Talking Movies

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

August 9, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Avengers

Edward Norton was undiplomatically relieved of his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers after one disastrous production meeting…

INT.LOS ANGELES, MARVEL CONFERENCE ROOM-DAY
DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s celebrated agent but a Marvel Studios producer who by an amazing coincidence has the same surname, is seated beside JOSS WHEDON at the head of a long conference table. EDWARD NORTON sits at the opposite end with a stack of comics and books, while SCARLETT JOHANSSON and SAMUEL L JACKSON sit beside two empty chairs on one side, with CHRIS EVANS and CHRIS HEMSWORTH opposite them, beside another two empty chairs.

DELANEY: First off I’d like to thank all of you who showed up today, for taking the time to come here to meet your new writer/director for The Avengers, Joss Whedon.
WHEDON: Hi everyone. This is just a sort of informal meet and greet to talk you through some of the broad ideas that I have for the direction I’m going to take the film in and-
NORTON: Well I’m glad that I’ve caught you in time then because I have some creative ideas I’d like to talk about regarding Hulk’s centrality in-

He is interrupted by ROBERT DOWNEY JR exploding into the room with a cup of coffee in each hand and a cell phone nestled under his chin against his shoulder. He precariously keeps everything from spilling or dropping while dancing over to sit next to Scarlett Johansson who he purrs at before facing the others.

DOWNEY: Hello, hello, hello – sorry I’m late, I’m trying to find a Moriarty. (nods) Sam the man. Scarlett witch. Buffy-man. Delaney. (beat) And, two new guys.
EVANS: Chris Evans – Captain America.
HEMSWORTH: Chris Hemsworth – The Mighty Thor.
DOWNEY: You’re both Chris? Oh man that’s too much for me to deal with this early in the morning.
JACKSON: Robert, it’s 2pm.
DOWNEY: Is it? Am I that confused with the time? What time is it London then? I’ve been annoying Ritchie all morning/day/night. I’m just gonna call you Cap’n.
EVANS: Fine with me.
DOWNEY: And I’ll call you Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Okay. Aren’t we short some actresses?
DOWNEY: Oh, Gwyneth’s in London. She said she wanted to spend more time with – iPhone, iPod?
JOHANSSON: Apple!
DOWNEY: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
NORTON: Where’s Jennifer Connelly?
DELANEY: We’re not sure if we’re using her yet.
NORTON: Well now hang on a minute!
DOWNEY: Oh, we should totally use her, and I mean that in as sexual a manner as the rating will allow. We should have like three different love triangles in the movie – one for each act. In the first act it can be all crazy Scarlett vs Gwyneth action for me, and in the second act it can be all me vs Ed for Jennifer-
NORTON: It’s Edward actually.
DOWNEY: -and the third act should be totally homoerotic, so that it looks like it’s me vs Cap’n for Gwyneth but actually we really totally want each other and the girl is just a medium for our inexpressible homosocial desires.
DELANEY: Whedon, don’t even think about taking him up on any of those ideas, especially the last. This film has been enough trouble for me already…
DOWNEY: (phone rings) Ooh, Ritchie.

Downey bounds to his feet and dashes out of the room with a cup of coffee.

WHEDON: (to Delaney) Are you sure he’s not on drugs?
EVANS: (to Johansson) Scarlett, did he just come onto me?
JOHANSSON: (to Evans) No Chris, he’s just still in Sherlock Holmes mode.
DELANEY: (to Whedon) Downey’s on fire right now commercially, this is one time where he can legitimately be high on life.
NORTON: (perturbed by the skittish nature of this meeting) Right…like I said I had some creative ideas regarding Hulk’s centrality in the film’s mythos. Now, I brought along a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone as well as a Hulk graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and some trade paperbacks of the late 1970s comics and I think that-

Downey re-enters the room talking, tosses his empty coffee cup and picks up his other cup of coffee, starts to leave the room again but his call ends just as he opens the door.

DOWNEY: Couldn’t you get Ian McKellen then? (beat) What do you mean too old? (beat) Well couldn’t we rewrite the part to make it less physical? (beat) Well get back to me with this mystery option of yours as soon as you can.

He turns around and walks back to his seat.

DOWNEY: Right, sorry about that. Where were we?
WHEDON: I was about to say that the broad theme I have for the movie is-
JOHANSSON: Can I just ask if my character will have some purpose other than titillation in a backseat in this movie?
HEMSWORTH: Can I take Jon Favreau’s part in that scene if we’re doing one?

Whedon starts to crawl up into a foetal position in his chair.

JOHANSSON: It’s just a bit insulting that Jennifer might not even be in the film because Gwyneth and I are already there to be eye-candy but not play a pivotal ro-
DELANEY: Jesus, Johansson! Do you have push the feminist line so hard at this point?

