Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Projects I want to see: Daredevil TV show

One of my favorite writers, in any medium, is David E. Kelley. The volume of work, depth of character, and eagerness to address important, controversial issues is astonishing to me. With The Practice, Kelley sought to explore the complex morality of being a defense attorney and the effect it has on good people.

But it's hard for me to watch it without thinking "Man, a Daredevil TV show would be awesome." This show has much in common with the Daredevil comic. Both feature a handsome and self-destructive Irish Catholic criminal defense attorney trying to run an honest practice in the worst neighborhood of the city.

Now, there has been talk about doing another Daredevil movie in the style of Incredible Hulk and Punisher: War Zone (i.e. completely recast it and more or less ignore the last movie). Now, unless they hire Frank Miller to direct it (which is entirely possible), I don't think they should go this direction... and even if they do tap Frank Miller, they should still do the TV show.

Why? One, live-action prime time drama is a medium and genre that Marvel has yet to penetrate. Two, Daredevil (aside from the costume, perhaps) is uniquely suited to the constraints of television. He is a martial artist with no superpowers (other than super-senses, anyway). Three, it is a great way for Marvel to expose their other street level superheroes who may not have enough visibility to warrant their own movie. Four, the potential spin-off possibilities are numerous, as I will detail below.

The core of the show would be Matt Murdock (AKA Daredevil), his legal partner Foggy Nelson (played in the movie by Jon Favreau), and legal secretary Karen Page. Together they work at the law offices of Nelson & Murdock located in Hell's Kitchen in New York City.

But it is the supporting characters that would really make it work:

Luke Cage - Matt's first criminal case was a court appointed position to defend an accused murder. Matt lost the case, but managed to get him out of prison later on appeal. Luke now works as a private eye and Matt frequently uses him to gain background information on a case. Luke also works informally as a bodyguard for clients and employees alike for times when the law office is under siege.

Lt. Frank Castle - Special Forces Gulf War veteran, Frank Castle joined the force after his tour of duty was up and got married. But Frank never really got over the war and often he feels like he is fighting a new war. In the beginning of the show, he would be the Javert to Matt's Valjean chasing the vigilante Daredevil across rooftops. As the story progresses, Frank would become a well-intentioned, but dirty cop, planting and concealing evidence which pits him against defense attorney Matt Murdock. Of course, the turning point would be when Frank makes the wrong enemy and his family is brutally murdered. Then Frank takes Daredevil's lead and becomes The Punisher. (Potential spin-off number one.)

The Kingpin - This is a character you can hold in reserve for a season or two wherein you hear about him, but you never see him. Who is the Kingpin? Everyone wants to know, especially when he starts paying attention to Daredevil and Matt Murdock. In his civilian identity, Wilson Fisk leaves a large retainer for Matt Murdock to represent not only him, but many under his employment.

Ben Urich - In the comics, Ben Urich is a hardworking Bob Woodward-esque reporter who discovers Daredevil's identity, then buries it. Afterward, he helps Daredevil bring down the Kingpin. He would make a great addition to the cast by being able to both help and hinder Matt Murdock by reporting on him and his enemies.

Bullseye - Colin Farrell was the best part of the recent DD movie, by being a completely sympathetic psychopath. The only difference in a TV show is that he can kill regular characters... and almost certainly would.

Elektra - Another late addition to the show could be Matt's greatest mistake, Elektra the ninja assassin. In the comics, she replaced Bullseye as Kingpin's personal assassin percipitating multiple fights between her and Matt... as well as her and Bullseye. Of course, in this show there would be plenty of people to match her up with. (Second possible spin-off.)

Mary Walker - In the comics, she is Typhoid Mary, a multiple personality acquaintance of Daredevil's who often tries to kill him. I think they should cast her as a DA whose work slowly takes its toll on her already troubled mind until she adopts the persona of Typhoid Mary. Vigilante or villain, either way it would work.

Others - If the show was successful, you could slowly introduce other characters from the same superhero sub-genre including Danny Rand (AKA Iron Fist, multi-millionaire martial artist who teams up with Luke Cage in the comics), Marc Spector (AKA Moon Knight), Melvin Potter (AKA the Gladiator, reformed villain and friend of Matt's), and many, many more. Naturally, plenty of spin-off potential here as well. As for villains, you could populate it with every street level Marvel criminal who can't support a movie like the Owl, the Hood, Tombstone, Jigsaw, Hammerhead, Mr. Hyde...

