Sunday, April 6, 2014

From Strip to Screen 2: Building a DC Universe

Hey. it's Batman's 75th birthday! Happy birthday, Bru- oops.

In my last post I described the Marvel Comic superhero universe on film - an ever-growing franchise that has led other studios with superhero products to rethink their own superhero franchises. And contrary to my promise, in this post it's the turn of Marvel's main comics rival, DC Comics.

One of these guys is the hero, I think.
From the outset I should confess that I think I have an almost pathological identification problem with underdogs. Not, I stress, underdogs in the classic Hollywood/Superbowl tradition of teams or people winning simply because they are underdogs (because that’s ridiculous), but actual underdogs. Give me your tired, your downtrodden, your oppressed, your doomed to ignominy and I’ll sign up as a supporter despite all cautions of good sense. So, with a history of backing the loser every time I present to you the second installment of my Superhero Movies essay, internet fandom's whipping boy du jour:

DC superheroes are simpler and less divided, but while they are contractually less-fraught, there’s a world of hurt involved, if you believe the highly tribal comic geek community. DC’s known and so far used heroes include:
Warner Studios (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern,,[whisper it!] Catwoman.)
Warner Bros Television ([Green] Arrow, The Flash)
Warners/Fox also have Gotham

It's no surprise that outside of Marvel Studios, DC and their studio ally Warner Bros have the longest history of putting capes on screen, both large and small - as Jamas is currently blogging. To date on the large screen this has led to seven Batman movies, six Superman movies and one Green Lantern picture, and on the small screen we've seen Wonder Woman in the seventies, The Flash in the Eighties, Smallville and Birds of Prey in the Nineties and early 2000s, and most recently Arrow and the forthcoming Flash and Gotham (with Fox.) If movies were all that counted though, the small pool of heroes featured plus the long gestation time of these two main products (the next movie, Man of Steel's sequel is still two years away) makes DC look the underperfoming rivals to Marvel's wunderkind.

 I feel for DC and their films because through Warner Bros being a larger studio they have pressures that Marvel simply don’t. Also, compare and contrast the wildly successful, youthful and self-aware success of Marvel’s various cinematic heroes to the more realistic, and recently rather grim trappings of DC’s movie heroes, following in the rigid real-world setting of The Dark Knight and even Man of Steel. With such staid, upright/conflicted heroes where can they go, particularly when a popular criticism of MoS was that, against the knowing humour of Marvel’s outings the one thing it lacked was a sense of ‘fun’? The answer is there, but as far as I can see it lies in minor or side-lined characters – in other words, heroes we haven’t yet met. I think there’s a spot here to be occupied by the anarchic but brilliant detective Elongated Man or the ridiculously narcissistic Booster Gold (a role for Sam Rockwell, please, who surely auditioned for it in both Galaxy Quest and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) – even a rebooted Guy Gardner Green Lantern. But in order to get there, DC has to overcome its greatest obstacle – its rather po-faced Big Three heroes. On the small screen it's hardly any better.

SMIIIL- oh I give up.
Without other studios to lighten the load with their own franchises, I think that unless DC promotes its second-tier heroes as Marvel has, the brand is seemingly stuck with Warners, a studio which doesn’t just do super hero movies (or fantasy, come to mention the Hobbit franchise), but has a broader yearly schedule and so can’t and probably won’t commit to filling an annual roster to one genre. What’s the solution? The risky formation of a smaller interest in the Warners camp alongside Disney’s creation of Marvel Studios, or franchising to a friendly studio (such as Fox) – if one exists? Or Should DC and Warners bite the bullet and free up some other superheroes to other groups and keep the fans happy there – but why would they want to do that? The name of the game of course is money, not in pleasing a squawking fanbase of overly-invested comic book readers.

Smirk! There, that's better!
For me I think the answer mean-time lies in boosting the healthy profile of Arrow and buzz of Flash to small-scale movie adaptations which can feature cameos by one or more of the Big Three. But why movies at all, when alternative entertainment streams like TV and Netflix are already an option? I don’t know – maybe because they’re more of an event? Big premieres, big audience candy, big budget. The question is still to be answered as to whether those TV heroes would work on the big screen...
What would I do? Maybe treat the TV heroes in the same way Doctor Who treated its adult spin-off  Torchwood – mentions in the ‘parent’ series (i.e. the films) are okay, and cameos by the spin-off (the TV series) can appear in the movies, but to put cards on the table, direct cross-overs are highly unlikely. Concentrate the movie universe to further expansion – a rebooted Green Lantern, perhaps (cough*John Stewart version!*cough) with a possible second hero as an ally (potential here for Green Arrow cameo), and likewise for Wonder Woman.

Then, and only then will we have a movie franchise gutsy enough to tackle... Aquaman.

[coming up next: Fox!]


  1. You never saw the recent(ish) Aquaman pilot... that wasn't good. And neither was the Wonder Woman pilot. DC just can't do live action very well... (Although Smallville was popular.)

  2. But surely the live-action problem isn't just a studio thing? Warners TV also gives us Supernatural, and with Fox produces Almost Human. Nobody says The Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk was great TV, and nobody mentions the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series with admiration (hush, Al!) TV does have good action directors, and it has some great writers. The secret is to see what Marvel are doing (for better or worse with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) and hire someone who officially gives a damn. Oh, and money.

  3. I can’t claim to be an expert but it strikes me that I could make two over-generalisations about the differences between Marvel and DC in the live-media treatment of their heroes.

    The first is that DC have and are performing well in the small screen arena, which Marvel have only really emulated with Bill Bixby in the 1970s and now, debatably, the current Agents of Shield series.
    As you mentioned, does DC really need a huge movie hit to be deigned successful? As film budgets grossly inflate beyond all reason, increasing financial risk and absorbing valuable creative resources, many were already questioning the validity of continuing to invest in this greedy industry. Meanwhile, big name actors and Directors were defecting to the small screen in droves for more satisfying roles.

    Secondly, the Marvel adaptations seem surprisingly true to their 4 colour origins, while DC seems to feel the need to extensively alter their characters backgrounds. This seems to come from a need to imbue the more archetypal DC line-up with ‘character development’ ™ which Marvel already has in place in spades.

    But I wonder if this might be an over-reaction. There’s a lot to be said for having faith in an original concept, and the abilities of a good actor to bring a role to life, expanding and extrapolating upon the powerful ideas already in place for decades. Perhaps DC should just trust themselves a little more.

  4. I think Al has the point there, DC like to reimagine their properties, and have trouble succeeding. (Hey, I remember The Flash tv series, I liked it!) And now they think dark and gritty is the only way to go. They forgot comics can be fun.

  5. Totally agree - but from what I've seen of the trailer it looks like they tried to have some fun with Green Lantern, right? Even then, I guess, it seems the character point is all about Hal Jordan overcoming his "fear" (apologies I haven't seen GL yet)

  6. WRT Al's comment re DC tweaking their characters - it does look that way, to be sure. You could possibly call it a confidence thing, maybe borne of years of Adam West's Batman or what have you. On the other hand, what ever happened to Tony Stark's alcoholism, eh?