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Telling the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.

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January 2016

The History of Superhero Movies: ‘Steel’

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This is the thirty-fifth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes.  For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.

The whole of the 1990s consisted of several false starts in trying to bring Superman back to the big screen.  There had been success with the character on television, with “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and “Superboy,” but nothing quite gelled on the big screen.  In an attempt to recoup some of the lost funding spent on those false starts, Warner Bros. decided to produce a Superman spin-off.

Steel had been a break-out character for DC Comics during the “Reign of the Supermen” storyline, which saw Superman replaced by four impostors after his death at the hands of Doomsday.  Of the four, Steel was the only one who didn’t claim to be Superman, although other people claimed he was Superman reincarnated even though Steel was a black man – John Henry Irons.

The rights to produce the film were secured by record producer Quincy Jones.  Jones felt that Steel represented a positive role model for children, even though he hesitated to call him a superhero.  Instead, Jones preferred to call the character a “super human being.”  Jones hired Kenneth Johnson – who had developed “The Incredible Hulk” for television 20 years earlier – to write and direct the film.  It was Johnson who removed the trademark cape from Steel’s costume due to remarks made by producer Joel Silver that Steel should be a knight in shining armor in a modern day setting, as opposed to a superhero.

All connections to Superman were severed in the film, which would seem to be counterproductive considering that Warner Bros. was making this movie specifically to tie-in to that character.  The only indirect connection to Superman is a Superman tatoo – which Shaquille O’Neal has in real life – and mention by Richard Roundtree’s character that “John Henry Irons has turned himself into the Man of Steel.”

When Steel was spun off into his own ongoing comic book series, the character was based in Washington, D.C.  This setting was changed for the film to Los Angeles, where principal photography took place.  Shaquille O’Neal was only available for five weeks of filming due to basketball commitments in the 1996 summer Olympics and the Los Angeles Lakers training camp.

Steel” was a critical and financial failure, making only $1.7 million of its $16 million budget back and carrying a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  “Steel” couldn’t even fail properly, as Shaquille O’Neal was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor, but lost to Kevin Costner for “The Postman.”

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and check out my column at TheBlaze.

References:

“Steel: Production Notes”. Steel Official Website. Warner Bros. 1997

“Steel (1997)”. Box Office Mojo.

“Steel — Rotten Tomatoes”.  Rotten Tomatoes

The History of Superhero Movies: ‘Spawn’

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This is the thirty-fourth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes.  For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.

In 1992, as one of the flagship characters of the fledgling creator-owned company Image Comics, Todd McFarlane created what would become one of the most popular superheroes of the 1990s – Spawn.  Five years after the first issue hit newsstands, Spawn was being featured in his own feature film.

At the time, “Spawn” was easily one of the most anticipated films of the decade.  Universal Pictures was originally in negotiation with McFarlane to produce a film based on the comic book as early as 1992, but those negotiations never came to fruition when Universal wouldn’t give McFarlane the creative control he wanted.

McFarlane eventually sold the film rights to Spawn to New Line Cinema for $1, provided he would be given complete creative control and all merchandising rights.  New Line Cinema’s president, Michael DeLuca – who was a comic book collector himself – wanted to secure a property that already had the wide audience Spawn had.  He did, however, have one stipulation to producing the film: he wanted the film to be rated PG-13, while retaining the darkness of the comics.  DeLuca wanted the film to carry a PG-13 rating so that it could be marketed to a large audience.  Achieving a PG-13 rating for “Spawn” would prove to be a Herculean task.

The film’s main production team was made up entirely of former Industrial Light and Magic employees.  Mark A.Z. Dippé was hired as director, Clint Goldman came on as producer and Steven “Spaz” Williams became the visual effects supervisor and doubled as second unit director.  Williams and Dippé were actually still attached to ILM when “Spawn” went into production and saw it as their way out of ILM.

“Spawn” was written by Alan McElroy, who had written issues of the Spawn comics and was head writer on the “Spawn” animated series the same year.  McElroy also wrote the Christian films “Left Behind” and “Thr3e.”

“Spawn” received mostly negative reviews and currently holds a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The extremely formulaic nature of the film – adhering to every superhero movie trope and adding little to the genre – hurt the film.  It also suffered from substandard special effects and CGI, even for the time.  While many fans at the time felt the film was decent, it couldn’t maintain the longevity of a film like “The Crow,” which had a similar premise but was executed much better and didn’t adhere as much to the comic book superhero genre.

“Spawn” deviated in several places from the original comics, but most of these deviations were relatively minor.  In the film, Spawn’s best friend Terry Fitzgerald – who is an African-American in the comics – was played by caucasian actor D.B. Sweeney in the film.  Spawn’s original murderer was a character named Chapel, who was created by Rob Liefeld for his own “Youngblood” series.  Since Chapel wasn’t a Spawn character, and since McFarlane didn’t own rights to that character, a new character named Priest was created to fill that role in the film.  Also, in the comics Spawn was said to be infertile and unable to give his wife Wanda a child in life.  After Spawn’s death, Wanda marries Terry and has his child.  In the film, it is left rather ambiguous whether or not Cyan is Spawn or Terry’s daughter.