Now, the only trick would be finding the right showrunner, but I'm sure a superhero legal drama would be a huge success if done well.

Projects I want to see: The Question movie

Although I have love for a lot of the big comic book icons (Superman, Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man), my favorites have always been some of the... others. After all, if you like a big, popular character or story, you become... one of those people. You know, a Trekkie or a Star Wars geek or whatever. (Oh for the days when you could be interested in something without having a demographic labeled on your forehead.)

But it's the characters that you seek out despite the lack of popularity and availability that really become personal favorites. For me, one of those characters is The Question.

Created by Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, as an Objectivist superhero, his philosophy has since been reappropriated by virtually every writer who has handled the character since. This image is from the 2005 Rick Veitch mini-series where the Question was something of a transcendental shaman, however the most famous and influential run on this character was Denny O'Neil's where the Question turns to Buddhism after a particularly disasterous defeat.

To me, the Question was always unique, particularly among DC superheroes, in that he always knew that he was a freak and was acting abnormally... he just didn't care. At heart, Superman and Spider-Man believe they are Clark Kent and Peter Parker acting as superheroes. The Question has no such pretext. He doesn't wear a mask or a cape. His identity is a lack of identity lacking the reassurance the more conventional superhero imparts.

Yet perhaps more interesting than his crimefighting alter ego is his secret identity as liberal pundit Vic Sage (AKA Charles Victor Szasz) who, unlike mild mannered Clark Kent, uses his show as a soap box to rail against the problems of society. So when I'm thinking of who should play the role, my mind naturally goes to my favorite modern soap box stander, James Spader.

I can see it clearly. Vic Sage is Keith Olbermann meets Network's Howard Beale with just a touch of Hunter S. Thompson. He's loud, obnoxious, and elitist, but that doesn't keep him from being right. As for everyone else, well he doesn't care what they think. James Spader pulls off these qualities every week on Boston Legal.

What might be more fun for this extremely talented actor is playing the vigilante role. Naturally, he won't get to do much facial acting, but the role of the Question has more to do with voice and body language. His dialog ranges from cryptic to esoteric, at times, Sage-like and at other times raving mad. The fun of the character is trying to figure out which is which. Justice League Unlimited portrayed him as a Fox Mulder-style conspiracy theorist and it worked out pretty well.

As for plot, I think I would juxtapose the Question's spiritual, philosophical madness against a representation of corporate commodification of philosophy and spirituality (i.e. Ayn Rand or The Secret). Maybe even begin the movie with The Question crashing a motivational seminar for yuppies. I think it would be fun all around.

As for villain, well, the Question has never had a rogues gallery or archnemesis, so I would steal the Terrible Trio. Originally introduced in Batman (but showing up all over the DC universe), the Terrible Trio consist of three extremely rich business men who dress up like animals (fox, shark, and vulture) and commit crimes to amuse themselves and bolster their already substantial wealth. They also have an elemental quality to their crimes (earth, water, and air) that could echo the aforementioned new age capitalism. Their theatrical animal masks would make a great counterpoint to the Question's facelessness.

For your own amusement (and a small idea of what such a movie might be like), here is the great Jeffrey Combs as The Question in Justice League Unlimited.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What is the criteria to direct a superhero film?

Taking a break from my obsession over the forthcoming Superman movie, my eye was caught by a rumor that McG is being considered as the director of Wonder Woman. This brings up a whole host of thoughts (not the least of which is "What the fuck kind of name is McG anyway? Is he McDonald's new, urban mascot?"). McG is the brilliant mind that brought us two Charlie's Angels movies and the upcoming fourth Terminator movie.

Naturally, McG is just the latest possible director for this film. The previous director and writer was Joss Whedon who left the project for unspecified script disagreements. Now Joss Whedon's choice was obvious. Aside from his reputation for strong female figures in the action-adventure genre, Whedon possesses a cult celebrity which would counteract most negative associations with the character. I'm guessing McG's appointment had more to do with his ability to sell sex and action.

Now, anyone who knows anything about film knows that the most important role in a film is the director. The director is the captain of the ship. (Of course, the script is the hull of the ship, but if the plot holes are small enough, they can keep it afloat enough to create another Titanic.)

Knowing that superhero films are Hollywood's new cash cow, how do you determine the appropriate director? Here are some examples of the best and worst directors for superhero films.

Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, Superman Returns)

The first real coup for comic book films was with popular director Bryan Singer whose success was mainly with the classic The Usual Suspects which introduced Kevin Spacey as a prolific leading man. Somewhat less well known is Singer's follow-up film, Apt Pupil, about a boy who blackmails his neighbor, a former Nazi concentration camp commander, to learn the truth behind the Holocaust.

According to Wikipedia, Singer was offered the position of X-Men director due to his experience with The Usual Suspects directing a large, ensemble cast. He turned down the offer three times believing comic books to be unintelligent literature before reading the comics and watching the cartoons, at which point he accepted.

Well, there is your red flag. First, directing an ensemble cast is not the same as directing an "action team." In The Usual Suspects, most of the direction involves a bunch of people sitting in a room yelling at each other. In the X-Men, it is more about choreographing action from multiple figures each with their own unique abilities. This is an entirely different animal. Second, never pressure anyone who doesn't respect the source material. They may learn to respect it, but the learning curve from disrespect to being able to extract the essential elements and reproduce them faithfully is just way too long.

Yet the films sold extremely well. Even at the time, I was really happy with both films... but even then, something was nagging at me. Was it Halle Berry's atrocious acting? Or Cyclops' uncharacteristic macho posturing? Or the cartoonish plot to turn the world's leaders into mutants thereby changing the status quo overnight? Or was it just the dull black and silver tone that made everything feel a bit bland and uninteresting? Naturally, it was all of the above, which was probably a result of a familiarity of the source material without a love for it.

On the other hand, Singer lobbied for the opportunity to direct Superman Returns, although, again he shows no love for the comics, but rather the Richard Donner film of 1978 and it's immediate sequel.Presumably due to the success of the X-Men films, his offer was accepted (interestingly, McG was the director associated with the film immediately preceding Singer).

To Singer (a homosexual), Superman's duel identity served as a metaphor for homosexuality and coming out of the closet. The character was also imbued with Christ-like parallels detailing an apparent death and rebirth at the end of the film.

At the risk of sounding homophobic, Singer eroticized the role particularly for the young Brandon Routh who played the title role. Rather than attempt to set up a sense of personal identification with the protagonist, the film takes a more voyeuristic position watching both Superman's acts of grandure and his torment with a reverential distance that I found... well, boring. One gets the sense that the original Superman movies (and Christopher Reeves in particular) were highly influential in the director's budding sexuality, but excuse me if I don't care to endulge his romantic fantasies in this 154 minute, tepid love story.

In the end, Singer's superhero films don't work for me because not only is he not a fan, he doesn't try to be. He doesn't have respect for the medium and he doesn't really try to understand it. He just does his own thing... which is fine unless it isn't your thing... which superheroes aren't.

Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 1-3)

It's hard to describe what it was like to find out Sam Raimi was going to direct Spider-Man. Of course, I was cautious. Superhero movies, at that point, were still typically awful and Spider-Man, with all of his web-swinging, was arguably one of the hardest to make visually effective.

But Sam Raimi turned out to be the perfect choice and here is why. First, he lobbied for the role. Raimi, unlike Singer, is a huge fan of the comic books and knew instinctively what the character and world was all about. He was also an accomplished and innovative film director (Singer, for all his cred, has rarely been accused of being innovative) whose cult status was cemented with the humor/horror series The Evil Dead. This blend of action and humor perfectly demonstrated qualities needed for a successful Spider-Man film. Of course, this talent waned by the third film, but I'm still hopeful for a strong Spider-Man 4. Still plenty of villains to play with.

Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight)

And then came Christopher Nolan. Like Raimi, Nolan had a reputation as an innovator due to his hit film, Memento, which reversed the narrative to replicate the effects of a neurological disorder.

When I found out Nolan was directing, I had no doubt the film would work and there is one reason why: Nolan is a psychological director and Batman is a psychological concept.

Nolan's credits (in addition to Memento) included his independent hit Following (about a man whose habit of following random people turns into stalking one person in particular) and Insomnia, which explored this condition. In all films, Nolan tried to convey the particular neuroses of the protagonists not only through the film's text, but through his unique directorial style.

Had Nolan approached this film as "just another superhero movie," it would never have achieved the same success because Nolan recognized the obsession and guilt central to the character of Batman that forms this wonderfully complex character. Batman is, in essence, an opera about a young prince who witnesses the murder of his parents and, unable to have revenge on the murderer, takes revenge on all "evil doers" while dressing as a primal, animal warrior. Nolan imparts this storytelling tradition by featuring an opera immediately before Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered.

