It feels like an eternity since I've posted an article up here. I made a promise to someone, not sure who exactly, but yeah - my NEXT article would be detailing what needs to happen for a Martian Manhunter movie. That was last year, and I've kept my word. Life's been keeping me busy, but I'm here, and it's a pleasure to be posting again.
Now for those newcomers who aren't yet familiar with my ways, let me explain. No, it'll take too long. Let me sum up. I like to read, and I LOVE to write. I understand that it may be difficult to get through what I affectionately call my thesis, but it's not going anywhere. You wanna come back and check it out later, be my guest. You'll find it whenever you click my name, and I comment a lot. Got it? Great. On with the show.
The goal of this dissertation is to (by analysis and introspection) produce a form of story-telling that our dear friend J'onn J'onzz would benefit from. While it depicts many elements of a constant work-in-progress fan-fic, these depictions will be used to confidently illustrate how the story COULD be presented. I firmly believe that there is no cookie-cutter shape, no classic story that could be collected in one or two trade paperbacks, no definitive moulding with which the Martian Manhunter movie should follow. There is no Killing Joke, no Knightfall, no Mutant Massacre, no Demon in a Bottle, no Tower of Babel, no Long Halloween, and no Civil War that fans can point to and challenge Warner Bros and DC Comics to adapt for the Martian Manhunter. This is why you may indeed see radically different applications of the character, an interchangeable origin story, and a somewhat diminished presence on Earth.
The Martian Manhunter has had a very troubled publication history, as Wikipedia likes to call it. He can't hold down his own series. His longest run was 38 issues, but as LEVITIKUZ might point out - that's more than Hellboy has ever raised in one book (though he's had quite a few series). What's the deal though? What is it that the Justice League's resident Martian has going against him that keeps writers from wanting to play with him? Maybe its his lack of definition. What are his powers and what's the limit? Why is he the last of his people and why can't people stick with one story? Who are his exclusive villains, supporting characters, love interests, etc? I know the answers, but do you? Does the general audience?
I've heard it on all these different sites, even in the same words sometimes. "The Martian Manhunter can't hold his own movie." And you know what? It's time to stop fighting that statement, because it's true. J'onn J'onzz can't shoulder that burden alone. But neither can Batman, Superman, Spider-man, Iron Man, or any of the other "man". That's why they've got aunts, uncles, surrogate parents, secretaries, girlfriends, bosses, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and colleagues to help them out. The trick is to define these characters, their motivations, and how they all fit in with our titular character. And it is the goal of this article to exemplify what needs to be done to make all of this happen. I'm going to stick with a ten point system like some of my contemporaries here, ten's a magic number.
I. This Needs to Be an Origin Story
There is no story more important than the fall of Mars
I'm going to be perfectly blunt with you here, death is a SERIOUS factor with superheroes. Now sure, in comics, television, and movies - death just doesn't carry the same meaning when characters resurface on the fly. But there are characters whose deaths are untouchable because of how much of an impact their loss has on the heroes. Uncle Ben, the Waynes, Frank's family, Martin Jordan, the House of El... these characters' deaths shape their respective heroes dramatically. With the Martian Manhunter, J'onn carries the souls of his entire race - he is (usually) the last Martian and had to watch his people die around him. Now sure, there's a possibility to work in the origin story via flashbacks, but haven't we already had that treatment with Batman Begins and Man of Steel? Besides, any present-day plot would be rendered less important and less interesting if we're simultaneously watching what happened to Mars. This is ground that needs to be covered first and foremost.
No risk of a "Batman" takeover if the majority takes place on another planet
Man of Steel was an awesome movie, and the only beef people tend to have seems to be about the character. Like some have said, if it wasn't based off of Superman, the jury would be much less divided. I can understand the majority of the criticism, even though I don't agree with most - but here's the point: this Superman was written to be Batman with superpowers. He's brooding, he's isolated, he's unsure of himself, he's looking for direction, and he secretively looks after people - all qualities of the Nolans' and Goyer's Batman. But on Mars, we have a chance to see Frank Castle before his family is gunned down. J'onn has a wife and daughter, a very respectable position as a Manhunter, and happiness to spare. On Mars, he's safe from any attempts to depict him like Batman, and of course, take a back seat to some extended cameo.
