It’s the question of a generation: are you a DC or Marvel person? Do you side with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman or the X-Men, Spider-Man and Captain America? For most of us, it’s a mix of both. I buy both DC and Marvel comics because that’s how I was raised and both (usually) have a lot to offer. But this rivalry, created by the fans and the companies themselves, has raged for decades.
And now that same knock-down, drag-out fight has spilled onto the silver screen. It’s no secret that Marvel Studios is currently wiping the floor with DC. Sure, DC has released arguably the greatest superhero film of all time (The Dark Knight) but aside from that, its output is fairly weak. Man of Steel showed a lot of promise but Green Lantern? No good. DC’s next major attempt to stake a claim in the movie landscape is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice but then comes the incredibly promising Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice League: Part One and future films featuring The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern (don’t worry, Ryan Reynolds isn’t involved) and surely many more.
But how can they compete with the behemoth Marvel has become? Like one of their fictional supervillains, Marvel is a monster dominating cinemas, slaying its enemies and taking no prisoners. I’ve thought long and hard about this because a robust comic book film industry is good news for nerds. DC has a tough road to hoe. A successful approach needs to mimic Marvel’s but not too closely lest they be called copycats.
It all comes down to surprises. You are never surprised in a superhero film anymore. The cameos, the fake-out deaths, the final act that inevitably includes a monster (or monsters) destroying a major city while our heroes shoot arrows, blasters and of course a slew of witty, Whedon-esque quips – it’s all fun, it’s all exciting, but it’s all been done. DC needs to make films that don’t follow the template and don’t rely on the same old tricks. Respect the source material but also be inspired to move away from it. If a lead characters needs to retire or even die, let it happen. It’s okay if the finale doesn’t include a CG army burning down skyscrapers. Throw in a twist or two that drastically changes things (Iron Man 3 did this splendidly, in fact). Lean into change, embrace it. The script needs to be strong, of course, but the script needs to be different. Respect the films that came before by not following them beat-by-beat.
The script isn’t the only area where DC can shake things up. The director is incredibly important to every film and Marvel has nabbed some great ones for theirs. However, they haven’t let anyone really let loose. Shane Black came close, James Gunn too. But at the end of the day, both of them still made films that felt like (very, very good) Marvel. DC can be the company that picks filmmakers who want to mix it up, visually and thematically. This is risky of course, they could always hire a director who doesn’t quite fit with the massive budget, schedule and song and dance needed for a production of this size. Let’s remember Darren Aronofsky, one of the best directors on Earth, wanted to make a bizarre, punk-rock, hockey mask-wearing Batman for his Year One. In retrospect, that thing sounds like a nightmare. So there are obviously risks. But the payoff could be substantial and could get people talking.
Here’s a perfect example: he’s one of the biggest blockbuster directors alive now but many forget that Christopher Nolan was a surprise choice to take on Batman. He wasn’t the first person you thought of when you talked superheroes. That paid off, didn’t it? DC should encourage these men and women to play around with the worlds and characters when it comes to tone and genre. A Batman film that plays like film noir, a Green Lantern movie that feels like a space opera, a Flash comedy or a Cyborg body horror. These don’t have to feel like superhero films. They’re filled with superheroes so they’ll be superhero movies no matter how they look or feel. Marvel has chosen some talented and fantastic directors to lead their films but DC can outdo them by thinking outside the box and hiring creators who are looking for something different, daring and maybe even a little dangerous.
The last suggestion is the trickiest and, to a industry obsessed with sequels and the all-important “cinematic universe”, scariest. Danger lies in the inclination to make everything connected. Relying heavily on cameos and post-credit stings is still mostly fun but getting awfully tired awfully fast. It makes each film feel like a television episode or, worse yet, a commercial. Relying on this technique too much makes everything feel like preamble. Simply put, the movies don’t stand alone as much as they could. Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s best film, gets away unscathed because our heroes are literally light years away from Tony Stark, Black Widow and the gang. Captain America fares well because his films either take place mostly in the past or revolve around shadowy Washington politics, hardly typical superhero fodder. But rest assured, soon the Guardians will be mixed into the Marvel moviescape and Captain America will be very integrated into all the other films with Civil War.
If DC is smart, they will do their best to avoid this path. This seems unlikely but it’s the right choice, especially since it’s been done repeatedly (and occasionally masterfully) by Marvel. Obviously Batman V Superman and the upcoming Justice League will require all the heroes to band together. But when they are off on their own, make it truly their own. It’s nice to own a boxset or listen to an entire album but sometimes it’s even nicer to just watch one DVD or listen to one song. They can exist together while still standing strong on their own.
It might sound like I’ve been complaining about Marvel’s films. That’s not true. I adore those movies, as do most of you. But the time has come to flip the status quo and branch out. It seems we will always have superhero films and the fear is that five years from now they will be rundown and tired. Things haven’t grown too stale yet but preemption is key. Since DC is trying to make a splash, they should use this as an opportunity to really set a new bar, set a new tone and do stuff that others aren’t. Will they? Unlikely but the hope remains. The superhero blockbuster machine can’t go on like this forever without running out of gas. DC has a chance to breathe new life into comic book films. Let’s hope they do.
We will see these movies no matter what. So give us something new, DC.