Superman: Rant of Steel

March 11, 2010 at 4:45 AM | Posted in Movie Rants | 2 Comments

Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer have officially announced (unofficially) that they are working on the next Superman film. Both will be writing the story at least. Nolan’s vague mentor status wasn’t mentioned in the article, and is still unclear.

I’m not going to complain too much about making Superman dark, as this is jumping to a speculative conclusion at this point. That’s not really the main issue.

(Cont.)
The issue that has plagued the Superman films is the attitude that the producers and copyright holders have had towards the franchise since it sank in 1987. When the Salkinds sold the franchise to Golan Globus, the company stupidly tried to make a cheap movie with a bad director who didn’t respect the script. They then tried to do another one as soon as possible, but nothing came together. This continued for twenty years. The reason the original worked is because the producers wanted to see a Superman movie, and see it done right. They had a vision that wasn’t purely green. They chose the right writers and director. In 1987, producers wanted another Superman so they could get more of that Superman money. Especially after Batman came out. They had absolutely no vision about where the franchise should go or how the character should be portrayed, even when the rights reverted back to the original producers, whose vision had long since waned. So they hired Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, Brett Ratner, McG, and ultimately, Bryan Singer. None of these people untalented, but all incapable of bringing an approach that either gelled or jarred with the producers’ vision – because the producers had no vision. The demands that led to the failure of all these filmmakers to proffer a tenable film were based on ideas of success or approaches that worked for other movies, but didn’t fit Superman.

Now they’ve hired Nolan as some sort of amorphous “mentor” simply because he managed to make Batman movies that didn’t suck as much as Joel Schumacher’s attempts (which were largely the result of producer demands). Batman Begins was only a modest hit (making more profit than X-Men but almost exactly the amount as Wolverine, and less than the Fantastic Four), mostly due to the fans who knew about it and little kids who didn’t know any better. The only reason The Dark Knight was so successful is that one of its actors died at a young age, suddenly alerting people to the existence of a Batman franchise through the media’s ghoulish fascination with sensationalism and the glorification of celebrity death as the biggest thing that can happen in a given year. In short, not because it was the greatest movie ever made, but because it got priceless amounts of free publicity, possibily more than any film that ever had a marketing budget.

Without guessing at Nolan’s approach, I can only take what he himself has said. His notion that the film should stand on its own is completely right. The vagueness of Superman Returns was its greatest downfall. It didn’t have its own identity or voice. It didn’t have a story that demanded to be heard. It was merely a tribute to Richard Donner’s movies, for fans of those movies. But Nolan also talks about the “formula” that has worked for him, which is to have the hero be the only hero in that universe. Really? Is that a formula? That’s pretty much EVERY superhero movie. There is no alternative to writing that way. Nobody has made a Superman movie with other heroes in it. You can’t make a Superman movie and have Spider-Man suddenly take over in the middle of it. Only two Marvel movies have acknowledged other “heroes” in a passing way: Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man in the actual movie made no indication that people had seen a superhero before. And Hulk is not a superhero anyway. The idea of the JLA crossover is just a seedling of an idea at this point. I have no clue what Nolan thinks he’s talking about. It’s like suggesting they stick with the formula of using a screenplay and a motion picture camera.

Where his own experience is concerned, Nolan’s independant movies have no bearing on the matter of a huge budget franchise. Superman Returns is the third most expensive superhero movie ever made, which means to beat that, Nolan’s indie sensibilities aren’t even applicable. So we have only, so far, his Batman films, which to be honest, are strangely big budget despite their content, but had a low-budget drama approach to the storytelling, which Superman Returns proved is not right for Superman.

Although Nolan’s interest seems to be based entirely on Goyer’s pitch (which says nothing of Nolan having his own vision, which gets us right back to where the whole problem started), his own ideas for Batman weren’t exactly faithful to the comics. He kept Batman in a black suit of body armor based on Tim Burton’s idea, and then changed the armor because black rubber didn’t make sense, completely skipping over the sensible and very real cloth fabrics the character is supposed to wear, added protection notwithstanding. He’s a guy who perceives this need for Batman to be bulletproof where there has never been such a need. He also clearly doesn’t accept the simplicity of the Batmobile, opting instead for an implausible tank that transforms into a motorcycle when damaged. And yet he is credited with a dedicated agenda of “realism.” His appreciation for the Bat-cave went from humble beginnings to a complete absence in his second movie, where there is not even a Wayne Manor, both crucial and permanent aspects of the Batman character. In making Batman’s costume mimic ninjas, we are deprived of ever clearly seeing the bat symbol on his chest, thus erasing the need for it entirely. This is to say nothing of other little additions like throwing bombs at police cars or having spikes that shoot out of his gauntlets in order to slice flesh and sever vital organs.

Where the story is concerned, Goyer wrote the entire story for Batman Begins, and co-wrote the screenplay. He has this to his credit. But his role on the sequel was reduced to co-writing the story and never touching the screenplay. Subsequently, that led to crippling the story of The Dark Knight with huge plot holes, character problems, and an overall lack of logic. In light of that, I don’t want Nolan’s hands on a Superman screenplay by any means. A Joker who only blows things up and prefers to use a knife is akin to a Lex Luthor who is obsessed with land ownership. It’s not the right character. Batman giving into terrorist demands and giving up crimefighting and taking the rap for murder to keep the public in the dark about the true nature of a corrupted public official is all out of character, and akin to Superman impregnating Lois Lane and leaving for five years, stalking her, drinking in a bar, and trying to seduce her while she has a fiance. This is a guy who made some decent Batman movies, which honestly isn’t HARD to do, but whose style is in no way superior to that of Bryan Singer except in his one stated goal of making a Superman film that can stand on its own. But add an origin to Singer’s Superman film and it still sucks.

