Have Courage! (A Review of “Comic Book: The Movie”)

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Comic Book: The Movie begins with Donald Swan, comic book geek extraordinaire, talking to a video camera. It turns out that Swan is the long-time co-editor of the fanzine Once Upon A Dime. He’s self-proclaimed biggest fan in the world of the Golden Age super-hero Commander Courage, and has been commissioned by a Hollywood studio to act a technical advisor for the Commander Courage big-budget movie. However, times have changed, and Commander Courage has become Codename Courage in the wake of 9/11. Instead of being true to his old heroic self, Codename Courage has become a terrorist-fighting, gun-toting obsessive vigilante. Swan hates the changes, and part of his agenda in signing on to the project is to try to subvert the effort to change his favorite hero. In the midst of his humorous monologue, which is filled with wonderful fake comic book history, we hear from Stan Lee and Peter David, who fill in some of the back story of Commander Courage’s career. David is the writer of Commander Courage, and therefore has some unique insights into the reinterpretation of this classic character.

It’s a story that sounds real, and that is the secret of why CB:TM works so well. Commander Courage is, of course, not a real character but is in fact created in whole cloth by Mark Hamill, who wrote, directed and stars in this film. Hamill plays Don Swan, and does a great job. With his oversized glasses and scruffy beard, Hamill looks every inch the grown-up fanboy living out his dream by having an encounter with Hollywood while realizing his dream is actually a nightmare. Swan always seems so sincere in his love for Commander Courage that it’s very hard not to feel empathy for him. As a grown-up fanboy myself, I definitely empathized with what he was going through.

Swan is like so many of us fans, a person who discovers what he likes at a young age and embraces it thoroughly. Back in high school, Swan got his best friend, Derek Sprang (played by Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, among others), to co-edit Once Upon A Dime with him when both were in high school together. Sprang is a kind of super-geek, in enormous horn-rimmed glasses and a geeky voice. Sprang and Swan meet up at the San Diego Con, where the studio has sent Swan to produce a DVD extra describing the history of the character. Sprang is able to go to the con by somehow convincing his wife (played with hilarious exasperation by Jill Talley) that they are on a family vacation to San Diego, never revealing that they’re going to attend the Con. The scenes where the Sprangs literally drag their four-year-old through the Con are hilarious and very realistic. Those scenes definitely reminded me of a few vacations I’ve taken!

Donna D’Errico, of Baywatch fame, is especially wonderful in this movie. As the crew in the commentary track mention, whenever D’Errico steps onto the screen, the film seems to brighten up. With her perfect California looks and wacky sense of humor, D’Errico is a wonderful clown. She’s so confident in herself and plays such a fun-loving character that it’s hard to not like her. Plus (not to sound too much like a fanboy) D’Errico wears a tight, low-cut leather outfit for much of the movie. Wow does she look fantastic! And she plays with action figures too. It’s enough to make a fanboy swoon.

D’Errico and Hamill are the two best-known faces on the screen, but all of the voices are familiar to anybody who watches Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, or who has kids who do. As I mentioned, Spongebob Squarepants himself, or at least the guy who does his voice, is in the movie. Also featured are other familiar cartoon voices. Billy West, Nickelodeon’s Doug, does a fabulous job underplaying the terminally befuddled grandson of Commander Courage, while Debi Debyberry, voice of Jimmy Neutron, plays a hyper-energetic representative of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. Other featured actors include Daran Norris, Cosmo from Fairly Oddparents, Roger Rose, who’s voiced nearly every cartoon under the sun, and Jim Cummings, the voice of Winnie the Pooh, who has a hilariously demented scene at a Hollywood party.

The film is also a wonderful travelogue of the San Diego Con. I’ve never been able to attend the con, and Hamill and his team do a good job of filling me in on what I’ve been missing. San Diego seems like it’s bigger and badder than any other con around, full of wacky costumes, interesting people and back issue comics – though there’s nowhere at the con to buy an issue of Madamoiselle, as D’Errico’s character cheerfully notes. Swan meets many of his heroes at the con, including a really moving meeting with Ray Harryhausen, which seems as much a thrill for Hamill as it does his fictional counterpart. Other cameos in the film include Matt Groening of Simpsons fame, Mike Mignola, Bruce Timm and Gary Owens. And there are extended, and wonderful interviews with Hugh Hefner (who knew he was a closet comic book fan?), Stan Lee, Bruce Campbell, and the Kevin Smith, who has a hilarious extended interview on the DVD. Everybody who has a cameo in the movie talks of their love of Commander Courage, and it’s striking how similar their comments are to a similar documentary on the Daredevil DVD.

The only part of the movie that didn’t ring true for me was the ending. Don Swan might say that justice comes to those who have courage, but the ending felt a little too Hollywood pat to me. We all know what Hollywood can do to our beloved characters, and it might have been fun to see this movie take an unexpected direction. But that’s a minor quibble and really doesn’t detract from the movie at all.

The movie comes on a two-DVD set packed with bonus features. Among the features are a director’s commentary, which is freewheeling and fun; an extended interview with Kevin Smith; a fake Commander Courage radio show; a San Diego Con panel featuring the voice actors showing off their skills; deleted scenes; and much more. For a small, independent movie, this is a lot of bonus material, and shows how much fun everyone had in making the movie.

Like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, CB:TM is a hilarious improvised celebration of its subject matter. Aside from the hokey ending, nearly every moment of this film rings true. Comic Book: The Movie is destined to be a cult classic among comic book fans. I hope they do as sequel. We had X-Men 2 and Superman 2 and are looking forward to Spider-Man 2. Hopefully in a year or two we’ll get a Comic Book: The Movie 2!

Comic Book: The Movie is available at http://www.comicbookthemovie.com/

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