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Comic Book Villains
Release Date: September 3, 2002
Run Time: 93 minutes
Ten-second Rundown: A comic book writer turns filmmaker and promptly bites the hand that feeds him…except the hand deserves it.


  • Menu Art from Tidal Wave Studios
  • Trailers from other Lion's Gate Entertainment Releases

    Choice Scene: Donal Logue catches a glimpse of the perfect comic book collection - we know his look all too well.

    Tech Specs: Anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1. Dolby 2.0 Surround, English and Spanish subtitles.

    Anyone familiar with the comic book work of James Robinson knows the writer to be a master of mood, plot, and dialogue. His inevitable move into film, sparked long ago by a direct-to-video adaptation of his own American breakthrough Firearm, has been greatly anticipated by fans. Despite stirring some controversy over his adaptation of Fox' upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Robinson has been given a great benefit of the doubt. And deserves it.

    James Dale Robinson, his new Hollywood identity, may be given a harder time. As a writer/director, he makes his debut with Comic Book Villains, a mish-mash of influences that satirizes the very people who made him who he is. Moments of this film are terribly painful, not because they are badly done but because you will cringe at the abuse to comic books. Consider it the first step in some sort of weird therapy.

    Narrated by an orphan named Archie (DJ Qualls), Comic Book Villains spins a simple tale of greed, as two rival comic-shop owners vie to convince an elderly woman (Eileen Brennan) to sell her late son's incredibly comprehensive collection. Robinson clearly knows these people well.

    Raymond (Donal Logue) runs the kind of shop that's almost like a bar. All the customers know each other, occasionally hang out to play the beat-up arcade games in the back, but mostly get caught up in arcane discussions that still boil down to the usual "who's stronger, Superman or The Hulk?" Ruling over the shop, proudly puffing an incongruous pipe, Raymond seems truly happy. The shop reeks of atmosphere, but at a cost: its owner is hanging on by a thread. It's a slight acknowledgment of the sad truth: the small town this movie inhabits could not support two stores on today's scene.

    In reality, the store that would survive would likely be the one owned by Norman (Michael Rapaport) and Judy (Natasha Lyonne). Bright, clean, well-stocked with action figures and Magic: The Gathering paraphernalia, this shop clearly has no soul. And yet somehow, Robinson manages to distract us just enough to keep us from noticing at first that neither does Judy.

    Throwing the wrench into the mix is a nominally evil character, Conan (Danny Masterson), who leaks to both stores that somewhere in town that perfect collection exists. Though Archie calls Conan his nemesis (bringing to mind a cross-over that's just got to happen…), and he does seem devilish, the character keeps getting forgotten in the action, with a motivation that never really becomes clear.

    Let's face it, it's an idea ripe for a satirical eye. Despite some comic moments, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Multiverse this isn't.

    As for the action itself, it starts slowly as a black comedy, then rushes through its actually funny parts in order to become an attempt at noir (though it still ends too sunnily to qualify). Robinson does not spring this on us as a complete surprise. Early on there's a violent interlude with the sleazy Carter (Cary Elwes), a character that would have worked great in a comic book, but whose complexity never gets a chance to coalesce on film. Instead, he gets shoehorned into the third act to serve as just another comic book villain.

    The film ends up entertaining, but a little heavy-handed. Most of the character arcs are telegraphed early on, and Robinson's theme couldn't be more obvious if he had flashed it as a subtitle every three minutes. (There's more to life than comic books.)

    But it's also possible that he's reaching for something purposely obvious, as some of his scene compositions and music choices seem right out of a fifties melodrama. While the movie goes over the top in some moments, it appears to be by design.

    Some of his casting comes across a little bit unsettling, which bodes well for him as a director in the future. Lyonne has always been darkly quirky, and Robinson moves her into a strangely logical adult version of the teen character she usually plays. His best choice comes with Elwes, a great actor who never quite lived up to the promise of The Princess Bride. Playing Carter, Elwes shows great range, being both tender and far nastier than he usually gets to be.

    Wisely, Lion's Gate eschewed much in the way of extras on this DVD. I'd like to think that Robinson declined to do a commentary; he comes across as a guy who likes to let his work speak for itself. The inclusion of special menu art and superhero profiles by Tidal Wave Studios seems a little at odds with the film. While The 10th Muse and other attendant projects may be cool (we've only seen a couple of issues), they seem the sort of thing that the movie rails against. And unfortunately, none of the characters get any screen time in Robinson's film, either. (Marvel Comics do - bravo to Quesada and company for letting them be used.)

    After watching, you may ask yourself: are you a Raymond or a Norman? If you're a Raymond, you've got to get this DVD (or VHS), if only to complete your James Robinson library. As a slightly unrepentant Raymond myself, I've got to dig up my copy of that Firearm tape. Excuse me…

    Comic Book Villains at Amazon.com

    Derek McCaw


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