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

The Moldy West — Jonah Hex

While superheroes have always been the bread and butter of comic books, other subgenres have had their day in the sun. Two of the most popular have been Westerns and horror.

The 1970s saw a revival of the horror genre—Tomb of Dracula, Man-Thing, Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, The Spectre, etc.—and in 1972, John Albano and Tony DeZuniga created Jonah Hex for DC’s All-Star Western, which was soon renamed Weird Western Tales. Hex mixed the ever-popular Western with the equally popular horror to provide tales of a scarred bounty hunter who dealt with monsters both human and supernatural.

Hex’s background involves an extended period living in an Apache village (and being caught in The Inevitable Love Triangle), serving as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War before having a change of heart over slavery and switching loyalties, and being given a “demon brand” that scarred half his face and left him blind in his right eye.

Hex waned a bit in popularity after the ’70s horror boom abated, and his title was canceled in 1985 during DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths housecleaning miniseries event. For a brief period, he was sent to an apocalyptic future in the Hex series.

The character was revived in the 1990s thanks to three miniseries published by Vertigo—that DC imprint pretty much revived horror comics twenty-five years ago—which were written by the great Joe R. Lansdale.

In 2000, Akiva Goldsman signed up to produce a Jonah Hex TV series. That fell through, but it soon modulated into a feature film, with Neveldine/Taylor tapped to write and direct. The duo quit over creative differences (though their script remained the basis for the film) and went off to direct Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance instead. Animator Jimmy Hayward replaced the duo, his first live-action feature film directing credit.

The basics of Hex’s story were used here, with only a few changes. The most significant of those was to give Hex an actual super power. In the comics, the closest Hex comes to superhuman abilities is his marksmanship, which is superlative despite being blind in one eye. In the movie, for some reason he’s given the ability to temporarily animate the dead and talk to them as long as he retains physical contact.

Josh Brolin was cast in the title role, the first of many comic book characters Brolin would play on screen; he’ll also play the younger version of Agent K in Men in Black 3, Dwight McCarthy in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Cable in Deadpool 2. Other comic book movie stalwarts appearing in this movie include John Malkovitch (Red), Michael Fassbender (several X-Men movies), Megan Fox (the 2010s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies), Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), Will Arnett (the recent TMNT films and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies), Wes Bentley (Ghost Rider), and an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen). We’ve also got Aidan Quinn as President Ulysses S. Grant, Tom Wopat as Colonel Slocum, and the great Lance Reddick as Smith.

The movie could charitably be called a flop. It made back less than a quarter of its budget, and is practically forgotten eight years later. The character has since appeared on screen in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on television, played by Johnathon Schaech, and is still popular in four-color form, at least, despite the drag effect of this turkey.

 

“War and me took to each other real well”

Jonah Hex
Written by William Farmer and Neveldine/Taylor
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Produced by Akiva Goldsman and Andrew Lazar
Original release date: June 18, 2010

Jonah Hex narrates his life as a Civil War soldier, fighting for the Confederate Army. Rather than obey an order by General Quentin Turnbull to torch a hospital filled with civilians (including children), Hex shoots his best friend, Jeb, Turnbull’s son and also under the general’s command. In revenge, Turnbull makes Hex watch as his henchman Burke torches Hex’s house with his wife and son inside. Then Turnbull brands Hex and leaves him hanging from a tree.

An inexplicably animated sequence then shows how Hex was rescued by members of the Crow tribe, who were able to bring him back to life mystically. However, he was so close to death that he now has the ability to resurrect the dead by touching them. He uses a hot knife to melt the brand, further disfiguring the right side of his face.

When he hears that Turnbull died in a hotel fire, Hex decides to take up as a bounty hunter. We first see him bringing three bodies, dragged by his horse, and a head in a burlap sack to a sheriff. (The head is due to the fourth criminal being “too fat for my horse.”) The sheriff refuses to pay and punctuates this refusal with an ambush. Hex takes out the ambushers and burns down most of the town, giving the sheriff’s badge to a random survivor.

Turnbull turns out to be alive. He orchestrates a robbery of a train that contains components of an experimental superweapon developed by Eli Whitney. President Ulysses S. Grant, fearing that Turnbull will use the weapon to attack the U.S. centennial on July 4, 1876, sends the Army to recruit Hex.

The Army did capture one of the thieves, but he died under interrogation without revealing anything. Hex revives him long enough to learn that he was hired by Colonel Slocum. Slocum now runs a fighting arena, and Hex questions him. Slocum says he doesn’t know where Turnbull is, and taunts him that he should ask Jeb. After tossing Slocum into the ring to be killed by his own fighters and then setting fire to the arena (Hex tends not to leave a place without burning it to the ground), he heads to the cemetery where Jeb is buried and digs him up.

It takes a while for them to have a conversation, as Jeb wakes up, hits Hex, Hex is forced to let go, and Jeb is dead again. They do this dance a few times before Jeb settles down enough to talk. Jeb reveals that his father is at Fort Resurrection (appropriately enough) and that from where Jeb sits in the afterlife, there’s no difference between Turnbull and Hex.

