#538: Jonah Hex
Initial release: June 18, 2010
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Ah, Jonah Hex. One of DC Comics’ most underutilized characters, Jonah Hex was created at the beginning of an odd time for the American western. The era of John Wayne was coming to an end (1976’s The Shootist, about a dying gunslinger in the last days of the Old West, would be Wayne’s last film.) In its place was a darker, more cynical trend of revisionist westerns, inspired by the gritty and morally ambiguous Eurowesterns of the late 1960s. Comic books tended to cover a broader range of genres back then, and Jonah Hex, with his grim backstory and grimmer countenance, fit neatly into the Vietnam-era cynicism of revisionist westerns, with an added supernatural flavor (because this is, after all, comic books.)
Over the years Hex has seen less and less use as the “weird” era of comics came to an end and more straightforward superhero stuff became the standard. But DC has never completely forgotten him; part of the problem of course is that being a creature of the Old West, he simply doesn’t fit in with the capes and cowls of the contemporary era. So they’ve tried various things like time travel (where he gets to meet, and subsequently criticize, Superman) and — I guess a movie?
What can I say about Jonah Hex, the movie? It’s not particularly good or memorable — the plot being some nonsense about a bounty hunter with supernatural powers getting tasked with stopping his former commanding officer from doing a terrorism (and yes the word is actually used) on the Fourth of July. The film is not even really all that fun. It has its moments, to be sure — and with a cast like Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbender, Megan Fox, and a tremendously under-utilized Lance Reddick, all of whom are talented “genre” veterans, it’s a surprise that this movie just isn’t as good as it could have been. But then again, nobody here seems to be having all that much fun. Malkovich, unrecognizable under old man makeup and skullet, is by far the best actor in the bunch, and even he’s practically phoning it in. Josh Brolin seems constantly in pain, and I suspect it’s mostly because that makeup of his doesn’t seem comfortable at all. I didn’t even know that Michael Fassbender was in this until I saw his name in the credits.
Or perhaps we can trace the flaws of this film to its director. Jimmy Hayward is a CG animator with some skill in directing; Jonah Hex is his first, and as of this writing only, attempt at a live action film. While his direction shows flashes of inspiration, with some scenes feeling like they came out of another, better movie, it’s clear that he and the cast are working the best they can with a pretty mediocre script. They do their best to explain Hex’s loyalties during the Civil War; despite his wearing a filthy Confederate uniform the entire movie, he is eventually revealed to have betrayed his commanding officer after defying orders to burn down a hospital. Smith, the clandestine arms merchant played by the late, great Reddick, expressly points out to Hex’s face that Hex only joined the Confederates because he didn’t like the government telling anyone what to do, and never believed in slavery or the cause. That Reddick was black is probably why they had him do that scene. (In the same scene Hex literally both-sides the Confederacy and the Union. Yes, the Union wasn’t great, but we’re talking about a war over the right to own humans. I don’t know, don’t think too hard about it.)
What’s interesting here is the presence, or lack thereof, of Native American characters. Oh, they appear in the film, first in a comic book style flashback, and later in a scene where they pick up the half-dead Hex and nurse him back to health while he has a raven-filled vision quest or something — I don’t know, it’s nonsense. But none of these Native Americans are actually characters; at best, they’re background props, something that just happens to Hex to spur him on to the final leg of his quest. They play a major role in his backstory, as it’s their nursing him back to health that is implied to give him the ability to speak to the dead (a trick he uses several times to get information he needs) but are otherwise absent from the film. Honestly, given how movies like this typically treat Native Americans, it’s probably for the best.
I don’t know. It’s not the worst movie in the world, but it kind of says something that I remember very little of it despite having just seen it a couple hours ago. I just can’t help but think that Jonah Hex deserves better. Maybe DC should sell him to Marvel.