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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

The summer superhero blockbuster season is well underway: Avengers 2 landed in May, Ant-Man follows now in July, and Fantastic Four hits in August. That’s only half of 2014’s six films, but 2016 will make up the difference with a record eight. There was a time when I thought the superhero film genre had an artistic future. But after Heath Ledger’s Oscar for playing the Joker, Warner Bros. and Marvel has dedicated themselves to reproducing largely the same formula-driven commercial product.

So to analyze the nature of Hollywood superheroes, I’m calling in two experts from opposite ends of the literary spectrum: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the most acclaimed novelists of Russian literature, and Black Snyder, a third-rate screenwriter that Sylvester Stallone once likened to a flatworm.

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I read Crime and Punishment in A.P. English as a high school senior—and I even finished it (a dubious honor my adolescent self did not award Moby Dick). I started The Brothers Karamavoz in college while working graveyard shifts as a warehouse security guard, but after totaling my Toyota on a sleepy drive home, I quit both.

Snyder started his career writing episodes for the Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated before going on to pen Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a comedy Roger Ebert called “moronic beyond comprehension” and which its star, Sylvester Stallone, declared “one of the worst films in the entire solar system,” insisting “a flatworm could write a better script.” And yet when a good friend of mine—a former script reader for a California production company—wanted to collaborate on a screenplay, he handed me Snyder’s Save the Cat!

The how-to screenwriting guide explains why the Sandra Bullock comedy vehicle Miss Congeniality is a better movie than Memento. It comes down to formula: Miss Congeniality hits all 15 beats on The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, while Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut “is just a gimmick that cannot be applied to any other movie.” If Snyder were a poetry professor, he would lecture about the superiority of sonnets to free verse, while defining the greatest works of literature by the uniformity of their iambic beats.

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Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s pawnbroker-murdering philosophy student, would classify Snyder as “ordinary.” Raskolnikov explains: “men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them.”

In other words, Hollywood spec writers play by the rules. And Snyder understands those rules well. He divides the universe into ten idiosyncratic genres. His “Dude with a Problem,” for example, includes Die Hard and Schindler’s List, while “Superhero” goes beyond Batman Begins to claim Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind—and probably anything else starring Russell Crowe. Snyder’s ur-Superhero is Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians: “a Superhero tale asks us to lend human qualities, and our sympathy, to a super being, and identity with what it must be like to have to deal with the likes of us little people.” So Batman, Frankenstein, and Dracula are all Superheroes “challenged by the mediocre world around them,” because it’s really “the tiny minds that surround the hero that are the real problem.”

Raskolnikov would agree. His second category, “extraordinary” men, “all transgress the law,” because “making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people.” So “all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it.” The rut-dwelling Lilliputians, meanwhile, will try to “punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation.”

Snyder fulfills his Lilliputian vocation for Christopher Nolan when he shouts “screw Memento!” and dismisses all the “hulabaloo” because of its low box office revenue. That was in 2005, the year Batman Begins premiered, and three years before Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight. Raskolnikov warns that “the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them,” and sure enough, Synder lauds Nolan’s caped crusader for following “the beats down to the minute.”

Or does that means Nolan is a Superhero who overcame his Gulliverness by conforming to the Lilliputian Beat Sheet? Either way, he, like Bruce Wayne “is admirable because he eschews his personal comfort in the effort to give back to the community.” That, says Snyder, solves the problem of “how to have sympathy for the likes of millionaire Bruce Wayne or genius Russell Crowe.” They save the cat.

And Raskolnikov agrees again. His “extraordinary man” has “an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep” if overstepping “is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea,” and idea which might be “of benefit to the whole of humanity.” That’s how he rationalizes killing and robbing that nasty old pawnbroker. He argues (faux hypothetically) to a cop: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

It doesn’t matter how the cop answers, because a real Gulliver wouldn’t have asked a Lilliputian for his opinion. That’s Raskolnikov’s downfall. He’s reading from the wrong page in Save the Cat! He wants to be a Superhero (“An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world”), but he’s really just a Dude with a Problem (“An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances”). Worse, his circumstances are self-inflicted. He fell for Snyder’s Superhero formula because it “gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential.”

