Comic Book Villains (2002) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for language, violence, some sexuality and drug content
Running Time: 92 min.

Cast: Donal Logue, Michael Rapaport, DJ Qualls, Natasha Lyonne, Cary Elwes
Director: James Robinson
James Robinson
Review published September 3, 2002

Written and directed by James Robinson, who also wrote several notable comic book titles in his day, it would appear from the underlying angst that Robinson has had enough of the industry, with the gist of the story being that comic books are not life, and repudiating the fanboys who talk incessantly about them rather than spend time seeing the "real world".  Yet it's a love/hate relationship that Robinson has with the subject, and while he clearly knows too much about comic books and their history not to have been a fan, perhaps it's a case of familiarity breeding contempt, with every character in the film taking their passions a bit too far.  Unfortunately, Robinson also goes too far with his theme, and loses the proper tone for his film.  What started out as a sharp and knowing look into the industry of the direct market comic book store turns into a dark and violent thriller, a left turn the film never should have made if it wanted to be a successful venture.

The film starts off by showcasing two rival comic shop dealers.  The first shop is owned by Raymond, who sells comics because they are his life and love, and the patrons who frequent his shop like to stand and argue for hours about which superhero could beat up which and other such frivolous arguments to pass the time.  The second shop, owned by Norman (Rapaport) and his wife Judy (Lyonne), is more of the comics boutique variety, which is just as content to peddle magic cards and action figures as it is the comics, catering to the nostalgic gift and current fad crowd than for the die hard fan.  One day, both shops are tipped to the fact that a local collector has died, and his aging mother (Eileen Brennan) is sitting on a goldmine of comics that he had collected his whole life.  Sensing a large cash bonanza, both owners set out to try to purchase these collectors items from the woman to no avail, as comics were her dear sons life, as pathetic as it was, and keeping them around was like holding on to a piece of him.  Soon the two competing store owners conspire to get their hands on the comics at all costs, regardless of the laws and consequences.

COMIC BOOK VILLAINS starts off with promise, with insightful dialogue and funny but well-sketched characterizations of comic store owners and the people that frequent them.  While initially embracing the industry, as the film develops, the heart of it begins to grow colder and more contemptuous of the comics world, eventually adopting the theme that people who read and obsess over comics have no lives, and they need to do things like see the world rather than worry about whether Superman could beat The Flash in a race.  However, where once the caricatures had footing in realism, the film makes the mistake of taking its theme of obsession too far, and soon murderous acts are committed that don't jibe with the lightheartedness of the set-up.  Just as Robinson loved comics and now attacks them through sheer disdain, so too does he build his plot only to drive a wrecking ball through the edifice he painstakingly had built with pleasure, as though he had grown tired of the subject halfway through and weary of the characters he had once painted so fully, in the end just finding them better off dead.

COMIC BOOK VILLAINS is filmmaking at its most schizophrenic, never knowing what it wants to be or say, never knowing whether to embrace or choke each theme, character or plot device.  It's a film that would only interest comic book fans, warmly shaking their hands with friendship one second then spitting in their face the next.  As such, it ends up being surprisingly distasteful fare, and despite the good acting, writing and direction, the sudden veer into mayhem proves to be just flat out bad filmmaking.  The ending tries to be encouraging and happy, but is so disingenuous that it ruins the film further in the effort, because it doesn't understand why someone might be more attracted to reading comics than trying to have a social life, as if one could be attained just by wanting one.  Why would someone want to see the world, when it was the world that shunned them first, enough that they retreated into the escapist world of comics in the first place?  Comics, a world where the geek or a misfit can be the hero and powers are bestowed on the powerless...a world very unlike the cruel one outside, full of larger men that beat you for pleasure and women that would laugh in the face of a 98-pound weakling like DJ Qualls before they ever bothered to know he might be a decent person inside. 

COMIC BOOK VILLAINS pretends to deal with the real world, but it's about as much a fantasyland than anything found in the funny-books.  This is to THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE what BARB WIRE was to CASABLANCA.  Watch SPIDER-MAN instead for a film which showcases the appeal of comics AND good moviemaking. 


Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo