Sometimes movie studios make good decisions. Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment made a good decision by ensuring that "Comic Book: The Movie" went straight to video in 2004. I can't imagine they ever had any thought of releasing it to movie houses, but the film deserves to be seen, if for no other reason than to document a world so many of us know little about. Now, if only the film had held our attention longer, it might even have been entertaining.
Mark Hamill directed and stars in this mockumentary of sorts about the comic-book industry: the fans, the fanzines, the movie spin-offs, and the conventions. I say "of sorts" because the movie in part attempts to send up the comic-book business and in part pay homage to it. But it's so lightweight it succeeds mainly in tiring the non comic-book fan and possibly alienating the true comic-book believer. Fact is, the film never makes clear just what it's attempting to do. Using a host of cameo appearances by celebrated cartoonists, animators, comic-book writers, and movie actors, the film strives to be another "This Is Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," or "A Mighty Wind." Lamentably, Hamill is no substitute for Rob Reiner or Christopher Guest. The jokes in "Comic Book" fall flatter than the pages of the Sunday funnies on the dining room table. At least the funny papers are sometimes funny, lying flat or not.
Oddly enough, I could find no writing credits for this film either at the beginning or at the end. I can only assume that since it's Mr. Hamill's directorial debut, he had a big hand in its creation, also, as he is in real life a comic-book collector, comic-book historian, and comic-book creator ("The Black Pearl"). But being a comic-book expert and afficionado does not necessarily qualify one for making a film about the topic, as "Comic Book: The Movie" demonstrates. Rather than being a gentle spoof of its subject or a backhanded tribute to it, as the mocumentaries are that I mentioned above, "Comic Book" is merely a languid litany of comic-book names and lore. It's not biting, funny, or particularly informative. Nor is it even whimsical or faintly patronizing. It isn't much of anything, in fact, except tedious and amateurish. Of course, it's supposed to look amateurish, but this movie isn't amateurish in the sense that it looks like it was made by professionals pretending to be amateurish; it looks genuinely amateurish, and where's the fun in that? It's not even so badly amateurish that it can be taken as good, campy diversion. It's just plain amateurish. And an enormous waste of talent when I list for you the people involved.
The movie's setup is pretty thin. Hamill plays a fellow named Donald Swan, a high school history teacher, comic-book enthusiast, and owner of a comic-book store. Because he's something of an authority on an old comic-book hero named Commander Courage (a character made up for the movie) and because Commander Courage is about to become the star of a multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster, the studio has hired Swan as a consultant for the upcoming film. Not only that, Swan decides to do a documentary on the making of the Commander Courage film and on a big comic-book convention in San Diego that is hyping the flick (a real convention, incidentally, called the Comic-Con International, where much of the movie was filmed). This setup gives Hamill the latitude to interview a whole lot of comic-book people, and it's where most of the cameos appear.
But as an added twist, the insensitive studio in the movie is going to change the nature of the Commander Courage character altogether, giving him a new costume, a new terrorist-fighting stance, and a new, sexy female partner. Swan hates the idea. He's a comic-book traditionalist, a defender of the Golden Age of comic books, who doesn't want his hero messed with just to sell a movie where the Commander gets lost amidst multiple car crashes and explosions (shades of "Daredevil," "X-Men," "LXG," and the like). So Swan goes off on his own crusade against the very studio he's working for.
The extent of the humor? The actor hired to play Commander Courage at the Comic-Con Convention complains that the headpiece he's required to wear makes his head sweat. And the codpiece he has on is ridiculously oversized even for a superhero. A few barbs are also thrown at Hollywood for their debasing of comic-books, but that's about it.
Among the supporting cast are Jess Harnell as Ricky, Swan's cameraman, probably the best part of the show. Harnell is a voice specialist who's been heard in everything from "Toy Story 2" to "Star Wars." His mimicking of each of the Beatles is one of the film's few, if brief, delights. Lori Alan and Roger Rose play Anita Levin and Taylor Donahue, the Hollywood movie producers who have no interest in comic books and are only intent on making a quick buck and ditching Swan as soon as they possibly can. Billy West plays Leo Matusik, the long-lost grandson of the late originator of the Commander Courage character and the only heir with any legal right to the cartoon character. Finally, Donna D'Errico plays Papaya Smith, the ultra-sexy bombshell airhead hired to costar in the proposed "Code-Name Courage" film.
