In this day and age of ubiquitous big-budget comic book movies, we are used to seeing iconic comic book and cartoon characters with global recognizability and appeal featured in big-budget Hollywood adaptations. Many articles and studies (including my own book!) have focused on the 21st-century cycle of superhero movies that followed in the wake of Spider-Man‘s mammoth success in 2002, but this has merely been the longest and most prolific wave of such films, the sub-genre’s continued financial success (which is still ongoing) certainly getting a strong assist from the development of globalized capitalism.
Previously always very much a B-movie property, the “comic book movie” was transformed into a potential A-list commodity by the impact of Superman (1978), which in turn had been made possible by George Lucas’s game-changer Star Wars the year before. Not only did Superman establish a template for most subsequent comic book movie hits, which have tended to offer effects-laden origin stories for familiar popular icons, presented on a big canvas as modern-day adventure stories. In that sense, they follow in the footsteps of those older Hollywood behemoths, the sword-and-sandal epics that had been perennial audience favorites until the early 1960s.
One film from the short-lived big-budget cycle of comic book movies that followed in the wake of Superman is Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980), a perpetual oddity that is frequently included in top-10 lists of notorious flops and high-profile cinematic failures. Defenders of the film always point out that Altman’s whimsical, eccentric, and thoroughly delightful musical actually made plenty of money for co-distributors Disney and Paramount during its original theatrical run, and that the studios’ problem with it had been that they had expected it to have a much greater impact than it did. This may certainly be true: although Popeye easily turned a profit, it didn’t live up to the gargantuan returns of previous hits in the new blockbuster era that had been ushered in by Jaws (1975). But I think there are other factors that contributed to the Mouse House’s decision to more or less disown the potential film franchise from that point onward.
For starters, Popeye doesn’t offer the instantly recognizable narrative formula that made Star Wars and its legion of clones such a fundamentally nostalgic experience. Instead, Popeye drops its endlessly muttering protagonist into a surreal village set on Malta that is more like the desolate town in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (including a bizarrely conspicuous brothel) than anything out of Mickey’s cosy suburbia. Although the plot may be superficially described as an origin story in which Popeye first meets Olive Oyl, Swee’ Pea, and Bluto, and in which he acquires his famous taste for spinach, this deliberately quixotic experience otherwise eschews the established blockbuster elements: no major effects-driven set pieces, no traditional narrative patterns, and instead of a rousing John Williams score, a collection of Harry Nilsson tunes performed by actors who can’t really sing.
For fans of E.C. Segar’s marvelously surreal Thimble Theater comic strips and Dave Fleischer’s hilarious early animated shorts, this adaptation made perfect sense. After all, Popeye’s adventures are never about the archetypal Hero’s Journey on which all other movies in this comic book movie genre have come to rely. He’s a weird, perpetually-befuddled little guy with a mumble and a squint, and a proclivity for knocking people on their ass without too much provocation. Other characters, like the Tax Collector, embellish Popeye’s surreal, strangely claustrophobic little world with a Kafkaesque atmosphere even more at odds with Disney’s tidy world, in which authentic rulers are always benign and where evil is always punished.
But comic book movies are usually only really judged in comparison with their source if they are adapted from graphic novels by Alan Moore, and not many people were all that interested in Segar’s comic strips or the old Fleischer cartoons. Nor were Robert Altman fans at the time particularly interested in the iconoclastic auteur taking on a big-budget live-action cartoon marketed primarily towards children. I’m guessing that Altman devotees saw the film as a sell-out, its perceived failure compounded by the film’s much-discussed lack of true blockbuster success.
But as the late director has pointed out himself in the book Altman on Altman, children may still be the best judge of the film’s merits. Kids, and especially those who get to see this amazing film before they have learned to expect all movie experiences to be basically the same, generally adore Popeye, intuitively appreciating its genuinely anarchic spirit, its full-blown weirdness, its episodic storyline, and its expertly executed slapstick antics. Popeye is awesome: ask anyone under eight (or else ask the movie’s number-one fan Paul Thomas Anderson, who has been trying to restore the film’s reputation for years, and who included Shelley Duvall’s fantastic performance of “He Needs Me” in his own Punch-Drunk Love.)