Thursday, September 29, 2011

With Marvel's successful construction toward a cinematic shared universe culminating in 2012's [Joss] Whedon directed Avengers; it's difficult to shake the sense of inevitability that hovers over DC Comics' counterpart hero-team, The Justice League.

DC may have made their mark with seminal blockbuster pictures like Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), and Batman (1989), but it's Marvel who have spent the following decades defining an industry.

Films based on Blade, X-Men and Spider-man went a long way to dispelling any belief that superheroes could not transition convincingly to the big screen (beyond momentary fad), but even these trailblazing efforts have become footnotes to subsequent developments in a veritable Hollywood takeover. For better or worse, Iron Man (2008) marks the turning point for the average superhero adaptation.

Embued with a sense of indulgence afforded by the standardizing movies released between 1995 and 2005; once unlikely colours and iconography from the four-colour medium finally became par for the course after Iron Man, which refreshed audiences with robotic heroics and a strong core of character and story.

Combining credible talent with an approach that services conventional storytelling and the broad basics of superheroes [earnestly, for the most part]; Marvel distanced themselves from awkward pubescent disappointments like Daredevil and Fantastic Four. By getting it so right, they earned the credibility to pose the question of going deeper, (starting with a much talked about Nick Fury cameo), declaring their intentions with Hulk, Thor and more Iron Man -- a gradual build that brings us to the present post-Captain America world, where movie marketting has done what comics sorely needs to -- sell people the excitement of franchise accumulation.

Earlier this year, DC (probably) thought they were buying in to the same philosophy when they launched Ryan Reynolds toward certain doom in Green Lantern. Only the most apologetic or optemistic observer could have advanced without a sense that GL was being set up for cannibalized mediocrity, a very distant second to its supposed Iron Man equivalent (and franchise brethren).

It was by virtue of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike that DC missed out on beating Marvel to the cinematic ensemble punch, inadvertently averting the even bigger disaster of a JLA film that was reported to have cast a group of youthful alternates (such as model, Megan Gale), before cooler heads prevailed. The project, which had every likelihood of undermining DC's pantheon of franchise vehicles in a single stroke -- including Green Lantern -- speaks to the struggles Warner Brothers have had when converting anything unrelated to Christopher Nolan's critically acclaimed efforts with Batman -- another character almost threatened by the post-Begins lowrent JLA.

The obvious hasn't completely escaped 'the powers-that-be.'
Over the past couple of years, DC has undergone significant structural change, to not only hand over greater powers to the cross-media aspects of the business, but also shock the comics world with a massive brand-wide reboot of all the major properties (currently in its fourth week). The two events seem likely related and it remains to be seen if it's for better, or worse.

After squandering the marketshare of Green Lantern (and Blackest Night) in two mediums, DC in its many forms is clearly reevaluating. In 2012, they relaunch cinematically with the hotly anticipated Batman reboot trilogy end, The Dark Knight Rises, while [Christopher] Nolan also spirtually coaxes Superman in his life after Returns, delivering a second bite at the cherry, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder [of 300 and Watchmen fame]. Representing the modern Hollywood method of repeating tried and true projects, it isn't exactly the most inspiring direction forward, but at least offers respite from the confused antics of mismanaged B-properties.

While there appears to be a massive gulf between the representative brilliance of The Dark Knight (2008) and the confused clusterfuck of Catwoman (2004), DC hasn't had it all bad. Somewhere in between lurk tangents like Watchmen (2009), V for Vendetta (2006), and Constantine (2005), which might not have reached the heights of the comics they were based on, but made for respectable mainstream departures from the extremes of their best and worst. Though not financially successful to the degree expected by more dominant superhero franchises, each is a movie with cache that could soften the blow of more public letdowns, and inform a better way forward, if they were more readily identified with the parent company in the way Marvel's best brands have been.

Not every franchise will be Nolan's Batman reboots, nor should they be.

Just as comics have had to reconcile the creative influence of forces like Frank Miller and Alan Moore over decades of lesser knock-offs, so too has cinema been harmed by the popularity of the 'gritty realistic reboot', which continues to give way to ham-fisted imitators intent on devouring the past.

