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Crom himself heralds the triumphant return of Marvel Super Special March – Marvel Super Special #35, “Conan the Destroyer”

March 1, 2013

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One of things I’ve derived the most enjoyment from in the few years of this blog’s existence was last year’s Marvel Super Special March, in which we looked at some of those fun old mag adaptations of Hollywood productions big and small. They’re great (and not so great) interpretations of sometimes beloved, sometimes loathed films that often have odd variances with the celluloid originals. And guess what — they’re back for another go around this year. Commence rejoicing. Eat, drink and be merry.

We’ll start it off with a sequel that underwhelmed after its predecessor outperformed. Conan the Barbarian, while not pleasing to Cimmerian purists, those who know the chapter and verse of Robert E. Howard’s blood-soaked warrior, was a movie greater than the sum of its parts. It launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career. It had James Earl Jones in a goofy wig. It had that great CRUSH YOUR ENEMIES line. It had Mako. It was bloody. And it had a magnificent score from the great Basil Poledouris that likely did more than anything else to elevate the movie above what might have been mere pulpy mediocrity. (Seriously, if you can listen to “Anvil of Crom” and “Riders of Doom” without getting the urge to grab a sword, you might not have a pulse.) Add them all up, and you have something bordering on great.

Director John Milius turned in a movie that out-delivered. But he wasn’t on board when producer Dino de Laurentis came back for more cash, and the follow-up, Conan the Destroyer, though still decent in certain respects, failed to live up to its forbear. Arnold returned to the title role that really gave his acting career its turbo boost (Not Hercules in New York? NO.), and Mako was back in his quirky wizard role, but gone was the steppe-born Subotai. Valieria, Conan’s great love, had died thanks to a Thulsa Doom snake arrow, and that uber-villain had himself been beheaded. Their replacements were basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain as the club-wielding Bombatta, Tracey Walter as a cowardly thief, Grace Jones as an image-defining warrioress, Sarah Douglas parlaying her icy Superman II Kryptonian Ursa into an equally frigid queen, and young, fetching Olivia d’Abo as a princess destined to deliver a relic and die by sacrifice. All were fine, but they didn’t click like the cast in the first — and, after typing them out, I might add that there could have been too many ingredients in this reheated stew.

(Confession: I had a major thing for d’Abo way back when, when she was Kevin Arnold’s hippie older sister on The Wonder Years. Dear Lord, was she ever pretty, and she established for me some baseline of what a beautiful blonde is supposed to look like. Just wanted to disclose that. D’Abo for the win.)

In addition to the downturn in chemistry, there was the content. While no one would confuse Destroyer with family friendly fare, it was neutered (or doubly neutered, for those devotees of the un-Arnold Barbarian) in a quest to amplify the potential box office take. Thus there were no more bared breasts, and much of the lusty life of Conan was scrubbed from the palette. What was left was a straight-forward quest film that could, at best, only be thought of as Kind Of Good, not Good/Great like the first.

That said, Destroyer has its charm, and can’t be completely dismissed. And it’s Arnold being Arnold, which, for a generation weaned on Predators and Terminators and who understand the accented joy of GET TO DA CHOPPA, is a gratifying force unto itself.

Michael Fleisher (no relation to sequel director Richard Fleischer — the c is a clue) scripted the Marvel adaptation, while Conan comics veteran John Buscema provided the art (both having done the same duties for the first film’s comic). The latter’s talents give the Super Special version an odd feel, in that it becomes more a Conan comic story and less a Schwarzenegger movie story. The two versions of the character are, for various reasons, two distinct entities, and Buscema’s lines go a long way towards scrubbing the Austrian Oak from the character and meshing him with the regular comic book goings on (and some of the irregular). It makes sense in a way, but for those who like the films — the second to a lesser degree — it’s a touch jarring. Where’s Arnold and his PED-enhanced jawline?

The plot has Douglas’ Queen Taramis recruiting Conan to guide her niece, Jehnna (d’Abo), and Jehnna’s bodyguard Bombatta on a journey to locate first a key and then a treasure, the latter of which she promises will bring dear dead Valeria back to life. (Actually it will bring to life Dagoth, a hellish god of old, but that comes later.) No offense to Douglas, who did her Cruella de Vil act as well as anyone, but I buy Buscema’s curvy take on the queen as one more likely to seduce a rutting barbarian:

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(Olivia who?) (Just kidding, Olivia.)