The Rest

Jon Favreau (Iron Man) - Although a well-known comic fan, I think Favreau's accomplishment surprised everyone to some degree, but his youthful, laissez faire, indiewood reputation no doubt helped to convey the swinging, hedonistic protagonist in a modern context.

Tim Story (Fantastic Four, FF2) - Lord knows where this idea came from. Tim Story had Barbershop and the Queen Latifah/Jimmy Fallon vehicle Taxi on his resume before he was invited to do Fantastic Four. ... Seriously, any idea what they were thinking because I'm stuck?

Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider) - Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men, Big Bully (with Tom Arnold and Rick Moranis), Simon Birch, and Jack Frost... then he suddenly directs three dark superhero properties that all bomb to increasing degrees. This is another one that baffles me.

Jonathan Hensleigh (Punisher) - With absolutely no directing experience, I can only imagine he got this job because his wife, Gale Anne Hurd, was one of the producers. Granted, the budget was cut drastically and shooting time was cut down, but I doubt even the best conditions could have saved this stinker which butchered the script from Garth Ennis' brilliant Welcome Home, Frank and combined it with awkward western elements ripped straight from Once Upon A Time In The West.

Frank Miller (The Spirit) - Well-respected comic book artist turned hot Hollywood newcomer, Frank Miller is also a good friend of The Spirit creator Will Eisner. On the surface, this seems like the perfect recipe for success... if all comics are the same... which is, naturally, what Hollywood thinks. In actuality, Eisner and Miller's styles are about as different as Frank Capra and Stanley Kubrick. I'll hold judgment until I see it, but if the trailers are any indication... well, it doesn't matter. The movie going public has never heard of Will Eisner and has no respect for the man who is a legend in the comic book community.

Zak Penn (Watchmen) - Directed 300. ... Has absolutely no resemblence to Watchmen in any way other than the fact that they are both comics. I'm morbidly curious about this film. 300 was such a neo-con fantasy that I can't help but wonder if any of the theme about abusive of power and authority will make it through. But I don't hold much hope for the comic that Terry Gilliam and Alan Moore deemed unfilmable.

Ang Lee (Hulk) - Undeniably tapped due to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this movie is generally regarded as a bomb. Personally, I think that aside from a few missteps (the revised origin and the "Wha-?" ending), it did very well. Lee obviously took his source material seriously by encorporating elements of paternal abuse which were introduced in Peter David's run on the title. I think Lee's auteurist diversity in content not only helped him get the job, but helped him to work in a genre he wasn't particularly familiar with.

Kenneth Branagh (Thor) - This one I'm curious about. A famous Shakespearean actor/director directing a famous (and confusingly) Shakespearean superhero. This is one of those superhero films that I have no idea how they are going to do it. Thor never made much sense to me in the comics except as the Avengers resident god. If they use the official Marvel origin, a skinny, limping doctor named Donald Blake will discover a walking stick that turns him into Thor when he hits it against the ground... then he goes and fights crime. Nonetheless, I could see an invasion from Norse mythology in the modern day as being very cool, if handled properly.

Joe Johnston (Captain America) - This one I'm actually looking forward to. His credits include the Disney superhero movie The Rocketeer (based on an indie comic), October Sky, Jurassic Park III, Hidalgo, The Wolf Man (upcoming), and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. It's an interesting blend of action/adventure, drama, family film, and period piece experience that should all lend itself nicely to the intended World War II superhero adventure.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Superman vs Darkseid

Here are highlights from the animated series giving an idea of what mainstream fans are missing.

Voices by Tim Daly and Michael Ironside respectively.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Saving the Franchise: Superman - Part 2 "Villains"

Oh god, am I tired of seeing this guy.

I think if a poll were done, 90% of America couldn't name a SINGLE other Superman villain. Everyone knows Batman's rogues gallery. They were intrigued by the unknown Ra's Al Ghul, but they were positively giddy for the Joker just as they are drooling now for Catwoman (who is almost certain to appear in the next film). Although few express this, I think half the fun of a superhero movie is the villain. Sure, you can get by with some half-assed twit like "the Iron-Monger" if you have enough other elements to make the movie work, but a large part of the reason Dark Knight was such a huge success is that audiences loved Heath Ledger's Joker. For that matter, the reason Tim Burton's Batman was a huge success was because of Jack Nicholson's Joker.

But let's be fair, part of the reason we haven't seen any really challenging Superman villains (or many superhero movies until recently) is because we have not had the special effects technology to convincingly represent superpowered battles on screen. Since this is no longer a limitation, we need a fresh approach to Superman for the mainstream audience.

