Thursday, October 11, 2007

The death and life of Superman

Like many comic book geeks, I've never fully understood why moviemakers have been so completely resistent to using actual comic book stories when adapting the characters to the silver screen.

Ok, I mean, I get why Alexander and Ilya Salkind commissioned Mario Puzo to write an original screenplay for Superman: The Movie. It was risky. No one had ever made a superhero movie with that kind of budget and gravity before.

Frankly, much past that, I don't quite understand. Possibly with the recent Spider-Man movies and Batman Begins both relying on more elements drawn directly from the comics to great commercial and critical success, we can find some reason to hope they will continue moving in that direction.

Even when a very successful storyline is the inspiration, as was the case with producer Jon Peters and his desire to capitalize on the success of the Death of Superman arc, they still avoid actually drawing on the actual comics as a starting point.

You can read a draft, written by Kevin Smith, online (for example, by clicking here), and I'd suggest taking the opportunity to listen to Smith's rant on the subject, found on An Evening With Kevin Smith.

What we ended up with is Superman Returns. My problems with that movie are legion, and documented here (I'd also recommend the appropriate section of Quick Notes on Some Recent Screenings by Tim Lucas), but the point in this context is that with 75 years worth of comic book stories compared to five theatrical features with the character, director Bryan Singer made the core story of his movie a virtual remake of Superman: The Movie.

So, we come to Superman: Doomsday, the new direct-to-DVD adaptation of the original comic storyline by Bruce Timm & Co. over at Warner Brothers Animation.

Right up front, let me note to things. In an attempt to blend the post-John Byrne art style of the early '90s with the simpler look of the animated versions, they've mostly made a mess, especially when it comes to Superman's facial features, although the tribute to the Dan Jurgens mullet is pretty well done.

On top of that, it's half the length of Superman: The Movie or Superman Returns, and it could seriously have used some of that space to really develop the story. At this length, it has to almost completely eliminate the Funeral For a Friend storyline, which really is the heart of the original story. It also renders many of the third act Return of Superman elements choppy.

That said, it shows how well the action sequences between Superman and Doomsday as well as Superman vs. Superman can be when played out. It also reminds, as the story ought to, what makes the Superman character special in a way that too many adaptations have neglected. Not to mention providing an exciting action story, which has also been much neglected in such things.

Parhaps someone somewhere else at Warner Brothers will take note. It's not perfect, but it more than shows that you can create something out of comic book characters by - Surprise, surprise! - telling the stories from their comic books!

The DVD also includes an entertaining documentary on the creation and reaction to the original comic series that includes most of the participants. Not to mention a preview of the upcoming Justice League: The New Frontier, which will adapt The New Frontier. Original series creator Darwyn Cooke insists this epic will work as the short length. It certainly would be more than a little bit awesome if it does.


Adam Ross said...

Great topic. For me the big failing with this subject was X-Men, which had 3 opportunities to get it right and ended with a colossal fall down a well. I had always quietly hoped that they would get smart and incorporate some variation on the "Days of Future Past" storyline, which seemed tailor-made for Hollywood.

Neil Sarver said...

Thank you. I really think it is a subject that isn't addressed enough in "movie circles", merely something comic people grouse about, and frankly many of the other things they (or we, rather) grouse about are pretty goofy.

For what it's worth, I think much of the reason I didn't get to Spider-Man 3 in the theater was because of how detached it sounded from anything in the comics... well, and Venom bores the piss out of me.

Of course there are plenty of crap comic book stories and plenty more that would be too difficult to adapt, but that still leaves more than enough that would work just wonderfully with, if anything, slight alterations... or expansions, but even many of those could be done from other comics!

Neil Sarver said...

For the record, even in a positive review, I made my opinion of Superman: Doomsday sound more negative than it was. While I did indeed miss much of the effects on the world and such regarding the passing of the Man of Steel, I think the handling of its effect on Lois and Martha Kent was very moving within the restraints it had.

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