Raskolnikov fails to be “a man of the future,” but Nietzsche (who ranked reading Dostoyevksky “among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life”) took that “extraordinary” character type and renamed him the ubermensch. After Jerry Siegel adopted it, DC completed the circle by calling Superman “The Man of Tomorrow.”

But Dostoyevsky is no origin point. After explaining his theories, even Raskolnikov admits: “there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before.”Or as one of Snyder’s studio execs told him: “Give me the same thing . . . only different!”

That, sadly, is the state of the Hollywood superhero.

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Thor 2

According to the new Thor movie, every few millennia the universes line up for an anything-goes cosmic cross-over called the Convergence. Inhabitants of unrelated realms get sucked through portals and tossed together to defy the laws of physics. It happened for the first time in 2012. They called it The Avengers.  Superheroes from all the Marvelverses were plucked from their disparate origin worlds to converge in a single, box office-defying blockbuster.

Physicists predict the next Convergence will occur in 2015—not once, but twice! Not only will The Avengers 2 draw the sequel-spinning franchises of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America together again, but Warner Brothers’ Batman vs. Superman have Gotham and Metropolis on a collision course—with Paradise Island and Starling City and other DC planets to be swept into the same Justice League gravity pit.

But which Convergence will come to define all of superhero reality?

In Thor: the Dark World, an evil dark elf wants to use the Convergence to remake reality in his own dark image. He’s played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, but his real name is Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight trilogy and the gray tones it casts over Man of Steel now define the DC brand. It’s a humorless void happier with the droning rumble of Christian Bale’s Bat-rasp than the giggles of a live audience.

Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight Elf wants to crush the world into a Black Hole. But Thor, with his lightning bolts and deadpan timing, is all about levity. He’s super-hunk Chris (not Christopher) Hemsworth in the credits, but his real name is Joss Whedon. The Asgardian—like his buddies Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and even the ever earnest Steve Rodgers—is a Comedian. He throws that mighty hammer at all kinds of monstrous bad-asses, but he it’s our funny bone he keeps hitting. I didn’t see Joshing Joss’ name in the credits, but I hear Mr. Whedon was responsible for major rewrites and reshoots—all part of his uber-duties as the overseeing Odin of the Marvelverses. He’s Captain Convergence, and he wants the world to end in a laugh not a rasp.

Joss Whedon

Of course the Whedonverse isn’t a flawless reality. There’s a moment in Thor 2 when a funeral barge sails over an Asgardian waterfall and hangs there a moment before dropping—a little like Wile E. Coyote after sprinting past the edge of a canyon. It would be pointless to criticize a Road Runner cartoon for its failure to follow basic laws of physics. And the same is true of Thor: the Dark World and the laws of plotting. The word “convenient” comes to mind, as does “inexplicable” and “far-fetched.” Director Alan Taylor is hoping we’ll be too busy enjoying ourselves to ask annoying questions like “How is it that a random convergence portal just happened to drop Thor’s girlfriend of all people into the exact spot where the Dark Elf’s reality-destroying superweapon has been hidden for millennia?” Comic worlds tend to cut corners. Do we really need to hear a ponderous explanation? Nolanland has plenty of those, and its’ still pockmarked with its own plot portals.

The Whedonverse—despite Whedon having literally majored in Women’s Studies—also can’t find much for Natalie Portman to do but look lovelorn and occasionally panic-stricken. This might be the result of the gender-challenged fabric of superhero reality, since DC can’t even turn a Wonder Woman screenplay penned by Joss Whedon into an actual movie. Apparently Hollywood executives think fanboys won’t buy tickets to see scantily-clad women in fight scenes. And yet the shirtless beefcake shot (Hemsworth provides a couple screamers) has become a staple of the genre (the clothing-challenged Stephen Amell flexes weekly on the CW’s Arrow).