Goyer himself is not without fault, as he has produced many many terrible screenplays, including comic book travesties The Crow: City of Angels and Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. He wrote all three Blade movies, none of which are without ridiculous story elements. Beyond the Batman films and his story for Jumper (much of which was not used), the rest of his filmography consists of cheesy low budget horror movie DVDs. He did have a hand in the wonderful Dark City, but with two other writers helping to pen director Alex Proyas’ story. He has also worked on “FreakyLinks,” “Theshold,” and “FlashForward.” One thing is clear: the guy likes DARK material, and someone like that shouldn’t be allowed near Superman. He does not fit the franchise, whatever his idea that so impressed Nolan.

It’s not a question of assuming the movie will be exactly like The Dark Knight, but rather comparing both filmmakers’ past works and extrapolating what their style is and whether it’s right for Superman. From what I can see, it isn’t. And there is some precedent for a director bringing his style to the franchise despite his enthusiasm. Bryan Singer directed X-Men, which was about issues of alienation and being different. And he brought that same theme to Superman, which ruined it. Singer is an orphan, and purportedly gay. X-Men dealt with those types of issues perfectly. Then Singer was offered Superman, and accepted for reasons I can’t be bothered to remember. But despite being a fan of Donner’s movies and wanting to make those without some stylistic twist, he added his stylistic twist unwittingly. He made Superman a gay orphan. Clearly emphasizing the aspect of Superman being so lonely and so damaged by not having known his birth parents that he leaves Earth to its own devices for five years only to investigate some rubble and ruins in space. And at least metaphorically, Superman’s actions and interactions were far less romantic than previous outtings and far more latently homosexual. Singer portrayed the Man of Steel as someone who leaves the planet for half a decade after his first encounter with a woman, and like so many gay men who desire offspring, leaves her to do all the work of bearing the child before coming back delighted that his legacy can be carried on without him having to suffer the traditional relationship that’s usually involved with having a family. Whether it was intentional or not, Singer brought his own baggage to the plot, and neither his storytelling or filmic style lent themselves to the subject matter. There is every chance this will happen with Nolan and Goyer, who are not ideal candidates for Superman, but rather the only ones with an idea other than notorious insane person Mark Millar.

I’m not saying they’re guaranteed to make a bad film. As much as The Dark Knight is ridiculous, pretentious dorm-room philosophy stuck to a superhero franchise, it still would have made a good amount of money even without the dead actor hype. But in point of fact, Superman Returns did better than Batman Begins. It just cost too much to make. Now add to that budget and try to top its effects and see where you get. It’s a risk, but moreso with the wrong approach. And an ill-fitting script is never a risk worth taking.

Granted, there is one exception to all this, and that’s the original Superman film, penned mostly by the writer of The Godfather (although not without some script doctoring), and filmed by the director of The Omen. I’m not too familiar with these filmmakers’ styles and what similarities might have ended up in the film, but at that point in cinema history, it was more a case of grounding Superman in reality in contrast to the Batman TV series than it was avoiding making it too dark. Dark mainstream cinema hadn’t even been invented yet, whereas now the risk is of making Superman too much like Batman in the opposite direction. So, it shouldn’t be hard to understand that the opposite approach of 1976 is necessary. Now, instead of being campy, Batman is dark and serious. Unfortunately, this is successful, meaning that maybe this is not the right time for a Superman film. It’s not until the dark superhero movies totally fail that Superman should be taken off of the shelf and put back in theaters. This has, in fact, already happened to Marvel with the Punisher films, which caused them to reject any ideas for future R-rated releases. Ang Lee’s Hulk also wasn’t received well, with its serious dramatic filmmaking approach. The big movies in Marvel’s camp are the ones with the right blend of fun, humor, and a believable story populated by serious characters. DC simply hasn’t had enough recent success to understand the other group’s strategies, and can only try to mimic itself without question.

For all I know, this will be the best Superman film ever made. But it’s one thing to put any old guy in a black rubber suit and make people believe he’s Batman. It’s another to make a guy in tights fly around and be respected as the greatest hero of all time. In this day and age, I’m not sure if it’s even possible. But that’s why someone has to just have the balls to make a Superman movie with no twist, that is purely Superman and comparable to nothing else, and that makes no apologies about it. I don’t think Christopher “Memory Fabric” Nolan and David S. “Blood God” Goyer are the ones to do that.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Interesting stuff. Have you ever read the reviews and essays at ComicMix.com?

  2. Lex:

    To quote Jeff Spicoli: “Awesome, totally awesome!”

    I envy your writing prowess. I enjoyed reading this quite a bit.

    The only thing I would disagree with is this line: “… the original Superman film, penned mostly by the writer of The Godfather (although not without some script doctoring) …”

    Though you acknowledge the script doctoring, I have read in a couple of places that very little of Puzo’s screenplay was used.

    Tom Mankiewicz: “Not a word from the Puzo script was used.” Donner apparently found Puzo’s script unfilmable.

    Other than that, I thought it was great. I probably liked “The Dark Knight” more than you did, but I agree with a lot of your criticisms of it.

    Again, great work. Look forward to skimming through some of your previous posts here.


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