Turnbull has, with the help of a corrupt politician, acquired the remaining parts needed for Whitney’s superweapon, which is an incendiary device of unbelievable power that can be launched from a distance. Turnbull later shoots that politician in the head for reasons that are never adequately explained, except maybe to show that Turnbull’s evil? I guess? (Apparently burning people alive wasn’t enough…)

Hex attacks Fort Resurrection, and manages to kill a lot of Turnbull’s soldiers, but Burke manages to shoot him. Hex gets away, and is again rescued by the Crow tribe, who again bring him back to life.

Turnbull orders Burke to take something Hex loves, and the only person who qualifies is Lilah, a resourceful prostitute with whom Hex has something resembling a relationship. Burke takes her, and when Hex rides to Independence Harbor to stop Turnbull’s attack on the centennial celebration, he’s brought up short by the threat to Lilah’s life. They’re both tied up rather than simply shot (because Turnbull apparently hasn’t read the Evil Overlord Rules), and Lilah is able to escape the bonds and free them both. Hex kills Burke, then resurrects him so he can kill him again. Then Hex confronts Turnbull in the engine room, overpowering him and securing him in the rigging while using the superweapon against him.

Hex and Lilah escape just before the ship blows up (seriously, every place he leaves is on fire!). President Grant offers Hex a job as sheriff of the country (um, okay), which Hex declines, but says he’ll help if he’s needed again.

 

“Jonah Hex doesn’t know how to die; he’ll have to be educated”

It is, I suppose, an impressive accomplishment for a Jonah Hex movie to, at once, add a significant supernatural element to Hex’s character (the ability to resurrect the dead by touching them, a power unique to this film), and yet not nearly embrace the supernatural enough.

The best Jonah Hex comics stories were written by Michael Fleisher—known for his seminal work in the 1970s writing, not just Hex, but also the Spectre and the Phantom Stranger for DC and Ghost Rider and Man-Thing for Marvel—and Joe R. Lansdale. Both those writers utterly embraced the gonzo horror that was all the rage in the swingin’ ’70s, and which Lansdale was part of the vanguard of for the horror boom of the ’90s.

But this movie not only doesn’t embrace the crazy, it isn’t even willing to give it a handshake. The addition of Hex’s supernatural ability is there mostly just to move the plot along. (It also gives us the Jeb-Hex conversation in the graveyard, which is the only really watchable scene in the entire movie, mostly due to the usual magnificence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan.) At the very end, the fight between Hex and Turnbull keeps cutting back and forth to a fight in the spirit world that is presented with no context, though at least the spirit world is better lit than the engine room of Turnbull’s boat.

Nothing that happens in this movie makes any sense. Grant recruiting Hex is incomprehensible, especially since he doesn’t actually know about Hex’s superpowers, the reasons for the Crow helping Hex out (twice!) are never adequately explained, nor is how the Crow are able to do any of this. The existence of the superweapon is problematic, as I don’t see how it would never be used after this, since the plans exist. Why wasn’t this used in World War I? For that matter, Hex gets a mess of steampunk weapons from Smith—another Magical Negro Q like Lucius Fox in Batman Begins, this one played by Lance Reddick—for no compellingly good reason except it’s 2010 and there should be steampunky things.

Both the lack of explanation of the Natives and the presence of Reddick’s Smith are particularly problematic, as I have no patience, none, with a 21st-century Western that a) has a 90% white cast (Smith and his two sons are the only black folks we see anywhere in this movie) and b) super-mystical mysterious Natives with strange powers beyond those of white people. They’re absurd clichés that 20th-century Westerns propagated and that have been so thoroughly debunked that to see them in a movie this recent is just embarrassing and pathetic.

This movie has a remarkably good cast, who almost all give remarkably bad performances. Morgan is superb, as I said, and Reddick also does very well with the dry Smith. But that’s it. Josh Brolin deadpans his way through the role sounding like a fourth-rate Clint Eastwood, his snottiness having none of the bite we’d expect from Hex. Michael Fassbender is relying on his bowler hat and his comedy Irish accent to do his acting for him. Aidan Quinn may be the worst casting of Ulysses Grant ever, neither Michael Shannon nor Will Arnett are actually on screen enough to have any impact, John Malkovich is pretty much phoning it in, and Megan Fox can’t even find the damn phone.

They can’t even get Hex’s scarring right. There’s the strip of melted skin crossing the right side of his mouth, but the rest of it is pretty minor compared to how the character is drawn in the comics. Just two years earlier, they did a more Hex-looking makeup job on Aaron Eckart as Two-Face in The Dark Knight than they did on Brolin here.

The nicest thing I can say about this movie is that, at eighty minutes, it’s over quickly. But it’s about as exciting as watching the paint used for this painstakingly paint-by-numbers plot dry.

 

We’ll be off next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, then return on the 30th with Ryan Reynolds putting on Green Lantern’s ring.

Keith R.A. DeCandido hopes everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving. He himself is thankful for all the readers of this rewatch who have continued to keep the conversations going (and also keep the conversations civil) for the last year-and-a-bit. You’re all wonderful.

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