Why comic-book filmmakers trash Watchmen and Elektra (even the guy who wrote it) but praise Bryan Singer

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

In a candid and animated hourlong chat with fans at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, three science fiction filmmakers discussed turning graphic novels into big-screen extravaganzas, ended up trashing Watchmen and Elektra, shrugged their shoulders about fanboy criticisms and praised director Bryan Singer (of the first two X-Men movies and Superman Returns) for single-handedly turning comic-book movies into mainstream films.

Zak Penn, who admitted to clashing with Singer when working the X2 script, said, "Bryan Singer deserves the credit that we've reached today where movies like Dark Knight are getting nominated for awards. He did the science fiction incarnation of these movies. These are not comic-book scripts; they are science fiction movies that are just based on comic books. And Bryan Singer is no fan of these movies. ... Yet no one else adapts The Matrix or the The Fly better than we do."

Barry Levine of Radical Publishing said he's working with Singer on the big-screen adaptation of Freedom Formula and credited him with bringing a lot to the project. "He is embellishing it, because Bryan has that sensibility," Levine said. "I firmly believe that comics are one thing—and not Gone With the Wind—and the film version is a different medium. At Radical, we do character-driven projects, so we do not see ourselves as competing with Marvel. And we are far from being Disney."

Levine hinted to SCI FI Wire that he will be revealing some his darker and edgier stuff at Comic-Con this summer. He has Peter Berg directing Hercules for their next project, and six other films are in the works—all based on comic books.

"I got nominated for an Oscar, for f--k's sake," said History of Violence writer Josh Olson, who was also on the panel. "I think Hollywood first discovered that comics made good movies in the 1930s, and now it's a dominant presence, like westerns were at one time. Then it was farting along in the late 1970s, and then revamped and updated recently."

The trio were part of the "Graphic Explosion" seminar on Tuesday night at the L.A. Film Festival, which offers free chats with actors, directors and screenwriters for the general public. More than 100 fans attended to see the team and to watch some ribbing and confessions go on during the informal chat.

"We blew Elektra," admitted Penn, who wrote the Jennifer Garner film. "We blew chunks. It should have been R-rated, like Sin City. ... It should have been La Femme Nikita: She is an assassin, and you can't do that unless it is R-rated. I should have known that Fox would not make an R-rated movie, so it's probably my fault. They denuded it."

Levine said his team is working on Aladdin as "our version of the Lord of the Rings series, and basically the writer turned in a script like Pirates of the Caribbean, because he kept saying we were never going to get some of these things past the studios because it was so violent." Levine said he plans to push the edges of an R rating in this graphic-novel-based film, and that the budget is near $100 million. "I do not want to make movies that satisfy any specific studio."

Penn pointed out that "if you have a vision that Wolverine should be spilling more blood, and there's $200 million riding on it, and a lot of people's jobs at the studios, you may have to make some compromises to get the film made. And I'm not saying that's always the right decision." He said the soft-core fight scenes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine felt "ridiculous."

The panel were pressed for their thoughts on the recent Watchmen movie and about screenwriter David Hayter's editorial plea for fans to come see the movie, lest its failure spell doom for the genre. (Hayter worked with Penn on X2.) "That was silly to say that if not enough people went to Watchmen, it would stop all the other movies," Penn said. "No one told me to change anything because of the failure of Watchmen."

Olson chimed in, "That was a candy-ass thing to do."

And Levine said, "And there's that 25-foot blue penis."

"Now it's true that this was a big nostalgia trip for me, and for that reason it succeeded for me," Penn added. "That's not how you should write, though, out of nostalgia for a moment in your comic-book history."