State of the Comic Book Movie Part 3: DC Comics
With Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World set to open this week, it’s a proper time to assess the state of a film genre that has come to dominate the global box office and popular culture for over ten years now. In this three part series we’ll look at who’s doing it best, who’s making big plans for the future, potential trouble spots, and films to start geeking out about.
It seems a bit crazy to now look at DC Comics and think of it as a fledgling underdog struggling to keep up with Marvel in the movie world, but that’s kinda what has happened in recent years. There are certainly arguments to be made about quantity versus quality though so I’ll be addressing that shortly…
It goes without saying that the idea of adapting comic book stories and characters for filmed entertainment has an incredibly rich history with DC Comics. Batman and Superman specifically have a track record that goes all the way back to big screen serials of the 1940s and television series in practically every decade since then in either live action or animation. And of course there are the movies.
When Richard Donner‘s Superman took flight in 1978 with Christopher Reeve in the lead role, it was the first example of a major studio investing a large budget to do a serious adaptation of a classic comic book character. For many fans (including myself) this film stands as a magical slice of movie heaven that can’t be topped with any amount of improved special effects or more grittier scripting. There’s just something about it that can’t be touched and it has essentially formed a base for DC Comics on film that can never be shaken or brought down completely.
That film led to one outstanding sequel in 1980 and two others that are essentially just humorous anomalies that should really only be viewed by diehard fans out of curiosity. And so Superman’s temporary retirement from the film business in 1987 created a space that was quickly filled by Tim Burton‘s Batman in 1989. This film became another cultural phenomenon and set a new standard for seriousness in the genre with a dark, Gothic feel that washed away all campy memories of Adam West from the 60s. Burton was able to maintain this tone for one more film but things essentially fell apart in 1995 when director Joel Schumacher took the reins for both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Excess became the name of the game and the franchise was quickly kicked to the curb in a flash of bat-nipples and bad puns.
Things were pretty bleak after that (the less we say about Halle Berry’s Catwoman the better) but by the mid-2000s things were looking up when both Batman and Superman had new paths to the silver screen. For Superman, DC and Warner Bros. were able to poach Bryan Singer away from the X-Men franchise to direct Superman Returns in 2006. This film, which was written to be picked up where Superman II left off, was chock full of more nostalgia than you can shake a stick at but left fans wanting for a more modern take on the character with more action and spectacle. No sequel ever materialized despite relatively decent box office returns and the character once again went into hiding for awhile.
Batman, on the other hand, found himself in the masterfully capable hands of Christopher Nolan who, in 2005, began what would come to be known as The Dark Knight Trilogy. These three films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) would come to redefine what audiences could expect from a film based on a comic book and rightfully earned their places on many critics’ Best of the Year lists. Heath Ledger even won an Oscar for playing The Joker.
Just let that sink in for a moment. Someone won an Oscar for playing THE JOKER.
If you had told someone just a few years prior that that was even a possibility they probably would’ve laughed in your face. But that speaks exactly to the level of quality that Nolan was able to bring to these films and is a perfect example of how even though DC has only been able to bring two of its characters to the big screen in a popularly accepted way, they REALLY get it right when they get it right. The original Superman and the Dark Knight Trilogy are films of depth, pathos, charm, and quality in way that none of the Marvel films have been able to touch. Marvel (either at Marvel Studios, Fox, or Sony) is great at making entertainingly fun movies but these hallmark products from DC are just flat out on another level and are truly “films” in the artistic sense of the word.
That of course isn’t a blanket statement though. Many fans and critics openly despised the attempt to make Ryan Reynolds the Green Lantern back in 2011. I personally don’t think the movie is as bad as a lot of people make it out to be, but it was definitely a few script drafts away from being what it should have been and in a year when Marvel saw the release of Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class it was hard for DC to not pale in comparison.
So where does this all leave us now? Well, in an effort to keep up with the Jones-es, DC has set out to launch their own cinematic universe and kicked it off this year with Zack Synder‘s Man of Steel. Despite taking some serious flack from an ever-finicky fan base, Man of Steel truly broke Superman free of previous restraints by letting Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan adapt the character for our more cynical times. People can argue for days over the merits and ramifications of the changes but I thought it was a refreshing and interesting take on the character (despite my undying devotion to the original film) with the most spectacular comic book action ever put to film.
The movie did not include any overt teases to what will come next beyond a basketful of hidden Easter eggs, but the answer came shortly after the film’s release when Zack Snyder announced at Comic Con that the sequel would feature Superman butting heads with none other than Batman himself. And then surely everyone remembers a month or two later when a firestorm erupted over the announcement that Ben Affleck would be the one portraying the Dark Knight Detective.
I definitely raised my eyebrows upon first hearing the news but with a little reflection and reading of interviews with those involved, it became clear that they’re honestly going to try something new with this iteration of Batman. No one was ever going to successfully recreate what Nolan and Christian Bale had going so I fully accept whatever Affleck might bring to the table especially if his Batman/Bruce Wayne is an older, weary character with a number of years under his belt as a crime fighter. Seeing how someone like that reacts to an alien presence suddenly being on Earth and acting like a hero could be fascinating and will likely harken to some of the great team-ups that the two characters have had in the pages of the comics over the years.
I personally would have liked to see at least one more solo Superman film to more fully explore the ramifications of what went down in Man of Steel but I suppose there is no reason that these things can’t be addressed in the yet-to-be-titled sequel with Batman. There are rumors though that the film will also deliver another big character into the film world…multiple sources now seem to hint that Wonder Woman may finally make her silver screen debut here. Casting rumors pit Thor‘s Jamie Alexander and Bond girl Olga Kurylenko up for the role but until we hear an official announcement I’d take that with a grain of salt.
There are also fresh rumors this week that Dick Grayson AKA Robin/Nightwing will be joining the cast of characters in the film so clearly there are a lot of moving parts that will hopefully be confirmed or fleshed out in the coming months.
If either Wonder Women or Nightwing do manage to make it into the movie though, I’m sure we can soon expect solo adventures for not only them and Batman, but also appearances from The Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and a rebooted Green Lantern amongst others. Whether or not these characters will interact with the rapidly growing DC universe on the CW’s Arrow (and upcoming series about The Flash) remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t put my money on it unless The CW suddenly manages to quadruple its audiences.
A lot obviously remains a mystery about DC’s film universe but one thing appears to be certain – they aren’t content with just mimicking Marvel’s formula of introducing each character in a solo movie and then having them come together in one big team-up. Some see this as foolhardy but I respect their decision to do something different because frankly these guys have a habit of making movies about their characters that become classics and I personally can’t wait to see the next one!
Upcoming Confirmed Releases
Untitled Superman/Batman Film July 17, 2015
Now its your turn to sound off! Which comic book adaptations are your favorites and what are your hopes for the future?!
Images courtesy of Warner Brothers, Legendary Pictures, and The CW.