The Death of the Super-Hero Film Franchise ... Again!

Date: August 13, 2002
Author: Barry Freiman (barryfreiman@ameritech.net)
Copyright © 2002

Is anyone who has been breathlessly awaiting the next exciting on-screen adventure of Batman and/or Superman at all surprised that Wolfgang Petersen announced today that he was "temporarily" shelving the Batman v. Superman film project in favor of directing another film? Since the abortion of a film, Batman and Robin, destroyed the AOL Time Warner DC Super-hero film franchise back in 1997, there have been premature announcements by Time Warner for films featuring not only the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, but also Catwoman and Batman Beyond. Nicolas Cage as Superman in a film directed by Tim Burton. Ashley Judd as Catwoman. Darren Aaronofsky takes on Batman: Year One. And, most recently, Wolfgang Petersen directing Batman v. Superman. How much will AOL Time Warner invest in producing aborted super-hero projects before they realize there is something seriously amiss in both their pre-production process and marketing department that makes it impossible for them to get any new super-hero franchise beyond the rumor and innuendo phase?

To this Superman fanatic, AOL Time Warner is acting like the long-time impotent who has finally felt some potency and therefore winds up shooting a premature load. And what a premature load of crap that has been fed to Superman and Batman fans over the past 10 years. Ironically, Superman: The Movie, the classic 1978 Richard Donner film, helped to create the idea of film franchises, which has in turn undermined AOL Time Warner's ability to produce a quality super-hero film from start to finish in recent years. When films like Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were originally released, nobody thought in terms of creating anything but a good film. The idea back then was that a good film brought people out to a theater. And, unlike the pre-release marketing blitzes of toys, books, and underwear that accompany the release of almost every "big-budget film" today, demand for a film produced a supply for film-related products. Today, filmmakers have seemingly abandoned the simple economic concept of supply and demand by glutting the marketplace with a supply of film-related merchandise months before a film is released. When I went into Toys-R-Us a few years back and saw toys for Wild, Wild West, the Will Smith cowboy vehicle, well before the film's release, I realized that there had to be something very seriously wrong in Tinseltown.

With film budgets ordinarily set in the millions even for "low-budget" films, one can't necessarily blame a company like AOL Time Warner, already using its non-online departments to recapture some of those huge online losses, when it attempts to recover much of that budget up front through licensing deals. If I'm the head of AOL Time Warner, and I'm committing to pay Will Smith $20 million to put on a cowboy hat and save the July 4th weekend, then I don't necessarily want to wait till July 4th weekend (of two years hence usually) to see whether there will be any return on my investment. The reality is that film studios are becoming licensors rather than filmmakers because licensing is the only resource available to film studios to ensure cash flow.

As someone living day-to-day outside of Hollywood, I can't help but wonder how much is enough to pay to the people who do nothing more than entertain us? At what point does a Personal Financial Statement showing $400 million in assets really introduce a change in quality of life for an actor from Financials showing $300 million in assets. The true irony of Dr. Evil's demand for $1 million from the President in the first Austin Powers film was that Mike Myers received $20 million for the next Austin Powers film. I can't imagine anyone, from entertainers to sports figures to corporate executives, who truly deserve that level of financial exclusivity from the rest of us. And the risks of typecasting and overexposure do not justify the means in the pop culture pantheon. Under what possible circumstance could a single 20-something like, say Ben Affleck, actually have use for a 3 or 4-acre ranch in Malibu? How many homes in how many worldwide cities is enough, Madonna? Educating celebrities on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse so that we don't continue to inadvertently turn recovering celebrities into heroes might be one better use for that money. Ben Affleck made a fortune off of Good Will Hunting and made no secret of having blown much of that money on gambling and booze. What should society expect of its entertainers?

Say what you will about the Salkinds, the producers of the first four Superman movies (Superman, Superman II, Superman III, and Supergirl), when they gave Marlon Brando $2 million to play Jor-El in Superman, they were giving that money to a film legend, not a flavor of the day hottie. And Chris Reeve, Helen Slater, John Haymes Newton, and Gerard Christopher, who played Superman, Supergirl, and Superboy, respectively, were all required to sign morals clauses into their contracts to ensure that they acted appropriately super-human both on and off the set. It may be that, because the Salkinds paid money to acquire the Superman licenses for film and TV, they had more of a financial incentive than AOL Time Warner to care for the characters. They certainly had more incentive to get a film made.

Expectations for the next AOL Time Warner produced super hero film are quite high, but only because the marketing department keeps issuing premature announcements about "re-starting the franchise." Franchises can't be planned. Pop culture at its best usually is not intentional. The Brady Bunch became the official television show for an entire generation not because Sherwood Schwartz intended that, but because the show took on a life of its own in syndication. Adam West and Burt Ward played Batman and Robin amidst a clearly indifferent culture, with the Batman comic books on the verge of cancellation before the show aired in 1966. They created Batmania. In 1989, prior to the release of Tim Burton's Batman, AOL Time Warner's predecessor company showed how much had changed since then with the glut of Bat products hitting the marketplace months before the film's June 1989 release. Subsequent Bat films became increasingly more obvious in their true intentions. By the time the Bat franchise had become ALL about merchandising with the release of Batman and Robin in 1997, there were simply too many cooks stirring the pot to create anything but a mish-mash.

The devolution of the super-hero film has been a gradual one. At the beginning of the timeline, there's Superman, produced by outsiders without a direct vested interest in the "character" as opposed to the film. Only when Time Warner started to think of the Chris Reeve films as a Superman franchise did the quality begin to suffer.

The corporate concept of centralized management is apparently lost on AOL Time Warner. Rather than put one individual or one department in charge of developing a film project like Batman v. Superman, the film is developed by committee, the script prepared by a "hot" writer with a successful film under his belt, the licensing department having as much of a voice in the development of the film series as the producers, and the director and stars being the stars of the project, rather than allowing the inherent goodwill of 60-plus year old characters like Batman and Superman to speak for themselves. Chris Reeve IS Superman. Superman is not Chris Reeve. If and when I see Daredevil, it will not be Daredevil on screen, but Ben Affleck in a Daredevil costume. (I don't mean to be bashing Ben throughout this article but he and Matt Damon's rises to super-stardom are certainly viable short-hand references to that which does not seem to work functionally in Hollywood; even their own Project Greenlight seems to be an admission of that.)

When films are announced before they're truly been given the green light, everyone loses. AOL Time Warner must have people working for them right now whose only job is to respond to press inquiries about Batman v. Superman. That costs money and adds to the multi-millions already blown on Batman and Superman films since 1997 that have never made it past pre-production. With each announcement and each repeal of the previous announcement, fan expectations grow higher and higher, but the non-fan public loses interest quickly with their notoriously short attention spans. With all of the treatments circulating Hollywood featuring Batman, Superman and Batman and Superman, I still think the most dramatically compelling story would be the story of corporate greed and mismanagement that has resulted in the five-year coma for live action depictions of our favorite Super Friends.