Yesterday I took a break from the studio, and the moving, long enough to turn on the telly. There on a movie channel was the first Batman movie - you know, the one with Michael Keaton and Kim Bassinger. And I was hooked. It was the scene where Bruce Wayne tries to entertain Vicky Vale in the formal dining room, only to end up in the kitchen with Alfred telling boyhood tales on Bruce. I couldn't help but think that for all his reputation for the weird, Tim Burton's real genius was in this scene.
It's a warm moment counterpointed by the creation of the Joker. Bruce is trying to let his normal side come out and allow someone else into his life. Jack has been betrayed, and with a heaping helping of physical deformity is shutting everybody out and killing the one who betrayed him. Bruce doesn't know quite how to go about kissing Vicky... or is it part of his Bruce Wayne act? The Joker is enraged that he was betrayed over a woman. Both Keaton and Jack Nicholson are fascinating in their roles, and Tim Burton's juxtapositions make those performances pop. Only a commercial break pulled me away.
These are the things that are easily forgotten in the making of a superhero epic. A good director knows how to reveal character in deceptively trivial scenes of the mundane. We don't need to start from Day One to know who Bruce Wayne is, and he becomes even more intriguing with some of the mystery left to our imaginations. Yes, we are seeing the origin of The Joker, but Jack doesn't need a montage of disciplined training to get there; much of The Joker already existed in Jack's personality long before. The Joker's face is created overnight, but the psychosis, the deformity of a personality, was there all along. In other words, Nicholson's character was already a head case, so we enjoy watching him go over the edge and over the top.
This is fun. And that's what superhero movies are supposed to be. We came to watch Wolverine kick ass. I want to see Superman be super. I want Spiderman to climb the side of a building and throw a web at the Green Goblin. And I want to see Storm get her meteorological freak on. It would seem like an easy thing to do... but often times Hollywood drops the ball. And I fear watching the trailers for "Green Lantern," "Thor," and now "Captain America," the ball keeps getting dropped.
Why? How? I don't know exactly, but there does seem to be a system of rules in place in Hollywood for making, and consequentially blowing up a superhero movie. After years of exhaustive research in front of the TV, I think I've formulated those rules.
So, here they are. HOW TO MAKE A HOLLYWOOD SUPERHERO MOVIE
1. Acquire the rights to a superhero (a "property" as we say in the biz) who is a part of our pop culture heritage. He... or she (why haven't we had a Wonder Woman movie? What's up with that?) is legend. Their every nuance is a part of our daily conversation: Faster than a speeding bullet, Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, It's clobberin' time! Don't make me angry... you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. You want a Brand Name property that is guaranteed box office gold with its familiarity. Everybody knows this guy.
2. Hit the "reset" (as we say in the biz). Reinvent the origin. Be sure to spend 90 minutes with Peter Parker searching for his raison d'etre. Batman can't get to ass kickin' until the Batcave has achieved perfect feng shui. Make sure we get to see Tony Stark invent every single detail of the Iron Man suit. In doing so, you are sure to annoy the casual moviegoer, and bore the fanboys right into going to see "Winnie The Pooh" instead. (Note: the original "Superman: The Movie" may be the one that started this trend, but it was justified. There were some contradictions and misconceptions that had to be put right. And besides, it was epic. Clark leaving home still gets to me.)
3. Cast somebody I've never heard of as the lead. (Yeah, again, "Superman." Nobody heard of Christopher Reeve. But that movie was freakin' epic.) Half the people who went to Tim Burton's "Batman" wanted to see just how in the hell Micheal Keaton was going to pull it off. Patrick Stewart as Professor X was good. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark... now you're talking.
4. Get the love interest all wrong. What's so hard about casting Lois Lane nowadays?
5. Market the living daylights out of it starting at about six months before the release. Snag your opening weekend numbers. Then vanish from the face of the earth faster than Rupert Murdock's credibility. Then shrug when the box office tanks the second week. Blame Harry Potter.
6. Release the Blu-Ray three months later. Market the living daylights out of it.
7. Oh, and speaking a marketing, be sure to tie in with a cheesy promotion with a retail chain. My favorite: the "Green Lantern" tie-in with Subway featuring - for a limited time - sandwiches graced with the refreshing taste of avocado. Yum.
And it's just that easy. Follow these rules and you're sure to have a somewhat hollow and disappointing movie that creates enough fan buzz on Twitter to convince the suits that we can green light the next installment in the franchise saga. ("Sequel" as we say in the biz.)