Marvel have found success in the most logical way, with movies that, to a significant degree, repel from the grim 'n' gritty colourless trends of recent history. There's plenty of room for argument about the details, but by launching their Avengers properties with the robot Iron Man, monster Hulk, fantasy laden Thor, and wartime Captain America, Marvel have at least shown a minimum aptitude for offering diversity in their present movie line-up. From a certain dough-headed Hollywood perspective, this could be interpreted as a necessary live example of the virtues of doing something 'different.'

Where DC has dominated for quite some time is the domain of animation.
With Marvel now under the ownership of Disney, it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that the next great frontier for corporate superheroes in cinema might be animated features. Granted, this would be a battle far bigger than comparing live-action muscle men, requiring a change in box office trends that have condemned traditional animation to DVD and television, but who better to fight the fight against CG (in)animate objects than some of the greatest 2D characters who've ever been drawn?

1993 saw such a feat broached by Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the first feature spin-off of the critically acclaimed Bruce Timm Batman animated series, which gave birth to the on-going collection of now unrelated DC DTV (Direct To Video) movies. Limited theatrical release delivered high praise and a quality product still relevant. Then there's the more recent acclaim of The Incredibles (2004), a Pixar CG superhero movie that enjoyed plenty of success, playing computer animation against itself, arguably the closest thing the world has to a bloody good Fantastic Four movie.

As a repeat offender, DC needs to invest in good people working on good projects, preferably outside the box, to cleanse the palette of their past mistakes. Throwing millions behind traditional animation might be a bit of a big ask in 2011, but it would be the kind of bold move that might start to rebuild a credibility fitting of the fictional historic heroes they are custodians of, and build a buzz that Green Lantern certainly lacked. It could even have broader implications for the company that owns them, the once proud purveyors of animation, Warner Brothers. There is certainly potential already existing in the lower budget projects hitting Blu-Ray and DVD, ie; upcoming Batman: Year One, and past projects like the 2008 adaptation of DC: The New Frontier [pictured above], but you've gotta learn to walk before you run.

If one accepts that it's preferable for executives (and other potential obstacles) to work from existing evidence, then I think DC's credible sleeper hit is one of the most obvious, but least likely characters, that they could source. Often affectionately referred to as the 'heart and soul' of the Justice League, he is a character that, if successful, could be a preliminary marker for expansion similar to Avengers, who also possesses many unique qualities that would allow for a strong, focused three act film, with unique and intriguing dressing.

I, of course, am talking about Martian Manhunter.

I don't doubt for a minute that Zack Snyder will do good things with his version of the Superman mythos, but with General Zod confirmed as a villainous presence, I can't help but feel flattened by the prospect of repeating the Richard Donner era all over again -- a factor that severely crippled Bryan Singer's infamous (loveletter) approach in Superman Returns. I also can't help but wonder if Snyder's skills as a filmmaker might not have been better utilized on a character like Martian Manhunter!

It isn't at all irrelevant to note that I've been watching Dark City very recently.
The 1998 [Alex] Proyas film is not a great example of a theatrical blockbuster, but has certainly overcome any marketted shortcomings to become an acclaimed cult film as years have gone by. I mention it, because, as pictured above in art by Darwyn Cooke (and less obviously, Ken Steacy), there is an associated nostalgia to Martian Manhunter that, visually, could certainly learn from the retro inspiration of much of Dark City's forties noir costume and set design. Like Dark City, a film based on Martian Manhunter could also pastiche genres in ways that would make it quite unique, particularly in the present market. To what extent the retro aspects were fulfilled would be subject to a director.

Based on the CG embellishments of Sucker Punch300, and design of Watchmen, particularly the urban latter with its neon flourishes; I think of a Martian Manhunter film as a technicolor delight, well handled by a director of Zack Snyder's persuasion.

