So, how about that new X-Men movie? Pretty cool huh? And doesn’t Guardians of the Galaxy look fun? And don’t get me started on how awesome Winter Soldier was. And yes, I even liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (feel free to judge me). Yep, whether in movies produced by Marvel or other production companies like 20th Century Fox and Sony, Marvel characters are everywhere these days.
The same cannot be said for the characters of DC Comics. While it’s true that DC is amping up for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the following Justice League movie, DC has otherwise remained largely out of theaters (at least, compared to Marvel). So, what’s the issue?
Personally, I think part of the problem, among others, is that DC has a prevalent great weakness, which is also one of its greatest strengths: Batman.
Before I go too far, let me say that I love Batman. Personally, I’m most familiar with his film and animated adaptions, but I’ve done the required readings. Batman is a compelling character. He is driven and dark in a way that sets him apart from the other two members of DC’s “Trinity” (Superman and Wonder Woman). He has interesting villains and a strong supporting cast. He manages to both fall into a morally gray area while maintaining a seemingly black and white code of ethics. And, he somehow manages to make dressing like a bat look cool.
Yes, Batman is cool. He’s so cool, in fact, that DC has largely become a Batman company that sometimes remembers its other heroes. And, because this year is his 75th anniversary (I hope you all pitched in to buy the diamond-studded batarang), Batman, if possible, is even more omni-present than usual.
Note: I must admit here that I’m not sure how many of these decisions are DC’s alone or the work of Warner Bros. However, I doubt either party is wholly blameless.
Outside of the comics themselves, of which there are multiple dedicated Batman series, Batman appears throughout DC media. In the past 20 or so years, Batman has starred in multiple cartoons including Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League (and Justice League: Unlimited), and Batman Beyond. He’s also been the main character of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, The Batman, and, most recently, Beware the Batman. Beyond animated television, Batman has had several of DC’s direct-to-video PG-13 animated features dedicated to him including adaptions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Other animated adaptions include Batman: Under the Red Hood and Son of Batman. Even when he’s not a main character, Batman is often heavily featured. In fact, here’s Wikipedia’s list of DC’s animated movies:
Out of the 20 movies released, Batman is a main/title character in 8 and heavily featured in another 5. While it’s true that many of these products are well done and interesting (Though, I would question whether these movies are now tending more toward shock value and for the PG-13 rating, rather than just telling their stories. The violence of Flashpoint, the torture theme of Son of Batman, and Lois Lane flipping off Brainiac in Superman: Unbound–funny though it was on first watch–seemed a little gratuitous to me), there is truth to the phrase “too much of a good thing.” Batman is a great way to get new readers interested in DC Comics, but he becomes a liability when those readers find new characters to love whom they wish to see get similar representation to Batman’s.
These days, I find myself constantly having to say, “No, I really do like Batman,” because I spend so much time complaining about how much Batman is out there when the other characters I’ve come to love–thanks to my interest being peaked by Batman–get barely any attention outside of the pages of comic books (and even then, they are constantly overshadowed by the Dark Knight). It’s hard not to resent the caped crusader when he’s getting the exposure I wish could be given to other characters.
An example of this resentment is the lack of enthusiasm and even hostility many people who would usually enjoy a new Batman cartoon showed toward the most recent animated series, Beware the Batman. Beware the Batman premiered right after Cartoon Network/Warner Brothers/DC Comics (it’s unclear who pulled the trigger) cancelled both of its popular “DC Nation” shows: Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Young Justice. Both of these shows had something new and fresh to offer a new generation of potential comic readers. Green Lantern: TAS thoroughly explored the Green Lantern universe and introduced a variety of lanterns representing green as well as red, blue, orange, and the Star Sapphires. Young Justice (I may have mentioned once or twice how much I love this show) was an interesting show that, despite focusing on teenagers and twenty-somethings, was willing to be dark and challenging. The show also introduced viewers to a diverse collection of characters, many of whom are unknown to people who don’t read comics, and would have been a great way to draw in new readers.
In an i09 article about the cancellation of Young Justice that outlines the positive traits mentioned above, the overwhelming feeling of many fans who learned the fate of their beloved show is pretty clearly stated: “Yes, the second DC animated universe is dead, gone after two mere seasons and an overwhelming amount of promise, to be replaced by Beware the Batman.” The article makes it clear that it didn’t plan to diss a show that hadn’t come out yet, but there’s still a level of resignation in that sentence. Beware the Batman itself isn’t really the problem, and it certainly has shown promise, despite some initial misgivings about Alfred packing heat, particularly for Barbara Gordon fans like myself.
However, even I, a huge Barbara Gordon and Oracle fan, still feel resentful of the show, because I can’t help thinking DC had something new, fresh, and exciting that was going to draw in a variety of fans who maybe aren’t that into Batman and replaced it with yet another Batman cartoon. Even if that cartoon is a supposedly new, fresh take on that character, it’s still just another Batman cartoon.
My other issue with DC’s obsession with Batman is their attempts to turn every other hero into Batman. The New 52 has been an apparent attempt to make DC characters darker, which has largely been accomplished by destabilizing the personal lives of characters. Superman’s mom and dad were both killed off. Until recently, Wonder Woman’s Amazon sisters (who are no longer Diana’s loving, maternal and sororal support system but have become tormentors and bullies) were turned into snakes and her mother (who has lied to Diana about her true parentage) was turned to clay. This leaves Diana with little support as she’s thrust into the world of her newly found family: the Greek gods, half of whom are seemingly always trying to kill her. There was also that bizarre company policy against marriage.
