Remake This: Jonah Hex (2010)

Oh, this hurts to look at.

Josh Brolin. John Malkovich. Michael Fassbender. Michael Shannon. Aiden Quinn. Upon reading those names, one could be justified in assuming that I just listed the cast of a well-acted, award-winning film. If you just made that assumption, I apologize for misleading you, because Jonah Hex is not that type of movie. It’s more of the joyless, grating, incredibly stupid, heartbreakingly disappointing type of movie. The tragedy? It totally didn’t have to be. Let’s talk about the sad, sad, tale of a great comic book antihero and the terrible movie he didn’t deserve.

SOME HISTORY ABOUT THE CHARACTER

I own this issue. It’s lovely.

Jonah Hex, created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, is a beloved and very unique DC Comics character from the 1970’s. At the same time that the Western genre of film was transitioning to its revisionist period (Jeremiah JohnsonLittle Big ManThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller all came out during the 70’s), Western comic books were also following the trend and becoming more violent, cynical, and melancholy.

Introduced in the pages of All-Star Western before landing a starring role in Weird Western Tales and eventually his own eponymous title, Jonah Hex was a rough character. He was raised by Apaches, he fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and he unintentionally got his fellow soldiers killed when he tried to surrender to Union forces. Later, half of his face was hideously scarred in a duel to the death with an Apache warrior. These experiences hardened Hex into a cynical loner, and he became a ruthless bounty hunter. And yet he often tried to do right by good people when he came across them, which usually ended up causing more suffering for everybody. Hex was on the run from his past and he didn’t much care for his future; he was just trying to make an honest day’s living by killing people who deserved it. Like a lot of revisionist Western fiction, Jonah Hex defied the traditional American view of the Old West as a heroic place full of noble, hard-working men embodied simpler, purer times. If you’ve seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, this description might remind you a bit of that movie, but interestingly enough, Jonah Hex first debuted in 1972…four years before Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece! I’m not saying that Hex was the inspiration for it, but it IS an intriguing idea, yes?

Anyways, Hex has continued to be a favorite among comic readers. His original title was cancelled in 1985, but he starred in a very strange series (simply titled Hex) that had him time-travel to a post-apocalyptic future and fight zombies; in my opinion, it’s worth a read just for the weirdness. In the 90’s, he starred in several miniseries that followed the precedent set by Hex and combined Western and supernatural/horror themes (In one such miniseries, called “Riders of the Worm and Such,” the creators parodied two famous albino musicians, which led to a lawsuit and…oh, just look it up here if you want the details. This is getting too weird). In 2005, a new critically-acclaimed Jonah Hex series was started, and it introduced a lot of new fans to the character. When DC cancelled all of their titles for The New 52, they brought back the old All-Star Western series, which stars Hex. Even though he didn’t regularly interact with DC’s modern-day superheroes, Hex has appeared through flashbacks and time-travel in the original Batman cartoon, as well as Justice League UnlimitedBatman: The Brave and the Bold, and his own DC Showcase short film (I believe it was included with the DVD of Batman: Under the Red Hood). So there you have it. Comic fans love him. Western and action film buffs SHOULD love him. Sounds like a good idea for a movie, right?

WHAT HAPPENED?

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m not a stickler for accuracy when it comes to big-screen comic book adaptations, and I stand by that. The source material is a good jumping-off point, but if you can tell a good story and retain the essence of the characters without aping other people’s work, you totally should. That being said, if you miss the point of what makes your protagonist special, you are in trouble (and so is your audience).

