L. Neil Smith's
Number 176, June 3, 2002

Prove Me Wrong!

You Can Make a Super-Hero Movie

by David M. Brown

Special to TLE

It's not just special effects--although that helps a lot.

There are many movies with swell special effects that fall flatter and flatter the longer you watch them. For example, "Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Fizzle," which has plenty of backdrop and gadgets, but no brio. If bad acting and bad dialogue could a movie make, "Episode One" would be the "Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope" of our time (which latter had cornball dialogue but not bad dialogue, and not only characters but appealing characters, and was fun). And you wouldn't be wanting to strangle the clunky little pseudo-thespian who "plays" tot Darth. (Fortunately, "Episode Two" is much better, though still wobbly.)

Do you remember the movie they made about Captain America? Bad, huh? What about the post-Keaton Batman movies (and I don't exempt the second one, though that wasn't quite as bad as the later dreck; i.e., there was still a Batman in the first sequel, still a hint of grim menace). Or the third and fourth Superman flicks? And all that lousy TV stuff--granted, it's TV, no budget etc., but "The Flash"..."The Hulk"...the 70s-issue "Spider-man"? At least the campy 60s "Batman" was memorable in its camp, and consistent in it. "Wonder Woman" also had its moments.

There haven't actually been that many super-hero movies, not even bad ones, which is odd, because people will lie, steal, cheat and kill to see a really good super-hero movie, as proven by the surfeit of dough thrown at the makers of "Spider-man" in the first ten minutes of its release. My theory is that too many good moviemakers live and die according to what the critics in the "New York Times" and whatnot say, critics who look down their noses at super-hero movies, yapping about how the "angst-ridden" soul of Peter Parker clashes with the comic panels flashed during the credits, the better to make themselves feel superior to all this sort of thing. Whereas the bad moviemakers think it's all about the tights.

Why do we like super-hero movies? First, because we're alive. Second, because we need super-heroes. Wouldn't you like there to be a guy like Superman who could use his X-ray vision to seek out arch-evil bin Laden in his lair, then pound the crap out of him using the super- hard fists? Don't lie. You would!

And wouldn't it be cool to have amazing super-powers yourself?

Here's a tip sheet for movie-makers. Don't ignore this tip sheet when you make the movies or you'll rue the day. You can make billions easily if you will just do what I tell you. Don't forget my 5-percent commission.

Super-heroes must have incredible power--or at least incredible audacity--which makes them larger than life. The fantastic is interesting in and of itself, because it is a refreshing change from going to the store for milk and bread all the time. Most of the work has already been done for you, in the comic books. Your job is to translate what's in the comic books to the screen in a convincing, imaginative way. If the only thing different about the hero is that he is able to crawl along floors while the camera is tilted, that is not good enough.

Your super-heroes must be people too. They have feelings and problems. They are vulnerable. They can be killed. Even Superman can be laid low by Kryptonite, or by somebody who can punch just as hard as he can--or by the loss of a loved one--or by a too-demanding father. We cannot identify with a protagonist who can't lose. We want to be inspired by a struggle that is both successful and realistic. Yes! Realistic fantasy! The ordinary is what makes the incredible plausible, at least for the two-hour duration.

Costumes and special effects do matter, of course. In the "Spider-man" TV series from the 70s, the wall-crawler was always obviously crawling along the floor, with the camera tilted. That is not a very good special effect. Plus, that red-and-blue TV arachnid puttered along as if he had arthritis. Also not good.

Some have noted that in the new cinematic "Spider-man," you can tell too easily that the Spider-man swinging from building to building is computer-simulated. However, who gives a rat's ass. It was still pretty cool, and the next generation of computer-generated web- slinging will smooth out the rough edges. Give it a rest, super- critics. The recent "X-Men" movie also did pretty well with special effects, though it is not half as hip and fun as "Spider-Man."

Be serious about it. Being serious doesn't mean there isn't any humor and fun in the movie. It means that you take the character seriously, his business seriously, and that you understand that the world you are creating is real. If you don't accept the reality of your own crafted world, give somebody else the job, because you are not the person to make this movie.

Nobody could have been more serious, nor more seriously rendered, than the Batman of the original Michael Keaton/Tim Burton "Batman." This Batman is a grim avenger who has a reason to be grim and to avenge. The movie is weakly plotted in spots, but seriously rendered throughout. The sets, the music, the costumes, the way the eyes move, the way the Batmobile moves as the leaves flutter and the bats fly are all directed by and toward the same unitary end. Yet there are certainly many nifty touches of humor that do not undercut the stature and reality of the protagonist, and not all of which issue from the much-ballyhooed Nicholson-Joker (lathered over by anti-Batman critics). For example, when Batman says to Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger): "You weigh a little more than 108," after he uses some kind of bat- rope pulley contraption to save Vale from the bad guys. No woman likes to tell her actual weight, even when her life depends upon it. It's a fact, and it's funny. Compare this to the self-immolating "Chicks dig the car" line of Val Kilmer's Batman in "Batman Forever."

In the Maguire/Raimi "Spider-man" the humor of being a shy teenager afraid to talk to the girl, or of being a newly-bitten super-hero just learning how to sling web, does not clash with nor undercut the seriousness and the reality of the teenager's dilemmas or the super- hero's. Same with "Zorro" of old, and the exotic superciliousness of his aristocratic-fop alter ego that makes only the bad guys appear ridiculous. But compare this vintage Zorro's wit to the off-key prat- falls of Antonio Banderas in the overwrought, under-written "Mask of Zorro." Yes, Tobey Maguire's Spidey crashes into the side of buildings as he is learning the ropes, whereas Banderas's Zorro the Younger misses the horse as he drops from the window. Yet the effect is opposite. Be careful.

Do not double the quotient of super-villains with each sequel. Do not stop telling the story of the hero. Do not believe the blatherings of critics who burble that the first Burton "Batman" movie was rescued by the colorful antics of the Joker. What made that movie was the character of the Batman! That character is dark and complex and fascinating! The Joker was mere foil, mere distorted-mirror- contrast! How can you beat the opening scene of that film, the one where the looming, shadowy avenger confronts the putrid punks of terrorized Gotham on the roofs of the city? And you think the more super-villains you have, the better? You poor damn fools!

All you need is one super-hero and one super-villain as foil. You don't need the Penguin and Catwoman and Shreck. You don't need Riddler and Two-Face. You don't need Dr. Octopus and Lizard Man and Lex Luthor and Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. Unless you're doing the story of the X-men or the Justice League of America, all you need is one-on-one. Mano a mano. Treat it like a story that you have to tell, and tell well.

When you do these movies, you are the super-hero. Act the part.

David M. Brown publishes The Crunch Report http://www.davidmbrown.com, from which this article is reprinted. Previous articles are archived at http://www.davidmbrown.com/columns/index.html.


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