Friday, October 5, 2012

2012 Hitfix: Martian Manhunter is a Superhero who Really Doesn't Need His Own Movie

I used to visit the movie news website, because I liked the place in general, but most specifically because I tended to either agree with or at least respect the views of Devin Faraci. CHUD lost some other people I thought were okay, the replacements didn't do much for me, and then Faraci ran off to run the Alamo Drafthouse's Badass Digest blog. I rarely visit either site, especially because Faraci now has his own hangers-on and the site has a crumby structure. Similarly, Drew McWeeny used to write most of the reviews worth reading at the generally execrable Ain't It Cool News under the pseudonym "Moriarty." McWeeny moved to Hitfix, but again, I rarely visit either site. When I look for broad spectrum pop culture news and reviews, I now visit Pajiba, because they have the best quality of reviewers across the board and a sense of community that has kept them together.

What does any of that have to do with the Alien Atlas? Well, pages don't hit themselves, especially redundant newer movie sites built on talent splintered from more popular but increasingly irrelevant older movie sites. Nothing draws internet eyes quite like countdown lists and going negative...
With the continuing massive success of Marvel's movie universe -- culminating in "The Avengers" -- and "The Dark Knight Rises," Hollywood isn't going to stop making superhero movies anytime soon. But for every hero who's ready for his or her close-up, there are a handful that we just can't see working on the big screen. The HitFix editorial staff narrowed down the list to 10 superheroes who really don't need their own movie.

McWeeny talked some noise about our boy, so I wanted to offer some blowback static to this...
Martian Manhunter

Warner Bros. Animation has done a great job of making Martian Manhunter feel like he fits neatly into the world of the Justice League over the past few versions of the show, and today's kids probably have a better understanding of the character than comics readers of the past. What the show has done so well, though, is show how he fits into this team, and he works best when he has "normal" humans to play off of. He is an observer, and without other people to observe, he's less interesting. He brings an unusual set of powers to the team, which also makes him a nice fit for the Justice League, and while we hope they include him in the film, we also hope they leave him there, on the team, instead of trying desperately to squeeze a solo film out of him. If that film fails, it will sour Warner on the character, and we'd rather have him in the team than completely left out of film altogether.

-Drew McWeeny
When I call Red Tornado a waste of circuits and self-pity, my prejudice is informed by the near totality of that character's existence revolving around serving as cannon fodder in sub-prime team books (Primal Force, anyone?) McWeeny comes from a common but inexcusable place of ignorance that assumes the same of J'Onn J'Onzz. Even Wonder Woman is a terrible character if you only know her from Justice League comics. While the Manhunter from Mars has played a pivotal role in the JLA, he has always been best presented as an alternative to the Magnificent Seven rather than their jobber. He was a co-founder of the original five member team because Mort Weisinger wouldn't let Julie Schwartz have Superman. Once Jack Liebowitz overruled Mort when JLA sales took a dip, the Man of Steel crowded the Manhunter from Mars out of the book. J'Onn J'Onzz's big revival in the '80s as part of the Detroit and International Leagues was as a Silver Age classicist hero governing neophytes and screw-ups in the field while the big guns were otherwise occupied. He's the League's greatest, most heartfelt fallback plan. In a JLA movie comprised of the Magnificent Seven, he would be S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, eating up screen time and engendering resentment over space lost for the characters audiences came to see.

Meanwhile, the Sleuth from Outer Space had a thirteen year solo run begun years before the Justice League of America was even a twinkle in Julie's eye, and has appeared in some truly remarkable stories since, foremost among them the highly adaptable American Secrets mini-series. Combining that core story with elements of the Samachson, DeMatteis and Ostrander origins (as well as cherry-picking the likes of O'Neil, Englehart, Verheiden and Cooke) would produce an exceptional paranoid period genre film with an extraterrestrial protagonist. If it must tie into a League flick, it could be a McCarthy era response to Marvel's love letter to Roosevelt's Captain America: The First Avenger. Polarized politics, conspiracy, and xenophobia are so part of the zeitgeist, right? The worst thing Warner Brothers could do is throw a Hulking green guy into their stab at The Avengers money without an elaborate set-up, because it would stink of rip-off to the common moviegoer. Honestly though, I think J'Onn J'Onzz would be an excellent choice for a low-to-medium budget standalone with a quality writer/director given the creative freedom lost to presumed tentpoles like Green Lantern. Plus, it would be an excellent opportunity to court minority audiences they lost out on by favoring Hal Jordan over John Stewart, and earn credibility Marvel Studios lack by wimping out on Black Panther and Luke Cage. Instead of being the conservative stiffs, DC could claim a progressive stance for the first time since... ever, really.

