DC Films: Dawn of the Rushed Superhero Mashup
The transformation of Warner/DC’s inevitable and immediately mooted Man of Steel 2 into the franchise team-up Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice has led to a peculiar online shit storm. Critics have almost universally impaled the production on the most uncomfortable figurative phallic symbol they’ve collectively been able to think of. ‘Fans’, on the other hand – of what, specifically, I’m not sure, since some of the film’s harshest critics describe themselves as fans of DC superhero comics – have dashed to the film’s defence, hailing it as a superior superhero picture that stands with the best of Marvel Studios’ recent output.
The comparison is significant, because Batman vs Superman (hereafter BvS) in its embryonic form was a straight sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel (MoS from now on). So what led to the transformation? The best of Marvel Studios’ recent output – and the success of their ‘linked franchise’ approach. The difference is, Marvel weren’t in a hurry to get to their first team-up, Joss Whedon’s 2012 The Avengers. Nobody else was trying this linked-narrative approach; roll forward to 2016 and it is obvious to even the least perceptive superhero fan that DC are keen to make their way to a Justice League movie before the team-up bubble bursts.
Have they moved too quickly? As go the business decisions underlying the content of quarter-billion-dollar productions, not at all. The safe money is in team-ups, in linked narratives: what worked for Marvel should surely work for DC. BvS’s box office, despite the oddball fan/critic war at the time of its release, suggests most (credit) card-carrying fans are keener on team-ups than on a well-paced buildup. Where DC may have erred is in the longevity of their collected franchise. Without a proper setup, it will be harder for their writers and directors to fashion characters an audience will care – or even know anything – about.
(Perhaps this is why DC are putting so much effort into TV superheroes they apparently have no desire to link into their cinematic continuity: so cinema goers not au fait with these characters will have been briefed, prior to their recast turns in Justice League movies, on how they function.)
A more patient approach would have emulated Marvel’s early strategy to a degree, albeit without the need for embedded trilogies. It would use a transitional film like BvS to pave the way for a full-blown Justice League entry, setting up the two franchise figureheads of Superman and Batman as the ‘stars’ of the series. It could then, like Marvel’s films, lead to TV spin-offs, though this is probably an area DC are less interested in, given the parallel universes they have already put those (and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) into. By the judicious incorporation of the topicality and political commentary one might expect of the simultaneous involvement of Argo’s director/writer duo Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio, any DC/Warner bean counters actually worried about what the critics are saying should be able to sleep easily as well.
To properly reconstruct the road to Justice League necessitates some cosmetic retooling of MoS –not a problem, since this exercise in hypotheticals also rewrites the already released BvS. Since MoS is basically the first two Salkind Superman movies horribly squished together – origin story and Superman vs Zod – it would do to strip Zod out of the first instalment entirely. Sparing him for inclusion in a second Superman movie might make the ‘homage’ to the Salkinds’ almost-diptych just a little too close to the bone, but the Krypton-set opening of MoS is expendable in plot terms and arguably only exists to pay lip service to the 1978 movie anyway. Lose this extended prologue and MoS opens with the first instance of screenwriter David Goyer’s occasional nonlinear plot – a real asset if played with confidence as it allows us to share in Clark Kent’s journey of self-discovery. By film’s end, Clark should be see to defeat some home-grown menace – controlled by an as yet unseen Lex Luthor – to establish himself as Superman the hero. The narrative breathing room provided by keeping the complexities of a Kryptonian enemy out of the picture gives us time to get to properly know all the franchise’s supporting characters, whose lives will inevitably be threatened in the fight against Zod that demolishes half of Metropolis. In the next movie.
Man of Steel 2 can then open with the Krypton prologue pinched from the real MoS to establish Zod. He knows Kal-El was sent to Earth, we go “Oh fuck, there’s an anti-Superman on the way!”, and Clark is on the back foot from the start. Clark’s journey in the sequel is then as much about working out who he was as it is about learning what he can about Zod, by contrast with the first MoS which is about Clark working out who he is. The movie culminates in the demolition derby that concludes the real MoS, and we care about the humans whose lives are threatened because this time around we know them as people. We also care that this is personal for Superman because we’ve now had two movies to get to know him – as Clark, Superman and Kal-El. Lex Luthor is introduced in a subplot as the mastermind behind the enemy from the first movie. He’s a wealthy man with a keen interest in weapons R&D – a professional supposition I’m grafting on to the billionaire industrialist who, by all accounts, has little intrinsic motivation in BvS beyond being an overpaid mischief-maker. Lex is pissed with Superman because his creation in the first film was intended by Luthor to incapacitate and capture our hero so the billionaire could use him – dead or alive – as weapons research. But by the end of this sequel his disappointment is quelled by his acquisition of Zod’s mortal remains – and he’s nothing if not a man with a Plan B.
DC uber-franchise Movie #3 is a standalone Batman adventure designed to establish the grizzled old, impatient, Trump-voting Batman of the post-Nolan DC shared universe. Basically the one in Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns, but updated for the 21st century. His body is raddled from years of undiscriminating vigilantism, so he uses enhanced armour when he’s the Bat. He’s been doing this so long he’s like a Sontaran from Doctor Who: he fights for reasons his ancestors might have a hope of remembering. Fans will know the reasons, of course, but there’s absolutely no reason to re-establish his backstory in this or any other entry in the series because it makes him more interesting to be a vigilante for the simple reason that it’s who he is. He stands for justice, but it’s a hardline, socially conservative style of justice, and it shows in this movie when he has no qualms about killing his enemies – in stark contrast to the Nolan Batman or any Superman ever. He is Batman as anti-hero.
