Man-Thing (2005) From Comic Book to Screen

One of the great mysteries in the history of film is how and why Marvel put into production a film based on the comic book monster Man-Thing, a character with almost no name recognition outside of comic book fans and as a title it hadn’t been in publication for years, but even more mysterious was in the way they went about making it. With the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films it seems strange that Marvel Entertainment would have teamed up with Artisan Entertainment (which was purchased by Lionsgate) to crank out a bunch of live-action films, television series, direct-to-video films based on their comic book properties as previous low budget adaptations such as the 1989 Dolph Lundgren led Punisher film and the 1990 Matt Salinger Captain America bombed so badly that they ended up being Direct-to-Video releases. So did anybody at Marvel expect this film to be any good?

Created by Editor Stan Lee and writer Roy Thomas in the early 70s Man-Thing was one of those weird creations that was more in the vein of the horror tales of EC Comics than what was filling up the pages of most Marvel comics of the time, Man-Thing wasn’t wearing tights or fighting costumed villains, and it even took a while for him to get his own comic as he spent his early years appearing in such titles as Savage Tales, Astonishing Tales, and Adventure Into Fear. Now Man-Thing would occasionally bump into likes of Kazar, Daredevil and Iron Man but The Man-Thing comic was about as far from its superhero brethren as one could be.

In Savage Tales #1 we were introduced to scientist Ted Sallis who was working in the Florida Everglades on secret government project to replicate the super soldier formula that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, unfortunately Ted’s choice of girlfriends was rather poor and she ratted him out to agents of the criminal organization known as A.I.M (Advanced Idea Mechanics). Ted managed to destroy his notes and flee with the only sample of his serum but after injecting himself with the serum, in the hopes this would result in turning him into a superhero and help him survive against the A.I.M agents but instead he crashed his car into the swamp. The combination of the serum, the swamp, and magical forces inherit in the area transformed Ted Sallis into the shambling monstrosity known as the Man-Thing.

If some of that origin sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because you either saw the movie Swamp Thing or read the comics based on it, and back in the day there were rumblings about a lawsuit between Marvel and Swamp Thing owner DC, but being both Swamp Thing and Man-Thing also share similarities to a 1940s comic book called The Heap neither company thought it worth getting into a pissing match over. And aside from their swamp based origins the two characters are quite dissimilar; Swamp Thing retained the intellect of Alec Holland while Man-Thing is an almost mindless creature that only occasionally has flashbacks of his former life as Ted Sallis, and where Swamp Thing traveled the world fighting villains and arcane forces Man-Thing mostly hung around his swamp with the odd trip to other dimensions.

“Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”

As superpowers go Man-Thing has easily one of the weirdest and darkest of powers; Man-Thing is an empathetic creature and strong emotions like rage, anger, hatred, and fear, cause him great discomfort and he relieves this discomfort by reaching out and taking hold of the offender in a very unpleasant manner.  Turns out that his body secretes highly concentrated acid that can burn human beings to ashes within a matter of seconds and now whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch. One important thing to understand is that he isn’t completely deprived of intellect, he once saved a baby that was tossed off a bridge by bringing it to a local doctor, but you won’t find him trading quips with any super villains as he is completely mute. His only real “job” is that of protecting this particular portion of the Everglades that just so happens to be the Nexus of all Realities. How much of awareness of this job exists in his muck filled head is up for debate but more than likely it’s an instinctual thing created in him at the time of his transformation.

Man-Thing sits along Swamp Thing as one of my favorite comic book creations but where I could see a Swamp Thing movie working (if handled properly) the idea of translating the pages of Man-Thing to a live action movie seemed all but inconceivable. How do you take a mute and somewhat mindless title character and hang a major motion picture on him? Well clearly giving a low budget production house a $30 million dollars and letting them run off to Australia to shoot it was not the way to go.

Like 1982’s Swamp Thing the 2005 adaptation of Man-Thing was another case of a comic book movie being made where the filmmakers may have briefly glanced at the source material, throwing in a few names and references to assumingly placate the fans, but then completely abandoned almost every other aspect of its comic book origins. Now I know that a one-for-one translation of a comic book to the screen is impossible, they are two different mediums after all, but in this case director Brett Leonard and screenwriter Hans Rodionoff unmistakably threw out the baby with the bathwater. How bad and how far does this go off the mark? Well the film opens, after a brief shot of something monstrous rising out of the swamp, with a bunch of teenagers partying around a campfire, a boy and girl run off to have sex in a canoe, and then Man-Thing brutally murders the dude mid-coitus. Is this a comic book movie or a slasher film?

“KI KI KI, MA MA MA…MAN-THING, MAN-THING.”