He starts to stroke Whedon’s head soothingly while cooing to him.

DELANEY: (Accusingly to Johansson) Doesn’t he have enough to do without making every female character he ever writes Buffy as well? He’s got to somehow combine four different franchises into one coherent film and also-
JACKSON:  Possibly save the Thor franchise, no offense, Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Hell, none taken, I haven’t even seen a rough cut of it yet.
DOWNEY: I think they should have just released the table read where Branagh did all the parts for the production heads, no offense.
HEMSWORTH: Starting to take offense, but broadly I agree that was fairly awesome.
JACKSON: How’s your film looking Cap’n?
EVANS: Okay, not great, but Hugo Weaving’s going to steal it, the Aussie bastard.
JOHANSSON: Where are we with villains for The Avengers?

Whedon suddenly comes alive again and crawls back into an upright position.

WHEDON: Villains? Villains! Villains, villains are important. Villains should have some depth and-
NORTON: Exactly, (takes a deep breath) now I figured that a conflict between legal duty and human feeling like Creon suffers would be perfect for giving a villain some depth and sympathy and that if Hulk were to be the Antigone to Fury’s Creon then-
DOWNEY: (phone rings) YEAH! (beat) WHAT?! (beat) Let me call you back. (hangs up) He wants to cast Jason Statham as Professor Moriarty for the next movie now. Thoughts, people?
WHEDON: (to Delaney) How come Ritchie gets to cast his regulars and I don’t?
DELANEY: (to Whedon) When you make a film that makes as much money as Sherlock Holmes I’ll let you use motion-capture to cast Nathan Fillion in every part, but until that day…
JOHANSSON: I like the idea of Statham, sounds like it could be a lot of fun.
DOWNEY: But I don’t want a Moriarty who spends his time telling his minions they’re ‘bang aht of order’.
WHEDON: You realise that in England if you met a guy on the street and he got in your face you’d be terrified if he sounded like Statham and just amused if he sounded like McKellen.
DOWNEY: I want someone who sounds proper British! Not Dick Van Dyke British!
NORTON: (lunges into a micro-second of silence) So, my concept would not only give a villain depth and problematise notions of heroism it would also give Jennifer a pivotal role. It raises interesting ethical questions and subverts expectations! (beams)
JACKSON: Whedon, man, could you move this along? I’ve got three other meetings to fit in this afternoon.
DOWNEY: Do you have to constantly make films now that you’re off drugs because you have an addictive personality?
JACKSON: How many cups of coffee have you had in the last hour? How many topics have you talked about since you came in here and how fast have you talked? Hm? Now talk to me about addictive personalities…
DOWNEY: Touche. I can see why your character is the boss of my character.
NORTON: And I think that basing the film around Hulk’s ethical dilemmas and introducing Iron Man as a Deus Ex Machina in the third act when all seems lost would utterly confound audience expectations and wow the critics globally.

There is dead silence around the room instantly, as jaws drop down and hang there

WHEDON: Edward, three things. (1) I’m directing this film, not you. (2) I can’t base a franchise cross-over around the weaker performer of the two franchises to date. (3) The story-lining stage is kinda over. We’re already thinking sets and costumes.
NORTON: You mean you won’t even consider playing this as a Greek tragedy?
DELANEY: NO! NO!! Look that where sort of craziness got Ang Lee’s Hulk!!
NORTON: Do I at least get some input into the editing process then?

Samuel L Jackson falls off his chair, he then drags himself up to table height.

JACKSON: Good God Man! We’re just actors!! Actors!!! (he falls to the ground)
EVANS: What he said.
NORTON: Wait, you have no interest at all in any creative input by me into this?
WHEDON: Interest in your acting ability, everything else creative I can handle…
NORTON: FINE! FINE! Well I can see I’ve been wasting my time taking this seriously when apparently all the rest of you want to do is make phone calls, drink coffee and bitch about casting choices. Well I am not just an actor but also a writer/director and an editor, and I had a vision that would have wowed millions around the globe and tapped into Jungian undercurrents but FINE! I’m not upset!!
HEMSWORTH: (giggles) ‘Don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry’.

Norton sits quietly fuming, fighting it, but then, he turns pale green and swells in size, but manages to restrain himself so that only his shirt bursts open, and then storms over and lifts Hemsworth in his chair and throws him thru the office window.

NORTON: HULK SMASH! HULK UNAPPRECIATED! HULK EXPOSE HIMSELF TO GAMMA RAYS FOR RESEARCH AND GET NO THANKS! HULK COMBINE COMIC-BOOKS WITH GREEK TRAGEDY FOR SUPER-STORYLINE AND GETS ACTORS PASSING OUT IN RESPONSE! GARH!!

Norton/Hulk storms out of the room, yanking the door off its hinges as he goes.

