or, “The World According to DC/WB”
I’ve noted before that DC/WB has a huge Bat-crush and is determined to turn capitalize on everyone else’s Bat-crush and try to make all the money. I’ve also noted that movie studios tend to imitate success without necessarily understanding why the original was successful in the first place. So here we are and news has leaked that DC/WB has said there shall be no jokes in their future movies. Humor, it seems, is no place for comic books or comic book movie adaptations which is why Guardians of the Galaxy will be one of the highest-grossing movies this year…
Of course, this is a rumor and it may not be true. Unfortunately for DC/WB, no one seems to be doubting that it could be true, and that is a sad commentary on the state of their would-be movie empire. I’m not sure if the Bat-crush is the cause of the other issues DC/WB has with their movies, or if it is merely the most obvious symptom of a deeper malady. I suspect the latter, especially with this latest rumor. I think that DC/WB has absolutely no idea how to duplicate the success of Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy and manage to miss every salient point about why that set of movies was so successful. Here is a list (in no particular order) of the symptoms of this malady, and how to treat them.
1) Bat-crush. Already covered at great length, but in short, Batman is Batman; not every hero can or should be Batman and it’s really obvious when the creative teams are trying to put that cowel on everyone.
Remedy – get over Batman! Good grief there are other interesting characters who deserve books and movies and general exposure. I’d also like to point out that audiences like novelty. If every movie is just a thinly disguised Batman, that’s going to get old pretty fast. Hell, this is something Marvel is already struggling with. Avoid the pitfall of sameness.
2) Embarrassment. Yes, I think DC, and by extension WB (or perhaps the other way around), is embarrassed that one of their iconic figures wore red underwear on the outside for 70+ years. I think DC/WB is operating under the assumption that comic books are for children only, and they desperately want that lucrative PG-13 market. This is true for the movies as well as the comic books.
Remedy – get over it! DC has had something of an inferiority complex since an upstart little company called Marvel started grabbing their previously unchallenged market share. Marvel tried to distinguish itself from DC by telling its potential readers DC was for children, but more mature teenagers should really graduate to Marvel’s more relatable and realistic heroes. Clearly DC internalized that stinging accusation and has done a lot to try to refute it. Oddly, this leads to utterly blind leadership. Even though the leadership at the comic book side of it tend to be fans who read comics from childhood into adulthood, they seem embarrassed by that. This is an adolescent attitude that is not becoming of adults running a company. Kids like comics. Teenagers like comics. Adult like comics. And a whole bunch of them don’t care that their hero wears red underwear on the outside.
3) Assumed maturity. Related to the embarrassment issue, DC/WB has been desperately trying to make their product more mature in order to appeal to mature readers (who again apparently don’t include adults). So many of the stories concern tortured anti-heroes with a thirst for vengeance and a bunch of sex and violence and gore and apparently severed arms. Bright and colorful heroes who have more black and white moral codes are discarded as being too simple, or too immature, because clearly there needs to be more Batman (or Wolverine).
Remedy – get over it! Having storylines in which there is a bunch of sex and violence and gore does not make for a mature story in and of itself. See pretty much any comic of the early ’90s. Yeah, sure, it was pretty obvious Cable and Domino were getting it on mostly off-panel, but the stories still concerned randomly blowing up stuff with impossibly large guns. Some of the most puerile, juvenile, low-brow comedies ever produced have been rated “R” and no one would ever label those as “mature” just because there’s some nudity and swearing.
4) Dark and edgy as substance, not style. By this I mean the powers that be look at Batman, which is all dark (literally and figuratively) and assume that this is substance that made the last set of movies so successful. They see a dark, brooding figure with no hints of bright color anywhere who lives in a gray world that on its surface is devoid of joy and hope. And that is what the executives are trying to duplicate, hence the edict of “no humor” and hence shooting an entire movie through a gray filter. As a sidenote, Sony is trying this too, and with no more success in my view.
Remedy – learn the difference between style and substance. Honestly, as a writer I am embarrassed when so-called professionals don’t seem to know the difference. The appearance of a thing is not the same as that thing (unless you are a really, really good illusionist). The Nolan Batman trilogy the executives seem to so love is not entirely devoid of humor (the villain of the second one is the Joker!), and there is some hope, in the end.
