While it's always exciting gearing up for a major summer film release from DC and Warner Bros. or Marvel and Disney, fan films have been a homemade alternative to these outings for a very long time. Since the Internet has made both creation and distribution of film projects easier than at any previous point in history, the amount of fan films based on favorite characters and franchises has exploded, from a kid putting a sheet on his back in the yard, to sophisticated, well-funded efforts by connected people in Hollywood.
Sometimes, fan films are so eye-catching that the studios that own the intellectual properties they're based upon can take some serious notice, and that usually isn't a good thing. While some studios tend to monitor but not discourage the creation of fan films as long as the creators aren't making a profit off of an intellectual property they don't own, some studios tend to be hardliners about any fan-created effort and will come down on them with cease-and-desist letters, or DMCA notices.
When the (Legal) Hammer Comes Down
Two high-profile, fan-created efforts that received a fair amount of coverage from the geek community recently (one comics related and one video game related) got the kibosh by the higher-ups. An effort involving the game series Metroid called Enemies Within was due to be produced through Kickstarter by director and Emmy-nominated visual effects supervisor Christian Cardona, and had even cast actress Rebecca Marshall as bounty hunter Samus Aran. Unfortunately for the team and for Metroid fans, the production was canceled due to a DMCA notice by Metroid's owners, Nintendo.
Just this week, after making a big splash on comic book news websites like Bleeding Cool and Comic Book Resources, a fan film based on the Punisher entitled The Dead Can't Be Distracted started to get a lot of attention. Based on the critically acclaimed 2011-2012 Punisher comic book run by writer Greg Rucka and artist Marco Checcetto, filmmaker Mike Pecci took a hard look at what was officially produced with the character in recent years and what he felt was needed for it to connect with an audience. He found that material in Rucka's comics work.
His website details the extensive thought and inspiration put into the finished product, and it looks like it would've been truly memorable.
Unfortunately, Marvel has decided to shut it down, and detailed its reasoning in a letter to Pecci. The letter instructed him to, "immediately stop [the] unauthorized use, advertising, sale and/or distribution of any production of the Punisher or any other Marvel character-based films."
Pecci added, "According to Marvel it would 'confuse the audience' into believing that it's an official Marvel production. At first, I was flattered that the quality of our work might even compare to the millions they spend on production and advertising, but then the reality of it all set in. Marvel legal was demanding that I don’t release the film! Since when does Marvel go after fan films? Wasn’t there a recent and heavily promoted Punisher fan film with Thomas Jane?"
Yes there was, but we'll get there. He's also correct in pointing out that fan films have, historically, not been the target of Marvel's legal department in the past. However, since the House of Ideas has a new home (or room) inside the House of Mouse, which got a copyright extension law passed in 1998 that is colloquially referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Law," there's a chance that this may be as a result of Disney's ownership of the Punisher (which is still really weird for me to think about, let alone type).
The Top Five Superhero Fan Films
The bottom line is that creating fan films, or any work based upon a property that you don't own, is risky in today's legal climate. There are, however, notable fan films that have been released, that haven't been stopped, and that have definitely become testaments to the dedication and passion that certain fans, both high and low profile, have for their characters and franchises of choice. These five superhero films stand out particularly for their their production values, but most of all, for the passion that went into making them.
5) Spider-Man: The Green Goblin's Last Stand (1992)
A fan film from 1992 means that there was no Internet to distribute it, no Ulead or Final Cut Pro to edit it, and no laptops to master sound on. As a fan film, this was not just a work of a great deal of dedication, but it had to be a work of passion for actor-director Dan Poole and his cast and crew.
Capturing a lot of the fun that Spider-Man stories often have in the beginning, down to his inability to balance life as a superhero and, ultimately, depicting perhaps his greatest failure, Last Stand of the Green Goblin is a memorable and fun fan film that, beyond the early '90s trappings of music and hairstyles, still manages to endure to this day.
4) Grayson (2004)
While not exactly a full-fledged "film," actor-director John Fiorella's Grayson is a really awesome fan-made trailer showing a possible scenario of Dick Grayson's rebirth as Batman's original partner, Robin. Positing a DC Universe where Batman has been killed in action (or has he?), Dick Grayson reassumes the role of Robin in the face of an apparently massive conspiracy in the Gotham City Police Department with a powerful Chief O'Hara at the head of it.
Featuring awesome cameos across both Batman's world and the DC Universe at large, Grayson is a five-and-a-half minute tour de force for DC fans, with a great deal of guerilla filmmaking used to bring it to life.
3) The Green Hornet (2006)
Awesome fight choreography, a serious overtone, an interesting green filter and a lot of great moments abound in this 2006 Green Hornet fan film from director Aurélien Poitrimoult. With a cool day-in-the-life feel at the beginning, this fan film shows what could have been for fans hoping a more balanced adaptation would make it into theaters. While the more comedically aimed 2011 film starring Seth Rogen is what ultimately made it to theaters, fans of the concept can still look at this production as an interesting "what if" for a larger piece. Either way, this is an entertaining 10-minute film, and a very well-made fan effort.
2) The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (2012)
The aforementioned fan effort for the Punisher that Marvel didn't stop was first screened at Comic-Con International in San Diego last year on an unsuspecting audience, who didn't know what they were really watching until the final moments depicting a boy and his new, holed T-shirt. Directed by Phil Joanou and starring Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman, Dirty Laundry has almost no context when it begins and ends with the viewer in complete understanding of what they've just seen: Frank Castle, back to work.
Dirty Laundry was very well received upon release, and a lot of fans welcomed the return of Thomas Jane to the part, even if it was unofficial. That didn't matter, though. Jane said his intention was to create a "love letter" to Frank Castle, and his love of embodying Frank shows in every frame. This piece is definitely worth watching, if you haven't seen it already.
1) Batman: City of Scars (2011)
Filmmaker Aaron Schoenke is no stranger to a great deal of Batman fans because he's been making high-quality fan films revolving around the Dark Knight for many years. Memorable efforts like a Batman Beyond-related effort as well as the Joker-centric Patient J have been lauded by fans for years, and Schoenke returned to his Batman roots when he released City of Scars in 2011.
Featuring a Batman that looks as if he stepped off the comics page into reality and a memorably creepy Joker, City of Scars feels like a meaningful final encounter between the Dark Knight and the Harlequin of Hate. With immpeccably designed costumes, makeup and composition, City of Scars feels in many ways like a Batman film made for both people who just love the character, as well as hard-core fans. Both groups will easily recognize this Batman as a true representation of the predominant Dark Knight characterization of the last 25 years of comics.
That does it for this week's Comics on Film, but if you feel that I missed an important fan film, or if you want to share some love for some of the projects I listed here, then feel free to let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and we'll see you next week!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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