After lagging behind Marvel for some time, there seems to be a pick up of effort on DC Comics part in their screen adaptations of their properties.
As a huge DC fanboy, I’d love to be thoroughly excited by this. However, I can’t help but be trepidatious about the future of DC movies and tv shows.
A few weeks ago, David S. Goyer (story writer on the Nolan Batman trilogy) said about the upcoming Man of Steel that “What Christopher Nolan and I have done with Superman is try to bring the same naturalistic approach that we adopted for the Batman trilogy.”
I’m a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s work. He’s the only director for which I own all his movies. Zack Snyder is a little more hit and miss but I actually liked his adaptation of Watchmen. I want this movie to be good. If nothing else, it will be a big step forward to ensuring more DC movies.
I just can’t help but feel it’s a little odd that the direction DC’s screen adaptations are heading involve removing the “comic book-i-ness” for the comic books.
Let’s rewind a bit. The reason why 1997’s Batman & Robin failed was because it was over the top and campy. Every review of the movie, every online discussion, hell, every in person discussion I hear says nothing but bad things about the movie. It failed catastrophically. Here’s the thing though. Whenever I hear people talk about that movie, I get the sense that they think the filmmakers didn’t realize what they were making. As if Joel Schumaker et all accidentally made this campy mess. We’ve got to realize that it was purposefully done that way. It’s just that everyone involved severely underestimated audience’s patience for camp.
So Batman & Robin fails miserably. Flash forward circa 2004/2005 and we find out Christopher Nolan has been tasked to reboot the franchise. He takes the movie in a dark, gritty, realistic direction. It becomes a revelation. Audiences and critics sing songs of this amazing new way of portraying Batman.
From 2005 and continuing through today, we’ve been assaulted with reboots and remakes that take franchises into a dark, gritty, and realistic territory. For the majority of these movies, the decision to do the dark gritty thing is more a surface level, visceral reaction than a calculated decision to benefit the story. Studios see that Nolan’s dark and gritty reboot made lots of money and assume that’s all it takes to create a successful movie.
There’s example after example after example of movies failing to do well because they thought the key to success was being dark and gritty. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan series were just action movies. Nothing dark or gritty about them. The reboot, Conan the Barbarian, didn’t fare so well. Nightmare on Elm Street was a just a horror movie. Sure there was blood, guts, and scares but I wouldn’t conceive of the movie being described as gritty. The reboot failed. The most extreme example I can think of is Snow White and the Huntsman. This is a children’s story. In attempt to, I don’t know, connect back to the Brothers Grimm version, the filmmakers made it dark and gritty. But this dark and grittiness did not server a purpose in the story — other than to make the movie dark and gritty.
DC itself is succumbing to the over reliance on the dark and gritty trope. The CW’s Arrow premiered two weeks ago. The show is a re-imagining of Green Lantern to be a darker, more intense version of the character. The show mostly takes place at night, Olliver Queen is depicted as revenge-driven, the costume doesn’t look like Robin Hood’s. In many ways it’s a direct contrast to the swashbuckling comic book character. So far it hasn’t been a terrible show to watch. It’s actually been pretty good. It’s just that Green Arrow fans (myself included) have to understand that the series creators took the Green Arrow premise as a jumping off point and are doing their own thing with it. (Maybe more accurately, the Christopher Nolan thing.)
The problem is that the dark and gritty route isn’t a catch all solution to making people care about the movie. Nor does it inherently make a movie seem “serious.” The reason dark and gritty works so well for Batman is because Batman is a flexible character. There are aspects of Batman that lend itself to dark and gritty. This includes the idea that a boy grew up yearning for revenge and trained in martial arts and the sciences to become a crime fighter. There’s aspects of Batman that lend itself to the fantastical. Batman routinely goes up against foes like Mr. Freeze, Clayface, and Posion Ivy. There’s aspects of Batamn that lend itself to campy. The fact that Batman has all his gadgets can be made fun of and played for laughs.
What Christopher Nolan did was focus on one aspect of the Batman character. He told the Batman story he wanted to tell. He was able to do this because Batman comes in many iterations.
The problem with making superhero movies “realistic” is that it flies in the face of why the characters are popular in the first place. Comics are escapism. That doesn’t mean the stories contained within the pages of a comic book are meaningless or bad or silly. It means that we want to see a guy who can fly through the air and is bullet proof. We want to see a guy push himself to the limit of his humanity. We want to see a guy who can run damn near the speed of light. We want to see a warrior princess in battle. It’s like the people making these movies are ashamed of the comic book roots.
I’d like to point out at this point that I’m kind of sort of talking out of my ass. Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer and pros. If there’s one team I trust for the Superman movie, it’s them. From the above interview, Goyer goes on to say “…actually this doesn’t necessarily mean we will make a dark movie. But working on this reboot we are thinking about what would happen if a story like this one actually happened.” By all accounts it seems like they’re not making Clark Kent Begins.
What I hope comes across in my musings is that DC doesn’t have to make everything dark and gritty. By all accounts I read, the reason why Green Lantern was a miserable movie is because there was no script at the time of shooting. It wasn’t because the idea of a guy getting a magic ring that’s part of a space marine army was too fantastical. Studios nowadays lock in release dates for movies far ahead of time. For whatever reason, it appears they’d rather release a terrible movie than delay or not release a movie.
Then there’s the Justice League. Last week, DC announced that they’ve set their Justice League franchise for a 2015 release date. So far all I’ve seen is the legions of fans scream bloody murder that DC isn’t following Marvel’s model of releasing stand alone movies for each character before the team up movie.
That doesn’t worry me. What worries me is that DC will make Justice League dark and gritty. It doesn’t need to be. Before Batman Begins there were hundreds of movies that expected the audience to take it seriously and simultaneously the movie took itself seriously. No need to go the dark and gritty route.
Justice League comics rank as some of my all time favorite stories. They feature characters who have powers that are nearly god-like who go up against enemies that can match their strength. These stories feel epic — in every sense of the word.
The one movie Justice League should look to for inspiration is the first Star Wars. It’s a serious movie (there are some funny parts but by no means is a Star Wars a comedy). It feels epic. There’s about four main characters with an additional four side characters who have big roles. No audience member knew anything about these characters beforehand. Through this one story alone we understood who Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader, Chewie, R2D2, C-3PO, and Obi-Wan were. This was a movie with light sabers, telekinetic characters, highly functioning androids, and aliens that looked like every combination of animal on our planet. People loved it and it wasn’t seen as campy or not-serious.
Like I said in the beginning, I’m trepidatious about how DC is taking it’s properties to the silver screen and small screen. So far Arrow is good, but not quite what Green Arrow is in the comics. Of course the Nolan Batman movies are classics but I wouldn’t be surprised if us fans consider it it’s own continuity universe in a few years.
I really hope that Man of Steel sets a tone of seriousness, but not grittiness, that the rest of DC’s movies can copy.