With Age Of Heroes, Tom Breihan picks the most important superhero movie of every year, starting with the genre’s early big-budget moments and moving onto the multiplex-crushing monsters of today.
If you wanted to take a good, hard look at the difficulties of translating comic books into movies, Alan Moore makes a good case study. Moore is, by pretty much any serious criteria, one of the greatest comic book writers who has ever lived. He did not, of course, invent the genre, and he didn’t conceive vast armies of enduring characters the way some of his forebears did. But he did help revolutionize the art form by finding new ways to show complexity and ambiguity and by using it to communicate his ideas about mysticism and anarchism and the cruelty of humanity. His best works remain compulsively re-readable, even decades after their publication. Moore is an endless wellspring of ideas, and people like that are the reason movies exist. And yet the film adaptations of Moore’s work have generally been absolute bullshit.
Moore has noticed this. Famously, he’s long been outright hostile to the idea that any of his comics should become movies. Years ago, Moore sold the rights to a few of his books to movie studios, but he did so while seemingly holding his nose. He didn’t want anything to do with those movies, assuming that everyone would realize his books and any later adaptations didn’t really have much to do with each other. He’s said that much of his work was “designed to be un-filmable” and that he assumed that the rights he sold would never turn into movies. And when they did turn into movies, Moore didn’t exactly help promote them. Instead, he publicly criticized those movies’ scripts before the movies even came out. He’s also said that he’s never seen any of the movies made out of his work. These days, he’s not selling rights anymore, but he doesn’t own the rights to all the comics he’s written. When people option those rights, these days, Moore refuses to allow the studios to use his name, and he refuses to accept any payment at all. He estimates that this admirably grumpy insistence has cost him millions.
Moore is, of course, a devoted crank, an uncompromising eccentric of the highest order. His collaborators have historically gotten pissed at him for writing off the entire idea of movie adaptations so militantly. But it’s not like he’s wrong. Time and again, Hollywood has tried to do something with Moore’s creations. And time and again, they’ve wound up cranking out boring, incoherent bowdlerizations that systematically bleach out whatever nuance might’ve been in the original texts. Even Watchmen, for which director Zack Snyder slavishly recreated panels of the original comic, missed the entire point of the story that it so revered. Which brings us to From Hell, the first of many failed Moore adaptations.
Before we get into this, I should point out that this column, at least in theory, is supposed to investigate the history of superhero movies. From Hell is clearly not a superhero movie. The original From Hell comic, which Moore and artist Eddie Campbell published between 1989 and 1998, was an ambitious and disturbing look at the Whitechapel murders of the late 19th century. Moore teased out a whole obsessively researched narrative, building a story out of a conspiracy theory that Jack The Ripper was really Queen Victoria’s personal doctor.
In the book, the murders are an effort to hide the existence of an embarrassing royal baby, the dead sex workers all having attempted to blackmail rich people to pay local extortionists. In Moore’s hands, the murderous doctor is a Freemason and a sort of pantheistic occult fanatic, obsessed with history and architecture and preserving men’s dominion over women. If the book has a protagonist, it’s the killer. The closest thing the book has to a hero is Inspector Abberline, the Scotland Yard detective who solves the murders and who eventually gets paid off for keeping them quiet.
So: not a superhero book. But the funny thing about 2001 is that there were no superhero movies, unless you want to get cute and claim something like Pootie Tang or the first Harry Potter joint as superhero movies. Even after the surprise runaway success of X-Men, American movie studios needed time to adjust, to see what was coming. A handful of 2001 movies did have their roots in comic books, but they were all of the decidedly non-superhero variety: Ghost World, Josie And The Pussycats, Monkeybone. So without any other options, we’re going with From Hell, since Alan Moore is at least a significant figure in the history of superhero comics. (Most of Moore’s superhero comics, like Watchmen and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, are, at least in some ways, satires of the entire idea of superheroics, and he likes to depict the whole idea as inherently fascistic, but maybe we’ll get into that more in a later column.)
From Hell is an amazing book, but it’s baffling to read it and think that anyone could’ve made a movie out of it. It’s long and complicated, with dozens of characters, many of them living in sickeningly squalid conditions. Its depictions of sex and violence are stark and unsparing. It shows an entire respectable upper-class society that’s brutally, psychopathically unconcerned with anything other than maintaining power and keeping up appearances. It ends with an extended psychedelic vision—a dying murderer feeling himself transforming into pure malevolent historical energy. (Any faithful adaptation would have to be a pure cinematic freakout on the level of the last half-hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And then there’s the whole no-heroism thing. Film studios aren’t exactly eager to make entire movies where all of the characters are flawed and most of them are actively repulsive.
