Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, the cast of “Superman Returns” assembled for interviews with the press. CBR News now presents the third in our series with Paul Levitz, the President of DC Comics. Levitz addressed the challenges in adapting super hero comics to outside mediums, what other properties they have in development and on how rewarding his years at DC Comics has been for him.
So, Paul, you had “Batman Begins” open well last year and taking comic book films to a new level. “Superman Returns” should do that once again. What other properties are you developing?
There’s a ton in development. We’ll have a “Wonder Woman” script in momentarily from Joss Whedon. “Flash” with David Goyer working on it. We’ve had a lot of discussions on “Green Lantern,” although not a definitive plan. “Shazam” is over at New Line. I think they just announced Pete Segal signing on that as director a month ago.
Which one do you think is most likely to get made next?
The good and the bad news about all of these projects is that they’re astronomically difficult to put together in the first place.
Financially or artistically?
Artistically. In part because no one wants them to go wrong. So, you really look at these – both the size of the bet the studios have to make, the complexity of making the films – you look at it and you want a script that you absolutely believe in with the right talent in front and behind the camera. If it doesn’t feel like it’s all coming together, you have to say, “OK, not yet.” This has really always been the case. It took us almost 10 years to make the first Batman film in the Tim Burton cycle. And it took us about 10 years to make the first one in the Chris Nolan cycle.
And it also took you a long time to get Superman off the ground.
Absolutely. I have a lovely note in my files somewhere from Warner Bros. turning down producing Superman in the early 1970s saying to license it out to Alexander Salkind, we don’t think anyone will care. [laughs]
Why do you think the time is right now for Superman to return, as it were?
What happened last year is when the last development project tanked, Bryan and the writers happened to be in the same place at the same time and they were all sitting around and said, “We could do that! That would be fun!” As creative people are prone to do, for a day or two they played “Can You Top This,” tossing ideas around. There was enormous, sincere affection for Superman in that room and knowledge of the character. They came up with something that could work and rushed into Warner Bros.. The combination of the idea, which was so well thought out, and Bryan’s credibility coming off the “X-Men” films as being appropriate for this kind of project, and the enthusiasm Warners has built up for doing a Superman movie as an event project all came together and they said take it, run with it, make it happen.
You guys got to the screening last night and saw the result – it’s real.
How did you like Brandon?
Brandon works wonderfully. What I liked about it – now having had the chance to spend a little time with him – is I think that Clark Kent comes very, very naturally to him. There’ s a genuine mid-western kid grown up into it and he fills out the suit and does the heroics pretty solidly.
Were you disappointed they cut out the extended Krypton sequence at the beginning? We’ve heard that the original Donner Dome was supposed to be floating in space and stuff like that.
There’s some real cool stuff that didn’t make the film, but it’ll make for a hell of a DVD set. I think we’re living in a different time. I’m an enormous “Lord of the Rings” fan. I love what Peter Jackson did with the films, having read the books, I don’t know, 20 times in my life. Then, when the DVDs came and it was like, “OK, now I get to see that scene that I always wanted to that didn’t make it into the film!” I think that’s just a natural part of how things are at this stage.
But were you disappointed?
Well, I’ve seen it! [laughs]
Having been a part of the DC family for as long as you have, how personally rewarding has it been for you — going through the high and low times of film and television production with DC properties – to see DC properties back at the top of their game again today after the success of “Batman Begins” and, while this may be presumptuous, the pending success of “Superman Returns?”
Given my life to sit there in a movie theater and watch the DC symbol come up at the front of a film that’s as good and as true to the character as “Superman Returns” or “Batman Begins” or for that matter “V for Vendetta” or “Constantine,” is an enormous thrill. I have the privilege, which is very rare in life, of running a company whose projects have been important to me since I was four or five years old, of seeing it grow to new heights. When you look at DC today – it’s not only that last year we had three motion picture successes across a wide range, we had six television shows in production – if you look through the history of creative companies, not to take anything away from any other business, but I’m not sure you can find another creative institution that has spawned as wide a range of projects in as short a period of time. We’ve had everything on the air last year from “Krypto” for pre-school audiences on Cartoon Network, on up to “Mad TV” running Saturday nights at 11 on Fox for obviously a very college, young adult audience, to things like “V for Vendetta” and “Constantine” with hard R ratings. We’ve really been showing that comics as a medium in America can be a source material for any kind of story.
Are these economic windfalls for DC in the same way that Marvel has generated a lot of revenue for itself, or does this kind of fall under Time Warner?
Well, we’re owned by Time Warner, so it’s all a piece of the same thing. We receive credit on our books for the royalties and fees that are appropriate so that also our participants can share in them properly. So, we’ve had some astounding financial years and we’re budgeted for another record year this year with Superman.
How much say do you, as the head of DC Comics, have on movies like “Superman Returns?”
