Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #40, we explore another question related to superhero movies…
How would I save the DC Extended Universe?
Now, what we’re talking about here is the recent efforts by Warner Brothers to create a “shared cinematic universe” featuring characters published in DC Comics. So, Superman, Batman, and the lot. Of course, the desire to do this comes from seeing the squidzillions of dollars that Marvel’s similar cinematic universe is pulling in.
In fact, every effort at this point to create a shared cinematic universe (not just sequels, but multiple franchises of movies that take place in the same fictional continuity) has been inspired by the incredible success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Now, in spite of what you hear sometimes, DC’s Cinematic Universe is by no means a flop. They’ve only released 5 movies so far, and it is currently (according to Wikipedia) the 14th highest grossing film franchise of all time, and even higher than that if you take into account how few films there have been.
But, the studio still isn’t happy, because it’s way behind The Avengers and Marvel in general. They can see that the superhero-viewing pie out there is enormous, and they want a bigger piece.
And for the most parts, fans aren’t all that happy either, because for the most part the films haven’t been all that good.
For clarity, these are the movies that are part of this franchise:
• Man of Steel (2013), directed by Zack Snyder and featuring Superman
• Batman v. Superman–Dawn of Justice (2014), directed by Zack Snyder and featuring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman
• Suicide Squad (2016), directed by David Ayer, and featuring Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Amanda Waller and Rick Flag
• Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins, and featuring Wonder Woman
• Justice League (2017), directed by Zack Snyder, with significant reshoots directed by Joss Whedon, and featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.
Now, most of these films were not flat-out terrible, but for the most part they haven’t been straight-up great either. The notable exception is Wonder Woman, which surprised everyone by being pretty awesome,
However, in spite of the shaky success, Warner Brothers is currently going ahead with a boat-load of new movies, featuring all sorts of characters. Most of these movies are not moving ahead strongly yet, with release dates being announced and then pushed back all the time. However, some are clearly happening: Aquaman comes out this year, Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984 come out next year, and Birds of Prey is supposed to start filming in January. Aside from that, there are future films featuring Batman, Harley Quinn, Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern, Supergirl, Batgirl, Nightwing, Superman, Booster Gold, Justice League Dark, the Suicide Squad, Deathstroke, Deadshot, Superman, the Joker and the New Gods have all been talked about, with different directors attached to different projects and different times.
Anyway…the idea of this question is that let’s imagine I’m suddenly put in charge of the entire DCEU. How do I “fix” it? What do I do to make it great, like we all believe it could be?
I have to follow a couple of guidelines, which is that I can’t change anything that’s already happened. In other words, I can’t just make it so Batman v. Superman never happened, if I wanted to. In fact, I’m going to assume that Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman 1984–all the movies already produced or currently in production–happen just as they will in real life. Other stuff, which hasn’t gone into production yet, I can change if I want to.
Also, I have to remember that I’m trying to suggest something that will be successful. So I can’t just forget all the characters I don’t like and focus on making movies about the Legion of Super-Heroes or whatever.
Now, as I try to answer this, it’s temping to just put it very simply. The biggest step that we have to take if we’re going to “fix” the DCEU is extremely obvious, and it is simply this:
Make all your DCEU movies really really good from now on!
This, clearly, is the answer. Of course, it does not make a very satisfying article.
What would it take to make the DCEU movies good movies?
Well, obviously, it will take well-written scripts, good direction, strong acting, well developed characters, and story direction that feels like it has purpose.
To be more specific, these great movies won’t have the tonal confusion of Man of Steel, the pacing problems of Batman v. Superman–Dawn of Justice, the uneven story of Justice League, or the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too issues of the ending of Wonder Woman. And they basically won’t have any qualities at all in common with Suicide Squad.
Next, it’s important to get our characters right. These aren’t just original films–they are adaptations of popular, well-known characters, and sometimes of actual storylines that those characters are known for.
Now, I’m not suggesting slavish adherence to comic book continuity. That, clearly, would be a nightmare. Comics are comics, and movies are movies, so they’re respective storytelling are always going to be different.
I’m not even suggesting that every character has to be completely true of the core of the character as we see them in the comic books. That’s because there are some characters that simply don’t matter all that much from that respect. For example, if Black Manta in the upcoming Aquaman film isn’t entirely true to core of the character of Black Manta in the comic books, I don’t think that’s a big deal. I’ve read a lot of comic books but I don’t even feel like I know what the core of the character of Black Manta looks like.
The same thing is true for characters like Perry White, or Steve Trevor, or Captain Boomerang, or even Aquaman himself. If you’re the director and you’ve got some nifty idea that’s going to help make that character’s film a great film, then go for it.
