If I Was Making...MARTIAN MANHUNTER
Vadakin continues his exploration of what would make successful transitions of characters from the Justice League into their own films. In this article excerpt he turns his attention to the Martian Manhunter.
by Vadakin. Superman. Born on an alien world, he was sent away as an infant to escape its destruction. Landing on Earth, little Kal-El was raised by a kind farmer and his wife, with no memory of the world he had lost. When he was old enough, he discovered his path and learned of the planet Krypton, it's tragic demise and his birth parents last act to save him. When Clark Kent became Superman, he sought to honor the home he had lost and protect the home he had gained. But Superman was raised as a human being. His thoughts are human thoughts. His feelings are human feelings. His connection to Krypton is not of man who has lost his home. It is not a memory for him. It is a story, one he knows is true but will never fully connect with. Earth is the only home he knows. But imagine things were slightly different. Imagine Kal-El grew up on Krypton. Imagine he raised a family there, had a life. Imagine that life was ripped from him as he was pulled through time and space to an alien world with no way to get home. And then imagine that even if he could get home, the world he cherished so much, the people he loved were long since dead and he was truly alone on this new world. And there you have the Martian Manhunter.
It is the story of a man trying to find a place in a world he doesn't know. The story of a husband and father grieving for a lost family. You might describe him as a depressed Superman and that's not too far from the truth. J'onn J'onzz is a character struggling to find meaning in tragedy. Unlike the other heroes of the Justice League, he has no stake in our world. He is truly an outsider and his journey is long and painful. The life he knew is gone and the life he has gained isn't all it's cracked up to be. He observes the human race without ever feeling connected to them. That's why if I was making Martian Manhunter, I'd probably do it on television.
There are certain characters within the DC universe that are ideally suited to television. The Question (I may talk about this in a future article) is a prime example. You boil it down to a show about a private detective caught up in conspiracy theories. The X-Files serves as an interesting template for such a show. Martian Manhunter on the other hand is something that I see being connected to the David Carradine show, Kung Fu. The idea of an outsider, a wanderer, walking through life, encountering people as he searches for meaning (Kung Fu's story was about the character Caine, wandering through the Old West in search of his brother) is something that would suit Martian Manhunter.
J'onn Jonzz is also deeply rooted in 1950's science fiction. An alien visitor encountering humanity, perhaps making judgements, is the kind of thing you would find in landmark movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. But the story of a man travelling the Earth, learning the value of humanity while coming to terms with his own loss may not be a ratings grabber. Long time readers of Martian Manhunter will also be fully aware that the character is a detective (initially for the police, later as a private detective), calling himself John Jones.
I would suggest combining both concepts. Set the TV show in modern times and make it a cop show (with supernatural elements) but with flashbacks throughout, going right back to being pulled to Earth in the 1950's. The flashbacks would track his journey across the years and would inform whatever case he happened to be working on in present day. While the flashbacks show his journey towards accepting humanity, the present day cop stuff could chart his journey towards becoming a superhero.
That's my TV pitch for Martian Manhunter. Make it a personal story within the framework of a science fiction influenced police procedural. It is a much smaller scale than you might expect from a character with his powers and that's the point. It isn't about The Martian Manhunter, it's about J'onn J'onzz. The problem with such an approach is that there's quite a bit of material that you'd miss out on due to the smaller, more personal approach. So let's look at Martian Manhunter from that other perspective. Let's look at a movie.
With Envious Eyes
“With envious eyes” is a phrase from the opening monologue of one of the great science fiction works – The War of the Worlds. The basic premise, for those who don't know, is that an old and intelligent Martian civilisation, seeing their planet lose its life supporting ability through the passage of time, turn to Earth as salvation and draw up plans to invade. I bring it up because if you're going to make a movie about Martians, an invasion from Mars seems like an obvious route for the plot to take.
It's certainly not hard to imagine a scenario where the peaceful Green Martians are destroyed by the aggressive White Martians in a war over the precious few resources left on Mars, and the White Martians turn their attentions towards Earth, with the only Green Martian survivor, J'onn J'onzz, being the only one who can save the Earth from the White Martian menace. It's the kind of movie I could see being made in isolation, but in the context of the Justice League, a White Martian invasion might be better suited to a team up movie.
Mars itself has been portrayed in a few different ways over the years in the comics. In some versions, Mars is an uninhabited wasteland with any civilization having been destroyed long ago. In early versions, Mars is still inhabited, while across the history of Martian Manhunter, Martians have visited Earth, from Miss Martian to J'onn J'onzz' evil twin brother, Ma'alefa'ak (who is responsible for the extinction of the Green Martians).
There is also the question of Mars itself. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds adaptation moved away from the idea that the aliens were Martians, due to what we now know about Mars compared to what H.G. Wells knew when he wrote the novel. Films in recent times that have featured Mars have also failed to ignite the box office and with the failure of John Carter, a movie about Martian civilizations may not be something Warner Brothers is excited to deliver.
But every character and story has a hook, a way to get beyond the difficulties of adapting such a work to the big screen in a way that will connect with the audience. Which brings me back to J'onn J'onzz, the man without a home. If you try to make a movie about Martians...Green Martians, White Martians, evil twin Martians, you're liable to lose the audience. Martian Manhunter feels like 50's science fiction, but the best science fiction of that era wasn't about the threat or the larger reality being exposed. The Day the Earth Stood Still was squarely focused on the character of Klaatu and his exploration of humanity. That's how you approach Martian Manhunter.
You focus on J'onn, on his struggles. You connect with the audience by showing his experience with humanity from the perspective of an outsider. But on a more personal level, you make it about a man who has lost everyone and everything he has ever known and loved. How do you go on from that? How do you pick up the pieces and try to build a new life? Do you wander the world forever, never making connections? Or do you mourn and then move on and try to embrace what the universe has left you? Whether on TV or in a movie, that's the story you tell. You can introduce White Martians or Ma'alefa'ak to challenge J'onn and give him something to fight for and fight against, but at it's core it should be a deeply personal story.
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