When I heard there was going to be a Jonah Hex movie, I thought “Awesome!” They’ll probably use the original adventures from the 70’s and 80’s as a reference and get the Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti from the current series as creative consultants! Maybe they’ll even write the script! It’ll be a great throwback to Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and maybe it’ll even rescusitate the genre!” Then I heard that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the geniuses behind the Crank series and the abysmal sequel to Ghost Rider (not a very high standard to meet, guys), were going to writing the script, and I got nervous. If the Jonah Hex movie was going to be an introspective character study or a redemption story or have any legitimately dramatic scenes whatsoever, why on earth hire the guys behind this? And then the director was announced. James Mangold? Nope. Michael Mann? Huh-uh. William Friedkin? Of course not! Then who? Why, Jimmy Hayward, of course. You know, the guy who directed Horton Hears a Who? You know, because nothing goes together like this:

And this:

I tried to stay positive. Tried to trick myself into believing that Jonah Hex would be a decent film. I mean, the cast list looked great (with the exception of Megan Fox, but she was playing a prostitute, so maybe it would work!). But then the movie poster you see at the top of this page was released. What? Well…Josh Brolin and Michael Shannon wouldn’t do this to themselves unless it was a good career move, right? And then…the trailer. Oh, the trailer:

Yeah, it was hard to stay optimistic after that. Anachronistic rock music. Ridiculous gadgets. Wretched and unnecessary special effects. I don’t know why the studio listened to Hayward, Neveldine, and Taylor when they insisted on completely ignoring the source material and getting their inspiration from The Wild Wild West movie instead of The Outlaw Josey Wales, but we all suffered for it. As a loyal DC Comics fan, of course I saw it in theaters, and of course I was shattered. It was awful, a “comic book movie” in the worst way: light on plot, heavy on loud, dumb action scenes. In the next few sections, I’ll break Jonah Hex down and tell you what I did and didn’t like. Rest assured, that first section won’t be long.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Some of the actors do a good job. Josh Brolin really swings for the fences. He and Michael Fassbender are in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a nice, understated performance in a cameo as Hex’s now-deceased best friend. Will Arnett plays it straight as a military man who recruits Hex to save Washington D.C., and somehow he works as a buttoned-down authority figure. I can’t even comment on whether or not Michael Shannon did a good job, because he wasn’t in the movie long enough for me to tell.

2. Jonah Hex’s origin is updated nicely. In the comics, it takes a long time to find out how Hex came to be the man he is. It’s a good story, but it would take a lot of time to squeeze it into a movie. But I have to say that, for the most part, the version that Neveldine and Taylor went with isn’t too shabby. It’s just streamlined: Hex, tiring of constant fighting, realizes that his unit’s guerrilla tactics are getting out of control, so in order to save lives he switches sides and stops them. His best friend Jeb Turnbull is killed, and his commanding officer Quentin Turnbull (also Jeb’s father) goes nutty, escapes capture, and vows revenge. Years later, he find Hex, kills his family, and brands the initials “QT” on his face. Hex refuses to look at those letters every time he sees his reflection, so he uses a heated ax to burn them away, severely disfiguring the right side of his face in the process. It’s a good origin: it stays true to the spirit of the character, keeps the essentials, and discards the extraneous details. Unfortunately, things immediately go off the rails after that, but I’ll elaborate in the next section.

3. Megan Fox is pretty. She doesn’t really do a good job in this movie; her accent is quite annoying, to be honest. Her character contributes very little to the plot. But she is very pretty, that I will grant you.

Horrifyingly tight corset notwithstanding. Jeez….

WHAT NEEDS TO NOT BE IN THE NEXT (HYPOTHETICAL) JONAH HEX MOVIE

Rather than simply list things I didn’t like about Jonah Hex, I will also elaborate on why I didn’t like them and what I WOULD like to see. After this movie came out, I immediately added it to my “Movies to Make/Remake/Reboot in the Unlikely Event that I Come Into Money” list. So here’s my list of mistakes in Jonah Hex and how they can be avoided:

1. Use your cast better. As I mentioned, Josh Brolin, Will Arnett, Michael Fassbender, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are good in this movie. But Aiden Quinn is totally wasted as a boring President Grant and John Malkovich is phoning in his performance from at least three states away at any given time. Megan Fox is about what you would expect. The biggest waste of all is Michael Shannon. Yes, Michael Shannon is in this movie. The academy award-nominated star of Revolutionary RoadBoardwalk EmpireTake Shelter, and the upcoming Man of Steel. One of the most intense and interesting actors currently working in Hollywood. It was first announced that he would play Doc Cross Williams, the voodoo-practicing owner of a sinister travelling circus in Jonah Hex, and that he would be a secondary antagonist (Cross Williams was originally introduced in the 90’s in a spooky Jonah Hex miniseries called “Two-Gun Mojo”).

When the movie came out, Hex did visit a travelling circus, but guess what? Michael Shannon gets MAYBE three seconds of screen time! WHAT?! Well, it turns out that Neveldine and Taylor wanted to use his character in sequels, so they got Hayward to cut out his scenes. Yes, that’s right: those two coked-out morons were so arrogant that they decided to save their best actor for sequels that weren’t even guaranteed. Hey guys, you know what MIGHT have been a good way to get the studio to commit to a sequel? A MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE BY AN ACADEMY-AWARD NOMINATED CHARACTER ACTOR! The lesson to be learned here is simple: make good casting choices and be certain you have a director who knows how to get good performances out of them. Oh, and USE FAMOUS ACTORS IF THEY’RE ALREADY CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO WORK FOR YOU!

2. Don’t complicate things with bizarre unexplained bad CGI  magic. There’s no magic in the original Jonah Hex stories. The 80’s and 90’s set a precedent for that sort of thing, so I don’t think it can be said that the filmmakers behind the movie ignored the source material, but they made a very odd choice in deciding to give Hex the power to communicate with the dead. Right after his origin is laid out in the first few minutes of the movie, it’s explained that Hex was rescued from certain death by Indians and nursed back to health, but apparently because he had been “on the other side” for too long, he gained the ability to touch dead people and bring them back to life, but only for a few minutes before they turn into ashes, and the longer they’ve been dead, the longer it takes for them to turn into ashes because they’ve been….never mind. But trust me, it’s confusing, it doesn’t fit the tone of the movie, especially since the villain is the non-mystical Quentin Turnbull and he’s using a big cannon that isn’t magic at all. Necromancer Hex feels unnecessary. Worse than that, it feels like a cheap excuse for Neveldine and Taylor to throw in some EXTREME special effects and sped-up footage. It distracts from the rest of the story. Maybe if Cross Williams were the real villain and Hex actually had to fight zombies or something, but that doesn’t happen.

3. Anachronisms are not your friend. A quick word to Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: Guys, I know period pieces can be intimidating (especially if you are an idiot who doesn’t want to do any actual research). However, if you are committing to a movie that is set in a specific time and place in the past and there will be people in your audience who KNOW what did and didn’t exist back then, you owe it to them to not ruin things. Maybe you think you’ll be cool and have futuristic technology and deliberate anachronisms as a stylistic statement. Well, stop thinking that. We already have The Wild Wild West to remind us NOT to do that. And if you still REALLY want to throw in some goofy stuff, you should still learn what is physically possible and at least TRY to make the suspension of disbelief a little easier for the audience. And if you really wanted to do a fun, dumb summer blockbuster that doesn’t take itself seriously, you shouldn’t have used a revisionist Western comic about a scarred, cynical bounty hunter who wears a Confederate uniform! AND…even if you STILL wanted to ignore the source material, rip off The Wild Wild West of all movies, and not bother making a movie that takes itself too seriously, DON’T CAST JOSH BROLIN, AIDEN QUINN, MICHAEL FASSBENDER, MICHAEL SHANNON, AND TELL THEM ALL TO PLAY IT STRAIGHT!

I know Neveldine and Taylor have their defenders but…c’mon. Look at them.