So who do I recommend for the next Superman film?

His name is Brainiac and despite the dumb name, he is possibly the most threatening Superman villain ever. The concept is fairly simple. He is an alien artificial intelligence who seeks to possess all knowledge in the universe to fulfill his programing. To this end, he will destroy worlds to prevent new knowledge from being created. Sure, that's a little silly, but reduce it to its core concept, and he represents the coldness of scientific objectivism stifling humanity. It is a great premise for conflict .

Now, I take back what I said. I actually like Lex Luthor and a Superman movie would be missing something without him, but Lex Luthor works just as well as a supporting character. The charm of Lex is that he is everything Superman isn't. He is selfish, arrogant, and amoral. In all ways, a perfect example of the worst of America. It isn't hard to imagine Lex Luthor attempting to exploit Brainiac while Superman tries to reason with him and the conflicts that may ensue from their three very different goals.

The next villain I want to see in a Superman movie is best suited to a second or third film, but the fact that the studios haven't even tried to make this happen is a special blend of ignorance and incompetence. His name is Darkseid (pronounced Darkside) and he is a god.

Darkseid is Sauron, Darth Vader, and Satan rolled into one. He is an alien, a god, and a dictator who rules the ruthless, conquering planet of Apokolips populated by slaves, demons, monsters, and firepits. He is to his world what Superman could be to ours. That is the conflict that would make for an epic film, both visually and thematically.

In writer Mark Evanier's words, "the style and substance of this master antagonist were based on just about every power-mad tyrant [creator Jack] Kirby had ever met or observed, with a special emphasis on Richard Milhous Nixon." He is a devil modeled not on the Christian trickster or deceiver, but on historical warlords and dictators such as Josef Stalin or Genghis Khan, the epitome of real world evil. Now that is a real challenge for Superman.

Now, franchise movies are generally thought of in terms of trilogies. Brainiac is a first film character capable engaging with Superman's origin through opposing dialog and ideology in a manner never previously seen in those repetitive origin stories. (In one version, Brainiac was created on Krypton offering Superman a vision into the final days of his homeworld.) Darkseid, on the other hand, would fall under the category of a third film villain under the heading of "nowhere to go from here." A confrontation with the ultimate evil is the sort of thing you have to build up to.

So what about a second film? Well, I'll admit, I'm a little stymied. Very few villains both seem like a genuine threat to Superman and translate well to film. Some choices:

Bizarro: the corrupt clone of Superman. This tragic figure is an abomination who makes up for his lack of intellect and backwards nature by exercising none of the control that Superman possesses.

Metallo: The man turned cyborg with a heart of kryptonite. A bit lacking in the motivation department, but at least he would look good in a movie. Voice by Malcolm McDowell in the cartoon, he would be a great choice to reprise the role on film. After all, age doesn't matter when you are a cyborg (and have CGI).

Livewire was created for the cartoon, but adapted into the comic. If you can't figure out her powers, you're retarded. She doesn't have the greatest origin (she was an anti-Superman shock jock who was touching Superman when she was hit by lightning), but Lori Petty gave her personality that could easily be replicated in CGI.

The second film could easily have all three created by Lex Luthor as his own personal Superman Revenge Squad. In any case, it's important to give Lex Luthor an arc through the films to establish how he and Superman respond very differently to the same situations.

Now, as for the one I'd love to see, but likely never will, the most powerful Superman villain of all!

Mr. Mxyzptlk (according to the animated series, it's pronounced "mix-yez-spit-lick"), seen here with his girlfriend Ms. Gsptlsnz, is the Chuck Jones-esque all-powerful imp from the 5th dimension who torments Superman with his utter-ridiculousness (appropriately voiced by Gilbert Gottfried in the cartoon). Think of "the artist" in the famous "Duck Amuck" cartoon. Mxyzptlk is the Bugs to Superman's Daffy. While Brainiac forces Superman to confront his humanity and Darkseid challenge his morality, Mxyzptlk is a complete affront to logic and reason that brings out a curious combination of Superman's intelligence and playfulness.

Of course, I'll never see that, but Brainiac and Darkseid? Fingers crossed.

Next, the conclusion. Be there and be square.

