Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In which I admire Marvel and damn DC


DC asks the question, "Is this character sufficiently popular and iconic to sustain a film?"
Marvel asks the question: "Is this character sufficiently unknown that we can use a film to make them iconic?"

DC is cowed by their trusteeship of important cultural icons and afraid to misstep.  Anything they do can only damage the character's reputation, they feel.
Marvel is content to keep throwing liver at the wall to see what sticks.  "Oh, THAT"s what will make Hulk work...!"  Anything they can do to put their characters before more people improves their reputation, they feel.

DC is afraid to make a Legion movie because the Legion is such a notoriously niche-y property.  I mean, how well can a movie do that's gotten nothing but teenagers in it? With superpowers.  And ethnic diversity. Who live in space in the future.  With lots of relationship drama and sexual tension.  Whose every financial need is taken care of, and live in one giant awesome house with space cruisers.  Who fight crime and galactic-scale villainy.  Yeah, there's no way to sell that.

Marvel looks at Guardians of the Galaxy and says, "A talking racoon! Voiced by an Oscar nominee! The kids'll love it!"

DC inherits a universe that was originally separate characters in their own separate worlds, interacting sparingly.  As a result, each character that's old enough has a grand legacy around them, but they don't fit well together in the same space.  DC inherited characters and then had to try to form a continuous world around them, something they still can't get right, which causes them to reboot every few years, in an ongoing attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable..

Marvel created a universe and start populating it with characters, who therefore all fit in it quite nicely.  Their interaction was their selling point, and while, as a result, none of them stand out too far apart from any of the others, Marvel has a very easy time selling its entire universe in the medium of cinema.  No one seems ridiculous or off-the-table because they are all of a piece.

DC is terrified people will laugh at Aquaman.
Marvel intends to sell people on Ant-Man.

DC is terrified any movie it creates won't satisfy existing die-hard fans.
Marvel is focused on making sure their movies satisfy everyone else.

26 comments:

Redforce said...

Which is a real shame, because the movies can 'start from scratch' as it were, and be a separate Universe. I wonder how close Marvel's movie arm is to the comics editorial staff? Not real close, I'd bet.

The irony is, on TV, it's the reverse- DC gets it almost consistently right, especially the 'toons.

Joshua Roots said...

If Namor gets a movie before Aquaman, I won't be surprised.

I will, however, sob hysterically under my desk.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I've always been a die-hard DC fan, but this is so, so true. DC is just afraid to take risks. I would watch the hell out of that Legion movie.

John said...

"DC is cowed by their trusteeship of important cultural icons and afraid to misstep."

...and then they tack on an extra twenty minutes in Man of Steel after the plot is over to show that Superman can be pushed into killing, anyway...

The funny thing about the Legion is that it's perfect for the teen audience everybody's fighting for (though I guess the budget's a killer), but I think it'd fit better on television than a feature film. The 100 would be a decent template, for a basic structure, though not really plot.

But yeah, the fan aspect has been a problem for a long time. DC can get very obsessive about "artifacts," for lack of a better word. Superman's entire personality can shift, but dammit, Clark Kent is going to be a reporter for the Daily Planet. You can try to make him a broadcast star, sometimes, but it'll get changed back before anybody notices. You can replace Barry Allen or Hal Jordan, but not for long, even if Hal murders his friends and tries to destroy the universe.

John said...

I didn't really finish that last thought.

DC obsesses over their artifacts to appeal to some Platonic ideal of a die-hard fan that's not going to complain, so everything seems weirdly static.

That makes it seem, in theory, like the comics and other media bolster each other. But the fact of the matter is, like Supergirl's headband, nobody really cares. It has never occurred to them that we just want good movies that happen to star known (or unknown) characters.

Bryan L said...

I'm now obsessed with the Platonic idea of a die-hard fan. Thanks, John.

I had the exact same reaction to the misstep thought, though. You can't get a much bigger misstep than the Superman movie, in terms of character, anyway. I'd even rank it as worse than the Green Lantern movie as far as missing the point goes. It's bizarre -- it's like the harder DC tries, the worse they get. Marvel just seems to be having a good time, and not taking any of it too seriously, and they're KILLING it.

I'd also agree that DC's TV properties are MUCH better handled. Arrow isn't stellar, but it's not that bad. I have high hopes for Flash based on the leaked pilot. The Constantine pilot shows some promise. And, of course, the animated properties are really good. But again, it's like DC/WB is oddly embarrassed by their "cartoons," and refuse to give them much support.

