Friday, January 04, 2008

Script Review: Batman vs. Superman

[Part 1 of 2]

There was a time in 2002-2003 when we were oh-so-close to seeing on film a great clash of the titans-in-tights, the ultimate caped battle royale, red vs. blue, human vs. alien, natural vs. supernatural, and the good vs. the (sorta) good – Batman vs. Superman. Of course, all that’s available to the public now is the 2002
Akiva Goldsman revision of Andrew Kevin Walker’s script.

But first, some really fun context.

In 1997, the Batman franchise was all but dead - sent to its grave by the shallow, awful, campy screenplay of Akiva Goldsman called Batman & Robin. Some blame could be thrown at Joel Schumacher or the producers for letting (or making) this movie happen, but make no mistake, this film failed primarily because of the screenplay. I wholly agreed with
Ebert when he wrote: “like Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer, [George Clooney] brings nothing much to the role because there's nothing much there. Most of the time he seems stuck for conversation… Listening to Schwarzenegger's one-liners (‘The iceman cometh!’), I realized that a funny thing is happening to the series: It's creeping irresistibly toward the tone of the 1960s TV show. The earlier Batman movies, especially the dark Batman Returns (1992), made a break with the camp TV classic and went for moodier tones. But now the puns and punchlines come so fast the action has to stop and wait for them. Although we don't get the POW! and WHAM! cartoon graphics, this fourth movie seems inspired more by the TV series than the Bob Kane comic character.” Exactly. Goldsman should’ve had his Batman writing privileges revoked. In the end, Ebert wrote, “My prescription for the series remains unchanged: scale down. We don't need to see $2 million on the screen every single minute. Give the foreground to the characters, not the special effects. And ask the hard questions about Bruce Wayne.” Amen, brother.

And of course, this is exactly the direction Chris Nolan would take the franchise 8 years later with his Batman Begins film, and of course, Ebert gave it four stars. He wrote, “Batman Begins at last penetrates to the dark and troubled depths of the Batman legend, creating a superhero who, if not plausible, is at least persuasive as a man driven to dress like a bat and become a vigilante. The movie doesn't simply supply Batman's beginnings in the tradition of a comic book origin story, but explores the tortured path that led Bruce Wayne from a parentless childhood to a friendless adult existence. The movie is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.”

The Superman franchise had been dead since the fourth film in 1987, the final sigh of a spiraling series that lost all of its dignity and prestige since its sensational 1978 premiere, which is still the gold standard of cinema superheroes. In the late nineties, there were attempts to revive the series following the enormous success of DC Comics’ 1992-1993 series,
Death of Superman. There was a draft by Greg Poirier, which Kevin Smith completely rewrote. He said, “...the thing that bothered me about Greg Poirier’s draft: they were trying to give Superman angst. They had Clark Kent going to a psychiatrist at one point. Superman’s angst is not that he doesn’t want to be Superman. If he has any (angst), it’s that he can’t do it all; he can’t do enough and save everyone... Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope.”

So we had a march ’97 draft from Kevin Smith called
Superman Lives that would have brought to the screen the infamous Brainiac who comes to earth on a spaceship in search of a technology called “the Eradicator” to help rebuild his body. He sees Superman fly around and assumes he has an “Eradicator.” So he teams up with Lex Luthor, blocks the power of the sun to weaken Superman and kill him and thus, steal his “Eradicator.” When the Man of Steel confronts Brainiac for the first time, he (out of seemingly nowhere) presents Doomsday, which kills Superman in the streets of Metropolis not much unlike the comic series. As they mourn Superman’s death, Doomsday wakes, and then a great red laser from Brainiac’s ship blows him up. Superman actually had an “Eradicator” inside his Fortress of Solitude which he never knew. Following his death, the “Eradicator” (a robot) comes to life, grabs Superman’s body, and revives him. While only half-recovered, Superman leaves to confront Brainiac, who in a desperate act of self-preservation, forces his consciousness to take over a “Thangarian Snare Beast” that “resembles something of a cross between a squid and a spider, but very bio-mechanical and sleek.” Superman tells him, “You wanna hide in a bug… I’ll crush you like one!” Ugh… Kevin talks about his experiences here, which was actually quite funny. The producer was a tad bonzo in the brains. He was obsessed with spiders, didn’t want to see Superman in his suit or fly anywhere in the film, and demanded to have a “gay, black R2D2” as Brainiac’s side kick. If there was a complaint to be made about the writing itself, I’d have to say that the dialogue was the weakest element, at times so immature, it made me cringe. When Superman wakes and talks to the “Eradicator,” he says, “You’ve been in the Fortress all this time and I didn’t know it?!? Wait, wait, wait… did you ever see Lois and I… while we… Well, why the hell did you never say anything?”

