Film

The Future and Past of Batman, Superman, Fantastic Four and Hunger Games

A Hollywoodland image of Ben Affleck as Superman

Can Batman and Superman save the DCEU or will their efforts fail, again? These and other The Next Reel speculations, past, present and future.

Last time in the pages of The Next Reel, I plugged my first novel, Seven Days to Die: A Jake Slater Mystery several times as we adventured through the connections between Dirty Harry, Sin City and Deadpool, checked out the future of the once-venerable franchises of Halloween, Alien and Predator and dug deeper into how Hollywood hides flops and still profits from them.

But what exactly is a flop? I asked that question as I helped Julia Child pick up the roast she dropped on the floor. She responded "Remember, you’re alone in the kitchen," which didn’t help me much, so I went on to write the article "Building the Perfect Bomb The Numbers Behind Box Office Flops" where I explored the top flops of all time. (I realize "bottom flops" would be more accurate, but "Top Flops" falls so trippingly from the tongue that I dare not ignore it.)

So what’s the state of Flops today?

Well, not to pick on the guys at Warner Bros. (Warner is, in fact, my favorite studio), but lately it seems like Warner would need some creative accounting just to appear to be in the black. Warner has had some incredible box office bombs lately, from Jupiter Ascending to Hot Tub Time Machine 2 to Pan to Mortdecai to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to We Are Your Friends to In the Heart of the Sea… and that’s just 2015. Sure it also had Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike XXL and The Conjuring 2 (2016), but with the critical failure of Batman v Superman (which, thus far, has barely broken even) thrown into the works, the venerable studio is leading the pack with flops. Let’s hope that turns around.

Speaking of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, although the movie does have its fans, it's undeniable that most people are wondering what might have been for this critically derided and fan-disappointing 2016 action film. That’s a fair question considering the fact that the project first entered pre-production back in 2001 (under the name Batman vs. Superman), a full 15 years prior to its actual release.

Development Hell. Ain’t it a bitch?

As my article "Superman' and 'Superman II' What Is, and What Might Have Been" illustrates, such development hell and vast changes are nothing new for the Man of Steel. In fact, for all the successful Superman movies there are just as many Kryptonited projects we never got to see. While it’s true that the Batman vs. Superman film that was originally greenlit is not the exact same film or script that we got in 2016’s Dawn of Justice, elements of a great many Superman projects did manage to make it into the final cut. Film scholars and comic fans recognized elements from no less than five abandoned and cancelled Superman films (not to mention 2013’s Man of Steel and 2006’s Superman Returns) that had been attempted since Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) eviscerated the Christopher Reeve series.

The attempts started, believe it or not, just after Quest for Peace’s failure when Cannon Films decided to try again with Superman V. Cannon went bankrupt (a story worthy of a column all its own), causing the rights to the character to revert back to Ilya and Alexander Salkind (who had started the series back in 1978 with Superman: The Movie. Cannon's new film, (planned to be called "Superman: The New Movie") was set to star Christopher Reeve and be written by Mark Jones (the creator of the Leprechaun films) and comics writer Carey Bates. The idea was to kill off and recreate Superman before that was ever thought of in the comics.

When the actual Death of Superman storyline became a revitalizing success for DC Comics, parent company Warner Bros. bought back the movie rights to the character and began a saga of (oft-ridiculous) attempts at creating the next big Man of Steel movie. This began with Superman Reborn and moved on to Superman Lives, which had (at various times) writer Kevin Smith, director Tim Burton and (gulp) star Nicolas Cage.

After that crashed and burned (see the 2015 documentary The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? for more) director McG was retained to direct a new origin script (not a death script) called Superman: Flyby as written by J.J. Abrams. Shockingly, considering Abrams’ involvement, this script was neither a remake, nor an alternate reality fiasco. Ironically, McG dropped out of Flyby due to his fear of… flying. Not kidding. They wanted to film in Australia and McG refused to board the plane. Thus, they shifted gears to Wolfgang Petersen (who isn’t even afraid of submarines).

