Tag Archives: Superman Returns

Weighing in on Wonder Woman

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“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.