Comics fans have a really odd sort of love-hate affair with television and the movies. I moderated the TV/Film forum here at CBR for many years, and I can tell you flat-out that nothing -- NOTHING, not politics, not religion, not even Star Trek vs. Star Wars -- nothing inspired as much seething, spit-spraying rage as the arguments over the various comics-to-film adaptations that have been coming out over the last decade and a half.
And this has been going on as long as I've been interested in superhero comics. I vividly remember playground arguments about if the Adam West Batman was "too dumb" and high school arguments about whether Lou Ferrigno's Hulk should be allowed to speak or not. (I voted no.) The internet just takes it up a notch... there are more people to disagree with you.
But the arguments, on a playground or on the internet, are always about the same things. "They left out this! They screwed that up! That guy is totally wrong for the role!" And, of course, "The script sucks!"
Lately, though, the digital revolution has changed this equation a bit. The same way cheap photocopy technology made a booming 'zine and indie comics culture possible, advances in computer and video technology have created a sudden wave of fan activity in films. Want to see your dream superhero movie? Make it yourself!
And the REALLY amazing thing is... these homemade movies have an audience. There was a late-night screening at Northwest Film Forum a while back of the amateur re-creation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the one done by the three kids. We thought it would be an amusing end to an evening out, figuring there'd be maybe twenty or twenty-five other hardcore geeks wanting to satiate their curiosity.
Not so much. Julie and I stood in a line that snaked around the block and waited for almost an hour... and we were turned away at the door, because they'd sold out. This was the SECOND show they'd added.
There's a whole burgeoning underground film market that's aimed directly at us, consisting of fan films, failed TV pilots, and uncirculated movies. Convention bootleggers are doing a booming business now that DVDs are so easy and cheap to make, and high-speed internet and YouTube are making it easier all the time to roll your own right at home, as well. For whatever reason, I've been watching a lot of these things lately, and I thought I'd mention a few of them here.
The first one of these I ever saw is also one of the most ambitious: Dan Poole's Spider-Man film The Green Goblin's Last Stand.
This remains an astonishing feat of guerrilla filmmaking. It's a full-length movie, not a short or a sample reel, and Poole made it for about $400 and change. He did it as an audition piece for James Cameron (who was slated to make Spider-Man at the time.) The amazing thing is that, considering how homemade everything looks and how low-budget the thing is, it has real conviction. The fight scenes are really quite powerful, especially the final confrontation; the amateurishness is all gone by the time you get to the final sequence of Spider-Man and the Goblin slugging it out. That scene honestly looks like it hurts. (You know that thing you see in the Tobey Maguire movies where Spidey has his mask half torn away? That's Dan Poole's riff, from back in 1992, and I'm absolutely convinced Raimi swiped it from this movie.)
It's a straight-ahead adaptation of the "Death of Gwen Stacy" story from Spider-Man #121 and 122, and though it's clearly a student, amateur film -- the acting will make you wince sometimes, and as for the scenes with the Goblin "flying" on his glider, well, the less said the better -- but nevertheless, the sheer enthusiasm radiating from every frame of the thing makes it worth a look. You have to admire the willingness of Dan Poole himself as Spider-Man to risk his neck getting convincing shots of Spidey leaping from the roof of a parking garage to land on a speeding car full of crooks... in a sequence probably all filmed on illegal locations in downtown Baltimore.
The nice thing is, after years of having his movie copied and sold by convention bootleggers, Poole is now able to realize a little cash on it himself. You can buy a documentary DVD detailing the making of Goblin (that includes the entire original film) here, from Poole's Alpha Dog Productions. There's also a link on that page leading you to a place you can watch it online for free.
Batman's a favorite subject of fan films. After all, it's mostly just costumes and fight choreography, right? It's not like you have to make a guy fly or lift a tank or anything. As a property, Batman and his world must seem seductively film-able compared to, say, the Green Lantern Corps or Iron Man. As a result, you get a lot of excruciatingly bad Batman fan films.