Speaking not just as a Martian Manhunter fan, but as a cinephile, J'Onn J'Onzz has more potential to carry a great movie than most any other "known" hero DC could set up with a film. The character lacks the enormous baggage that comes with the icons, is adaptable to a wide variety of interpretations without risking backlash, can dig deeper into audience accessible genres like sci-fi, horror, and noir without cheesy overt super-heroics undercutting them, and offers a degree of recognizably without demanding a massive budget. So long as the core traits of the character remain, filmmakers have a free hand with interpretation. He doesn't have to be green. He doesn't have to wear a costume. He doesn't even necessarily have to be a he. Almost any solid actor could be cast and judged based purely on the merits of their performance. Nick Cage, Ben Affleck, Halle Berry, Thomas Jane, or Eric Bana could have been lauded as Detective Jones, instead of pitied for their super-hero casting misfires. Quite simply, Martian math adds up a hell of a lot better than trying to pull off a Flash picture that isn't completely laughable. J'Onn J'Onzz belongs on a short list of super-heroes who require adaptation to film, not one that excludes him.

Superheroes who really don't need their own movie


mathematicscore said...

Whole heartedly agree; on the other hand, Hollywood has not proven to be anywhere near this smart.

Omega Agent1 said...

Damn! @mathematicscore: Thought I was the only one who knew. The ironic thing is, we know, they know we know and the crap keeps coming.

Frank, great write up. This is exactly how they overlook the Bronze Tiger. A character that can transfer to the big screen in a hundred different ways.

Diabolu Frank said...

Bronze Tiger is a problematic translation to live action for the same reason as Werewolf By Night... Why? If you want to do a wolfman flick, why pay Marvel Comics a royalty on public domain folklore? What value is there really in the Jack Russell "brand?"

Ben Turner was a martial arts master and a spy who got brainwashed into turning evil before recovering. There's no reason to involve DC Comics when your character is a common genre trope. In order to make Bronze Tiger worthwhile as an adaptation, DC has to give him a role within their universe that matters. If he's possibly the greatest martial artist alive, who took down Batman and had Lady Shiva as a sidekick, DC needs to elevate his visibility to display that prowess. Instead, he went from Richard Dragon's buddy to the chop-socky guy in the Suicide Squad. Why won't DC let him be more-- give him his own villains and diversify his relationships?

will_in_chicago said...

J'Onn would have a lot to add to a JLA movie -- for one thing he is one of the few people who could get the team to work together, using his telepathy to try to make sure the team works better than its current comic book version. He has a wealth of powers and could help a team against any number of threats. More importantly, as someone who was raised in a non-human culture and is aware that he will never fully be accepted by humanity as one of our own, J'Onn can offer a lot of unique insights into the other characters and our own society. (Heck, he may wonder why with the knowledge that aliens and magic are real, that humanity does not solve its problems to be ready for tremendous threats.)

As a solo character, J'Onn can be written into any number of genres. He lacks the "aw shucks" naivete of Barry Allen and the arrogance of Hal Jordan. Indeed, a few different actors could legitimately play J'Onn in different guises in a film. So, while I respect the man once known as Moriarty, I must politely disagree.

will_in_chicago said...

By the way, Frank, I have some news about Earth 2, issue 5. I learned that there is a reference to a hero who is not yet ready on that alternate world: the Red Tornado. So, perhaps the usurper is going to be put in with the reimaginings of the old JSA. Perhaps it is a new version of Ma Hunkle. Here is the source of my info --

Diabolu Frank said...

I hope Red Tornado is a girl this time.

Count Drunkula said...

Martian Manhunter is actually one of DC's characters that I think could translate even better as a television series than on the big screen. I'm not knocking his bankability in theaters, nor am I disagreeing with your points, Frank. I just think he could build a much more nuanced place--and audience--in a TV series that combined elements of THE X-FILES and HEROES. The good elements, obviously.

Diabolu Frank said...

I absolutely agree, Count. I don't think J'Onn is really that well equipped for children's animation (barring a heavy Silver Age flavor involving Zook and the Diabolu Idol-Head,) but live action TV on a modest budget would suit him just fine.

LissBirds said...

m.c. beat me to the punch with everything I was going to say! You're right on the mark on all accounts. Great points about the potential the character has from a cinematic point-of-view: there's so much possibility for a director. Even if by some complete fluke a noir period piece with an alien superhero is greenlighted, Hollywood would probably find a way to mess it up somehow.

But I would absolutely love a period piece steeped in McCarthy-era paranoia with a dash of conspiracy that also happened to be a superhero movie.

Or a live action TV series...I wouldn't mind that, either.