This may or may not be why my wife surprised us both by saying she wanted to see the new Thor movie. I was so underwhelmed by the first that I was going to pass, but I’m glad she suggested it. I like dumb fun. I also like smart fun, but that combination has yet to Converge on a superhero universe. I’m hoping it won’t take a millennia.

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Dear Warner Bros.,

First off, congrats on the whole Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy thing. Sorry about The Avengers, but hey, Batman grabbed both silver and bronze for biggest grossing superhero movies of all time. Now you’re all asking yourselves one question:

How soon till we reboot!

If you follow the Spider-Man model, you have the minimum of a five-year hiatus. That’s a 2017 release date. Which is like, wow, a long time from now. You could jump sooner, but The Amazing Spider-Man took a lot of heat for its accelerated offing of Tobey Maguire. And even though it was a better film than Spider-Man, it grossed a measly $257 million against the original’s $403. Hell, even Spider-Man 3 pulled $336.

Plus the Nolan trilogy is now a “classic.” There were no street protests when Val Kilmer stole Michael Keaton’s batsuit back in ’95 (or George Clooney in ’97), but you’ll have Bane-style revolution if you yank Mr. Bale’s tights off too soon.

So how do you keep the franchise alive in the meantime? How do you capitalize on the Dark Knight when its success is its own roadblock?

Switch screens.

It’s time for the Warner Brothers Television to answer the bat signal.

You have plenty of TV superhero successes to build on. My Bronze Age generation grew up on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lois & Clark defined Superman for the 90’s, and Smallville just completed its decade-long run last year. Sure, you’ve had flops (The Flash, Birds of Prey), but the timing is right for the caped crusader to go prime time.

Except not.

And here’s where I worry about confusing you. People say Hollywood only understands things in very simple, high-concept terms, so I’ll try to keep this plain.

A TV show about some new Bruce Wayne gearing up to clobber crime once a week will not work (see “Bane-style revolution” above, except with more yawning). Keeping your franchise alive means shaking up the paradigm. The new show isn’t about Bruce. It’s about Gotham.

Maybe I should translate this into agent-pitch dialect:

“It’s Batman Begins meets Law & Order!”

“It’s Batman: Year One meets The Wire!”

It sounds weird, I know, but Batman can’t be the main character. In fact, he’ll almost never be on screen. Bruce will make a few appearances, but not in costume, and only as a secondary character. The viewers are in the know of course, but everyone in the show has no idea that the loser playboy has any connection to reports about that new vigilante weirdo pulverizing thugs in Crime Alley.

Let me be explicit about this: that means no Batcave, no shots from the Batmobile cockpit, not even a Wayne Mansion interior unless it’s from the POV of a visiting character. “The Bat-man” is just a name a reporter coins after an episode or two of rumor-level sightings. We only know him from his handiwork, via crime scene investigations, usually just details bubbling through the cast of cops and lawyers.

Steal as much as you like from Frank Miller. Year One is already plotted for a first season arc. “Meet newcomer Detective Jim Gordon as he struggles against police corruption in his adopted precinct.” I’d add a tier of uniformed patrolmen too. Maybe Officer Drake? Or, for a Dark Knight tie-in, Officer Blake. Better yet, Officer Carrie Kelley. The first time we glimpse a cape flapping into the dark, it’s going to be from one of their street-level points of view.

You’re going to need a posse of lawyers too, headed of course by District Attorney Harvey Dent. Don’t overdo the Two Face foreshadowing. Dent is a decent guy trying to work within a flawed legal system. That two-headed quarter in his pocket is just a trick he plays on arrested thugs he’s trying to turn, pretends he’s leaving it all to chance, heads you take the plea bargain, tails you walk free. But guess what happens to his meticulously crafted court cases when that new vigilante won’t play by the rules. How do you prosecute the big fish with that idiot warring on the small fries is scaring off your informants? I’d end Dent’s first season with the collapse of his biggest case. Maybe the legal system really is just random. In frustration, he grinds an X across his coin, a talisman of things to come.