And maybe that's it. DC is obsessed with "transcending" their comic-book roots. Marvel is embracing them.

Dalle Robberts said...

OK, last week I was actually defending the New 52 (by pointing out that the deaths of the Kents was not a New 52 invention); this week Scipio is praising Marvel and condemning DC.

This am Bizarro World. Wish me am not here.

Dalle Robberts said...

...and then they tack on an extra twenty minutes in Man of Steel after the plot is over to show that Superman can be pushed into killing, anyway...

After, of course, turning him into a deadbeat dad in Superman Returns.

Anonymous said...

"And maybe that's it. DC is obsessed with 'transcending' their comic-book roots. Marvel is embracing them."

DC certainly has an inferiority complex with regard to Marvel, and is always trying to prove they're more "mature". That's why DC gives us "Identity Crisis" and a Superman movie that aspires to be dark rather than inspirational.

Marvel, on the other hand, just goes about its business, discovers Chris Pratt is free to do a movie, and builds a fun film about characters nobody cares about. (Haven't seen it yet but all indications are that it will be a blast.)

I say the LSH would be a bad idea for a movie, not because they're a niche in the world of comic books, but FOR THE SAME REASON they're a niche in the world of comic books. You have to commit to learning their world before you experience any payoff. With "Guardians of the Galaxy" I have no worries about getting up to speed: the adventures of Chris Pratt, a lady ass-kicker, a strong dude, a raccoon and a tree. Is there more continuity I could know? Undoubtedly. Do I need to know any of that to enjoy Andy Dwyer In Space? Very very doubtedly.

Scipio said...

WHAT DO YOU MEAN NO ONE CARES ABOUT SUPERGIRL'S HEADBAND?!?!?!?!??!?

Brushwood Thicket Farmer said...

It actually worked to Marvel's advantage to have Sony scoop up the big properties first (X-Men, FF, Spider-Man), leaving "Marvel Studios" much more free to explore the second tier.

George S. said...

"You have to commit to learning their world before you experience any payoff."

That's the kind of thinking that gave us that Green Lantern movie in the first place.

You could say what you said about Guardians with LSH just as well. The adventures of a group of teenage space police whose members include a teenage boy who can control gravity, a girl with psychic powers and a jock that shoots lightning out of his hands Is there more continuity I could know? Do I need to know any of that to enjoy X-Men in space? Very very doubtedly.

Legion is simplistic enough (teens with powers that serve as galactic guardians of the galaxy) to work as a movie without delving too much into the backstory. It's the 'die-hard fans' that would demand such a backstory exist from the get-go. You don't need to 'commit' to anything. A movie about superpowered teen police with Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad front and center against a big bad like Mordru or some other galactic threat would be awesome and easily accepted.

Anonymous said...

"You could say what you said about Guardians with LSH just as well."

Not really. All I need to know about the Guardians of the Galaxy is that the five "guardians" are on the wrong side of the law, and the authorities are kind of tools. Movies with fun rogues sell themselves.

With the LSH, the Legionnaires ARE the law, or at least they enforce it. That cuts the fun factor by about 90%.

There's a video I like, where Hollywood script doctor John Truby talks at length (like 90 minutes) about movies, scripts, and the like. At some point in there (maybe 20-odd minutes in), he makes the observation that there are really only two things the audience cares about: the goal that the hero is working towards, and the hero's inner weaknesses or shortcomings that must be overcome to achieve that goal. Audiences don't typically perceive it that way, but that's what they're looking for. It's real easy to get that to work with rogues: start off with a hero who is given to selfishness for whatever reason, but have him work past the selfishness to serve the greater good. It's far harder to do that with legally-sanctioned superheroes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q07y1JFeEE

"A movie about superpowered teen police with Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad front and center against a big bad like Mordru or some other galactic threat would be awesome and easily accepted."

If it were that easy, the LSH wouldn't be this niche in the DC Universe that they keep rebooting in an effort to attract a larger audience.

John said...

Ha! Scipio, I meant that it was a huge production to cram it into the comics because "it's in the movie and everything needs to be identical or the universe will fall apart," and then they took it out of the movie. And the universe didn't fall apart.

Well, I mean, the DCU did, but that was the Anti-Monitor's fault, and of all the things he stood around ranting about between the heroes murdering him again, the headband wasn't on the list.

