Friday, February 8, 2013

DC Super-Media and Relevancy

Mark Millar is a popular comic book writer who has managed to get many of his creator-owned properties optioned and even made (Wanted, Kick-Ass) with their storytelling aesthetic relatively intact. On the other end of the spectrum, 20th Century Fox (the Bryan Singer entries in the X-Men franchise notwithstanding) has a reputation for showing little regard for comic book properties, as proven by the lukewarm reviews and box office receipts for the Daredevil and Fantastic Four flicks. Marvel Studios are now breaking records with their multiple successful franchises, so FOX hired Mark Millar as their "superhero creative consultant," and in this role he's decided to run down DC's super-hero properties as out of date and otherwise too silly to thrive in a SciFiNow interview. Despite having done good by the Martian Manhunter in some late '90s stories, I don't have much regard for Millar as a creator, and absolutely no faith in him as a media figure. He's repeatedly shown a willingness to lie his face off for industry ink, and I suspect he'll ultimately have as much creative input in FOX's movies as Stan Lee. That having been said, it doesn't mean he's not right about the irrelevancy of most DC properties.

There was a time when DC Comics was king of all super-hero media. The breakout comic book stars in the earliest days of the medium all got themselves adapted elsewhere. Whether it was newspaper strips, radio shows, or serials, many of the vanguard entered and remained in the public consciousness for decades. Superman starred in all three of the platforms mentioned, plus some of the most revered cartoons of all time. The Adventures of Superman TV show ran six beloved seasons before the suicide of star George Reeves halted production. Regardless, Superman became a fixture in television animation until the late 1980s. The feature films started rolling out in 1979, of which four were produced in the original run (two of them outright blockbusters.) Superman and his younger self Superboy headlined multiple TV programs of varying degrees of success from the '80s through to just a few years ago. Superman has always tended to be the crown jewel of super-hero adaptations, or at least he was until 1989, and he's surely still the biggest draw in live action television.

Batman was also an early adopter of multi-platforming, including his own serial, and later, the cultural phenomenon dubbed "Batmania" that spawned a hugely successful TV show and feature film. Batman had a spottier track record in animation, though. However, a second wave of Batmania launched with Tim Burton's 1989 movie, from which three sequels were born, and one of the most endearing cartoons ever, Batman: The Animated Series. Only Spider-Man has ever challenged the Dark Knight as champion of comic book box office, though the bofo business of the Christopher Nolen film trilogy helped pull the Caped Crusader that much further ahead. Batman has also dominated animation, with more cartoons than I care to count.

The 1970s were the pinnacle of DC Comics' cultural relevancy. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel each had well liked live action shows, but the true jewel was the animated Super Friends. Ten seasons were produced over thirteen years, and the iconic Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman were each represented. Aquaman, who had his own single season cartoon in the 1960s, became synonymous with oceanic heroics (and the first Super Friends season even listed him as one of "the world's four greatest heroes.") The show (re)introduced general audiences to the Flash ("the" super-speed hero of record,) Green Lantern, Hawkman & Hawkgirl, the Atom, Firestorm, and Cyborg. There was also a slew of heroes created specifically for the show who are remembered today, like Black Vulcan, Apache Chief and the Wonder Twins. Plastic Man even managed to score his own spin-off show for a couple of seasons. In the 1970s, "super-heroes" were synonymous to "Super Friends," and there was very little competition from outside the DC ranks.

The problem with being at the vanguard of a movement is that you tend to get as far out ahead of everyone in mistakes as you do with innovations. The DC shows were corny all-ages entertainment, but Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League as a whole descended into outright camp at various points in their careers, and no one lets them forget it (except Batman.) Awful Marvel outings like the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man show and the TV movies of Doctor Strange and Captain America are largely forgotten, but it's tough to ever live down the self-parody of Superman III, Batman and Robin or Legends of the Superheroes. Marvel Comics in particular learned a lot from DC's missteps, and always managed to stay hipper and edgier than the Distinguished Competition. The modern age of Marvel films started with the R-rated Wesley Snipes Blade franchise, after all, and Marvel Studios has yet to have as catastrophic a blunder as the painfully boring Superman Returns.

Diversity was the stone that slayed the Goliath that was DC Comics. From the cancellation of Super Friends in 1986 until the launch of the Cartoon Network's Justice League in 2001, DC simply shifted back and forth between Superman and Batman in live action and animation. Even if Marvel had been satisfied with the enormous success of Spider-Man and the X-Men, the latter still provided teams of spin-off characters to exploit. Yet, instead of resting on their laurels, Marvel consistently pushed to expand their universe of brands, from the Fantastic Four and Iron Man to the Hulk and the Avengers. The Punisher could shed all the blood he wanted while Captain America kept things clean and nostalgic. Everybody got their own super-hero with Marvel, while DC only had the World's Finest white men in capes. They didn't even bother to sustain all the multicultural icons from Super Friends after the cartoon died, taking a bold initiative of inclusion, then freezing it in amber as a comical example of feel-good post-hippie liberalism. People who've never read a comic book in their lives have had regular opportunities to get to know Storm, while El Dorado is only a vaguely recalled Generation X trivia question/punchline.