Curiosity demands it
The Flash is the only Justice League character (of the main line-up) who received his powers by accident. Superman soaks up our yellow sun, Green Lantern has a galactic super-cop power ring, Batman developed his body and mind, while Wonder Woman and Aquaman come from a very exclusive lineage. As the Injustice: Gods Among Us DLC description for the Martian Manhunter reads: "inherit super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, flight, shape-shifting, intangibility, telepathy...", there is much to be said about him. How on Earth did he get this long list of super powers? He was born with them, like the rest of his people. Just think of that - thousands, millions... all with the same powers (though perhaps not as developed in every area). Isn't anyone the least bit curious about this super-advanced society?
II. The Origin Must Affect J'onn on a Personal Level
Reason 1: He will draw his influences from his survival of the extinction event
I'm going to crucify myself here and draw from the comics, specifically issue #8 of John Ostrander's three-year series. There, J'onn recalls his defense of his brother, Ma'alefa'ak when the Assembly of Minds declared him the only suspect behind the plague. Ma'alefa'ak had in the past, been convicted of mind-rape, and so his entire identity was telepathically purged. J'onn sees the rationale of his superiors but insists that Ma'alefa'ak be regarded as one of them. His hope and naivety hold him back, and only when his wife and daughter succumb does he go after his brother... with the intent to kill him. J'onn only survived because he didn't use his telepathy, even when his family begged him for that bit of comfort and solace. What I take from that is J'onn should be driven by his sense of duty, and as the world crumbles, he'll do what it takes to ensure that his honor remains intact. There will be odds and ends against him, telling him to do things differently, and they'll come from people he'll have a hard time saying "no" to.
He has lost everything on Mars and feels responsible for it
The way I see it, J'onn is one of the most cynical members of the Justice League, and I think it's because he feels guilty about not stopping his brother when he had the chance. In the zero issue of the aforementioned series, he contemplates whether or not he fled his family's flaming combustion, or if they pushed him to safety. He sought an end to it all, willing to give his life so long as he was able to take Ma'alefa'ak with him, not unlike Zod from Man of Steel. The two have their beat down, and after they bring a massive structure down around them, J'onn narrowly escapes thinking (or wishing) his brother dead. Most interesting to me is how he coped with his loss. While walking amongst the ruins, he'd shift into his fellow Martians and have conversations with himself. Eventually, he made his "daughter" forgive him for not dying with her - forgiveness he wants, but can't have. There needs to be clear damage to his psyche.
It sets him apart from the heroes of his adopted homeworld
In the Justice League episode "Twilight" (a personal favorite), J'onn and Shayera admit to feeling lonely and muse over one similarity the League shares with one another - they are all orphans and exiles. Yet while that remains, each hero has a means of connecting to the world - they make it where they can with the friends they make in the lives they've built for themselves. J'onn has difficulty with this because he doesn't want to replace his people and his family. In trying to integrate with humanity, his first step and mistake would be to close them off from him. He'll help the helpless, and he'll even preach to others that they have to learn acceptance, but that's one thing he can't do for himself. J'onn should have a love/hate relationship with the people he's protecting, while on Mars and on Earth. His people won't accept his brother or his desire to protect him, and humanity has trouble appreciating the life around them.
III. Needs a Demonstration of Martian Society
Give a display of Martian powers
One of the major hurdles standing in the way of a Martian Manhunter movie is the broad definition of these Martian abilities. And it isn't just a manner of showcasing shape-shifting, density control, telepathy, flight, and invisibility... but also to determine limitations that an audience will understand. So how do we go about doing that? Start from the bottom: Mars itself. Establish a connection between the planet and its inhabitants - and have that connection nourish their bodies. From there, we work our way up to the mind and its power over the body. The stronger, more disciplined the mind - the greater control it will have of the body it commands. Those who spend time away from Mars will lose their connection over time, and perhaps deteriorate both physically and mentally.
As for the powers themselves, I would stick with the planetary aspect and call it an evolutionary reaction to Mars. As we know, the conditions are harsh with strong winds, extremely low temperatures, and barely any oxygen. No oxygen means Martians don't need to breathe. Low gravity and strong winds mean Martians need to be able to alter their mass. With the only moisture being in the sky, they need to be able to fly. As time progresses, they adapt and develop the land, so these traits are no longer vital, but used for aesthetics and efficiency.