But…I do think there are some characters that we do have to be true to the core of what they are, even if we can’t all agree on all the details of that core. Chief among them are these two guys…
Come on, I don’t care how good Wonder Woman was or how much someone wants to make a Justice League Dark movie or how much the “Arrow-verse” has to keep them on the sidelines. The heart and soul of any sort of adaptation of the DC Universe is these two heroes, and if we don’t do a good job with them, then it’s never going to fly.
So what makes Superman Superman?
Well, aside from the powers and the basic origin story (basically something like, “Rocketed from the dying planet, baby Kal-El was taken in by a kindly couple and raised to use his great powers for the betterment of mankind. He now fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice as the costumed hero, Superman”), Superman really needs to be an inspirational figure. People have every reason to be afraid of him because of his power, but they don’t because they recognize his goodness, his decency, and his kindness. Indeed, a great details I’ve once seen in a take on the character (I can’t remember who this was from) was that the reason Superman doesn’t wear a mask is that he sees how important it is for people to be able to feel like they can connect with him, that they can trust him, precisely because he is so powerful.
And people do, mostly. Of course there are those who don’t, but usually they are either authoritarian leaders who feel threatened by him, or criminals who know that he can easily defeat them. When Superman shows up, it gives people reason to think that things are going to be okay, or at least be better.
Now, none of this means that Superman can’t be at the heart of real, honest-to-goodness drama, or even have elements of darkness in him and around him. Superman can face rampantly destructive evil and he can be brought to the brink of despair. But Superman will find the internal strength to keep going, to find a way forward. As cheesy as Superman’s “spinning the earth around” maneuver in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film was, that scene demonstrates this whole emotional tone pretty well. And in the best of such situations, Superman’s victory will inspire others to rise up and keep going as well.
With Man of Steel, the issue was tone and emphasis. Superman, and the audience, were drowned in bleakness–through the plot, the filming style, through the strange depiction of Jonathan Kent, and of course the overwhelming destruction of the battle scenes. Or rather, not the destruction itself, but the fact that in the midst of it all, Superman’s essential hopefulness or goodness never really gets to shine through. This could have been accomplished just by emphasizing his efforts to save people, even if those efforts were not always successful. We do see him do this at the start of the movie in secret, but if that secret had been revealed in a way that drew people’s trust, and even gave him a sense of satisfaction which would morph into desperation as General Zod’s reign of destruction screamed down on the earth, then it all would have felt a lot more personal and carried more emotional weight.
Really, a good summary of what the character of Superman should be, I believe, is found in this bit of text from an anniversary issue (Action Comics #500, I think) by Marty Pasko:
Any man of a dozen, a hundred, a million – but for a trick of fate – could have been placed in a rocket bound for Earth. Any man born on Krypton can gain that power beneath the yellow sun.
Nor is it wisdom that makes him Superman. Any man can be wise – if he lives long enough – and keeps his eyes and ears open while he lives.
No it is something else…that special virtue that is his and his alone: The ability to use all that God-given power and that long-nurtured wisdom in the name of kindness… ethics…morality – the thing men call “good”…to wield that power in the pursuit of justice and, in that pursuit to vanquish evil!
That is the sentiment that should be at the heart of Superman, and the resolve that Superman should be returning to even when the darkness has done everything it can to eat away his soul. In Man of Steel, it’s not his specific actions that work against this idea, it’s more the tone of everything, the confused and conflicted way that Superman interprets the advice given to him by his foster father, and the fact that Superman’s whole vibe is sort of a dour and slightly creepy.
Justice League obviously tried to adjust this, but the efforts were sometimes clunky. When, in the middle of a battle with Steppenwolf, Clark suddenly stares out into the distance and says in his hushed whisper, “Civilians!” and then flies away, it was an obvious and forced attempt to address this issue. At the time, I’m thinking there’s destruction all over the place, there must be thousands of civilians in danger…why is Superman suddenly flying off and not stopping the bad guy who was causing it? I mean, I liked the funny shot of him carrying that entire housing complex, but it was intrusive, rather than say focusing on Superman’s efforts to save people even as he was approaching the main battle or something.
Some of the coolest comics have highlighted this aspect of Superman by having him engage in heroics that are not the traditional big battles with villains. In All-Star Superman, there’s a bit where we see Superman suddenly stopping a young lady from committing suicide, not by catching her, but by inspiring her. There’s another issue that columnist Greg Hatcher recently referenced (I don’t know what issue it’s from) where Superman confronts a couple of guys before they embark on a bank robbery and basically talks them down, telling them to go do something meaningful with their lives. That’s the sort of stuff that really should be included in a Superman movie, not instead of the big action sequences but alongside it.