Saving the Franchise: Superman - Part 1 "Vision"

These are the days of the reboot... and thank god. Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek, Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone, and even X-Men: First Class show that not only are revamps in style, but it is no longer assumed that you have to wait ten years after a bomb to reinvigorate a franchise. Some see this as the death of creativity, but I see this as something of a return to the oral tradition of storytelling where myths and legends would be refined, deepened, and expanded upon in each retelling. Batman Begins demonstrates this clearly by drawing upon some of the best interpretations of the character including Denny O'Neil, Frank Miller, and Paul Dini. And what is a franchise if not a legend which is constantly being revise, reinterpreted, and expanded?

And in that spirit, I thought I would put my money where my mouth is (less chance of losing it that way) and try to find exactly what it would take to bring Superman to the big screen. Below are the ingredients that, I believe, would make for a great Superman film.


Like any film and perhaps more than most, a Superman movie needs vision. When you distill superhero concepts to their essence, they have an inextricable set of values and moods which are conveyed through their stories. Spider-Man is the journey from boyhood to manhood, so naturally its both painful and funny. The character himself navigates this difficult transition with the good humor and grace of Robin Hood. Batman, on the other hand, is a story of overwhelming, unfounded guilt (the guilt of a boy seeing the murder of his parents) expressed through an obsessive search for justice.

I read a quote by upcoming Star Trek director J.J. Abrams who said, "I feel like the thing about 'Star Trek,' which is kind of a relief in a way, is that it completely embraces optimism." Let's face it, optimism is pretty rare nowadays because we don't trust it. Whatever optimism we had, Walt Disney bought up and Coca-Cola bought Santa, so it is no longer a renewable resource. President-Elect Obama, whether he deserves it or not, has made optimism popular and perhaps even cool again. This is what Superman needs to be more than anything which is why this is the perfect social climate for a Superman movie (other than the obvious public interest in superheroes).

As for theme, the theme is personal identity in the modern world. It was there with Superman from the start. First, like his creators, Superman is an immigrant. Furthermore, he moves from the mid-western town of Smallville to the city of Metropolis. To put it in current political lingo, from "REAL AMERICA" to liberal America. From the farms where his super-hearing offer a chorus of crickets to the city where he is entertained by a chorus of traffic. Moral and ideological relativism is at the heart of the Superman concept which asks, "When one is all powerful, what should they do?"

When portrayed poorly (as he almost always is), Superman acts like Batman, James Bond, or any other quintessential American hero. That is to say, he reacts with frustration and anger. This isn't Superman. People who feel vulnerable and hopeless lash out like children, and yes, that includes Batman and James Bond. They only get away with it because (A) they are conniving, (B) they are dark, and (C) they are human. Superman is none of those things.

The writers need to recognize that Superman's is invulnerable and able to change the shape of the world single-handedly. He could rule the world in a day, but instead, he chooses to serve it. Now that is a role model, not only for children, but for all of us.

I hear talk about the next Superman movie "going dark" to chase the money from The Dark Knight. If they do, they will chase the money away. Dark Knight succeeded because it was true to the character, not because Americans are inherently dark, violent people. I mean, look at some of the other summer blockbusters like Iron Man or Wall-E, both of which can hardly be described as "dark." Superman has to go the other way with almost a Speed Racer or Wizard of Oz level of color saturation as an affirmation of life itself.

Because when you get down to it, that's what Superman is... an affirmation of life. If you aren't walking out of the theater feeling like everything in the world is at least a little better than when you walked in, they failed.

Next, Part 2 "Villains"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why the World Needs Superman

Lois Lane, in nearly every incarnation of the character, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who won the award for an article entitled "Why the World Needs Superman." Oddly though, we never get a chance to read the article and learn "Why the World Needs Superman."

My mind is on "big blue" a lot these days. I'm writing a story about World War II. The overriding idea is that it is supposed to represent a shift from the old world to the new world and the stunning moral polarization of that war.

The more I research the Nazi movement, the more I realize that they weren't really anything new. The Nazi movement was more based on the mythology of the past. That is, it was a movement to return to moral and genetic purity represented by their wholly mythical Aryan heritage dating back to the fall of Atlantis (which was said to have fallen due to pure blood pollution). It's very "Garden of Eden" if you swap the Tree of Knowledge with Jungle Fever.

The Nazi religion was a wholly constructed belief system which used elements of pagan and generally non-Christian beliefs. Heinrich Himmler was not only the architect of this religion, but it's most ardent believer. It was only by reaching into the ideas obscured by the haze of history that Himmler was able to give a sense of legitimacy to his completely made-up religion. Even the Nazi aesthetic recalled the misplaced glamor of medieval times where Divine Right echoed the divine purity of blood central to the Nazi belief system.