Still, From Hell at least had a pedigree. Its directors, the twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, were self-made figures who seemed to be on the way toward building up a fascinating filmography. They’d started out making rap videos, then made a serious impact with the intense, magnetic 1993 crime movie Menace II Society. Their follow-ups, the visually rich heist/war movie Dead Presidents and the flamboyant documentary American Pimp, hadn’t exactly been big moneymakers, but they’d both earned devoted cult followings. These two filmmakers seemed dialed into the lives of disenfranchised people, so you’d think they’d be smart choices to make a movie set in the Victorian underclass, a weird little parable about oppression. And even by wanting to make a From Hell movie, they affirmed their own nerd credentials.
One of the screenwriters, Terry Hayes, had co-written The Road Warrior. Stars Johnny Depp and Heather Graham had, separately, been in a few of the best movies of the ’90s, and the Hughes brothers filled out the cast with an impeccable list of British character actors like Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane. Maybe this group of people couldn’t make a movie that captured the magic of From Hell, but you’d think they’d be able to make something.
They didn’t make shit. From Hell is a chore of a movie, one that’s made even worse if you’ve ever read the comic. Rather than attempting to tell the story of Jack The Ripper, the movie turns it into a mystery. When you finally learn the killer’s identity toward the end of the movie, it’s meant to be a Shyamalan-esque plot twist, though anyone paying attention would’ve figured things out within seconds of the killer first showing up onscreen. And it all plays out with a plodding, tortuous pace; I defy anyone to rewatch it today and make it all the way through without playing around with their phones. Most of the movie is just people with ill-advised facial hair, in dark rooms, looking grim.
Playing Inspector Abberline, Depp utterly abandons the book’s portrayal of the character as a stout, forthright, working-class everyman type, instead turning him into Johnny Depp. He swans around, falls in love with murder-targeted prostitute Heather Graham, and generally takes a sad little dry run at what he’d do a lot more effectively as Captain Jack Sparrow a couple of years later. Moore described Depp’s portrayal thus: “Johnny Depp saw fit to play this character as an absinthe-swilling, opium-den-frequenting dandy with a haircut that, in the Metropolitan Police force in 1888, would’ve gotten him beaten up by the other officers.” (This is accurate, even if it doesn’t exactly bolster Moore’s claim that he’s never watched any of his movie adaptations.) The movie also makes him a psychic, which makes it that much harder to take seriously. There’s a psychic in the book, too, but he’s an effete con man who only gets things right by accident. Depp is a hero in a story that has no heroes, and the movie more or less organizes itself around his ego.
Heather Graham, meanwhile, does the whole movie in an ill-fitting cockney accent. It’s not her fault, but the movie’s depiction of her character is a mess. The Mary Kelly of the book was desperately trying to stay alive, or to get whatever living she could in before the murder she knew was coming. In the movie, she’s both a surrogate mother and an amateur detective, helping Abberline solve her own looming murder. The romantic subplot is awkwardly stapled in there. (Some version of that subplot is in the book, too. It’s probably the weakest part of the book, but it’s still a whole lot better than what the movie comes up with.) And, in an ahistorical twist, Kelly survives to the end of the movie, living out her days in ecstatically golden rural light.
There are some okay things about the movie. The Whitechapel District streets may look more like a backlot than like a living, breathing city, but the movie has fun with its stylized noir lighting and its blood-red skies. Ian Holm does effectively chilling things. The Hughes brothers at least nod toward some of the grimy nastiness of street life that the book depicts. But if there’s any fun to be had in watching the movie today, it’s the unintentional little resonances. For instance: Jason Flemyng, one of the non-Jason Statham guys from Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, plays a guilt-wracked carriage driver. A couple of years later, he’d play Mr. Hyde in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. For a while there, this guy was really working the shitty Alan Moore adaptation circuit. I wonder if he at least auditioned for Watchmen.
Comic book movies can be great. In a lot of ways, they’re keeping both the movie industry and the comic-book industry afloat these days. They’ve become a crucial part of our whole cultural experience. But sometimes, a comic book should remain a comic book, and From Hell is a testament to that.
Other notable 2001 superhero movies: As outlined above, there was basically not a single one all year. It’s pretty weird! That would change soon enough.
Next time: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man transforms Hollywood forever.