As modern myths of godlike powers and deeds, superhero comics don’t usually adapt well to film. As spectacles, sure — the Superman and Batman movies may as well have been Cats, with their iconic characters and highly stylized fantasy worlds — but not as stories that hold up on their own. Movies can’t easily provide the equivalent of thought balloons, which in comics humanize these superhumans. Using lesser-known characters helps, but even so, human-scale films such as the new-to-video The Phantom and the underrated The Rocketeer work better than do recent would-be spectacles Judge Dredd and Captain America.
The Phantom himself — a costumed white jungle protector created in 1936 by Lee Falk — is vulnerably human. He’s an athlete/marksman, not a genetically engineered one-man army like Dredd nor the recipient of a super-soldier serum like Captain America. Though heroes of other comics-based movies like The Punisher and Tank Girl aren’t superhuman either, their weapons make them, like Batman, the next best thing.
Not so the low-tech Phantom (Billy Zane), who bleeds all over his Skull Cave in 1938 Africa. He does foil a scheme by megalomaniac Xander Drax (a high-camp Treat Williams) to gather mystical skulls and harness their supernatural powers, but he uses little more than a pistol. On video — where viewers often expect just a good campfire tale — The Phantom’s jungle archetypes seem quaintly amusing. Yet the raiders-of-the-lost-bones plot and period detail remind us that post-Indiana Jones, a cliff-hanger needs action more blockbuster than lackluster, plus dialogue better balanced between winking kitsch and comfort-food corn.
All of which is possible even if you’re not Steven Spielberg: Witness The Rocketeer, based on Dave Stevens’ ’80s comics about clean-cut young pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who stumbles upon a jet pack and ends up fighting Nazis. The Rocketeer shares with The Phantom a winds-of-war milieu, a non-superhuman hero, and the kind of Meet John Doe idealism we rightly or wrongly attribute to the era. But The Rocketeer’s exhilarating action makes it timeless, and its sense of wonder fairly trembles with a sadism that feels serious and contemporary.
It’s no coincidence that the optimistic Secord and the Good Samaritan Phantom both hail from the ’30s, when the idea of the superhero was new — the product of a time when a desperate world turned to paternal dictators and presidents. But power corrupts, and authority can become fascism. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ mid-’80s DC Comics miniseries Watchmen made that point like an eloquent earthquake; Moore had produced similar rumblings with his take on the British character Judge Dredd. Dredd — a cloned member of a 21st-century cadre of cop/judge/executioners — represents the superhero drawn to its logical conclusion: idealism turned to cynicism, reason to rigidity, might to might-makes-right. But the dystopian action-adventure movie Judge Dredd stars Sylvester Stallone, who really isn’t one for deep introspection. Another dystopian action-adventure, Tank Girl, from a ’90s British comic, proves equally unexamined, turning the joyful anarchy of the book’s postapocalyptic Courtney Love into the whine of a punk poseur (Lori Petty).
As for comics movies set in the present, the super-heroic derring-do of Marvel’s Captain America (Matt Salinger) plays less well than the gritty vigilantism of the same company’s the Punisher (Dolph Lundgren). Yet that has as much to do with execution as anything thematic: Though both characters’ films went straight to video in the U.S., The Punisher’s director, Terminator and T2 editor Mark Goldblatt, shot atmospherically and cut tightly, while low-budget hack Albert Pyun made Captain America sloppily, jaw-droppingly cartoony. Which just shows that movies based on comic books can be as diverse as movies based on, oh, books. The Phantom: C+ The Rocketeer: A- Judge Dredd: C- Captain America: F The Punisher: B Tank Girl: D