Then, you want cameos? How about Stan Lee, creator of "Spider Man" and the "X-Men." Or Peter David, writer of "The Hulk." Or "Playboy" magazine guru Hugh Hefner. Or actor Kevin Smith; writer/producer Paul Dini of the animated "Batman"; Mark Evanier, writer of the animated "Superman"; special-effects legend Ray Harryhausen; writer/producer Scott Shaw of "The Simpsons;" former "Lost in Space" costar Billy Mumy; writer/producer Bruce Timm of the animated "Batman"; actors Ron Perlman and cult favorite Bruce Campbell; co-creator of "Futurama" and "The Simpsons," Matt Groening; announcer and cartoon voice, Gary Owens; and many more. Unfortunately, none of these folks get anything to do or say that's either funny or enlightening. Most of them seem to have been simply trying to enjoy the San Diego comic-book convention when Hamill and his film crew arrived. They look largely embarrassed.
But the funniest cameos, a relative term if can call anything in this film funny, are reserved for Sid Caesar and Jonathan Winters. They play a pair of old friends of the late originator of Commander Courage and reminisce about him. Winters, an old hand at improvising, having practically invented it, gets off a couple of cute lines. But their bit together lasts all of two minutes, and then it's on to more tedium.
By the time the film reaches its climax, with a heartfelt appeal by Swan to the convention audience to return to their roots and not allow their comic-book heroes to be sold out to Hollywood, we don't know if the story has suddenly taken a turn toward heavy-handed earnestness or if it's a part of a put-on. Frankly, I don't think the filmmakers knew what they were doing with the film, either, because, as I've said, it never makes up its mind if it wants to be a satire of the comic-book industry or a statement truly supportive of the comic-book milieu.
Basically, satire is supposed to make us do two things: First, laugh, and then think about what we're laughing at. Laugh and think. Simple formula. But satire must have a legitimate folly to laugh at, and while there is certainly enough to ridicule in the excesses of the comic-book industry, this film so gingerly skirts around most of them that there is little edge to any of it. Without a sharp edge, satire can be very dull, indeed. All of which leads me to believe that "Comic Book: The Movie" is not a satire at all but a straightforward documentary on the comic-book world disguised as something more provocative. Just what it's trying to be that's more provocative, though, I'm sure I don't know.
In all, "Comic Book" reminded me of a DVD bonus item that might be included with a disc's main attraction to help sell the feature. As a thirty-minute short, it could have had possibilities. As it is, well, there's a reason things are released straight to video.
To emulate a low-budget, home-movie type of documentary production, "Comic Book" is offered in a 1.33:1 ratio standard-screen presentation only, and it appears to have been filmed with the same handheld digital camera we see the documentarian within the film using. The result is intentionally clumsy, herky-jerky, and slightly blurry, bright enough in color but jagged around the edges, with lots of moiré effects to distract the eye. Nothing helps.
The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1, but most of the time you wouldn't know it. For all practical purposes, the audio is monaural because ninety percent of the soundtrack is dialogue. Occasional rear-channel sounds do creep in, mostly musical ambiance reinforcement, a voice or two, a few odd noises. The audio does its job and little more. It's mainly flat and dry and somewhat muffled, like the home movie production it's supposed to be following. Seems a cheap way out.
For reasons less than accountable to me, the Buena Vista folks decided to lavish a two-disc treatment on this film. I can only suppose they were hoping people would notice it better this way and think it was something special. Or they figured they had some big names they could put on the cover. Disc one contains the movie itself; an audio commentary with Mark Hamill and members of the cast; a list of the cameos in the film and some comments about them; an art gallery; thirteen deleted scenes; some cast and crew biographies; a couple of Miramax Sneak Peeks; and sixteen scene selections. English is the only spoken language available, but there are English captions for the hearing impaired.
For the viewer seriously interested in comic books and the comic-book culture, disc two of the set is probably of more value than the feature presentation. Here we find "Behind the Voices," a fifty-minute segment with the stars of the film, all of them top voices in animation. Then, there's "Four Color Frenzy," seventeen minutes on the making of "Comic Book: The Movie"; an extended, twenty-minute interview with Kevin Smith; a seven-minute "Commander Courage" radio show, written by Hamill and read by the cast; nine minutes of Stan Lee on comic books and the movies; a generous forty minutes with Hugh Hefner on comics and women; two text sections, "Behind-the-Voices" bios and "About Comic-Con"; and more interviews with Mark Evanier, Scott Shaw, Billy Mumy, Peter David, and Paul Dini.
Defenders of "Comic Book: The Movie" would undoubtedly say that anyone who doesn't like the film just doesn't "get it." It's an accusation to which I must plead guilty. If there was anything in the movie to get, it eluded me. I'm sure Hamill had his heart in the right place when he made "Comic Book" because it displays high hope and earnest intentions. But hope and intention do not necessarily translate into the making of a good film.
I suspect that in order to appreciate the subject matter of "Comic Book," one needs to be a dedicated comic-book fan, which I am not. But then again, I'm not sure the dedicated comic-book fan would think that too much of the film was very funny, either, given that it's meant in some measure to poke fun at them, their hobby, and their movies. The rest of us are left out of the equation. Seems to me the film misses on all counts. It missed me by a mile.