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When the Director Doesn’t Really Like the Hero . . .What Batman v Superman, John Carter, and Legend of Tarzan Do and Don’t Have in Common

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Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 10.02.53 AMAs Hollywood rolls through the process of making and remaking classic stories — producers and directors are constantly faced with the challenge of how to ‘refresh’ a classic franchise without losing its essence. The latest entrant in this category is Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has pulled in box office numbers that would be considered excellent for most films — but given the high-octane franchises involved, and the massive second weekend dropoff, it’s considered a disappointment at the box office and with critics and fans.

Much has been written about what went wrong with BvS — and one article in particular — a “Dear Zack Snyder” letter by Mario Francisco-Robles at Latino Review,  has articulated an essential pitfall that WB has stumbled into:

I recall an interview you gave several years ago, while promoting “Watchmen,” where you were asked if you’d be interested in directing a film about Superman. Your answer then? To paraphrase: “No.” You stated that a character with such seemingly one-dimensional goodness didn’t appeal to you. You were far happier dealing with more complex, more subversive subject material like “Watchmen.” . . . Then you took the “Man of Steel” job a couple of years later. Needless to say, I was perplexed by this decision of yours- to take on a film about a character that you admittedly didn’t care all that much for. I assumed what did it for you was the opportunity to rebuild and remake the character in a way that did speak to you.  . . . .

By and large, the folks I’ve spoken to who enjoyed your two films about him [Superman]  have something in common with you: They didn’t really have an affinity for the character prior to your films. So, in essence, it’s like you’ve made Superman films that aren’t for Superman fans. While that may have sounded appealing, the idea of bringing new people into the fandom, the unintended consequence is that you’ve alienated many of the people who were already there. For two-thirds of a century, writers have been able to create indelible versions of the character that captured the imaginations of fans worldwide. Be it Schuster and Siegel, Bruce Timm, Max Fleischer, Richard Donner, Mark Waid, Jack Kirby, Grant Morrison, Dan Jurgens, or countless others, there have been many people who’ve gotten it right and didn’t feel the need to fundamentally change who Superman is.

I think this articulates an interesting concept that really does apply for Superman, and really does point in the direction of a miss-step that happened with BvS — and perhaps a certain other film that will remain nameless for the moment.   He then goes on to examine why the Christopher Reeves Superman movies worked — and makes a case for the fact that those who look at them and think “too corny for 2016” may be missing a core element that could work, and which is part of the essential appeal of the character — an essential appeal which, if lost, throws the entire concept into disarray:

Why they worked was that behind Reeve’s comforting smile were eyes that conveyed a bittersweet sense of loneliness, vulnerability, and isolation. While you couldn’t pierce his skin, you could certainly break his heart. That’s what makes Superman special. He’s an orphan. He’s alone. He’ll never be one of us, yet he’ll also never be able to be a true Kryptonian since there’s no longer any Krypton to speak of.  Faced with a destiny that means he’ll never truly belong anywhere, he makes the decision to be earth’s greatest hero. Imagine the deep sadness you’d feel if you spent most of your formative years simply wanting to live a normal life: Work the farm for your folks, make your dad proud of you, play football, kiss the girl. Then you suddenly find out that not only will you never be able to do those things, but you’re actually an alien from a destroyed world. Your life up until now has been a beautiful lie. A man that can come from that level of heartbreak, who can still arrive at the decision to be a beacon of hope, and who wants to help us- in spite of ourselves- is a fascinating character. Reeve’s Superman had that mixture of kindness, sadness, the weight of his responsibilities, a genuine curiosity about mankind, a love for what we can be, and a desire to be a friend to us even when all we seem to want to do is nuke each other. So when we talk about those films getting Superman right, we’re not saying that we want a campy real estate mogul Lex Luthor, a cartoonish oaf like Otis, a bumbling over-the-top slapstick portrayal of Clark Kent, or a giant plastic Superman S that can be used as a net in the new films. We’re saying we want a hero that decides to do great things, and does so with pride, despite all of the pain in his heart. That’s what a hero does. You’ve instead chosen to focus almost entirely on the pain, and the weight of his responsibility.  While other artists have given us a hero whose desire to help is bittersweet, you’ve given us an alien that comes off as simply bitter.  The sad part is that there’ve been glimpses of a more noble Kal-El in your two films. Yet, by and large, you’ve suffocated his more positive qualities with your decisions from the director’s chair. You’ve under-emphasized what makes Superman great, while shining a spotlight on what you seem to think makes him “cool” to the kinds of people who think Superman is boring. 

