4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

More Bland Girl Than Bad Girl—Witchblade

While strictly speaking, Image Comics is a comics publisher, in truth, it’s an artist’s collective loosely banded together to publish comics. Each of the founders has his own little corner of it—and some of them split off, with Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee both parting ways with Image at various points. (Lee’s WildStorm imprint became its own company, and then later it was bought by DC.) Others have been brought in, most notably Robert Kirkman, the writer of a comic you might have heard of, The Walking Dead. (I hear there’s a TV show based on it that some folks may have seen…..)

One of Image’s imprints is Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow Productions, which produced a number of superhero comics—but it was their “bad girl” comic, Witchblade, that was their biggest hit, not only as a comic, but also an anime series, a manga adaptation, a Japanese novel, and, most relevant to this rewatch, a 2000 pilot that got picked up for a TV series.

Marc Silvestri first came to prominence as the artist on King Conan, later retitiled Conan the King, in the early 1980s. But it was becoming the penciller on Uncanny X-Men, following John Romita Jr.’s run on the book, that made him into a superstar.

And like many of Marvel’s superstar artists, he broke off on his own to form Image in 1992.

Top Cow’s first title was Cyberforce, a team of cybernetic soldiers, but their most popular was Witchblade. Following the story of Detective Sara Pezzini of the New York Police Department, she comes into possession of the titular artifact, which transforms into the world’s most revealing (and impractical) armor. (Her breasts are covered by scalloped armor that looks like animal claws acting as a hand-bra. Ah, the 90s…)

Pezzini was not the only person to possess the witchblade—over the course of the comics run, it was used by a dancer from New Orleans named Danielle Baptiste and, more recently, a journalist named Alex Underwood.

Oliver Stone bought the rights to Witchblade in 1999, and he intended for it to be his first live-action TV series. Warner Bros. picked it up, producing it for TNT, which was part of what was then the AOL Time Warner family, but by the time principal photography began on the pilot film, Stone was no longer involved. However, the resultant movie was one of TNT’s top-rated movies of the year, enough to justify going to series.

Running two seasons from 2001-2002, the series ended after its second season, not due to any ratings issues—quite the opposite, the show was a huge hit for TNT—but because star Yancy Butler had to go into rehab for alcoholism. Another attempt at a film, this one to be a feature, was made in 2008 and announced for 2009, but it never got off the ground.

 

“Sara Pezzini does not make an easy partner”

Witchblade
Written by J.D. Zeik
Directed by Ralph Hemecker
Produced by Dan Halsted and Marc Silvestri
Original release date: August 27, 2000

NYPD Detective Sara Pezzini rides her motorcycle to work at the 11th Precinct. She and her partner, Detective Danny Woo, are pursuing a gangster named Tommy Gallo. Pezzini is sure that Gallo killed her best friend, but there’s no evidence.

She and Woo confront Gallo and an associate, but the associate gets squirrelly and attacks Woo—turns out he’s a hired assassin named Vespucci. While Woo stays with Gallo, Pezzini chases Vespucci through the streets until they arrive at a museum, which has just closed. While pursuing the assassin, Pezzini finds herself drawn to a large gauntlet. An iris on the gauntlet pulls back to reveal a ruby—it looks like an eye opening.

Before Pezzini can figure out why this inanimate object is being animate, she’s approached by a bearded man with crazy eyes, who speaks in riddles before Vespucci shows up and starts shooting. Many displays are destroyed, including the one the gauntlet is in. The gauntlet then flies through the air and onto Pezzini’s arm, allowing her to deflect Vespucci’s bullets.

Superhero Movie Rewatch Witchblade

Superhero Movie Rewatch Witchblade

GIFs via alphagravy (Tumblr)

Moments later, there’s a huge explosion, which kills Vespucci, but which leaves Pezzini completely unharmed.

Another cop, Jake McCartey, gets a tip that Gallo is thinking of buying the old Rialto Theatre and converting it to a nightclub. Pezzini and Woo check it out, and they see Gallo shooting one of his people in cold blood because he talked to the cops. (Possibly McCartey’s source.)

The bearded guy, whose name is Nottingham, is also there. He arranged the purchase of the Rialto for Gallo, and he encourages Pezzini to use the witchblade now. Gallo shoots Woo, and Pezzini loses it, as a sword grows from the witchblade, and she uses it to kill most of Gallo’s thugs, though a couple of them—and Gallo—get away.

Pezzini is reamed out by her captain, Joe Siri, who wants to suspend her, but he gives her a reprieve (which would never happen), but forces her to partner with McCartey. Siri—who was Pezzini’s father’s partner on the force until the elder Pezzini was killed, which is still an open case—reveals that Pezzini is actually adopted, a revelation that proves to be utterly meaningless.

Superhero Movie Rewatch Witchblade

Meanwhile, the witchblade has been messing with Pezzini’s head. She sees visions and dreams of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, the Crusades—she’s the latest in a long line of women who have used the weapon, including Cleopatra and Jeanne d’Arc. She gets occasional visions of the past (including the death of her friend), and also sees visions of a knight in armor and of Woo after he dies—he’s the one who urges her to ask Siri who she really is.

Tracking down Nottingham reveals to Pezzini that he works for the billionaire Kenneth Irons. Pezzini meets with Irons, who seems to know a lot about the witchblade. (Irons also has an ancient text that predicted that on the 11th of November 2000, Sara Pezzini would possess the witchblade, which indeed was when it occurred.) It turns out that he has tried to possess it, but he can’t due to having a Y chromosome. However, he is immortal, and he has trained Nottingham since he was a child to be his squire. It’s unclear whether or not he wants to help Pezzini, especially since it was his machinations that got Woo killed.

