MAD at the Movies
article by Kevin Harvey
Let’s pretend for a moment that we haven’t seen a few hundred films inspired by comic book heroes or twice as many Sci-Fi movies that were, subtly or not, variations on Blade Runner and/or Alien – add Avatar, if you must- and try to reposition what is now an embedded internal inventory of crossed-referenced imagery and plot heist. Fine. The next step is harder: Try to shake off the knee-jerk reaction that MARVEL films are hipper, and thus superior, to DC’s under-appreciated cinema. I know, but pause for a second on Roger Corman’s attempt to film the Fantastic Four, the two dismal releases, the ill-conceived Electra, Man-Thing, Nick Cage’s two Ghost Rider’s, the Punisher films- for those of you old enough to remember the Bronson movies, Death Wish with a t-shirt- the dumbing down of Spiderman, whose Aunt Mae grows ever sexier, Howard the Duck! Enough. If ten were worthless, six were superb. Let’s go back to the roots. (Which is what pre-Beatles rock stars would do after a failed stab at being deep.)
It’s easy to forget that this all starts with comic books, a reading item designed to be disposable, read in large numbers by soldiers at war. DC’s iconic trio, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were created, respectively, in 1938, 1939, and 1941. It took Wonder Woman, the youngest of the three, until 2017 to get the cinematic treatment she deserved. Going back to Superman’s first appearance in 1938 that is a very long time. They have been the perfect product of a given period, childish cartoons, brilliant cartoons, tedious dullards, fascinating mysteries. They have gone in an out of fashion more often than shoes; returned from the dead more often than Dracula, quit jobs, changed haircuts, costumes, invisible planes and hidden hideaways too often to count. And yet the primary characters, not unlike Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes, are impervious to time or age: They may die, but they cannot be killed.
Comic books peaked during World War 2. Millions were bought, read, and passed on. Companies staggered, titles vanished. Companies with mob ties kept printing during paper shortages. Joe Palooka punched out Hitler; Superman was, well, Superman and Captain America dressed like Betsy Ross designed his battle togs. They stood for something: nothing less than an idealized, irony-free, version of America. The war, like all wars with a specific purpose, ended; people took up hobbies other than reading comics; the icons, in desperate need of transformation, rusted in place.
They had nothing to do but wait silently for aliens, or find ways to keep hiding their secret identities. Only EC, once educational, now entertaining, comics rocked it up. Entertainment was, for the most part, violence and horror.
(With irony waiting in the wings.) The EC comic line was truly extraordinary; its roster of artists, limited here to three, Wallace Wood, Bill Elder, and Jack Davis, were as talented as any three who ever picked up a pencil. It is safe, all these years later, to say that all three were possessed of genius. To deny them is to pull an elitist shot, to scoff at the medium.
There are two ways to look at the 1950’s: It was a drab, oppressive decade, fearful of Commies, sex, anyone who wasn’t white, and anything that wasn’t carefully demarcated as normal. OR, we can argue the decade produced Abstract Expressionism, an extraordinary generation of Jazz musicians, the BEATS, Rock n’ Roll, and EC Comics. Let’s stick with EC for a moment: EC’s Horror, Science Fiction, Crime, Shock, and Comedy scared America enough to produce a Comics Code of Authority, a ridiculous, Puritan, overlord - never quite located - as crushing as the Hayes Code was to American film. But, as EC’s titles collapsed in fear, leaving DC’s Superman and company frozen in the cleanest, most joyless comics of the day, MAD escaped. It turned itself into a magazine, freeing itself from the censorship of comics, and, most important, introduced American culture to IRONY. MAD was sarcastic, witty, corrosive and free, as important as Elvis, Kerouac, Pollack, and Charlie Parker. Its ripples washed over everything, changing everything, until, unnoticed,
it reached the shores of MARVEL, where its characters suddenly became human, capable of mistakes, and, most important, self-mocking. The election of JFK, the huge success of The First Family album, had nothing to with it; or, at best, very little. JFK was the 50’s. The 60’s arrived with his murder and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon. Having said that, the best of MAD gave us the best of R. Crumb, the best of the Underground Press. The best of MARVEL comics and the shout-out to DC that its characters, plots and tone, were locked in place. MARVEL, ironic MARVEL, was hip and DC wasn’t. Outdated and ignored, it was easy for much of the comic world to move on.