Nazi's believed that through racial purification, militaristic determinism, and strength of will, the reality of Nietzsche's ubermench could be realized. Superman was likewise inspired by the Nietzschean ideal, but expressed through the sensibilities of poor, hardworking, American Jewish immigrants who believed this ideal could only be present in a populist, altruistic, forward thinking individual with absolute humility.

Siegel and Shuster's creation was a huge, overnight success with a radio program and movie serials spinning off from his comic book series in a way never previously seen. The phenomenon of his popularity was somewhat analogous to the superhero craze currently in style. But whether or not people were reading, listening, or watching Superman, everyone was talking about him and before you knew it, he became as American as baseball and apple pie.

Take a moment and think about that. Before he could fly... before he met Lex Luthor or Lois Lane... before kryptonite... he was an American legend the likes of which there has never been nor will likely ever be. And he isn't even real!

Of course, he is also the undeniable Father of Superheroes. Like classic mythology, from Superman's creation flowed a pantheon of superheroes. Sure, there had been superhuman figures for all of human history, from the aforementioned classical gods to the tall tales of the Old West to the pulp heroes of Doc Savage and the Shadow which directly inspired Superman, but whether it was the god-like powers or the colorful clothing, Superman started something entirely new.

I recently finished the autobiographical novel "An Unlikely Prophet" in which the writer, protagonist, and former Superman writer Alvin Schwartz concludes that Superman represents the pinnacle of human consciousness. With Buddha-like grace and humility, Superman drops whatever he is doing at the moment to help those who need helping, then quietly hides in the guise of mild-mannered Clark Kent (a name that seems phonetically designed to convey blandness [much like Carson Daly]). Schwartz theorized that the humility and blandness of Clark Kent is a necessary contrast for the balance of his transcendental abilities. Like anyone who regularly engages in an extraordinary life, the simple, ordinary pleasures of life become precious and even sacred.

If the Nazis represent the worst of humanity (and I believe the general consensus is that they do), Superman represents the best. Nazism is the bold quest for a mythic ideal routed in the past. Superman is the Man of Tomorrow.He is a concentrated ideological counterpoint to fear itself. He was a way in which people were able to vicariously become invulnerable to the effects of the Great Depression and the inevitable threat of war. Try to remember that at the time, no one knew if and when the Great Depression would end and the Nazi threat seemed unstoppable. Superheroes in general, and Superman in particular, filled a need to believe in a supernatural force of justice and protection.

Likewise, superhero popularity not only peaks during difficult times, but precedes a period of reform. It started during the Depression in 1938 and ended soon after the allied victory in 1945. The harsh conservatism of the fifties killed the industry, particularly with Seduction of the Innocent which sought to ban the form based on accusations of contributing to juvenile delinquency. The form reached new heights of popularity (defined by comic book historians as the Silver Age) starting with the 1957 introduction of the new Flash, but marked most dramatically in 1961 with Stan Lee's Fantastic Four beginning an era of flawed superhumanism... as though the superheroic essence of Superman was expressed through "real" people for the first time. This was the same year of JFK's inauguration. Furthermore, comic books experienced a renaissance in the harsh, capitalistic, Cold War period of the Reagan administration as marked by 1986's historic graphic novel Watchmen which stripped superheroism of its blind idealism in order to deconstruct the concept in an inarguably adult manner. This preceded the greatest marketing bubble in the comic book history in the early nineties (corresponding with the election of Clinton) when comic books gained incredible popularity, in large part assisted by Tim Burton's Batman which led to a glut of superhero movies and cartoons unequaled until now.

Today, superheroes are more popular than ever. The glut of Hollywood blockbuster superhero films will historically overshadow the superhero flirtation of the late 80s and early 90s. The Spider-Man movie marked this movement, but Batman Begins nailed it down. Meanwhile, in the comic books, the 1999 Warren Ellis/Bryan Hitch series "The Authority" started a shift in comic book storytelling by featuring a proactive, sociological, and politically motivated group of superheroes whose extraordinary powers had brutal consequence including the mutilation of both people and entire cities. Love it or hate it, comic books had to respond to it. Frequently, the series made parodies of established superheroes, which were brutalized by the narrative, as if to ask, "Why aren't you fixing our real problems?"

