June 21 2003 - A few years back, cinema-goers visiting any big cinema chain may have spied a large silver cardboard display featuring a very recognisable "S" logo and the title Superman Lives emblazoned dramatically across it.
In the years since, some of those cineastes may have wondered what happened to that film: it is a rare project that gets to the stage of having promotional material delivered to cinema chains and then disappears off the radar. But such was the case with Superman Lives, a film that was to star Nicholas Cage as the man of steel.
At one stage, Superman and Batman, the two main pillars of DC Comics, and both franchises under the auspices of Warner Brothers, appeared cinematically unassailable. The four Batman films of the 1990s were massive commercial successes and many comic fans were excited when Warner Brothers bought the rights to produce Superman from Alexander Salkind, the man behind the Christopher Reeve series, in 1993.
The DC/Warner connection seemed all the more destined for success, considering the run of bad luck that DC's main competitor, Marvel Comics, had had with taking comic book heroes to the screen. Cases in point for Marvel include Howard the Duck and the rarely seen Fantastic Four film by B-grade maestro Roger Corman.
But in the past few years, Marvel Studios - the movie arm of Marvel Comics - has partnered with studios such as Fox to produce a string of hits including Spider-Man, Blade, Daredevil and X-Men, all of which have sequels either in the works or about to be released. Add to that list The Hulk, starring Eric Bana, and in-development projects such as Ghost Rider, and it appears that Marvel has turned its luck around well and truly.
Many of the problems DC and Warner have had with the Batman and Superman franchises appear to stem from an inability to quite know what to do with them. A quick review of the history of the Superman project over the past 10 years at Warner Brothers seems to confirm this. In 1995, two scriptwriters, Jonathon Lemkin and Gregory Poirier, wrote scripts for Superman, neither of which were acceptable to Warner chiefs. Things appeared to get back on track when Kevin Smith, writer/director of Clerks, Chasing Amy and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and all-round fan of the medium, was commissioned to write a script. Smith's script was based on the 1992 Death of Superman comic and inspired Nicholas Cage to come on board in the lead role.
However, Smith did not get along with Warner executive and former hairdresser Jon Peters. In an interview with Cinescape in 1998, Smith said that Peters made bizarre suggestions, including one that Brainiac's robot assistant be a "gay R2-D2" and wanting Brainiac to give Lex Luthor a space dog that would not get along with Lex. Hilarity would, no doubt, ensue.
Following Smith's departure, the Superman story passed through the hands of several more writers and directors, including, according to rumour, directors such as Robert Rodriguez, Shekhar Kupar and Oliver Stone, as well as several different treatments, including Superman v Lobo and, more importantly, a Batman v Superman storyline.
Warner originally became interested in this project after executives read a script by Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven. There were negotiations with Wolfgang Petersen, director of Perfect Storm, to take this project before his pet project, Troy, appeared to be successful, and Jude Law and Colin Farrell were mentioned as possible leads (Superman and Batman respectively). Akiva Goldsman, scriptwriter of A Beautiful Mind, was bought on to polish Walker's script and a release date of 2004 was set.
Then rumours surfaced of arguments between Alan Horn - the president of Warner Brothers - and top executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura over whether they should push ahead with the very dark Batman v Superman script (di Bonaventura's preferred option) or build new backgrounds from scratch for each character that would put their relationship in perspective and provide the supporting story for their eventual conflict (Horn's option).
Late in 2002, di Bonaventura quit Warner Brothers amid media speculation that the arguments over the Batman and Superman movies had led to his departure. By January this year, a Superman movie based on a script by J. J. Abrams was in the hands of director Brett Rattner, but by March Rattner had withdrawn.
At present the film may still go ahead, in the directorial hands of Michael Bay or Dominic Sena, or even McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), the director of Charlie's Angels. But the future of Superman at Warner still seems uncertain.
As for goings on at stately Wayne Manor, recently Chris Nolan seemed to be on board to direct a Batman project possibly based on a script of uncertain authorship titled Batman: The Frightening. However, at the time of writing Nolan has since committed to directing a film based on Christopher Priest's novel The Prestige.
Meanwhile, Frank Miller, writer of breakthrough Batman graphic novel The Dark Night Returns, is apparently still hard at work on a script for Batman: Year One, and Warner TV is rumoured to be starting work on a new animated series called Batman Wired.
One of the most curious players in the struggle to get this stuff burnt onto celluloid has been the internet geek press.
The most influential site for film geekdom is Ain't It Cool News, or AICN. Headed by Harry Knowles and his second-in-command Moriarty (real name Drew McWeeny), AICN pioneered the public reviewing of scripts and films in rough-cut format. They are none too backward in declaring their influence. In an article discussing the Superman films, or lack of them, Knowles mentions a previous article of his that thrashed an early script for The Hulk.
This, apparently, led to conference calls with Marvel staff and Marvel going back to "square one". Hurray for Geek Power!
Earlier this year, Moriarty posted an article on the J. J. Abrams script for Superman, under the title You'll Believe a Franchise Can Suck. The article prompted Abrams to contact Knowles and vent his annoyance.