Justice League arrived rather late to the party, and any progress it made in modernizing the image of the DC heroes was undercut by the more broadly seen and utterly ridiculous Smallville. When DC had the opportunity to inject racial diversity into their image through the cartoon's John Stewart, film audiences were instead "treated" to Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan in the expensive flop Green Lantern. A saving grace of Smallville was casting Phil Morris as the Martian Manhunter, but the character has before and since been cast with rotund geriatric white actors, and in the latest draft of the proposed Justice League movie, the character was cut altogether. The media ambassadors of the DC Universe have by and large been low rent and goofy as hell, which means that with the exception of Batman, it's an uphill climb to get any of their heroes taken seriously. Superman was on a dumb show and in an dull movie. Wonder Woman was the least appealing female on a basic cable group cartoon. Aquaman was a running gag on Entourage and remains low hanging fruit for stand-up comics. The Flash dies after one expensive season against Cosby. No one even wants to bring up Robin anymore. Somehow, Warner Brothers has managed to be so myopic and misguided in their shepherding of the DC Universe, that Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy are perceived as more viable than most of their super-heroes. It'll take something beyond excessive piping and the abandonment of overgarments to dig them out of their present hole.


mathematicscore said...

excellent analysis as usual. It is truly mindboggling that execs are worried about JLA when Guardians of the Galaxy is being treated seriously. The blueprint is there, just use it!


LissBirds said...

I agree with your analysis overall, but I think there are a few factors that are causing DC to flounder at the box office. Diversity is one of them, but relevancy might be another. DC is an older brand from a time when comics reflected an optimistic (or at times naive) perspective of the world, and whose source material is even farther removed from being relevant. As much as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon aren't relevant to today's audiences, so isn't Adam Strange. Batman survives because the character can work when played with gloom and doom; when Superman is interpreted that way, it's either boring, (unintentionally) comical or downright contrived.

Somewhere along the way, DC wanted to be hip and started pushing characters into roles they never were meant to fill. (Since when was Superman about angst?) DC is a universe without subtext: heroes at face value, in all their simplistic naivete. It's no coincidence that Smallville ended with Clark Kent donning the Superman costume; he had to give up the hand-wringing and teenage angst as soon as he put on the cape. Take these characters out of their element (or their decade) and sometimes they just don't work. Why can't a director be bold and make a period film? How about a Superman flick set in the 1930's? Booster Gold in the 80's? A Green Lantern movie in the 1950's? Wonder Woman in the 1960's? The Captain American film got it right and spent a good deal of time in the 1940's and audiences still liked it. "Retro" style is pretty big now with teens, but DC hasn't quite realized that yet. (They're literally selling "80's Glam" colored Sharpie packs...there's a market out there for this.)

Marvel is laughing all the way to the bank while DC tries too hard to be relevant to modern audiences to the point where they twist their characters beyond recognition, and ironically are no longer relevant. I think if the majority of your successes are in the past, why not set a movie there? Or, at the very least, DC should at least realize why its recent cartoons were more successful than its recent movies...add kids to the mix, and the DC formula suddenly works a lot better, because kids aren't looking for angst and darkness or subtext, they just want to see some fun superheroics featuring (mostly) two-dimensional characters.

And why ignore the popular series and storylines at the box office? The Bruce Timm direct-to-DVD cartoons at least respect fan favorite DC storylines, but the Hollywood films are cobbled-together nonsense like Superman Returns. At least find a few good stories to base your script off of. They are out there....just listen to your fans.

I didn't mean to hijack your post, but watching DC perpetually shoot itself in the foot at the box office just makes me really angry.

will_in_chicago said...

I have seen some very good analyses here.

Perhaps another point that has to be added here is that it is not so much the age of the characters, but the relevancy of the characters. Superman is in some ways a character who reminds people of what many view as simpler times. Batman is perhaps easier to shape, as he has the revenge motif going on -- one that is classic and can be worked with on many levels.

DC has not really created a universe where there are many prominent non-WASPs. It will take me perhaps a few minutes to find heroes from different ethnic and religious groups in the DC Universe. (Okay, before Vibe was revived, the big Hispanic superhero was Aztek? The big Jewish superhero, Nuklon? Italian superheroine the Huntress? African American superhero Mister Terrific, Static or Cyborg? LGBT heroes before Batwoman and Apollo and Midnighter came along?) In some ways, I wonder how much of the DCU and the DCnU looks like the America and the world that I know. I do agree that DC is a more hopeful place than Marvel, and Marvel has had quite a few misteps in its comics. (House of M, Spiderman's marriage disappearing, and several more come to mind. But those have not really impacted the visual media properties.)

