Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Death of Superman Lives (and Other Super Aberrations)

art by Paul Pope
Jon Schnepp’s new, crowdfunded documentary, THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED? at long last gives fans an in-depth look at Tim Burton’s infamously aborted Superman movie of the 1990s.

The story of the ill-fated (loose) cinematic adaptation of the “Death of Superman” DC Comics storyline has become legendary; a cautionary tale of hubris, misunderstanding, and hostility that saw one of Warner Bros.’ most valuable properties suffer untold indignities in one of the first attempts to “update” the character for a darker era.

As Jake Rossen’s 2008 book, SUPERMAN VS. HOLLYWOOD repeatedly illustrates, there was an underlying, sometimes overt antipathy towards the character from practically everyone involved in the project.

Producer Jon Peters didn’t want the character to fly or wear the “gay” costume, he wanted him to use martial arts and an array of weaponry including ninja blades that would be formed from a detachable silver S on an all-black outfit. Director Burton wanted to play up the character’s alienation from society, the brooding, dark side of Superman. You know, that part of him that doesn't exist. Practically every writer who worked on the project held the genre of superheroes in disdain (with the obvious exception of Kevin Smith, who went perhaps too far in the opposite direction, at least as far as the studio was concerned).

Over the years, bits and pieces of the film’s preproduction materials have made their way onto the Internet (which was in its nascency while the project was underway): screenplays, a few costume test shots of Nicolas Cage (slated to play the lead), and other designs for characters and creatures. And each bit of leaked info painted a picture of a film that was probably not going to make anyone happy, whether or not they ever shelled out money for a DC Comic book. Amongst fanboys, the movie became a source of scorn and hatred.

THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED? gives us the most in-depth look yet at the abandoned project, and it is an immensely entertaining glimpse at what might have been. Schnepp manages to score interviews with practically every major player (with the marked exception of Nicolas Cage). The producer, director, and most of the screenwriters mostly stick with their version of the story, repenting little and pointing fingers of blame anywhere but at themselves. Jon Peters denies culpability on the more boneheaded edicts (claiming he never said he didn’t want Supes to fly and that he didn’t demand a giant spider, but rather a “Thanagarian Snare Beast,” a Smith-penned comic book reference that Peters could never have coined). Tim Burton is typically adrift and detached, often answering questions with stammering non sequiturs, fidgeting like he’d rather be contemplating what piece of forty year old goth pop culture he’d like to cinematically pillage next (THE WUGGLY UMP, perhaps?). Third screenwriter Wesley Strick reiterates his distaste for superheroes in general and Superman in particular.

Kevin Smith (to whom I've warmed considerably over the years, even if I still don't like his movies) manages to get even more mileage out of his oft-told tales of laboring on the project (something that even he acknowledges brought about his true career path: talking about movies more than making them). But then there are the surprising bits, mostly from the art departments, that unveil a little-seen side of the movie: enthusiasm. We get a glimpse of some pretty cool alien and spaceship designs from some legendary Hollywood artists. Special effects designers reveal that some of the most derided aspects of the film (most notably Nic Cage’s bio-electric suit) were not only in the earliest stages of development, but in most cases, were only going to be in the final product for a few minutes. By the end of the doc, I actually found myself feeling a begrudging appreciation for much of what was conceived… even if I remained grateful the final product never got made.

What Schnepp’s relationship with Superman is can’t really be gleaned from the film. He’s obviously a comic book fan, but the depth of his allegiance to Kal-El’s legacy is hard to ascertain (which could have been intentional if Schnepp’s goal was to craft an objective documentary). And while I appreciate the fact that he was actually able to wrest a wee bit of appreciation from this lifelong Superman fan for something I’d always held in utter contempt, it felt at times like Schnepp was going out of his way to find merit in things that may not have warranted the praise.

There’s no point in the film where Schnepp confronts any of the principals as to their antipathy towards the character (he mostly just sits and nods, at least in the final edit). He never pushes the arrogant, coiffed, clueless Jon Peters (as much a Hollywood stereotype as ever walked the planet) on why he hated the costume and the powers so much. He never questions Tim Burton about why he thinks Superman (long established as feeling as much Earthling as Kryptonian) needed to be “alienated” from his adopted world. He doesn’t ask anyone who professes hatred for the superhero genre why they chose to work on the film (aside from the obvious response of “for the money”).

No doubt part of Schnepp’s reluctance to push buttons was grateful decorum. I understand that once you get Tim Burton to agree to let you come into his house and ask about a painful part of his past, it’s hard to not lob softballs. This ain’t interviewing Donald Rumsfeld about the Iraq War, after all. It’s just movies and comic books.

But that’s the main question that I want answered. Why the hell were all these people tasked with creating a Superman movie? Even if the edict were to “update” the character (a perpetually pointless endeavor as his longevity proves his timelessness), wouldn’t that task be better served in the hands of someone who actually liked Superman?

Most people still agree that the most successful live action adaptation of the Last Son of Krypton was Richard Donner’s 1978 film, a project that was rooted in affection and respect for what Donner regarded as an American myth. Christopher Reeve’s standard bearing interpretation embodied an affable charm; Superman wasn’t an aggro God out to kick ass and take names, he was, simply, (potentially world-dominating powers aside), “a friend.” And it worked!

