Jonah Hex and Comic Book Movies

Jonah Hex and Comic Book Movies

Flash Toons

(Warning: I get on the big rant horse, complete with fist pounding and a heart attack at the end ala John Belushi on SNL.)

Hollywood’s mad  conversion  of comic book properties to  film, spinning them Rumpelstiltskin-like into gold has hit a snag.  Sadly this had to happen with one of the few titles that, to my mind, had the potential to be really interesting.  Before I go on I should give you some disclosure: I used to read comic books as a kid, mostly horror comics and later, as an adolescent; I read the superhero titles.   I am not one of those people who gets a nerd-rage when the movies deviate from the comic book source material.  What works in one medium may not work in another – that is why we have both comic books and movies.  If they have to modify things a bit to make a better movie, then so be it, I say.  So when I say that I don’t care for most superhero movies, it’s not because they’ve deviated from the original material, it’s because these movies don’t work for me as movies.

This last summer Iron Man 2 hit the screens.  It made more money faster than any other film in movie history to this point, if I remember correctly.  I didn’t see it.  Why? I saw the first one and it was okay.  I tried to watch it a second time and turned it off to go do something more interesting, such as washing the dishes or sorting the recycling here in the Fortress of Madness. I don’t like Tony Stark; obnoxious self absorbed rich folks bore me and wrapping them in CGI powered armor so they can run around and ‘splode  stuff doesn’t sweeten the pot.

Up yours, Iron Man!

All superhero movies are, I admit, not created equal. Even The Dark Knight, except for the parts with The Joker, also dragged; again, I simply don’t care about drama-trauma of the rich and powerful, in this case Bruce Wayne.  The Joker, on the other hand, as the living embodiment nihilism, his is a violent crusade to undermine the hierarchical structure of society while pissing all over everything it values.  Love that. In short, he’s the American Dream; not the American Dream of buying more stuff than anyone else until you pop like tick from credit card debt; rather, the other American Dream, the dream of waking up one morning, getting a big pair of scissors and going to work to cut off the boss’s balls in defiance of a life of uncertain wage-slavery.  Batman, on the other hand, is The Man, who, unable to maintain the status quo despite by being rich and powerful, stacks the deck further in his favor and then sticks an ace or two up his sleeve just to make sure everything goes his way.  Heath Ledger as The Joker is deliciously evil.  Christian Bale, despite growling his way through the film, is flat and boring.  As I said, half the movie works- The Joker half.

Speaking of flat and boring, Superman Returns was just awful.

I gave up on the Spider-Man movies after the first one, the saccharine ending of the film totally putting off that franchise. Sam Raimi had Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin for first film, a casting choice that should have been perfect.  It fell horribly flat.  I have no idea how, but it did. I saw bits and pieces of the sequels and there was nothing in what I saw to make me want to see more.

I didn’t care for the X-Men movies except for the second one, X-Men: United, but not so much that I could tell you why I liked it without going back and watching the lot for a little “compare and contrast” action, which would require re-watching all three, a task I’m totally opposed to undertaking.  I don’t want to see the third one ever again.

The other problem I have with most superhero films is that they are predictable.  The hero isn’t going to die.  The villains are usually not that interesting (except for Ledger as The Joker or Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor back in the day).   I know that lots of people like superhero movies in spite of that. I’m just not one of them.

I’m not pissing in Hollywood’s Wheaties to be mean.  Capturing the essence of one medium and recreating what works about it in another medium is tough going.  What made The Amazing Spider-Man amazing to me as a twelve-year-old parked at the dining room table with a fresh stack of comics, a bottle of root beer and a box of Red Vines is specific to the comic book medium and being twelve.  Peter Parker is me.  He’s awkward.  He’s a little nerdy. When he gets on his Spider-Man suit and goes swinging around New York, I’m Spider-Man too.  As Spider-Man, I beat up the baddies while firing off witty one liners and gooey webbing.  In the end I’ll save the girl, but I just can’t quite seem to win her over as Peter Parker.  Sweet agony!

The older me –  the me that makes a mortgage payment, goes to work every day and takes care of the kids, isn’t so interested in winning over Mary Jane Watson.   She’s high maintenance; just the sort of girl you marry if you want to have your life force sucked away in an endless cycle of drama.  Screw that! I have stuff to do.  Once you’ve had a few kids, a divorce or two, get down-sized a few times and deal with an IRS audit, the fears that you harbored as an adolescent are replaced by bigger fears – like your kids ending up on a milk carton or  the transmission in your car dropping off in rush hour traffic or something.  You outgrow the world of superheroes. I digress.

