It is fairly obvious that DC Comics and the adaptation of their characters to the big screen is in a state of disarray. This is especially confusing considering they are owned by a movie studio, Warner Brothers, and if anything, they should have an easy go of it when it comes to getting their films done right on the big screen.
But year after year, decade after decade, Warners and DC have shown a profound inability to take advantage of the burgeoning pro-comic book film market. Granted, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a success, but it is a rare exception over the last 20 years. For the most part, it has been mistake after mistake.
This post is a list of the ten biggest mistakes Warners has made in relation to its DC Comics films. Some of the items will be very specific mistakes, others more systemic ones, but all are reasons that have DC films playing catch up to the Marvel films.
Now, without any further review, the countdown:
10. Not exploring their rich catalog of intellectual property:
It’s easy to forget that Marvel’s rise to cinematic dominance didn’t begin with Spider-Man or even The X-Men. It began with Blade, a supporting character from a horror comic of the 1970s that didn’t have more than ten issues of his own title before he hit the big screen.
The thousands of characters owned by Marvel is one of the biggest reasons why Disney bought the company. You know what? DC has as many characters as Marvel, if not more. They have been in business since 1935 and have also bought out characters from other companies such as Charlton, Quality, Wildstorm and Fawcett. They have deep reserves of characters to choose from for film properties.
Let’s just take one letter of the alphabet at quasi-random: D. Now, lets take three DC characters from that letter at quasi-random. You have Deathstroke the Terminator, an ex-Special Forces officer who can use 90% of his brain to become a deadly mercenary. You have the Demon, a man from Arthurian times who is cursed to share his body with a demon from Hell. Finally, you have Doctor Mid-Nite, a doctor who was blinded by the Mafia but gained the ability to see in complete darkness. All of those three characters could be made into pretty good movies if given a chance.
But, as we’ll discuss later, even if they did mine their character reserves, there’s no certainty that the film would even get made–or that it will be any good.
9. The belief that if Camp was good in the 1960s, it would be good today:
But while the campy style was a perfect match for the pop art world of the late 60s, comic books grew away from just being exclusively for kids. Ironically, it was DC Comics who led the way, with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing and Watchmen, Frank Miller on Dark Knight Returns, Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and Neil Gaiman on Sandman. You can finally consider comic books a form of literature.
But film makers continually return to the idea that what the film audience really wants is their version of Adam West doing the Batusi. It took Richard Donner’s influence on the first two films of the Superman franchise to keep the producers from camping it up. Once he was gone, we get Richard Pryor skiing off the side of a skyscraper. Tim Burton’s dark and quirky version of Batman might not have suited all tastes, but it was better than what came after–lame puns from kitschy villains, “Holey Rusted Metal,” and the Bat Credit Card. Even Jonah Hex, who never had a campy period in the comics (unless you count that time he was sent into the future), gets translated to the big screen with hokey superpowers, cartoonish villains, and wacky, anachronistic weapons of mass destruction. He was even offered the title of “Sheriff of the United States” at the end of the film. Come on!
8. The “dark and gritty” plan isn’t a course correction, it’s overcompensating:
Warner Brothers Chairman and CEO Jeff Robinov has repeatedly said that he knows exactly how to make the DC Comics films more competitive with the Marvel ones–make them all as dark and gritty as Nolan’s Batman films.
That would be a great strategy if every DC character lent itself to being dark and gritty. They don’t . One of my major concerns with The Man of Steel is that it appears that Zack Snyder has taken Robinov’s words to heart. And Superman just isn’t a character that works as grim and gritty.
Another example of a film being off tonally is Green Lantern. This should have been a slam dunk hit. It should have been a blend of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman. What all those films had that Green Lantern didn’t was a sense of awe and wonder. It’s hard for audiences to be impressed by the alien worlds your film is creating when the main character isn’t impressed. Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordon was grim, he was a smart ass, and he was determined, but he was also unimpressed by being taken to alien worlds no human has ever been to and seeing races no human has ever seen. If he sold what was up on the screen as being amazing, we might have been amazed as well.
Robinov’s idea to improve Green Lantern? Make it even darker and grittier. Yeah, that’ll work.
7. Keeping on letting franchises marinate in development hell:
What do the Flash, Sgt. Rock, and Plastic Man have in common? They are all DC comic properties that Warners has films in development for. What else do they have in common? The same films were listed as being in development in Comic Scene magazine issue#3, way back in 1988. Yes, those properties have been in development for almost a quarter of a century without heading to the silver screen.
You can add to that list Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Suicide Squad, Y: The Last Man, and the Green Arrow/Supermax film. Not all of them have been in development hell for 25 years, but they have all been in the works for a long, long time.
Marvel does have some projects taking their time getting to us (Black Panther, Runaways, etc), but they seem to have a fairly concise plan in effect to get their films into theaters. DC’s attitude seems to be if a DC film gets made, yay. If not, we’ll keep waiting. It’s hard to be competitive when you have nothing to offer into competition.
6. Using JUSTICE LEAGUE to launch franchises:
You get the feeling that DC/Warners expects Justice League to be a blockbuster on the order of The Avengers. Okay, maybe not becoming the third highest grossing film of all time, but certainly a big blockbuster success. Which is why they are pinning their dreams of multiple superhero franchises on that film.
Of course, what DC/Warners doesn’t seem to realize is that the reason The Avengers did so well is because the film was a culmination of years of Marvel films. Most of the characters were introduced in other films, films where they could receive an origin, a backstory, and develop their own personality. They came into the film as known commodities, and that means Joss Whedon was able to build a better story for the film.