DOWNEY: Hulk/Edward doesn’t play well with other children.
DELANEY: Shut up.
EVANS: Looks like we’re going to need a new Hulk.
WHEDON: If you write something that means ‘Edward doesn’t play well with other children’ in the press release then I won’t push Nathan Fillion to replace him as Hulk.
DELANEY: Okay, I’ll write something like “We need an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our talented cast”. Deal?
WHEDON: Deal.
DOWNEY: Ooh! I think I know someone who’d be good for Hulk. I’ve been hearing a lot about him – some wiry guy with real intensity, name’s James Marsters I think…
DELANEY: Frak My Life.
EVANS: (beat) Should we tell people that Edward Norton actually is the Hulk now?
JACKSON: (to himself) I had no idea his method went so deep! I’ve gotta apologise to the man, that’s a level of commitment all actors should aspire to.
JOHANSSON: (looking out the window) I’m just glad we’re on the ground floor…

May 9, 2010

Saving Superman – Some Suggestions

Christopher Nolan has been formally entrusted with ‘mentoring’ a new Superman film for Warner Bros (before 2012 in order to avoid nightmarish legal complications). This means he’ll be inundated with inane ‘The Dark Man of Steel’ scripts, witless nonsense featuring a fight with a giant spider in the third act (yes, Jon Peters, we’ve all seen Kevin Smith’s routine about your idée fixe), and disastrous attempts to follow on faithfully from Superman fighting a giant island in the third act… So, here are some suggestions for angles that might help make the original superhero soar again.

Clark Kent is the base of reality on top of which you build the fantasy of Superman, creating what Richard Donner carefully described as verisimilitude rather than realism. Why not really go to town with world of the Daily Planet so that it comes off as a bustling amalgam of His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men? Clark’s ability as a journalist has propelled him into the world’s leading newspaper – he doesn’t have to bring down the President but have you ever seen him do anything at that office besides fall over the furniture? It would be nice to see Clark file some copy… It would also be refreshing to see Lois Lane engaged in investigative journalism rather than just being in peril – how typical that she won her Pulitzer in Singer’s film for an Op-Ed piece. Jeph Loeb and Darywn Cooke write Lois terrifically because in their stories it’s her overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop that always gets into her danger: Lois is a ‘newspaperman’, she lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you.

Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. Lois sneered at Superman’s motto ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in 1978 but he reclaimed the phrase for righteousness – it didn’t have to mean Watergate in that film, and it doesn’t have to mean the War on Terror now. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics. Superman was released after the disaster of the Nixon years, surely any new film would tap into a similar shift in the zeitgeist of American self-perception?

As for the other side of the Supercoin enough with the shady land deals of Lex Luthor already! We don’t need a new rendering of Superman’s origin myth but it would be nice to re-imagine his first encounter with Lex Luthor to cinematically introduce Lex not as a dodgy estate agent but as a billionaire bent on world domination. What makes Lex the best nemesis for Superman is his challenge to Superman’s code. Superman could snap this puny human’s neck in a fraction of a second except he would never do that. Equally Lex would never be sloppy enough to leave any incriminating evidence of his wrongdoing. It would be nice to see Superman’s immense and growing frustration from being unable to expose or punish a white-collar criminal who he knows to be corrupt and depraved while the world only sees and sympathises with a noted philanthropist being unjustly victimised by an alien with the powers of a god. This is to say nothing of the potential for dramatic conflict if Lex Luthor was to run for President testing Superman’s code to the limit as the greater good would be imperilled by his moral insistence on bringing Lex to legal justice. As for sequel villains, Singer was unwilling to stray from the Donner template of General Zod, but if the preposterous Smallville was able to pull off a fine Brainiac when Steven S DeKnight wrote the part for James Marsters in T-1000 mode as the Kryptonian A.I., surely a similarly styled Brainiac can work as a filmic villain too?

All anyone talks about when it comes to re-launching Superman are the problems – from the blandness of Superman, to the weakness of Lois, to the dramatic inertia of invulnerability, and the scarcity of traditional super-villains with universal name recognition compared to Batman’s extensive Rogues’ Gallery. Would it not then make sense to hire comics writers who deal with these problems on a monthly basis? Mark Millar alleged two years ago that he had an outline for a re-booting trilogy. Ask him for that outline! Hire Jeph Loeb to do a draft of a script. Beg Darwyn Cooke to write a treatment. Contact Paul Dini, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Round up all these guys and stick them in a writers’ room in the Warner back-lot. Hell, even see if Alan Moore could stop filing law-suits for long enough to contribute some ideas.

Superman is tricky to pull off cinematically but if the thought of writing

INT. DAILY PLANET-DAY Clark moves towards the window and opens his shirt.

doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of some of these writers then and only then will the possibilities of re-launching Superman have been dwarfed by the difficulties.

Blog at WordPress.com.