Have the moviegoers of China been holding out for a hero of their own? If so, then help is on the way — his name is Annihilator and, no surprise, Stan Lee is one of the people trying to get him off the ground.
“This is the perfect Chinese hero,” Lee said Monday. “China is a nation that is involved with movies and the industry is growing so it’s as though all the pieces are coming together beautifully.”
The financing piece is off to a good start, certainly, with Monday’s news that “The Annihilator” tops the inaugural list of co-productions from National Film Capital, the state-run fund-management company that draws on $422 million raised by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and other partners. (The slate also included the action-fantasy “Dragon Scroll”; the historical epic “Genghis Khan,” from Los Angeles-based writer and director Peter Doyle; and a historical Chinese maritime epic called “1421.”)
When Hollywood looks at a map of the world marketplace right now, everything points to China as the waiting bonanza. It was considered a signpost moment when Disney announced that it would be co-producing Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3” with DMG of Beijing and that part of the movie would be filmed in China at the end of this summer.
Now comes “The Annihilator,” presented as the concept of Lee, who in the 1960s co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four, but has, in recent years, more press releases than actual success stories. Take “The Governator,” for instance, which has an uncomfortably similar name. The plan was for Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger to build an animated series around the actor-politician as a super-powered adventurer, but it had no takers.
The ventures that do get off the ground have come back down with a thud, not unlike Thor’s hammer. There was the debacle of the National Hockey League’s Guardian promotion, for instance, which was jeered by both comics fans and hockey followers and then led directly to fiscal calamity for one British company involved in the deal.
Maybe this time will be different. “The Annihilator” is the beachhead for a flurry of projects in China, for POW! Entertainment, which is built around Lee’s name and run by CEO Gill Champion. Champion said China is “an important part” of the company’s growth and cited the possibility of a live-action Lee television show in Macau and a major comic book convention bearing his brand in the first quarter of 2014.
That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a man who turns 90 this December and who, just last month, canceled major appearances in Dallas and Los Angeles because he was in the midst of “depression,” according to his business associates. POW! is also dealing with new legal challenges, according to a story in the Hollywood Reporter.
The centerpiece of the plan, though, is the feature film, and the extent of Lee’s actual hands-on involvement in that is a slippery topic. The plan calls for an English-language movie (with the likelihood of some Mandarin-language scenes) with a budget between $100 million-$150 million and a Chinese lead for a screen story told with considerable special effects and 3-D images.
“This is going to be a typical superhero story and movie, just like Spider-Man and Iron Man, but instead of featuring an American hero it’s going to be a Chinese hero,” Lee said. “But it is not a movie specifically for China. This is a movie for the whole world… [with] a hero and other characters that we can understand, relate to, and care for, just as we always tried to do with other Marvel superheroes.”
“Real Steel” screenwriter Dan Gilroy is developing the screenplay and, after the surprising critical acclaim for that Shawn Levy-directed film, his input may be more relevant than Lee’s presence. (For years in the 1970s and 1980s, Lee’s name appeared prominently on Marvel Comics issues he had little or no role in producing.)
“The Annihilator” will tell the story of a young Chinese man forced to leave his hometown in mainland China amid dramatic circumstances. After time in the United States, he returns home in the guise of the Annihilator, who uses his extraordinary powers to save the world and also explore his roots. One official description added that the character would be “a young Chinese man given a second chance as an international superhero, who returns home to mete out justice.”
Chinese imagination has been populated by superhuman adventurers long before Superman took flight in 1938 and introduced the American superhero. The shape-shifting, cloud-walking Monkey King, for instance, dates back to the 16th century tale “Journey to the West.” But at movie theaters, the home-grown superhero successes have been few and far between.
“Some filmmakers have tried to reinvent the Money King or make new superheroes, but they have not succeeded,” said Raymond Zhou, a well-known Chinese film critic. “It’s mostly the culture that does not encourage imagination.”
If that sounds like an indictment of the audience, some fans feel the same way.
“We often say Chinese people are lacking in creativity,” wrote one user calling himself Great Whiz on the Chinese micro-blog Sina Weibo. “Recently I am obsessed with ‘Iron Man.’ I often wonder: America and Japan both have their well-known superheroes, why doesn’t China? I don’t think it is the problem with Chinese people’s creativity. I felt a deep sadness as if I was strangled.”
Another user named Ihtxaxboelee stated: “In ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Battleship’, an ordinary American hero and a super hero save the earth again. When will a Chinese hero save the earth? Even the most mediocre Shaolin Kung Fu [martial artist] will do!”
Lee believes that a Chinese superhero could have been created as far back as a decade ago. “Perhaps we in America were just too busy creating our own heroes in our own country. Don’t misunderstand me. This movie is not an attempt to change the social mores of the world. This movie first and foremost is a thrilling superhero movie.”
Lee participated in the creation of one of the most notorious Chinese portrayals in the history of comics. The Mandarin first appeared February 1964 as the creation of Lee and artist Don Heck and, with heavy-lidded sneer, Charlie Chan diction and Fu Manchu mustache he was the potent combination of just about every nefarious stereotype imaginable for a Chinese villain.
Eric Mika, CEO of Magic Storm Entertainment, another player in the project, said this new Lee creation will be fun, upbeat and crowd-pleasing on both sides of the globe.”It will be a 100% Hollywood-China co-production,” he said, although he declined to say how much of the budget would be expected from any Hollywood studio that decides to invest. Mika said there was also lots of “soft money” from brands interested in being attached to “The Annhilator” — both Chinese brands wanting to go West and Western brands wanting to break into China.
Champion said the imprimatur of Lee’s name will lead to fevered excitement and that there may be a national search for the film’s star. And he said that excitement will grow when the hero flies over two nations and unites them in a shared popcorn triumph.
“America and China share the same qualities: Proud in their nation, and they recognize their histories and they see their future,” Mika said. “This film is not a political film, it’s not a statement. This is a fun Hollywood film that will appeal to a mass audience. All we have done is included China into this mass audience…and anyone can make a superhero film, but only Stan Lee can make a Stan Lee superhero film.”
— Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Catherine Zheng and Geoff Boucher
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