But even when a filmmaker likes the character, it’s still possible for them to fuck it up. Bryan Singer professed a love for Donner’s Superman movies as well as their titular lead, but his 2006 SUPERMAN RETURNS was an ill-advised, mostly action-free retread that played the hero as the most emo superhero in history.

Seven years later, Zack Snyder (another comics fan) went so far in the opposite direction that his MAN OF STEEL was quicker to use his fists than his brain, his battles with General Zod and the Kryptonians causing untold billions in property damage and loss of life. Seriously, I know that film’s Jonathan Kent was kind of a douchebag, but he never even taught Clark to not wantonly destroy?

If you wanna boil it down to the basics, Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS suffered from a complete lack of testosterone, while Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL was crippled by a surfeit of same. There needs to be a balance. You need to believe that Superman is the ultimate nice guy, but also that he could easily kick anyone in the universe’s ass (and then you gotta show it every now and then). You can place Superman in a dark context if you want; but he has to remain the light in that darkness.

There’s a tee-shirt available for sale right now that’s maybe the most wrong-headed piece of Superman merchandise I’ve ever seen. It’s a shirt that depicts the hero along with the phrase, “Come at me, BRO.”

Unless it’s the dark Superman from SUPERMAN III, it’s hard to imagine any iteration of the character ever saying that phrase, ever. Guy Gardner? Sure. Deadpool? I guess (I know next to nothing about him). Batman? Maybe if it’s a Frank Miller story. But Superman? Not even Henry Cavill would sound right saying “Come at me, bro.”

Sadly, sartorial manifestations of Kal-El are often mired in a misunderstanding of what makes him work. If Superman were merely about might, then aggressive shirts and tribally-augmented tattoos might make sense. But his powers are the most superficial aspect of the character.

Here are a few key tenets (that most writers seem to miss) that make Superman work:

1. He is not full of angst. Sure, he’s the last survivor (or one of them, anyway) of his birth planet, and he’s not really a human, but through an incredible stroke of luck (being found by the Kents), he had a really good upbringing, and he’s a happy, well-balanced guy.

2. This does not make him boring. In fact, it’s this contrast between his power and his selflessness that makes him interesting. Who among us could claim that we’d remain humble if we were the most powerful human being on the planet (Imagine Donald Trump with super powers)? Superman is absolute power absolutely UNcorrupted. This is what makes him fascinating (and also why Lex Luthor hates, envies, and mistrusts the Man of Steel).

3. Superman’s most vexing foe is not Luthor, Brainiac, nor Mr. Mxyzptlk. It’s, ironically, us. Our apathy, our selfishness, our lack of compassion. Much as he might like to, Superman can’t be everywhere and save everyone. The Jesus metaphor gets overplayed in Superman movies, to be sure, but he does work best when he’s trying to lead by example and inspire us to be better.

Now, I get that trying to tell stories that are rooted in a character’s restraint is a tough bid, especially in this age of balls-to-the-wall CG action. But it’s not impossible.

The thing is, there are more than a handful of concepts (not just villains) from the comics that have yet to be adapted to live action (at least cinematically). And many of them would make for an epic movie.

We’ve still yet to see Brainiac (the alien android who shrinks and collects cities from around the universe) in any feature film (he was slated to be one of the villains in SUPERMAN LIVES, albeit reimagined along with everything else). Toss in the bottle city of Kandor, Van-Zee, Bibbo Bibbowski, Krypto, Superman’s interplanetary zoo, and some scenes of the Man of Steel battling everyday crime and disasters in addition to the big baddie, and you can have a kick-ass Superman movie (for those of you with the patience or interest, I’ve posted an extended outline for said Superman movie here). Go take a look, then come back. I'll wait.

.... Oh, good, you're back. So, if you took the time to read the outline, hopefully you’ll agree that all the bones are there: Lots of action (not all of it on a grand scale, mind you… superhero tales can also offer catharsis by tackling everyday problems like street crime and minor accidents and natural disasters), character development, a dash of selflessness, some humor, and a villain that’s a true threat. How hard is that?

In the end, the trials of Superman’s bad movies (both made and unmade) stem not just from a misunderstanding of the character, but also simple Hollywood short sightedness. Tim Burton made a successful Batman movie? Give him Superman! Chris Nolan made the next successful Batman movies? Put him in charge of Superman! Kevin Smith likes comic books? Let him write a comic book movie! And whatever you do, don’t go to the comic books for inspiration! Those things suck!

You would think that the astounding success of Marvel Studios would inspire Warner Bros. to likewise put DC Comics (a subsidiary company already!) in charge of its own cinematic universe, but the farthest they’ve gone is to establish DC Entertainment as a synergistic conduit. Then again, considering the haphazard job the current regime at DC has done shepherding its roster in the comics, maybe DC Studios wouldn’t be such a good idea after all.

Oh, well. Next year, Batman fights Superman and there’s Wonder Woman and tiny cameos from The Flash and Aquaman and Cyborg and then a cadre of DC superhero movies attempt to woo the mainstream movie audience like Tony and Steve and the gang did. Will it work? Who knows. I’m highly skeptical, but will retain an open mind and a hopeful heart. Like Superman, no matter how frustrated I get, I can't give up hope.

I just really hope Jon Peters stays far away.

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