In a world where CG is so often used as a meaningless gratuity -- or ham-fisted gimmick, see; Green Lantern's hideous costume -- I imagine a Martian Manhunter film as a visual exercise that makes technical use of CG as an artistic, graphic statement, lending a vaguely similar factor of intrigue to Robert Rodiguez' work with Sin City. I see unnatural, deep glowing purples and greens, tech-noir neon highlights, burning red eyes, and a movie that revels in fiction. In a way, it could almost be this era's answer to the bold design of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990). Then again, there's margin for a much more naturalistic approach, too. More literally like Dark City. Martian Manhunter is really a versatile property, when you start thinking about it.

The story of Martian Manhunter can be approached in many different ways, but is generally a simple high concept with key mythology. Scientist's experiments accidentally transports Martian to Earth; shocked scientist dies a mournful death; Martian is alone in a world he doesn't understand. Martian learns human culture from television, assumes identity of gumshoe detective, battles evil with steely resolve and uncompromising squint. William Hurt's character in Dark City doesn't make for a bad approximation, which is something that inspired elements of The Kirby Martin Inquest, a comic book I wrote that is yet to move past the first issue.

The work of Mark Verheiden and Ken Steacy from Secret Origins #35 tells much of this tale as a flashback, and is a beloved reference that stays with me to this day. It also bares many similarities to the later work of Darwyne Cooke in DC: The New Frontier, which hits a few extra beats about discrimination, humanity, and superheroics. Between the two, I think you have a very thorough bible for a working script, with additional mythology about Mars and Martians worth keeping in mind, even if it's best left unelaborated upon, at least until a sequel.

As much as design and visuals would be a motivating factor for this film -- (probably more comfortably titled Manhunter from Mars); character study and development would provide much of the meat of the project. Establishing Dr. Erdel -- the scientist responsible for bringing MM to Earth -- as more than a mere mcguffin, might be nice. I've always been quite taken by the idea that he was a kind, gentle man, who regretted his mistake in his final moments, providing a positive influence before dying in front of a confused and unprepared alien. The New Frontier captured this, and MM's television education, quite well. The latter of which influences his decision to become a gritty noir detective, buoyed by the backstory of his life on Mars.

In the Verheiden story, "Detective John Jones" (an alias based on his martian name, J'onn J'onnz) finds himself on the trail of kidnappers. In The New Frontier, Slam Bradley and he investigate satanic cultists, intersecting with Batman in the process. The New Frontier pulls upon allusions to modern Batman interpretation as a paranoid, suspicious figure, who famously threatens Martian Manhunter with a hypothetical pack of matches. These themes provide a thriller aspect to the story, lending an interesting narrative of human frailty while also giving Detective John Jones additional stakes. Grafted on to a fellow detective, or perhaps even a government presence, the concept would provide danger for the Second Act, and spice in the Third Act.

Martian Manhunter spent the fifties embroiled in spy tales and that's certainly an interesting element to draw upon, represented in The New Frontier by government interference via King Faraday, who captures the Martian when he attempts to stow away on a rocket headed for Mars. The pair resolve their differences in a series of events that both commit the Martian Manhunter to becoming a heroic influence on Earth, while redeeming the human perspective. I think a tighter, more intensely character driven arc might be necessary to make the Martian Manhunter film worthwhile, but the sentiments are certainly echoed in the source.

Long story short: I'd really like it if someone made a Martian Manhunter film. A good one! With the right balance of indulgence, ingenuity and design, I think it would have the potential to be a very unique project, capable of spinning out into sequels and franchise crossovers, while sustaining itself.

With the right mix of elements, I think this is the type of concept that could really lend itself to the mass market. A good script would balance action, intrigue, character, and atmosphere in ways that reflect the 'swiss army' alien powers of the hero himself. A character of pathos, of bold heroism, of action, of mystery, of heart. Everyman and no man, all at the same time. Relatable, but completely wrapped in the wonderous world of fiction that should be ten times as important.

I'm not sure Martian Manhunter would be the franchise ticket, the one that picks up the slack when Christopher Nolan confirms his departure from the successful Bat-films. Done right, in ways GL wasn't, it would have every potential to be the surprise breakout hit that Iron Man was, though, and above all else, lend a little prestige, versatility and credibility to DC superhero films. If the sense of inevitability that hovers over the JLA is at all true, I think this is the unlikely, but perfect place to start.

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