So, you want to make a Superhero movie?
posted by Paul on 8/15/02
I always figure that one should only approach a subject when they have even a tangible understanding of it. That's why it's strange that I'm writing an article that's related to superheroes. You see, despite being brought up on the likes of Superman, Spiderman and The A-Team, I've never really classified myself as a superhero enthusiast - and by that, I mean I'm a rational, sociable human-being. Back in my youth, I was very taken by the whole concept of superheroes. I was a fan of the Hulk, I enjoyed Wonder Woman and I was too awed to notice some of the glaring plot holes evident in the Superman movies. Before critical faculties develop, anything seems possible.
My only acquaintance with superheroes has been via the movies and television spin-offs. If you want me to convey this via the use of filmmakers, I'm your standard P.T Anderson: I prefer movies and I have a taste for human-beings. The typical comic book fanatic is M. Night Shyamalan, the anally meticulous (no pun intended. On second thoughts, I copyright that pun) who prefers to live/focus in the fantasy realm, the sort of person who sees life as bleak and the supernatural as more pervasive. And who probably smells. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of Superman's origins, and frankly, God gave me a brain, a mouth and a set of testicles that would remove the need to obsess over fictitious cartoon creations. In other words, I don't really care if Tim Burton's vision of Batman wasn't in keeping with your treasured comic book complexities, because:
a) Before 1989, the only Batman I knew was the one who had a homosexual sidekick, campy villains and action words like "Kaboom!!" and "Boink!!" taking up the screen whenever he was fighting. Imagine how cheated *I* felt.
b) It's a made-up character! Whichever way you swing it and no matter how many people "bastardize" your idol's legacy with rubber nipples and Chris O' Donnell, Batman is essentially a grown man that dresses up as a bat in a cape. Credibility was lost in the conception.
To me, the notion of superheroes goes hand-in-hand with the whole geek culture, which explains my somewhat mocking tone here. I have never read a comic book in my life, have never had the desire to read one and when you look at the dweebishness associated with that particular subculture, can you really blame me? Fanboys get themselves worked up about cartoon drawings with blurbs, while the real superheroes are the loyal firefighters of the world, fighting flames and rescuing cats from burning trees. There's no justice in the world. If there was justice, there would be no need for superheroes. But since crazy minds plot crazy things, we need superheroes to save the world. And a world where Josh Hartnett is considered an A-List talent is a world worth saving.
Oh, great! An article about superheroes. Just what I needed..... Worst. Article. Ever. Boobies!11
But how do you make the perfect Superhero movie? Has it ever been made? With my handy, ill-informed and perfectly dispensable guide to superhero movie cliches, you and your nerdy friends can make your very own superhero extravaganza from scratch (preferably if you have a few million dollars floating around)...If nothing else, it will entertain you for a few weeks and allow you to experience the great outdoors. This is the con artist's guide to making a superhero movie. By con artist, I do mean "anyone who wants to experience success in Hollywood". And who doesn't? Don't forget that someone gave the greenlight to Josie and the Pussycats. With a little ingenuity, ass-kissing and the right tweaking, anything's possible. To create your movie, acknowledge the genre and make appropriate adjustments. For instance, if the cliche is for the villain to be old, make him young. If a straight hero is old hat, make him a flamer. It'll make your premise seem fresh. Stick to the formula but mix in a few twists:
Which sort of Superhero?
Superheroes tend to share a poor dress sense and silly names. By nature, they are egocentric beings. If they weren't egotistical and were saving the world for purely altruistic reasons, why do they wear silly capes? Is there even a need for the capes? The cape-wearing practically dictates "Look at me! I save the world and can't even afford a stylist!". Surely anyone who wanted to remain low-key would decide against such campy garb. Not only would it get you on E!'s "worst dressed list", which is a major faux pas for any self-respecting wannabe, it'd also ensure you're seen as something of a joke - as most cape-wearers are wont to be.
The superheroes all want to save humanity from a maniacal freak who threatens their very existence. They also have really cool powers, like the ability to fly and the ability to look ridiculous while doing it. They're invariably called ...Man, which is self-congratulation taken to the extreme. After all, if you're a truly noble person who just wants to do good, you don't call yourself Superman. Call yourself "Brad", "Jim", "Joe" or "Steve". Let your publicists and the hacks tag you "Superman". Such self-nomination looks desperate. Furthermore, if I was your nemesis and you were calling yourself "Fireman", I'd be more inclined to up the ante to destroy your pretensions. I'd also figure that I could probably defeat you if I had a garden hose or an extinguisher to hand. Think about it: ever since James Cameron dubbed himself "king of the world", everyone has been intent on proving that he's just a bozo with his head up his ass.