Marvel has done a better job at promoting diverse properties, both in terms of ethnicity and titles. I think DC has a harder row to hoe, and the new Superman film will be telling. Now, here is a question out of left field? How well would J'Onn fit into the Marvel Universe as a character? I have sometimes quipped that with the way J'Onn was treated by DC, he would seek another employer and file a complaint with the EEOC against DC for poor treatment.

Diabolu Frank said...

Liss, I'm a firm believer that in heroic fiction, anything that ever worked can work again, since it reflects essential and constant desires of mankind. Both Flash Gordon and John Carter are about Earthlings transported to a new world where they thrive based on abilities they developed back home. That's a simple and highly effective trope that has failed in both cases because of problems with their execution. Something like the Lone Ranger is trickier, since you're stuck with a specific (and largely exhausted) milieu and firm benchmarks for a successful adaptation. We'll see this summer if they pull off a "Pirates of the Caribbean" on a moribund genre, or if it's like the last Lone Ranger non-starter. I suspect the latter, but the point is, it's all in how smart the filmmakers are in their approach.

For instance, I wouldn't say that any of the Marvel Studios movies are at all dark or gloomy. I suspect part of the reason they're so refreshing is that their heroes smile and seem generally very happy to be in the hero game. This is especially true of their biggest marquee player, Iron Man, who is a massive hedonist. It is also the least true of their worst performer to date, the tortured Hulk, who has seen renewed interest through glorious, gratuitous smashing. They've proven that being overly self-serious is as big a drag as ludicrous camp washing away any gravitas.

Setting aside the soapy melodrama, Clark Kent seemed to have a decent time with his powers on Smallville, and I hope he revels in them enough for Man of Steel to be fun. You can go the Spider-Man route of playing up the weight of responsibility, but the character is about overcoming obstacles unambiguously. You can be light and optimistic is super-cinema, and Superman really ought to be.

Diabolu Frank said...

Will, I disagree about Superman being thought of generally as a product of simpler times. In my experience, fans gravitate to Superman because of his greatness-- his superior powers, righteousness, and universal regard. They either want to be him or to live in a world under his benevolent watch. To varying degrees, that's the baseline of most heroic fantasies. So long as you allow Superman to be a modern man in a recognizable world, he works. Once you turn him into a Christ figure or an icon or anything other than the desirable fantasy figure he was created to be, you get Superman Returns and accusations about being out of sync with the times. Honestly, Superman needs less high fallutin' thought and more simple kicks. Smile and punch stuff into outer space, whydoncha?

I'll give the Martian Marvel portion some thought and get back with you...

Future Guy said...

First of all, I'd just like to say Mark Millar is a smug and odious bullshitter whose massively overrated work output amounts to the "South Park" of modern comics: viscious juevenillia masquerading as caustic satire. We can readily dismiss him as an authority on the comics industry, let alone Hollywood. He's a trash talker, plain and simple, and as for these latest comments about DC characters being unviable as screen properties, well- I have no doubt he'd be saying the exact same about the Marvel stable if the tables were turned.

This stuff he's come out with is not only wrong, it's basically what pundits were saying about *all* comic book properties before the modern comic-superhero movie renaissance. In the interview he remarks that the Flash has a silly costume- those things on the side of his mask. Yeah, well, Captain America has wings on the sides of his mask: HowEVER will they get around that one when the make the movie?? Please. Same with the standard BS about Supes or WW being 'too powerful' or what have you. The Hulk's physical strength is basically limitless, Thor is an honest-to-goodness god. Didn't hurt their screen credibility. As with Singer's "X-Men", Raimi's "Spider-Man" and Nolan's Batman movies, it's all a question of the having the right people behind the camera, people who Get It. Once those people are in place, issues like this cease to be issues at all.

A final word on Superman; as Grant Morrison quite rightly pointed out, the perception that the character is no longer popular/ relevent with Joe Public is a fanboy issue, due largely to their disappointment with "Superman Returns". Regardless of how we may feel about their credibility, "Superboy", "Lois and Clark" and "Smallville" were all hugely popular and successful, and "Returns" was by no means a flop- bear in mind the overall budget for the movie includes the many millions blown on aborted projects like "Superman Lives". "Returns" was a solid success, the audience IS there, it's all a question of establishing the right tone.
These movies almost never lose money, even so-called 'flops' like "Hulk" made money by the truckload, "Elektra" cleaned up on DVD, and so on.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, I do see your point on Superman. A world with him in it where he is an attractive, positive figure would be a good one to live in. (Kal-El as a messiah figure does not work.)

I do agree that there have been some popular offerings, but wish that there were more done with different characters besides Superman and Batman.

Diabolu Frank said...

Will, you preacher, us choir.

Future Guy, great comment!

Omega Agent1 said...

Frank, this is an outstanding analysis, overview or conversation with your post public. to go all into it would only be restating most of what you guys have already covered.

So I'll just say "Damn good write up"

Kings to you.