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Inside the Superman Judgment – Does Anybody Get This Character?

I’m a nerd, but also a legal nerd, so it was quite unlikely that the lawsuit over the rights to Superman would pass completely without me making some sort of comment on it. The outcome isn’t really what’s most striking, though – at least from looking at coverage of the case. Off the back of the arguments made, it’s kinda disturbing how the forces behind Superman view the overgrown boy scout.

Superman uses his X-Ray vision to read between the lines of the judgment...

Superman uses his X-Ray vision to read between the lines of the judgment...

There’s a fairly popular opinion that Superman is… lame. He’s not dark and brooding. You’d be lucky to stretch him out to a second dimension. He’s just not the most complex or engaging character. While it is hard to argue those points (I certainly wouldn’t), it could be suggested that these are the strengths of the character. He is an embodiment of hope and optimism, a shining beacon in an era too dominated by cynicism. Superman should not have to be “dark and edgy” to be good. Some of the best writers (Johns, Morrison) get that. It seems that they are just about the only ones.

Still, the judgment says some interesting things about the character (including actually ascribing him a financial value) and also about the state of the movie franchise. I take everything from the defendents and plaintiffs with a grain of salt, as it is in their interest to exaggerate, but the judgment itself has some interesting insights. There are crib notes down the bottom, before we jump into the whole 30-page piece. As a law student, trust me, this is a short judgment.

When it comes to the character himself, the judgment outlines the two positions given by the opposing sides:

superman1

In fairness, it is up to either side to over-egg their side of the pudding. So DC and Warners, with the most lose, would be expected to downplay the value of the commodity – though comparing it to The Green Hornet and Conan? – and the Seigel estate would be expected to “big it up” as it were – still, musicals and airport fantasy? I’m a little disappointed by both arguments. Neither side seems to be even within the same ballpark as what Superman actually is (and I’m not even talking the scale of the character’s contribution to popular culture – I’m talking the basic understanding of his place in it). Well, at least the judge didn’t quite buy it. He pointed out that neither side offered a fair comparison to similar comic book characters:

superman2

It’s a little bit depressing to see Warner and DC arguing that Superman is “uncool” and “damaged goods”. As mentioned above, this is in the interests of the defendents, but it’s still just a little bit much and I’m surprised that the Court bought into it almost entirely. The summary by the plaintiff was somewhat of a reverse position – I don’t think Superman is anywhere near his ‘zenith’, and I doubt he will be unless the powers that be embrace the character’s potential. And it’s reassuring to see the Court call the plaintiffs out on using an inappropriate comparison:

superman4

And, fair play to the judge again here, he also acknowledges that DC and Warner Brothers were downplaying the popularity and pop culture consciousness of the boy in blue:

superman5

The Court accepts the potential value of the character before the reboot in Superman Returns, but acknowledges that this potential is somewhat offset by the production challenges:

superman3

I can’t really think of any major franchise that doesn’t go through long production troubles. Before Batman Begins, there were rumours of Clint Eastwood doing a ‘Batman in the Future’ movie as an older bruce Wayne, or Brad Pitt and Darren Aaronofski doing an adaptation of Year One or even Jack Nicholson returning to the franchise in Batman: Triumphant. Troubled production histories dog all viable franchises in Hollywood – they are troubled precisely because there is so much money at stake, because there is so much potential.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the judgement is the bit where the Court speculates that Superman’s rights were significantly undervalued by the parties making the deal. While their submissions made in Court might rightfully downplay the value of one of their core characters, it’s very rare to see creators undervaluing anything when it comes to actual money, so it’s interesting to see the Court speculate that Superman was worth up to four times the actual price paid for his rights:

superman6

When it comes to the movies, the Court seems to suggest that it was fairly stupid in the initial agreement not to put an onus on Warner Brothers to produce a film or series of films, as is part of the agreement with Iron Man:

superman7

It’s an interesting suggestion, which seems to subtly suggest that Superman should have been given the option to up and leave Warner Brothers if the studio didn’t treat him right. It’s a smart observation and I’m sure there are a lot of fans who would agree with that summary, especially considering how Warner Brothers apparently view their franchise. In the words of Alan Horn, the head of Warner Brothers:

superman8

It’s interesting to note that Horn seems to argues against the film off the back of its critical perception. However, the Batman movies he refers to – Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – are somewhat freak occurances, emerging as two of the best-reviewed films in their own years and two of the best reviewed comic book movies ever made. Matching them in the critical stakes is a rare accomplishment for a prestige drama, let alone a genre as frowned-upon as comic bookdom.

I understand that the movie did not perform spectacularly financially, but it did earn a larger amount of money at the box office (foreign and domestic) than the relaunch of the Batman franchise that same year. Being honest, I’m surprised the court bought into the studio using criticism as a grounds of attack for a film – the recent greenlighting of Transformers 3 indicates that critical reception says nothing about a franchise’s viability. In fact, Horn does acknowledge that the film franchise is ‘evergreen’, but adds a little caveat to the end of it:

superman12

As noted above, Horn was likely attempting to downplay the franchises viability. However, lying about the development status of a follow-up or sequel would be perjury and something that a witness is significantly less likely to do than simply tailor their opinion of something to suit their side of the argument:

superman10

Here the judge issues a bit of a kicker, but only a small one. He states that it is the potential of a movie entering development by 2011 that prevents the plaintiffs from claiming the film agreement was unfair. If no film has entered production by 2011, they may have recourse to sue:

superman11

It’s an interesting development and a good one – it puts the onus on Warner Brothers to put their asses in gear and make another movie. Of course, the more likely alternative is that Warner will release that they can’t do it in the narrow timeframe and simply settle out of court.

So, there are some juicy nuggets in that thirty-odd page judgment. Here’s the crib notes:

  • Warner Brothers don’t see a new film project entering development until 2012, but if it hasn’t kicked off by 2011 Seigel will be able to sue them.
  • The initial agreement significantly undervalued the character – Superman should have cost more than The X-Men, so about $4m to $6m.
  • Warner Brothers claim to be more upset at the critical reaction to Superman Returns than the financial bottom line (yeah right!)
  • Neither the plaintiffs (the guys who created the character) or the defendents (the guys currently running the franchise) are able to appropriately state the worth of the character in even relative terms (he’s not like musicals, trashy novels or Conan the Barbarian)

So, there are some tidbits there, but a lot of the more fascinating stuff comes from how the litigating parties claim to view the character and his franchise. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

The full transcript of the ruling can be read here.

One Response

  1. […] to play with. Sure, the Batman franchise may be stalled at the moment, but there’s a now a reason for DC Comics to push ahead with Superman. With a Green Lantern movie in development, now may be the time to kick-start that Flash movie […]

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