DVD Review: Comic Book Villains

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What would you do for the ultimate comic collection? I’m not talking about a few years worth of Betty & Veronica or a couple dozen Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, all brown and wrinkled from years of neglect. I mean nearly every issue the “Big Two” have put out for the last 50 or so years. Every. Single. Issue. The Clone Saga. The Death of Superman. Justice League Antarctica. Various Crises and a multitude of epic battles, destined to change the universe forever… until the next epic battle changes the universe forever again. It’s all there.

Some would attempt to purchase the collection, hoping the seller doesn’t realize the true treasure they possess. The craftier of us might try to steal it. Perhaps those individuals could comfort their apparent lack of morals with the thought that the comics would at least be treasured and well taken care of. Others still my resort to more ruthless actions. So, the quest is… what would YOU do for the perfect comic collection? The makers of Comic Book Villains know what they’d do, and would like to share it with you.

The film opens with a great moving collage of classic comic book panels, accompanied by a very ominous voice-over discussion between two people, one who sounds like a lunatic, and the other who seems to be in a pretty bad situation. The crazy voice is frantically quizzing the other guy about first appearances of major comic book characters. After a particular argument about the first appearance of Wonder Woman, the madman’s voice raises, makes another ominous statement, then… cut to black, end opening credits, and the movie begins. In all my years of movie-watching and participating in comic discussions, never have I heard a “geek-rant” sound so badass.

Comic Book Villains is set in a small Midwest town (a name was never really given) which seems ordinary in every way. This town, however, is unique in that it is the home of two competing comic book stores, one owned by Raymond (Donal Logue) and the other operated by husband and wife team Norman and Judy (Michael Rapaport and Natasha Lyonne). Raymond’s shop looks like it’s straight out of an episode of The Simpsons – it is nearly identical to The Android’s Dungeon. Raymond himself is a kind of adaptation of Comic Book Guy, to the point where I almost expected him to quip “Worst. Episode. Ever.” at some point during the movie.

On the flip side, Norman and Judy’s business is just that – business. There is no love for the comic book medium coming from either of them, and their shop reflects that. Back at Raymond’s we are then introduced to our “hero” and narrator Archie (DJ Qualls), all around nice guy who dreams of getting out of the small town. Introductions made, we are then practically handed the film’s plot by Conan, a regular at both shops (played by Danny Masterson, whom I had a hard time not looking at as Hyde from That 70’s Show). Conan explains that there was a man who lived in the town with his mother his whole life, and all he did was collect comic books. He had just passed away, leaving around 50 years of priceless, mint condition comics up for grabs. The only obstacle standing in both store owners’ way is his mother, Mrs. Creswell (Eileen Brennan), who refuses to part with any of his belongings.

There is also a quick scene establishing Carter (Cary Elwes, trying hard to mask his British accent). Carter seemingly has nothing to do with anything at the moment, but after an impressive fight scene taken place outside of a strip club, it becomes pretty clear that he’s not a guy you want to mess with. Following that is about 30 minutes of scenes most would expect out of a movie like this: various maneuvers to try to get the old bird to part with the comics, characters taking on a plethora of odd jobs to get on Creswell’s “good side,” and escalating pranks meant to sabotage each other.

There is a definite point where the film zooms off in a very different direction. Raymond is frantically covering the long boxes in his shop, protecting them from the rain that has started to seep through the roof. He realizes he NEEDS those comics, not just as a collector, but also for the money they’ll bring in – money he’ll use to save his store.  He then ventures to the same strip club from earlier and hires Carter to steal the coveted collection. Raymond offers to split the profit, claiming he know the true value of the books. Everything seems set to go when Carter decides to pull a double-cross. See, Carter has always secretly read and enjoyed comic books, and already knows the value of the collection. Judy overhears the initial theft plan, and she and Norman rush to save the day, not for the wellbeing of Mrs. Creswell, but to get the comics for themselves.

What happens next is mere madness. Without spoiling too much (yes, I realize this is Major Spoilers, but you almost need to see it firsthand because my descriptions won’t do it justice.), Comic Book Villains dissolves into a mix of betrayal, gunplay, hostage-taking, arson, and murder. Despite its radical 180-degree style change, the film wraps itself up about the only way it could, with the bad guys getting their just rewards and the good guys (or guy in this case) comes out on top.

The acting in this film is pretty good, with exception to Rapaport’s portrayal of Norman. Most of his other roles cast him in a “masculine, alpha-dog” light (with the show The War at Home being a perfect example), so playing Norm as weak-willed and wimpy was an interesting choice. However, he took it to a bland, almost two-dimensional level. In a movie where all of the major characters show growth (well, negative growth I guess) and dimension, Rapaport stood out in a really awkward way. I also would have liked to see more of DJ Qualls. He is arguably the central character of the movie, yet he’s absent for nearly 1/3 of it. Elwes and Logue play off each other well in the later half of the film, which leads to some great scenes.

Serious film analysts would probably say that Comic Book Villains isn’t really about comic books. They might say that the collection is an analogy for the materialism and greed found in today’s society, and the final reactions to this greed from the cast would be the deeply-buried violent nature that all humans possess but rarely allow to surface. And I can see that. Me personally? To me, sometimes comic books are just comic books. This odd little mash-up of satirical comedy and film noir hits most of the right points, and for this I give Comic Book Villains 3 ½ stars. While it’s not my favorite all-time movie, it’s definitely worth a watch.

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