Break the mold. The temptation to create a hero called "Hockeyman" may be too great. But you should try to go the unconventional route. The other way is too passe. And, this is the twenty-first century. The cynical audience is more likely to buy a sharp-dressed genius than some minger in a multi-colored pyjama suit. Yet if you must stick to tradition, make sure your be-caped hero knows some good topical jokes. Audiences no longer except the bland, clean-cut approach. If he wears a an absurd suit, he better be a jive-talking homie who is able to refer to other comic book heroes. When he saves the world, make him say something like:
"Cool, now I can go home and watch Dawson's Creek. By the way, if this was a movie, I'd make sure I was wearing better clothes. This costume is giving me camel-toe. Yo, yo, yo. Eminem is hip."
It's what known as the Kevin Williamson-effect. It doesn't matter that the characters don't function, talk or act like genuine human beings. As long as they're hip, self-aware and throw out postmodern buzzwords, your movie will be a smash hit. And to go that extra mile, hire a teenybopper actor. The acting will suck, but if he looks good, the teenage girl demographic won't care. Even in the nerd scenes, take the easy option: flatten his hair and dress him in glasses. In movies, only "nerds" wear glasses. Hollywood rocks!
Finding the tone...
There are two approaches to making a superhero movie: earnest or self-mocking. Your movie will be best appreciated if you find the right tone. Too serious and you risk the criticism of being called boring. Too jokey and you'll raise the ire of the dorks. Some superheroes are so ridiculous that it's best to opt for an over-the-top send-up. Schumacher's conception of Batman was like watching a gay recruitment video. Like a successful night of ass-prowling, it was ridiculous, it was campy and everyone involved wound up swimming in their own shit.. However, the tone was all wrong and with a poor script, horrible direction and sinful product hawking, the whole franchise took it in the butt.
If you're making a movie with as cherished a history as Batman, DON'T. You see, when God created man, he decided to over-populate the world with stupidity and anal retentiveness. So, when artists created franchises or devised comic strips, there were legions of losers making sure you stayed true to the "vision" (read: their vision). It's a geek eat geek world, and if you want to survive, go and read your comics. Only the geekiest will survive. That's why Schumacher couldn't cut it. He was a crusty old fool who liked his comic books like his sexual partners: super-gay with rubber nips.
Humanity is MY Kryptonite
The real nerds, like Raimi, Jackson and Bryan "Urkel" Singer are the people who can make good superhero/cult movies. Why? Because they understand the language and are ingrained in the culture. James Cameron was originally lined up to helm Spiderman. If he had, it would have been a much different movie. A movie with bloated special effects, Leo Di Caprio as Spiderman and a diabolical script playing second-fiddle to eye-catching setpieces and awkward cameos. Better not to tinker with these legacies. Adopt a serious tone, bone up on your history and some uber-cretin will only deride you for not picking the right villain or forgetting that Superman was sterile, so your big-money sperm-bank subplot was wasted. In other words, it's a no-win situation. You could make Citizen Kane in a cape and some zit-face will bitch that your movie was flawed.
With all that in mind, don't forget your audience. Comedy can be effective, if used correctly. But there have been some major miscalculations of this device. For instance, with the exception of Otis and the senile arch-enemy approach, Superman was a stunning piece of cinema. The comedy just didn't work for me because it was too farcical, too silly and the epic build-up of the movie was so engaging that farce seemed misplaced. Conversely, I enjoyed Richard Pryor's role in Superman III but the die-hards hated it. Sure, it was silly, but despite what the Star Wars crowd might indicate, this isn't life and death. Honest. Superman is nothing if not a man who flies around, saving the world from some criminally insane freakshow who wants to control the universe's water supply. And I'd call it slightly distressing that he assumes dressing up as a nervous journalist in specs constitutes a disguise.
In this sort of situation, it's best to opt for irony and snappy one-liners. The ones that made Home Alone the hit and national treasure we know and love. After all, the most ardent superhero fans generally live at home, only come out for conventions and don't know how real people talk, anyway. Throw in some pop culture quips and treat them to a rare glimpse of the female flesh. That essentially explains the longevity of Dawson's Creek. Failing that, you could also take the Unbreakable curve: make your movie extremely serious, sap it of life and let it be read as a viable deconstruction of the genre. The problem with that is that Unbreakable was too earthy. It was an overly-intellectualized offering, which is fine, unless you're wasting the talents of Willis and Samuel L Jackson. Those two could have been firing zingers in their underwear; instead they're playing clinically depressed, glum men who either lack charisma or feel bitter because they shatter a bone whenever they attempt physical exertion.
Finding the character...
What most superheroes have in common, other than their inexplicable desire to be selfless and save the planet, is their inherent duplicity. They all have mortal personas. By night, they may be shooting laser beams from their knobs and murdering penguins with their antennae; by day, they're likely to be the janitor of the local library. Superheroes in their mortal forms tend to be downtrodden, cumbersome and nerdy. The creators make them this way, because they and their target audience are also nerdy and would like to believe that there is a possibility they'll turn from puss-headed lardbodies into debonair spiderboys who'll save the city and snare the girl. There's only one world where geeks can become quick-witted heroes or suave studs who can, if nothing else, get some female attention. That world? You've guessed it. The good old World Wide Web.
These guys forget that wearing the costume is supposed to shed the "geek".
