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‘The Report’ Solidly Struggles for Relevance

The Report is a good movie facing an uphill battle to find a wide audience and awards glory. The latter is pretty unlikely for anyone except for Adam Driver, who’ll be recognized far and wide for his role in Marriage Story before The Report. The former is a shame, because writer and director Scott Z. Burns does a solid job of turning pretty difficult material into a compelling narrative.

The Report dramatizes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s use of what it called enhanced interrogation procedures and came to be more correctly labeled as torture. Driver is, as usual, terrific as lead investigator Daniel J. Jones, while Annette Bening pulls off a believable Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The cast also features a who’s who of top TV talent from the past five to ten years, including Jon Hamm, Matthew Rhys, Jennifer Morrison, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll and Maura Tierney. I really liked the casting of Ted Levine (best known as serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs) as CIA director John Brennan.

Technically, it’s a very well done movie of the story everyone says they wish there were more of. It’s well-written, well-cast, well acted and effectively evokes both the grit and grime of anonymous black sites with both slick and merely functional bureaucratic settings. It lacks the melodramatic sweep that made, for example, Oliver Stone’s awesome JFK a riveting tale of investigation and government corruption, but it also sticks to a much more conventional version of the truth.

The movie covers material that ranges from recreations of some of the most egregious and offensive acts committed by American government officials in the name of protecting the nation from the next 9/11 to committee meetings and detailed and excited discussions in a sealed subterranean investigation room. This is Driver’s movie and he makes Jones a surprisingly likable bureaucratic protagonist fighting to get the story both correct and out to the public.

The real problem the movie has is a dramatic one. Yes, the material uncovered by the report is dramatic and shocking. But the report also came and went in real life, without making the impact on policy that it warrants. Which raises another problem in terms of seeking a wider audience as it plays so neatly into the extremely polarized political divisions of American society that there’s no way it could change anyone’s mind. Its portrayal of Democrats as the good guys and the Republicans as willingly and completely complicit is only countered by a few jabs at former President Obama and his desire to avoid extreme and impractical political battles. It ends up portraying Jones’ dive into the truth as impotent — in the end, it doesn’t matter that he’s right, that he’s documented horrible things. He never had a chance to spark change.

And The Report meets the same fate. Driver makes it worth a watch, and it is smart and intelligent — it’s just a question of how many people really want that.

The Report is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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The teaser trailer that made ‘Batman’

I have strong memories of seeing this teaser trailer playing many times in late 1988 and early 1989 at the Gallagher Theater in the Student Union at the University of Arizona. It was the first time I recall hearing of people paying full admission to a theater just to see the trailer.

(Side note: When I was a kid, we called these previews, not trailers. I know why they're called trailers, as they used to run after the movie back in the old, old days. But why we still call them trailers when previews makes more sense eludes me. I can't even remember when the term trailer came back into fashion.)

I was not yet much of a DC or Batman reader at that time, and therefore only tangentially aware of the controversy around casting Michael Keaton. So this trailer was really the first look anyone had at this movie and it sold it completely and totally.

The importance this movie had at the time for comics is easy to underestimate in this day and age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But there was a time in the 1980s when comics fans knew the medium was full of storytelling gold while the general public still thought of comics as kid stuff and the Biff! Pow! Sock! of the Adam West series defined the idea of comic book adaptations. This was going to be the movie that got comics noticed! That proved to the world that they weren't just kid stuff! And then everyone would flock to comics shops to get in on the hobby, making all those collectible issues the die-hards had been hoarding for years worth a literal fortune!

Some of that came true, some of it didn't. But I still think this is one of the best uses of a teaser trailer in modern movie history.

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Random notes: Comic-Con, Pacific Rim, Sequart and Drive-ins

Just a few notes to pass the time while I try to find some time to read a few comics to write about here.

