Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Classics Illustrated

You may be familiar with the urban legend that Orson Welles had planned on making a Batman movie back in the 1940s. If not, learn all about it at Brian Cronin’s excellent Comic Book Legends Revealed site, a weekly must-read for yours truly. Yeah, the story is a hoax but it’s a good one that sets any movie and/or comic book fanboy’s imagination on hyperdrive. The story popped to mind recently as I was reflecting on the mind-boggling number of superhero movies that will be racing to a theatre near you over the next few years. Just ten years ago, the idea of Kenneth Branagh directing Thor would have been dismissed as ridiculous but it’s on its way.

The whole thing got me to thinking. What if some of the greatest directors of all time suddenly found themselves resurrected in Hollywood today? And what if the only thing they could get a studio to agree to finance was a superhero movie? What would they do? Nobody can say for sure, obviously, but I’ve come up with a few ideas that make a weird kind of sense. If nothing else, they’d make for good companions to Welles’ Batman.

The Defenders directed by Robert Altman

It stands to reason that Altman, director of such ensemble classics as MASH and Nashville, would be attracted to a team comic. But his contrarian nature would prevent him from warming up to titles like Justice League of America or The Avengers. Enter Marvel’s non-team from the 1970s, the mighty Defenders! The Defenders was a rotating group of heroes (and anti-heroes) who occasionally banded together to combat a common threat but more often were looking out for themselves. The “core” group, such as it was, consisted of Dr. Strange, the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk and the Silver Surfer, four guys generally known for not playing well with others. Altman most likely would have cast Elliot Gould as Dr. Strange, Donald Sutherland as the Silver Surfer, Keith Carradine as the Sub-Mariner and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Hulk. Altman’s Defenders would be alternately praised as a masterpiece and dismissed as unwatchable garbage, mainly because there would be virtually no action sequences and lengthy scenes featuring all of the heroes talking over each other.

Dr. Strange directed by Luis Bunuel

A Doc Strange solo flick, on the other hand, could only be directed by someone who understands the power of image over dialogue. Enter the master of surrealism, Luis Bunuel. The movie would be even better if Bunuel dragged his old partner-in-crime, Salvador Dali, back from the dead along with him. But even without Dali, Bunuel would come up with a mind-bending Dr. Strange flick like none other. I’ll bet he could even take such nonsensical terms as the Orb of Agamotto, the Dread Dormammu and the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak and turn them into a weird kind of poetic dialogue. Interestingly enough, back in the 80s Repo Man director Alex Cox was working on a Dr. Strange movie that obviously never came to pass. Now THAT would have been a superhero movie worth getting excited about!

Wonder Woman directed by Federico Fellini

Off-hand, I can’t think of another director who appreciated women in all their forms more than Fellini. Pick pretty much any random movie from his filmography and you’ll be treated to some of the strongest, most complex women portrayed on film. Fellini’s Wonder Woman would probably be the sexiest superhero movie of all time. The only difficulty would be convincing him that at least some of the movie should take place outside of the Amazons’ Paradise Island home.

Captain America directed by John Ford

One of the quintessentially American filmmakers tackling the quintessential American superhero? Kind of a no-brainer, don’t ya think? Ford made some great war movies like The Long Voyage Home and They Were Expendable in addition to countless classic westerns. I envision Ford’s Captain America as a cross between those war pictures and the Technicolor splendor of movies like The Searchers. Sure, John Wayne would probably want to play Cap but I’ll bet Ford would have had the good sense to go for Henry Fonda instead.

The Phantom Stranger directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It’s hard to come up with a superhero concept that would interest Hitchcock since he seemed to have little use for supernatural stories when he was alive. The farthest he ever veered from reality was The Birds and even then, he had absolutely no interest in explaining why the feathered little creeps went bonkers. So how about the Phantom Stranger? His origins and even his agenda are vague. He turns up wherever strange forces lurk, sometimes debunks them as hoaxes and sometimes has to call upon his mysterious powers to defeat a truly occult threat. But most likely, Hitchcock would realize that The Phantom Stranger already sounds like the title of one of his movies, keep that, ditch the rest and come up with something that has absolutely nothing to do with the original concept. Hey, Hitch did what he wanted. Who are you to argue?

Superman directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Why is everybody always so eager to turn Superman into an all-American, boy scout next door type? I say let’s bring him back to his Nietzschean ideal by recruiting the director of Triumph Of The Will and Olympia to craft his next screen adventure! In Riefenstahl’s hands, we’d see just how super Superman really is, with soaring flight sequences and statuesque images of his physique. Hell, if she could convince the German people that Hitler was basically a demigod, making us believe a man can fly should be a piece of cake.

Spider-Man directed by Francois Truffaut

One of the things that makes Spidey so unique and so beloved is that he’s matured a bit as the character has grown older. He’s gone from high school nerd to college geek to married man (and back again, thanks to Marvel), all the while wrestling with the great power and great responsibility of being Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s done a pretty decent job with the character but imagine if Truffaut were around to apply some of his 400 Blows magic to the web-slinger. Picture a five-film cycle like The Adventures Of Antoine Doinel, following Peter Parker from high school to middle-age. Heady stuff for a superhero franchise perhaps, but Spider-Man at his best lent himself to this kind of treatment.

Man-Thing directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Best superhero movie ever. Think about it! Ed’s got experience with swamp creatures (see Lugosi vs. the octopus in Bride Of The Monster). He’d milk the screams of those who know fear (and therefore burn at the Man-Thing’s touch) for all they’re worth. He’d wrap it up on time and under budget. And we’d get dialogue like this, delivered without a trace of irony or double entendre:

“What was it? That scared you. There in the swamp.”

“It was…a giant-size man-thing! It was hideous!”

‘Nuff said!