It was under Petersen and Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker that the (first) Batman vs. Superman script came to be developed. For the next few years, Flyby and Batman vs. Superman were juggled back and forth at Warner Bros. before Superman Returns (2006) was finally green lit under X-Men (2000) director Bryan Singer.

A few interesting notes about these films include the fact that Christian Bale, who was being groomed as Batman for Darren Aronofsky’s (equally abandoned) Batman: Year One was sought by Petersen for the Superman role. Bale was later cast as Batman in Batman Begins (2005). Bale had previously been considered for the role of Robin in the Schumacher Batman films. Many of the elements from these previous films did indeed find their way into Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice including the appearance of Doomsday, not to mention the fact that that film’s quasi-Lex Luthor actually dressed a lot like Nicholas Cage’s Clark Kent was planned to, however, one thing that luckily didn’t make it into the final film is the fight with the giant spider… which producer Jon Peters insisted on in project after project.

How far did Batman vs. Superman get? In the 2007 WB film I Am Legend, star Will Smith looks over the skyline of his decimated city and sees advertisements for the Batman vs. Superman film (a draft of which was written by I Am Legend screenwriter Akiva Goldsman). Green Lantern movie posters can also be seen just a few years before the actual Green Lantern (2011) film was released. The idea was that this was the not-too-distant future and these DC/ WB films in the works would soon be contemporary. Of course all of this was eventually scrapped in favor of the DC Extended Universe which, thus far, includes Man of Steel (2013), Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and, of course, Suicide Squad (2016) which also stars Will Smith. There’s such balance in nature.

Of course Batman v. Superman is far from the only terrible superhero movie out there. At only nine percent positive reviews, Fantastic Four (2015) has proven to be one of the most reviled big budget studio releases in history. I was on a secret mission from Avi Arad and the CIA to collect all remaining copies of this visual experiment in unnecessary surgery (which even Mary Kay Cosmetics has labeled as being cruel to animals) and sink them all into the Mariana Trench where they could never be found. Suddenly, without warning and deeply unfortunately, HBO then gained the exhibition and streaming rights to Fantastic Four. The film went digital and is (much like its 1994 predecessor) now preserved for eternal torture methods. Thus, I had to settle for writing "Trapped in the Negative Zone The Fantastic Four on Film" instead of ridding the world of this disasterpiece.

Again, HBO is a division of Warner Bros., so it would seem that the masochism never stops under that iconic water tower, does it? However, Fantastic Four is not a DC property but based on a Marvel comic, the film rights to which are owned by Fox and are not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The complete failure of the film has led many to the speculation that Marvel might reacquire these film rights or work out a sharing deal with Fox, as it did with Sony for the Spider-Man character. However, Fox is remaining adamant that it will proceed with sequels and/ or reboots to the property, tarnished though it may be.

Fantastic Four director Josh Trank has yet to work again.

And The Thing has yet to put on pants...

Meanwhile, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is rearing its head again. It’s no secret that it's a largely reviled film with the approximate critical acclaim of TV’s Manimal. In fact, this was pretty much a foregone conclusion before the film was released. Still, I gave it the old college try and managed to resist gouging my eyes out.

Instead I wrote "How to Recover From the Batman v. Superman Debacle: An Open Letter to Warner Bros." outlining so much of what went very wrong and what Warner Bros. could do to fix it.

Indeed, the company did seem to heed a few of these suggestions (though I less take credit for them than point out that they’re really quite obvious), but the studio still seems to be learning the wrong lessons. While many fans such as myself eagerly awaited the DCEU’s next film, Suicide Squad, the suits at Warner Bros. scrambled behind the scenes and demanded reshoots to create a more lighthearted and comedic tone to counterbalance the somber tone of Batman V. Superman.

Let me repeat that… Warner Bros., the company that clearly doesn’t even read its own comics, demanded that a movie about murderers, psychopaths, cannibals, serial killers, assassins, ghosts and other villains should be lighthearted and comedic.

