Josh Brolin. John Malkovich. Michael Fassbender. Michael Shannon. Aiden Quinn. Upon reading those names, one could be justified in assuming that I just listed the cast of a well-acted, award-winning film. If you just made that assumption, I apologize for misleading you, because Jonah Hex is not that type of movie. It’s more of the joyless, grating, incredibly stupid, heartbreakingly disappointing type of movie. The tragedy? It totally didn’t have to be. Let’s talk about the sad, sad, tale of a great comic book antihero and the terrible movie he didn’t deserve.
SOME HISTORY ABOUT THE CHARACTER
Jonah Hex, created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, is a beloved and very unique DC Comics character from the 1970’s. At the same time that the Western genre of film was transitioning to its revisionist period (Jeremiah Johnson, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller all came out during the 70’s), Western comic books were also following the trend and becoming more violent, cynical, and melancholy.
Introduced in the pages of All-Star Western before landing a starring role in Weird Western Tales and eventually his own eponymous title, Jonah Hex was a rough character. He was raised by Apaches, he fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and he unintentionally got his fellow soldiers killed when he tried to surrender to Union forces. Later, half of his face was hideously scarred in a duel to the death with an Apache warrior. These experiences hardened Hex into a cynical loner, and he became a ruthless bounty hunter. And yet he often tried to do right by good people when he came across them, which usually ended up causing more suffering for everybody. Hex was on the run from his past and he didn’t much care for his future; he was just trying to make an honest day’s living by killing people who deserved it. Like a lot of revisionist Western fiction, Jonah Hex defied the traditional American view of the Old West as a heroic place full of noble, hard-working men embodied simpler, purer times. If you’ve seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, this description might remind you a bit of that movie, but interestingly enough, Jonah Hex first debuted in 1972…four years before Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece! I’m not saying that Hex was the inspiration for it, but it IS an intriguing idea, yes?
Anyways, Hex has continued to be a favorite among comic readers. His original title was cancelled in 1985, but he starred in a very strange series (simply titled Hex) that had him time-travel to a post-apocalyptic future and fight zombies; in my opinion, it’s worth a read just for the weirdness. In the 90’s, he starred in several miniseries that followed the precedent set by Hex and combined Western and supernatural/horror themes (In one such miniseries, called “Riders of the Worm and Such,” the creators parodied two famous albino musicians, which led to a lawsuit and…oh, just look it up here if you want the details. This is getting too weird). In 2005, a new critically-acclaimed Jonah Hex series was started, and it introduced a lot of new fans to the character. When DC cancelled all of their titles for The New 52, they brought back the old All-Star Western series, which stars Hex. Even though he didn’t regularly interact with DC’s modern-day superheroes, Hex has appeared through flashbacks and time-travel in the original Batman cartoon, as well as Justice League Unlimited, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and his own DC Showcase short film (I believe it was included with the DVD of Batman: Under the Red Hood). So there you have it. Comic fans love him. Western and action film buffs SHOULD love him. Sounds like a good idea for a movie, right?
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to big-screen comic book adaptations, and I stand by that. The source material is a good jumping-off point, but if you can tell a good story and retain the essence of the characters without aping other people’s work, you totally should. That being said, if you miss the point of what makes your protagonist special, you are in trouble (and so is your audience).
When I heard there was going to be a Jonah Hex movie, I thought “Awesome!” They’ll probably use the original adventures from the 70’s and 80’s as a reference and get the Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti from the current series as creative consultants! Maybe they’ll even write the script! It’ll be a great throwback to Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and maybe it’ll even rescusitate the genre!” Then I heard that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the geniuses behind the Crank series and the abysmal sequel to Ghost Rider (not a very high standard to meet, guys), were going to writing the script, and I got nervous. If the Jonah Hex movie was going to be an introspective character study or a redemption story or have any legitimately dramatic scenes whatsoever, why on earth hire the guys behind this? And then the director was announced. James Mangold? Nope. Michael Mann? Huh-uh. William Friedkin? Of course not! Then who? Why, Jimmy Hayward, of course. You know, the guy who directed Horton Hears a Who? You know, because nothing goes together like this:
I tried to stay positive. Tried to trick myself into believing that Jonah Hex would be a decent film. I mean, the cast list looked great (with the exception of Megan Fox, but she was playing a prostitute, so maybe it would work!). But then the movie poster you see at the top of this page was released. What? Well…Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon wouldn’t do this to themselves unless it was a good career move, right? And then…the trailer. Oh, the trailer:
Yeah, it was hard to stay optimistic after that. Anachronistic rock music. Ridiculous gadgets. Wretched and unnecessary special effects. I don’t know why the studio listened to Hayward, Neveldine, and Taylor when they insisted on completely ignoring the source material and getting their inspiration from The Wild Wild West movie instead of The Outlaw Josey Wales, but we all suffered for it. As a loyal DC Comics fan, of course I saw it in theaters, and of course I was shattered. It was awful, a “comic book movie” in the worst way: light on plot, heavy on loud, dumb action scenes. In the next few sections, I’ll break Jonah Hex down and tell you what I did and didn’t like. Rest assured, that first section won’t be long.