Here’s why I give MAD the credit: kids understood it. Still under the cultural control of their parents - in other words,
the people who would create a Comics Code Authority - kids knew something was wrong. MAD fascinated them; it was beautifully drawn, brilliantly written, and it made fun of everything. It made fun of books and plays the kids hadn’t read and films they hadn’t seen, but it didn’t matter. It gave voice and form to a feeling that was primarily underground.
The kid who thought he was the only one who realized how dull and nasty adults were discovered he wasn’t alone.
MAD blew around Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, Bob and Ray; it blew from Elvis to the Beatles to the Fugs; it gave birth to
a group of young cartoonists who would create the Underground comics of the ‘60’s. MAD covers, beautifully intricate, would appear in Robert Crumb’s dreams, as they would appear in mine. Could Vaughn Meader have parodied Kennedy without MAD. Would Kubrick have made Doctor Strangelove without Mad? The BEATLES weren’t the Marx Brothers; they were kids who loved the Goon Show. Give Mad its due.
Stan Lee caught it first, allowing the Fantastic Four to piss and moan amongst themselves, or at least two of them: Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm. They cracked wise in a way that BATMAN and Robin, for all the cheesy humor of the TV show, would never attempted. The Dynamic Duo was funny because it took itself so seriously. Too seriously, by far. As did DC in general. They became the grown-ups who pretended they hadn’t heard a fart in church. Spiderman, childish today - and getting younger- was a revelation: He was miserable! For a very long time the work that came out of MARVEL lived up to its name. Even its co-stars were extraordinary: Doctor Doom, The Silver Surfer; Galactus. Consider the Silver Surfer for a moment: he should have been ridiculous; dipped in mercury, he zoomed around the cosmos on a surf board.
A surf board! He shouldn’t know what a surf board was, let alone use the term to define himself. What if the ominous Galactus - a truly great creation drove an Interstellar Woodie? And yet they worked; every Marvel character and title worked. Doctor Strange for the acid crowd; the X-Men for communal misfits. The Phoenix Saga; the Kree-Skrull Wars; Miller’s breathtaking noir Daredevil; everything worked, until the movies took over. Desperate to catch up, DC was doing what it had always done. It perfected its comic books. It, of course, had earlier forays into television - Superman
in the 50’s, the camp Batman, three seasons of Wonder Woman, Superboy, Isis, Shazam, Swamp Thing - ranging from timeless to unwatchable; indeed, DC started the modern super-hero movie business with the first Brando-Reeves Superman: The Movie; Tim Burton’s Batman films- not nearly as good as they seemed at the time. Which is true of
most of Burton’s work. But still DC’s comics were just a tad uncool. Here is where the mystery deepens.
MARVEL stumbled into film with an unreleased Fantastic Four in which the Thing resembled one of those unnamed orange peanut candies, a dismal Doctor Strange TV movie, a worse Captain America, a big screen Howard the Duck.
Say what you will about Howard, he deserved better. Meanwhile DC’s comics were improving, changing endlessly,
often missing the mark; but, more often than not, improving. Marvel comics, on the other hand were not. No one realized it for a very long time, but Marvel had peaked. Stan Lee had been brilliant enough to post his artists on the opening page, accompanied by exaggerated (ironic?) adjectives and doing so created a family of insiders, members
of the Merry Marvel whatever. It didn’t matter that Stan took credit for things he hadn’t created; what he’d done was legitimize hip in a way that lasted. But look again at the films that followed: After SPIDERMAN hit, and hit BIG, the comics went to hell. Did the Spiderman films hold up? Toby McQuire became unbearable after the third film so they threw him off the Merry Marvel Bus and started again. From the very beginning.