As far as the other villains, tone them back too. No costumes, no MHA-HA-HAing. “The Riddler” is another newspaper-coined name for that anonymous guy phoning in tauntingly obscure tips and threats to the police hotline, another season-length plot to play out. The Penguin? That’s what the editorial cartoonist nicknamed the corrupt, old money mayor, scribbling in a monocle and umbrella for comic effect. Keep stealing from Miller and follow Selina Kyle’s gritty travails through Gotham’s underworld of drugs and prostitution as she develops her own brand of Mob-bashing vigilantism and Robin Hood-esque do-goodery.

Remember: the show is doing with Gotham what The Wire did with Baltimore and Treme New Orleans. It’s a portrait of a city. For real world locations, I’d go with Pittsburgh, and not just because I grew up there. It’s another way of building on Nolan’s vision. The city provided the working class feel of Dark knight Rises, something the TV show would need to expand. Plus Pittsburgh is a film-making mini-hub ready to go.

Tapping the Wire/Treme creative team will also provide something else woefully lacking from the history of the Batman franchise:

Black people.

Did anyone notice all the white faces when the police force charges Bane’s stronghold in Dark Knight Rises? I didn’t spot any black faces during the prison break either. Or on the streets. Or at the fundraising gala. Or just about anywhere in Gotham. It’s as if Morgan Freeman beamed in from an alternate dimension. Of course Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is no better on race. His urban mutants are thinly coded black gangs. And does anyone remember Jack Nicholson graffiti-painting the art museum to the beat of a boom box? At least Tim Burton’s Harvey Dent was played Billy Dee Williams, a cameo made pointless when Tommy Lee Jones camped up Two Face for the third movie.

But let’s not get off track here. We can talk casting after you start the development ball rolling. I’m thinking a Fall 2013 premiere. Not too close to the Nolan achievement to provoke grousing, but close enough to ride some of its wake. Especially when you start the pre-hype now. A year of strategically leaked rumors and production shots, and that massive Batman fan base will have their TVs tuned to their Bat channels before you spend a dollar on advertising.

Also, I assume you heard about Marvel greenlighting Joss Whedon’s S.H.I.E.L.D. show, right? So unless you want to get beat by The Avengers again, you better get the Batmobile in gear ASAP. If you have any questions, drop me a note. I’d be happy to read some of the preliminary scripts. I’m busy with my new semester, but I should be able to free up some time during Thanksgiving break.  Good luck till then!

Sincerely yours,

Chris Gavaler

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Last summer while I was visiting my parents in Pittsburgh, Christopher Nolan was shooting Dark Knight Rises at Heinz Field. I could have huddled in the stands with a few thousand other unpaid extras, watching the Steelers dress up as their alter egos, the Gotham Rogues. It’s a winter scene, so the crowd had to pretend to shiver as they sat in parkas in 90 degree heat all afternoon. But no one complained. They were grateful just to be part of the show.

And that pretty much sums up the Dark Knight trilogy.

Erinn Hutkin from Chicago’s Suburban Life phoned me last week to ask why Batman is so popular, why this movie was so highly anticipated. I’ll tell you what I told her.

Batman is the kind of make believe we love to mistake for reality. Usually superheroes give us exactly the opposite: blatantly larger-than-life abstraction. Men who fly. Men with impossible bodies. Men made of pixels limited only by the imagination of their computer animators. The biggest difference between the Superman cartoons of the 1940s and the barrage of superhero films of the last decade is technological. Hollywood has gotten more skilled at portraying the absurd.

Batman is different. Even “Bat-Man,” Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 original, stood apart from the other leotards. No alien rocket, no magic ring, no transformative laboratory catastrophe. He’s just a vigilante in a freaky suit.

There were plenty of non-superpowered crime-fighters before him—the Shadow and his gangs of 1930s mystery men—but Batman was the lone comic book hold-out. Even his origin story was a throwback. When Superman decides to champion the oppressed, there’s no motive. He could as easily rule the planet. The core of the superhero formula (regular Joe gets powers, dedicates himself to justice) is psychological nonsense.  Stan Lee fixed that in the 60s, but Finger and Kane found it first. Like so many of those other mystery men, Batman is all motive: BLAM! BLAM! in a back alley. His war on criminals isn’t ad hoc mission. It’s revenge. No magic bat swoops down and bites him on the neck. He transforms himself.