THINGS I LIKED
1. Some of the actors do a good job. Josh Brolin really swings for the fences. He and Michael Fassbender are in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a nice, understated performance in a cameo as Hex’s now-deceased best friend. Will Arnett plays it straight as a military man who recruits Hex to save Washington D.C., and somehow he works as a buttoned-down authority figure. I can’t even comment on whether or not Michael Shannon did a good job, because he wasn’t in the movie long enough for me to tell.
2. Jonah Hex’s origin is updated nicely. In the comics, it takes a long time to find out how Hex came to be the man he is. It’s a good story, but it would take a lot of time to squeeze it into a movie. But I have to say that, for the most part, the version that Neveldine and Taylor went with isn’t too shabby. It’s just streamlined: Hex, tiring of constant fighting, realizes that his unit’s guerrilla tactics are getting out of control, so in order to save lives he switches sides and stops them. His best friend Jeb Turnbull is killed, and his commanding officer Quentin Turnbull (also Jeb’s father) goes nutty, escapes capture, and vows revenge. Years later, he find Hex, kills his family, and brands the initials “QT” on his face. Hex refuses to look at those letters every time he sees his reflection, so he uses a heated ax to burn them away, severely disfiguring the right side of his face in the process. It’s a good origin: it stays true to the spirit of the character, keeps the essentials, and discards the extraneous details. Unfortunately, things immediately go off the rails after that, but I’ll elaborate in the next section.
3. Megan Fox is pretty. She doesn’t really do a good job in this movie; her accent is quite annoying, to be honest. Her character contributes very little to the plot. But she is very pretty, that I will grant you.
WHAT NEEDS TO NOT BE IN THE NEXT (HYPOTHETICAL) JONAH HEX MOVIE
Rather than simply list things I didn’t like about Jonah Hex, I will also elaborate on why I didn’t like them and what I WOULD like to see. After this movie came out, I immediately added it to my “Movies to Make/Remake/Reboot in the Unlikely Event that I Come Into Money” list. So here’s my list of mistakes in Jonah Hex and how they can be avoided:
1. Use your cast better. As I mentioned, Josh Brolin, Will Arnett, Michael Fassbender, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are good in this movie. But Aiden Quinn is totally wasted as a boring President Grant and John Malkovich is phoning in his performance from at least three states away at any given time. Megan Fox is about what you would expect. The biggest waste of all is Michael Shannon. Yes, Michael Shannon is in this movie. The academy award-nominated star of Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter, and the upcoming Man of Steel. One of the most intense and interesting actors currently working in Hollywood. It was first announced that he would play Doc Cross Williams, the voodoo-practicing owner of a sinister travelling circus in Jonah Hex, and that he would be a secondary antagonist (Cross Williams was originally introduced in the 90’s in a spooky Jonah Hex miniseries called “Two-Gun Mojo”).
When the movie came out, Hex did visit a travelling circus, but guess what? Michael Shannon gets MAYBE three seconds of screen time! WHAT?! Well, it turns out that Neveldine and Taylor wanted to use his character in sequels, so they got Hayward to cut out his scenes. Yes, that’s right: those two coked-out morons were so arrogant that they decided to save their best actor for sequels that weren’t even guaranteed. Hey guys, you know what MIGHT have been a good way to get the studio to commit to a sequel? A MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE BY AN ACADEMY-AWARD NOMINATED CHARACTER ACTOR! The lesson to be learned here is simple: make good casting choices and be certain you have a director who knows how to get good performances out of them. Oh, and USE FAMOUS ACTORS IF THEY’RE ALREADY CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO WORK FOR YOU!
