Zack Snyder’s framing of his Justice League in a 4:3 aspect ratio caused plenty of chatter – and here’s a bunch of other superheroes to check out in the same format.
As well as the ostensibly full-colour version of Justice League recently released, there’s also a black and white version that’s officially titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League: Justice Is Grey. This follows in the footsteps of Frank Darabont’s director’s cut of The Mist, James Mangold’s Logan Noir and the special re-versioning of Mad Max: Fury Road into its Black & Chrome iteration. It’s not a trend I would have seen coming, I must admit.
But, of course, superhero movies in gloriously monochromatic images framed to a 4:3 aspect ratio are nothing new. There have been some very good ones, and many more that are at least worth a spin. Here’s a look at a handful, including (and definitely starting) with some real brilliance.
Georges Franju, who spent half of his filmmaking career being one of the most brilliant directors of French fantasy films, got ahead of the Flash Gordons, Buck Rogers and Indiana Joneses by remaking an adventure serial in the early 60s. The resulting feature, named after its hero Judex – as was the original serial – is one of the most distinctive and memorable movies of the era.
Judex’s name is the latin origin of the word ‘Judge’, and like the later, rather similar invention of Batman, he’s a self-righteous vigilante with a secret hideout and taste for revenge. Under Franju’s command the surrealism is mind-bendingly heightened and the pace is rocket-powered.
The Adventures Of Captain Marvel
Rather than a remake of an adventure serial, this is the real, multi-part, cliffhanger-laden thing from 1941. This was the first comic book adaptation from serial factory Republic, and is based on the then-Captain Marvel, latterly known as Shazam. This is the entry on this list with the most direct ties to Justice League.
As it’s public domain you can easily find the whole thing online. And by online, I mean directly after the full stop at the end of this sentence.
The Masked Marvel
Also from Republic, by the way, is 1943 serial The Masked Marvel. I’ve never seen it but I am aware that its star, David Bacon, was tragically murdered.
The Spider’s Web
Columbia was making superhero serials some years ahead of Republic, including The Spider’s Web, starring Harry Steeger’s pulp hero The Spider. Steeger published several novels about the character, and you’re welcome to stop me if you’ve heard this one before: millionaire playboy, and last surviving member of a wealthy family, adopts an animal-influenced alias to beat up bad guys. Things were tweaked for the serial, but the gist remains.
Interestingly, in The Spider’s Web, the villain is The Octopus, essentially a terrorist in a kinky variant on a Klan costume. Spider vs. Octopus does make an obvious eight-limber match-up, though I think there’s rather more fun in the way Stan Lee and Steve Ditko later did it.
I’ve never seen Hunterwali, a 1935 vigilante movie from India, but it’s on the top of my Must Watch list in waiting for the day that a nicely restored version appears somewhere.
Apparently the story of a whip-cracking heroine, the star of the movie is Mary Ann Evans, an Australian-born actress raised in India and who made her name as Fearless Nadia, “Bollywood’s original stunt queen.”
Her costume – pictured here – is a nice change from the battish usual. So, to be blunt, is her gender.
The Green Hornet
Probably best known from the TV show, or lately Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen’s eccentric, misunderstood movie, The Green Hornet started life as a radio character, created as a spin-off from already popular Lone Ranger show.
A few years later, both Ranger and Hornet had made the transition to cinemas, with a little crowd-pleasing trickery for the Green guy: whenever The Hornet’s mask was on, the voice of actor Gordon Jones was dubbed over by Al Hodge, the radio Hornet. His sidekick Kato was played by the great Keye Luke, later of Kung Fu, Gremlins and Space Ghost.
I love 1930’s The Bat Whispers, the second feature film adaptation of The Bat, an ‘old dark house’ caper that started life as a novel and was also adapted into a popular play. That film was lost for decades, until its negative was recovered and restored in the 80s.
Which was especially lucky as the film was shot in the most unusual Magnifilim format, a larger than usual film stock. As far as I am aware, no other feature was screened in Magnifilm.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, I have included the earlier, lesser adaptation of The Bat on this list as it’s a 4:3 movie, but I really want to point you towards the later film, prototype widescreen process or not. There’s some truly superb and pioneering model work in The Bat Whispers, and the slightly daft caper plot is rendered with a good deal of fun and flair. It’s also another one of the many films (most of which seem to be in this article) which clearly had some influence over the development of Batman.
Several early Zorro movies
Zorro remains fairly well-known to this day. The son of a rich fella (again), he dons mask (again) and cape (again) to stand up for the poor and marginalised in California (finally!)
Another great twist in many Zorro movies is the flourish with which he shows-up the authorities. There’s a Robin Hood morality – or better-than, even – in play, as well as lots of humour. Zorro is a real favourite of mine. I’d suggest you start with the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent movie The Mark Of Zorro, inappropriate casting aside, and make your way through the decades from there.
Fairbanks, incidentally, co-wrote the film, produced it and released it through United Artists, the company he had founded with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith. It defined not only a fledgling genre, The Mark Of Zorro even changed the way that Hollywood did business with actors.
Japan’s Sūpā Jaiantsu (inexplicably a plural, I really hope somebody can tell me why) has been rechristened Starman in the States but is Super Giant by direct translation. He was the first superhero to appear in Japanese movies, a year ahead of Moonlight Mask hitting TV screens in 1958.
As well as being made from steel by aliens, and therefore being as tough as Irn Bru, Super Giant also has great gadgets. This amounts principally to a device on his wrist that helps him fly and which also has TARDIS-like translation powers. Nifty.
I’ve only ever been able to find dubbed versions, rather than English subtitled, but Super Giant(s) is definitely a Japanese creation to his steely core. A remastered Blu-ray set would be an absolute treat.
Finally, a little cheating… because I’ve never been more disappointed that Ray Dennis Steckler’s Rat Pfink a Boo Boo was shot in 1.85:1. Does it belong on this list? No, it’s too wide. But I love it, so here’s the trailer anyway.
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