5) Gray morality. The executives at DC obviously favor anti-heroes, or don’t know the difference between anti-heroes and heroes, or between anti-heroes and [Denis Learys], or don’t care. But there seems to be this pervasive idea that a hero can’t have a black and white morality. That’s immature; that’s for children. Mature people favor protagonists with questionable morality that occasionally make the wrong choices, or have to do wrong first before they realize what’s right. Honestly, there is a lot of evidence on their side, which is something that bothers me on a different level. But…
Remedy – actually watch Nolan’s trilogy. There’s almost no gray morality in that entire set of movies. Ducard/Ra’s tries to tempt Bruce, but as soon as Bruce realizes “League of Shadows” is a euphemism for “Society of Assassins,” he burns down their headquarters and gets the hell out of there. Gotham City is so corrupt that Batman taking the law into his own hands actually seems like the more morally correct choice since it’s so obvious there is no justice in the actual system. Batman stays on the side of order and law. It’s Harvey Dent who’s tempted to compromise his principles, and he does, and that destroys him. Nolan’s direction is really not that subtle. There are blatantly obvious and straightforward conflicts between law and crime and order and chaos.
6) Not Marvel. So DC in many ways wants to be Marvel (and WB sure wants that sweet, sweet cash), but is determined to anchor the success of its movies in how it is not Marvel. Does Marvel have a counterpart to Batman? Not really. Batman’s literal and figurative darkness is a contrast to the brighter and more colorful Marvel Cinematic Universe (although in general Marvel’s universe is darker than DC’s; Batman just happens to be the exception). In fact, DC/WB may think they cannot succeed trying to be Marvel because look what happened with Green Lantern. That movie had a bright, colorful hero and failed.
Remedy – be DC, and don’t just be Batman. Honestly, it amazes me that movie executives, who are supposed to make movies that make money, are so bad at understanding why a movie doesn’t make any money. Green Lantern failed because it was just a mediocre movie. Nothing was done well and some parts were done badly. Of course it failed. That’s like saying an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice failed because romantic comedies fail, or because that’s an awful story. No, it’s because it was a bad adaptation.
7) Poor character marketing. I’ve gone about this at length too, but I recently read an article that tallied the revenue for DC’s direct-to-video animated movie sales. Out of more than twenty movies, the first four top grossing ones were either Batman or Superman or both, but the fifth was the Wonder Woman movie. Sixth place wasn’t even close. Notably, the Justice League movies weren’t close either. But instead of making a Wonder Woman movie, DC/WB chose to make Green Lantern and are rumored to be working on a Flash movie. Wonder Woman gets to cameo in a pre-Justice League movie. Green Arrow (well, a Batman-Punisher-ized version) gets a TV show, Flash might get a TV show, Gotham City gets a TV show, and not Wonder Woman (because the god-awful pilot failed for multiple reasons, not because it was about Wonder Woman).
Remedy – market your icons! Marvel had a harder fight to put its movies out there because while I am a Marvel fan its most iconic hero is Spider-man, and Marvel didn’t own the rights to him. So the creative team had to look to the rest of the vast cast of characters. The Avengers has had many iterations, and for me Captain America is the most iconic, and perhaps the Hulk because of the ’70s TV show, but Marvel started with Iron Man. This was a risk since I only read about Iron Man when he appeared in other comics I was reading. He wasn’t a particularly well-known character outside of fandom. But Batman, Superman, and WONDER WOMAN are the DC trinity. There have been television shows for all three of them at one time or another. Batman has had several adaptations, and Superman just a few less. All appeared on various “Justice League” adaptations as well. When the Smithsonian Institute put together a list of the 101 most important objects in American history, they picked Sensation Comics #1, the origin of Wonder Woman. I’d also argue for marketing these three because they are and have always been (except briefly in the comics but always in the public eye) Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince. Other heroes have passed down their titles so those aren’t as easy to market because you have to pick one version, which some people may know and some won’t and thus might be confused when their hero is not who they expected (in fact, I read an article titled “Why is Green Lantern White?” because at the time of its release, John Stewart was the Lantern on the Justice League cartoon).
Conclusion – DC/WB executives are astoundingly clueless. They are missing the point of their most successful recent franchise so completely I almost wonder if this is self-sabotage. Listen, I know I don’t make movies, but that’s not my job. I do, however, understand stories. I understand style and substance and theme. I understand character development and dialogue. Hey, DC/WB, if you really can’t figure this out, try listening to the fans again whom you’ve so steadfastly ignored, especially since New 52. They get where you’re going wrong, and would really relish the chance to help you out. Really.