Summer Superhero Movie Round-Up

The summer superhero movie season has come to an end. We have seen the release of the Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises. So how do these movies stack up against each other?

Let’s take a look.


First off, how do I, as a long time comic book and movie fan feel about each one and compare them?

Cutting to the chase here is how I personally rank them

  1. The Avengers
  2. The Dark Knight Rises
  3. The Amazing Spider-man

When thinking about this ranking I used a simple model of rewatchablity (which I think we can agree should be a word.). This should be true of any Superhero movie ranking, how often do I want to watch it. I saw both Iron Man and The Dark Knight twice in theaters and have watched the DVDs repeatedly. I saw Green Lantern once but have not unwrapped the DVD my wife bought on sale.

With The Amazing  Spider-Man I saw it once in the theater, and I do not think I will be buying it when the home release comes out. For the Dark Knight Rises, I saw it once, and I will be buying it when it is released. I saw the Avengers twice at the theater, would go again if they release the extended cut next month as they have hinted at and will buy it and watch it on September 25th. So from a “do I want to watch it again point of view” the ranking is really clear.

But the big question is why do I feel that way? What makes one Superhero movie better than another?

With Avengers it is simple enough. That movie spoke to the little boy in me whose imagination was set free by reading the comic books he bought at the corner drug store. It was a close to the four color experience as I have ever seen in live action, and the anticipation was built up over 5 previous movies. I fully plan to set aside a day in the near future,  start with Iron Man at breakfast and watch all 6 Marvel films in one day. I still smile when I see pictures from the Avengers on-line.

The Dark Knight Rises works on a more mature level. It is a satisfying wrap up to the Nolen Dark Knight trilogy. But in the end it is not as good a movie as the Dark Knight. The Joker raised that movie from being simply very good, to being great. I doubt I will do a marathon of this series however. I also think that The Dark Knight Rises works extremely well as an intelligent action movie, but not as well as a superhero movie.

So what left the Amazing Spider-man holding the short straw? I certainly enjoyed watching it. I even felt it did some things better than the Raimi series, such as the more complex relationship Peter Parker has with Flash Thompson. The problem is that it doesn’t feel fresh. Spider-Man 3 came out five years ago. I know that Sony has to make a new Spider-Man film every so often to retain the film rights, but I doubt that time frame is five years (I looked but could not find the exact time frame).  So when I was watching the origin portion of the film I was comparing it in my head to how the original Spider-man handled it.

But even without that I felt that in the end it was a good superhero movie, but not a great one.  I smiled during it, but I never clapped or cheered like I did during the other two movies. So I can recommend seeing it, but I have no desire to go out and do so again myself.

So there is how I see it. Next year we get Iron Man 3, Thor: the Dark World, Man of Steel, and The Wolverine. It will be interesting to see how they stack up.

I can’t believe it’s not Superman

With the release of the movie Chronicle I am pleased that a cliché was avoided. Not that the movie is free from them, let’s face it, it is a found footage movie, but there is one I am glad it avoided. (At least I think they did, I haven’t had a chance to go see it yet. I know “Bad Fanboy”)

It’s a movie riffing on superpowers and superheroes where the characters powers are not based on Superman.
Think about it for a minute, name a superhero movie not based on a pre-existing superhero property where the hero’s powers were not basically Superman’s. Seriously the only one that I can name off the top of my head is the Toxic Avenger and I’m not sure he counts.
When I say Superman based I am talking about the following specific powers:
Super strength
Other powers will often be present as well, but those three seem to be universal.
I’ll admit that there are a lot of superheroes in comics have these powers and are not considered rip offs of Superman. Rogue of the X-men, the Martian Manhunter, and Thor spring immediately to mind.
But most of the characters I am talking about are clearly taking their cues from Superman.
Now to be fair Superman is a cultural icon and the first image to enter people’s minds when the term superhero is used.  But all that tells me is that a lot of screenwriters are lazy. (Let’s all pretend to be shocked). So I guess for most people not immersed in geek culture Superman is synonymous with superhero.
And in most cases these portrayals are exploring ideas that you couldn’t with Superman himself. Superman is the paragon of superheroes. He is confident, noble, and humble. Often these pastiches are exploring ideas that would not fit with those qualities.
Most often you find the story to be about an ordinary person leading an ordinary life suddenly finding themselves with superpowers.
In the sixties you had two competing TV comedies, Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice, which had heroes who gained temporary powers based on a secret formula.  While similar ideas both had different execution. Mr. Terrific worked for the government who supplied the super pills that only seemed to work on him. Most episodes had his powers run out at the worst possible time. Captain Nice was a police scientist (no one said forensics back then) who invented a formula that gave him powers. Most episodes were about him needing to get to his formula in order to save the day. The other big difference in these shows was that Mr. Terrific was awkward with his powers, where Captain Nice could handle them, but was stuck with a ridiculous costume his mother made.
Moving on to the eighties and you had the Greatest American Hero, about a school teacher given a superhero costume by aliens that gave him superpowers. Like Mr. Terrific he had poor control over his abilities. The appeal of this show was the buddy cop aspect provided by his FBI friend/partner.
All these shows while having some fun with the everyman superhero idea suffered from the same problem, a problem that all TV shows featuring a super powered hero, be they from a previous license of not, suffered from. Almost none of the antagonists had superpowers. So really none of them ever really had a comic book feel to them, but more of a superhero in the real world vibe.
Movies didn’t always fare much better. You had parodies, like The Return of Captain Invincible. This was a movie where a hero from the 50’s is disgraced and becomes an alcoholic bum. He is found and has to clean up his act in order to save the world from his arch enemy. It was low budget fluff, even if it did have Christopher Lee as the bad guy.
There was a terrible Italian movie called Puma Man. Yes, Puma man.  His powers were Puma based yet somehow they still made him a Superman Pastiche. His powers were even of extraterrestrial origin. If you heard of this one at all it was because Mystery Science Theater 3000 got their hands on it.
In 1993 there was Meteor Man, which sadly really wasn’t more than Greatest American Hero with an all-black cast.
More recently there was Hancock with Will Smith. To the writer’s credit instead of having a movie about an everyman with powers, it went with “What if Superman was a drunken asshole.” What was nice was they did dig a bit into the characters psychology to given him a reason for being that way and made it a redemption tale.
And there are certainly exceptions. The Incredibles for example was more of a riff on the Fantastic Four.
Sometimes Warner Brothers, who owns DC comics, thinks that these shows get a little too close to their copyright for comfort. For example WB sued over the Greatest American Hero. Ultimately lost as the court felt the character wasn’t close enough to Superman to warrant a violation, even with nearly the same powers.
Of course there are the non-powered heroes, but that could be a whole article on Batman pastiches. (And probably will be)
Will we see more Superman pastiches in the future? I don’t see why not.  Until then I think I will get out there and see Chronicle.