So what are we looking at here, and why? An ancient fanboy’s complaint that his heroes aren’t given their due or something larger, gone undetected? The Senate Sub-committee that destroyed EC Comics, giving birth to the Comics Code Authority, was odious censorship. In truth DC, home the oldest icons, chocked and went bland. Granted. MAD
the comic morphed into MAD magazine and thrived, it is no longer interesting because its work is finished; the pity being there is nothing left in America to lampoon. Consider MAD a stone thrown into a body of water, the American
well if you must; recognize that its ripples affected everything, every art form, every institution, every kid reading and memorizing its collective genius and birth of IRONY. Again DC, fearful for the fate of its characters chocked, allowing the ripple to turn to wave and to wash up on Marvel’s shores. There was an air of self-parody to Marvel’s work that all but defined its HIPNESS. Each writer, each artist, inker, letterer, colorist was announced with blaring exaggeration, creating a hip family, a cult. DC was remained reluctant to give credit where credit was due. Fine. Flash forward to the films and tell me what has happened and why?
Are the Avenger’s movies really any good? Spiderman? The X-Men? Ignore all of Spiderman, including the Bono wrecked Broadway production. (Two plays lived there: Tamor’s fascinating myth and Bono’s week-old pastry.) Two of the X-Men films were excellent; the first Avenger movie, the set-up, Captain America’s surprising Winter Soldier, a BOND film if one decided to see it as such, we come to the question: Why are some Superhero movies embraced, while others are hissed at, slapped around, and thrown off the bus? And why now?
The first Christopher Reeves movies went down well, so well in fact that no one has since seemed quite right in the part. Until Reeves directed one himself that played exactly like an issue of ACTION Comics, and that was that. Burton’s two BATMAN films, weird and wonderful at the time, have aged poorly. George Clooney’s BATSUIT had nipples and everyone hated the next one enough to Batman back on the shelf. Spiderman starts huge only to become problematic; the X-Men trace a similar path, leading to the tragic LOGAN, a movie that leaves more bodies on the stage than Hamlet. It, too, is well received. The Avengers, crowded and chaotic, feel exhausted. BATMAN/SUPERMAN: The Dawn of Justice
is ill-conceived; BATMAN looks like a walk-in freezer and down deep, no one wants SUPERMAN killed for god’s sake!
He may be too good a guy for a hipster to admit liking him; but, hey, he’s SUPERMAN. The film is pretty much a dude until Wonder Woman zips in to save it. And, here, the world turns and my argument comes into focus. Gal Gadot is superb, sleek, formidable, a wonder. After half a century of misfires and costume changes, the corniest of DS’s BIG THREE is finally RIGHT! A few minutes on screen are the most talked about moments since Keith Ledger’s Joker, a horrifying take on Brando’s Kurtz, the center of what is almost certainly the greatest of the Superhero movies: The Dark Knight, a film that captures the madness of the American moment, even seeing more on the horizon. Which brings me, breathing again, back to Gadot’s Wonder Woman. If Ledger’s Joker was the man of the moment, what did the film say about Batman who has traveled from Adam West’s weird sincerity to a shattered billionaire uncertain of his place in the world. I’d argue. Here, that the ironic hipness of Marvel and most of its characters, had outlived itself. The world, missing Superman, needed a wounded BATMAN, just as it needed a Wonder Woman, witty and powerful, in a film directed by a woman. Irony, the middle finger of MAD, was nothing now but a meaningless gesture: a female goddess, the goddess of war no less, had returned to save us. Robert Bly’s teeth mother naked at last? Perhaps, but I know for sure that, handled properly, with creativity and respect, DC’s icons are far superior to most of Marvel’s cut-ups. And then the flawless Wonder Woman was followed by a cluttered Justice League that at least returned the Christ-like Superman to the grateful Amy Adams. Still, the movie, too often dark and messy, lacked a female center. Where do
we go now, I wonder, for that rejection of HIP, a return to emotional grandeur and female power? And, looking up,
I think: STAR WARS is just around the corner! And guess why everyone loves STAR WARS?