Most importantly, his movie is a prequel to the MoS films. If anything, it ends with the first news reports of this Superman guy who rescued some people in Metropolis. Bruce Wayne is suspicious from word go.
Roll on Batman vs Superman: Dawn of a Better Subtitle than This (because Superman doesn’t do trilogies), and Bruce Wayne has an “I told you so” hard-on after the Metropolis-pummelling events of MoS:2. Personal vengeance of the sort used in the real BvS to excuse his direct interest doesn’t even come into it: he’s a protector of the old school, and he (ironically) thinks Superman is what he fails to realise Batman has become: an indiscriminate machine of destruction. This is a menace to be stopped, a foreign terrorist who is his own WMD – and loads of conservative politicians and mouthpieces agree. Here’s where bringing Chris Terrio in as a writer pays off: the franchise becomes political and topical.
Meanwhile, Lex develops Zod’s corpse into Doomsday, and he fully intends to test it out on Superman – not because he agrees with the anti-Superman crowd but because he knows it’ll put said crowd in his pocket, which could be good for business. And if Doomsday fails, or is a PR disaster, he can deny responsibility by shouting the loudest about “what this great country is turning into”, etc.
The audience of this alternative BvS thus gets a double whammy: topicality and complexity, and a massive ‘clash of the titans’ with an even more massive team-up finale. Not that the film’s heroes team up immediately: Batman is initially happy to watch Doomsday potentially slaughter Superman. But Superman finds the Batman who once was, finds the young Bruce Wayne who just wanted justice in the wake of personal tragedy, and convinces Batman through the commission of genuinely good deeds that they stand for the same thing. And nobody has to mention their mothers’ given names once.
On a pragmatic level – and this is what would give any subsequent Justice League movies a frisson of tension – Bruce realises that he has to work with Superman to overcome a greater evil. So it’s with the resources of the Batcave, Lucius Fox, etc, and Superman’s might that they’re able to defeat Doomsday. Or subdue him, probably, since he’s destined to kill Superman, per the comics, and because it could help Superman prove his point about avoiding killing where possible. Then, because Bruce Wayne’s money talks just about as loudly as Lex Luthor’s, Bruce goes public in a massive turnaround and fully supports Superman, going on about how the Kryptonian was misunderstood, how he made a personal connection when Superman rescued him (in an engineered PR stunt or similar), and so on.
DC uber-franchise Movies #4–6 are a Flash movie, a Wonder Woman movie and an Aquaman movie (not necessarily in that order), a franchise-expanding strategy that keeps two of those superheroes out of the already overcrowded BvS. The events of these series entries give the Superman and Batman public relations disasters time to blow over, with both heroes seen to be doing really positive things in the public eye. WayneCorp’s media wing helps out too, and we hear about it in the background of these movies. Lex Luthor takes an interest in some of these adventures, but he shouldn’t be seen to be the mind behind every adversary. His own media arm tries to do damage too, but he’s preaching to the pro-Superhero demographic – geeks and geek chic alike – since he’s more into social media domination. Which I’ve invented as a cheap shortcut because Jesse Eisenberg is DC’s Luthor du jour, but we might as well get some story value out of star association. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is slowly convincing and converting the more conservative, old media types.
By the time we’ve gone through this cycle of six movies, approaching the evolution of the franchise with slightly more patience than Marvel, we’re ready for Justice League. It starts by focussing exclusively on Batman and Superman, who work separately but network regularly. They know each other’s secret identities because it serves their purpose – and indeed Bruce has bought the Daily Planet to streamline the PR machine still further. They’ve been observing a rise in superheroes, and it puzzles them that this is happening all of a sudden. Here’s the plot undercurrent for this movie: where are they all coming from? They also see an advantage in this, and try to actively recruit the competition into some sort of league that could fight for justice. The reason for the rise of the superheroes should be something off-Earth (I’d like Darkseid or Brainiac, please), and it turns out to be this movie’s villain. Maybe it’s as simple as a being that thinks it’s an impressive combatant and needs a team of superheroes to clash with in what it perceives as a fair fight. This, however, I leave to greater DC fans than I to figure out.
Even with this arc structure it isn’t immediately apparent what point of difference there is between the Justice League and the Avengers, save the dynamics produced by their different characters. Both supergroups have one alien member (Superman, Thor), both have a guy in armour (Batman, Iron Man), both have someone from a world war (Wonder Woman, Captain America), and I’m sure DC would want to squeeze in someone who’s basically a regular human but just really skilled at something, just to compete with Black Widow and Hawkeye. (Green Arrow springs instantly to mind for some reason I just can’t fathom…) Perhaps the key is that DC’s team would have a clear figurehead in Superman, superhero of superheroes and the only member to have been granted a self-contained sequel. Even Marvel’s Iron Man, despite having been the first Avenger to get his own trilogy and despite the fact that it’s Tony Stark who bankrolls their assembly, is subservient to the supporting character of Nick Fury. Significantly, Superman would be a well-defined figurehead, given the time he deserves to be properly developed as a new spin on a classic character in this most recent version of an oft-told story.