Green Light District: Paradax!
The American studio system has gotten idea-recycling down to a science, extracting every possible adaptation from any non-movie creative property with an even slight hint of profitability. But instead of airport novels and second-string superheroes, we’re going to take a look at actual historical incidents, works of fiction off the beaten path, and whatever else we think might play well up on the big screen.
This week, we take a look at the grandaddy of “real-life superheroes”: Paradax!
As soon as the elements of the superhero genre began to codify and take a coherent shape, with comic books having landed on the traditional villain-of-the-week format and a general template for their protagonists, smarty-pants writers wanted to get one step ahead. What with its relative narrative simplicity and Manichean notions of simple good and evil, the candy-colored world of golden-age superheroes was begging for a good deconstructin’. It was an inevitable impulse to interrogate the tropes that made up the superhero canon and rework them into a more mature, complex text.
Watchmen broached the question, “What if superheroes existed in the real world?” and came up with dark, unsettling answers. (Reductively, that a person would have to be profoundly mentally unwell in order to assume a false identity and fight crime at night.) Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass tackled a similar concept with twice the violence and half the intelligence, outlining a regular schmo who becomes a superhero despite the constant merciless beatdowns such a line of work often bring him. There have been plenty of others — for a personal favorite, Peter Milligan’s run on the X-Statix comic book reimagined the X-Men as a gang of craven, morally bankrupt, money-grubbing fame whores. But the granddaddy of them all comes from earlier in Milligan’s bibliography.
In 1984, Milligan and his frequent collaborator artist Brendan McCarthy dreamt up an unapologetically honest answer to the persisting question of what a superhero might look like in the real world: Paradax. Brought into being as one of their contributions to the anthology series Strange Days, Paradax elicited an enthusiastic response from readers and spun off into his own limited series in ’87, only to run for a glorious yet brief two issues.
The Paradax! books start with a relatively simple concept and commit to following it all the way to the bitter, troubling ends, happening upon genius somewhere along the way: Al Cooper daylights as a frustrated twentysomething cabbie, bringing home his shit paycheck to a derelict NYC apartment and a girlfriend who knows he could amount to something more if he put his mind to it. When he finds a spandex suit in the back of his taxi that allows him to phase through solid matter, it looks like everything’s about to change.
But then… things don’t.
Receiving this awesome gift does not alter the fundamental jag-off nature at Al’s heart; his first instinct is to pursue a lucrative life of crime, # but decides against it because that seems like too much of a hassle. Somewhat inevitably, he comes to the conclusion that heroism would be the path of least resistance to fabulous wealth. Not that that’ll stop him from using his powers for personal gain at every possible occasion — Cooper’s primary ambitions seem to be drinking beer, scoring with bar floozies, and getting paid through whatever rat-holes have money at the end of them.
However, it doesn’t take long for Al to figure out that there’s more money in the superhero lifestyle than the actual heroism part, and so he redirects his efforts primarily towards media exposure. Al takes a manager # and lands spots on major talk-shows, with the public all too willing to overlook the fact that flashy, fame-friendly Paradax hasn’t actually bested any villains.
Casting Al Cooper is a difficult proposition though. The guy’s a jerk, but in a way that’s eminently understandable and, ultimately, kinda charming. He’s made up of the parts of ourself that we might not like, but definitely recognize. Striking that balance isn’t easy, but Sam Rockwell has made a career out of it regardless. He might be a little long in the tooth to play spry young Al Cooper, but the character’s age can easily be adjusted to fit Rockwell’s weathered features.
To balance out the cast, he’ll also go up against one of the most colorful components of Paradax!’s universe, the Pinhead. A nuclear-armament-obsessed supervillain, he eventually challenges Paradax to prove his mettle as a hero, and the conflict between those two would provide any film adaptation with some much-needed structure. (Dave Bautista, the deadpan man-mountain who stole scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy, could make a fine Pinhead.) After all, there’s only so much vicious postmodern deconstruction that an audience will take before some good old-fashioned punching.
With the American cinematic landscape fast approaching superhero saturation (Part 38 of Marvel’s 921-film plan for total world domination, coming soon to your neighborhood cineplex!), there would be no better time for Paradax! to make the jump to the silver screen. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy brought big-budget capes-and-tights flicks a much-needed dose of maturity, but the genre remains a bloated target for satire. Studios have tentatively dipped toes into this pond; Super and Defendor notwithstanding, Hancock might be the best approximation at what Paradax! did first and best, but that Will Smith vehicle lost its critical footing as it lurched into its harebrained barrage of third-act plot twists. (Will Smith and and Charlize Theron are aliens! Or fuck-partners of destiny! Or a modern-day Adam and Eve! Can someone pass the cocaine?)
A faithful adaptation of Paradax would be the first film to unrepentantly portray an antisuperhero, to gaze unblinkingly in the face of human pettiness and refuse to break eye contact. It could be equally unsettling and refreshing: a guy just like us, that is to say, kind of a piece of crap.
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