Speaking of the source material, here’s the most important thing:

4. Understand your source material. I think that’s the biggest failure with this movie. The Jonah Hex comics are, for the most part, grounded in reality. If there was a gunfight, people would die. There were no futuristic, gimmicky weapons; when a character fired six shots from their revolver, they were out of ammo until they reloaded. No one had Gatling guns mounted on their horse or a crossbow that fired sticks of dynamite or a super-powerful magic artillery cannon that could destroy Washington all by itself (all things that are in the movie). The appeal of Jonah Hex wasn’t in the scrapes he got into: it was in how he confronted the moral dilemmas he found himself faced with, how he outwitted his opponents, and whether or not he chose to learn anything from these encounters.

Everything that happened in Hex’s original adventures, as well as his second series from the 00’s, happened in a historically accurate setting. There weren’t any super-stylized fight scenes or mammoth explosions or plots that threatened the entire nation. Hex’s most important battles were with himself. It usually bothers me when comic book movies take themselves too seriously, but in the case of Jonah Hex, I don’t think the filmmakers took their movie seriously enough. Hex ISN’T a superhero. He’s Josey Wales, Paden from Silverado, and Jeremiah Johnson all rolled into one. This was the one time, THE ONE TIME, when we really needed a comic book movie to be “realistic” and “grounded.” So if Jonah Hex ever rides onto the big screen again, I hope the folks in charge do their research and focus on the man and his demons (metaphorical demons, you guys! NOT ACTUAL DEMONS!). Everything else will grow from that.

IN CONCLUSION

This movie is only three years old. If it feels like it’s been longer, it’s just because it was a huge box office bomb, making back only about a fifth of its $47 million budget, and everyone immediately forgot about it. Which, now that I think of it, is a good thing. Normally, I’d say you have to wait about five years for a reboot, and at LEAST ten for a hard remake, but for me, a reinterpretation of Jonah Hex can’t come soon enough. I know Warner Brothers won’t want to risk another flop, and I know that other DC characters have priority, but hey: it could happen, right?

In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the character, I recommend any of the vintage Jonah Hex stories (many of them are collected in DC Showcase graphic novels), as well as Gray and Palmiotti’s series from 2005-2011. And of course, the latest volume of All-Star Western is only about 20 issues in right now. Check them out.

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Remake This: Krull (1983)

In the wake of the original Star Wars trilogy, the late ’70s and early ’80s saw a wave of movies attempting to cash in on the public’s renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy. On the plus side, we got a revitalized Star Trek franchise. But then, we also got Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, so…yeah, mixed bag. See, the vast majority of movies inspired by the success of Star Wars were pretty…um, uninspired. And most of the ones that did turn out well, like The Last Starfighter, weren’t exactly original. But there were a few such films that stood out, and one in particular that (in my opinion) REALLY stood out. I am of course referring to the awesome Sci Fi/Fantasy mashup that is….KRULL!

What is Krull?

Good question. Krull is a movie set on a distant planet (also named Krull) that exists in an unknown galaxy. I know what you’re thinking. “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away? How original.” And perhaps you’d be right, if Krull were a desert planet, or one with futuristic technology. But it’s not. Its people use swords; they live in castles and cottages and caves; some of them practice magic (with varying levels of success, but more on that anon). Yeah, that’s right: Krull is a world of high fantasy. At least until…

The Story:

Here’s where things get kooky. Remember how I said Sci Fi/Fantasy, not just Fantasy? Well that’s because, as the movie starts, Krull gets invaded. By aliens. A giant telepathic shapeshifting alien known as The Beast. His ship, a monstrosity called The Black Fortress, touches down on Krull’s surface and disgorges an army of laser-wielding shocktroopers called Slayers. They promptly lay waste to the countryside. Naturally, an army of technologically advanced monsters will make whatever petty quarrel your kingdom has with another kingdom seem silly by comparison; it’s time to unite. The two rulers of Krull decide to do just that. One king’s daughter marries the other king’s son, making the two kingdoms one. Apparently Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa have had the hots for each other for a while, so they’re cool with it.

