Blog: The Problem with DC Superhero Films

—Mark

Everyone is familiar with the MCU — the Marvel Cinematic Universe — even if they don’t know it by that shorthand acronym. These are the movies with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, etc. I love these movies. I have all of them arranged by in-story chronological order on the shelf in my home movie theater.

But then there’s the universe of DC films, which began with Man of Steel, and most recently includes Shazam!. These movies… four of the first five were hot garbage. And I don’t say that because I’m a fan of Marvel comics over DC comics. I actually read way more DC growing up. It’s just that the DC movies have really sucked. Even general audiences — people not as familiar with the comic versions of these characters — see these movies are bad, but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

I know what’s wrong, and I have an idea of something that could’ve prevented it in the first place. The producers of the DC movies needed to read the 1996 graphic novel Kingdom Come. (If you’re not familiar, think of it this way: comic books are like long-running TV series, but graphic novels are like standalone movies.)

To explain why, let me quickly retrace the history of superhero films.

The First Wave of Superhero Films (1978-1998)

I would consider the real beginning of the superhero movie genre to be 1978’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. Superman spawned three sequels, received a spin-off (Supergirl), and prompted producers to attempt a lesser known character, Swamp Thing, which also got a sequel. The popularity of these movies led to the first ‘modern blockbuster’, 1989’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton, which also received multiple sequels. When the fourth movie, Batman & Robin, was thrashed by critics and audiences alike — bad acting, campy presentation, convoluted plot — plans for a fifth Batman movie were nixed, and a reboot of Superman (tentatively starring Nicolas Cage) fell into development hell. DC wouldn’t make another movie for seven years.

The Dynamic Duo fight Mr. Freeze’s evil hockey team for somewhere between four and sixty-eight minutes. (Batman & Robin)

On the other side of the industry, DC Comics’ main competitor, Marvel, had long ago sold off the film rights for their most popular heroes. There had been a handful of made-for-TV adaptations of Marvel heroes over the decades, but the first true theatrical release for a Marvel character was 1986’s… Howard the Duck. Produced by George Lucas? (It was just as abominable and boring as you’d expect, given the time period, character, and producer.) This was soon followed by The Punisher (1989), Captain America (1990), and the charming, low-budget Fantastic Four (1994). None of them were good enough to receive sequels. (In fact, Fantastic Four was so bad it was never released.) A lesser-known Marvel character, Blade, got his own movie in 1998. Although Blade had a strong enough cult following to warrant two sequels, it just didn’t catch on with general audiences.

This movie starred the mom from Back to the Future. (Howard the Duck)

The Second Wave (2000-2007)

Things changed when Fox released X-Men in 2000. If Superman began the superhero movie genre, and Batman was the first ‘blockbuster’ hit, then X-Men breathed life into the genre after a decade of failures and flops. The story was strong and engaging, the characters were likeable, and the visual effects were convincing. The studios who owned the film rights to other Marvel characters saw the positive reception of X-Men and chased after it. Over the next seven years the different studios released thirteen movies based on Marvel characters. Except for the first two X-Men and the first two Spider-Man films, none of them gained substantial audience support.

DC finally released a new movie in 2004, the notoriously terrible Catwoman, starring Halle Berry. It had virtually no connection to the comic character it was based on, the costume design was terrible, and the plot was insultingly bad. Another movie, 2005’s Constantine, was (very) loosely based on the Hellblazer comic series. While it was a decent fantasy-horror film in its own right, it still didn’t find a base with either comic fans or general audiences.

A detective of the supernatural walks through Hell to solve a mysterious suicide. (Constantine)

Why did so few of these movies work?

If we go back and watch them, I think there’s an obvious reason: the producers, writers, and directors simply did not ‘get’ the comics. They changed way too much, and so missed the ethos of these characters. The comic series for Superman, Batman, X-Men, etc., go back decades. Some of their most popular story arcs are packaged together in graphic novel format, pushed to readers on the front shelf. By all appearances, it looks as if the film crews read only these collected stories and retained only the most superficial elements, and wrote their movies around that.