So, now, many DC characters who had families are unmarried orphans whose superhero identities have increasingly become their only identities. Yep, that sounds familiar. In fact, here’s a clip from Batman Beyond where Bruce Wayne explains to the new Batman, Terry McGinnis, why he knew voices in his head weren’t his own psychosis.
Of course, one might rebut that Bruce identifying himself as Batman over Bruce Wayne is, itself, not the sanest revelation.
The desire to turn every character into Batman also clearly had a big effect on Man of Steel. Instead of presenting a Superman who is optimistic and who looks to the future of humanity, Man of Steel presents a Superman who broods and looks backward to the past (much like everyone’s favorite Dark Knight).
On the one hand, the impulse is pretty easy to understand. Batman is DC’s most popular character. While other characters are left in limbo and their series go out of print, even the worst Batman story lines and graphic novels from the past few decades never seem to be in short supply. A trip to your local Barnes and Noble (if you still have one) will reveal that he’s the most marketable character to the general public, as his books usually take up the majority of DC shelf space. Clearly, people love Batman, so why wouldn’t DC want to give people more of what they love?
This question is, interestingly, at the heart of the new Jon Favreau movie Chef. In this movie (which I recommend to anyone with an appreciation of food porn), Favreau is a former hotshot chef who has become creatively stifled working for a restaurant owner played by Dustin Hoffman. The conflict in the film arises when Hoffman pushes Favreau into playing to his strengths, his “greatest hits,” while Favreau wants to do something different and bold. Hoffman wants to play it safe and go for the easy points while Favreau wants to take risks that will either go up in smoke or hit it out of the ballpark. (Holy mixed metaphors, Batman!)
I bring this movie up not just for its relevant story, but for the fact that it was created by Jon Favreau. Why is that significant? Let’s ask Wikipedia again!
Favreau is basically the father of the current Marvel Studios money-making machine. Now, of course, both X-Men and Spider-Man had fairly successful franchises of their own before Iron Man, but neither of those were Marvel Studios films, and both ended (until recently) on sour notes. The 2008 Iron Man is what made the current box office juggernaut that is Marvel Studios possible.
Now, there has been a lot of speculation about Favreau’s relationship with Marvel, particularly rumors of Favreau’s frustration with studio mandates repeatedly interfering with Iron Man 2, which you’ll remember included many narrative-interrupting scenes designed to set-up Avengers. Whether or not such rumors are true, one cannot help but feel a very pointed critique of that studio’s current trajectory in Chef.
“But Morgan,” you ask, “why are you talking about Marvel? They’re so successful! And I thought you were complaining about DC.”
I bring up Marvel because Marvel is, itself, treading an increasingly thin line when it comes to playing it safe and over-exposure. That’s why, out of all of the Marvel Studios movies to come out recently, the one with the most buzz and genuine excitement (at least that I’ve noticed from people in theaters) wasn’t Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: Winter Soldier. It’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Why is that? Is it because Marvel fans were going to message boards in droves (do they still have those? Message boards…not droves) demanding a Guardians of the Galaxy movie? If that’s how it worked, I’m pretty sure there would already be 2 Captain Marvel movies and Katee Sackhoff would be negotiating her contract to reprise her role in a third movie and Avengers 2. (I was going to link to an article, but because the article was framed as heroes who deserve movies before Wonder Woman–because being made from clay is apparently way weirder than becoming fused with an alien life form–I’m not going to do that.)
The reason, as far as I can tell, that people are so excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, including, and maybe especially people who are not comics readers, is that it looks fun, and, more importantly, it looks new. These are characters pretty much no one who isn’t a comics fan, or maybe more specifically a Marvel fan, has heard of. That’s interesting, and that’s a breath of new life into a franchise that must know it’s sitting on an increasingly fragile bubble.
Marvel Studios is smart enough to realize that they can’t just make endless Iron Man sequels and reboots. Nor can they just turn every character into some version of Iron Man. They need to throw in new characters every once in a while to freshen up the pot and keep the public interested.
Unfortunately, DC doesn’t have the same confidence in their brand. While Marvel knows it can generate buzz and excitement for a Superhero team the general public’s never heard of that includes a raccoon with machine guns, DC is too afraid to give even Superman a second solo film if Batman’s not in it. Like Hoffman in Chef, they’re too afraid to do anything other than play it safe and go with what they know people like.
With the exception of the proposed Sandman movie and television shows like Arrow (which, let’s face it, had kind-of turned Green Arrow into Batman-who-shoots-arrows-and-kills–actually somewhat appropriate considering Green Arrow was originally an unrepentant Batman rip-off), DC just hasn’t shown a willingness to bet big on anything but Batman. They’ve stacked almost all of their chips on one character and are hoping they’ll be able to let it ride. That might work, but there’s a good chance they’ll eventually bust.
Even now, I hear most conversations about Batman v Superman saying it “will probably be good.” You know what I usually hear about Marvel movies? “That looks awesome! I can’t wait to see that!”
So, what I’m saying, DC Comics/Warner Bros. executives whom I’m sure have found my little blog with about 7 readers, is enough with the Batman. Give Wonder Woman her own damn movie, or reboot Green Lantern. If you want to go edgy, make a Secret Six movie. If you’re too scared to make a movie with absolutely no ties to Batman, why not give his protégés movies? How about a Nightwing or Birds of Prey movie?
Seriously, I’ve got a Birds of Prey trilogy all planned out. The first movie ends with this:
Or you could just keep doing what you’re doing. Obviously, as a fan, the only risk I take is wasting $20 on a so-so movie and seeing my favorite shows and comics get cancelled to make room for more Batman, while you guys are risking (in today’s movie industry) hundreds of millions of dollars.
I’m just saying there’s more to the DC universe than Batman. Your fans know it. Why don’t you?