Obviously we're not going to get some history/biology lesson in a movie, so how would we explain this? We have the villains suffer from the starvation of Mars' connection, either having been exiled from Mars, or having their minds badly damaged. They covet what they don't have, hate those who bask in Mars' glory, and rely on technological innovations to stabilize their bodies. They are weaker, and must use their wits to overpower the natives. Natural evolution versus technological evolution.
Provides motivations for all characters
How does an entire species of shape-shifters grow divided by the color of their skin? Perhaps by choice - maybe the majority of one race swings one way, and the majority of the other one swings a different direction, so they choose to represent the side they prefer. Perhaps the two majorities had polarizing views on their homeworld, with one wishing to settle elsewhere, and the other hell-bent on preserving their home. I would characterize the White Martians as technologically superior to the Greens, but lacking in mental stability, due to their time out in space, and the generations born from that decay. The Greens should be characterized as extremely conservative, with strict laws and an unwavering adherence to them, assisted by the religious establishment of H'ronmeer. If you think in terms of red and white blood cells: the red (green) breathes life to the body while the white is always encountering foreign materials.
I would reason that the Greens wouldn't be able to keep the peace forever, and the Whites wouldn't be able to adapt without sustenance forever. Therein, lies the conflict.
Explains their fatal flaws
Once more, the main goal of this story would be to portray the downfall of Mars. Whatever the cause, there are key aspects to consider that would allow an entire race to be eradicated, save two. Setting aside Martian vulnerability to fire, what factors are involved that would allow an extinction to occur? Arrogance? Prejudice? Superiority? Resistance? These are all flaws that need to be developed on both sides of the conflict. How someone determines the fiery reaping of the Martians, how he turns the war in his favor, and what personal issues would he have to have in order to be capable of such an act. In the meantime, what is it that leaves either side susceptible to genocide, and why didn't they have countermeasures to stop it from happening?
IV. Needs a Rich Investment of Supporting Characters
J'onn isn't the savior of his people
This is a problem I'll freely admit to having when figuring out my own fan-fic. The story journeys away from the Martian Manhunter, and acquires a lingering focus on the supporting characters. But this is also a war epic, so there needs to be alternating perspectives. What's important to remember here is that J'onn doesn't win. He is the shining paragon of Martian, with honed abilities that make him more formidable than most. But he isn't the only Manhunter, nor can he carry the world on his shoulders. He is compassionate and hopeful, and although he knows he can't save everyone, he'll still do his best. And that is what the enemy exploits.
We need to relate to differing viewpoints
I want people to love characters they've never heard of. Whether they love to hate them, or loving them for the sadistic monsters they are, it's always nice to connect with not just one character, but the majority. Too often do we get these guys who we really don't care about, giving us important exposition and foreshadowing - but never desired to be seen again. The audience gets bored with them, and is waiting impatiently for their scenes to end so that the movie can get going to the characters they enjoy.
And with that, we need to feel that sense of family, their sense of longing, their playfulness, their awkwardness. We need to see that they aren't infallible, static creatures who act as one large MacGuffin, but hard-working, fun-loving people.
Here's how I'd have it play out.
Ma'alefa'ak would mind-rape his sister-in-law under the confessed pretense that he's power-hungry. In turn, he'd be taken before the Assembly of Minds and have his mind (and therefore his body) turned to mush, with his telepathy, memories, and identity stripped away. Later we'd find that Ma'alefa'ak was caught by M'yri'ah sending a forbidden transmission to the exiled White Martians, and telepathically assaulted her so that she'd couldn't alert the authorities.
J'onn would be encouraged by his wife M'yri'ah to forgive his brother, and oversee his rehabilitation while nurturing a second chance. Despite his misgivings, he would comply, although not everyone would cooperate with this notion. He'd end up confessing once Ma'alefa'ak started to direct his impatience at himself, only for his brother to run off and accidentally rendezvous with someone from his past.
Commander Blanx would return to Mars for the first time in his life, with his crew of White Martians as well as cloned slaves. With the Assembly denying his ship a landing, Blanx rallies the dormant Whites on Mars to help him stage a coup, while using his slaves as cannon fodder. As it happens, his people are dying after generations of unsuccessful gene therapy, so while the odds are against him, failure isn't an option.
