We all know there’s no longer any shame in being a comic book fan. The socially maladroit stereotype familiar from The Simpsons may still be mined for comedic effect on shows like The Big Bang Theory, but not to like comic-book movies in an age of Guardians of the Galaxy is to risk being a pop culture outcast.
Indeed, so total is the mainstream Hollywood penetration of this once-maligned subset that not only are three of the current top-ten grossing films of all time based on comic book characters (The Avengers, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight), but the San Diego Comic Con has now become Hollywood’s most important annual showcase for its blockbuster wares – with major stars and directors regularly showing up to press the flesh with a zeal they certainly don’t feel obliged to exhibit at the world’s top-tier film festivals.
So, “yay” for the mainstream legitimisation of comic book movies. Nevertheless, in an age when Marvel is now a recognisable movie brand on a par with Pixar, there’s something timely about the arrival of a new Sin City film. A belated sequel to Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s 2005 adaptation of Miller’s own sick and twisted series of the same name, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, is primed to challenge the comic book movie’s new-found respectability with an all-new slew of adult-rated tales brimming with hardboiled profanity, sleazy sex and visceral violence.
Its promo poster – featuring a nearly nude Eva Green (cast as the film’s titular femme fatale Ava Lord) – has already been banned by America’s anatomically averse ratings agency, the MPAA. With the film containing a rogue’s gallery of gimp-masked hookers, pneumatic stripper and pustular crime lords, not to mention a plethora of gun, knife and sword-wielding psychos as its heroes, expect it to provoke a fair bit more media hand-wringing when it hits cinemas in the coming weeks.
But it’s precisely this gleeful courting of controversy that makes it so interesting. In returning to the retro, highly stylized world of Sin City, Rodriguez and Miller are providing an ongoing reminder of the role adult-rated themes (both Sin City films carry 18 certificates) have played in the strange evolution of the comic book movie.
It’s an oft-overlooked fact, for instance, that the form’s current “Golden Age” began, not with the first tween-friendly X-Men film in 2000, but with the unexpected success of the blood-soaked superhero/horror hybrid Blade two years previously. A fringe character on the Marvel roster, the half-man/half-vampire/all-black antihero (played by a surly Wesley Snipes) became the first genuine Marvel box-office champ, scaring up $132 million in ticket sales without compromising on gore, grit or the racial origins of its protagonist. It was an exploitation movie made good – designed for an adult audience and freed from the compromises that come when kid-friendly fast-food tie-ins have to be considered.
That exploitation edge goes back to the 1960s. Long before Superman: The Movie (1978) demonstrated the blockbuster potential of men with capes, the first real ripple of comic book activity on the big screen happened in the midst of the counter-culture. Campy film versions of sexed-up Euro comics such as Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik (both 1968) proved popular with midnight movie crowds hungry for transgressive characters, trippy visuals and the chance to cop an eyeful of nubile female flesh. That last impulse can’t, of course, be defended as a progressive turning point. When Barbarella opened with Jane Fonda stripping down to her birthday suit and proceeded by gussying her up in a series of figure-revealing outfits, it established a template that would see comic book heroines on the big screen explicitly replicating their ridiculously proportioned printed forms. That particular male fantasy is something from which the Sin City films hardly shy away (small wonder that Rodriguez was once attached to a Barbarella remake). It was also the chief selling point of Ivan Reitman’s adaptation of the erotica-obsessed sci-fi comic Heavy Metal (1982); ditto Pamela Anderson’s misbegotten bid for big-screen stardom as the vampy, voluptuous Barb Wire (1996).
Those films, however, came and went while Hollywood was still in the midst of figuring out how comic book movies really worked. By the late 1980s, Superman had gone on a Quest for Peace only for the franchise to fall to pieces. Tim Burton’s Batman, meanwhile, had hit big in 1989, but the kinkier, transgressive quality that had made it such an unusual beast was the first thing to go when its sequel (featuring the S&M-tinged Catwoman) made less money. The subsequent films rapidly became inane toy adverts for children and the series promptly ground to a halt until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins provided a more adult take on the character in 2003.
In the pre-Blade interim, though, the fanboy fantasy of having a comic-book film that didn’t pander to kids was kept alive somewhat by Alex Proyas’s adaptation of The Crow (1994), a surprisingly good goth-flavoured supernatural revenge fantasy. Though marred by the on-set death of star Brandon Lee, it was pitched at an 18-plus audience just old enough to have been among the first generation of comic book fans whose minds were blown by Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Watchmen eventually became a movie in its own right in 2009, by which point comic book culture was well on its way to becoming thoroughly embedded in the mainstream. The film didn’t come close to satisfying the graphic novel’s fervent fans, but nor did it kowtow to the multiplex crowd, remaining unapologetically adult in content – right down to the kinky sex, erectile dysfunction and prominence of Doctor Manhattan’s giant blue penis.
The same might be said of the critic-baiting delirium offered up by the Kick-Ass films. Adult may not necessarily mean grown-up in such cases, but in courting the kind of outrage that has historically attached itself to comics (the US Senate’s Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee of the 1950s identified them as a threat to the moral wellbeing of America’s youth), the likes of Sin City, Watchmen and Kick-Ass are useful cinematic reminders that a little corruption of the mainstream is necessary to keep it fresh.
• Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For is on general release from 22 August.