The characters not already on board are soon added to this unlikely Fellowship of the Babe, and the first significant set-piece is soon upon them. Thoth-Amon, the holder of the Part 1 key, kidnaps Jehnna and spirits her (literally) to his lake fortress. There our heroes eventually rescue her and find the key — a gem — but not before Arnold gets to flex his sword-swinging muscles against the evil wizard and scream in that most Arnold of ways. In the film, their hall of mirrors battle looks like this:

In the comic, Thoth-Amon morphs into a more apish looking dude — if you’ve ever wanted to see Gorilla Grodd do a Hulk Hogan shirt rip, voila:

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An aside: Thoth-Amon was played here by Pat Roach, the wrestler/actor whose most memorable role was the burly German who boxed Indiana Jones under the flying wing in Raiders of the Lost Ark and was made into tomato puree for his troubles. His character’s appearance and demise were also altered in that film’s Super Special. COSMIC.

The escape from this gorilla-laden hall of mirrors presents a natural break, and indeed, this was the point where Marvel divided the story so that it could also be published in a regular comic-sized two-parter. Here in the full mag, the central portion is filled by a lengthy article on the making of the film , including some black and white set and publicity photos. Wilt the Stilt in costume reading the sports page stands out, as its gargantuan subject always did:

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Here’s a shot of the ladies of Destroyer. To appropriate a line from Rocky IV and make it a tad vulgar: HIT THE ONE IN THE MIDDLE:

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(Really, how could a man resist young, nubile Miss d’Abo, whether the d is capitalized or not? My God in heaven.) (Okay, enough, this is starting to sound like Brent Musburger salivating over a beauty queen. ESPN will soon have to issue a statement apologizing for retroactive lechery.)

After the filler, the adventure proceeds apace, with time for Conan to consider romancing the princess. There aren’t many men that could mack while wearing furry briefs and a headband, but he’s one of them — Where you got to go, baby?:

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One sequence that isn’t changed up as much as it gets a different paint job comes towards the end. The clam shell thingy in the tomb that holds Dagoth’s horn — the ultimate treasure of their quest – was fairly bland in the film, but in the comic it becomes a venus fly trap crossed with Darth Vader’s mask from the first Star Wars comic’s cover:

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And Dagoth? The evil god who will be awakened when his horn is placed once more on his forehead, and who will only be tamed by Jehnna’s blood? In the movie, the marble statue comes alive when re-horned and becomes a giant man-in-suit monster (actually Andre the Giant in uncredited work — really). Here? Here it’s a winged red demon that goes on a rampage and impales the evil queen:

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AND ONLY CONAN CAN STOP IT/HIM/WHATEVER.

Thanks to Buscema’s art, the comic may be better than the source material in certain ways — despite the lack of Schwarzeneggerian elements. Things that couldn’t be done adequately with the special effects of the day (1984) get more dimensionality on a flat page. Sounds odd, but it’s true. And on that note: The great Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway wrote a treatment for the film and are given a story credit for the final product, though their work was changed a great deal before the final film. What did they do? They rejiggered some of the character nomenclature and morphed their story into another comic: Conan: The Horn of Azoth. Track it down and decide which is tops. You know, if you want to go deep into your Conan research. And what does the existence of Azoth tell us? Thomas’ and Conway’s disappointment with the finished product, which was so pronounced that did an end-around and redid it their way, gives you some idea of how it failed to live up to standards and expectations.

Personally, while I love the original, the sequel is only entertaining in an unremarkable way, and that seems to be the consensus verdict of history. At best.

As a corollary, there’s movement in Hollywood to make another Schwarzenegger Conan movie, one that builds on the promise of Conan the King that ended both prior entries. What are they doing with the developments in Destroyer? Nothing. It’ll be ignored, much like how Bryan Singer just used Superman and Superman II as the backdrops for his 2006 film and rendered Richard Pryor and Nuclear Man mere apocrypha.

I’m a bit sad about that. It’s okay to like Destroyer, and it’s okay to like its Buscema-infused Super Special. Not everything can be super special, even if it’s a Super Special, you know? There’s no need to do a full-on Amish shunning of Wilt and d’Abo, but that seems to be their destiny. Oh well. So be it.

And so begins Marvel Super Special March. This won’t be the last time Mr. Schwarzenegger makes an appearance this month, though. Stay tuned.

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