Here we go folks, it’s time for the big one. This week on ‘memo to the executives’ I try in vain to go where so many writers and producers (and Mark Millar) have gone before and pitch the best direction to take the man of steel in his next motion picture outing.
And I don’t blame Warner Bros for not having gotten off their proverbial arses and made another one. It’s an incredibly hard challenge to meet at this point. You’re dealing with a character whose origin and mythology are as well known as any piece of literature or historical biography. He is a character whose origin has been recreated (just off the top of my head) in at least nine film/television properties. And as the studio try to bring Superman back to life on film, just as it has been for the last decade, an army of geeks wait patiently on the internet, fingers poised at their keyboards ready to pounce on forums and decry every single decision made because EVERYBODY has an opinion about a new Superman movie and EVERYBODY will think that a great one cannot be made until proven otherwise.
Well fuck them, fuck me and fuck EVERYBODY who feels the need to tell WB how shitty their proposed new Superman film is going to be. As I have said on our podcast, it was listening to us fans that got them in the mess they are in right now. They burned through treatment after treatment, director after director all to try and please us and when they gave us a Bryan Singer directed Superman, we threw it right back in their face and told them it wasn’t good enough. The studio needs to stop mulling over potential ideas, afraid to commit because of how the fan community might react and just make a damn film.
Like I say, I know how hard it must be, faced with the challenge of starting from scratch, having to tell Superman part one again. How do you do that and make it fresh? The answer is simple in my eyes. You make a film that is faithful to the character of Superman but you strip away almost all of the familiar, cliché elements that I personally cannot bear to see on screen again just now. Even without the issue of the current legal entanglements between WB and the estate of creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, I don’t want to see Krypton exploding again or Ma & Pa Kent looking after Clark on the farm in Smallville or introductory scenes for Lois, Jimmy and Perry at the Daily Planet. And I certainly don’t want Lex Luthor as the villain again. We’ve seen it. It’s old hat. You won’t be able to re-energize Superman by going through those motions again.
If a new Superman film is going to be truly great, it has to start of course with theme and character. Even though it is my favourite film, I will gladly admit that ‘Superman: the movie’ lacks a strong thread of development for the main character sustained through its entirety . That is to say that, unlike the first Spider-man film or ‘Batman Begins’, Superman assumes his mantle and destiny after the first hour or so of the picture. Although he still has to fall in love and overcome great obstacles, Superman is the superhero he will always be after his tutoring by Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude and heads into the second half of the movie without any further moulding to take place.
If we are going to get a new origin story, give us one where Superman takes an entire film to develop into the character we know and love. The heart of the piece was always that this was a story about an alien whose early life, personality and value system is bestowed, not by his own people but by an all-American couple. It works wonderfully of course but, on film, it robs you of the chance to shape the character over a longer stretch of time. What happens to Kal-El if you take the Kents out of the equation?
I would pitch that a new Superman film borrow one of the messages from the recently rebooted Star Trek and show us a story where, even if a single event occurs differently and changes the entire history of events, the outcome can still end up exactly the same. I’m not suggesting that Earth’s timeline be altered or that Brandon Routh should encounter the new actor playing Superman to warn him about the plot here. What I am pitching is that the film open with Kal-El’s spacecraft approaching Earth’s orbit (you can take for granted that the audience know of past events on Krypton) and just as we think it will land in Kansas as it always does, the ship is knocked off its current trajectory by an unknown force and crashes in the one place that will take the audience complete by surprise (and provide a slam-bam, eye popping opening sequence in the process); the middle of Metropolis.
In the recent comic book ‘Superman: Last Son’ which paired Richard Donner with Geoff Johns, a small boy of apparent Kryptonian origin crash lands in Metropolis and is immediately seized and contained in a US government facility leaving the man of steel to ponder how different his own upbringing would have been if his ship had landed anywhere other than a wheatfield in Smallville. Well here is the chance to make that happen. By showing terrified little Kal-El sealed in a government lab, being endlessly studied, prodded and analysed, you immediately make the audience uneasy (we can even call the lab ‘Cadmus’ for you real fans out there). Everything they know about Superman’s origin is now wrong and anything is possible. As Kal-El grows into adulthood, his powers gradually develop but his knowledge about his past remains almost non-existent. He swears he can remember a voice, the voice of an old man telling him of a great destiny which lies ahead; his earliest memory. Kal-El would give anything to hear it again but the scientists who tear apart his spaceship find no trace of any recording or distinguishable remnant of the child’s home world.
