'Man of Steel' Countdown: The 007 Effect

'Man of Steel' Countdown: The 007 Effect

Jul 20, 2011

Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, cohost of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman Podcast Network.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.

Superman Superfun Fact:  Did you know that Superman has had the longest continual publishing history of any fictional character in any format in the history of humankind?  It’s true.  From his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in May, 1938 to the date of this article posting in July 2011, he has appeared in a bare minimum of one comic book every single month (often anywhere from 2-8).  That’s over 73 consecutive years of regular storytelling that doesn’t even need to include the many movies, TV series, radio programs, cartoons and more.

Superman vs. 007

Many moviegoers still agree that Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve from 1978 is the best comic book movie of all time.  It was followed by Superman II in 1980, Superman III in 1983 and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987.  Unfortunately the fourth film in the series utterly failed at the box office and is still universally recognized as the worst in the franchise.  It was so bad that Warner Brothers took nearly 20 years and a number of scripts, directors and false starts until Superman Returns was finally released in 2006.  Although Superman Returns made a $187 million profit worldwide at the box office, it fell below expectations and the planned sequel will never be filmed.

Six years later, we are at last being treated to a renewal of the franchise with The Man of Steel.  But why aren’t we seeing a new film more often?  Superman is the most well-known fictional character with the most recognizable non-religious symbol in the world.  Plus he has had the longest continuing publishing run of any character ever.  It’s like buying an apple just to let it spoil.

By comparison, just think of MGM’s James Bond films.  The first was Dr. No in 1962, followed by sequels in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969 and so on.  The longest break between Bond films was a mere six years between License to Kill in 1989 and GoldenEye in 1995.  So if Superman is better-known, which he is, why can’t Warner Brothers keep a successful film franchise going in a similar way?

First, make no mistake.  James Bond is a superhero in a very traditional sense.  He saves innocent lives at a risk to his own and evades a close call with death every 30 minutes.  In fact, he’s rather similar to Batman.  He has unlimited funds, the gadgets, the car, and the ability to do anything he attempts.  The only things missing are the secret identity and a pair of tights with a cape and a symbol on his chest.  And both James Bond and Bruce Wayne can charm any female character into premarital coitus.

The Bond series did incredibly well in the 1960’s and could have simply ended there.  But when Sean Connery (the Christopher Reeve of the Bond series) decided to stop taking part in the films, MGM and the 007 producers cast George Lazenby and then Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig as the main character, and even recast other recurring roles like Q, M, Moneypenny, and a few others.  Plus, although the nature of the films remained the same throughout the series, the style changed to reflect the eras in which they were filmed and took place.  And the longest breaks between Bond film releases were only six years.

Why can’t Superman do the same?

Next summer Spider-Man will begin its second film series will all-new actors and all-new continuity.  Christian Bale is the fifth Batman to don the cape and cowl on the silver screen.  And Daniel Craig is currently the sixth 007 in the James Bond films. To be fair, When Man of Steel is released next year, Henry Cavill will be the fourth Superman to appear in a theatrically released film following George Reeves (Superman and the Mole Men), Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh.  But it can hardly be compared to the 22 MGM Bond films in its franchise.

License to Print Money

There is NO GOOD REASON why a major movie studio like Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics and all licenses to Superman, can’t make a profitable Superman movie every three years or so and occasionally recast the actors for the main roles.

But there are rules:

1. Don’t make any massive changes that will alter the character forever.  i.e. overzealous writers and directors can’t just give Superman a son and expect the continuity to carry over to later films.  Also, don’t make major changes to his character.  People go to Superman movies to see Superman.  The success of Batman has led to the decision to make the next film “darker.”  And they can get away with that only if the world of the film is darker and Superman is the bright shining beacon in the middle of it all.

2. If you MUST reference Superman’s origin story, it either has to be an essential part of the plot or it has to take no longer than a few minutes.  Most Superman comic books tell the reader his origin in a single word balloon in the smallest possible amount of text, just in case a new reader actually doesn’t know.  And that’s all that’s needed to tell a good Superman story.

3. Keep the costume similar to the audience’s expectations.  Although Superman’s uniform has changed in the comics from time to time, it has usually looked close enough to the original that he could be recognized even without the symbol on his chest.  At least stick to the primary colors and basic look.  Don’t put him in a black suit with a chest symbol that comes off and turns into knives to kill bad guys with (Yes, this almost happened once).

4. Don’t change Superman’s powers and pretend they’ve always been there.  Superman’s abilities are many, such as flight, invulnerability, strength, speed, super-breath, super-hearing and vision powers such as heat, x-ray, telescopic and microscopic.  He doesn’t need to suddenly be able to shoot finger beams or throw an expanding cellophane “S” symbol.  We’re already dealing with a world where a man can fly.  He’s powerful enough without flashy new super-abilities.  …And while I’m at it, kisses that cause selective amnesia are a weak plot device and an even weaker superpower.

5. DC Comics has some talented writers, artists and creators and they already work for Warner Brothers.  USE THEM!!  Although original plotlines can be just as good, try adapt existing stories that readers have already loved.  Let comic writers draft or fix the screenplays.  Not using this existing resource is downright silly.

Rules #1-3 apply to James Bond as well.  There’s no need to go back and tell the audience about how 007 became a secret agent every time a new film comes out, and major changes in the character are pretty much forbidden.  No director is allowed to kill Bond or cut off his leg.  He doesn’t have children (that he knows about) and the one time he was married, his bride was murdered.  As to the costume, Bond obviously doesn’t have one, but he’s still expected to wear a tuxedo at least once almost every film.

If the 007 formula can result in a new film every few years, why can’t an even more well-known character like Superman do the same?  Sometimes, the films will do as well at the box office as Thunderball and sometimes as poorly as License to Kill.  Sometimes you’ll get the gross of Superman: The Movie and sometimes you’ll end up with the numbers of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

Warner Brothers can follow these guidelines and keep the franchise running by making quality films.  The only reason a Superman movie will fail is if it’s done poorly or incorrectly.  Blaming the character for box office losses is simply misguided.  Even MGM seemed to wonder if James Bond had lost his relevance and popularity after License to Kill in 1989, but all they had to do was find Pierce Brosnan and Martin Campbell to put out GoldenEye and excite people again.

So here’s hoping Man of Steel will reinvigorate the Superman franchise, lead to many good sequels and then to recasting the characters and telling new stories.  If Warner Brothers put out a good Superman movie every three years, it would be like a license to print money.

Categories: Countdown Column
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