Provides moral and ethical dilemmas rather than bankruptcy
The most important part to remember is: THERE IS NO INNOCENT PARTY. That may seem harsh, but it'll work out in the end. Why? Because good intentions aren't hard to come by. They're just warped along the way by extremists who will do anything to accomplish their goals. Black and gray morality isn't a child's concept, which is why you will commonly only see it in R-Rated films. It keeps the mind sharp, and the story less predictable when the heroes break the rules. In all formats: comics, cartoons, animated movies... Mars is not the kind of place to raise your kids. The Saturnians were created as a work force used by both Green and White, but treated differently by each. Ma'alefa'ak suffers a fate worse than death by having his mind lawfully ripped apart, stripped of all identity, and is lied to about his lack of telepathy. I'd like to see audiences disagree with one another about which action should have been taken, whether a character's actions were justified, or if the White Martians were truly bad guys.
V. Needs to Break the Superhero Mold
J'onn is a family man
A hero's life is a sacrifice. That's what we're told. We often see cop or forensic shows getting immersed in their work, and slowly their significant other will feel alienated. Then our hero comes home to an empty house, or a locked bedroom. And we sigh, and sympathize with our hero because he or she is a good person, doing good work, and doesn't deserve this. With J'onn, things need to be completely different. His family is going through a tough time - his wife is experiencing severe post-traumatic stress, his daughter is scared of her own mother, and his brother (who created this situation) has regressed to a form of infancy. On the other hand, his superiors have given him a leave of absence, but expect him to find answers to Ma'alefa'ak's past behavior. He chooses to keep Ma'alefa'ak rehabilitation a secret from them, because the answers he finds could have dire ramifications.
the Human code of ethics should not be identical to Martians
In Guatemala, avoid kissing in public. In Germany, any media with glorified violence is banned. In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to criticize the government. In Tampa, we throw beads at people in February. Some people juggle geese. Mars needs to be alien. Some acts that may be considered barbaric for us might seem lenient. Some acts that may seem too soft may be viewed by Martians as too harsh. If telepathy is present in every Martian, then it needs to have the conquering effect that text messages have on phone calls. If the people of Mars have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, then the departure or killing of a Martian should be a punishable offense. If Ma'alefa'ak is to be punished, perhaps the family would have to choose between a new programmed identity by an appointed proxy, or the deposit of the nullified body unto the wastelands. The one scruple would be that these different customs need to actually make sense, or the audience will be lost.
Should not require or permit a sequel
This should be a self-contained movie. The goal should not be to earn back triple the budget in order to justify.... what exactly? This is not to say that I'm at all opposed to a Martian Manhunter movie outside of the origin story, I only consider it the highest priority. I'd love to see a noir on Earth, and it would probably require a smaller budget considering the effects/costuming would be much more contained. That's the irony, I suppose. But unlike another movie that takes place on Mars, this origin story should not have an impossible budget to reclaim at the box office. 300 was predominantly filmed on a closed set of green screens, and it worked off of a budget of $65 million. I'm thinking with all the motion capture, prosthetics, and digital effects (using information gathered from other sci-fi and fantasy films) - the budget should be set at $120 million. I have faith that an alien sci-fi drama based off of a comic book would grab audiences all over the world, even if they've never heard of the Martian Manhunter. And once again, getting back to the point at hand - a sequel to this movie would have to take place on Earth, and would be a completely different genre. This one needs to stand on its own merit.
Now that we've got the story elements out of the way, let's talk about the designs and themes that need to be featured. I prioritize this in the latter half because of how subjective and malleable these ideas are. You'll likely notice that my interpretation of the White Martian Commander Blanx bears quite a few similarities to Man of Steel's General Zod. In truth, while I have no real way of proving it, I had written Blanx in that form nearly a year before the movie came out in theaters. A similar thing happened with the Dark Knight sharing the same "lie to the people to keep the peace" ending with Watchmen. That just goes to show you how common some ideas may be. Either that, or great minds think alike, heh. One has to be careful to keep things fresh and interesting though. And because of that, when developing your own story, one needs to come up with a reason for what is happening, beyond character motivations, beyond the mechanics of the fiction. In short - why is the writer choosing to go in this direction? What is the purpose of the story? This often helps the writer test the waters without needing a proxy, and figure out the appeal. What works, and what doesn't. What do you need more of, and what could you do without.