Christopher Nolan and his script brother, Jonathan, capitalize on that. Their Batman is made of flesh and crunching bone. He inhabits a world that looks a hell of a lot like ours. Tim Burton’s Gotham was phantasmagoric. His second movie was literally an amusement park. Nolan’s second Batman opened on street level Chicago. Joel Schumacher’s villains were cackling cartoons in campy costumes. Nolan’s are grotesquely broken human beings, not a superpower in sight. In fact, the most incongruous thing in Dark Knight Rises is the batsuit. It barely belongs.

But this doesn’t make Nolan’s vision any less artificial. Where Burton cast Mr. Mom, Nolan went for the naked guy with a chainsaw in American Psycho. Both choices are wonderfully silly. But we’ve been trained to experience Nolan’s mass consumer product as “gritty realism.”

Which is why it’s so hard to divorce Dark Knight Rises from its very real world context. This Batman wears his political colors on his bruised and bloodied knuckles. He doesn’t just war on crime. He wars on terror. The Nolans upgraded Heath Ledger’s psychologically devastating Joker to stadium-bombing terrorism and revolutionary anarchy. Joker wanted Batman’s soul. Bane wants America’s.

Despite the Obama campaign likening the villain Bane to the villainous Bain Capital, and Rush Limbaugh accusing liberal Hollywood of brainwashing voters against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney isn’t the allegorized bad guy of the film. If anything, he’s the hero. Romney grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Wayne. The 99%, on the other hand, are played by Ann Hathaway. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” says the world’s sexiest Robin Hood. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Bruce is a 1%-er devoted to championing the status quo. He’s a vigilante because that’s what the job requires. Government brutality is unethical and, worse, ineffective. Nolan makes that clear from the opening scene. A CIA agent interrogates prisoners at gunpoint, ready to toss their corpses from a plane. Any sympathy—he’s only trying to protect us from Terrorism—tumbles through the open door too. America can’t employ violence without corrupting itself and fueling its enemies. We need a proxy. We need a guy in a freaky suit.

Or a three piece suit. In which both Christian Bale and Mitt Romney look significantly better. And expectations couldn’t be higher for either millionaire. Have the words “Oscar buzz” and “superhero” ever travelled in the same sentence before? Batman Begins grossed about $200 million, while The Dark Knight topped $500. Sequels aren’t supposed to do that. Neither are Presidential runs. Romney’s 2008 campaign was a flop, but the sequel raised over $100 million last month alone.

But Dark Knight success was largely due to the late Mr. Ledger, a performance gapingly absent from Rises. Instead we get Hathaway slinking next to Berry, Pfeiffer, and Kitt on the Catwalk of fame. Nolan fans might remember Tom Hardy from Inception (though probably not from that other franchise closer Star Trek 10, in which he plays Captain Picard’s younger yet equally bald clone). Bane is another bald villain, but this time Hardy has to roar his lines through a high-tech Hannibal Lechter mask. It’s a little better than Darth Vader, but Hardy’s eyes are only so emotive.

Still, the spectacle almost works. If Bane’s British accent is a bit muffled, well, so is his character. Does he want to Occupy Wall Street or behead it? The villain is a brawny reboot of the first 20th century supervillain, the guillotine-crazed Citizen Chauvelin of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 superhero ur-text, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That author, unlike Nolan, was a deposed aristocrat, so I get why she pits her hero against French revolutionaries—those  “savage creatures,” as she terms them. But Batman belongs to the same ruling class elite as the Pimpernel. And Gotham’s proletariat is still “animated by vile passions, and by the lust of vengeance, and of hate.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nolan literalizes the underclass by moving them to the sewers, but it’s those regular Joes working the cement trucks you really have to watch out for. They’re the devoted pawns of Bane’s socialist rhetoric, unaware that their leader is using them as political theater. The revolution is being televised to the humbled Bruce’s prison pit, which, although located somewhere in dusty Asia, is as accessible as the suburbs of Gotham.  Will Bruce regain his spirit and climb out in time to disarm the nuclear bomb?!

