Monday, August 2, 2010

RIP: Tom Mankiewicz (1942-2010) Want to read a 27-year old Batman screenplay from the man who helped save Superman: The Movie?

The great Tom Mankiewicz has died at the age of 68. He is not a household name to the geek community, but he should be. Aside from writing three James Bond pictures (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man With the Golden Gun), he is the man who more or less created the modern comic book film. He, along with Richard Donner, salvaged the first Superman picture back in 1978. As Donner and Mankiewicz discuss at length on the DVD commentary for the 'director's cut', the original Superman screenplay by Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather) was campy, jokey, and not terribly respectful of the legendary character known as the Man of Steel. It was Donner and 'creative consultant' Mankiewicz who revamped the project, bringing pathos, drama, reverence, and a tone of solemn importance to the first modern comic book epic. Without the work of Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz, there likely would have been no Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, or The Dark Knight, to say nothing of the various comic book-influenced projects that followed (The Incredibles, Unbreakable, The Matrix, etc).

If you're interested in a genuinely buried treasure, check out this screenplay for Batman. Yes, Tom Mankiewicz wrote a screenplay for the first proposed Batman feature back in 1983. Warner was obviously attempting to cash in on the success of Superman: The Movie and Superman II, and the screenplay feels far more like a Richard Donner film than a Tim Burton one. At a glance, the script is an extended origin story combined with a pretty spot-on adaptation of the 1970s rebirth, with an emphasis on the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers Detective Comics arc from the late 1970s. The main villain is mobster Rupert Thorne, and he is aided by The Joker with an occasional assist from The Penguin. And Batman's main squeeze is Silver St. Cloud.

It is interesting to note how many bits and pieces from this mainly forgotten script would end up in later Batman pictures. Like Batman Begins, the film's initial act is a detailed origin story sequence and Joe Chill is killed off during the first act. Like Tim Burton's Batman, The Joker is responsible for the death of a a major hero's parents, but like Sam Hamm's original Batman screenplay and Batman Forever (where the villain is Two-Face), the respective super-villain kills the Graysons. Like the original Sam Hamm screenplay for Batman, Robin does make an appearance at the end, although he appears in costume here. And, like Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns pictures, the caped crusader does take a life (or two) during the heat of battle.

It's a fascinating and entertaining read, both as a time capsule piece and for the kinda insane climax, where Batman and Robin combat Thorne and the Joker in one of those giant prop-filled settings popularized by Dick Sprang in the forties. Among other bits, Robin and Joker do battle atop a giant typewriter, and a large thumb-tac is a dangerous weapon. While the Tom Mankiewicz Batman script would have no place in the current world of comic book films, I'd absolutely love to see this thing adapted as a DC Animated Universe original at some point in time. In the meantime, rest in peace Mr. Mankiewicz.

Scott Mendelson

UPDATED - Alas, the script is no longer available. For a lengthy analysis or merely a decent summary, click accordingly.

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