But guess who isn’t cool with it? THE BEAST!!! Slayers attack the castle where the wedding is happening and kill everyone except Colwyn (they meant to, though. It would be weird if they didn’t even try, right?). They capture Lyssa and take her to The Black Fortress, so The Beast can make her his bride. Why? Well, because there is an ancient prophecy about her:  “A girl of ancient name shall become queen, she shall choose a king. Together they shall rule their world, and their son shall rule the galaxy“. The Beast wants to rule the galaxy, so he figures he’ll try the old kill-everybody-they-care-about-and-promise-them-power-on-the-off-chance-they’re-willing-to-overlook-that-whole-killing-everybody-they-care-about-thing-from-earlier trick. So he’s holding her hostage in the Black Fortress, which randomly teleports to a different part of Krull every day, and Colwyn wants her back. With the help of an old seer, a gang of oddly pleasant escaped convicts, a not-very-talented “wizard,” and a brooding cyclops, Colwyn has to find an ancient magical weapon of great power, find the Black Fortress, get inside before it vanishes, fight his way through scary foot soldiers with laserthingies, rescue Lyssa, and kill The Beast. Yeah, it’s pretty intense.

Here’s the trailer:

…Are you still there? Good. I only want people who are committed to this! Now that we’ve weeded out the nonbelievers, let me explain why that wasn’t as stupid as you thought it was.

What’s Great about the Movie:

1. The Premise. One of the things that makes Krull unique is the fact that it’s a mashup of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres. The idea that Krull is in the rough equivalent of our earth’s Middle Ages is really cool; its buildings, costumes, and weapons have a vaguely familiar medieval look about them, but they’re also exotic enough to remind us that this is another planet. It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Krull has its own unique history, traditions, and legends and myths.

2. Almost Everyone Gets a Character Arc. Seriously, this does not happen often in movies. Hell, these days we’re lucky if the main character in an action movie has any character development whatsoever. But that’s what’s so fascinating about Krull. You’ve got the main protagonist going through the basic Hero’s Journey arc, the convicts who are reluctant to help him but eventually come to care about their mission, the bungling wizard who overcomes his cowardice, the melancholy cyclops who embraces his destiny; I could keep going, but just see the movie instead of reading about it, okay?! GO!

3. The Score Is Amazing. James Horner really knocked it out of the park on this one. There’s a reason why the man’s got two Oscars under his belt (I could list all the movies he’s done, but you could just Imdb it if you’re curious, so why bother?).

4. The Writer and Director Were Clearly Passionate About Their Project. Peter Yates directed this movie. He was responsible for some of the best dramas of the late 20th century, but with Krull he was able to balance lighthearted adventure and dark fatalism perfectly. He also got the actors to take their roles seriously when it would have been easy to play it camp. As a result, the film is fun, but a little more introspective and atmospheric than other Star Wars rip-offs. I think Yates’ direction is largely responsible for that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give credit to Stanford Sherman, the writer. He wrote a lot of camp; it’s what he was most well-known for (I won’t lie and tell you all of his work is good, but I will say that Sherman’s post-Krull fantasy, The Ice Pirates, is a hilarious and self-aware parody of the genre). Maybe it’s because he had so much experience writing deliberately silly scripts that he was able to give Krull the right amount of self-awareness. Not enough to make it a comedy or parody, obviously, but enough to remind the audience that its primary goal is to entertain, and we don’t have to take it too seriously.

5. It’s Fun to See Famous Actors, Both Old and Not So Old. Like any good post-Star Wars sci-fi/fantasy, Krull features a few veteran classical actors slumming for a paycheck. But it also has a few faces modern audiences will certainly recognize:

SEE! ON THE FAR LEFT! IT’S CHARLIE BUCKET’S TEACHER! oh, and Liam Neeson too, or whatever.

