The One Gunfight Jonah Hex Won't Win We consider the sad fate of Jonah Hex, destined to be bested this weekend by a highly dangerous adversary of the cowpoke variety.
NPR logo The One Gunfight Jonah Hex Won't Win

The One Gunfight Jonah Hex Won't Win

Frank Masi/Warner Bros. Pictures
Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex
Frank Masi/Warner Bros. Pictures

The tough-as-nails DC Comics gunslinger Jonah Hex has been through a lot: war, facial mutilation, temporal displacement, he's even spent time as a stuffed, mounted corpse and lived to tell the tale. In his time he's faced off against rustlers, crooked lawmen, bounty hunters, post-apocalyptic mutants, robot dogs, zombies, ghosts and Lovecraftian god-monsters.  And every time, he's won the day.

Tomorrow, however, he will finally face the foe that will best him.

That's right: Another cowpoke is gunning for Jonah Hex. And there is only one possible result of the ensuing showdown: Hex is gonna lose, and lose big.

It'll be like just Tombstone ... except that Hex's OK Corral will be the weekend box office. And don't bother sendin' anyone to go run-fetch the sheriff, it won't help. Because the raw-boned cuss who'll finally outdraw Jonah Hex and fill him full of hot metaphorical lead is the roughest, toughest, leanest, meanest, rootinest, tootinest cowboy to ever appear on a lunchbox:  Toy Story 3's Sheriff Woody.


The High Plains Drifter Era

Conceived as a lone, remorseless gunman of the Man With No Name school, bounty hunter Jonah Hex first appeared in the 1972 anthology comic All-Star Western bearing all of the elements that still characterize him today:  gruff, laconic mode of speech, horribly scarred face, absolutely no compunction about using violence to get his way.

All-Star Western became Weird Western Tales soon after Hex's debut, but Hex was too flinty and hard-bitten to bother much with ghosts and such, and the book's titular weirdness gave him a wide berth. In 1977 he got his own series, in which readers finally learned how he came to possess his grisly facial scar -- and also learned, via a flash-forward, that Hex would ultimately wind up as a stuffed and mounted corpse in a travelling sideshow.

The Road Warrior Era

In 1985, when cataclysmic temporal and dimensional chaos invaded every DC title as a result of the publisher's Crisis on Infinite Earths event, Hex found himself abruptly transported from the Old West to someplace far beyond Thunderdome -- specifically, to a post-apocalyptic 2050 where mutants roamed the irradiated wastes and giant metal shoulderpads were a whole thing.

That new series, Hex, lasted only 18 issues, and represents little more than a blip in the character's long history of gritty, realistic adventures.  Many Hex fans would prefer to pretend it never happened.  But to do that would be to deny the (frickin' hilarious) existence of a Hex nemesis named -- wait for it -- Stiletta, who put the O! in Wendy O. Williams and dressed like Mad Max's Jazzercise instructor.

And surely we must never forget the gripping, if legally actionable, tale of his fight against the evil Aliens ... ah, aliens ... known as the Xxggs.

The Unforgiven Era

After that title ended, the character departed the kid-friendly, Comics-Code approved shores of DC Comics for its mature readers imprint, Vertigo.  Over the course of a few mini-series, Hex found himself drifting into the adult horror/fantasy mode that typifies many Vertigo titles (a.k.a. blood, boobs and blasphemy).

But in 2005, Vertigo launched a new ongoing series starring Jonah Hex written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, who proceeded to strip Hex of the fantasy elements that had accreted to him over the years, and set out to make a straight-ahead Western.

The Gray and Palmiotti series focuses, mostly, on the "done-in-one" format; just about every issue's a gritty, self-contained short story involving someone doing Hex wrong, and Hex doing wrong unto them, tenfold. He's still an anti-hero, though, so to call these morality tales wouldn't cover it.  Amorality tales, maybe.

Jonah Hex is one of the best comics on the stands, due largely to Palmiotti and Gray's resolve to keep their narrative lean and free of the kind of psychological, mystical, expositional fat that weighs down -- for example -- the Jonah Hex movie.

The "Man, Toy Story 3's Gonna Bury You" Era

The flick that hits theaters tomorrow harks back to Hex's first foray into Vertigo comics, and thus is crammed to the gills with all manner of murky, mystical flummery: Hex can talk to the dead, he gets recurring visions of a sort of near-death Ultimate Fighting octagon, he's revived or possibly resurrected (it's a bit unclear) by not one but two Generic Native American Sweat Lodge Rituals, and everywhere he goes he's attended by a murder of CGI crows.

There's also a Giant Weapon involving Mysterious Glowing Orbs, which I suppose is meant to put one in mind of Robert Conrad Wild, Wild West.  The problem, of course, is that it puts one in the mind of the Will Smith Wild, Wild West, which, really: No.

All of these elements need to be explained to the audience, which is why the movie -- which clocks in at only 81 minutes -- nevertheless keeps stopping dead to allow its characters to cough up dense clots of exposition.

It's not as much fun as you want it to be, but it's not bad, exactly. Josh Brolin works, and fans will be relieved that Hex's signature scar (a.k.a. the Flesh Flap) looks good, if toned down for the big screen.  The cobalt-eyed Aidan Quinn shows up as Ulysses S. Grant (a.k.a. Sexy!Grant), and whenever he throws the camera a worried, Presidential glance, see if you can shake the impression that he's firing Blue Steel (Bushy Bearded Edition) right at you.  Because I could not.

You'll also wish that they'd given Will Arnett more to do. As always.

The Jonah Hex movie comes out against Toy Story 3, which the film's executives will tell you is all part of a deliberate attempt at counter-programming -- offering people who don't want to see Toy Story 3 a choice of something more adult.

There are at least two problems with that reasoning: 1. "Adult" and "loud, explodey and kind of dumb" are not necessarily the same thing, and 2. Targeting the "People who don't want to see Toy Story 3" demographic seems a bit like going after the subset of "People Who Have Frankly Had it UP TO HERE With Puppies And Their Stupid, Annoying, Waggily Tails."  Good luck with that, Jonah Hex. You're gonna need it.