What’s more, the audience knows that with his incredible strength it is only a matter of time before Superman decides he has had enough of being a pet, breaks out of containment and goes on the run, or on the fly if you will. One of my main disappointments with ‘Superman Returns’ was that I never soared with the character in his flying scenes. They didn’t provide the goosebumps of the original film or the test flight in ‘Iron Man’. When Superman first takes flight in this film, the audience has to recognise it as an emotionally powerful moment. In such a confined space, he has been unable to fully test his entire range of powers up to this point but once armed with the knowledge that he can defy gravity, Superman knocks the walls of the facility down, looks out to the world he has never seen before, takes a deep breath and launches himself into the sky for the first time; the ultimate symbolism of freedom.
Despite this small triumph though, Kal-El is still totally alone. He has no idea where he came from or how he is so much more powerful than the people around him. He has no knowledge of the planet he inhabits despite having lived here for many years. His years in confinement have created a feeling of complete and utter mistrust and fear of other life forms. Little does he or anyone realise that this has all been planned and orchestrated by a supremely powerful being observing all of this from the heavens.; the one who knocked Kal-El’s spaceship off course in the first place; the only being who can provide a link to his past; Brainiac.
I’ve been waiting to see Brainiac on film since Superman III (where we got Richard Pryor and his supercomputer instead) and I think he makes the perfect villain for any new Superman film. For one thing, Brainiac has no set definable look. The character has gone through many different incarnations over the years, most of them doable in live action and you are unlikely to get an army of nerds demanding that he look a specific way. Secondly, by the very nature of being a machine like character, you can make Brainiac both the intellectual villain and a physical match for Superman as well; somebody he can actually fight, which is the one criteria every single fan has stipulated by a requirement of the next film.
I always preferred the revised origin that was created for Brainiac on the mid 90’s Superman animated series where the character was actually the A.I. supercomputer and watch guard of the entire planet Krypton, who assures its council that Jor-El’s prediction of its complete destruction is a mistake, shortly before he downloads himself to a satellite and leaves them all to die. I would want to keep that origin for the new film. Brainiac escapes Krypton, having assimilated all of its data but observes the small rocket ship containing baby Kal-El and tracks its progress through the galaxy, seeing the perfect opportunity to use the last son of Krypton as his own cipher to obtain data on, and conquer another planet teeming with completely unique life and civilization.
Brainiac’s spaceship intercepts Kal-El’s craft before it arrives on Earth, stripping it of the memory modules that Jor-El meant for his son to use to discover his past and his future, and throws it back into space ensuring that it will catapult the child into an immediately hostile environment, creating a feeling of mistrust around humans and making it much easier to convince him to side with the supervillain. Having escaped from the government facility, Brainiac rescues Kal-El and on-board his ship, shows the last son of Krypton the data finally revealing his home world and his past. Brainiac also shows Kal-El part of the memory modules that he remembers from childhood, finally being able to hear the voice of his father. Assuring Kal-El that the rest of planet Earth is no more eager to embrace him than the scientists and military who captured him all those years ago, Brainiac offers a proposal. If Kal-El will return to Earth and collate as much date on Earth as he can (in reality just a prelude to invasion), Brainiac will give him the full knowledge he has longed for, and essentially return the love of his father to him.
The idea of a conflicted Superman, a being actually out for himself, and with the power to easily conquer us all is a nice wink back to Siegel & Shuster’s original short story ‘Reign of the Superman’ which cast the Nietzschean figure in a villainous light before they revised the concept and created the character we all know and love. It provides Superman with a journey to go on through the film. Rather than being told to be a good guy by Jor-El, you cut him off from that guiding hand and have the character discover the goodness in the human race all by himself and actually make the choice to be our protector. As Superman returns to Earth on Brainiac’s edict, he sees and hears the chaos of a million and one problems in the world and decides, knowing he has the power, to do something about it. In spite of the fact that he will be fully exposed to the people who captured him in the first place, he makes that choice. He also learns to trust the human race, not from any grand gesture but from a single Earth woman called Lois Lane.
