Glasgow Film Festival is saluting the growing powers of comics on the big screen
IT DOESN'T require spider-sense or x-ray vision to see that superhero movies have become the cornerstone of the film industry over the last decade.
Whether it's The Dark Knight's billion-dollar box-office haul, Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man-fuelled comeback, or the blogosphere going into meltdown over the casting of the new Superman (Brit actor Henry Cavill, if you haven't heard), comic book movies are big business.
Barely a summer goes by without some costumed crusader dominating the release schedule (this year there's Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern), and the San Diego Comic-Con has eclipsed Cannes as the most important annual showcase for Hollywood's blockbusters.
So the Glasgow Film Festival's decision to embrace all things comic book is rather timely.
The GFF has recruited Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar to programme the "Superheroes in Glasgow" strand – a mini festival featuring creative workshops from Millar and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, premieres of superhero-themed films, and special screenings of restored classics (including the first-ever UK cinematic outing for Richard Donner's cut of Superman II).
It should be geek nirvana, though for the Glasgow-based Millar, it's also an opportunity to reflect on the way the industry has changed.
"Superheroes used to be the preserve of the journeyman director, but in the last ten years, guys like Sam Raimi, Ang Lee and Chris Nolan have really pushed it into the mainstream," he says.
"It makes sense for a film festival to acknowledge all that, especially if it's trying to reach out to as many people as possible."
The first real explosion of superhero activity on screen happened in the mid to late 1960s. In cinemas, campy film versions of sexed-up Euro comics such as Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik would appeal to the counter culture and lure in the midnight movie crowds, while on TV the hugely popular Batman show, starring Adam West, created a public perception of superheroes that endured for decades.
Millar has included Danger: Diabolik in the festival to help film fans chart how far things have come. "Superheroes are infinitely malleable; they can be shaped to fit the world at the time," he says.
For Millar, that malleability remains the key to understanding their enduring appeal: "People love superheroes in hard times, you know? Superman was created in the 1930s and it's no coincidence that in the decade since 11 September superheroes have dominated Hollywood. When times are tough, audiences love a wee bit of escapism."
Blips in the socio-economic fortunes of the world are not the sole reason comic book movies have had such a torturous journey to big-screen dominance.
The brouhaha surrounding the production of Superman II – during which director Richard Donner was fired and much of his footage reshot so producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind could avoid paying Marlon Brando his fee – set a precedent for the way Hollywood would mishandle comic book adaptations.
How else do you explain the failure to build on the momentum of a global phenomenon such as Tim Burton's Batman in 1989? When its darker, kinkier (and superior) sequel Batman Returns made slightly less money at the box office, Hollywood's solution was to bring in a commercially safe director (Joel Schumacher) and churn out extended toy commercials. The films fell by the wayside.
"It's only in the last ten years that the studios have come to respect the material," Millar says.
Groundbreaking work by comic book writers such as Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) during the 1980s and 1990s played a part in changing attitudes. As did the rise of the internet, which gave comic book fans a voice the studios couldn't ignore.
The gap between comic book writers and the film industry has also narrowed. "Any big comic guy can now get a meeting with any A-list director, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago," marvels Millar.
He's not kidding. Having already worked with Angelina Jolie (on Wanted) and Nic Cage (on Kick-Ass), he's collaborating with Tony Scott on an adaptation of his supervillain epic Nemesis. He's also just sold the film rights to his latest book, Superior.
Millar is also hard at work proving Glasgow is as good a city as any in which to locate a superhero story with his directorial debut Miracle Park, a microbudget film he says has more in common with Paranormal Activity than Iron Man 2.
"I wanted it to feel really grounded, but show superpowers in a way you haven't seen before. If you saw superpowers in real life, it wouldn't really look magical. It would either happen too quickly to see or look so matter of fact you wouldn't really notice. So the plan is to make it a lo-fi superhero movie, make it really straight, really frightening and probably get an 18 certificate." Bring it on.
For further details of Superheroes in Glasgow, visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 06 February, 2011
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