Two step forward and three steps back.
That’s usually the process at Time Warner regarding cinematic adaptations of their DC Comics properties.
For every great superhero movie like Superman: The Movie and Superman II, we got a horrible Superman III, a mediocre Supergirl (the costume and the actress were on point,) and an absolutely wretched Superman IV.
For every artistically brilliant and visually stunning Batman movie (1989), and a strong Batman sequel Batman Returns, we got a mediocre Batman Forever, and the horrid Batman & Robin. And to add insult to injury the 1980’s Batman franchise ended on a sour note with a horrifically bad Catwoman movie that had absolutely nothing to do with the character from the comic books.
For every two well-crafted superhero movie like Batman Begins and Dark Knight we get a terrible movie like Green Lantern, a mediocre movie like Dark Knight Rises and the virtually unwatchable Man of Steel.
I have to wonder: What’s wrong at Warner Brothers? With the billions of dollars they spend on their Superhero movies why can’t they consistently adapt their comic book properties for the big screen?
Marvel Studios may have come to the game 30 years late, but they’ve been producing consistent films featuring Marvel Comics properties in the few years they’ve been in business. In fact they do it so well, they can build a cinematic version of their comic book universe out of their films.
Not only do Marvel Comics adaptation of movies look and feel like their comic book counterparts, they capture the spirit of them. The Iron Man movies were just like watching a comic book from the David Micheline/Bob Layton Era of the comics onscreen. Captain America: The First Avenger felt like a Captain America comic book. The Incredible Hulk captured the soul of parts of the Peter David run. Thor was just like seeing a StanLee/Jack Kirby comic come to life onscreen. And there were some sequences in The Avengers that looked and felt like George Perez art coming to life onscreen.
And from what I’ve seen, Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks just like Brubabker and Epting’s comic acted out in real life.
Even the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man produced by Sony felt just like the old Stan Lee and Ditko comics.
But over at Warner Brothers…I haven’t felt that comic spirit from one of their DC Comics movies since 1989.
Warner Brothers has only captured the soul of a comic book three times and literally put a comic book to life onscreen. : In 1978 with Superman the Movie, in 1980 with Superman II, and 1989’s Batman. And I’ll give them extra credit for casting Helen Slater in Supergirl and making the PERFECT Supergirl costume.
But what’s the problem at Warner Brothers? I believe the problem is thy go to extremes and they try to make everything one size fits all. Back in the 1980s they let the Salkinds put their hand on everything that had to do with Superman family. And in the late 1980’s we had Tim Burton trying to make everything in Batman’s world dark and gothic. In the 1990s Joel Schumacher was trying to camp up everything. And now we have Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder trying to make everything REAL.
Sorry, but that just doesn’t work. Comic books aren’t real life. And the one-size-fits all cinematic model Warner Brothers uses for its DC Comics adaptations doesn’t work at translating comic book properties for movies.
In 1990 Time Warner hired Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo to turn The Flash into a Batman clone. With a dark and gritty visual style reminiscent of Tim Burton's Batman movies, the show only lasted a season. Why? Anyone who read the Flash comics know smiling, sunny straight-laced characters like Barry Allen and Wally West don't fit in the dark gritty world of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Comic Books were never made to fit into one artists' vision or one story model. Every comic title has its own unique creative team. And each creative team tells their own story their own way. In comics it’s all about finding a creative team that FITS the CHARACTER, not making everything one-size-fits all like an assembly line.
The dark, gritty artistic style that works on a movie like The Dark Knight just doesn’t work for a movie like Man of Steel. How can a hero like Superman symbolize hope if he’s angry and brooding? How can he inspire viewers if he’s scowling like Batman? Superman as a character is the POLAR opposite of Batman, and the dark, grim and gritty story model and art style of a Zack Snyder and Chris Nolan does not fit super-powered characters like Superman or Wonder Woman who are known for being happy and smiling most of the time.
What Marvel Studios does that seems to work is understanding that each director is going to have their own style and tell their own story. And the most important thing is keeping the CHARACTERS consistent and making sure that the cinematic and creative team fits the CHARACTER. At Marvel Studios they seem to understand just like writers and artists have to be a good fit for the CHARACTER in the COMIC, they have to be a good fit for the MOVIE.
Marvel Studios understands it’s more important for viewers to follow the characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, not directors like Chris Nolan or Zack Snyder. That people are paying money to see a character, not a director or a creative team.
Warner Brothers spends way too much time building up Tim Burtons, Joel Schumachers, Peter Jacksons, Chris Nolans, David Goyers, and Zack Snyders instead of creating franchises around the characters and the stories of DC Comics Superheroes. This approach to producing movies mirrors the failed approaches they use in promoting comic books in their DC Comics publishing division. Over at DC Comics, Warner Brothers spends too much time building up creators like Goeff Johns and Jim Lee instead of characters like Superman and Batman. And instead of audiences following the characters, they follow the creators. That’s bad for the box-office and even worse for sales at the comic shop after the movie.
What Marvel Studios is doing is sort of like what movie studios do with James Bond. The actors, writers, producers, and directors may change over the years, but the CHARACTER of James Bond is ALWAYS the same. He’s put FIRST and the audience follows James Bond, not whoever is directing the movie or cast in the role.
The other problem at Warner Brothers is that they keep trying to convince us that superheroes can be real and that they can fit into a real world. This is why their properties like Green Lantern fail.