Knowles's own review of the script was somewhat more enthusiastic and pointed out that several key faults in the script were either out altogether (such as Lex Luthor as a Kryptonian) or were still under review.
AICN and other geek press sites reflect a general distrust of Warner Brothers by comic fans. They cite the treatment of Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, writers of the recent animated series of Batman, Batman Beyond and Superman, especially the harsh cuts Warner Brothers made to Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
And don't get Knowles and Co started on the third and fourth in the Batman movie series, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Their take is that these two films, especially Batman and Robin, nearly killed the comic industry. Batman and Robin took an industry that had become more creative and critically respectable and dumbed it down to big effects, big stars and trashy merchandising aimed at children under 10.
Their basic axe to grind, then, is that Warner Brothers appears to have little respect for the characters and the concerns of fans. This is seen as being in stark contrast to Marvel.
Marvel Movies seem committed to giving each of the characters that make it to the screen - Marvel has around 4700 proprietary characters - the best chance of working by bringing in directors and writers with a real passion for the projects and strong pop-culture credentials.
Hence The Hulk is in the hands of director Ang Lee, who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and both X-Men films were under the directorial eye of Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects).
Marvel Movies head Avi Arad is on record as saying that he wants the Marvel Movies franchises to attract art-house actors and filmmakers. It may not always be the case - after all, The Punisher, another Marvel property, is rumoured to star Thomas Jane, last seen in Dreamcatcher and the man who played the shark wrangler hero of Deep Blue Sea. but Jane apparently has a solid background in independent film.
Then again, many comic books demand a certain bold, pop-culture sensibility. It is easy to see a flashy, kinetic director like Peyton Reed (Bring It On) helming The Fantastic Four film, or even Brett Leonard, director of The Lawnmower Man, taking something fun like Man Thing and making it work.
Marvel has a slew of other films in the pipeline - Deathlok, Iron Man, Iron Fist, Dr Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer and Prime are all listed as potential films for the next two or so years. Also, Nicholas Cage may get to finally star in a comic book film, as he is rumoured to be attached to Ghost Rider.
The success of Marvel's films has turned the comic book industry around. Marvel's own figures put their readership in the 12- to 17-year-old bracket at an astonishing 10,826,000 comics per month, with that figure being almost doubled in the six to 11 years range. The X-Men comics have sold more than 400 million copies, which, according to Marvel, make them the best-selling books of all time.
DC's readership is considerably less. In the 12- to 17-year-old range, the figure is 5,597,000 - just over half that of Marvel's.
Most telling is that the Spiderman and X-Men comics and graphic novels each outsell Batman and Superman combined.
There was a time not so long ago that DC and Marvel combined to put out a four-issue series in which heroes and villains from each "universe" crossed over into the other - Batman fighting Captain America, Superman fighting the Hulk.
With the state of DC's movie franchises floundering and uncertain and Marvel's continuing success both commercially and with fans and critics, it may be that such a partnership never arises again.
Heroic battle for screen space
June 21 2003
By Alan Gelder
Eric Bana Web Site
Born: August 9, 1968 Melbourne, Australia
Eric Bana is one of Australia's best known performers, both as an actor and comedian. He has worked extensively in television and as a stand up comedian, and more recently in film.
Eric Bana had become a star in his native Australia with his stand-up routines and his appearances on various TV series including "Full Frontal" and his own eponymous show. The compact, handsome performer of Croatian and German ancestry began performing comedy in 1991 at a local bar in Melbourne. Within two years, Bana had progressed to being featured on television. Although his sharp wit and skills as a sketch comic had some calling him the next breakout Australian star, he was relegated to a supporting role in his feature film debut in "The Castle" (1997) and a featured part in the Australian drama series "Something in the Air" beginning in 2000. Then came "Chopper", the somewhat fanciful biography of one of Australia's most notorious figures. Bana gained some 30 pounds, shaved his head and underwent extensive makeup daily to cover his body in tattoos to transform into Mark Read, a cult celebrity thanks to a best-selling memoir. In addition, the actor did extensive research for the role, including interviewing the subject. While the resultant feature divided critics and audiences -- some felt it was an intelligent and thought-provoking portrait of the criminal mind, while others decried the depiction of such a charismatic killer -- few could dispute the power and skill of Bana's central performance. He earned near unanimous praise for his skillful, compelling work and picked up several accolades, including the Best Actor citation from the Australian Film Institute. Even before the international release of "Chopper", Bana had determined to leave "Something in the Air" and concentrate on an international career. Ridley Scott tapped him to portray an American sergeant in the contemporary war drama "Black Hawk Down" (2001), about the conflict between US forces and Somalis during a humanitarian mission. Those who had scoffed at the late 90s prediction that Bana would be the next big thing from Down Under perhaps would come to regret their derision, particularly in light of his being cast in the coveted role of Dr. Bruce Banner in the Ang Lee-directed adaptation of "The Incredible Hulk" (2003).
Eric Bana Online Shrine
Enquiries and Bookings (Eric Bana)
Lauren Bergman Management