Video game movies are a joke. In fact, they’re a joke in exactly the same way that ‘comic book movies’ used to be a joke. Once upon a time a critic would use the epithet ‘like a comic book’ when describing a movie low on characterization and heavy on silly action; nowadays it’s likely that such a film will be compared to a video game (there are other reasons, including the preponderance of shitty, cut scene-esque CGI, but that’s a distraction from this article, dammit!).
Even when a movie really was ‘a comic book movie,’ it generally stunk; Hollywood, with minor exceptions, could not quite get a handle on how to take comic characters from the page to the screen. The 90s in particular were a desperately bad time for comic book movies, with stinkers like Barb Wire and The Phantom briefly splattering on screens.
While there were some early and occasional comic book movie successes - Superman: The Movie, Batman - most of the genre’s history* is littered with disasters. Until 2000, when X-Men came out. Not a great movie, X-Men nonetheless changed the way comic book movies were approached. Singer was a director with heat, coming off The Usual Suspects (and, to a lesser extent, the largely now-forgotten Apt Pupil), and he had Sir Ian McKellan along for the ride. Only the best comic book movies to date had boasted talent like that.
Following after X-Men was the film that truly blew the lid off the idea that comic book movies were trash; Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man wasn’t just a great film, it was hugely popular. Everything had changed as these two critically acclaimed directors had jumped into waters previously seen as too scummy for real talents. Once Christopher Nolan got involved in comic book movies the old prejudices were forgotten; rather than a mark of shame, comic book movies became a rite of passage for up and coming directors. Every filmmaker worth his or her salt began circling superhero properties.
When Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight, everything changed forever. Sure, we could argue that the Oscar was partially a lifetime achievement award for a talent gone too soon, but it’s hard to deny that the statue was earned on screen.
What changed in 2000? The answer, it seems to me, is that the people in charge finally started understanding comic books. The generation that grew up on classic Silver Age Marvel comics were now greenlighting and making movies. Superman was a strange blip in the history of comic book movies previously, the first and only time that someone took the material very seriously (and even that film camps it up like crazy in the second half). While Singer wasn’t a comic book guy, he was a Superman: The Movie guy, and so he inherited Richard Donner’s sense that the film needed to be emotionally real and true to succeed. Sam Raimi grew up on Spider-Man comics; he loved the character and wanted to present a good version of Spidey on screen.
The filmmakers stopped sneering at the characters and started embracing them. They stopped approaching comics as silly and started looking at them as stories.
Could the same thing finally be happening with video game movies? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there has never been a truly good video game movie. The entire history of the genre looks like the comic book movies of the 90s - by turns cheap, stupid and made with utter condescension.
But there are signs that this could be changing. Just as the revolution in comic book movies was started by one company’s product - Marvel - the revolution in video game movies may come to us from one company, Ubisoft. Last week they announced Tom Hardy as the star as an in-development Splinter Cell movie. Previously they announced Michael Fassbender as the star and producer of an Assassin’s Creed movie.
Fassbender and Hardy are both actors who don’t need video game movies. They’re both serious actors, probable future Oscar winners in fact. It makes sense that they both want franchises. After all, it’s the modern business model for strong male actors, to have a franchise that pays the bills while spending the off time working on real movies that artistically satisfy. See: Christian Bale**. But video game movies - that’s risky. Nobody’s done it right.
Which is probably part of the appeal. And what’s likely here is that we’re seeing 2000 all over again, as people who grew up playing video games are now in positions of power. It seems conceivable that Tom Hardy has actually played some Splinter Cell in the past. It seems likely that Michael Fassbender has held an Xbox controller in his hands. And the executives and filmmakers who will be working on these films are probably people who grew up with video games in their lives (assuredly so, as Ubisoft themselves are behind the films. It’s the video game equivalent of Marvel Studios under Kevin Feige, at least in theory).
These two films represent the great hope for video game movies going forward. But even with the idea that the tide has turned, that the people in charge are finally people who GET video games, is that enough? Translating comics to movies was actually a fairly straightforward endeavour, it turned out, once you stopped trying to camp the damn things up. Comics are franchise blueprints, with stories and characters and twists and turns and designs all ready for the taking. Video games are another matter.
The question has to be this: is what makes a video game good the same thing that makes a movie good? Good comics are not that different from good movies, but I suspect that the stuff that works best in a Splinter Cell game won’t translate to a movie. Without the gameplay, Splinter Cell is a fairly generic Tom Clancy techno-thriller. Assassin’s Creed is the same, although the setting is more unique. Will these movies be true to the games, as Marvel Studios’ films have stayed fairly true to the books? Or will there have to be a massive departure in order to properly adapt the material? Will Assassin’s Creed just keep the setting and the parkour and blaze its own path to the screen? That way, I suspect, lies Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
I’m excited for these films because I’m always excited to see good, well-made fun genre material get to screens. I like a solid spy movie, or a historical adventure movie. I like Hardy and Fassbender a lot. More than that, though, I’m excited to see video game movies finally break through the glass ceiling of quality. And it seems to me that the joy of video games has made its way into film before, just not in a film explicitly based on a game. The Matrix and Speed Racer both owe debts to games, as does movies as disparate as Enter the Void and District 9 have a distinct game-like vibe to them.
And great video game movies will bring us one step closer to Justin Bieber getting his Oscar for playing Link in Legend of Zelda: Ganon Rises.
* and for the record, when I say comic book movie I obviously mean superhero movie.
** It’s worth noting that the X-Men franchise is probably not a huge payday for Fassbender.