Sandy Collora's the exception. Probably because unlike most of the other guys making Batman fan films, he's actually a professional. A Hollywood sculptor and artist who worked on all sorts of big-budget releases like Jurassic Park, Alien Nation, and Predator, he put together the delightful short film Batman: Dead End, featuring Batman versus the Joker and a host of Predators, as well as a cameo from the Alien.
It sounds like the most ridiculous piece of fan fiction you ever ran across: "Batman! An' Joker! An' then they fight the Predator! And there's the monster from Alien too!" And on a story level, it certainly is pretty light. But then, this IS a sample reel.
What it serves as a sample of, though, isn't just Collora's knack for creatures and costumes. It's also a great example of his grasp of lighting, character, and atmosphere.
Collora has said that he made this, back in 2003, partly as an answer to the Joel Schumacher Batman films: "No, no, Batman looks like THIS." He's pretty convincing; he sold me, at any rate. Visually the whole thing is an Alex Ross painting come to life.
Watching it, I was struck by the fact that I never had to make allowances the way I did for Dan Poole's Spider-Man. I was completely convinced that this was a real Batman movie, it was A-list stuff. Sadly, though, it ends just as it's getting warmed up, and story-wise, there's not much going on. A couple of character bits and a fight scene and then it's over.
You have a similar problem watching Collora's follow-up effort, a trailer for an as-yet-nonexistent World's Finest film.
Here the problem is more that, well, you want to see the movie, and the movie doesn't exist. There are tantalizing glimpses of Luthor, Lois, the Daily Planet, kryptonite, the Batcave, Two-Face, and Bruce and Clark in their civilian identities... enough to make you think there's a real script out there somewhere.
I have no idea if there is indeed a finished script that this little fake trailer was based on or not, but if there is, DC could do a hell of a lot worse than to pay Sandy Collora for it and publish it as a graphic novel adaptation. Get somebody like Stuart Immonen to illustrate it. In the meantime, there's a link to download the trailer here, as well as lots of cool photos from the film and also behind-the-scenes production shots.
And while we're on the subject, here's where you can download Batman: Dead End in its entirety.
My favorite of these fan-made shorts is also the most aching disappointment.
It's Grayson, by John Fiorella. This is another faux trailer, but it's even more compelling than the one for World's Finest.
The main reason this little short is both the best one I've seen and also the most gratingly frustrating, is that the movie you get glimpses of here is infinitely more interesting and ambitious than any other fan film in my experience. It's an original story, and it's got a terrific premise: the adult Dick Grayson must come out of retirement to track down Batman's killer, in spite of being warned off by the Gotham police department, Superman, and the entire JLA.
Think Miller's Dark Knight, but starring Robin instead of Batman. There are countless wonderful throwaway moments, visually arresting set-pieces and fight choreography, great bits of dialogue; more than any other fan effort I've ever seen, this is a confident, sophisticated piece.
What will shock you, considering how slick the whole thing looks, is how low-tech the entire operation was. This was another guerrilla shoot, with Fiorella often using unauthorized locations and drafting friends and relatives at need.
A great deal of it was apparently filmed -- without permission -- in his apartment complex's parking garage and adjacent alley. The mission statement was clear -- tempt someone into bankrolling the actual Grayson film.
And certainly, everyone I know who's seen it wants to see more.
In addition to watching the Grayson trailer itself -- go to this link to download it -- you can also find out how this extraordinary feat was accomplished, if you are curious about that sort of thing. (I was.) Fiorella has made a short documentary piece available for download at the same page, explaining how he made the film.
The disappointment -- at least for me; your mileage may vary -- is that these various short films are terrific, terrific auditions and they've resulted in... no movies. For example, I would hire John Fiorella to direct a Batman film in a hot second. Especially since he certainly knows how to keep one eye on a budget. I bet Sandy Collura could have given us a better Superman movie than Bryan Singer did, especially on the same budget. At the very least, why isn't DC after these guys to write something for them?
I want more, damn it. Somebody should hire these guys so we can see what else they've got. I'd be an appreciative audience for sure, and I don't think I'm alone.
See you next week.