The studios were banking on brand recognition above all else; they didn’t really care if the movies were ‘faithful’ to the comics they were based on. Superman kisses people to erase their memories in his movie. Batman kills people in his. General audiences saw shallow, idiotic plots, while comic fans cut through the studios’ flimsy attempts to make money off their emotional investment in the comics. X-Men and Spider-Man worked because they respected the comic sources and audiences could tell (though I would argue they haven’t aged that well in the twenty years since they came out).

The Third Wave (2005-Now)

After nearly a decade without a Batman movie, DC decided to give it a shot again. Batman Begins came out in 2005 and was a major hit. While it’s not without flaws, it was seen by critics and audiences as not just an excellent Batman movie, not just as an excellent superhero movie, but as an excellent movie. Christopher Nolan unintentionally raised the bar for all superhero adaptations. What did he do differently? For one, he didn’t rely on stupid jokes and lazy puns. His movie was also built on respect for the Batman mythos while still departing from it in unique ways. And, he respected his audience; Nolan’s Batman movies present the story and themes in a mature way, steering away from the cringe-worthy silliness of the previous films.

Bruce Wayne struggles to keep up with the Joker’s machinations. (The Dark Knight)

With the success of Batman Begins, and knowledge that The Dark Knight was on the horizon, Marvel saw their own movies and realized something was missing. The movies weren’t being made by people who truly, deeply cared about the characters… they were made by people looking to make an easy buck off of gullible nerds. So Marvel grabbed the handful of characters they hadn’t sold off the film rights for (or had since reacquired film rights), and rolled with their own major gamble: they would make their own movie — comic book creators in charge of a comic book movie — and if it failed, Marvel Comics would go bankrupt. Go big or die.

Tony Stark sets out to save the helpless for the first time. (Iron Man)

Iron Man released in 2008. They barely had a functional script while filming (most of the movie’s dialogue was improvised), but you’d be forgiven for not knowing because it was so snappy and coherent. It was a wild and fun retelling of the character’s origin story. And when the after-credits scene teased a larger universe with other superheroes, fans freaked out, understanding what was in store for the future. Now the Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of twenty-three films, eleven TV series, and a handful of short film and comic book tie-ins, all interconnected. At least eight more films and ten more TV series are in various stages of development right now. The MCU is, to put it bluntly, the single most successful franchise in the history of film-making, and all that in the span of just ten years.

Responses to the MCU’s Success

Not every superhero film after Batman Begins hit the mark.

Fox’s X-Men franchise began to flounder with its third movie, and every entry in the series has gotten progressively worse, with rare exceptions. Every attempt at a Fantastic Four has bombed. Spider-Man 3 was bad enough it killed plans for a fourth movie, and when the studio rebooted the character with The Amazing Spider-Man, that too was subsequently cancelled when its sequel was shredded by critics and audiences. (After that, Sony worked out a deal with Marvel, making a new version of Spider-Man who was a part of the MCU.) Over at DC, Superman Returns, a pseudo-sequel to the Christopher Reeve movie series, was released in 2006. It tried to recapture the atmosphere of the original Superman films while leaning into the maturity introduced by Batman Begins, and wound up dull and uninviting.

As the MCU elevated expectations for the whole superhero genre, their competitors struggled to figure out how to match their runaway popularity. The executives at Warner Bros. decided to reset all their DC movies, with plans to build their own ‘cinematic universe’ to rival Marvel’s. However, to stand apart from the MCU’s witty dialogue and generally lighthearted tone, the DC movies would be ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’, following the positive reception to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

This is where the guys with suits and charts over at Warner Bros. made three major mistakes.

Superman and Lois Lane make out while they are showered in the ashes of millions of dead people. (Man of Steel)

First, the DC films tried too hard to imitate the success of the MCU in too short a time frame. Marvel laid out five solo movies over four years before moving on to their first big crossover, The Avengers. Warner Bros. ran one solo movie then immediately grasped at the huge crossover. This resulted in the bloated, messy, borderline incoherent Batman v Superman. When these first two movies were panned, Suicide Squad was made, a shameless copycat of one of the most popular movies in the MCU, The Guardians of the Galaxy. The DC movies were not being made organically.