Oy vey

In September ’98, we know of two other bad scripts. First, there was Alex Ford & J. Ellison’s
Superman: The Man of Steel. This script is so retarded that three quarters into the story they have Clark Kent & Lana Lang singing “I’VE GOT YOU, BABE.” Is this thing for real? I can't believe the studio didn't ask for their money back. What the hell was going on in the house of Warner Brothers? A giant script-turd like this one makes me think three things: A) Alex Ford & J. Ellison must’ve been the most expert con artists in the world if they convinced the WB to pay them money to write this rancid shit, or B) the execs at the WB in the mid-90s must’ve been the most gullible assholes in the world (or both), or C) Alex Ford & J. Ellison are the most hopelessly deluded hacks in HW to actually think that they know how to write. It took TWO of them to be THIS DUMB. This also makes me think, as I frequently do, that Hollywood should clean house and allow a new generation of great, passionate writers take over.

But I digress.

Then followed Dan Gilroy’s
Superman Lives, a reworking of Kevin Smith’s story, in which Superman again faces Brainiac (who this time was created by Jor-El and fled Krypton when it exploded). When Brainiac arrives on earth, he just so happens to meet Lex Luthor and just so happens to tell him that he is not Superman’s friend, that he came from his home planet, and that “invulnerable is something its inhabitants were not.” Luthor replies, “Pinch me, I’m in a dream!” Then, suddenly, Brainiac “consumes” Lex. Uhh, what was that? Well, Gilroy wrote: “BRAINIAC moves in – envelopes Lex in a stunning display of art department and special effects genius, transmutatively consuming him to the accompaniment of ELECTRIC ARCS as – ‘LEXIAC’ stands before us.” When Supe confronts this villain for the first time, Lexiac presents Doomsday (again out of seemingly nowhere), and after a great battle, Supe is killed. The world mourns his death. In the afterlife, Supe meets his Kryptonian parents and comes back to earth. In the third act standoff, Brainiac removes himself from Luthor, becomes “just a head on a horrific, mechanical body,” and says “Seen Mom and Dad lately?” Supe replies, “As a matter of fact, I have, and I’ve got a message from them -- you’ve been recalled.”

Do you know that famous quote by Cicero about philosophers? “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” Well, let me just add that there is nothing so dumb but some screenwriter has written it.

There was talk about Tim Burton directing a Superman Lives film for a July 4, 1998, release with Nicolas Cage in the lead and would also be based on his own screenplay, but because of the box office disappointment of Batman & Robin, the project was shelved. Akiva Goldsman actually killed two franchises with one script. Perhaps we should be grateful. Here’s some concept artwork for Burton’s film:

Let’s jump ahead to the summer of 2002. We know that within the span of one month, Warner Brothers received its
Batman vs. Superman revision from Akiva Goldsman (of all people), as well as J.J. Abrams’ Superman. Make no mistake – both scripts would have been disasters of epic proportions.

Abrams completely reboots the Superman franchise. He would rewrite the origins, mythology, and legacy. Krypton does NOT explode. A war with machines led by Ty-Zor, Jor-El’s brother, forces Jor-El to send his son to Earth. We re-watch all over again Superman’s crash landing on earth, his upbringing, his isolation from other kids, and his first encounter with Lois, an uninspired moment in a frat house during their college years. All throughout Superman’s maturation, we cut back to see his parents on Krypton get imprisoned, tortured, and murdered until Ty-Zor learns the hiding location of Kal-El. We see again Superman’s first interview with Lois, which doesn’t even remotely compare to the original in terms of style, fun, and shaping the love between these two characters. With Abrams, the subtext was about control. There is no Fortress of Solitude. Supe doesn’t need the sun for strength. Clark learns about being an alien from Martha Kent. And he learns values from his mother in one exposition-filled paragraph of dialogue. Supe would later die underwater with Kryptonite in order to save Lois. In the afterlife, he would meet Jor-El, get sent back to earth to face Ty-Zor and three other Kryptonians. Of this sequence, I loved what
Moriarity wrote, “the way they bring him back has got to be one of the dumbest, dippiest, New Age bullshit scenes in a major franchise picture that I can think of. It’s ri-goddamn-diculous. Jor-El ‘senses’ the death of his son all the way from Krypton, so he slices his own stomach open and goes to Heaven where he explains to Jor-El that he CAN’T die. I halfway expected him to say, ‘Look, son, this is just the first film in the trilogy. You can’t be dead yet.’ His excuse isn’t much better. He explains that The Prophecy says that the Son of Krypton will defeat a great trial on a distant planet before coming home to kick some ass. ‘And since I know you’re going to come save Krypton, you can’t die on Earth.’ Kal-El can’t really argue with such spotless logic, so he returns to his body and digs himself out of the grave where he was put to rest.” In the third act climax, Superman does not outwit his Kryptonian villains as he did in Superman II, but he has the American army join in the battle and shoot Kryptonite-laced artillery at them. In the end, Lex Luthor reveals that he, too, was from Krypton and FLIES. Moriarity wrote, “In the long history of really stupid ideas in bringing superheroes to the big screen, this far surpasses the Amazing Hummingbird Man and Hot Guy from one of the lousy HULK drafts. I honestly think this is worse as an overall idea than Arnold’s Mr. Freeze and a bat credit card.” Out of guilt that his presence here had brought so much violence and destruction, Supe gets into the pod that had brought him to Earth and leaves for Krypton. Fade Out.

