We just got our first hints at the Justice League movie and things seem to be pretty much as predicted. But are they?
In case you hadn’t already heard, there’s a bit of a shakeup going on at Warner Bros in an attempt to find a more clear path to success for the upcoming DC Comics slate of movies. Now this is partially because Warner Bros is looking to streamline how it makes movies overall, but we have to imagine the less-than-enthusiastic response to Batman V. Superman played a part in there somewhere. Sure, $900 million is nothing to laugh at, but no matter how much you may have liked that film, it’s safe to say that this was not the cornerstone on which a franchise can be built.
Let’s examine what the new team in charge could do to make these movies as fantastic as we know they can be and do it all without making the overdone comparison to the Marvel films. I can see the appeal of connecting those dots. It’s easy (and lazy journalism, in my opinion.) They both deal with the same general subject. Batman V. Superman and Civil War had a lot of the same things to say.
In the end, though, these are different stories and different characters. DC has to be successful at telling DC stories, that’s what this is all about. To that end, that’s the last time I’m going to mention the Marvel movies and instead contrast these films with something I think is a lot more fair: The DC Animated films and series.
Let’s get started:
Make It A Little Less Dark (even if it’s just as a gesture)
In many ways, Batman Begins was the kind of hit that Warner Bros was hoping BvS would be and it made almost $600 million less worldwide. It was followed by The Dark Knight which was also a significant and game changing hit. Those films contributed to a running assumption that the key to making a big superhero blockbuster was some dark and gritty realism.
Making the whole DC movie universe (and, as some suggested, all comic book movies, ever) gritty because it seemed to work in these movies is like the kid in high school who gets complimented on one outfit and then wears versions of it every day. Essentially, the cracks in the armor of Man of Steel and BvS come from trying to make everything work in a way it worked once before. It’s not great math.
How does this compare to the animated universe? Well in the animated series and direct-to-video releases, they managed to find a balance for all the characters in the Justice League cartoons. Batman was still dark, arguably less so but still dark. Superman was much more a beacon of light and yet still confused about his place in the world. The rest fall in between. In the individual animated series and one-off movies, the tone varied to accommodate the central characters and the story being told. Even the animated films and shorts released to support the Dark Knight films came in variety of energetic flavors.
Make Every Hero Count
If the animated series did one thing right, it was to create a functional ensemble piece from the Justice League. In the Justice League and the JLU cartoon series, the interactions are spot on. Even the appearance by an older Justice League on Batman Beyond or the younger side kicks on Young Justice got the chemistry just right. This is true of crossovers in the solo series too. It’s all about chemistry between the characters, and this chemistry will make or break the films. The cartoons also do one important thing: allowing all the characters to be awesome without needing to marginalize anyone. Giving every character his or her moment to shine and making it count is the key to universe building. Sure I could very easily say the Marvel films (oops, I said it. Sorry.) have mastered that, but the DC Animated universe did it first.
If the upcoming films seem like “the Batman and Superman and some other friends show” (some super-friends?) then the rest of the movies won’t have the weight they need. Wonder Woman, Flash, even Aquaman need to be key parts of the team. Teamwork is something the animated series did right. It’s also something found in The Flash TV series, and in many of the books written by Geoff Johns, who happens to be one of two people assigned to oversee the DC films going forward. That’s good news. If you’re interested Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge is a great example of Johns’ character work (and one of my favorite books of all time).
Skip the Origin Story
Superhero movies have been a cultural phenomenon for decades now. That means we’ve had quite a few origin stories. Taken together, the superhero films from all the studios have essentially done that story so often that it’s carrying serious fatigue. Instead of trying to slowly tell the origin of every hero in the DCU, let’s try something a little risky. Let’s skip the origin story. Let’s forego the constant exploration of the struggle of regular humans to cope with the existence of superheroes. Instead, let’s move the universe forward a few years to a time when capes are more commonplace.
The Justice League animated series starts with a Batman and Superman who already share a working relationship. Then the rest of the soon-to-be team show up, many of them established and we watch them learn to work together. Later episodes are about building trust. The characters’ internal relationships drive the story. In all the animated series, the best stories are the ones that don’t need to tell much more than what problem the heroes need to overcome and the ways they need to grow to overcome them.
Jumping forward also allows for a little minor resetting of the universe without having to do a hard reboot that wipes away the continuity the movies already have. If the next movie is not set in the ruins of Metropolis (again) then we can assume some healing has been done.
Don’t Have Comics Shame
I have saved the most delicate one for last: In my opinion, the best comics movies are the ones that treat the characters with respect. The creators must love the source material and they want to bring it to the big screen. This means they don’t have to change it to make it “legitimate cinema” or to appeal to a mass market. This doesn’t mean a moratorium on changing anything but it does mean accepting the comics world for what it is. (For a good example, please watch Superman II from 1980.)
All the DC animated properties are essentially love letters to the source material. The undisputed king of the DC animated universe is Batman The Animated Series. You have to feel the love coming off that project. It’s not an exact representation of Batman as he was in the comics of the time either. It took liberties, it made changes, but the final product was fantastic and won over a legion of DC fans. Why? Because the love was there and the shame was not. The same could be said about the different but wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Does this mean that I believe Man of Steel and BvS have some comics shame? Unfortunately yes. Snyder (or someone up the food chain) wants to make things “more real” or more meaningful than the comics these characters are based on (so for example Superman uncharacteristically kills Zod). It’s part of the over-gritty universe problem we talked about above. I won’t go into exactly how this plays out but some of the blandness and dower-ness the critics often cited in these films seem to come from a place of trying to make things less “comic booky” and more “real.” Don’t get me wrong, this is not some call for fanboy purity. Deliverance from comics shame is not about unaltered, pristine stories that don’t deviate from the source material at all. Some aspects of comics content must change to accommodate the big screen. However, as dozens of animated series have proven, you can change it and still make it feel like comic-book love, not hate.
So What’s the Answer?
There really is never going to be an easy-fix answer to saving the DC cinematic universe. Thankfully the movies are going to go on regardless and hopefully they’ll find their own magic along the way (maybe call Doctor Fate?). That said, if the new creative team spent a few days binge watching the DC animated projects, they might just stumble on a few pieces of gold. I’d go so far as to say the upcoming Justice League film could just be a shot for shot remake of the Justice League cartoon’s three part “Secret Origins” opening episode and I’d call that a win. It’s going to be what it’s going to be, and it will find its legs. It would just find them a whole lot faster if the producers reviewed their protagonists’ previous victories in the world of animation.
Do you think the DC Animated Universe is a good blueprint for their movie franchise? How would you fix the DCCU? Do you think it doesn’t need any fixing and now you’re sure author Sax Carr is a Marvel fanboy? Leave all your comments below.
Header Image and All Internal Images Credit: Warner Bros. / DC Comics