  • I will be attending San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday only! This will be my first trip to the Big Show in three years, I think. Very much looking forward to it! Anyone know of any particularly good new COMICS projects I should check out while I’m there? I think it’s cool that Kazuo Koike is going to be there, though I doubt I’ll be at all inclined to stand in a long line to meet him. Anyway, if you see me, say hi. I expect I will be mostly on the floor and avoiding the lines to get into panels, with one exception …
  • That exception is the reason for my visit. I will be appearing on the Sequart: Advancing Comics as Art panel, Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in room 24ABC. Sequart, in case you don’t know (and if you’re reading this blog, how come you don’t know?) published my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen. They also have gotten into the movie business, with Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, and a bunch of upcoming projects. I helped out a bit with their upcoming release, Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I was interviewed for the film and provided some additional assets for the shoot. I’ll be appearing on the panel to support this film and the filmmakers, Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennart, as well as Sequart founder Julian Darius. There should be lots of good stuff going on, so if you can attend only one panel at Comic-Con (lucky you!), make it this one!
  • Pacific Rim is a really fun movie. As I mentioned, I saw it a while back and wrote about the VFX work on the film for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine (who also will be at Comic-Con, stop by booth 1535!) and with its release now imminent, I have to say I really had a fun time with this movie. It’s crazy insane in all the right ways. And it’s an original film! Not a sequel, not a reboot, not an adaptation — not a hoax! It’s really cool and I think anyone who gives the movie a chance will be pleasantly surprised if not turned into a big fan.
  • Additional movie fun: Both Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are also a lot of fun. I wrote extensively about MU for Animag – check out the cover story here — and it’s funny and cool and looks great, through without rising to the level of Pixar’s best. Me 2 impressed me with the quality of its animation, which looks absolutely terrific. The minions are hilarious and Steve Carell is really good as the weirdo Gru. Again, not quite as innovative as the first one, but still worth the time. 
  • I caught both those films — along with The Internship and a second viewing of Man of Steel — at the Vineland Drive-In Theater in City of Industry, Calif. This is an ideal setting for parents like myself, as 2-year-old Kaya can make all the noise in the car she wants without disturbing anyone else and then, after she falls asleep, my wife and I can enjoy a second movie for less than the price of one at the Arclight or a similar arena. The image quality is quite good, and the sound comes in over the FM radio, and it’s a better experience by far than it was when I was a kid and you had to listen through those little window-mounted mono speakers. Drive-ins are few and far between these days, so I want to call attention to this little gem because it’s a fun experience that I think many movie buffs with young families would enjoy.
That’s it for now. Later.
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At the Movies: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim

Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel.

I pretty much only get to see movies I am writing about these days, so it’s a good thing a lot of those are movies of interest. Here are some notes on my summer blockbuster viewings so far, including Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim.

I saw Man of Steel a few days before it was publicly released, as I wrote an article on the VFX in the movie for Animation Magazine. (It’ll be in the issue out at Comic-Con, as well as online, but more about CCI in a moment).

There was a lot I liked about the movie. And, honestly, I’m surprised it’s generated as much debate as it has. My first reaction was that the movie was really good. I very much liked the new take on Superman that Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder had come up with. I liked Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams was a terrific Lois Lane. Those are all very hard things to do. If I had one complaint, it was that the fights could have been trimmed back as the destruction becomes a bit overwhelming even though it’s done incredibly well. I particularly liked one shot in the final fight between Zod and Superman where Zod punches him through four or five buildings, with the interior workings of each building exposed in incredible detail.

A lot of Superman fans really dislike the movie, and its more modern portrayal of Superman. I, however, was very glad to see a different take on the character even though I understand that his movie doesn’t give him the heart or idealism that, say, Christopher Reeve brought to the role. But we’ve already had that movie, and a decent sequel and two not-so-decent ones and a disappointing attempt to revive that style. I also am glad someone can strip away a lot of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the Superman mythos over the year. It helped tremendously to ground the movie in today’s world. Superman is still a somewhat distant character, but the world’s reaction to him in this movie and his actions all make sense for a story set in the 21st century instead of the 1930s. Those who want a simpler, happier Superman shouldn’t look to today’s feature films, which operate under economics that require such broad global appeal to audiences of all ages that this kind of PG-13 take on the character is the only type a studio would even attempt.

