Steel flew quickly to the big screen thanks to legendary producer Quincy Jones. Jones saw in Steel the Black superhero he long wanted to give kids, and thought basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, already a role model, would be the perfect star. While the giant O’Neal fits the look, he lacked the screen charisma needed to carry the movie. Fortunately, director Kenneth Johnson filled out the cast with charming and likable actors, including Richard Roundtree as inventor Uncle Joe, Judd Nelson as the villainous Burke, and Irma P. Hall as matriarch Grandma Odessa.
DC and especially Marvel desperately want to make fun movies, but they usually do it with snarky quips. Thor: Love & Thunder, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and others want to be liked so badly that they invite the audience to mock the very idea of superheroes. Steel is devoted to having fun with the audience, welcoming the viewer in with Roundtree’s million-dollar smile and Nelson’s over-the-top baddy. But it never points out the obvious ridiculousness of Shaq’s performance. Superhero movies should be fun — after all, they are about people in bright costumes punching each other. But they should embrace the fun of the concept, not make fun of it.
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