The retraining sequence and rematch bear an unfortunate resemblance to Rocky III, which pitted its symbol of American exceptionalism against the Evil Empire. America has since moved from cold war to class war. If Bane is a political parody, he’s Evil Obama. Dark Knight Rises is a right wing morality tale aimed at the 99%. Protest financial greed and look what happens!

But even though Warner Bros. has a lot to gain from the Romney’s promised 10% corporate tax cuts, they’re hedging their bets. Dark Knight Rises gives us a split ticket, Batman-Catwoman, a superheroic feat unthinkable but in the reality-warping universe of “gritty realism.” The now penniless Scarlet Pimpernel lends Robin Hood the keys to the batcycle and together they defeat Citizen Bane before retiring anonymously to the middle class.

I predict Dark Knight Rises will retire into its own anonymity long before the Oscar race. If it has any impact on White House politics, it will be as yet another horror story in the gun lobby saga. No superheroes swung to the rescue of the twelve theater goers murdered in Colorado opening night. That’s a real world tragedy far far beyond the reach of even the grittiest realism.

Instead of social revolution, the rest of us get what we always get, a Hollywood-financed extravaganza, right down to the grassroots. My son came home from summer camp every day last week spattered in black paint and Gorilla Glue. They were building a cardboard batcycle to be parked in front of our smallville theater opening night. It rained all weekend, so we never got to see it. My son didn’t complain though. He and all the other Batman campers were just grateful to be there.

Let them eat popcorn.

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Who’s the richest superhero? Billionaire Bruce Wayne is an obvious choice. Tony Stark would be a good bet too. Green Arrow, Booster Gold, and Mr. Fantastic are all 1%-ers as well. Before comic books, almost all superheroes were wealthy: the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel, Spring-Heeled Jack. Money is the original superpower. It sunk its radioactive teeth into you from birth. But who’s the uber-richest of them all?

How about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

Look back at his 1962 issues and Peter Parker has to scrounge just to pay his recently widowed aunt’s rent. His first masked appearance was in a wrestling ring so he could take home some pocket money. When Tobey Maguire started playing the part in 2002, he just wanted to cash in, not listen to his Uncle Ben about responsibility and all that.

And cash in he did. The Spider-Man movie trilogy grossed just over a billion dollars. That’s about $371 million per film, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th biggest superhero money makers of all time.

Of course Bruce Wayne has some pockets of his own. The two Christopher Nolan films averaged $369 million, so just a couple of shakes of the piggy bank behind Tobey. Unless you average all six of the Batman films, including the 1997 franchise ending Batman and Robin. Then poor Bruce plummets to a $240 million average, way below Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who ka-chings in at $315.

Fourth place goes to Superman Returns, the lonely solo reboot that still managed to gross $200.  Thor’s not far behind, debuting last year at $181. Though we may have to wait for Thor 2 to know the Asgardian’s real market value. And with Man of Steel in production, the Kryptonian is a wild card too. He could even redeem the collapse of his 80’s franchise when Superman III and IV pulled in a mild-mannered $60 and $16 million each.

Batman, however, has no flops in his bat closet. The 4 film franchise Tim Burton kicked off in 1989 averages $176 million, even with Schumacher’s Batman and Robin scrounging only $107. Ignore that low ball, and Batman flaps over Thor to perch under the 2006 Superman at $199.

Of course all this math is about to change.

July is rematch month for Hollywood’s billion dollar superheroes. The franchise-rebooting Amazing Spider-Man opens this week, and the reboot-capping Dark Knight Rises opens the 20th.

Despite Peter’s higher gross average, Bruce is the top seed. Dark Knight alone pulled in $533, more than doubling Batman Begins.  Until The Avengers plowed through box offices in May, Dark Knight was the third biggest money maker of all time, just under Avatar and Titanic (yes, uberdirector James Cameron hogs both first and second place). Adjust for inflation though and The Avengers plunges to 32nd, making Dark Knight s 28th the financial high bar for superhero films. (Gone With the Wind , the inflation-adjusted champion, opened way back in 1939, the same year the first 6-page “Bat-Man” premiered in Detective Comics.)

