Tag Archives: Superman

How to make a superhero movie (Hint: It ain’t just punching, but boy it helps.)

I could point out that it’s the Age of the Geek, and that the Nerds have at last achieved the everlasting Revenge that they’ve been lusting for since the mooks at Alpha Beta burned down their house, but I don’t have to.

You’re already a Nerd.

Statistically speaking you are, at least. And if you’re not, if you’re really a Jock, then you’re trying to lie low so you don’t draw attention from the Nerds, which could only get you fired from your job or or your favorite TV show canceled.

I mean, us Nerds, we’re everywhere, right? We’re the mainstream. We’re where culture is at right now. Hollywood goes to Comic Con to beg for our purchasing power. Advertisers and merchandisers know they need to appeal to our sensibilities to or risk their products being passed over by the Dorkish Tastemakers with discretionary income.

But I’m nervous. We could still blow it. And the superhero movie could be our undoing.

See, in 2012, Nerdom is set to explode, really explode all over itself, when two long-anticipated hero movies hit theaters: the third installment of Christopher “Dark Knight” Nolan’s Batman franchise, and “The Avengers,” the summa summarum of a series of Marvel hero flicks that begins with “Iron Man,” continues through Captain America and Thor installments, and ends with a chorus line team-up of costumed characters so epic it can only be entrusted to director Joss “Buffy” Whedon, the godfather of geekpower.

The cast of "The Avengers," assembled for the first time at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. And the nerdosphere squealed.

Don’t forget a certain 2011 movie dedicated to the least understood Justice Leaguer, Green Lantern, who wears a magic ring that creates indestructible goodies like giant hands and baseball bats and (in one hilarious Silver Age comic moment) enormous radiators. (That last was for absorbing villainous heat rays. Naturally.) This one has Mr. Scarlett Johannson donning CGI spandex:

Ryan Reynolds, reporting for duty in Sector 2814. (That's Earth, duh!)

And I’m nervous about this not only because it could be superhero overkill (it could be) and not only because real-life humans wearing supersuits look silly (they do). I’m worried because pulling off a great hero movie is the exception, not the norm. The goofier these heroes are — namely any Man not named Super, Bat, or Spider — the less likely it is audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, or sustain their tolerance for this costumed tomfoolery.

I mean, moviegoers barely tolerate the ridiculousness of a strongman in blue, yellow and red who no one can recognize when he puts on glasses, but that’s purely because Superman has been anointed in the sacred waters of American legend. He’s an icon now; if he had debuted in the ’60s we’d have laughed him out of his little red boots by now.

So I’m really worried that during the ultimate hero scrum of “Avengers,” the Jocks will look at each other and go:

“You know what? These dudes look really stupid.”

“Yeah. A Norse god? Seriously?”

“Totally. If Captain Yankeedoodle went into a real Marine barracks wearing that outfit they’d beat the spit-and-polish out of him.”

“Oooh! A guy who can shoot arrows real good! I’m glad he’s on the team with the thunder god and the flying iron guy with the laser cannons in his palms.”

And then the spell would be broken. The Age of Nerds would end, and the Jocks would resume casting their Sauron-like aura over the Middle-earth of our souls.

But there’s hope. There’s a way this could all build to greater heights without tearing down our house of Magic: The Gathering cards. I have seen the salvation of superhero storytelling and it is this trailer for DC Universe Online.

DCUOnline is a massively multi-player online game, and whether it’s fun or not is almost irrelevant to me, based on how UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME I DON’T WANT TO OVERHYPE THIS BUT LOOK OUT HERE I GO the trailer looks. What’s important here is that the creators seized my attention with tight, tense superhero action. Not just one superhero, but the whole cast of the Justice League and its stable of archenemies.

There’s punching, swordplay, major ordnance discharging and all manner of magi-cosmic hooha thrown into this 5-minute sequence, and none of it feels out of place or, dare I type this with a straight face, implausible. This is exactly what a balls-out battle between superpowers would look like.

Joss Whedon, and all other big-budget, super-franchise moviemakers out there, please take note of this trailer. Right off the bat, it makes Wonder Woman seem like not the most silly concept for a hero ever. The mechanics of her punching, stabbing, throwing, ripping, and leaping — oh! that leap! — blow out the bulb of her hero thermometer, and then some. This is a Wonder Woman you could watch a whole movie about.

This trailer makes a cosmic-powered ring work on screen by not dwelling on daffy constructs or look-at-me graphics. Instead, Green Lantern uses his glowing green magics to bitchslap badguys — when not getting bitchslapped by them himself.

Then there’s a beautifully choreographed (and comically, deliciously brief) fight between Black Adam and a really, really, really pissed off Man of Steel.

