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When an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation flops – Marvel Super Special #38, “Red Sonja”

March 22, 2013

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There are times when a film adaptation of a comic book property hits all its marks — last year’s Avengers being a prime example. In those magical moments of cinematic alchemy, everything from casting to costumery comes together to bring newsprint panels to three-dimensional life. Fans sit back together and sigh with relief, letting all their trepidations, their invested agita, out as they exhale. Church bells peal, strangers embrace on the streets, and Jupiter aligns with Mars. Those are rare times, and rare films, to treasure.

Red Sonja was not one of those movies.

It’s easy to forget how utterly dreadful the Dino De Laurentiis production of one of Robert Howard’s distaff creations was — indeed, it made the underwhelming Conan the Destroyer look like Ben-Hur. A lot of that forgetfulness has to come from the viewers’ brains going into survival mode as soon as the credits rolled, suppressing all memories of the cast and plot and expunging them from the books like old misdemeanor arrests. Because if it didn’t, if there wasn’t this palliative amnesia, how could any of us face the day? How could anyone bring children into a world where such darkness existed?

I’ve watched Sonja three times in my life, each viewing coming about a decade apart from the other. By then I’ve forgotten everything about the plot, and just recall that Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it, that it shares a sword and sorcery sheen with the Ahnuld Conan films, and hell, how bad could it have been? And then I watch it and feel like someone from Monty Python has just slapped me with a fish.

Crom, it is awful.

Brigitte Nielsen, whatever her 1980s charms may have been (she was great in her way as the icy Mrs. Drago in Rocky IV), was woefully miscast as the titular auburn-haired warrioress. Her Sonja seemed put upon, thrust into a role she hated, while the Sonja of the comics reveled in bloody combat, making her name not just about the tresses. The character onscreen might as well as been Vanilla Sonja. Or Beige Sonja. Take your pick of bland Glidden paint colors. Whatever you call her, her swordplay was weak, and her presence was weaker. It was as if no one involved in bringing Sonja to life had ever even flipped through one of the glorious Frank Thorne comics. Which is some sort of crime, right?

And Schwarzenegger? Roped into the production with the bait-and-switch promise that his role would be minor, he turned in one of the weaker efforts of his glory days. He wasn’t into it and it showed, and his flirtations with the man-hating Sonja were stab-yourself-in-the-face awful. If nothing else, the film stands as proof as one thing: Arnold can be a fun part of a good film, but can’t elevate a terrible film.

The general malaise that stuck to the whole enterprise carried over to the Marvel Super Special adaptation. Keep in mind, this was part of the marketing for a big-screen Marvel property. If there was ever a time for the House of Ideas to pull out all the stops for a book, this was it. But, perhaps reflecting the god-awfulness of the movie, the MSS is a skeletal, pro forma effort, like a DVD with only the movie lasered onto its surface. There are no behind the scenes photos, no lengthy articles detailing the ins and outs of the making of. Just the comic, and even that had a flat, rushed feel to it. The talents of scripter Louise Simonson, penciller Mary Wilshire and inker Vince Colletta are too well-established to blame them. The only explanation(s) for the drab affair? Poor source material and the debilitating misuse of a fantasy icon.

Imagine this as a tennis match, with Marvel serving a pristine ball over to Hollywood, and it coming back covered with slime and manure. Is it any wonder that Marvel volleyed the return into the stands?

The “plot” reproduced therein (quotation marks are very much in order here) copied many elements from Conan the Barbarian, including Sonja being orphaned by an attack on her family and wrenched from her pastoral existence. There follows a quest, as Sonja seeks something or other and revenge upon an evil queen (played by Valeria of CtB, the sleep-walking Sandahl Bergman) who’s still peeved about Sonja scarring her face years before. Arnold strolls into frame long the way, as do a bratty prince sans realm and his long-suffering manservant. Here’s Richie not-so-Rich getting a swords(wo)manship lesson from Red, with all the phallic implications that could drive a confused youngster wild:

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Panel #3 — we get it, kid.

That is, in some respects, the high point of the adaptation. Well, unless you count the sparkling wordplay between our two romantic leads:

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Whatever.

Instead of the omitted special features, there are several pages of Sonja pinups, i.e. the things artists can churn out in a few minutes and slap in as filler. It’s safe to say that this one, from the back and doubling as an ad for the regular Sonja series, outclasses everything slapped onscreen:

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Red Sonja popped up in entertainment news relatively recently, when Schwarzenegger confirmed the long-rumored affair with Nielsen during the movie’s filming. Other than the well, yeah reaction (and rendering her brief marriage to Sly Stallone sloppy seconds), that served to bring a mercifully forgotten film back, albeit briefly, into the public consciousness. Thanks a bunch for that. And this Super Special stands as some permanent grave-marker of the failed experiment.

We can at least take solace that the Nielsen She-Hulk never got off the ground. One property saved.

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