What I love about this analysis is that it points to something essential that can easily get lost — that a “good” character is not inherently boring, and that a yearning or lack of fulfillment is a form of internal conflict that can be just as powerful as the kind of darker twisted conflict that has become the norm.   When there is a hole that needs to be filled, or a sense of a poignant need that is not being fulfilled — that is a very powerful emotion that many people can identify with because almost everyone faces that to some degree in our own life.

Which brings me to John Carter.

Stanton’s Problem with ERB’s “Vanilla” John Carter

In that movie, there were similarities and differences to the BvS equation.  John Carter was an old and revered (in certain limited circles) hero who had been the original inspiration for Superman.  As such, he was respected deeply by those of us who had grown up with him — and he had many of the same “problems” that Superman has.  He was overtly good; he did not have huge obvious flaws or internal conflicts.  Unlike Superman, he had not been made into dozens of movies and TV shows, and thus the portion of the audience with pre-conceived notions was much smaller than with Superman, but no less passionate.Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 10.15.26 AM

In the case of John Carter, it’s important to remember that it was Director Andrew Stanton who took it to Disney — meaning the director, not a producer of studio executive, was the prime mover of the effort to acquire the rights.  It was Stanton who, upon learning the rights had been relinquished by Paramount and had reverted to ERB Inc, pitched the idea of  Disney securing the rights to Disney Studios CEO Dick Cook — so it wasn’t like a studio had the property and shopped for a director. It was a director’s initiative, which created a different dynamic.  Cook got the rights, Stanton signed on, and the project was set in motion.

Meanwhile, at a certain point Stanton gave an interview that is very telling about his relationship to the material — a relationship that is very analagous to the Zack Snynder relationship to Superman:

To be honest, I never actually invested in Carter 100%. He was always a kind of Prince Valiant, did-it-right-from-the-get-go kind of bland, vanilla guy. I think it was his situation that was more fascinating to me. It was a stranger in a strange land, guy thrown out to circumstances.

and

Again, not to diss anything, but it was almost in spite of John Carter that I liked the books. That was where we put a lot of our work in. How to make him somebody to root for, not that I wouldn’t. But it’s not that unique to just this story. It’s often that the hero is the least interesting person and that the interesting characters are the people around him. I felt like I’d rather watch damaged goods than somebody who has their act together. I went for someone who pretty much resigned himself to the fact that his purpose in life was over and sort of went with the thinking that it’s not for us to say what our purpose in life is. You may think it’s done or finished or ended or been missed, but life’s not done with you sometimes. It may take awhile to figure out what your other purpose is or what your greater purpose always was. That’s sort of the tact I took with Carter and it’s really what made Taylor Kitsch perfect to play the role. He’s the bad boy/wrong side of the tracks and that really worked a lot better.

There is another interview in which, if you read between the lines, it’s clear that Stanton actually became interested in Barsoom when he came upon friends drawing Tharks — and being an artistic type himself, he got involved with that, which led to the Marvel comics, and the books were essentially an afterthought.

There are those in the ERB fan universe who instantly, upon reading comments like this from Stanton, predicted that the product he would create would be dissatisfying to the fans of the books (I’m paraphrasing politely — people like our own MCR can  state it much more directly) — and as it turned out, they were right.

In Stanton, then  (and remember, there would have been no Disney John Carter had he not actively pursued it), the film was in the hands of someone who had been drawn to the material not by the character of the protagonist but rather by a fascination with other things — the Tharks, the cool alien world with all of its strange creatures and civilizations.   It was a framework that would be great for a production designer or art director — but was it the right framework for a director? Did Stanton really “get” the essence of what made the John Carter property special?

As it worked out, Stanton actually was given a great deal more slack by the fans of the books than, for example, Snyder is getting — in part because many of the fans of the books were just so damned happy to finally see Barsoom on the screen that they were willing to forgive changes in the character of John Carter. But those changes in the character were profound.jCGOH AD

And while the movie succeeded in generating a cult following, it did not succeed commercially at the kind of level it needed to in order to generate more films.  It did $284M worldwide — which was only a disaster because of how expensive the film was to make and market.  (Compare this to Mars Needs Moms, for example — $39M worldwide — now there is a stinker.)

