I’m going to put this out there, and I’m sure there are going to be some comic book fans who take issue with what I’m about to say. Fine. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. This one’s mine. And it’s just an opinion.
Christopher Nolan may have corrupted the DC Cinematic Universe.
I know, I know. I can hear everyone now: “Batman Begins was one of the most successful superhero movies of all time!” you say. Sure. But I’m going to venture the opinion that the Dark Knight trilogy wasn’t a superhero story. It was a vigilante story. A tale of someone with vast resources who sets out on a quest to avenge the murder of his parents by putting on a mask and taking the fight to the streets.
Forty years ago, this would have been a Charles Bronson movie. Look at the Death Wish films and tell me I’m wrong. In the first Death Wish, he’s avenging the murder of his wife. In the second, it’s the murder of his daughter. The only thing missing is the mask. While the details of the plot and such are different, the core of the story is the same — man avenges the murder of loved ones.
Put in that light, it’s easy to place the Batman story within the context of a “realistic” movie environment, as Nolan did with Dark Knight. And in doing so, he made a set of movies that made a lot of money. And that, to me, is both a blessing and a curse to the DC Universe.
Man of Steel is the perfect example of this.
The idea of an alien coming to Earth isn’t new, and the Superman story has pretty much always been a bit more science fiction than the Batman story. Which presents a challenge when you want to tell those stories on screen. Now, Batman’s easy — like I said, it’s a prototypical vigilante revenge story. But Superman is a horse of a different color, and should be treated as such. By handing over their top two superheroes to Nolan, Warner Brothers has effectively said they’re the same and can be treated as such on film.
But they can’t.
Yes, Man of Steel made a gobsmacked load of money. That’s ultimately the only thing Warner Brothers and DC really care about. Cynical? Yes. Because I’ve made films myself. I know what’s involved, and I understand the Hollywood machine to a point. I know that at the end of the day, sales are all that matter. Theater tickets, DVD and Blu-Ray, Video On Demand, cable distribution, video game tie-ins, shoes, shirts, hats, bling, action figures, playsets, Underoos… it’s the driving force behind these films now. It’s rarely even about the comic book anymore, because the audience is different. And the studio approach is to make these films appeal to the masses, not to the comic book geek niche. They wouldn’t make their money back. Ever. That’s why they get marketed as action flicks rather than science fiction or superhero flicks — see the Paramount exec comments about taking the Trekkie out of Star Trek Into Darkness — so as to draw in more eyeballs.
Of course, having Christopher Nolan attached to a Superman film will draw attention. And yes, Nolan is a very talented filmmaker. But his sense that these pictures have to be “realistic” kind of work against the notion that it’s all a shared universe. And it’s not even a pretty one at that. Man of Steel was cold, blue, visually stand-off-ish. And you can feel Nolan’s influence throughout the picture.
But the mixed reaction to Man of Steel proves that not every superhero film will fit the Nolan “realism” template very well. Remember, Nolan didn’t make superhero films with Batman. He made vigilante films where the hero just happens to wear a bat cowl instead of a ski mask. Makes no difference to the story he told.
Comparisons to the Marvel movies are inevitable, and the one thing you can take away from Joss Whedon’s involvement is that those films will be fun. When you see Whedon on set holding Captain America’s shield, it’s easy to see his inner child just chomping at the bit to go running around punching Hitler in the jaw. Nolan seems more like the professor who will analyze a great piece of literature in fine detail. He doesn’t seem like he has an inner eight-year-old giddy with the notion that he’s making superhero movies.
Whedon and Nolan are both very talented filmmakers, and there’s no question they’ve made highly successful movies based on comic book characters. But there’s a difference between making a movie based on a comic book and making a comic book movie.
Just to make my point that Nolan’s aesthetic isn’t the best for the DC movie universe, let’s look at the difference between Batman and Superman:
- Both Batman and Superman are orphans. But Batman’s character is informed by the loss of his parents. Superman’s character is defined by the parents who found him.
- Superman gets his power from the sun. Batman gets his “power” from the shadows.
- Batman’s a cynic. Superman’s an optimist.
- Batman works underground. Superman works in the sky.
- Bruce Wayne is wealthy. Clark Kent is from a farm family.
- Batman thinks locally, keeping his work in Gotham City. Superman thinks globally, constantly jetting off to help people around the world.
- Batman understands that governments are corrupt. Superman submits to the rule of law even though he may question a rule or two.
- Batman operates by generating fear in the criminal classes. Superman works to inspire hope in law-abiding citizens.
- Batman wears dark colors. Superman wears bright colors.
I could go on, but you get my point.
Now, there are those who will point to Green Lantern as an example of Warner Brothers and DC trying to make a comic book movie and failing miserably. Even with Geoff Johns on board, the film didn’t work. But really, it didn’t work because the film tried to tell three stories at once instead of concentrating on one. WB/DC learned the wrong lesson from that. Instead of saying “We need better writing” they instead said “We need another Batman Begins” because it made a ton of money.
As we’ve seen with the New 52, there’s really not much you can do to Batman and screw it up. Scott Snyder continues a successful run on the monthly comic, and his circle of influence is steadily growing within the halls of DC. Batman has fans, and they would have gone to see Adam West again if that’s what WB put out. Because it’s Batman.
Superman has the baggage of being both a character defined by the oft-disdained “Midwest family values” and his belief that humanity can be better. But the times we live in are more cynical, more crass and rude and ignoble. Gone are the days where men were gentlemen and women were ladies. Nowadays it’s thugs and gangstas and duck lips and thongs and selfies in the mirror.
Where are our manners?
This is why people have a tough time identifying with Superman. It’s not because he has powers beyond those of mortal men. It’s because he still believes in truth, justice and the American Way. Just like Captain America. Only Whedon took Cap at his word, and didn’t try to play it wry or wink-wink at the audience. Steve Rogers was sincere, and that’s how you should present Clark Kent.
With Nolan on board the DC movies — if he stays attached to any more of them — the temptation will be to take every story and give it a Dark Knight visual aesthetic. And even if Nolan isn’t involved, his influence will still be felt because he made the successful movies instead of the flops, so WB will still try to make them in the same way, and the stories will suffer for it. Because these mighty heroes are no longer allowed to be heroes. They have to be flawed, imperfect, reduced and diminished in order for the audience to relate to them. And I call “foul” on that. You don’t tell a story about a hero by bringing the hero down. Heroes are heroes because they inspire us to rise up.
WB/DC needs a Kevin Feige, someone who understands these characters as comic book characters. Someone who understands that heroes are made to be bigger than life, not down at our level. Jim Kirk was not a punk with Daddy issues. The Lone Ranger was not a doofus. Superman doesn’t kill. We need to find filmmakers that actually understand the characters. Otherwise we’ll be left with poor carbon copies of the originals, dull and colorless.
Kind of like Man of Steel.