Second, Christopher Nolan’s movies were not popular because they were ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’. They were sometimes quite violent, but they never reveled in these more brutal moments. As mentioned, Christopher Nolan sought to treat the material and the audience maturely. By their nature, superhero movies are about spectacle, and Nolan’s movies are not an exception. But he didn’t just shove ‘gritty’ and ‘dark’ stuff in our faces and expect us to like the movies as a direct response.

Third, the guy Marvel put in charge of the MCU, Kevin Feige, is a guy who clearly loves the comics he’s working from. Contrast that to Zack Snyder, the dude Warner Bros. put in charge of the DC movies. Look at his earlier movies, and see how he talks in interviews. He exhibits a transparent condescension toward the DC comics he’s working from, and this can be seen in how he vocally disparages the ‘one rule’ both Superman and Batman have followed in their comics for decades: they avoid killing anyone, even their worst enemies, at all costs.

The Dark Age of Comics

Superhero comic books have been around for about eighty years. The earliest era, when the genre was finding its footing and the major characters were being created, is called the Golden Age (1938–1956). In the Silver Age (1956–1970) the comics ironed out the general tone of their characters. The Bronze Age (1970–1985) introduced more mature storylines, with writers tackling real social and cultural problems, such as racism, incurable diseases, and drug abuse. At the tail end of this third age, a couple of X-Men story arcs turned some heroes evil and killed others.

This led into the Dark Age of comics (1985–1995). The mid 80s saw the release of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Daredevil: Born Again, three stories about mentally unstable heroes and extreme violence. In these cases, these ‘dark’ elements were used in service of the larger story, and not as an ends to themselves.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics), Watchmen (DC Comics), Daredevil: Born Again (Marvel Comics)

Marvel, DC, and a few other companies saw the immense popularity of these stories and came away with the impression that ‘good’ comics needed to be pensive, brutal, and shocking. Heroes and villains became ferocious ‘anti-heroes’. New (or newly popular) characters from this time included: Venom, Lobo, Punisher, Wolverine, Deadpool, Bane, Hellboy, Spawn, Judge Dredd, Doom, Witchblade, Youngblood, Bloodshot, Badrock… Are you seeing a trend in the naming conventions?

Characters that couldn’t obviously be retooled to fit this mold were thrown into situations that exploited the shift toward ‘dark’ stories: Superman was killed by the villain Doomsday. Batman’s back was broken by Bane and he was replaced by Azrael. The X-Men were thrown into an alternate timeline ruled by the evil Apocalypse. (That’s two characters named for the end of the world, and one named for the angel of death.) And the list goes on.

sigh

When artist Alex Ross and writer Kurt Busiek created a graphic novel, Marvels, that was a love letter to Marvel Comics throughout its Golden, Silver, and Bronze ages, Ross suggested DC Comics do something similar and help him make a graphic novel in homage to their own history. However, the worst tropes of the Dark Age were now in full swing, and Ross was fed up. He missed the era when superheroes were inspirational. You know… heroes. Everyone around him only wanted angst and blood. Ross teamed up with writer Mark Waid, and together they wrote Kingdom Come. And their story was a major force in bringing comics into their Modern Age.

History Is Repeating Itself

The progression of superhero films is actually repeating the history of superhero comics. The original Superman films and Batman were the Golden Age, as writers figured out how to adapt these characters to the film medium. The movies of the late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s were the Silver Age: they were campy and inconsistent, written sheerly for entertainment, but ultimately shallow. The late 2000s brought the Bronze Age: superhero films that began to tackle mature themes without sacrificing enjoyment, while still stumbling in a few places.

Marvel recognized the problems from earlier superhero movies and set out to solve them, but they managed to avoid descending into a Dark Age. Their Bronze Age evolved into the MCU we see today: movies that are fun spectacles, weaving in wit, soul, and, sometimes, more contemplative themes for those who want to find it. They managed to skip repeating from the Bronze Age straight to their Modern Age.