In the weeks since I’ve seen the movie, I have to admit my enthusiasm for the movie has cooled. I will look forward to seeing it again when it hits Blu-ray, a process that softened my takes on movies like The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus.

Moving on: I loathed Star Trek Into Darkness. You can take a look back at my comments on J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek feature for my overall take on the reboot, as most of the same comments apply to the sequel. I will add that there’s some incredibly sillyness in this movie, most of it coming from the ill-advised elements borrowed from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I think it shows a staggering lack of imagination for the filmmakers to spend all this time and money rebooting the franchise for the future and then so emptily going back to ape the great moments of the past in the vain hope that the original’s emotional resonance would somehow carry over and be amplified through their eyes. Ugh.

Iron Man 3 was not a great movie, but it was a lot of fun and it was a big improvement over Iron Man 2. It’s interesting to see the movie franchise take on a life of its own and essentially outgrow anything and everything done with the comic book version in nearly 50 years of publishing. In this movie, the big bold personality Robert Downey Jr. brings to Tony Stark has outgrown the character’s alter-ego, and he spends much of the latter part of the film outside of his armor, calling it to him only when needed. Downey is an ideal match for this role and I think he can take it to even more interesting places in future films.

I liked the pace and humor in the film, which I think comes in large part from director and co-writer Shane Black and his rapport with Downey. There were, however, a few moments where Stark and Rhodey were huddling under fire that I expected Don Cheadle to say “I’m getting too old for this shit!” I think that would have been awesome. Also, the twist with Ben Kingsley’s The Mandarin is inspired and funny; and Guy Pearce makes a great villain and I don’t know why he’s not in more movies. I have no idea where Iron Man 4 could go, but I’m sure we’ll all find out in a couple of years.

Read what I wrote for Animation Magazine about the VFX on Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness here.

I can’t say too much about Pacific Rim — another film for which I’m writing about the visual effects — because it’s not due out until July 12. But so far, this is my favorite film of the summer. Not only is it an original story, it’s got a lot of style, is insanely fun when it comes to the extensive action sequences, and tells a complete tale! It’s like Guillermo del Toro is reminding Hollywood of the sort of movies it used to make and that were once its bread and butter. I hope it’s a hit.

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Notes: Coover, Brokeback Pose, Fatale, Movies and the Cover of the Year

Some links of note:

  • Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter does a very enjoyable interview with Colleen Coover, whose work I particularly liked on the short stories in X-Men: First Class (the comic, not the movie) as well as in Banana Sunday
  • Here’s a hilarious Tumblr account from The Beat called The Brokeback Pose, devoted to all those cover shots of scantily clad heroines twisting in just the right way to show off all their assets in two dimensions.
  • As long as we’re talking about women comics characters, you could do a lot worse than to track down the few issues that made it out of Broadway Comics’ Fatale. I recall it was a good series that was getting better, but in the free-fall sales era of the mid-1990s, quality was rarely a factor in determining which companies and titles stuck. Jim Shooter talks about the creation of that series on his must-read blog here.
  • Roger Ebert explains the decline in moviegoing is due to high ticket and concession prices, an increasingly annoying moviegoing experience, and the poor quality of most movies. I can’t dispute any of those, and think the price and quality issues also affect comics much the same way. 
  • Artist Dave Johnson does a great job on his blog of running down the good and the bad in each week’s batch of comic book covers. Now he’s picked his cover of the year, the super-cool Joker image Jock created for Detective Comics #880. 
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Good Nonfiction Books About Comics, Part 5 – Comic-Book Movies and Mutant Cinema

I don’t have a lot of books about comic book movies, in part because I don’t think there are many out there that are not direct tie-in books. I have a few of those, including Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Making of the Movie, The Art of X2, The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion, and one or two more. Reference works are common, including Comic Book Movies by David Hughes and John Kenneth Muir’s comprehensive and readable (though pricey) Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

Of actual books on comics movies, I only have a few, including my own. So I’ll start there with a quick recap of how Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen came to be.