So, I guess I'm saying that the Anti-Monitor didn't care about Supergirl's headband. And nobody complained that the character had a headband in the comic but not on the screen.

Bryan and Dalle, for the record, I probably wouldn't have been too badly offended if it was just that an inexperienced Superman was forced by the contrived plot into killing someone or if they turned the character into a killer. I'd dismiss it as missing the point or that they were making some obscure statement on "suicide by cop" situations and move on.

The Man of Steel problem is that the (surprisingly fun) movie was over, and everybody involved still somehow decided that they needed to wedge that sequence in, anyway. It didn't tell us anything about any of the characters and it's not an entertaining scene. It's just there for the writers to assert that they...wanted to have Superman do something uncharacteristic, I guess.

It could have been reasonable if they had a sequel ready to go, where some villain uses the guilt against Superman. Make him question (for the first hour or so) not only his moral compass but also whether it's worth serving a humanity that still cheers his killing, weeks or months later.

Bryan L said...

I think you've got a strong point, Anonymous, but I also think it can be addressed by simply focusing on the Legion's early days. You've got three self-absorbed superpowered teens (one wants to play sports, even) who find they have to work together to save a rich man's life. Saturn Girl (who wants to be a cop)functions as their conscience. The other two are initially motivated to impress the hot girl, but they develop a sense of altruism.

You've got a love triangle, character arcs, action, and hey, maybe a little whimsy.

Also, remember the Legion isn't an official police force. They're actually more like mercenaries working for RJ Brande, albeit with some official sanction (Robocop?). Play up the mercenary angle, and there's your tension for sequels.

Keep the group small (no Tyroc, sorry, Scipio). It could absolutely work.

Scipio said...

" there are really only two things the audience cares about: the goal that the hero is working towards, and the hero's inner weaknesses or shortcomings that must be overcome to achieve that goal."

If that's true, then DC is effed, because their heroes do not overcome inner weaknesses or shortcomings. They do not have inner weaknesses or shortcomings. They overcome external obstacles.

P.S. I don't think it's true.

Anonymous said...

"I think you've got a strong point, Anonymous, but I also think it can be addressed by simply focusing on the Legion's early days."

True, I could see that. As with almost all superhero movies, the origin movie has the best chance of working, because that's where the character needs to go from "normal guy" to "hero". (See also the Hero's Journey.)

"If that's true, then DC is effed, because their heroes do not overcome inner weaknesses or shortcomings. They do not have inner weaknesses or shortcomings. They overcome external obstacles."

Truby was speaking specifically to movies, where you've got 90 minutes to tell a complete story, including an ending. I'm not sure how well Truby's thing holds up in the world of serial adventures, where there is no real ending (just the conclusion of a latest adventure) and you need to establish an ongoing status quo. In DC's typical comics, yeah, their status quo is that crimes happen and somebody needs to collar the criminals.

Murray said...


Putting the onus on Marvel and DC may not be entirely accurate or fair. We've all seen how movie adaptations of our favourite novels and stories do or do not "hit the nail". Biographies and anecdotes abound on how frustrated some writers can get trying to stop the Hollywood guys from butchering their work.

I think, in general terms, that the creators of actual comic books contribute to the production of a movie as much as the kids' table contributes to a major Thanksgiving feast.

I believe the effect you're describing comes from the core individuals that are handed such venerable properties as Superman and Batman. They look back, as you suggest, on nearly a century of previous movies, radio plays, cartoons, serials and TV shows. They want to pee higher on the tree than their predecessors and that means doing something "memorable". Mix in marketing focus groups and that means doing something like "Man of Steel".

John said...

Scipio, it might be worth considering that the flawed hero often outsells the great hero in the short term, but rarely in the long term. AJ Raffles eclipsed Sherlock Holmes, at the time, but there aren't competing big-budget Raffles franchises (and multiple franchises inspired by he and Bunny) today.

The sensationalist Penny Dreadful and the slasher flick draw in eyeballs, just like "Your reaction to this ham sandwich will restore your faith in humanity and show what daytime talk show host you most resemble" headlines draw readers on the Internet. Nobody knows who reads/watches any of it, and it's forgotten quickly enough, but it pushes product.

In comics, shocking characters get attention for a while (remember Spawn being a thing?), but the brighter they shine, the faster they burn out.

That may partly explain why DC has such a hard time. They've been accidentally playing a long game, whereas Wall Street doesn't consider that acceptable business.