Of man, and Superman, and lawsuits.

Previously I touched on the Siegel family lawsuit to regain rights to the Superman copyright. This got me thinking about how I feel about the whole subject.
In 1932 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character of Superman. In 1938 they sold the character to what would become DC comics for $130 and a contract to create material for the publisher. By 1947 they decided that they were tired of getting paid a fraction of the income their creation was bringing in and sued DC to regain ownership. The courts favored DC, and in response DC fired the creators.
Siegel and Shuster made another attempt to regain the rights in 1974. Again the courts sided with DC. However a year later DC’s parent company Warner Bros opted to give both men a yearly pension of $20,000 and health benefits. In addition it was decided that any comic book, novel, film, or TV series featuring Superman would include a credit to Siegel and Shuster as his creators.
In 1998 a new copyright law was passed that opened the door for the estates of both creators, who had by then passed away, to attempt to reclaim ownership. This has led to suits by both Estates. I have found little information on the Shuster suit other than one has been filed.
Of course the Siegel suit is the headline getter as they have had success, having recaptured their half of the original copyright. Their lawyer Marc Toberoff has vowed that they will have the entire copyright by 2013.
The whole situation leaves me feeling torn. On one hand I would like to see the family win as the creators were basically screwed by the original deal. But on the other hand as a fan I want to keep reading about the Superman I grew up with, and with as bitter as this suit has grown anything short of a complete victory by Warner Bros will not allow that.
The Superman intellectual property earns Warner Bros over a billion dollars in profit every year. Even a small percentage of that would equal millions of dollars. No corporation wants to give up any of that if they don’t have to, hence the fight on WB’s side. They have already shown a willingness to alter the story to reflect legal status.
On the heirs side there has been no indication of them caring about the copyright on any level other than financial. Superman’s status as cultural icon and his rich history have not come up in any statements I could find. This makes me question how they will treat the character if they gain complete control.
Here are some scenarios that I can foresee.
Scenario one: Warner Bros prevails.
Result: The status quo is maintained and the estates continue to battle for the rights
Scenario two: The estates gain 50% rights to the entire IP.
Results: WB has to suck it up and pay the estates their half of the profits. The heirs would have a say in how the character is handled.
Scenario three: The estates gain complete rights to part of the IP
Result: Several possibilities here. WB could come to an agreement with the estates to continue using their part of the IP for a huge chunk of change. I don’t see this as likely. More likely is that WB phases out the parts of the IP they don’t own and published an altered form of the character. We may be seeing shades of that now with the DC relaunch. This could also lead the heirs to shop around for a new home for their version of Superman which would be a watered down version of the one we all know and love.
Scenario four: The estates gain complete control of the IP
Result: Well it is possible that WB could come to an agreement to keep using Superman. However with how contentious this suit has been I could easily see the heirs shopping the character around, or even setting up their own publishing house. This would mean the end of Superman as the icon of the DC universe.
It seems crazy to consider a lot of these, but keep this in mind. The courts are not concerned with the artistic integrity of the character. All they care about is the legality of ownership, which means these scenarios or others I have thought of or bothered with could come to pass.