5. The Set Design of the Black Fortress is Inspired. The Beast’s lair/spaceship/love nest is super trippy. The environment constantly changes, whether it’s to keep intruders out, or prisoners in. At times, it seems like the place is alive. Maybe it is.

So Why Remake It?

My philosophy for remakes is simple: you should only attempt it if you think you can tell the story of a movie  in a better or more unique way. I try to reserve judgment on remakes until I’ve seen them, because there’s a good chance that they might be just as interesting (if not more so) than the original, like the newer versions of The Italian Job or Ocean’s 11. But in order to justify a remake, the original has to have untapped potential. After all, what did the remake of Clash of the Titans do besides suck all the joy and fun out of a silly but earnest fantasy film? And did the new Fright Night really say anything that the original didn’t? With Krull, though, there is potential to expand on the story, especially since its concept (more than the actual story) is the best part. Since I just mentioned some of the great strengths the original has, let’s look at a few ways a remake could tell the story better:

Better Special Effects. The original has some great set designs, as I mentioned earlier. If they ever remake Krull, they should NOT use green screens or depend too much on CGI when practical effects will do. Some of Krull‘s greatest triumphs are in the clever application of practical effects (there’s an especially well-done scene with an evil shapeshifter that terrifies me to this day). However, there are several moments in the film where I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. The magic effects look bad, and many of Krull’s locations and wildlife aren’t nearly exotic as they ought to be. I think some creative applications of modern motion picture technology would take care of that.

2. Exploit the Setting. Some movies spend too much time with exposition. Krull doesn’t spend enough time with it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really cool to imagine what another planet would look like during its equivalent of a medieval period. What would be different about it? What wouldn’t be different? Unfortunately, in the movie, we don’t get much more than a taste. Most of the action occurrs in the wilderness, with a small group of heroes against The Beast and his Slayers. We don’t get to see the cities and villages of Krull, nor do we know why the two kingdoms were fighting one another to begin with. We can tell from conversations and quick glimpses that Krull has its own religious ceremonies, ancient myths, prophecies, holy people, and even a class hierarchy. But the movie just assumes we know all this stuff, and doesn’t bother to elaborate on it (I’d like to think that Sherman had a lot of Krull’s history and mythology figured out in an early draft of the script, but I haven’t researched it, so it may just be wishful thinking). I propose a few scenes and some dialogue here and there to make us understand Krull a little bit better, especially when it comes to the magic users we meet in the film and their past. Oh, and there should also be a ton of animals (domestic and otherwise) on Krull that are unique to that planet. They don’t have to look SUPER different, but just enough to remind us that we’re not on Earth. Finally, I think we need to see a much larger portion of the planet; different continents, different races, different climates. Even if it’s just for a brief amount of time, this establishes The Beast as a threat to the WORLD of Krull, not just the (apparently white, mostly male) kingdoms of Krull.

3. Jettison the Damsel in Distress Subplot. This one’s easy. Even though Lyssa is smarter and a little more determined than your average damsel trope, she spends the entire movie trying (halfheartedly) to escape from The Black Fortress. Except for the beginning of Act 1 and the end of Act 3, she doesn’t have much to do. So let’s not have that. Instead, at the opening of the film, let’s have Lyssa be a warrior. She’s a battle-hardened commander for her father’s army. Instead of showing her and Colwyn falling for each other off-screen, maybe they meet face-to-face in battle and almost kill each other. Over time, as their kingdoms fight again and again, they develop a grudging respect, then a friendly rivalry, then…something more. On their wedding night, almost everybody gets killed, but the two lovebirds escape, and they decide to kill The Beast. This way, instead of simply rescuing a princess, the motivation for storming the Black Fortress is revenge and security, and Lyssa and Colwyn are equals on this quest. Sure, The Beast still wants to seduce Lyssa, but that’s part of a bigger campaign of psychological warfare he’s inflicting on all of the heroes. Now we don’t see the Black Fortress (at least not from the perspective of the heroes) until the end of the movie, which increases the uncertainty and terror as the adventurers force their way in.