I will not dispute the fact that at its core the Man-Thing comic book is more horror based than anything else but in this movie he may as well just be wearing a bloody hockey mask. The film’s 97 minute running time mostly consists of people wandering around the swamp until they bump into Man-Thing and who are then viciously murdered, and due to this formula the movie gives us a large roster of characters to knock off. We have evil oil tycoon Fred Schist (Jack Thompson) who is drilling on ground sacred to the local Native Americans, his idiot son Jake (Patrick Thompson) who is in charge of security, Steve Gerber (William Zappa) as Jake’s racist underling, Wayne and Rodney Thibadeaux (John Batchelor/Ian Bliss) as alligator hunting rednecks who look like rejects from Deliverance, and then there is Mike Ploog (Robert Mammone) a photographer/bigfoot hunter who thinks this swamp monster is his big break. And in what manner exactly does this Man-Thing dispatch his prey? It seems that he uses his writhing vine/tentacles to explode his victims from within.

It’s messy but very effective.

The problem I have with this part of the movie is that, and not put too fine a point on it, where the fuck is the “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch?” Anyone with even the slightest notion of who Man-Thing is knows that he kills by burning his prey and not exploding them from within via plant attacks. This is a complete failure in translating a character’s most notable trait, that’s like making a Batman movie and having the caped crusader murdering people with gunfire. It’s ridiculous. The interesting thing here is that there is a swamp creature that uses that type of attack…Swamp Thing!

Did the filmmakers pick up the wrong comic?

In the mid-80s writer Alan Moore was brought onto the then failing Swamp Thing series and with his story “The Anatomy Lesson” shook the foundation of the character by revealing that Alec Holland actually died back in that fiery lab explosion and that Swamp Thing was a creature birthed when the local swamp vegetation had absorbed Alec’s mind, knowledge, memories, and skills and created a new sentient being that only believed itself to be Alec Holland. With this new knowledge, and no longer bound by human morality, Swamp Thing went on a revenge fueled rampage where those responsible for his “death” met rather horrifying fates.  In one instance a guy ate a BLT and Swamp Thing made the lettuce explode to tree size from within the dudes stomach. So yeah, this movie version of Man-Thing not only dropped the key ability he was known for but lifted a completely different one from his competitor.  I’m only surprised that Alan Moore didn’t sue them, but then again I guess he’s kind of gotten use to being screwed over in the movies.

“You got a purty lawsuit there, boy.”

So just what is the plot of this movie you ask? Well as far as plots go this film doesn’t have much of one.  Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez) arrives in town as the new sheriff, the previous one having gone missing in the swamp, and his first task is to handle the environmental protestors over at Schist Petroleum, and it’s there that he meets Teri Richards (Rachael Taylor) a school teacher and environmental activist and this movie’s completely unnecessary and useless love interest. Between making witty banter with Teri and dealing with the redneck locals the new sheriff has to track down Rene LaRoque (Steve Bastoni) an eco-terrorist who just may be responsible for Schist getting his mitts on the Native American land. He’s also pretty bad at eco-terrorism.

Blowing up an oil rig in the middle of your sacred swamp seems like a bad idea.

But what about scientist Ted Sallis who is tragically transformed into the monstrous Man-Thing? Well the origin story from the comic book is completely jettisoned in favor of turning Ted Sallis into the local shaman and Seminole chieftain who we learn disappeared, sometime before the movie started, and is accused of selling the sacred land to Schist and then running off with the money. Of course it turns out that LaRoque was responsible for the sale and that Schist murdered Sallis for trying to stop the deal, but now LaRoque is all about sabotaging Schist’s company because the Guardian Spirit of the swamp will keep on murdering until Schist stops desecrating the sacred swamp. That someone handed this script in and was paid for it is the most startling thing about this whole production. There isn’t a single believable character in this movie, they are either two dimensional stereotypes or simply too idiotic for us viewers to care about.

That these two survive is the biggest insult.

Not only is this movie a complete departure from the source material but even if you ignore everything they got wrong (which is pretty much everything) the film is also guilty of being incredibly boring as most of the film’s running time has us stuck with these group of morons as they wander and paddle endlessly through the swamp in the fucking dark. Visually it’s about as exciting as camping in your backyard, and the gory action that was added to get this thing an “R” rating only highlights how little this film has to offer.  When the film eventually comes to its stultifying conclusion we are only grateful that we can now do our best to forget we ever saw it.

“Whatever knows despair burns at the viewing of this movie.”

Stray Thoughts:

• The two teens who exit the campfire to fool around is an obvious and sad nod to the opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
• This new sheriff decides that his best option for finding LaRoque was to hunt for him at night in the swamp, which no sane person would ever do.
• Man-Thing kills innocent as well as guilty people in this movie so they took a tortured complex creature from the comics and just made him into a moss covered Jason Vorhees.
• One character is named after Man-Thing writer Steve Gerber and another after artist Mike Ploog but neither of these characters are all that flattering to these comic book legends.
• Most of the swamp locations are sets that look about as convincing as a high school production of Deliverance.

I’m not sure where that $30 million dollar budget went but certainly not here.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.