Peter Parker followed the more standard sequel trajectory, with Spider-Man 2 making a bit less than the Spider-Man, and 3 making a bit less than 2. Spider-Man 4 might have continued down that (still highly lucrative) slope, but post-trilogy contract negotiations were a supervillain Columbia Pictures could not defeat. Thus Andrew Garfield as the new Tobey Maguire.

Can Garfield really take on Christian Bale? Mark Zuckerberg pinned him in the first round of Social Network when Garfield played Zuckerberg’s less than savvy business partner. But Bale’s current Batman costume is so constricting, he almost passed out while filming.  Garfield also played a love-struck clone in Never Let Me Go, so Bale might have to face multiple spider copies. Of course Bale is also a two-time homicidal maniac from Shaft and American Psycho, so he could chainsaw all the Garfields Columbia throw at him.

Whatever the outcome, the fight won’t end here. Warner Brothers already has plans to re-reboot the Batman franchise after the Bale-and-Nolan tag team retires. And if Columbia doesn’t like Garfield’s performance, he could go the way of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. There are always more clones warming up in the locker room. And superhero fans ready to drop more cash into Bruce’s and Peter’s billionaire pockets.

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Dear Joel and Ethan,

I realize Christopher Nolan is still shooting The Dark Knight Rises, but the New York Times reports that Warner Brothers is already “contemplating a new Batman series.” Given how quickly Marvel Entertainment is rebooting the Spider-Man franchise (Tobey who?), you should submit your project proposal ASAP.  Even worse, Alex Pappademas in The New York Times Magazine put out an open call to all auteurs to please swoop down and rescue the superhero movie from the claws of Hollywood mediocrity. Woody Allen and Spike Lee are thumb-wrestling for Green Arrows‘s quiver as I type, so unless you want to get stuck with Aquaman, you better get moving.

First off, a low-brow pulp genre like the superhero is a perfect fit for your breed of violent high-brow tragic-comedies. And, frankly, you’ve played your hand as far as westerns and crime noir go. Time for a lateral leap.  You could go with other 1930’s vigilante heroes (The Spider’s body count puts Dexter and the Punisher to shame), but nothing seethes nihilistic despair like the Dark Knight’s never ending war on criminals. You could ask Javier Bardem to play Two-Face, but I hear his thumb never recovered from all that coin flipping he did in No Country for Old Men.

If you’re rushed for time, submit the True Grit screenplay. But don’t forget to change all the “Rooster Cogburn” dialogue headers to “Alfred,” and “Mattie” to “Bruce.” And, what the hell, all the “LaBoef” to “Commissioner Gordon.”  Don’t touch the synopsis though. Father pointlessly gunned down by two-bit criminal, child seeks revenge. (Mattie’s mother never appears, so as far as plot structure, she’s as dead as Bruce’s.) You’re going to need some scenes of Alfred (remember this is a period piece, so he’s a World War I vet) training little Bruce, slicing all that baby fat off his upper-crust body. But like Mattie, his motivation is internal. Alfred is just a means.

Don’t change the climax either. Mattie guns down her father’s killer and back she flies into an abyss-deep cave to be devoured by snakes. Only, you know, bats. It’s the batcave. Alfred can try to save him, can rush him to a hospital, Saint Somethingorother, but it’s too late for a redeeming act of love. His soul has fled. The epilogue is perfect, too. A couple of disappointing minutes with the one-armed spinster Mattie turned herself into. Like Bruce, the child did not survive her vengeance. Bruce’s bat costume is way cooler, but it’s the same act of self-mutilation.

Feel free to contact me if you need any further help. And should Scorsese or Coppola (Sofia or Francis) beat you to the punch, let’s talk Daredevil. That 2003 Ben Affleck travesty is begging for a reboot.

Best,

Chris

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