In 1978 the tag for Superman: The movie was “ You will believe a man can fly”. And when Superman left the Fortress of Solitude we believed it because the special effects did their job. By the time he saved Lois from falling off the roof of the Daily Planet with her in one hand and the helicopter in the other, we believed a man could fly.
It wasn't real. And no one cared. We believed a man could fly. Just like in the Superman Comic books.
In 2013 Warner Brothers spent more time trying to tell us why their Man of Steel can fly rather than showing us him in action. So we didn't see a Superman in action.
No, we got a Man of Steel. With way too much emphasis on the Man.
Sorry but real doesn’t cut it with superhero movies. Superhero movies are based on comic books. And comic books are an ESCAPE from reality.
And DC Comics movies today just bring reality to viewers. All we see are Problems. Loss. Failure. Quitting. Bruce Wayne giving up being Batman. A miserable Superman somber over the fact that he had to kill to save people. The stuff of real life, not the stuff of movies, especially comic book movies.
Sorry, that’s not what people pay $14 for. When it comes to Superhero movies, people pay $14 a ticket to see heroes smile and wink at the camera, bad guys get their asses kicked, the good guy win, get the girl and live to fight another day. The stuff of Comic books.
In Superman: The Movie Christopher Reeve made us not only believe a man could fly, but he was a friend as well. At the end of every movie we saw him flying over the Earth smiling and letting us know that he’d be back next time for another adventure.
And at the end of 1989’s Batman, we saw Batman looking out at the Batsignal, signifying to the viewer that he’d be back for more adventures.
Warner Brothers’ DC Comics movie adaptations are not only too real, they take themselves too seriously. Where are the comical moments like in Iron Man or in Captain America: The first Avenger? Everything in a DC Comics movie and dark, and that’s not what fantasy storytelling is about.
Part of good fantasy storytelling is having humorous moments. These jokes give the audience/reader a break so the world they immerse themselves in doesn’t overwhelm them.
And they allow us to relate to people. Watching a movie featuring these "real" interpretations of DC Comics characters just feels overwhelming at times. There’s so much time spent onscreen building a world of Gotham City or Krypton and Metropolis that we never get a chance to connect with the people in it. We never get to know Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent the way we can a Steve Rogers or a Tony Stark. Instead of DC’s Characters becoming people we can relate to, they’re just another part of a larger epic saga.
The reason why viewers enjoy Marvel Studios movies today is because they’re FUN. Just like the early Superman and Batman movies the audience gets what it pays for. An escape from reality. A chance to hang out with friends like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Over the course of two hours, they see a fantastic adventure, see the bad guys get their asses kicked the good guy win. At the end of the movie, they see the hero live to fight another day and after the credits roll, they get a preview of what’s to come in the next movie. It’s literally the stuff of comic books.
Tell me, where else can you see a machine gun toting raccoon?
Warner Brothers movies based on DC Comics fail for embracing reality, Marvel Studios movies work because they embrace the fantasy world of comic books. We’re allowed to suspend our disbelief for two hours and believe guys in flying armored suits are possible. Gods from mystic dimensions walk among us. There are giant green men and super soldiers hurl mighty shields at people. Yeah, it’s not real. But comic books aren't supposed to be real. Again, a comic book is supposed to be an escape from reality.
At Marvel Studios the audience is left wanting more at the end of the movie. But after experiencing so much misery for two hours audiences just wants to head for the door at the end of a DC Comics movie. Who wants to pay $14 to see an angry Superman and a Batman who has to quit because he’s too old and broken down?
Time Warner’s cinematic Superhero franchises fail because they’re afraid to let DC Superheroes be who they are: Comic book characters. Today they try to shoehorn reality into every second of the fantasy. And that sucks the fun out of the whole experience of watching a superhero movie.
People don’t watch superhero movies for real life. No, they watch superhero movies to take a break from it. They pay money to see a happy Superman fly off and smile at them ready for another adventure. Thy pay money to see Bruce Wayne who after sending the Joker to Arkham looks out the window of Wayne Manor and sees the Batsignal in the sky. They pay to see Wonder Woman flying back to Paradise Island in her Invisible Jet.
Seeing the Success of Marvel’s The Avengers, Time Warner wants to build towards a Justice League movie. Unfortunately with the story model and production team they have in place they’ve worked against themselves before they got started. Following up Man of Steel filled with death and destruction with a Batman team-up movie is a mistake. It’s hard to have hope and anticipate the next DC Comics movie leading up to the formation of the Justice League when Superman has killed Zod and Metropolis is in ruins with millions dead. How do you get hope from that? How do you get an audience to anticipate the next movie after watching so much carnage onscreen?
Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder are just not qualified to build a DC Universe onscreen. And a realistic story model they apply for movies just doesn’t work towards the direction of a Justice League movie. If Man of Steel is an indicator to Superman/Batman any movie Warner Brothers would make would be rushed and sloppy, trying to cram as many characters in it as possible with no regard for story or the characters' history. A remake of 1997’s Batman & Robin for the millennial generation.
Warner Brothers just doesn’t get that movies are about stories. Endings and Beginnings. And that when it comes to superhero movies, the characters’ stories have to be built towards getting the audience to anticipate the next film. What Marvel Studios did was build the audiences’ anticipation for the beginning of the next movie at the end of the last one. With each teaser after the credits rolled the audience wanted more. And over the course of four movies they got their big payoff in The Avengers. If a studio is building towards a franchise it’s supposed to leave the audience hungry. Craving more. Waiting to see that next installment. Having them counting down the days for the next movie like the comic fan is counts down the days till they can go buy that next issue at the comic shop.