VI. Second Chances
In many ways, this origin story is a prototype of sorts - a basis for J'onn to either evolve or regress after being transported to Earth. Nothing is ever made perfect, and 99.9% of the time, the first try won't be the last. In this case, it's a leap of faith to give his brother, Ma'alefa'ak a second chance, a second life. As we all know, it proves tragic, and J'onn is left with nothing but his own opportunity to make a new life on Earth. It's also a reflection on Mars - their denials of the "new" Ma'alefa'ak and the returning White Martians who they've never met. Is it justice to always punish the guilty with equal or dominant force, and has Mars lost sight of rehabilitation?
Ma'alefa'ak is something of a fantasy - M'yri'ah hopes to hold onto her family as a means of healing. She believes that if her brother-in-law, an accomplished doctor, can be reborn, then her damaged mind has the hope of recovering. Beyond that, there's the dream carried by the Whites of seeing their homeworld for the first time. Of walking without braces, of shifting without excruciating pain. Of hearing each other's thoughts and not having to hear the synthetic voices translated by their literal voice boxes. The white and green Martians who founded the space-faring White are long dead, and their children's children face a dark fate illuminated by a desperate Commander Blanx. These people aren't evil, they just want to live fully.
VIII. Abuse of Power
But as we've already established, there is no truly innocent party in the story. The question arises - what lengths will one go to live wholly? We see this from the beginning, when Ma'alefa'ak's final words claim to have wanted to surpass the boundaries society has built, to improve upon himself. In response to his rape of the mind, the Assembly gives an eye for an eye. That is the justice system on Mars. On the other hand, there's J'onn who could be seen as a "tool" for following through with the demands and expectations of both his wife M'yri'ah and the Assembly. He surpasses the role of brother and molds Ma'alefa'ak in the shape he wants for him. Not unlike brainwashing and the application of positive and negative reinforcement, Ma'alefa'ak is taught what it means to be a Martian.
Then on the White Martian front, they have become a dying population with deteriorating bodies. So they've cloned themselves in order to preserve their routine lifestyle, to keep up with the labor they can't or don't want to perform. The clone workforce soon become slaves with little to no regard for their wellfare. At last, before returning to Mars, the Whites knew that there would be resistance, and due to their conditions, a brutally efficient resolution is developed. It is they who design H'ronmeer's Curse - a telepathic agent that burns the host. They do not design it to be lethal, however, just enough to incapacitate the natives who use their telepathy. Ma'alefa'ak will be the one who steals and modifies their virus.
As I've said, this isn't a summer blockbuster. The Martian Manhunter movie needs to make people ask questions - they need to keep their brains stimulated. Yet at the same time, it is very much science-FICTION and shouldn't bore audiences with an overabundance of information trying to ground it in the form of total realism. There should be a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, and the normal amount of factual errors you'd find on Cinema Sins.
With that in mind, my dream pick would be Ang Lee, whose highlights include Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and the Life of Pi. This is a three-time Academy Award-winning director who I would dare argue surpasses Christopher Nolan. He is as versatile as he is imaginative. The characters of his films are intelligent and capable across genders, traits that could perhaps be owed to their individual pursuits of freedom. Lee enjoys merging landscapes with his works, leading to an occasional dip in surrealism when the characters connect with the environment.
A personal quote from Ang Lee:
|"Sometimes films ignore other points of view because it's simpler to tell the story that way, but the more genuine and sympathetic you are to different points of view and situations, the more real the story is."|
X. Thematic Influences
This is something of a citations area for me. Being that this is an editorial, I'm not going to get into all the inspirations I derived from the comics and other media, but I would very much like to point out the qualities the movie should pull from. It's similar to a fancast, how typically you'll read a list of someone's favorite TV actors who may or may not have appeared in movies, but nonetheless have portrayed roles comparable to the selected comic book characters. Please note that although these do carry inspiration, it does not mean aspects are derived from the below examples. They are simply a means of visualizing goals and demonstrating how they could transpire.