Which brings me to one last little note about Legend of Tarzan.

Legend of Tarzan — What Solution Has Yates Put Forward?

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 10.17.01 AMWith Tarzan, unlike John Carter (and more like Superman), we have a film franchise that is in danger of being perceived as having been “done to death” — and one which, like Superman, has a hero that might be perceived as being a little on the vanilla side, an eternal do-gooder–a perception that is based on the previous Hollywood movies, of which there are about 40.

One of the great ironies in the marketing of Legend of  Tarzan thus far is that the ‘pitch’ is that this is basically not your granddad’s  Tarzan, this is something new and different and fresh and 21st century cool.  All of which is fair marketing, because all of these themes are true in relation to the movie Tarzans that have come before.

But the irony that seems to be emerging is this.  This “new, fresh Tarzan” that Yates has come up with is actually (shh….don’t tell anyone) the old, original Tarzan that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote and which was largely ignore by Hollywood as it went down the road first of all of a “Me, Tarzan,You Jane” primitive character, and later a jungle boy scout.

We’ll see if that is really where it all ends up.  But fans of the books are excited because it does seem like Yates has gone back to the original source material for both the story setup of Tarzan returning to Africa from life in London and for the themes of internal conflict that were an inherent part of Burroughs’ Tarzan character at the point in his life (ten years after leaving the jungle) that the story explores.

Has Yates avoided the pitfall that befell both Stanton and Snyder?

We’ll find out soon enough.

 

13 comments

  • Superhero characters should always be larger than life and not subject to human foibles. To make a movie with a flawed hero or heroin is simply to take away his heroic qualities. How many of these films have ever
    done well at the box office ?

  • “I disagree, because of Stanton’s heavy lifting. I blame Disney for backstabbing the effort. I believe Tarzan will be good. Snyder is a giant failure from my POV.

    And some lucky soul in Disney’s Home Video is happy accounting hasn’t asked him about his matching his and hers super cars.”

    LOL. There are still people out there who think John Carter made a whole bunch of money and that someone at Disney just stole it all. Even after M. Sellers made a whole post explaining the revenue and expenses involved in the film back in December and came up with the same loss of $200 million that Disney announced.
    I guess ignorance is bliss for some people.

    As for Snyder while I wasn’t crazy about BvS, the movie still made tons of money (over $800 million WW) and there are people who prefer his version of Superman over the Chris Reeve corny version. I would have preferred something in between those two depictions. Splitting the difference between book JC and movie JC may also work if it ever gets rebooted.

  • MCR, you’re in pretty good form, although I detect what appears to be an unexpected note of mellowness creeping into your jabs . . . 😉

    As for discrediting them, those who didn’t cut Stanton slack seemed all to happy to discredit anyone who didn’t share their opinion so…

    Now I know we’re getting down to parsing some pretty small details – but to be clear, I was talking of the body of true ERB fans who were more tolerant of Stanton than you, and those types (as opposed new-to-the-party non ERB fans who liked the movie) are not, as a rule, in the business of discrediting those who objected to Stanton’s version. Their own acceptance of Stanton’s version comes with mixed feelings and they understand, as I do, why people like you are resolutely opposed to Stanton’s take on the material. Anwyay,I’m splitting a hair here, but in doing so am trying to come to the defense of genuine ERB fans who accepted Stanton to some degree without heaping scorn on those who, like you, did not accept him at all. They are out there.

  • “They’re still out there today, and they’re not all of the same mind that you are. There are those who are of the same mind you are — but I would call them a substantial minority, and I wouldn’t discredit everyone who doesn’t see it that way”

    I guess we do travel in different ERB circles since it’s more a majority who felt the same. As for discrediting them, those who didn’t cut Stanton slack seemed all to happy to discredit anyone who didn’t share their opinion so…

    “I disagree, because of Stanton’s heavy lifting. I blame Disney for backstabbing the effort. I believe Tarzan will be good. Snyder is a giant failure from my POV.”

    What did Stanton lift, other than his massive ego exactly? Also is it a prerequisite to be a Disney hating paranoid conspiracy theorist to be a Back to Barsoomer or just utter devotion to the great God Andrew and his gospel? Just curious

  • I disagree, because of Stanton’s heavy lifting. I blame Disney for backstabbing the effort. I believe Tarzan will be good. Snyder is a giant failure from my POV.