There's no superpower greater than anonymity! Pretend to be whatever and whoever you want! Say what you want! Live without consequence! Lure girls with your lies!
Click here to add three inches to your schlong!
Conceive your character in the most superficial sense. If he's complex, make him moody. Moodiness is a shortcut for complexities, since it shows a range beyond "Yipidee Doo! Go get my lycra and we'll save the world!11". If you want to make him tragic or psychological, weave in a backstory that his father couldn't cut it in the acting business and blew his brains out. Or that he struggles because he has never come to terms with his father's past. Or that he feels like a failure. Or that he is a failure. In short, base your superhero on Freddie Prinze Jr. !
In a similar vein, it never hurts to make your superhero mysterious. Mystery's good. Use dark cinematography and moody music and you're onto a winner. Of course, if you're actually following this guide, you're clinically insane and wouldn't get within twenty feet of a movie studio. In which case, you'll be making this at home. Just film at night-time and pipe in the Batman score. And be sure to use some midgets. Midgets are cool. Every movie needs at least one midget. I choose Scott Caan.
R.Kelly will go to great lengths to get a date.
I'd certainly incorporate some midgets into the movie. And I'd make the superhero mysterious. He'd allude to a secret past. Everyone would be asking him to reveal his big secret , why he looks so sad. Then I'd cue the music, do the big climactic shot and he'd say "I was a Backstreet Boys groupie. I used to lick AJ's ears.". Actually, I'd just go all out and make the superhero a complete homosexual - not a complete homosexual with a girlfriend a la Schumacher. Uh uh. No point in half measures. It'd be hilarious. Imagine if Batman was unashamedly gay. I know what you're thinking: Sharp-dressed rich kid who parades as a bat at night, is a nifty dancer, likes Shirley Bassey music and is uncomfortable around women. Hmm, he's definitely straight!
Funny moments: You could show him and Robin out shopping for food and him getting pissy that they didn't take his coupons. Or inbetween getting railed by one of his arch-villains (literally or figuratively. Be imaginitive), he remarks "That's a beautiful shirt. Is it a banana republic? It really brings out your cheekbones! ". . Or you could show him could make the entire plot revolve around his desire for the world to be gay. Or you could him a homophobe with a strong desire for the world not to be gay. Essentially, he'd be protecting heterosexuality. Because, let's be honest, homosexuality is the only sexual preference wherein you get the right to host your own "pride" festivals and dress up like a flamboyant Vegas showgirl. You don't get that luxury if you're attracted to women. You don't see many "straight pride" parades where a bunch of straight people boast that they enjoy boobs, which is a shame on a few counts. Your superhero could make it his god-given duty to cherish man-woman relationships. No-one else seems to these days.
Strengths and Weaknesses; Villains; Plots and sub-plots
What's the use in being able to melt TVs with your ears, if you're piss-scared of water? Superheroes wouldn't be heroes if they weren't flawed. And there are some glaring flaws: Batman's weakness is his own neurosis, Superman is afraid of Kryptonite and Apollo Creed was terrified of failure. Here's a breakdown of superheroes:
1) Nerds without their capes. Hold shitty jobs. Are generally disrespected.
2) They wear capes and are transformed, in public consciousness at any rate, into heroes.
3) They're blowhards once they slip into the cape and have cocky, descriptive names like "Punchman".
3) They can do amazing things and retain superhuman capacities.
4) They have skeletons in their closets are often mentally scarred - presumably because they have to dress like fruitcakes.
5) They want to do good. They'll fight evil at every cost.
6) Their weaknesses are significant.
7) The weaknesses are cleverly exploited by their enemies (the super-villains).
The villains are usually twisted by their irrational need to be number one. I won't go into details, mostly because my brain is starting to itch and I lost the plot a long time ago, but villains are essentially the reverse of the superhero. They have superpowers of their own, but they use them for evil and cheap giggles. They're genuinely demented and are occasionally victims of acid burns - just to accentuate their moral decay. The psychology of villains is all screwed up. They want to defeat the good guy, but the motivation doesn't extend beyond "I'm bad and you're not!". They want to inherit the earth, but why? Wouldn't it better if you made the villain convincing? Instead of being angry and clever, why not make the villain an Aids-stricken ex-lover of the superhero. He wouldn't want to inherit the earth, he'd just try to spread as much HIV as possible. Make him bitter because he's tired of being rejected. His asshole reeks of spoiled eggs and he wants his ex-lover to feel the pain.
A superhero who is both bad and good, and a villain with whom you can sympathize to a degree, would be a wonderful asset. The plot just writes itself. With these sorts of movies, all the elements fall into place. Be creative in imbuing your superhero with a weakness. Personally, I think it would be neat if a superhero was agoraphobic. He knows he can save the world but he just doesn't want to leave the house. Whenever he's in a crowded room, he goes weak. The villain has to manipulate him into busy social settings.
One day you'll use this spectacularly ill-informed guide and won't even have the decency to thank me in your Oscar speech. Until that day comes,
Midgets are the answer!
AOL IM: paulwdfans