2. Don’t complicate things with bizarre unexplained bad CGI magic. There’s no magic in the original Jonah Hex stories. The 80’s and 90’s set a precedent for that sort of thing, so I don’t think it can be said that the filmmakers behind the movie ignored the source material, but they made a very odd choice in deciding to give Hex the power to communicate with the dead. Right after his origin is laid out in the first few minutes of the movie, it’s explained that Hex was rescued from certain death by Indians and nursed back to health, but apparently because he had been “on the other side” for too long, he gained the ability to touch dead people and bring them back to life, but only for a few minutes before they turn into ashes, and the longer they’ve been dead, the longer it takes for them to turn into ashes because they’ve been….never mind. But trust me, it’s confusing, it doesn’t fit the tone of the movie, especially since the villain is the non-mystical Quentin Turnbull and he’s using a big cannon that isn’t magic at all. Necromancer Hex feels unnecessary. Worse than that, it feels like a cheap excuse for Neveldine and Taylor to throw in some EXTREME special effects and sped-up footage. It distracts from the rest of the story. Maybe if Cross Williams were the real villain and Hex actually had to fight zombies or something, but that doesn’t happen.
3. Anachronisms are not your friend. A quick word to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: Guys, I know period pieces can be intimidating (especially if you are an idiot who doesn’t want to do any actual research). However, if you are committing to a movie that is set in a specific time and place in the past and there will be people in your audience who KNOW what did and didn’t exist back then, you owe it to them to not ruin things. Maybe you think you’ll be cool and have futuristic technology and deliberate anachronisms as a stylistic statement. Well, stop thinking that. We already have The Wild Wild West to remind us NOT to do that. And if you still REALLY want to throw in some goofy stuff, you should still learn what is physically possible and at least TRY to make the suspension of disbelief a little easier for the audience. And if you really wanted to do a fun, dumb summer blockbuster that doesn’t take itself seriously, you shouldn’t have used a revisionist Western comic about a scarred, cynical bounty hunter who wears a Confederate uniform! AND…even if you STILL wanted to ignore the source material, rip off The Wild Wild West of all movies, and not bother making a movie that takes itself too seriously, DON’T CAST JOSH BROLIN, AIDEN QUINN, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MICHAEL SHANNON, AND TELL THEM ALL TO PLAY IT STRAIGHT!
Speaking of the source material, here’s the most important thing:
4. Understand your source material. I think that’s the biggest failure with this movie. The Jonah Hex comics are, for the most part, grounded in reality. If there was a gunfight, people would die. There were no futuristic, gimmicky weapons; when a character fired six shots from their revolver, they were out of ammo until they reloaded. No one had Gatling guns mounted on their horse or a crossbow that fired sticks of dynamite or a super-powerful magic artillery cannon that could destroy Washington all by itself (all things that are in the movie). The appeal of Jonah Hex wasn’t in the scrapes he got into: it was in how he confronted the moral dilemmas he found himself faced with, how he outwitted his opponents, and whether or not he chose to learn anything from these encounters.
Everything that happened in Hex’s original adventures, as well as his second series from the 00’s, happened in a historically accurate setting. There weren’t any super-stylized fight scenes or mammoth explosions or plots that threatened the entire nation. Hex’s most important battles were with himself. It usually bothers me when comic book movies take themselves too seriously, but in the case of Jonah Hex, I don’t think the filmmakers took their movie seriously enough. Hex ISN’T a superhero. He’s Josey Wales, Paden from Silverado, and Jeremiah Johnson all rolled into one. This was the one time, THE ONE TIME, when we really needed a comic book movie to be “realistic” and “grounded.” So if Jonah Hex ever rides onto the big screen again, I hope the folks in charge do their research and focus on the man and his demons (metaphorical demons, you guys! NOT ACTUAL DEMONS!). Everything else will grow from that.
This movie is only three years old. If it feels like it’s been longer, it’s just because it was a huge box office bomb, making back only about a fifth of its $47 million budget, and everyone immediately forgot about it. Which, now that I think of it, is a good thing. Normally, I’d say you have to wait about five years for a reboot, and at LEAST ten for a hard remake, but for me, a reinterpretation of Jonah Hex can’t come soon enough. I know Warner Brothers won’t want to risk another flop, and I know that other DC characters have priority, but hey: it could happen, right?
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the character, I recommend any of the vintage Jonah Hex stories (many of them are collected in DC Showcase graphic novels), as well as Gray and Palmiotti’s series from 2005-2011. And of course, the latest volume of All-Star Western is only about 20 issues in right now. Check them out.