Justice League might have some preexisting heroes join in. They’ll have a Superman , whose reboot should do good at the box office. But they’ll also have a Green Lantern whose film didn’t do so good at the box office. Could they reboot him with Justice League and start fresh? Yes, but they are already going to have to reboot Batman and set up plenty of the other properties they have in development as well. It’s going to be a busy film anyway, that would make it even busier. In other words, it will have less to draw people into than The Avengers and have to introduce a whole handful of new characters is such a way that audience would want to see them again. Good luck.
5. Having people with no knowledge of comics interfere with films (Case Study: JONAH HEX):
That script was the one that probably brought all the great actors to the cast (James Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbender) and it appears that some, if not all, of that script was shot as the script’s ending becomes part of Hex’s fever dream in the final film.
However, the studio mandated reshoots. And you can see what was added by comparing the finished product with the original script. And what was added was all the things that made the film awful–the tacked on superpowers, the campiness, and the implausible scheme of the villain.
I don’t know whose decision it was to take away everything that made the comic book Jonah Hex interesting and special and add in a needless superpower and the other damning changes. Maybe it was some executive who though every comic book film hero needed superpowers, or maybe it was feedback from test groups that asked about the lack of powers. Or maybe both. But whatever was the impetus for the change, it didn’t leave a positive result.
Hey, even if they didn’t change the Jonah Hex script, it might have still have been a failure. But if it did fail, it would have been on its own terms.
4. Getting Superman wrong again and again and possibly again:
Superman is DC’s big gun. He is the most iconic character to come out of comics. People all over the world love the character and find something in him they can relate to. He has been popular enough to last 75 years and could quite possibly last 75 more.
Which makes me wonder why Warners have worked so hard to screw the character up over the last few decades.
Richard Donner’s Superman films weren’t without flaws, but it seems perfect considering what comes after. As I mentioned above, Superman was turned into high camp after Donner left. Then the property went into development hell, which I spoke of here and here. We narrowly avoided having a Superman with a talking robot sidekick like in Star Wars or ditching his iconic costume for an all black ensemble, a la The Matrix. And worst of all, we came this close to having a Nicolas Cage Superman. But then the Superman we did get, brought to us by Bryan Singer, is best remembered as being a creepy peeping tom.
He is getting rebooted again, and the new film, The Man of Steel, appears to be in line with changes made to the character in the comic books. But he still appears to be too dark and too ponderous for the character. I am reserving judgement, but I’m not terribly optimistic.
Superman works best as the alien who becomes more human than human. He is the allegory for the immigrant experience, a Christ metaphor, and an example of environment winning out over heredity. He is a good and decent man who uses his awesome powers to save us instead of enslaving us. If you can’t make a good film out of that, you shouldn’t be making films.
3. Hiring Joel Schumacher for BATMAN FOREVER:
On paper, Joel Schumacher didn’t seem that bad a choice. After all, he directed The Lost Boys and Falling Down, two films that had a tone similar to what you’d expect from a Batman film.
Warners hired Schumacher to lighten up the franchise and make it more toy-buying kid friendly. What he did was make a campy, fetishistic, weird pair of films. It took the Batman property back thirty years and also brought a fair amount of kink into it with the extended shots of the heroes’ crotch and ass during the obligatory “suiting up” montages and with the unnecessary nipples on the bat suit. It wasn’t what Warners was asking for, it wasn’t what audiences wanted, and it was a mistake on many levels.
2. Not hiring the right person for the job:
Schumacher wasn’t the only miscue to come from the Warner Brothers human resources department. There is a long history of them choosing the wrong director or approving the wrong actor or actress.
Take their serious consideration of Charles Bronson and Muhammad Ali for the title role in the first Superman film. Or the studio paying for Nicolas Cage to take over the role during Tim Burton’s tenure on the property. Or casting faux pas ranging from Richard Pryor in Superman III to Megan Fox in Jonah Hex.
Speaking of Hex, how about hiring relatively inexperienced Jimmy Hayward to direct that film. Or Casino Royale’s director Martin Campbell to direct Green Lantern when nothing in his resume led anyone to believe he’d be good at helming a sci-fi epic. The list goes on and on.
While Warners should have used some logic in choosing the people the worked with, but they also should have been smarter about the people the let walk away.
1. Letting Joss Whedon get away:
Wonder Woman makes up the third of DC’s trinity of popular characters, right after Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, while those two characters have appeared on screen in multiple incarnations, Wonder Woman has not even come close the big screen. To add insult to injury, they had the writer/director of the highest grossing superhero movie of all time on the payroll to try to bring the Amazing Amazon to the big screen and they let him slip away.
People could say that anyone besides Joss Whedon could have directed The Avengers and it would have been a hit. That might be true, but it probably wouldn’t have been as good. He was able to juggle the ensemble cast in such a way that every character had a moment. He wrote an incredibly strong Black Widow, fleshing her out from the bland femme fatale she was in Iron Man 2. And he created a great mix of action, humor and pathos for the film.
Joss Whedon signed on with Warners in 2006 and spent two years trying to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen. The man who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and loads of other strong female characters seems like he would have been a perfect fit for the project. However, Warners didn’t like the direction Whedon was taking the character in and instead of trying to kowtow to Warners way of thinking, Whedon left the project.
So, while Whedon is raking in cash hand over fist for Marvel for the superhero film he did for them, Warners, the studio who thought that Nic Cage would make a great Superman and that Jonah Hex would have been so much better with superpowers, has yet to bring one of DC’s oldest and most iconic characters to the big screen. Someone at Warners must be kicking themselves over this. Or hopefully got fired.