Jonah Hex is a character who has had his share of massive ups and downs. Half of his face is burned away. He had a horrific childhood. He was sold into slavery. He fought on the losing side of the Civil War. His wife and son left him. He traveled to the future. His corpse was stuffed and mounted in a sideshow. But by far, the most humiliating thing in Jonah's life happened this weekend, when his half-plucked film hit theaters to the tune of record lows at the box office.
I've written a lot of Hex pieces in the past few months, and I hesitate to write another one, because it may seem like I'm beating one of his ill-fated horses to death. But I'm a fan of the character, and as a fan, I feel as cheated as I did last summer with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This time, it's a little more personal. Jonah Hex was one of the first film sets I visited, and arguably one of the most exciting because I knew the source material. I watched a character I knew come to life, and it was as cool as I hoped it would be. In the months that followed, I whispered what I'd seen to my fellow Hex fans, and assured them it was in good hands.
I'm not going to pretend to know what went wrong. To me, the character and the concept is a no-brainer that you have to work really hard to screw up. Given the scenario painted by Eric Snider, they worked very, very hard. But as a fan, that ultimately means nothing. As a reporter, it bears little connection to what I saw and experienced that day on set. Going back through Josh Brolin's transcript, I wonder if they didn't just get a little too lost in his own head and influences. Do you really need to read Martin McDonagh to capture the tone of Jonah Hex? It sounds impressive to say, but the tone of Jonah Hex has been well captured in numerous comic books throughout the decades. Just picking up one volume of DC's current run gives you the perfect blend of sarcasm, shoot outs, sex, gore, and horse opera. Just adapt that. It's not hard. The crazy thing is, comic books are written in script form, so you could probably just talk to those comic writers and say "Can you make a longer one of those?"
But to hear Deadline's anonymous Warner Bros source tell it (and a few of the commenters), the problem lies in audiences. You can't disfigure Brolin's handsome visage and expect people to show up. (To quote Jim Vejvoda, this is coming from the same studio that produced The Dark Knight.) The character was too obscure. Mainstream audiences don't care about comic book characters unless they're well-known like Superman or Batman. Those audiences would never, even in its purest form, tolerate a Jonah Hex movie. So it was written off, chopped down to 70 minutes, and shoved out as lifeless and blank as Hex's taxidermied corpse. There wasn't even an attempt to give audiences a full 2 hours and the most bang for their buck. The character didn't deserve it, and neither did we.
It's ok. We wouldn't have liked it anyway. They did us a favor. We may have been worshipping at the alter of the antihero for decades, but now we're too tender-minded and weak-stomached to handle one. Simple moviegoer, there's no way you'll ever enjoy two hours of a bounty hunter gunning his way through Weird Western Tales. You may have High Plains Drifter on DVD, but trust us, we know what's best. You need simple stories with clear cut protagonists. And Megan Fox. (No slam on her, actually, but she's no Tallulah Black. A true geek girl might have fought for that character to really show up on screen.)
I cry foul. I'm tired of studios having no belief, trust, or respect in us. I'm tired of studios doing me a favor by cutting out the dark and offensive bits. I'm sick of movies being cropped down in committee to be the most milquetoast and "marketable" version that aims to please everyone, but wind up pleasing no one, so its failure becomes our collective fault.
I understand a character like Jonah Hex isn't for everyone. There's audiences who would find the idea of prairie witches and cannibals strange, corny, or excessive. There are others who wouldn't go to a Western no matter how weird and genre-bending it got. But there are plenty who would, and plenty who might go just out of curiosity. Because – newsflash! – the majority of people like original and good movies. They always have. Good movies are talked about. That's why people who normally scoffed at hobbits and elves went to see Lord of the Rings. It's why people who mocked Trekkies went to see Star Trek. Audiences who supposedly won't see anything with huge stars flocked to see an unknown Shaltro Copley mutate into a prawn. They even went multiple times before queuing up for Avatar despite a cast buried under layers of CGI. None of these movies and concepts are what I'd call mainstream. Don't get me wrong – Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Star Trek, and District 9 are hardly difficult and obscure films (we're not talking Stanley Kubrick, here), and they're inoffensively palatable, but they're also decidedly bookish and nerdy. They aren't a John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, or Dan Brown adaptation that even your grandparents know about on some basic level. But your grandparents went and saw these films because they saw the advertisements, read the reviews, and knew it was worth their time and money. Would they have done the same for Jonah Hex? I think so.
I rant, because I care. There's been a lot of mockery of Hex's failure, and I don't understand the glee or pleasure in that. It's a very bad, bad thing for smaller DC characters. It's disastrous for the books they come from. Comics that aren't on the beaten path – Green Lantern, Superman, Batman – already struggle for readership and recognition. Now they'll have to prove themselves as viable and marketable franchises. Those that aren't will probably fall by the wayside. And I know this isn't just a comic book thing. You've read countless essays by myself, my Cinematical colleagues, and our fellow webwriters lamenting the state of Hollywood today. Watching something like Jonah Hex fail shouldn't be a time to crow; it's yet another reminder that our tastes are being dictated to us. Jonah Hex is the kind of property that could have been an intriguing and low-budgeted experiment. It could have been a good risk to take. Again, I don't know what all went wrong on that set, but I know a lot of people involved – feel free to pick your hero and your villain – cared about the character and sought to do something original with him. I recognize they may have simply tried and failed. The best intentions don't always make the best film.
But the movie I saw screamed that no one let them try. It's the same problem I saw last summer with X-Men Origins: Wolverine – a persistent belief that this element was unpalatable, or that one was too dark, that the source material wasn't good enough, and that audiences would be too stupid to realize it didn't click with the X-Men films before it. That's what I take issue with. It isn't that I'm a nitpicky fangirl – and I am – but that they can't even respect those who don't have the trades, the t-shirt, and the knowledge. I'm pinning a lot on one scarred bounty hunter. I realize that. There's a lot of hyperbole here, and I'm painting with a pretty broad brush. But it shocks me that a film – any film – can be hacked up and written off as something that would have appealed to only the tiniest segment of fanboys.
But if story doesn't matter, and the character was too obscure, how is it possible that Jonah Hex: No Way Back made it to the New York Times' bestseller list? To me, that says that a lot of people were at least intrigued enough by the premise to find out where he came from, and to pick up an original tale. Let's stress that – they went out and bought an original graphic novel. If people liked what they saw enough to go out and read Jonah's series, it would be a great justice for the character. And just think, if this graphic novel had been the basis of the movie, who knows what might have been? We might have had a Jonah Hex movie everyone – studio, fans, Mom and Pop Moviegoer – got behind and embraced. Unfortunately, no one trusted us to do so. Those who sign off on movies didn't trust the source material, and they didn't believe we'd ever go along with it. And I fear we'll just see more and more of that as the summers wear on.