Re-doing what’s already been done demands a comparison. Is it really necessary to rewrite and remove all of the previously established mythology? Does this make for a better version? The answer to both questions is “no.” What’s to be gained by this? Nothing. It's an artist behaving selfishly without any respect toward the hundreds of other artists that worked so hard to carefully create an iconic mythology.
What Kevin Smith said of “Superman’s angst” in Greg Poirier’s draft could just as easily apply to J.J. Abrams’ story. This script was IN pre-production when word got out and the outcry from fans the world over was so great, they actually shut down production. [A warning to you Star Trek fans – Abrams is quite capable of fucking-up a franchise.]

[Another side note - Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was probably the best of the bunch with a number of great moments, but make no mistake it was still a failure (see, for example, my Goodbye, Lois article). In fact, they’re looking to completely reboot the franchise again as if Superman Returns was never made, and there's already talk that Singer's off the project.]

And all of this brings us back to Batman vs. Superman.

[To be continued here.]


Elver said...

"[A warning to you Star Trek fans – Abrams is quite capable of fucking-up a franchise.]"

It would be impossible to save the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: Enterprise tried, producing some of the finest sci-fi in recent TV history (3rd season was pure gold and for the first time in Trek the captain actually had to make real moral choices without the show becoming a BSG-style melodrama), but the fans hated it and the non-fans weren't interested in anything Trek.

I'm more worried about Lost. When Abrams left during 3rd season production to do Cloverfield, the quality of the show plummeted. Now Abrams and Lindelof are both doing Star Trek and Lost will probably die during season 4. Pity.

Joshua said...

To be continued!?!!

What a tease!

Mim said...

It's hard to imagine two super-heroes duking it out. They're forces of good. The only motivation for such a battle would have to be jealousy and a greed for fame that eclipses their commitment to do good for all mankind.

The only outcome I can imagine is that, after their epic battle, our two super-heroes realize that they have to work together against the forces of evil.

The only thing I can imagine that would make them realize the futility of their struggle would be if they allow some disaster to happen because of their bickering.

Plus Batman is human. You'd have to re-write the origins of one or both of them for people to believe Batman has any kind of chance at all.

Although it's an intriguing concept, when you really start to think about it, it doesn't make sense at all. The Alien/Predator battle was much more believable.

Mystery Man said...

Elver - Abrams might also be the jolt Star Trek fans need. I imagine this would be a far more edgier Trek, which could be pretty cool. In the case of Superman, there was obvious talent within the execution, although the writing was pretty horrible at times. But he was clearly the wrong man for the wrong franchise.

Josh - Sorry, man. I wrote a really long article and realized at some point, I need to break it up. I'm excited about the actual review. There's lots to be said, and there's one major point everyone's missed in their reviews that's particularly poignant for screenwriters today. (Oy, another tease! Hehehe...)

Mim - Or Freddy vs. Jason! You're so right in the sense that a story like this would be SO predictable.


Mark said...

FYI - If you are a fan of Superman you should check out Tom DeHaven's 'It's Superman'. Dehaven is an east coast writer of some great books including his Dugan series (Funny Papers, Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies, and Dugan Underground).

'It's Superman' takes place in the 1930's and in addition to the great retelling of the story, it is a rich evocation of the period.

Christian M. Howell said...

This is amazing. You have found a script that I often read. Some of the dialogue definitely sucks BAD, but the plot is pretty good.

I mean to have Luthor setup Batman and Superman using the Joker is brilliant. The action was pretty good and there was only one impossible action, where he believes that weight determines how fast a body falls to earth.

I do wish though that it was a better pdf rather than the horrible scan that's there, but it's a pretty easy read.

Maybe I'll spec out a Superman movie. But then I'm really a Marvel Comics guy so Iron Man it is.

patrick roberts said...

still wouldn't mind seeing a superman v. batman flick, though i imagine they would end up teaming up to save the world, etc. anyway

Elver said...

The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan and Preacher. I'd like to see those guys on the big screen some day.