As 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.
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.
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.
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?
With 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.