Universe Lost, Part 9: Not the Hero We Needed

NOTE: I originally planned for this to be the final installment of “Universe Lost,” but I wrote more than usual and can’t cut it down! So I’ll wrap up the series on Wednesday. After that, I’ll start a new feature on the Flash and the DC Multiverse, so stay tuned!

Last week, at Variety‘s Entertainment and Technology Summit in Beverly Hills, Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment since 2009, stated that there were no plans to connect the film adaptations of DC properties with their TV adaptations.

To regular readers of this blog, this should sound like a foregone conclusion on the part of DC and its parent company, Time Warner.

In spite of DC’s current effort to build a Marvel-style cinematic universe, their TV projects (namely Arrow, Flash, and the upcoming Supergirl) will remain separate “in order to offer maximum creative flexibility to the writers, producers and directors” engaged in those projects.

As a comic book publisher, DC has tended toward a modular structure, in which separate editorial divisions accommodate a wide range of genres and storytelling styles. DC’s main publishing competitor, Marvel Comics, has generally taken the opposite approach.

Beginning in 1961, Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee orchestrated a unitary vision for Marvel’s super-hero comic books, in which the entire line formed a tapestry of interwoven events. Currently, Marvel Television coordinates its ABC and Netflix series with its film-producing counterpart, Marvel Studios. Beginning with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s TV series have spun out of their movies, and share the same setting. The company’s TV and film franchises jointly pursue Stan Lee’s unitary vision in media other than comics.

Today Marvel is redefining what a media franchise can consist of, but DC nearly beat its competitor in bringing a shared super-hero universe to the big screen. As early as 2002, Warner Brothers was developing a Batman vs. Superman live-action film in hopes of reinvigorating DC Comics’ two most recognizable characters. That film ultimately became next spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but during the time that elapsed between development and release, Marvel managed to produce a dozen films set in its own cinematic universe, grossing $3.5 billion in the interim.

DC’s characters have needed a big-screen revitalization for a long time. The Batman franchise went into deep-freeze following the critical and commercial disappointment of 1997’s Batman & Robin, while Tim Burton’s Superman Lives project never got off the ground.

Even after DC’s biggest names vanished from movie theaters, there was still clearly a market for movies based on comic book super-heroes: Fox had put out X-Men in 2000, while Sony released Spider-Man in 2002. Both films had won over audiences and critics alike. Sequels were lined up immediately. Unfortunately for DC, both these franchises featured characters owned by Marvel Comics.

Marvel Studios had been in existence since 1996, but until 2005, it wasn’t in a position to produce films. Instead, its job was to license the film rights to Marvel Comics characters to actual production studios; hence Fox made the X-Men and Fantastic Four movies, while Sony handled the Spider-Man franchise. DC, on the other hand, was part of the massive Time Warner conglomerate, giving them the automatic support of Warner Brothers.

DC/Warner hoped that putting Batman and Superman together on the big screen would catapult them ahead of Marvel, putting them at the vanguard of the rising trend of super-hero movies. Although crossovers between different characters’ titles have long been commonplace in comic books, no one had attempted anything similar in movies before. Batman vs. Superman would break new ground for the super-hero genre and for film franchises in general, but such groundbreaking moves always entail risk.

After much contention, Warner Brothers decided that it was safer to rebuild the Superman and Batman franchises separately, but left the door open for a team-up movie in the future. As a result, audiences got 2005’s Batman Begins and 2006’s Superman Returns. The movies’ directors – Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer, respectively – each had particular visions for the type of story they wanted to tell, which were so personal and idiosyncratic that it would have been difficult for them to meld into a cinematic mega-franchise.

Superman Returns

In contrast to Batman Begins, which spawned two acclaimed sequels, Superman Returns failed to send audiences clamoring for more Superman movies. Instead of making a movie that could stand on its own, Bryan Singer directed a self-indulgent love-letter to his favorite Superman films. Even though it premiered in 2006, Superman Returns was a follow-up to 1980’s Superman II, and also borrowed from the plot of the original 1978 Superman. Singer chose to ignore the events of Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace simply because he didn’t like them. Superman Returns was Singer’s version of how the Christopher Reeve Superman movies should have been.

Had Superman Returns grossed an extra $100 million, it’s quite possible that Warner would have moved ahead on Batman vs. Superman. If that had happened, we wouldn’t have gotten Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as it now stands. By presenting Batman’s career from beginning to end, Nolan was able to tell a Batman story that could never have been told in the monthly comics.

Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)

Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)

In the comics, 76 years after his debut in Detective Comics #27, Bruce Wayne is still Batman. The hundreds of writers, artists, and editors who have worked on the character since 1939 make it impossible to tell his story biographically, let alone to seek thematic coherence among the thousands of Batman comics published to date. Not needing to compromise with the expectations of a shared universe, Christopher Nolan had the freedom to depict the end of Batman’s career, giving his trilogy the completion that an ongoing series, whether in comics or films, can never have.

dark knight poster

I remember leaving the theater after seeing The Dark Knight for the first time, relieved to feel the summer sun again after such a grim, oppressive film. I hadn’t expected Batman’s interrogation of the Joker to raise uneasy topical questions about the moral implications of confronting an enemy who disregards pain and fear. This was Batman at his most brutal, delusional, and alienating … and his most self-sacrificing.

There is no room in The Dark Knight for a flying Kryptonian, and the movie would lose all emotional resonance if its setting included one. DC’s failure to assemble a cinematic universe allowed Christopher Nolan to craft a masterpiece.

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One thought on “Universe Lost, Part 9: Not the Hero We Needed

  1. Pingback: Universe Lost: Conclusion | superadaptoid

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