The Authority also caused a stylistic shift in comics referred to as "decompression" by its proponents and "blockbuster" or "Hollywood-style" by its detractors. This style utilizes a minimum of narration and dialog with NO SOUND EFFECTS. (No "bam," "pow," "biff," or all of those other campy onomatopias commonly used in news articles to patronize the fan base.) With a greater focus on the visual elements, it soon became common for comic stories to span four to six issues which could then be marketed more easily in reprinted collections. Many fans have resented this as writer's laziness at best or the-tail-wagging-the-dog at worst.

Then came "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American way?" Written as a clear counterpoint to the topics raised in The Authority, this SINGLE ISSUE, printed in Action Comics #775, featured the modern, cool, violent superheroes known as The Elite who condemn Superman's inaction and old fashioned values. Manchester Black (the leader of this team) comments, "Good pounding the snot out of evil in bright tights. No questions. No 'gray areas.' It was a perfect bloody dream for a boy who lost a mother to lung cancer an' a father to Adolf. An' then I woke up... Masks are for hiding. Capes are for play. 'Villains' don't share their plans before they smoke you - 'cept in campaign speeches, or the pulpit or in front of the classroom. Reality is a mite bloodier than sitcoms or comics. The grays stretch out farther." This at a time when Superman's popularity was at a particular low and the character had suffered from years of poor writing. This position is reflected in the story when children start tossing their Superman toys for Elite action figures. Writer Joe Kelly was putting Superman to the test to answer the question all comic fans were asking, "Is Superman hopelessly out of date?"

Superman takes the issue to heart, especially when he realizes that it is very possible that he might not be able to stop them. The story concludes with the Elite calling out a challenge to Superman on live television to decide who will be Earth's champion. Superman gets considerably beaten until he gets desperate creating a whirlwind vacuum to suck the air from the lungs of an invulnerable opponent before using his heat/microscopic/X-ray vision to precisely lobotomize Manchester Black, a telepath. Superman stands victorious, and admits that he had a moment of weakness when he had to do what it took to survive... he had to fight dirty. And it scared him. And it scared everyone who saw it on television because Superman has to be better than that. Manchester Black tells him he's living in a dream world. Superman replies, "You know what, Black? I wouldn't have it any other way. Dreams save us. Dreams lift us up and transform us. And on my soul, I swear... until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share - I'll never stop fighting. Ever." This comic was voted the most important comic of the decade by Wizard Magazine.

Less than a month ago, metaphysical writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely finished their twelve-issue story arc on "All-Star Superman." It is already widely regarded as a modern classic. Blending decompression and single-issue storytelling, Morrison uses smaller, self-contained stories to represent all eras of Superman's history from his humble beginnings as social avenger in the depression through his bizarre cosmic sitcom adventures in the sixties and his more pragmatic (and boring) representation through the seventies, eighties, and nineties. His goal: to find the essential Superman... the mythic Superman. The essence of superheroic altruism lost in our cold and pragmatic world.

With such a strong, political and ideological shift coming, I can't help but feel that there is a need for that same superheroic essence. We are leaving the pragmatic cynicism and fear that has defined the Bush administration and are now responding to calls of hope, responsibility, and accountibility. President-elect Barrack Obama's reputation has reached legend before achieving office with numerous suggestions that his popularity has reached a level reserved for Jesus Christ, Moses, and... Superman.

"Superman Returns," the latest Hollywood approach to the franchise, was financially disappointing and critically panned for being a throwback to Richard Donner's Superman films of the seventies and eighties (the aforementioned "boring period"). When compared to the success of The Dark Knight, Warner Brothers has decided to create a new Superman movie unconnected to any of the previous films. To them I say, don't screw it up.

We do need Superman. Not just superheroes, but Superman. We need him for the same reason we needed Barrack Obama. Because we don't just need someone we trust or someone to protect us, we need someone to believe in and someone who believes in us. Not Batman. Not Iron Man or Spider-Man. Not the X-Men or the Watchmen. We need someone who stands up for the human ideal. We need someone who comes from humble origins who lives for a dream of a better tomorrow. We need someone who we know for a fact will never stop in his battle for truth and justice. We need someone who defines the American way because we've lost our way.

Superman isn't just a storybook character. His symbol, THE most recognized icon in the world (aside from Mickey Mouse's silhouette), stands for the very best humanity has to offer. People from every belief system wear that icon like the cross because they want to believe in the virtuous ideal no matter how jaded, angry, and cynical the world might make them.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, "I'm not normally a praying man, but if you're up there, please save us, Superman."