She and McCartey search for Gallo, who’s gone to ground after the massacre at the Rialto, but eventually he shows up in Pezzini’s car and puts a gun to her head ordering her to drive to the spot where he killed Pezzini’s father. (Because of course he did. I’m also wondering why Pezzini doesn’t just hit the brake real hard, since she’s wearing a seatbelt and Gallo isn’t…)

They fight for a bit, with Gallo speechifying like a proper B-movie villain (he actually says as much), confessing to not just Pezzini’s father’s murder but also to Pezzini’s friend’s murder. With the help of the witchblade she wins the fight, but stops short of killing him, deciding to arrest him instead.

Gallo gets out on bail (on a triple murder charge????) but then commits suicide, though Pezzini is convinced that he had help from Nottingham. She realizes she’s stuck with the witchblade and she has to deal with it.

 

“Every day aboveground is a special day”

Superhero Movie Rewatch Witchblade

GIF via alphagravy (Tumblr)

Witchblade is one of a plethora of “bad girl” comics of the 1990s that I was just never that interested in. I found it generally impossible to take a book seriously in which the main character wore a costume that was geared far more toward the male gaze than by what would make a sensible costume. Especially when it was supposed to be armor.

On top of that, I never got interested in the Image books generally because they looked like warmed-over versions of the comics the artists did for Marvel and DC. Spawn was a mix of Batman and Spider-Man, both characters Todd McFarlane drew extensively. Former X-artists Silvestri and Jim Lee did Cyberforce and Gen13, both riffs on the X-Men, while Youngblood was pretty much X-Force, which Rob Liefeld co-“created” out of the ashes of The New Mutants.

Having said that, Witchblade had a certain appeal, once you got past the absurdity of the costume. It went the batshit-crazy route on more than one occasion, and also wasn’t afraid to upend the status quo (over the course of the run, the witchblade got passed on to someone else for a while, and Pezzini also had a daughter by one of Top Cow’s other characters).

In translating the character to television, they toned down the saliva-inducing sex appeal, which was a good thing—seriously, no real person could wear that costume and still be able to move—but they threw out the entertaining baby with the stupid-costume bathwater. Instead of a slithering suit of armor, the witchblade is now a gauntlet that mostly looks like a plastic prop. Instead of a big, long-haired guy with a katana, Nottingham is now a crazy-eyed nebbish guy with a wool cap and a beard.

J.D. Zeik’s script actually isn’t all that bad. The exposition isn’t too terribly clunky, and he hits most of the beats of the comics story, though the details are changed (in some cases due to very obviously not having the budget).

Sadly, he’s done in by some relentlessly mediocre acting, and also some of the worst directing you’ll ever see. Ralph Hemecker evinces no sense of pacing, which we get at the very start where we get a simply endless sequence of Pezzini riding her motorcycle through the streets of Toronto, interspersed with second-unit shots of New York City to attempt and fail to make us think we’re there, as well as simply endless shots of statuary. Seriously, I’ve never seen a movie more obsessed with statues, mostly ones of vaguely religious imagery.

And it’s endemic. Every scene in this movie goes on too long, from the lengthy chase of Vespucci (it’s several ice ages before they finally reach the museum) to the spectacularly uninteresting sequence of Pezzini at the gym to the final confrontation with Gallo in the subway station.

Worse, though, is the acting, as there’s really only one good performance in this movie, and it’s given by Will Yun Lee as Woo (last seen in this rewatch in one of his future roles relative to this, as Kirigi in Elektra, and will next be seen as Harada in The Wolverine). Everyone else is either sleepwalking through the movie, or just not very good. The worst offender is Anthony Cistaro as Irons, who spends the entire movie making the viewer (or, at least, this viewer) want to punch him repeatedly in the face. He’s supposed to be enigmatic, but he’s mostly just a smarmy asshole, the type of guy you sit on the other side of the bar to avoid for fear that he might try to talk to you.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Yancy Butler (the only actor I’ve ever seen who looks like she was drawn by John Byrne), and nothing in this movie makes me change that lack of enthusiasm. She reads her lines competently, but that’s about it.

Without the craziness of the comic, without the sleazy overtones of the costuming, this defangs the source material to an extreme degree, resulting in a movie that is just another dull genre show filmed on the cheap in Canada, of which there were about seventy-four billion in the 1990s. It boggles my mind that this relentlessly mediocre nonsense inspired a TV show that lasted two seasons—and would have gone on longer but for its star’s alcoholism.

I would like to add one further complaint: I was so thrilled to see a main character, a heroic character, in a superhero movie who was Italian-American, because such things are vanishingly rare. (As a general rule, when writers even bother to put people of Italian descent in a story, they’re invariably comic relief or mobsters—or both.) So, of course, we find out halfway through the movie that she’s adopted. Sigh.

Next week, we go from the sublime to the ridiculous—get ready for the movie nobody was waiting for, Catwoman starring Halle Berry.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is pleased to announce that eSpec Books has now re-released the first four of his “Precinct” series of high fantasy police procedurals: the novels Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, and Goblin Precinct and the short story collection Tales from Dragon Precinct, with the re-release of Gryphon Precinct due in the next month or so. And coming this fall is Mermaid Precinct, which will be followed over the next couple of years by Phoenix Precinct, Manticore Precinct, and More Tales from Dragon Precinct.

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