Heavy Metal

THE PHRASE "COMIC BOOK MOVIE" typically calls to mind visions of adamantium claws, capes, and mankinis. But while that stuff is definitely part of the genetic makeup of Kick-Ass, which opens this week, such a quick appraisal of the genre ignores some of the more colorful and less noble efforts to dirty up that underwear-on-the-outside imagery.

The most recent attempt to achieve the comic-book blend of whimsical and überviolent is Punisher: War Zone (2008), the third cinematic misfire based on Marvel's favorite sociopath. Of those three, only War Zone has death-by-chair-leg and parkour vs. rocket launcher (SPOILER: rocket launcher wins), and while the acting is hammier than Al Pacino fucking a pig, the movie's too busy turning people into hamburger to give a shit.

Constantine (2005) isn't much as an adaptation of the Hellblazer comic, but it does work as a snotty, overgrown B-movie about a dickhead superhero smartassing his way to victory over cricket demons, androgynous double-crossing warrior angels, and Peter Stormare as a sleazy, barefoot, Eurotrash Satan. As a bonus, you get Shia LeBeouf used sparingly and well as an eager, cab-driving Robin to Keanu Reeves' cinder-block charismatic, paranormal Batman.

Aside from a couple of action sequences featuring some of the shoddiest CG since that monkey-thing from 1998's Lost in Space, Guillermo del Toro's Blade II (2002) unleashes glorious, frenetic splatter, fulfilling all your hopes for a film where half-vamp/half-Cuisinart Wesley Snipes fights vagina-mouthed vampire monsters and Ron Perlman.

Del Toro's batshit imagination was fed with the rotten, bulbous fruit of twisted comics visionaries that came before him, like Ralph Bakshi and Moebius. Bakshi's Fritz the Cat (1972) and the partially Moebius-inspired Heavy Metal (1981) were cutting the knees off of comic book movies when the genre was still wobbling on its Bambi legs. Fritz's X-rated shocks and Metal's provocative imagery are pretty tame today (South Park is more transgressive, even in reruns on WGN), but they helped people realize comics could tell stories besides "man in pajamas preens mightily."