In contrast, DC’s films had a very short-lived Bronze Age, consisting almost solely of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Because of the shortsightedness of the executives at Warner Bros., and especially because of the guidance of Zack Snyder, DC’s films ran straight into the Dark Age. Man of Steel was angsty constipation. Batman v Superman was conspiratorial and sadistic. Suicide Squad was nihilistic trash.

The Premise of ‘Kingdom Come’

Now, it’s time to recap the story of Kingdom Come.

The first chapter begins some number of years after our ‘present’. Superman and most of his generation of superheroes have been driven into retirement by the general public, who consider them outdated for clinging to a code of ethics that forbids them from killing their enemies. The newer generation of superheroes, beloved by the public for ruthlessly handling any threats they face, have long since killed most supervillains. The new superheroes become bored without enemies to flaunt their strength, and in their boredom they begin to fight each other, every brawl more destructive than the last. This reckless abandon eventually leads to one of them detonating a nuke in the Midwest. Millions die, and the public is at a loss on how to handle the hyperviolent ‘heroes’ they had once embraced.

The new ‘Man of Tomorrow’ Magog breaks down when confronted by the old ‘Man of Tomorrow’ Superman. (Kingdom Come, p 104)

Amid all this, the point-of-view character is not any superhero, but a normal man, a powerless Christian minister. In fact, he thinks he’s going insane when he begins to see visions of the biblical Apocalypse approaching fulfillment. His visions bleed over into his sermons, but he realizes that, by obsessing over the end of the world, he has driven away most of his congregation, and those who remain are diminishing in hope. As the minister’s faith begins to crumble, he is chosen by God to invisibly witness the fulfillment of the Apocalypse.

Reverend Norman McCay is chosen to witness the end of the world. (Kingdom Come, p 32)

After a decade in seclusion, Superman suddenly returns, believing he can rein in his violent successors by inspiring them with a message of peace and hope. While he does win some of them to his side, Superman finds even more of the new generation simply refuse to accept the wisdom of his experience. The public, after all, chose their violence to save the world, not his ancient ‘boy scout’ code of ethics. As the strongest superhero of all time finds himself no longer able to inspire anyone, the world rushes toward Armageddon, and all the minister can do is watch in horror…

The Importance of ‘Kingdom Come’

Kingdom Come was a scathing critique of the idea that ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’ somehow meant they were ‘better’. In the mid 80s, comic creators and comic fans had duped themselves into thinking hyper-violent comics, with more ‘edginess’ and ‘realism’, meant the stories were ‘mature’. When Kingdom Come released, it helped people to recognize the inherent, ironic immaturity in that mode of thought. The Dark Age started to melt away, and the Modern Age began. Many writers and artists learned from past mistakes, and borrowed from the best elements of the previous ages. There’s still been some major screw-ups in the process, but they’ve shown they want to avoid the pitfalls of the late 80s and early 90s.

Of the seven films DC has released in their own cinematic universe, four of them fall under the ‘Dark Age’ mentality. The other three, all produced after the severe negative responses to the earlier ones, seem to have acknowledged that stupidity. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam! are fun movies. Wonder Woman is genuinely inspiring even while acknowledging that morality can’t fit into two clean boxes of black and white. Shazam! picks on the inherent immaturity of guys fighting crime in vibrant costumes, but it’s still fun.

Despite this progression, it remains to be seen whether Warner Bros. has really learned their lesson. Their next movie is Joker. Yes, they’re making a film where the story’s protagonist is one of the most sadistic and cruel villains in comic book history. This suggests that the DC films haven’t really moved past the ‘edgy’ ethos Snyder laid out for them to build on. He derides the notion that heroes shouldn’t kill, lambasting such a code of ethics as idiotic. His versions of Superman and Batman not only kill their enemies, they display a general disregard for civilian life. By throwing away this central principle of the world’s most iconic superheroes, Snyder proves beyond doubt that he shouldn’t be in charge of their DC film universe.

Alex Ross flips the bird at people like Zack Snyder. (Kingdom Come, p 155)

I’m hopeful the DC movies do change for the better. But I think the way that would really help them consciously recognize the flaws in their bad movies — and not just because ‘the charts say audiences don’t like this’ — would be to read Kingdom Come and absorb its message.