They Aren't Asking For It, They Probably Don't Want To Hear It, But They Should Really Listen To It
Don't be fooled by the imminent blockbuster that is The Dark Knight Rises, as a studio DC Entertainment needs some help. While it's main rival, Marvel, seems to be able to pop out hit after hit from their staple of superheroes (even the one's they no longer produce like Spiderman and the X-Men) DC can't get anything that doesn't have Batman or The Dark Knight in the title to be viewed as anything other than a dud. Why? A lot of reasons actually. Some because their individual heroes don't fit as neatly into the "origins" story lines that Marvel keeps tapping into (say what you will about Stan Lee, the man knew how to write an origins story). Some because they have failed to recognize which superheroes will translate and which one's won't. And some because they have just made bad movies. The good news is there is hope.
Batman is about to take over the world!
First, superhero and comic based movies are as popular now as they have ever been. Last summer the four "superhero" movies grossed nearly $1.4 billion world wide combined, that is nearly $350 million a movie. That total is made more impressive when you think about who the movies were about. It wasn't a summer of Spiderman or Batman or Wolverine or Iron Man, it was the summer of Thor and Captain America and Green Lantern and a period piece with the X-Men. This summer, with three of the biggest superheroes on the way, should blow that number away (don't be surprised in The Dark Knight Rises beats that total on its own). Add to that the success of The Walking Dead on TV and comic book adaptations don't appear to be loosing momentum anywhere.
Second, while Marvel may have the "deeper" stable of superheroes, no one can compete with the top of DC's superhero roster. IGN, one of the leading "geek" and gaming websites in the world, recently published their list of the top 100 comic book superheroes of all time and DC had 3 of the top 5 and 5 of the top 8. Superman #1, Batman #2, Wonder Woman #5, Hal Jordan (The Green Lantern) #7 and Wally West (The Flash) #8. You can argue placement all you want, but what is nearly impossible to argue is that Superman is #1 and Batman is #2 and even the most die hard Marvel fan would have to put Wonder Woman somewhere in the top 7 or 8.
Finally, with the launch of The New 52 comics to great success (commercially if not creatively) and their continued success in their animated department, both with what they are doing on TV with Cartoon Network and their direct to video animated features that have long been considered the best in the business (see trailer for Justice League Doom below), DC's other divisions are healthy and strong. The success of these other areas shows that DC's army of superheroes is more than viable and still resonates with young and old.
So, what should they do? Here are a few ideas (some of which go together, some don't).
Forget Origin Stories
The Worst Origin Story Ever?
Three issues here. First, your origins either stink or have been done to death. Wonder Woman's origin is simply awful. Green Arrow's is trite. Hal Jordan's you just butchered by trying to fit it into the "origins model" that Marvel has made popular. Aquaman, Flash, Blue Beatle, you've heard them all before even if you aren't a fan of those characters. The fact is, most of DC's origins were written 60+ years ago, at a time when "origins" didn't matter (kind of like today's sitcoms and their initial premise, look how quickly Cougar Town, Happy Endings completely abandoned their pilot story lines). Comic book writers wanted to create heroes they could start telling stories with, and "where they came from" wasn't the stories they wanted to tell. So, why bother trying to tell them now?
Second, most people know your heroes already, they don't need to see where their origin. Does anyone need to see a Aquaman's origin story? No. Time Burton did this brilliantly with the first Batman, just jump right in and tell the back story in a scene or two over the course of the movie.
Third, why try to make the same movies that Marvel is making? Sure, you can claim you did the first great origins movie in 1980 with Dick Donner's original Superman (see trailer below), but, with the arguable exception of Batman Begins, you haven't made a good one since. Meanwhile, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Spiderman have all come out and solidified Marvel as the kings of the superhero origins movie. And that's fine. Origins are overrated and you have plenty of great movies to make, so stop making movies that feel like bad Marvel movies.