That’s all I would suggest. I honestly think, if these changes are implemented, everything else would fall into place.

In Conclusion…

At the time of this post, Krull is about 30 years old. Hollywood is fast running out of movies to mine for ’80s nostalgia, and I think this one is better-remembered than people realize. And hey, even if nobody remembers it, they’ll still pay to watch a movie that looks exciting enough…Right? Well, it doesn’t really matter if they remake Krull. I don’t need an excuse to wax nerdrantical about movies I like. I never have; you can ask literally anyone who knows me.

Need I reiterate that this is all opinion-based? I guess I will. It is. As you have undoubtedly discovered, I am heavily biased in the movie’s favor. HEAVILY. So there you have it. I unironically enjoy Krull a great deal and I recommend it to anyone who likes space operas, high fantasy, or both. Give it a watch and let me know how you feel about it, and whether you feel a remake is a good idea. Let me know in the comments which films you think deserve to be remade, and what you would change if you could. Feel free to stay if you want, but I’m going to get a sandwich. And no, it doesn’t matter when you read this. Odds are, I’m getting a sandwich then, too.

P.S. At the time of this posting, Krull is available, in its entirety, on Crackle. I hope it stays there for a while, but who can say? Pay attention to their description of the film; it’s accurate. And don’t listen to those Poindexters at Imdb and Rotten Tomatoes!

Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Thoughts On This Summer’s Superhero Films

This summer was very exciting for comic book fans, to say the least. The Avengers kicked it off, The Amazing Spider-Man kept it going, and The Dark Knight Rises is ending it. Now that I have seen all three, I’d like to share a few thoughts on each. What makes them different, what I liked (or didn’t like) about them, and where I’d like to see the franchises go.

1. The Avengers:

An excellent movie. Probably the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. Part of the reason was that it so completely embraced the fact that it was a superhero film with a silly premise. Joss Whedon understands that characters’ circumstances do not have to be realistic in order to make them relatable, but their behavior does. And he found a way to have each of the Avengers grow or learn something by the end of the film. And the message of flawed people putting aside their egos and grudges in order to serve the greater good is certainly inspiring.

Tom Hiddleston needs to be mentioned. He simply must be. Here is a classically trained Shakespearean actor, who manages to infuse a comic book villain with so much internal conflict and vulnerability that you can’t help but love him, even as he commits atrocities. Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor was my gold standard for supervillains on the big screen last year. Little did I know how much he was going to up the ante this time around. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

And I haven’t even mentioned the action. Oh, the action! Creatively shot, unrelenting, and fantastically choreographed. The only real complaint I have with The Avengers was that I would have liked to see a few more female members on the team. Agent Hill just seemed a bit…shoehorned in to make up the lack of girl power. Oh, and I would have liked maybe an extra scene explaining how Bruce Banner was able to start controlling the Hulk so suddenly.

As for the future, I don’t know exactly what I’d like to see. I think the Infinity Gauntlet will be happening, but it really deserves its own movie, so maybe the next Avengers flick could be on a smaller scale. Hydra resurrected? Naw, that’s probably for the next Cap movie. Ultron? As long as  they don’t have another invasion scheme, maybe. They could set him up in the Ant Man movie (WHICH WILL BE AWESOME).

2. The Amazing Spider-Man:

I figured this one might be an improvement on the original, but…wow. Almost all of the problems I had with the original trilogy were fixed by Mark Webb’s reboot. The acting is stronger from EVERYBODY. Andrew Garfield is a much more compelling Peter Parker, the story flows so smoothly, the drama is handled with much more finesse, and most important of all, Gwen Stacy is Peter’s equal rather than a damsel in distress like MJ in the other movies.