Whether it’s DC or any other company that has the underlying intellectual property rights, you can’t make the movie good. That’s the director’s job. If you have a great movie of a character or a great movie that’s an adaptation of a book, the director’s the one whose taken the essence of the creative property and brought it along. On some of our films we’ve had enormously involved roles going back and forth on many different things from research to kibitzing along the way. It really depends on the collaboration. On others, much less so. In the case of “Superman Returns,” Bryan had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. He knew the character, he knew the material he was drawing on. He didn’t need a lot of help from us.
How much input do you have into the upcoming sequels to both Superman and Batman?
I am involved in all of these projects. The ways in which I’m involved really vary based on what the director needs from us. Sometimes the most constructive thing you do is help point out when a project shouldn’t happen. I’ve had to roll on those as well.
When you do a sequel to “Superman Returns,” how do you avoid repeating yourself?
I think it’s easier to avoid the challenge of the ’70s movies in a second film than it is in a third or fourth. That gets to be a progressively more difficult challenge. I think a lot of what went wrong with the ’70s films had to do with the business structure of those films. They were extraordinarily complicated arrangements between the Salkinds and ultimately the Canon Films people. Filmmaking is an economic enterprise and occasionally the business stuff overwhelms the creative stuff and I think that was the case there. I think had Donner stayed on all the films, we might have had a Superman IV or Superman V that was as good as “Superman I.” The first thing I would hope is that Bryan hangs around for several more films to come.
What about the possibility of cross-over films with other characters in the DC Universe?
We developed a “Batman/Superman” film a couple of years ago, Wolfgang Peterson was slated to direct. I think it would have been a mistake to do it at that time, because I think it’s a much better thing to do on a firm base of several successful movies of each character, then you’ve sort of built the anticipation up. That’s certainly a viable thing to do at some point, if it makes sense to do the studio and the filmmakers.
Gotham does get mentioned in the movie.
It’s a connected universe!
With the WB not picking up the “Aquaman” series, do you think that maybe now you might rethink the character outside comics? Maybe a feature instead of a series?
We’ve had several pitches in the last couple of years for an Aquaman film. None of them has gotten the studio excited enough to be willing to proceed to script.
And the TV series, as of right now, is dead?
Well, it didn’t get picked up, so we either have to find a home for it or start all over again.
I realize you may be prejudiced, but you’re also the guy who can answer this question – why is this character worthy of all these films, cartoon series, TV series, comic books and everything else?
I think there’s a prejudiced and an objective answer. If you look back over the last 65 years or so, Superman has now been around 67 years, out of those 67 years I think there have been about 15 where there hasn’t been a new Superman creative work in whatever was the dominant medium of the time. He was a radio show for 11 or 12 years, he was a television series for about nine, there were the serials, the theatrical cartoons. Objectively speaking, you have at least three generations that loved Superman when he was done well and we’re starting on a fourth. I think when you look at anything that has been able to transcend the time in which it was born — most creative properties are of a moment; they capture something in the zeitgeist, it works with that moment and it disintegrates fairly quickly in the culture. No matter how important “I Dream of Jeanie” was at the moment it was there, it was of that moment and of that actress and probably that writer and all of those things together — Superman has transcended the people who worked on him, the people who played him. There is something about it that lives on.
So, what is it?
To me, I think there’s an intrinsic power to that basic formulation that says, “You look at me as Clark Kent, but hidden in me is Superman.” I think there is a very fundamental human moment there. I can’t speak for the other half of the human race, but certainly the male half of the human race, no matter how successful you are, if you are the Superman side of success, you’re sitting there saying, “I wish she would see me for the dopey Clark that I am, and not just love me for the fact that I’ve got the Black American Express card and the supercharged car and all the mortal versions of super powers.” And if you’re Clark, you’re sitting there saying, “There is some Superman in me, won’t you look?” I think that humanity has been a vital part of why people continue to care about the character.
Do you think the world needs a savior like Superman now more than it may have say 30 years ago?
Each time has its own madness and certainly 30 years ago we were living in the cold war and the doomsday clock on the front of the bulletin kept ticking further along. I’m of the generation that was coming of age then and I remember being taught to hide under my desk so that it would save me from the atom bomb. [laughs] We’re certainly living in a time today where we know that America’s mote doesn’t work and we’re living in a world that has an enormous number of people living in poverty and has an enormous number of people living in anger. With the combination of those things, the world needs all the help it can get.
How did you feel about the words “…and the American Way” being taken out of the film?
I don’t think it’s taken out, I think it just disappears from the one Frank Langella line.
What about the storyline with Lois having a child? Is that something you could see incorporating into the comics?
We’ve done a bunch of explorations of that. I can’t say never. I would have bet we would never have married Superman and Lois, but when “Lois and Clark” did we went along with it, so who knows.
Going back to the whole “American Way” thing, was that change due to where America stands today in the eyes of citizens in some parts of the world or …
You’d have to ask the film guys. We’ve not moved away from that as one of Superman’s basic slogans, they just played with it for different lines in the course of the film.
But you don’t object to the change?
I think it’s done right in context.
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