I was attending the first New York Comic-Con in February of 2006, enjoying the show despite having to endure a type of winter weather that had long been absent from my life. On the final day, I walked the floor of the Javits Center and came across the booth of Sequart, manned by Julian Darius and Mike Phillips. Julian had just released his book Batman Begins and the Comics, now re-released under the title Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen. He told me about the book and how it analyzed the movie scene by scene citing and analyzing how the comic book source material was used through the movie.

I immediately liked the idea and asked him if they were planning any more books like this. Julian said he was planning one on the then-upcoming Superman Returns. I asked if they had any plans for X-Men, which at that point was also coming soon with X-Men: The Last Stand. Mike said that was a good idea but they were mostly DC guys and didn’t know anyone who could write it. My brain went off and I said I could do it, and after a quick listing of my credentials we agreed to talk about it after the show.

A few weeks later we’d worked out a deal and I started writing. I found writing it to be alternately enjoyable and aggravating. A structure came easily, but finding time to devote to writing it in between other gigs that paid the kind of money I needed to keep the lights on was harder than I thought. Revising it also was tough — I felt like I could have revised it endlessly and made it a bit better with each draft, but then it was never going to get done.

Getting the book finished and revised took longer than expected and the book’s original target release date of autumn 2006 quickly revealed itself to be optimistic. Sequart did a great job in getting a small batch of an early version  printed up under the title X-Men: The Movie Trilogy and the Comics for the 2007 New York Comic-Con, complete with a cool cover illustration from Kevin Colden. Concerns about trademark lead to the revised title of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, as suggested by Julian, and another round of revisions was made before the book became final.

Reaction to the book at that NYCC was a surprise to me. Interest was limited among fans, most of whom already had strong opinions about the movie and familiarity with the source material.

The final version of the book was completed later that year and thus began a frustrating process in gaining distribution for the book. There was some technical issue with getting the book listed on Amazon — which took much longer to resolve than anyone expected. By the time all was repaired and the book was up on the site, a lot of key momentum had been lost as interest in the movies had dwindled after X-Men: The Last Stand.

Having watched each of the movies in the trilogy now dozens of times in writing the book, I think the X-Men trilogy will go down as a trendsetter that got the comic book movie off the ground. But they’ve been outpaced in terms of quality by subsequent, more interesting comic book movies.

The biggest puzzle for me is the strength of antipathy fans have toward The Last Stand. I agree with most that it falls short of X2 in most regards. But having watched it many times I also think it’s really not that much worse than X2 or X-Men. Most of the antipathy centers on Brett Ratner, whose public persona is about as far removed from that of Bryan Singer as you can get. But Ratner really was a hired gun on that movie, brought on just a couple weeks before shooting was to begin.  Ratner’s focus was on finishing the movie on time more than making a personal impression on the material.

The real fault for the movie’s problems lies with Fox, which set an impossible shooting schedule for the film and got cold feet when it came to following through with the Dark Phoenix storyline.

The movie works, I think, pretty well up to the point where Professor Xavier confronts Phoenix at her parents home and she disintegrates him. After that, the Phoenix storyline is dropped until the end of the film. And that ending changes the original story significantly from Jean as the hero, sacrificing herself because she knows she can’t control this level of power, to Wolverine becoming the hero and killing Jean even though he loves her. On the surface, it’s similar, but deep down, it’s quite different.

The other thing The Last Stand did well was to just unleash the characters into the action. On the first two films, Singer offered up inventive but short action sequences that always felt restrained. And it worked to keep the audience hungry for more because it gives the creators a place to go. But I don’t know that his instincts would have allowed him to deliver the kind of satisfying mayhem that Last Stand delivered.