No, no, no, you morons. We object to a dark, murky, Zack Snyderized Superman film. We’re not clamoring for a dark and somber story about villains on a suicide mission to be reimagined as a Rainbow Bright TV movie. Who knows what director David Ayer might have come up with had the studio not intervened, but what we do know is that despite WB’s best (worst) efforts to create a less critically lambasted film, Suicide Squad did even worse with critics, earning a paltry 25 percent approval rating as compared to Batman v. Supermans’s (still pathetic) 27 percent.

But are the tickets selling? Yeah, that seems to be the measure here. Were there butts in those seats? Well, yes, lucky for Warner Bros., the film did well. Sure, it missed early projections (which expected an opening weekend as high as $150 million) with its $65 million opening, but the film has raked in $580 million so far against a $175 million budget.

But as I said in my "Open Letter", even the critically reviled Transfomers films do great box office numbers due, in large part, to their CGI and advertising budgets, but that doesn’t mean they are, at all, good films. DC and Warner Bros. blew it with Man of Steel and dug the hole deeper by doubling down (yet again) on Zack Snyder for Dawn of Justice. Suicide Squad is the film that could have saved the DCEU but instead continued to tarnish the DC Comics brand in the cinema. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics’ Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to make critically acclaimed box office smashes while enhancing their own brand.

A later but similar open letter from a former Warner Bros. executive expressed her own dissatisfaction with the reliance on Snyder and his ilk and the overall lack of quality of the Warner Bros. films based on some of itsmost precious properties. Most damning of all, the former executive even pointed to trouble on the set of the upcoming 2017 Wonder Woman film. While some have dismissed this, let me point out that this would be par for their course. The Flash (scheduled for a 2018 release) already had a number of different writers and directors attached to it when, in the aftermath of the Batman v. Superman debacle, the hired writer/ director Seth Grahame-Smith dropped out due to creative differences. A new director was hired, but this further illustrates how Warner Bros. is proving to be a rudderless craft.

It isn’t as if good things can’t evolve from the gridded page to the screen when it comes to DC’s properties. Look at TV’s Arrowverse which details the adventures of such characters as Green Arrow, The Flash, The Atom, Captain Cold, Rip Hunter and even Supergirl and Constantine without compromising the characters or going dark. Meanwhile, the most important lesson for DC’s films still has yet to be learned. Zack Snyder not only has not been fired, but remains the director of both Justice League movies featuring all the characters in potentially saga-killing performances. Luckily Ben Affleck’s long-rumored solo Batman film (with Affleck himself as writer, director and star) has at last been greenlit. Let’s hope and pray the Snyder-driven DCEU is still afloat long enough for us to see Affleck’s Batman the way we should.

Affleck could just play both parts.

On the heels of my Mockingjay part 2 review, I somehow managed to become PopMatters’ resident Hunger Games writer (as well as figure skater, rock climber, lead guitarist and hostage negotiator). What followed were the articles "Formulating 'The Hunger Games' Part 1: When Books Catch Fire", "Formulating 'The Hunger Games' Part 2: Evolution of the Mockingjay" and "'The Hunger Games' The Writer’s Cut Really Is Better" in which I discussed similar books, similar movies and the great Hunger Games books themselves. I would tell you more about these articles, but I am presently locked on an island fighting for my life for the amusement of the very rich and I am contractually obligated to wait to disclose anything.

Yeah, that’s the life of a PopMatters columnist and novelist. Did I mention that I’m the author of the hit novel Seven Days to Die: A Jake Slater Mystery?

So what’s next for The Next Reel? More Star Wars articles than you can shake a lightsaber at, Kemosabes! That and a possible Sound of Music revival filled with terrifying love songs and bad superhero performances. No matter how hungry you get, how bad your sequels are or how much super-trouble you might find yourself in, I’ll always see you in The Next Reel!

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