Do What You Said You Would Do With The New 52
The New 52, the relaunching of DC's comics, was sold as a "starting from scratch" move by DC comics. No longer would the writers have 60, 70 80 years of comic book and character history they had to worry about when writing new stories. Now they could re-imagine and modernize the heroes. Now they would be free to write the heroes the way they wanted to write them. It sounded exciting and a little crazy and in the end it has been a financial success and in a lot of ways they cheated. How did they cheat? Well, what the writers did was they simply took the time to pick and choose what part of the history happened and what parts didn't (you can't start Batman at #1 and have Nightwing and have Red Hood and The Outlaws since that is two of Batman's three previous Robins), so we are left with a newish 52 that with each passing week feels more and more like The New 52 was nothing more than a marketing ploy because all the comics could have happened without resetting everything to #1.
I am not going to pretend to know enough about comics and the comic book industry to judge DC's marketing of The New 52 or the legitimacy of it, but I will say this, that is exactly what they need to with your movies (and TV shows). Whether you start with origin stories or not, throw out the comics and the old movies and the old TV shows and everything else and start making these things new and fresh. Stop worrying about fanboy outrage because here is the secret, if the movie is good they don't care how closely you held to the source material (don't believe me? look at The Dark Knight). So rethink the whole thing and come up with setting for characters that make sense and recognize that some characters need desperately to be rethought before they can find success on the big screen.
For instance, how about we throw out the Wonder Woman wins the right to bring Steve Trevor back to the man's world because it is a little silly and it always makes her seem a little less strong (she followed him out of love after all). Why not have her bring Steve back because he is unwittingly threatening the Amazons in some way, make her coming to our world an act of sacrifice for her people not a sacrifice for some dude. Wonder Woman never plays as well when she is played innocent or naive, she is great when she is short tempered and impatient with evil and dishonesty. Everything you do with her should make her be stronger, not weaker. Make no mistake, Wonder Woman is the great untapped resource of the DC universe, if you make her strong and beautiful you will have the fanboys out en masse and you will finally have a superhero for the girls to call their own.
Let's make Aquaman an eco terrorist. Think Whale Wars meets Thor.*
*I heard this idea on The Geek Show Podcast and I loved it, so I had to use it here.
Green Arrow, as written and used, is an entirely redundant character. He is Batman in green. The tragedy of it is he doesn't have to be. Not only is there a place for, there is a need for an anti-batman. Where Bruce Wayne is born to wealth, have Oliver Queen be born to poverty and make his own wealth (think Steve Jobs). Where Batman is born from personal tragedy, have Green Arrow be born from societal ills alone. Basically, have the Green Arrow be what it has always seemed like he should be, a modern day Robin Hood. Have him steal from the rich and give to the poor. Have his "sherwood forest" be the ghetto, where he partners with gangs and other seeming criminals who are really just doing what they need to do to survive. Have him be funny and outwardly devil-may-care. Have him be black. And have him know Batman and call Batman to the carpet for a lot of what Batman does.
We Can't Make One Of These Two Gay?
Pick a lesser Justice League member and make him gay.
Do more with the idea that Red Hood and the Outlaws plays with, that Batman and Green Arrow are totally screwing up these young men they turn into sidekicks.
Re-work the entire history of the DC Universe so that it makes sense as a history. All of these heroes can't have come into being without influence from each other, its an absurd notion. Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor would have known each other forever. Hal Jordan can't be shocked about alien life forms when the most famous person on the planet is an alien (Superman). And in today's world it is ridiculous to think they wouldn't know about each other. Start from scratch, rebuild the whole thing and see what comes out of it.
You Own HBO, Don't You?