In the end, I’m proud of the book, enjoyed the experience of writing it and learned a lot about my own personal strengths and shortcomings in the process.

If you’re interested in more, check out the book’s page on Sequart.com here, where you can read a sample chapter on previous movie and TV adaptations of X-Men and order the book. You also can get it from Amazon.com here.

Comic-book movies are definitely evolving. It’ll be interesting to see where Marvel goes once they’ve done two or three movies each with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Avengers. It’ll be just as interesting to see if DC can recover from the dismal reception of Green Lantern and figure out how to make the likes of Flash and Wonder Woman into good movies. And with Sony already re-inventing Spider-Man, the pressure will be on Fox to find some way to make good with new versions of Daredevil and Fantastic Four. Comic book movies are sure to stick around for a good ten years — it’s just what they will look like and whether audiences will tire of them that is up for debate.

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‘Kick-Ass’ and ‘The Losers’: A Tale of Two Comic Book Movies

We’re just about exactly ten years into the wave of comic book movies kicked off with the surprise success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie in 2000, and the number of comic book movies both set for release and in development still appears to not have peaked.

The most-recent one-two punch of Kick-Ass and The Losers (with Iron Man 2 just around the corner) shows both how far comic-based movies have come while also demonstrating their limits. Having caught both movies the past few days, it’s clear that Kick-Ass is the superior film of the two, though The Losers is not without its charms.

Of course, Kick-Ass was always meant to be movie. The comic book first hit about two years ago (read my review of issue #1 here) and it took until just recently to bring “Book 1” to a conclusion at eight issues. When this book came out, Millar was riding high on the then-upcoming release of Wanted, the movie based on his Top Cow series. Wanted was a hit, and it was made clear in a couple of interviews that the experience on Wanted made Millar want to develop more creator-owned material that he could sell to Hollywood. Kick-Ass was the first such series, with the Image series War Heroes also cast in the same mould, and now his most-recent series, Nemesis.

Millar loves to push buttons, and arguably does it quite well. His comics take rather obvious premises and then takes them to an extreme. Wanted, for example, was about what if the villains won? War Heroes is about superheroes in the military. And Kick-Ass is the obvious what if some kid really did try to become a superhero? This works much better when Millar is playing with his own creations as fanboys are remarkably resistant to anyone messing too much with established icons.

The movie version of Kick-Ass, as adapted by director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman, sticks really closely to the comic and successfully retains its subversive tone and Millar’s button-pushing antics. The way the film plays with and subverts the conventions of the superhero genre works for movie audiences now that superheroes have become standard Hollywood fare. Movie audiences are now as familiar with the standard superhero arc as Dave Lizewski is in the movie, and you don’t have to be a comic book obsessive to understand that by becoming Kick-Ass, Lizewski is trying to live out the same arc as Peter Parker, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne have: finding the hero within as a way to find purpose in life, save the world and get the girl — even if nobody else can know about it.

All of which gets upstaged by the arrival of Hit-Girl, who takes everything up a level by being everything Dave wants to be. She has the tragic origin story, the mentor who provides the training, and pure certainty in the righteousness of her mission.

Much has been made of Hit-Girl by critics. I’m surprised at Roger Ebert’s take because I usually find him one of the most even-handed and least prejudiced of critics. And reading Anthony Lane in The New Yorker tear apart films like this that he has no interest in or even a desire to understand is an exercise best reserved for only the most supercilious film snobs.

