September 9, 2008

News You May Have Missed About Batman and Superman

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On September 2, 2008, The Dark Knight broke the $500 million dollar mark and officially became the second highest grossing film of all time (behind Titanic). This does not account for inflation, of course, but it is still an impressive feat and another notch on the film’s proverbial Bat-belt. Its records so far include biggest opening day, opening weekend, and being the fastest film to pass the $300 and $400 million dollar barriers.
This is a powerful statement to Hollywood about what makes a successful film, since at first glance it seems to have little going for it as a box office success. It was surprisingly dark for a wide release and certain clips look like they were shot for YouTube. There is action, yes, but there are many quiet, reflective scenes filled with long shots and silence. It doesn’t even end on a true fist-to-fist fight, but on an exchange of ideas and ideals. And though its predecessor Batman Begins was one of the highest grossing movies of 2005, it had only made $48.7 million on its opening weekend.
So what made it work? Heath Ledger’s death no doubt had some impact, making us curious to see the actor’s last big performance. And the brilliant viral marketing campaign involving the Harvey Dent political campaign also had some influence. But at the end of the day, I believe that what kept people coming back and bringing others along was the quality of the film: the direction, the unpredictable story, the unconventional techniques and the terrific set of performances. Ledger steals the show, true, but Aaron Eckhart also had a fantastic performance as the flawed idealist who descended into madness.
Much has been said of nominating Heath Ledger for “Best Supporting Actor”, but acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert has gone on record to say that he would be “astonished” if the film were not nominated for “Best Picture”. But we’ll still have to wait to see whether or not The Dark Knight can add these honors to its growing Bat-belt.

In a story that underscores the impact of The Dark Knight, Warner Brothers Pictures recently announced that it will reboot the Superman franchise, reintroducing the Man of Steel but with a darker tone.
Referencing Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, President Jeff Robinov stated , “Superman didn’t quite work as a film in the way that we wanted it to. It didn’t position the character the way he needed to be positioned…Had Superman worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009. But now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman without regard to a Batman and Superman movie at all.”
He added that he wanted the next few DC comics films, including Superman, to also be brooding. He wants to explore the dark, evil side of characters–but with certain limits, of course. In his words: “We’re going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it.”

The idea of a grittier Superman film is already creating some uproar. Even comic book writers are divided on the news, with some like Christopher Golden intensely critical and some like Steven T. Seagel who feel that Superman is already a dark character. There is still a more neutral, cautious camp with people like the writer of Lost, Smallville and Heroes, Jeph Loeb, as well as everyone’s favorite comic book afficionado Kevin Smith.
Putting the dark and gritty issue aside, I was happy to hear that the franchise was getting a reboot. After then watching Superman Returns to see what the fuss was about, I was pretty estatic. Much has been said about the failures of the film, but here’s one key observation: Superman Returns failed to reintroduce Superman in relation to our current world and its issues.
Since the release of Spider-Man, the best superhero movies have been the ones that pretended to exist in our reality. Iron Man, for instance, deals with terrorism and corrupt weapons deals and the X-Men movies deal with prejudice and political tensions. Superman Returns, in contrast, gives us a story about a superpowered alien fighting a human real estate dealer with an unbelievably ridiculous scheme to create an uninhabitable continent and charge people to live on it. Uh huh. Does this connect on any level with our concerns today? Not particularly.
As for whether a Superman story can be dark or gritty, I think the stories can be. We haven’t seen them in the movies yet, but many comics have featured Superman in superpowered battles against other strong villains. Others have toyed with the fact that while Superman is a human among us, he is also a god. He might be sorely tempted to use his power to run the world the way he wants. And then there is the issue of terrorism. If Superman stands for the American way, what would he do about it? Should he do anything about it? What if he disagreed with our government and/or the American people?
All this to say that there is great potential for a reboot. Currently the biggest name being tossed around to reinvent Superman is comic book writer Mark Millar. He is the writer of the comic book miniseries Wanted, which was recently adapted into a film with James MacAvoy and Angelina Jolie. While that may be light fare, he has also written an Eisner award-nominated comic book called Superman: Red Son, which envisioned a world in which the infant Superman was sent to Communist Russia instead of America. He is also a huge Superman afficionado, owning one of Christopher Reeve’s red capes as well as the stuffed corpose of Frisky, the cat that Superman rescued in the original Superman movie.
In a recent interview, he revealed, “I’ve had this plan for like 10 years for a big three-picture Superman thing, like a ‘Lord of the Rings’ epic, starting over from scratch again with a seven-hour Superman story. One to be released each year.”
Millar reports that he hopes to have word about the project in the next few weeks. I personally hope he succeeds. Here is a person who clearly understands the character of Superman as well as the rich history of comics. And since Superman is our great American hero, a film about him should receive no less glory.