Potentially The Coolest Show On TV
This is the biggest advantage DC has, and they have never once used it. Warner Bros. owns DC comics and HBO, so why haven't they made an HBO/DC Comics show yet? Are you telling me that you couldn't make an adult comic book TV show (I'm not talking Spartacus or True Blood "adult", I'm thinking more Game of Thrones or Dark Knight "adult") for roughly the same cost as Game of Thrones that wouldn't draw similar viewers? Its insane. How awesome would a Sandman TV series be? Use Gaiman's original series as a blue print and you would have the trippiest and coolest TV show in the world. And believe me, as popular as George RR Martin and Christine Harris' works are, they don't have more fans than Sandman or any of a number of DC properties. How about your re-working of the DC Universe? You could do the entire thing in series form and flow movies out of it. Remember, comics are series, they aren't wholly contained stories that make good movies. Take advantage of it.
Don't Forget About Vertigo
The truth is, what I said at the beginning about DC's success, or lack there of, as a movie studio wasn't entirely accurate. Apart from Batman, DC has had some success with titles from their other imprints, Vertigo in particular. V for Vendetta, A History of Violence, The Losers and Constantine all originated from Vertigo. They haven't even touched three of their biggest Vertigo titles, Sandman (see HBO idea above), 100 Bullets and American Vampire. Wildstorm has some untapped gems as well (Bruce Willis' RED came from this imprint) -- Tom Strong, Stormwatch and The Authority come immediately to mind. The point is, there is a lot of stuff in the DC family, and some of the best of it isn't from DC Comics. Keep looking for some of these lesser titles that might translate better to movies. And I didn't even mention Preacher, which might be the coolest thing DC has (under Vertigo).
Do the Obvious
The most popular superhero in the world is Superman, and he has a big problem (one shared by a few others in the DC universe), he's too powerful. From a movie point of view, where the main character must fight through a conflict that has significant and significantly negative consequences, this has left us with only two (so far) Superman stories that have worked. Superman worked because he had to deal with two conflicts, one, should he use the powers he was given and two where is the line that he must impose himself on the degree of those powers he uses (he turns back time to save Lois for those who have forgotten). And, Superman II worked because he had to face being as powerful as he was so defeat was a real possibility. The other Superman movies tried to replicate the danger of Superman two and/or the conundrum of Superman and none have really worked (mostly because Superman isn't the key, the key is the villain). So, what is the obvious thing to do? The same thing the comic book division realized in the 1990's, you have to kill Superman.
Picture this movie, the world is under attack from an alien species and The Justice League has teamed with the armed forces to fight off the invasion (think the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, you just jump right into the middle of a massive war). Justice League members are spread far and wide as the invasion is a synchronized attack against military forces all over the world. As the battle rages everywhere the enemy sends its most powerful weapon to attack the President (maybe President Lex Luthor), who happens to be in Metropolis and Superman alone must face him as the rest of the Justice Leagues battles other forces. I know some people hate Darkseide and Doomsday, but you don't have to follow that part exactly, make them new, scarier beings (something closer to Darth Vader for Darkseide role and a cool and scary cyborg with kryptonite fists as the ultimate weapon). Lois Lane works for CNN and is on the scene with her camera man (Jimmy Olsen) as Superman has his epic battle which he wins, but in winning dies. Make that movie, with subplots involving Wonder Woman and Batman and the Green Lantern and all the other Justice League heroes and you not only have a blockbuster, you have successfully launched the entirety of the DC universe as a movie franchise.
DC has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that Batman movies will keep you in the black for a long time. All they need to do now is to do exactly what Christopher Nolan did with Batman ... make really good movies. A good Superman movie will work. A good Green Lantern movie will work. Good movies will work. Good TV shows will work. It sounds simple, but simple is true in this instance.
One last piece of advice, quit making movies by committee. Anyone who watched Green Lantern could almost see which scenes were brought in by the marketing department (the Hot Wheels saving the helicopter scene), where the suits influenced the plot (did they really need Blake Lively in that movie?) and when the fanboys got their say (the good parts actually, when he was on Oa). The movie should have left earth and been an outer space adventure. It wasn't because someone with the check book said that wouldn't play, they were wrong! Find a director, a writer, a creative team and let them make movies, you will have a much higher success rate if you get out of your own way.
That's my opinion anyway. But hey, what do I know, I'm fat.