Because Hit-Girl makes this movie. Far from being morally reprehensible, her actions and the circumstances she’s been put in do have repercussions. She isn’t just a one-note fantasy figure, and while she’s certainly not as complicated as Hamlet this character and her arc works just fine in a superhero movie. I could care less that she says the word “cunt” in the movie. That’s Millar pushing buttons, and the word is far more common and less pejorative in the United Kingdom, where both Millar and Vaughn are from. That this is an 11-year-old girl meting out extreme violence instead of an 11-year-old boy also doesn’t bother me — in fact, I think it’s an essential part of the subversiveness that makes this story and this movie work. It plays on the idea that girls (and women) are not capable of that kind of violence or language and that’s a bullshit argument that has become increasingly tiring with every iteration from Bonnie and Clyde to Ellen Ripley in Alien to The Bride in Kill Bill.

Vaughn brings to Kick-Ass much the same quick and slick vibe as he did to Layer Cake, a sadly underrated crime movie. Kick-Ass shares some of the same story elements with the somewhat generic mobsters who are the villains of the piece. The film has a few pacing problems. It dragged so much after the initial premise was set up that I was mentally preparing myself to be disappointed in the final result. But about halfway through, the pace really picks up and the complications begin to pay off and the whole movie gets more interesting as it goes along. The finale does what it needs to and becomes so much like a standard superhero movie that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Kick-Ass gets his wish fulfilled of living out a comic book story, though as with any good story it’s not exactly everything he expected.

The overall result is an impressive and fun movie that works pretty much exactly the way it should. For all its button pushing, Kick-Ass is a solid film because there’s more to it than swear words and over-the-top violence. It establishes its premise and sticks to it, throwing enough loops into the process to keep it cool and compelling along the way.

So, why did the film not do better at the box office? It’s a good question, because the clips shown last summer at Comic-Con generated a ton of buzz and the extensive marketing for the film was good enough to raise expectations way beyond the $20 million opening. Obviously, the best result that could have been hoped for was a hit on the order of 300, which also was an R-rated, stylized, violent movie based on a graphic novel that few outside of fandom would have heard of. The good news is it did far better than The Spirit, which was nowhere near as good a movie and earned a total domestic gross about equal to what Kick-Ass did its opening weekend. And given that Kick-Ass was made for about $30 million and was financed in traditional indie fashion by Vaughn and his partners, it’ll make back its money at some point.

But the questions that have the most impact on comic book movies overall is whether anyone is interested in seeing superhero movies that are either R-rated or based on characters not well known to the general public.

Lots of comics folks will look at the box office on Watchmen and this film and not go too much further. But it’s not just superheroes that have trouble these days with R ratings, as R-rated movies in general have become a niche market. The days when the perceived edge of an R-rating lead to big box office grosses for the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Terminator 2: Judgment Day or The Matrix is largely over. What’s worked in the past decade for studios is PG or PG-13 tent poles that can travel, like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, the Star Wars prequels and Avatar.

As for lesser known comic book characters, I think it’s less of an issue for Hollywood than for comics fans. These days, Hollywood simply doesn’t make big movies that are not based on something — a comic, a book, a toy, an old TV show, a play or an old movie. And with Comic-Con still ground zero for taste making in fandom, even the least known superhero comics will continue to get at least a shot at the big screen. This is at least in part due to the fact that the big characters from Marvel and DC are already completely locked up, so anyone who wants to make a superhero movie will have to look elsewhere for a property to develop.

Which brings me to The Losers, which is more of a typical action movie than a comic book movie. When I saw the movie, they played a preview for the upcoming reimagining of The A-Team, a movie that appears to be shooting for the exact same audience as The Losers.
The Losers, directed by Sylvain White, is a mixed bag. A lot of that has to do with it playing very heavily into the conventions of the action movie genre, which is even more well worn than the superhero genre. As such, this movie does a lot of the things that all action movies do — things that I think responsible for the genre’s decline and replacement by the superhero movie. Namely, that it avoids exposition or explanation of character or circumstance. In the real world, people who do high-end covert military operations are not exactly fun-loving, quippy or even likeable folks — except in action movies. 