In spite of barely doubling its production budget, McFarlane immediately began promising a sequel that never materialized.  After the turn of the century, sequel promises turned into dark reboot promises, more in keeping with the tone of the comics.  Nothing came of any of these promises and Spawn’s cinematic future currently remains up in the air.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and check out my column at TheBlaze.

References:

“As Once-Dead Heroes Go, He’s Tough to Beat – latimes”. Articles.latimes.com. 2012-02-11

Marla Matzer (2010-03-08). “‘Spawn’ of a New Era : Studios Turning to Mix of Houses for Modest-Budget Effects Films “. L.A. Times

Wolf, Jeanne (1997-08-03). “Bringing The Dark Comic `Spawn’ To The Screen – philly-archives”. Articles.philly.com.

“The `Spaz’ Who Spawned His Own Style / Computer animator Steve Williams doesn’t look or think like a typical designer”. SFGate.

Beatty, Scott (August 1997). “Spawn: The Movie Figures”. Wizard (72): 86.

The History of Superhero Movies: ‘Generation X’

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This is the thirty-third installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes.  For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.

Generation X” was a made-for-television movie which aired on the Fox network in 1996.  The film was a precursor to the cinematic X-Men films, the first of which would hit theaters just a few short years later, and actually shares an aesthetic as well as thematic elements with those films.

The film revolves around a new team of teenage mutants, recruited into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters by Sean Cassidy (Banshee) and Emma Frost.  The film was based on a comic book of the same name which had just premiered two years before, and concerned a new campus which had been set up for the teenage students.  The name of the school in the main X-Men books was changed to the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.

The team featured Jubilee – who had been a popular character in the animated X-Men television series – Skin, Monet St. Croix and Mondo from the comics as well as two original characters – Refrax and Buff – who were created for the film.  The new characters replaced the characters of Husk and Chamber, whose powers would have been too expensive to create for television at the time.  Mondo was also changed from the comics.  The Mondo in the film was an amalgamation of the characters Mondo and Synch from the comics.

While the film is often erroneously referred to as a pilot, it was never intended to spawn a television series.  While there was talk of possibly following up the film with a series if it were successful, those plans were never followed through with.  Instead, the film acted as a sort of “proof of concept” for an X-Men feature film, which began pre-production and planning almost immediately due to the success of the “Generation X” movie.

While the film is mostly panned by fans today, at the time it was very well received.  The major complaint by modern fans seem to stem from Jubilee being played by a white actress, instead of Chinese-American as she was in the comics.  Interestingly, this character was originally written to be Dazzler, but was changed at the last minute due to Jubilee’s popularity both in the comics and on the animated series.

The exterior location for Xavier’s school was Hatley Castle, the same location used for the X-Mansion in the first three theatrical X-films as well as the Luthor mansion on “Smallville” and the Queen mansion on the first two seasons of “Arrow.”  The use of Hatley Castle helps to tie “Generation X” in visually with the films that followed.

Jeremy Ratchford, who played Banshee in the movie, is often cited as also having voiced the character in the animated series.  Ratchford’s own website does not cite this credit in his filmography, though Ratchford did audition for the role of Wolverine in that series.  Ratchford also expressed interest in playing Wolverine in the theatrical films, but that part eventually went to Hugh Jackman.

Emma Frost is probably the closest character in the film to her comic counterpart.  Frost is played by Finola Hughes, who audiences at the time remembered from the television series “Blossom.”  In the film, like in the comics, prior to becoming an instructor at the Xavier school Frost had another group of students called the Hellions who were mentioned to have been killed.

The villain of the film is Russell Tresh – another original character created for the film – played by Matt Frewer.  Frewer plays the character very similar to Jim Carrey’s Riddler in “Batman Forever.”  While the character can be over-the-top during much of the film, he also brings a sense of real threat to the characters and can be downright diabolical.

An unrated cut of the film exists and was released to VHS in the UK and other European markets.  The unrated cuts features several scenes not in the US television version, and includes Jubilee using some R-rated profanity as well as Russell Tresh threatening to “mind rape” Skin’s younger sister.  It is a decidedly darker cut of the film.

While by today’s standards “Generation X” may seem lacking in many areas, in the context of the time it was released it certainly was a step above from anything Marvel was doing at the time.  It also served to kickstart the X-Men film series, which in turn ignited a superhero movie renaissance that has lasted for over 15 years.  It could be argued that without “Generation X” there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe today.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and check out my column at TheBlaze.

References:

“Marvel In The 90’s: GENERATION X”.  Twitch Film

“Exclusive: Director Jack Sholder on Fox’s Generation X, controversial castings and the X-Men effect”.  Blastr

“Fox Tuesday Night at the Movies Generation X”.  Variety

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