DC Comics Movies: D is for "Desperate"

In college my friends and I spoke of ďThe Marvel Curse.Ē Every Marvel Comics based movie bombed, assuming it didnít go straight to video. They had bad scripts, horrible acting and shoddy production values. The DC Comics adaptations were not all spectacular either, but they did include the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies and the two Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman films. When compared with Marvel, those certainly were enough to consider DC Comics far superior in the film department.

How long ago that time seems. Now itís Marvel clearly in the lead with DC running far behind. This distinction became clear when Warner Brothers/DC Comics announced its full slate of ten Justice League films running through 2020. Why did this happen? In part because Marvel had done the same thing weeks earlier.With Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the combined Avengers series Marvel was printing money, and thatís even before Guardians of the Galaxy became this yearís surprise smash. (Note: Iím not referring here to the Spider-Man or X-Men films for simplicityís sake because those properties are not owned by Marvel Studios.)

Letís set aside the absurdity of any company planning this many films so far in advance. Or that itís harder to think of stars who arenít connected with some superhero franchise than those that are. Taken by its own merits, Marvel established a much stronger position to plan ahead than DC. Yes, the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films were both critically and commercially successful, but both Nolan and star Christian Bale are gone from the DC Comics universe. Man of Steel had decent box office for its budget, but failed to excite critics or the public. Green Lantern bombed big time. And thatís it, thatís what DC Comics is building its hopes on.

Perhaps Warner Brothers/DC Comics has learned the wrong lessons. Marvel established Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor through three very different films. Each one created a world that either fit the character or set up an effective contrast. Each took the time to establish what shaped these superheroes' personalities and points of view. Robert Downey Jr. perfectly captured Iron Manís cocky irreverence, as Chris Evans did with Captain Americaís earnestness and Chris Hemsworth with Thorís bluster. So when they came together in The Avengers, the fun was as much in seeing the team clash with each other as in them beating the bad guys. Marvel also took some chances. After modeling the first Captain America on straightforward World War II era films, Marvel then did a 180 degree turn with the second one, evoking 70s conspiracy thrillers. Most importantly, Marvel enlisted talented filmmakers such as Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon to launch their series.

Warner Brothers/DC Comics executives would have loved for Christopher Nolan to integrate his Dark Knight Batman franchise into their long-term plans, but he declined. So it was left to Man of Steel to launch the DC Comics Justice League series. Rather than giving Superman a distinct story and personality, Man of Steel clumsily tried to shoehorn him into the Batman model. Clark Kent became a troubled, isolated man feeling guilty about a parentís death. As a young man, he goes into hiding just like Bruce Wayne did in Batman Begins. When Clark does become Superman, he has no joy in his heroism; itís only a burden, an obligation. Thatís fine for Batman, because violence and pain shaped his very existence. Superman had his own struggles, but he always enjoyed who he was and how he could use his powers to help people. Unlike the Christopher Reeve films, Man of Steel had no sense of fun or wonder.

Then thereís the acting. Do you remember anything about Henry Cavillís performance as Superman? I doubt it. He looked good in the costume, but unlike Bale, or most of the Marvel stars, he did not put any energy or personality into the role. It was purely functional. That may be all you need to make money, but other recent superhero casting proved that talented actors can bring so much more. Even more disconcerting was Zack Snyderís listless direction. Snyder showed with 300 that he can stage fight scenes well, but thatís about it. He has never shown much ability to develop characters. Now heís working on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and developing the other Justice League films.

The Warner Brothers/DC Comics model seems to be doing exactly what worked before. No wild cards, and no taking chances as Marvel did. What does that mean for the Justice League? Are we going to have a team of Batman clones, just with different powers? If the studio canít hire people to make Superman interesting, why should we think that Wonder Woman, the Flash, or Aquaman will be any different?

So pardon me if I donít feel optimistic. Maybe Iíll feel differently by 2020, but I doubt it.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2014

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