That such people would also have Main Street-style patriotism and “honor” as their primary motivations also rings hollow in a real-world setting. The heroes in action movies also have no problem staging operations of massive destruction in public areas with almost no consequences to themselves or the world around them. The only such event that comes to my mind that’s even close to the kind of thing we see in action movies is that big showdown in Hollywood about 10, 12 years ago. Superhero movies work better because the fantasy elements are more obvious and force filmmakers to build stories strong enough to support them. They’re also easier to make work as PG or PG-13 movies, giving them a much wider potential audience to appeal to.

Putting all that aside for a moment, the best thing The Losers has going for it is a good cast and relatively likable characters who interact and conflict with each other in interesting ways. Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks a little too old to be in this movie, but Idris Elba, Chris Evans and Oscar Jaenada all deliver nice performances as characters with distinct personalities. Zoe Saldana also is good, though Hollywood’s predilection for casting waifishly thin supermodel types as tough action heroines undermines her credibility. It’s almost laughable to see this wisp of a girl fire a rocket launcher without the kickback tossing her on her pretty behind.

The movie also has a lot of style, though it’s not consistent. The action sequences are nicely stylized, but in the plot scenes in between, the movie is generic enough to be an episode of 24. The film also is color graded within an inch of its life. It looks interesting, but it also looks very little like the real world.

On the negative side, the film’s biggest problem is it lacks a really compelling villain. Jason Patric does a good job giving Max the air of eccentricity, though he can’t help that the script gives him no motive beyond greed, with the exception of one single throwaway line about wanting to start a war that will restore the proper order to the world. As in a lot of action movies, he’s bad because he crossed the good guys and the script says he’s bad, rather than anyone seeing him actually do anything bad.

Another problem is a lack of scale and perspective. The action sequences in the film are well staged in that it’s always pretty clear what’s going on. But in typical Hollywood fashion, every action sequence is so maxed out with intensity that there’s no sense of things building to a climax. The first sequence in the film is as crazy and over the top as the last. And these sequences are all hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world — the cops don’t seem to respond at all to trucks being blown up in city streets or explosions and machine gun fire at one of the world’s largest ports. Bringing in the outside world, giving some context and believability to the picture, would only help. But this is what happens when movies become stuck in the conventions of their genre. It all becomes so much white noise, with none of the variations in intensity that would provide some suspense and add some scope and stakes to the story.

At the box office, The Losers grossed less than half of what Kick-Ass earned in its first weekend. I think this says more about the marketing push for the film and the general reception for action films than it does about comic book movies. It will be interesting to see if The A-Team is good enough to bring some life back to the action genre. It looks to be a hit, but I think it’ll have to be a huge hit and offer at least a slightly different approach to the genre to have a wider impact.

And getting back to whether R-rated comic book movies work, it’s interesting to not that the performance of these movies is not that far off from the estimated sales of the comics they’re based on. Kick-Ass made a bit of a splash when it debuted and sold well through its run. The series sold very consistently, with most issues selling in the range of 46,000 to 50,000 copies, according to estimates at ICv2.com. That puts it solidly in the same range as such Marvel mainstays as Hulk, Mighty Avengers and Invincible Iron Man. Still it’s only about half as much as it would need to get near the top of the charts.

The Losers, which ran 32 issues from 2003 to 2006, was critically acclaimed and earned a couple of Eisner Award nominations. But sales were always an issue, as they are with most of DC’s Vertigo line. The debut issue of the series sold just under 20,000, dropping to about 8,100 with the last issue in 2006, according to estimates at ICv2.com.

The point being that even when more R-rated properties do well, they don’t come close to competing with the big numbers that PG or PG-13 properties can rack up in either medium.

With Kick-Ass not having been financed by a studio, it’s an anomaly that can’t be used to predict future studio behavior. Which means that you probably won’t see much change in studios’ approach to comic book movies. The genre is still lucrative and the heat will pick up again in just a couple weeks when Iron Man 2 arrives and its grosses make executives all over Hollywood want to get into the comic book movie business.

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