Yes, we can take liberties with the story but we still need Lois and her relationship with the man of steel which brings all of this spectacle and epicness right back down to a human level. I do think that it would be interesting to see her on film for once, not as the feisty fully formed reporter, but as a woman who wants to be that more than anything. She has tried to get her foot in the door of the Daily Planet but to no avail. When she meets Superman, she has the perfect story dropped right into her lap, the one that will get her the career she so desperately wants. Despite his heroic deeds though, Superman wants as little attention from the media as possible. He moves so fast that nobody can snap a clear photo of him and he certainly doesn’t want to give an interview. So here, Lois faces the same kind of temptation and choice that Superman does. As they grow closer, does she keep in confidence all the things he confesses to her about his powers, his weaknesses and Brainiac or does she think about her own needs and turn over the hottest story of the century to a major metropolitan newspaper?
Well what do you think she does? Of course she keeps his secrets and as such, Superman unconditionally trusts his first human friend and wonders if it is possible to be something more with her. With no concrete media coverage, Superman becomes a mythic figure shrouded in secrecy with some even doubting his existence. He is talked about by people in the same way they discuss the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. But nothing escapes Brainiac’s attention. Realising that the son of Krypton will not now betray the people of Earth, he decides to take the planet by force himself but has to get Superman out of the way. Brainiac appears before the scientists at Cadmus and gives them the tools to take Superman back and permanently contain him.
Now I will concede that it is hard to have a Superman story without some Kryptonite. Just make its introduction into this story feel organic and not overly built up. Everybody in the audience knows what Kryptonite is and they will know how Brainiac, being present at the destruction of Krypton, will have obtained it. And rather than presenting it as the usual green rock, have Brainiac mould it into bullets for the Cadmus personal to use. The supervillain the lands his spaceship on Earth, luring Kal-El to walk right into his trap and before he knows it, Superman is back in his old cell from childhood.
Before Cadmus can realise their folly, Brainiac takes over the planet and Superman, weakened into submission, sees no way to save it. Using those wits that will serve her so well over her future career, Lois tracks Superman to Cadmus and breaks in. Just as the man of steel is ready to succumb to his weakened condition and accept his fate, he sees Lois through the glass of his cell, the one human that he would risk everything and endure anything to save. He finds the strength he needs to break out once again, only this time he doesn’t run into the unknown. He has a purpose and a destiny. With Lois as an advocate, Superman persuades his former captors at Cadmus to help him defeat Brainiac. Transmitting unquantifiable amounts of government data to Brainiac’s computers, Cadmus is able to distract the computers on the ship long enough for Superman to get onboard and face his nemesis in a final showdown to determine which alien life form will preside over the planet Earth, the protector or the tyrant.
Once Brainiac is destroyed (sorry did you think he was going to win?), his ship crashes down in the Artic, out of sight of the people of Earth leaving them to ponder whether Superman has perished with it. He hasn’t of course and retrieving the memory modules of his father and combining them with what remains of the Kryptonian technology on Brainiac’s ship, Superman is able to create his true home on Earth; the Fortress of Solitude. Finally having earned the reward he longed for, Superman is able to speak to his long dead father, truly learn his past and understand why he was sent here in the first place.
Superman returns to Metropolis and before announcing his presence to anyone else, stops by Lois Lane’s apartment to give her that story which will, on top of everything she herself has witnessed, give her that job at the Daily Planet and firmly announce his existence to the entire world. After promising Lois that he will never be far away, Superman flies off and literally keeps true to his word, arriving at his own apartment a few blocks away. There we see an open suitcase containing smart but dull looking civvies, a pair of square rimmed glasses and a rough article containing a first hand account of Superman’s battle with Brainiac written by a certain Clark Kent. As the sun rises in Metropolis, the populace awaken to find their favourite newspaper proudly proclaiming:
And with that, the man of steel himself flies through the city so they can see for themselves that their guardian is watching over them, now and forever.
So hopefully you can see that, though liberties have been taken with the traditional origin, there is nothing to say that those familiar elements cannot be brought back in a sequel. I just firmly believe that a chance needs to be taken at making a different kind of film, with much more of a conflicted central character, a real science fiction orientated villain and a propulsive plot full of action. Then again, as I said at the start of the article, Warner Bros shouldn’t even be listening to me or any of us; they should just make SOMETHING. Once again good friends, my eternal thanks for reading these articles. I appreciate all the comments very much, whether you agree or not.
Till next time………UP, UP AND AWAY!