Comic book movies are now a staple of the summer blockbuster season. This modern age of the comic book film can be traced back to an unlikely source in Blade. For decades, Marvel had attempted to turn their characters into successful feature films. Yet, all they had to show for it are a pair of awful direct-to-video movies based on Captain America and the Punisher and a Roger Corman-directed Fantastic Four that was never even released. With top properties like Spider-Man and the X-Men languishing in development hell, it was an unknown vampire slayer that broke through for Marvel and set the stage for Iron Man and others.
In recent years, Marvel’s main competitor, DC Comics, has had massive success with its rebooted Batman franchise. However, Superman Returns was a failure and they’ve struggled to get other A-list characters like Wonder Woman and the Flash off the ground while Green Lantern finally hits screens next year. It only makes sense for DC to exploit its lesser known characters or creator-owned properties to fill the void. And along rides Jonah Hex.
Hex was created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga and first appeared in 1971 in All-Star Western #10. Set in the Old West, Hex was a bounty hunter with half his face hideously scarred. He was sold into slavery to the Apache as a child and fought for the Confederacy in adulthood. Later, he was revamped with a supernatural bent as part of DC’s Vertigo imprint. The movie version combines a little bit of both, but is a very loose adaptation of the character.
Josh Brolin stars as Jonah Hex; a Civil War veteran who surrendered to the Union inadvertently resulting in the death of his best friend Jeb Turnbull (an uncredited Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In revenge, Jeb’s father, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) forces Hex to watch helplessly while his wife and son are murdered. Left for dead with his face branded, Hex is saved by Indians and the ordeal leaves him the power to temporarily speak with the dead.
Since then, the disfigured anti-hero has made his mark as a renowned bounty hunter and gunfighter of exceptional skill. Meanwhile, Turnbull has become a terrorist striking out against the American government. He steals a massive supergun, dubbed the ‘Nation Killer,’ in order to destroy Washington during the country’s centennial celebration.
Jonah Hex endured a problematic journey into the theaters. The script was originally written by Neveldine & Taylor, the team behind the Crank films and Gamer, who were also attached to direct. Brolin signed onto the project supposedly because he loved its atrociousness. The pair left the project and was eventually replaced by the oddball choice of Jimmy Hayward whose only previous experience was the animated Horton Hears a Who. The project saw last minute reshoots under the supervision of Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) and a massive retooling of the plot.
What’s left is a complete mess that is barely 80 minutes long, not counting the credits. Jonah Hex is like two fractured films hastily duct taped together. There is a strange battle on a metaphysical plain between Hex and Turnbull that was once set to be the climax of the movie. Instead, it’s clumsily and confusingly intercut with two major sequences of the final product. The mystical elements are excised and in their place we find ludicrous weaponry like saddle-mounted Gatling guns, dynamite launching crossbows, and a monstrous cannon powered by glowing orange orbs invented by Eli Whitney, the creator of the cotton gin. No, really.
Some of the cast seem to realize what a colossal turd they’re in and play along. Brolin tries to rise above it all as the gravelly voiced Hex while Michael Fassbender goes over-the-top as a knife-wielding Irish henchman. Megan Fox also appears as a tough hooker with a lilting Southern accent and an impossibly thin hourglass waist. She seriously looks like she’ll snap in half at any second. For some reason, Fox almost always appears in close-ups with soft lighting no matter what the situation. Will Arnett is woefully miscast as a straight-laced Union officer while Michael Shannon pops in for one and only one scene as the ringleader of an underground fight club. Both actors are victims of the reshoots and slapdash editing.
Jonah Hex never purports to be anything more than a low-grade B-movie. Some might be able to enjoy it on a ‘so bad, it’s good’ level, but not me. Jonah Hex makes no attempt to remain faithful to the source material. It’s a shame really as the character had the potential to star in a Leone-style Spaghetti Western. The movie isn’t so much A Fistful of Dollars as it is Wild Wild West. In the pantheon of DC adaptations, it ranks at the bottom of the pile alongside Catwoman and Steel.