The big blockbuster releases of this last summer were ho-hum from my point of view: Iron Man 2 and a bunch of 3D animated movies that kids can space out to while their parents can laugh at the sitcom quality comedy.  You might be thinking, “Hey! Captain Midnight!  You did see Toy Story3 and Shrek 4!  They were awesome!”   No.  I didn’t see them. Shrek isn’t funny because  Michael Myers stopped being funny in, like, I dunno, 1990 or so.  I didn’t think the first Toy Story was funny so I didn’t see the sequels.  Yeah, they might be as good as getting a massage with a happy ending and soapy!-soapy! while being spoon fed chocolate covered cheesecake, but I’ll never know because after getting burned by Shrek 3, I’m not going to be seeing anymore of those things.  One more thing: Yeah, they’re “for kids,” which means the theater is going to be full of kids, an unfortunate side effect of sex, which are horrible creatures and best avoided.

Do you feel lucky?

So this last summer, for me at least, sucked for movies.  The only movie I was exited to see was Jonah Hex.  “Finally!”  I thought to myself, “Hollywood does a comic book character with a decidedly different story arc.” I have to confess that I never really read the comic book.  What I remember of the Jonah Hex comic books were the super creepy covers, which had the look of a horror comic as much as a western, usually with Hex in some impossible situation that dripped of bloody impending doom.

Jonah Hex opened and bombed!  It bombed like a B-52 over the jungles of Southeast Asia.  How bad did it bomb?   Let’s say that you took a job working at McDonald’s on June 18th, the day Jonah Hex opened. Let’s say that you worked there for a month before quitting.  In that month you’d have made more money than Jonah Hex.  That’s not hyperbole.  If you worked twenty hours a week at minimum wage, your gross income for those four weeks would be $580 plus all the food and soda you horked down when the Second Assistance Shift Manager wasn’t looking.  Jonah Hex lost forty million dollars, not counting promotional costs.  The winner is you.  People avoided Jonah Hex like it had herpes.  The critics didn’t like either.  Roger Ebert said of  it “Jonah Hex is totally filled with vomit and diarrhea.”  Okay, he didn’t say that EXACTLY, but he and most of the other critics didn’t care for it.  Jonah Hex scores a horrific 13% fresh on RottenTomatoes dot Com.  The buzz on the web wasn’t good either.  Jonah Hex eking out a C rating from Yahoo users at Yahoo movies.  These are the same people that gave Wild Wild West a C+.    So what happened?  Was Jonah Hex really that bad?  Is it worse than Wild Wild West?

Stop, children! What's that sound?

Jonah Hex opens with a prologue that gives you everything you need to know going into the film in a nice concise bit of exposition, with a montage and some nifty comic book-like animation mixed together.  From here we pick up the story.  Jonah Hex, is a laconic uber-badass bounty hunter, who roams the Old West because that is what uber-badass bounty hunters do.  The US Army catches up with Hex at the behest of President Grant.  A train was robbed by a scum bucket named Quintin Turnbull and his gang of disgruntled ex-Condeferates, who have it in for the Union.  This train was carrying components to some horrible super weapon.   How horrible is this super weapon? It’s so horrible that during the Civil War, the Union decided not use it because it would be too cruel, so instead General Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground and scorched a large part of Georgia during his March to the Sea, which was considered to be a good country mile more humane than this “super weapon.”  Does that should horrible enough?  President Grant believes that Hex can help the Army find Turnbull before he bombs Pearl Harbor, kidnaps Santa Claus, and shoots Old Yeller or whatever he’s planning.  Hex is only too glad to hunt down Turnbull, because as we saw in the exposition at the beginning of the movie, Hex and Turnbull have some ugly history.  The bulk of the movie is about Turnbull gathering his resources to attack Washington D.C. and Hex hunting hum down.  Will Jonah Hex foil Turnbull’s evil plan?     And here we have the seeds of failure. Could they have thought up a more cliched plot?  Only if they tried to shoehorn in a love interest . . . such as a hard bitten hooker with a heart of gold?  Oh, wait, never mind; they did that too – Megan Fox.

Aside from not being very original, Jonah Hex has the feel that it was edited by committee.   There is no build up of tension leading to the final showdown between Hex and Turnbull.  This is the part of the movie where I should be on the edge of my seat.  When it happens, it feel like just another part of the movie – entertaining, but not very gripping. There are several points in the movie that I had the feeling we skipped something, like a connecting scene was either cut or never written, or maybe some small bit of exposition was cut or never written; making Jonah Hex feel choppy.  Let me give you a hypothetical example, in one scene Jonah Hex is making strawberry pancakes for Frederick Douglass and Robert E Lee, then in the next scene he’s punching Rhet Butler in the face with a duck.  How did we get from one place to the other?  I dunno.