One  reason why this all works is because these are cartoons; put live actors in those suits and you begin to lose an ineffable believability to it all. It’s ironic that cartoonish characters make the scene more plausible, but that’s the magic of comics, and of art in general: Images are abstractions, and abstractions are easier to graft our meanings and our stories onto.

So all I’m really asking is that if we insist on going through with it, that we’re collectively determined to put Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans in some of the dopiest four-color costumery that 25-cent funnybooks can muster, then please, please, please let the action live up to this trailer.

It’s not enough to build character: Take Brandon Routh of “Superman Returns,” who had gobs of pathos and regret and loneliness and other emotions that went deeper than Spandex … but who didn’t punch anything. Nothing, which is a big deal for a guy like Superman. As we learned from “Iron Man,” first you make us care about an intriguing character. Then you let him hit the hell out of something, and good.

Otherwise your franchise will wilt faster than Aquaman at an Arizona SB 1070 protest rally.

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Look, it’s Intellectual Property Man!: If only ideas really were bulletproof

The bullets, they tickle me.

Issues of idea ownership have been on my mind lately, and ta-da , here’s the ongoing Superman copyright battle still in the news to help me articulate my thoughts.

It starts with this: Owning an idea is not like owning a house or a gun or a spoon or anything else you can hold, steal, break, lick or leave a fingerprint upon. Likewise, the laws covering idea ownership are twisty and murky; they are as clear to observers as the view from inside a Turkish bath.

You can have an idea that wakes you in the dead of night, something unique and original and wonderful. That thing is yours, locked away in your head, for as long as you want to own it.

But it has no value there. If you want to get something for it, you’ve got to get it out of your head, and let others see it, and here your troubles begin.

If someone sees your idea, will they steal it? Can you sue to get it back?

If someone helps you improve the idea, should they be rewarded with part of the ownership?

If someone gets your idea out in the market where it can make you money, should they own some of it as well?

If someone makes variations of your idea down the road, do you own part of their creation?

You’d think the creators of Superman, one of the most recognizable icons of the 20th Century, would have gotten rich, rich, rich for their efforts. And of course, they didn’t. Idea-havers never do, do they? (We’re leaving you out of this, J.K. Rowling.)

It's the Fireplug of Tomorrow!Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster dealt with their intellectual property issues in an era before “intellectual property issues” were a well-defined topic. So when they wanted to monetize their comic book superhero creation in 1938, they didn’t have a legion of fellow creators or lawyers waving red flags at the contract with Detective Comics that sold the rights to Superman for $130.

A hundred and thirty beans. That’s it, in exchange for some contract work producing the comic — that is, Siegel and Shuster gave away the potential for long-term gains in exchange for the security of some short-term work.

Imagine changing a super poo.Over the years, courts have upheld this copyright contract in favor of DC, so that Siegel and Shuster got bupkus. (To be fair, DC acknowledged some moral obligation in 1975 by granting Schuster and Siegel an annual $20,000 pension apiece and health care benefits. Which is nice … but clearly, not quite what one would expect to earn for creating one of the reigning icons of all time, eh?)

But copyrights were never intended to last forever. And that’s where it starts to get thorny. Beginning in 1999, the estate of Joel Siegel (who died in 1996) began its battle to reclaim its share of the copyright, and Shuster’s estate followed a few years later. The result? A maddening patchwork of rulings that parse the Original Idea into absurd bits that seem to defy logic. As Variety reports in an Aug. 13 story:

[Siegel’s estate] has “successfully recaptured” rights to … the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.

This means the Siegels … now control depictions of Superman’s origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash.

But not all is lost for DC!

DC owns other elements like Superman’s ability to fly, the term kryptonite, the Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen characters, Superman’s powers and expanded origins.

Really? An idea birthed in the 1930s by a couple of hardscrabble artists has now been diced like sushi and spread into every corner of the bento box. When you own “Superman’s ability to fly” how much do you get when Supes catches some air in someone else’s comic? (Or do you price your commodity so high that Superman has to take the bus?) If the Siegels own exploding Krypton and Superman’s “landing on Earth in a fiery crash,” can DC retcon his story so Kal-El is adopted from the Krypton Super Orphanage and delivered to Smallville by a Cosmic Stork?

My father would call this “a furschluggin mess.”

The lesson, then, is simple: Creators, own your work. Don’t let it go for cheap. In the words of another DC-spawned philosopher: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” (—The Joker, “The Dark Knight”) Unless, that is, you don’t mind having somebody else owning your hero’s right shoe and his ability to pronounce the letter P.

Sure, my fellow creatives, sometimes doing “work for hire” is the only oasis in a wide desert, but if that’s where you choose to drink, be aware — be very aware — that unless you negotiate a nice canteen and some ice, you’ll be just as thirsty tomorrow as you are today.

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

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