Which is all to say that I find the obligatory "flawed hero" boring, too, but it sells. A lot.

SallyP said...

Am I the only person who actually liked the Green Lantern movie? Yes, they probably shouldn't have combined Hector Hammond with the whole Parallax thing, but hey, it had its moments!

Tomar Re was nice, Sinestro was fantastic, and the Oa scenes were great. And Ryan Reynolds has a nice behind.

They should make another one...but with John and Guy and Kyle! But they probably won't. And a Justice League movie too...but they probably won't.

Dang.

Redforce said...

SallyP,
I kind of liked the GL movie too. I thought is was a lot better than Thor (which I compare it to only because they were both out about the same time and I saw them both).

Scipio said...

I liked it just fine. I found the whole 'going to Oa to train' tedious, but that's because the CONCEPT is tedious (and clearly absent from the original Silver Age Green Lantern origin).

Most of the problems I had with it weren't about the MOVIE: they were intrinsic to Green Lantern, period.

Bryan L said...

I don't hate the Green Lantern movie, either, Sally. It had its high and low points, but, as I mentioned, I liked it better than the dreary Man of Steel. In fact, I own a copy of it. I won't be picking up a copy of Man of Steel, even when it hits the $5 bins. I have no desire to see it again.

Anonymous said...

If I had to do a Green Lantern movie, it would be Alan Scott (no costume except perhaps for a cameo moment) vs. a ferocious Solomon Grundy, resurrected by Nazi magic. The legend of his ring would be that it contains the soul of a dragon from the heavens, which could somehow be communicated to the audience (a vision, most likely) to be ol' Yalan Gur crashing to earth. There's just something about the 1940s style / Nazi fighting motif that works so damn well.

And if I had to do a Hal movie, I would have made Sinestro his trainer, but a Sinestro who encourages Hal to use his ring to bring peace to earth, because that's what a war-torn world needs. WHich sounds really good until Hal discovers what that line of thinking meant to Korugar, and has to take Sinestro down. I see their final confrontation taking place in the desert, Hal using a yellow baseball bat against Sinestro when his ring fails. Sinestro finally switches to his yellow ring, only to discover that a ring powered by fear is not going to hold a charge very long when the only person to feed off of is Hal.

File this post away under "fictitious movies that are even more fictitious than most fictitious movies".

Mr. Preece said...

I don't see why it's hard to sell Superman. Clark has to grow up holding back his powers so that he doesn't (unfairly) dominate the regular humans. This is all PRELUDE.

Superman has to share the world by holding back his powers so that he doesn't (undemocratically) dominate the regular humans.

His struggle is that he BELIEVES in freedom and democracy, but deep down he knows he MUST become a Benevolent Dictator to stop crime and prevent a nuclear holocaust. It is the only logical way. So poor Superman keeps jumping in to pull humanity back from the edge and restore them to peace and safety--only to have to do the whole thing all over again tomorrow. (Isn't this exactly what Batman does, only on a smaller scale? He follows a limiting code that leads to incarcerations, only to find they get back out to do it all again.)

I don't find Batman relatable at all. I'm not a richie. I've never had my parents murdered in front of me. I've never been raised by a single foster parent. I don't have access to ridiculous technology. I don't get to live my hobby because I never have to work--and when he does work it's as an absent landlord to a mega-corporation. No, I relate more to Clark Kent than Bruce Wayne.

And if we're supposed to weep for poor Brucie's dead parents, why do we not weep for Kal's lost PLANET??? Why is Bruce's faux-playboy life--and his total inability to love and have a healthy romantic relationship--more relatable than Clark's romance with Lois Lane?

I think DC can't sell Superman for the same reasons Aquaman took so much abuse: because DC CONCEDES the (false) accusations that Superman is an unrelatable god. Aquaman is a great book and a respectable hero again...and really all because Geoff Johns simply SAID he was. DC needs to believe in its properties.

And when some snarky punk talks smack, slap him down for it. Sing the hero's positive traits. NEVER agree with the criticisms, and then be sure to publish a story that puts the lie to the criticism.

Scipio said...

Preece; those are VERY strong arguments.

I'd still say that Batman is more relatable than Superman; but you completely win the issue of Clark Kent being more relatable than Bruce Wayne.

And you are right in your point that so many miss: Superman is impressive more for his restraint in using his powers than his exercise of them.