Another problem I had was that the producers of Jonah Hex seemed a little frightened to commit the movie in one direction and stick with it.  On the one hand they wanted to make a two-fisted Sergio Leone-styled western, but since it came from a comic book, they probably figured that it needed a fantastical element to it, in the mode of Wild Wild West.  There was also probably at least one in the bunch, who, like me, was totally creeped out by the Jonah Hex comic book and its covers and wanted to take the movie to a dark, supernatural place.  The producers, unable to work out exactly what they should do, took the coward’s way out and did all three.

The producers then added in a totally unnecessary romantic subplot which goes nowhere and is in no way essential to any part of the story.  Megan Fox is a piece of furniture with tits.  She’s there as eye candy and a recognizable name they can put on the movie poster next Josh Brolin’s.

Megan Fox is a whore

Jonah Hex is presented as a Man With No Name type of character; echoing Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (if you’ve not seen it, you should; it’s big buckets full of awesome.) which is pretty square with the Jonah Hex comic book, or so I’ve been told and it works for me.  What works less well is the Wild Wild Westing of the film, specifically stuffing in a superfluous character who builds saddle mounted Gatling guns and tiny crossbows that fire dynamite.  I’m not saying that we’ve crossed  in to Giant Spider territory, but we’ve certainly skirted the border.  It’s a terrible way to stuff in the race  and slavery issue which sparked the Civil War, which in turn is prologue to Jonah Hex. It didn’t kill the movie for me, personally, but it is a bit of an eye roller, especially when contrasted with some of the movie’s darker elements.   This brings me to Jonah Hex’s new found supernatural powers, such as talking to the dead and precognition, which might send comic nerd purists running for their pitchforks and torches as neither is part of the comic book.  In my opinion  the novel tinkering around with the Jonah Hex character turned out well.  Talking to dead is dark and unsettling, which is in keeping with the dark western motif of the film, and further marks Jonah Hex as an outsider and with a name like Hex, something weird has to be going on with him. The precognition functions, for story purposes, like Spider-Man’s danger sense, only watered down.  This give Hex an edge as almost nobody is going to “get the drop on him.”  I might be reading too much into the movie by suggesting that Hex has  given the power of precognition.  It could be that he doesn’t have it and I’m just giving the director and writers too much credit in their construction of the action scenes. As powers go, neither launch him into superhero territory.

My fan belt broke too.

The plot for the script is dishwater weak and as confused as Sara Palin with a Rubik’s Cube (Awwww. Just look at this . . . why donchya?). The dialogue is cracking, with most of the juicy stuff going to Josh Brolin’s Hex, and there are several scenes that were well written end effective.   I especially like the scene where Jonah Hex arrives at the US Army camp for his briefing after being drummed into service .  He and the commanding officer have a fun little back and forth before Hex interrogates a corpse that used to be one of Turnbull’s men.  The scene starts light with the perfunctory introduction, leading into a conversation between the officious major and the laconic Hex which is as cliche as it is amusing before moving on to the interview with the corpse.  This bit is great.  It’s nice and tense and we get a little exposition slipped in without even knowing it. The interview ends on a chilling note that I don’t want to spoil.

Jonah Hex is a series of entertaining scenes and a few bad ones loosely strung together like a candy necklace with maybe a third of the little candies missing.  The acting is solid, Josh Brolin is especially great.  Every scene where he’s Hexing it up is pretty much gold.  Michael Fassbender, as Burke, Turnbull’s lead henchman, overshadows Malkovich is terms of menace.  The scenery and art direction are solid, very much creating an appropriate environment for the Hex universe.  The music by Mastadon is a little heavy handed. . . okay, a lot heavy handed.  I hope they try again with Josh Brolin as Jonah only next time have a production with a clear idea of what the finished movie should be and stick with rather than Mickey Mousing around.   All in all, Jonah Hex could have been a great movie, but instead collapsed into a pile of some of the nicest rubble you’ll ever see.

Really? Really?

While I’m talking about it, I might as well give  Jonah Hex a rating.  It gets one of its Vincent only because Josh Brolin grimacing his way through the movie makes it entertaining.  It get the other for some fun dialogue, a few awesome scenes and spiffy art direction.

Two out of five Vincents

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