This is a lesser thing, but Superman also has an element of loneliness to him. Whether “Clark Kent” is treated as the real man, or as a disguise he must put on, he maintains that aspect of his identity because he needs it in order to have a hope of having genuine and meaningful relationships. I don’t mind a Lois Lane who knows Clark’s secret (like the one in the DCEU)…indeed, I’m a big fan of married Superman in the comics from the 90’s. But I think it was a mistake in Man of Steel to have Lois know Clark’s secret before he’d established the “Clark Kent” persona. I can understand the reasoning, as maybe the filmmakers are concerned that modern audiences would find the idea of Clark’s glasses “disguise” to be laughable.
But still, I’d have worked harder at showing Clark attempting to find a place to settle himself in the normal world, and then be in such awe of how amazing Lois is that he wants to open up to her; rather than what we got, which was Clark trying to find out about his alien heritage, being caught by Lois in the process, and then having her on his side all along as he adjusts to “normality”.
Now the good news is that a lot of this can still be “fixed” in future DCEU films, even if the existing ones are still part of the backstory. The fact that Superman has just come back to life in Justice League gives us all sorts of opportunities to re-examine people’s reactions to him. And for the most part, we’re not really changing anything in terms of what’s been portrayed (there was a huge funeral for Superman, after all, so he’s definitely seen as a beloved hero, even after he failed to save the Capital building, etc), but we’re just adding a layer of character and story that will help our protagonist a lot more relatable and engaging.
Then there’s Batman. With Batman, it’s both simpler, but harder to deal with. What, after all, makes Batman Batman?
Batman is vengeance. Batman is darkness.
Batman is the Night.
No, not exactly. Batman is a guy who wants criminals to see him that way, though. Traumatized by the brutal murder of his parents right in front of his eyes as a young boy, millionaire Bruce Wayne has trained himself and made use of every resource at his disposal to wage war against thieves and murderers. He is an expert martial artist, gymnast, and detective and has the means to develop specialized technology in the pursuit of his aims. He’s more than willing to break bones and send people to the hospital if it means saving somebody’s life or getting a criminal off the streets. He deliberately cultivates hear in his enemies, knowing it means they will be less effective in fighting back, and might even deter some from acting.
What Batman doesn’t do, though, is deliberately kill people. I know, I know, in the early days of the comics, Batman did kill some people. Superman as well. But it’s been clearly established for decades that Batman purposely, strategically does not kill, and I believe this has become a core part of his character. Batman knows that if he gives him permission to actually kill the criminals he is chasing down, that he’s no longer a crusading vigilante…he’s just another criminal. In the face of so much intense darkness and violence and tragedy, Batman operates on the very edge of insanity and madness–it’s his “no kill” rule that serves as proof that he hasn’t gone over that precipice, at least to himself.
If you’re looking for a cinematic representation of this, just watch Batman Begins, because in scenes like Batman’s “debut” on the docks, or when he terrorizes that corrupt cop, they nail it.
Batman is the preeminent example of determination and perseverance. Indeed, he’s fighting a war he knows he can never win, but does so because it’s worth it if he can save even one innocent person or stop one criminal. Whenever DC does some sort of dark, alternate-future dystopia, Batman’s the guy who is the lone hold-out of resistance. He’s the guy out of all of DC who sees himself as the reference point for moral clarity–the one who will hold Superman to account, the one with contingency plans to take down the Justice League if they ever go evil, the one will sacrifice every personal relationship to do what he feels is right.
If you take that guy, and you make him a murderer or an executioner, than you’ve suddenly got a very different character. You’ve got someone you can’t really trust–not the public, not the other super-heroes, and not the reader.
Thus, it’s a huge mistake whenever Batman in the media is treated as a murderer. It was a mistake in the 1989 Michael Keaton movie, it will be a mistake in the upcoming Titans series (from what I’ve heard), and it was a mistake in Batman v. Superman. It was much bigger mistake, in my opinion, than having Superman execute General Zod–as at least the movie went out of the way to show why he might not have had another choice, and to show he had great regret about it. Now, Batman is just a crazy guy, and I can’t imagine why Superman would ever work with him, except maybe that his memory is all foggy from being dead for a while.
Batman is also, incidentally, supposed to be incredibly smart and deductive. In Batman v Superman, he is instead naive and easily manipulated, which was another point of frustration.
Anyway, “fixing” Batman in future movies won’t be as easy as “fixing” Superman, because it’s harder to undo the whole thing of killing people. Our best bet might be to take the approach of Justice League, and just ignore it. And since Justice League ignored so many things about Batman v. Superman, it almost gets lost in the shuffle.
Or we might be able to use the upcoming solo Batman movie (which will be a pre-quel to Batman v Superman, presumably) to show how broken and on the edge Batman was, to sort-of justify why he goes so full-on dark in Batman v. Superman. And then we could use the next Justice League movie to show some appropriate level of repentance and redemption.
But, since post is already long enough, I’m going to wait until next week to follow up this question. That follow-up will be basically my road-map summary of the movies DC should produce and the main beats it should hit with each one, in my personal vision of how to fix the DCEU.