    And some lucky soul in Disney’s Home Video is happy accounting hasn’t asked him about his matching his and hers super cars.

  • MCR I don’t know if we’re on the same ERB message boards and Facebook groups and whatnot, but I know plenty of ERB fans who were ERB fans long before Stanton’s movie (hence not the Back to Barsoomers whose Barsoom journey started with the movie) who did cut Stanton a lot of slack. They’re still out there today, and they’re not all of the same mind that you are. There are those who are of the same mind you are — but I would call them a substantial minority, and I wouldn’t discredit everyone who doesn’t see it that way.

  • The funny thing is that both Stanton and Snyder have shown a sneering contempt for the characters, the material and the fans that so far David Yates hasn’t, so that is a major difference. Also the “real” John Carter? Where was he Norman, hidden behind the whiny, self-absorbed moping jerk that was present throughout Stanton’s debacle. Can someone point him out?

    I also take issue with Michael’s statement that “Stanton actually was given a great deal more slack by the fans of the books than, for example, Snyder is getting — in part because many of the fans of the books were just so damned happy to finally see Barsoom on the screen that they were willing to forgive changes in the character of John Carter.” OK what “fans?” The so-called fans who shared Stanton’s contempt for the books and created the ultimately pointless Back to Barsoom movement? The fans who admitted ERB was a pulp hack and Stanton could do no wrong (like your old pal Jack, who could never admit Stanton ever made mistakes)? Honestly most fans did take issue and were not happy with this version of Barsoom-a piss poor take made by a man who had no respect not just for the character of John Carter but for everything else. The funny thing is it took John Carter failing to see that Stanton was a liar about his “fandom” for the books and his rampant egotism. Sadly with Snyder Warner Bros. can’t see it since his films make money, despite the negative reception they receive, which means more of him destroying DC’s universe and rich history. At least true ERB fans-not those giving Stanton slack-were spared Barsoom further ruined on screen.

    Let’s just hope Yates and company show more respect for Tarzan and so far it appears they have so there is the difference so far. Let’s just hope it sticks

  • A fine analysis.

    I was one of those who read Stanton’s confession that he was more familiar with the comics than the books, but it was not ONLY that which made me dismiss the film well before it hit the theaters.

    It was, initially, the “look” of the film; red martians are red because they have red tattoos; Martian airships look like dragonflies; Helium is not an enormous tower rising out of the desert. PLUS – director never did live action before. PLUS he revealed general ignorance about the property. PLUS rumors leaking about massive re-shoots….

    If you change the main character – have a reason. If you are going to make your warships paper thin – have a reason.

    There’s two kinds of science fiction film out there: Both kinds can be terrible or wonderful. One kind is generally (trying) to build around character and story. The other kind is trying to build around imagery. The latter kind reveals its emptiness more readily when there is no reason FOR the imagery being presented.

  • At first glance The Legend of Tarzan will somehow follow the John Carter template, a character that despises himself and that comes to term with himself by the end of the movie. The main difference is that that could be an acceptable arc for Tarzan, not so much for John Carter. But as you said yourself in another post, Michael, the “real” John Carter is there in the story, We know that the moment he goes back for Powell. He’s just hidden under another layer of “damaged past”. The problem with “Superman” in Man of Steel and probably in BvS also (won’t give a penny to this) is that the character is so fundamentally changed as to be someone else entirely (not to mention a Batman that kills as an habit). But the very success of Captain America is proof that a real hero can attract viewers, and the longevity of the James Bond franchise shows that with a charismatic enough character, you can very do without giving him any past at all (we currently see the Craig era stumble because Bond was given “arcs” that don’t pay off).

  • What I hear being said, and what I always fear with these directors and their attempts to bring a classic character to life, is that they always have their own mythologies, their own tropes, that they impose on the character to make him (or her) more in line with what they think a character should be. This is sheer laziness on their part. They don’t really delve deep enough into the source material to bring out the essence. They don’t see the clues that are there already. The other problem, of course, is that marketing often demands that certain goals be reached and those goals rely on an appeal to a sort of “mass mind” determined by men and women who are only looking at the amount of money that can be brought in. Marketers have their own mythologies as well. They shouldn’t be trying to “make it cool.” They should be trying to make it true.

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