I also loved how senseless and sudden Uncle Ben’s death is. There’s not a lot of dramatic buildup, there’s not a crowd gathered, there’s no time for Uncle Ben to touch his nephew and speak to him one last time. He’s dead. And the scene is that much more raw and emotional because of it. And Peter’s way of coping with his uncle’s death makes sense to me. He won’t talk to Aunt May, even though she needs it as much as he does. Sally Field also needs singling out for her performance. Too often in the other movies, Rosemary Harris’ Aunt May was just a fragile old woman who has nothing to offer but comic relief and inapplicable advice. But Sally Field portrays a woman who is hurting, who needs comfort, who can get loud when she has to. It made a big difference to me.

Some of the action scenes are a bit weak (despite Peter’s much more tactical usage of webshooters than in the past), and not enough explanation went into the Lizard’s personality or motivations once he showed up, but these are just minor issues in an otherwise refreshing take on the character of Spider-Man.

As for the future, well…it seems we have sort of a “big bad” scenario brewing, doesn’t it? Clearly Peter hasn’t learned the truth about his parents, and clearly Norman Osborn is connected, and clearly there’s the potential for genetically enhanced henchmen to start popping up. And who was that mystery man?

3. The Dark Knight Rises:

Okay, this one’s gonna be the longest, I’m sure. I actually needed some time to even begin to properly express how much I loved this movie. It was bleak and grim, yet ultimately optimistic and uplifting. I probably wouldn’t take kids under the age of 10 to see it, because it is grim and things get worse (MUCH worse) before they get better.

There were just so many things I appreciated about this film on so many levels, from subtle references to the comic books to literary allusions to social commentary. The latter was especially well done. Whereas the last film in the series was an elaborate morality play, this one doesn’t have any firm answers. Bane and his crew want to completely destroy society as we know it. The corrupt upper-class gothamites want to exploit or at least ignore the less fortunate. Somewhere in the middle is Batman, who won’t tolerate the latter, but won’t consider the former. He tries to walk the middle path, and find a solution to the city’s problems.

And of course we also got a closer look at the complex relationship that Bruce and Alfred have. For a long time, Alfred has known that being the Batman wouldn’t end well for Bruce. He actually tells Bruce something I’ve always thought was true: that Gotham needs Bruce more than it needs Batman. Bruce is the one who needs Batman to exist. He feels it’s the only way to give meaning to his parents’ deaths. He’s addicted to the cowl, and Alfred sees it. I won’t spoil the film’s ending, but it really takes your breath away when all of their conflicts are resolved.

This wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan movie without spellbinding visual effects. This one’s got ’em all. They’re intense and uncompromising, even brutal at times. But that’s The Dark Knight trilogy for you. Now, if I had one complaint, I suppose it would be that we don’t actually see that much of Batman. Maybe that’s just because this is more Bruce Wayne’s story than Batman’s, but I would have liked to see a bit more of him in the suit. I do also have to mention that the addition of so many new characters into the series in the final installment is a little overwhelming, though I had to keep reminding myself that it had been eight years since the end of the previous film.

By the way, when I said that The Avengers was the best superhero movie ever made, I meant it. I don’t really consider Nolan’s Batman to be a superhero. He’s certainly a mythic, melodramatic figure, but the tone of these movies as well as the consistent attempts at realism just make it unable for me to put them in quite the same category. If you asked me which movie I liked better, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think I could give you an answer. They’re apples and oranges. One’s a Speilberg and the other’s a Coppola.

I don’t think Nolan’s Batman has a future. I won’t spoil anything, but a future’s just not there. If there is a reboot to prepare for a Justice League movie, I think it’s time for things to go a bit more lighthearted for the caped crusader. There are plenty of good stories to tell with Batman. And there are lots of Batman villains I really want to see on film that just wouldn’t have worked with Nolan’s approach. I have no reason to not be optimistic about the future of the Batman franchise.

Anyways, that’s it for me. Feel free to share your thoughts.